In The Heat Of The Night – Observations and Thoughts

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“The heat makes people crazy” – Huey Freeman, The Boondocks, Season 1 Episode 14

In The Heat Of The Night (1967) is a landmark film. An indelible mark on film culture and history. Though the film has now been heavily reduced to the iconic phrase “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” , it’s still lost none of its incendiary flavour and quality, though it’s of a different tone of fire to say, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), it is nevertheless still a testament to film making in every way shape and form, while also being a work of considerable ideological weight, about tough men with conflicting duties and desires and just…well just trying to do the right thing.

It follows Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) being roped into investigating a murder in a racist southern town, alongside a Chief Bill Gillespie who’s arrogant, bull-headed, racist but poignantly sad, played by Rod Steiger. The acting alone is enough to make this a must see, as both put on absolutely dominating presences on-screen. However here are some other benefits to extol:

-Haskell Wexler A.S.C – His cinematography is deft in this film, truly an expert at work. It’s the kind of cinematographic skill that people insert into film textbooks to study, because it’s so subtle you don’t pick up on it immediately, but its impact is so resounding that its impossible to ignore.

-Hal Ashby – Who won an Academy Award for Film Editing (also director of Harold and Maude) stitches the film together in such an illustrious way, in a very classic, minimalist way allowing the scenes to flow and the footage to complement that without ever losing the tension involved.

-Staging- The staging of this film is like watching a ballet. Moves are carefully planned, deliberate, thoughtful. Even in a film packed with tension, car chases and drama, the movement is exact in its roughness. Characters reveal themselves through their body language, their expressions, not just their words. It requires the dissection of the sum of its parts, because it’s so well done that you have to take it apart to see how its done.

-Stirling Silliphant- Dialogue in this film is a pinnacle, though no doubt raised by the electric performances. The mystery is delicately unpacked, through the revealing of humans rather than the search for evidence. Character’s weave in and out of fixed moral positions, constantly playing on the duties they and others possess. The duty to law enforcement, to their race, to their friends, to their families. This is a film that remembers people commit crimes, whatever and whoever they may be.

-Colour palette and lighting- A film in a naturalistic style makes it always difficult to the untrained eye to notice because if it’s doing its job it shouldn’t be noticed, but the film’s colours are fantastic. The white lilies in Endicott’s greenhouse. The yellow sunglasses. Specific flashes of colour against the beige and the sun just add some real touches to the film. As for the lighting, it’s already important for being the first film to be lit specifically conscious of a black man’s skin, but beyond that the lighting is gorgeous, both staged for dramatic impact and very natural.

Quincy Jones – The soundtrack in this film, including Ray Charles singing the title track, is just …well listen to it.

-Historical potency- Great characters become archetypes in our stories. Virgil Tibbs, the educated, conscious defender against racism fatherly type is one that has endured, a man of grand stature. A good example of this channeling is Lawrence Fishburne as “Furious” in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991). Not only has the archetype endured, but the film itself stands as a true monument to the forces of co-operation when the whole world’s against you, something director Norman Jewison specifically angled for.

-Norman Jewison- Speaking of, all these elements and much more are united by the director’s vision, and Jewison produces something incredible. He manages to convey the heat of the town, the heat of conflict, of battles of verbal war and physical confrontations which to this day still shock (read: Mr Endicott). It is a film of striking and restrained fury, anger at injustice, and the forgery of respect which can only be gained by people trying to do good things. It goes to pains to illustrate that no one person is completely right, and no one person can do the job alone. Even the best of us need support. That’s how we lift ourselves, by lifting others.

The reason I’ve picked out just a few of these individual parts, is because something very brilliant happens in this film, is that every part serves the function of the film. Quincy Jones soundtrack is both completely idiosyncratic in that it sounds like Quincy Jones, but also in that it underpins the setting, the place they’re in. The music wasn’t created out of context, it was made for the film. There’s no showboating on the performance side, with the actors involved constantly on the edge of bursting, no mealy or scene chewing involved.

The only flair involved is that of the story as a whole. No individual aspects blindly shines brighter than any other, but since all the aspects are so polished, and are so well done, the whole film is raised to the status it so rightly deserves, a classic.

-Alex

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In The Heat Of The Night – Observations and Thoughts

Spiritual Succession – Dazed And Confused/Everybody Wants Some!!

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Being young is difficult. It’s not as difficult as being an adult, but it is still a difficult rite in its own ways, plus its a hell of a lot of fun growing up. As I have just passed the finish lines on my teens (hello 20) it’s both apt and odd that I should find an interest in these films now. Apt because they are perhaps the more authentic remembering of teenage hood/early adulthood, with much less of the misty eyed nostalgia masking the awkward pains and truths found in the time, because when you’re growing up, you’re not always growing up. Mainly in any direction you find yourself flying in And its odd, because well, I’m just about out of the Dazed and Confused era equivalent in the UK, and just about to enter the Everybody Wants Some!! era which is the equivalent here in university, and waiting in the limbo between, it’s odd watching Linklater cover the same track of time, 23 years apart (Dazed And Confused released in 1993, Everybody Wants Some!! in 2016).

Anyway enough about me, let’s talk about films.

DAZED AND CONFUSED

Dazed and Confused is a film made in 1993 about 1976. About May 1976. About the last day of school at Lee High School in May 1976, and what the kids are trying to get up to on their last day of school. It features a very large ensemble cast, containing some names which would rise to prominence, mainly Matthew McConaughey who stars in an iconic role, and Ben Affleck. But the film is not about any one star, so I should adopt the same mentality. The film follows characters across the whole social strata of the high school spectrum, from sports jocks to poker playing intellectuals, from angry seniors and hazed freshmen to faux greasers and far too real stoners. It’s a testament to the far more real truth of teenage life, as the sectioned off tribalism people often assign to young people (here are the goths, here are the jocks, here are the nerds…) actually ends up seguing into a blend and mish mash of people who come together, interlocking at different points and exiting in different and random trajectories, but still for a short time, together.

The film springs affection towards everyone involved, bar Ben Affleck’s sadistic O’Bannion, but even then he’s portrayed with an amusement rather than a terrifying danger. It’s drama is both low-key and extremely natural. The artificial dramas which say, permeate a film like Mean Girls, are completely absent here. The bonds of friendship aren’t elevated to a melodrama, but allowed to flow and segue into one another. Alliances and enemies are formed, but never with malicious motives or intent. The freshmen are condemned to be paddled because…well they’re freshmen. Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), the young weedy freshmen who we follow is offered a token a friendship from Randy, our resident cool guy who’s friends with everyone, because there’s no need to be a dick all the time. The party that was supposed to happen just kind of forms in a different place, and hell they’d manage to entertain themselves somehow if it didn’t. After all, they just wanna have a good time.

Interestingly, I read the script alongside the film, and there are a hell of a lot of marked differences. The script spends far more time with the intellectuals/poker players, and is far more idea-dialogue heavy. It touches on low-key racism due to Vietnam, race relations, slagging off Nixon, and all the kind of stuff that is not hard to imagine that Richard Linklater heard when he was in high school, but exactly the kind of substance to make producers sweat and editors cut. It’s not the most relevant point, but it was very interesting to see how the power of removing content from the film both narrows its focus (so the film becomes mainly a quest for just having a good time and being youthful) and also cuts away part of the experience of youth (notorious for being highly incensed, being exposed to the undersides of politics for the first time, and being mouthy about shit you believe in).

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

So where Dazed And Confused starts with an ending, Everybody Wants Some!! ends with a beginning.

I haven’t much experience with Linklater’s work outside these two (School Of Rock), but it is both a spiritual successor to Dazed And Confused and according to Linklater, a sequel to his hit Boyhood.

Everybody Wants Some!! follows Jake (Blake Jenner), a freshman at college on a baseball scholarship, and getting to grips with his new cohorts in their state provided house, who are a colourful cast of sports jocks, all beer, babes and baseball. I’m just going to talk about the film on its own here, as comparisons are down below.  It again has that same loose, free-wheeling structure following Jake on the weekend before class starts. It’s very much concerned with identity, as the new environment, people and cultural camouflaging they do to get laid, with them taking on disco and country western personas in the same night, before getting roped into a punk concert, leads to Jake having a full on identity crisis, still in a very low-key, enjoyable way.

But everybody involved is performing, bigging themselves up and putting on facades to present to try to entice…well anyone who’ll listen. There’s no real bad person involved, no antagonists or mortal enemies, just people navigating people. They are bonded by their similar tribal desires, to be the best in everything, games, sport, women. It’s what causes the conflict and camaraderie. If you can’t get on board with their aims and their ideas, then you’ll not like them. And while their politics is not PC (I heard a lot of swirling noise going on about the gender politics of the film is rather old-fashioned), their intentions aren’t malicious. They’re just guys who are confident in the traditional masculine role.

That said, the limitations imposed by following a group of frat boys very closely are real. If you don’t like them, then two hours of them being themselves is going to be nothing but aggravating, so be forewarned. But its a film filled with joy, nervousness and sadness mingled in its core.

THE TWO FILMS

Okay so I prefer Dazed and Confused. It’s not to the detriment of Everybody Wants Some!!, but Roger Ebert referred to Dazed and Confused as “art crossed with anthropology”, and there’s more meat on the bone of Dazed and Confused because there is a larger spectrum of people on offer. But both films share so much spirit.

Perhaps the most important point is that not only does Linklater de-romanticise teenage hood, and make it far better for doing so, he also refuses to conform to a certain bias in portraying high school students. There are grounds for a relationship between the kids who were bullied in high school and the kids who would write movies. Especially since the 80s (call it the Spielberg effect, considering he was a massive nerd and outcast in the bunch of filmmakers he called friends, all those mental New Hollywood lot), the nerdy kids become the hero, the dungeon and dragon players who become the heroes of their own fantasies. They are the victims of the slack-jawed dumb jocks, the bullies who exist to make their lives miserable.

Linklater, who did not experience life in that way, doesn’t lie to us. The closest thing to ciphers or lead characters are both sports stars who are both intelligent, something akin to a mirror of his own personal experience. He was a starting quarterback, like Randy Pink in Dazed And Confused, and he went to college on a baseball scholarship like Jake in Everybody Wants Some!!. And so we get a view from the top of the pyramid, and a refusal to conform to that idea of dumb sport blockheads which permeates American film culture. Sure the bad apples exist, but the bad apples are their own entities. They’re not trying to escape, they’re trying to grab as much as they can from the real world.

There’s also a thin line of pain that runs deep in both films. Both films feature a singular character who is borderline sad and desperate, simply because they’re old. They display exactly the same characteristics of the youngers, but their very imitation is what makes them sad. In Dazed and Confused the character is Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), who is venerated because he’s an older guy, but is rapidly on his way out, when age is no longer treated as a good status. He’s stuck in high school mode but he’s already out. In Everybody Wants Some!! its Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), a hardcore stoner who is dropped from the team and the college mid story when its found out he’s actually 30, and goes from college to college faking his records so he can continue living the student life. If there’s one thing more difficult than being young, its being old wishing you were still young.

It’s like the young people exist in this fragile glass cage, and before you know it will be pushed out into the big wide world. And then there are people who watch from the outside, desperately trying to seek (in vain) some way back in. And you obtain both a mixture of pleasure and pain watching them, because you miss it while simultaneously being glad it’s over, and are either taking part vicariously in their joy or suppressing your pain in wishing you had the chance to do it over again. Or perhaps both.

But for every moment of pain, there’s a moment of happiness created too. And they’re not big dramatic peaks, filled with the highest drama, they’re embracing the small comforts and the thrill of hanging out. Tiny moments which add up to friendships and experiences you recount 20 years later and laugh to yourself about. By removing the melodrama all that’s left is the real drama of living, and the authenticity of the teens, mawkish and stumbling as it may be, is revealed. So too does it allow the audience to connect in a much richer level, which may explain why Dazed And Confused has taken such an iconic place in cinema history. Because the worlds aren’t inhabited by grand heroes, damsels in distress or monstrous villains, and most of us will never come into contact with anything resembling that. Fantasy plays on our ideals and dreams, but Linklater just stylises and compacts reality in an affectionate way, and so suddenly we can empathise and relate in a much more intimate way because the mirror looks so much like us, not just who we imagine ourselves to be.

If you didn’t care for any of this, at least acknowledge this: the spirit of Dazed And Confused is alive and well in Everybody Wants Some!!, and the spirit of Richard Linklater is one which you can smile along with, because life is rough, and we all just want to have a good time.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from an interview by comedian Marc Maron:

 

-Alex

(P.S, there’s a scene in Everybody Wants Some!! where Jake recites some Camus indirectly, about the myth of Sisyphus and baseball, and its the most teenage thing ever.)

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Spiritual Succession – Dazed And Confused/Everybody Wants Some!!

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths

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Disclaimer: Before watching this film, I had never heard of anything pertaining to the JT Leroy Saga. I have never read any of JT Leroy’s works, nor any of the literature surrounding this literary scandal.

So with that out-of-the-way, and all attempts at establishing any credibility in being an expert on this matter scribbled out, let’s move on as to just what the hell is going on here.

I shall not reveal the whole eclectic saga, that was director Jeff Feuerzeig’s job in making this film. In short, Laura Albert, a woman, invented or channeled a persona into her being, that of one Jeremy ‘Terminator’ LeRoy, an abused boy who had endured prostitution, drug addiction, AIDS, a sex change (which is explained later) and vagrancy.She then wrote from this persona’s perspective, and became wildly well-known, courting fame and time in the spotlight for the searing, brutally honest fiction that was being written.

All this without a body, and without being real. Because JT Leroy didn’t exist, at least not as a physical presence on this earth. So Laura Albert recruited her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop to play JT Leroy. And it worked, from 1998 to 2005, JT Leroy was a real construct who swooshed around the celebrity and publishing world, accompanied by Albert in another persona she had created alongside the real Terminator story, a British woman named Speedie, and her boyfriend Astor (who was really her husband, Geoffrey Knoop).

So the labyrinth was pretty complex, and the labyrinth was pretty well embraced. Her books sold, and she was the toast of the cutting edge, with Savannah even engaging in a passionate affair with Asia Argento. But all good things come to an end, and an exposé in 2006 by one Warren St. John in The New York Times collapsed the house of cards.

Make no mistake though, the house of cards is not truly laid out here. That’s not to denigrate the film, it’s just that the film is doing a very different kind of thing that a regular documentary might angle for. This is not an investigation, this is Laura Albert’s confession, her account of it all. It is a serious unraveling of her perspective of how it all went down, the puppet master behind the board locked into an unceasing performance. The supporting cast of this film circle tangentially at best, only their to provide light context and not much more. And that’s okay, the film is delving into the mind of Laura Albert, a mind which spawned JT LeRoy.

And there’s a lot to it. Drama and betrayals, affairs and desperation, the truth and the lies becoming so indistinct that you should be riveted by it. But of course, that depends on your point of view. If that seems vague, I’ll put it another way. Half of the importance of the story is simply because she’s not just deceiving regular people, but because she’s deceiving celebrities. Laura actually tells us at one point, that she knows she’s made it when she illustrates the ‘Bono’ talk that Savannah as JT got from you guessed it, Kings Of Cool, Bono from U2.

Cool is always nebulous, and always notorious to pin down, very subjective. But the anti-U2 sentiment is fierce among people my age, and I can’t ever remember a time when anyone even remotely discussed Bono as cool who wasn’t over 30. Bono, for anyone who even vaguely pays attention, represents the shallowest of cools. He’s probably a top bloke, but U2 have never been anywhere near the cutting edge of cool, and belong somewhere along the great “Stadium Fillers” genre.

I mean, U2 diatribe aside, the credence given to Laura’s story rests on the fact that the elite incestuous celebrity circles welcomed her, and the fact that she suffered great trauma in her life. The second bit is very valuable, but the first bit is basically a very indulgent walk with all these famous people who really like JT LeRoy, and how cool it was that all these cool people liked her. And the deception runs deep. Albert would make (and record) all calls she made as JT, so she’d live vicariously through Savannah, as Savannah would have these experiences with the cool-illuminati, an affair with Asia Argento, chatting with Gus Van Sant, ambiguous happenings with actor Michael Pitt, and much more, Laura would chat as JT to them.

And you know…cool I guess? Like it just doesn’t really move me much. It’s like her actions are meant to be far more grandiose because she’s deceiving celebrities. And that only works if you buy into celebrities being better than other people. Which I do not. We’d all like to live that fantasy, of well-known, very successful people telling us that they love us, our work, our personality, ourselves, I understand it, and I understand what drives that. But her actually getting to live out her fantasy is not something that can really be enjoyed, maybe only by her and the conspirators involved. Because you can’t live vicariously through Laura Albert, because you know she’s lying. It’s so far removed that all you can do is watch the journey slowly unfold passively.

I’m rambling here but bear with me. The title talks about the ‘Truths’ in this film. Camus says in his seminal work The Myth Of Sisyphus “In psychology as well as logic, there are truths but no truth.” He’s referring to the inability to perceive the whole world from all sides, so we can’t really know the details we’re working with. The same can be applied here. We can never really know the whole story, because the whole story depends on multiple people, with internal dialogues and psychologies, that we can never really draw the boundaries in it between what’s true and what isn’t. Albert specifically denies that it was a fake, because LeRoy is real to her. In fact she states that she suffers from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

This is the stuff I find much more interesting. The reveal of JT LeRoy’s ‘hoax’ is really interested, because the reaction to it was so damning. People implicitly believe that what they see or read or listen to is true. You have to, its logically ruinous to assume everything is a lie. There could be no truth if everyone was lying. And people took it for granted, but they were also so willing to believe the story, so desperate to accept her truth, because even though the books are published as fiction, we always assume that fiction is molded from the human channeling the world around them, and when stories are told with such uncompromising brutality, when they involve such hard times of human suffering, when those trapped in ivory towers see such earnest hardship, they marvel at it. They marvel at the human audacity to take good from the bad no matter how rough it might get. Especially those who are protected from it.

I feel like the film is both too long and too short. Or maybe its just focused on the thing I don’t find interesting. The film seems to wrestle with two tracks, the track of recounting the whole sordid affair, as a train of well-known faces walk through, their intimate conversations of real life played in voyeuristic scenes where tapes roll, and the other track which revolves around authenticity, authorship, and the blurred lines between fiction and fact, and truth and lies. because the best lies are inspired by the truth, but the truth does its best to expose lies. Laura Albert suffered, and she channeled it, however indirectly into her writing. And even if she didn’t suffer, she had the capability to imagine and create it. But the thing people seem to get upset about is her creation spilled over into reality, and somehow people were deceived by that. Well art influences life and vice versa, and Laura just took it to an extreme. Her whole life became a performance.

Which is both brilliant and horrible. Because I don’t think she can stop. And with a film of the whole story in the works, it looks like the sharks desperately seeking salacious stories won’t either. A maddening cycle of trash. Waiting for someone honest to come along.

The only thing for me to do is to just shrug and move on. It’s not all that interesting anyways. It kind of fucked me off if I’m honest.

-Alex

 

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths

Come And See

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ed

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Come And See

Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith

Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane

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The mythology that surrounds Saló is more interesting than Saló.

(WARNING: This post contains a discussion on matures themes in a mature film, and if you are underage or possess a weak constitution, I would advise that you venture no further than this warning. And that full stop.)

What I mean by this, is that the ideological conflict which was spawned due to this films release, the censorship, the bans, the death of Pasolini himself, the entire genre of depraved cinema it gave birth to, and the battles of its meaning which have raged (quietly, by intellectuals with too much time on their hands) has been near ceaseless, with the film still inspiring those with that deep instinctual reaction, one of admiration or one of disgust. That history attached to Saló, will always be more interesting than Saló itself. So in provoking discussions on the human condition in it’s all hideousness, the film has succeeded.

I’m struggling to think of anything else it does well.

 

People are desperate to plant their flag after seeing Saló. It’s exactly the sort of film that provokes either extreme love or extreme hatred. You can roughly sum it up as; Admired by Nihilists, Reviled by Moralists. There’s not really much room for my reaction, which was one of mostly indifference.

And I’m upset by my indifference towards it. I wanted to be incensed by it, I wanted to be filled with the extreme adoration or extreme anguish that the film supposedly provokes. It’s a musing on power. It’s an exploration of sexual depravity. It’s a hate filled, misanthropic bastard film. It’s disgusting. It’s beautiful.

It’s not really anything. If anything, the best term I can come up with it is this. “It’s a limp sketch”. Limp because its pretty boring. A sketch because its pretty half-baked. If that’s me throwing down the gauntlet, it’s not much of one. I don’t want to hate this film, generally most cinephiles spend their time railing against mass manufactured, uninspired films made on formulas. The generic if you will. We always try to champion the individual artistic statement (hell it was cinephiles who had the arrogance/self belief to invent the auteur theory, a theoretical prism of viewing film which attributes sole intent to the director) over the mass-produced schlock.

Pasolini made his statement. And I commend him for that. But his statement is caught in an odd place. For its one of the most controversial films ever made, and yet in comparison to the story it is based on, written by the infamous Marquis De Sade, well it looks positively PG.  And I think here lies an incredible crux. Because the depravity of the story has been effectively dismantled, the revulsion inspired by the film is incomparable to the revulsion that can be inspired by the text, because the text is really untransferrable, because its fantasy.

Now of course, millions of fantasies have been transferred from book to screen. But the kind of fantasies involved in this are not the fantasies we ever expose ourselves to. These are fantasies of the most profane, the kind of fantasies we dare not speak them out loud for they represent such abject horror that to utter them is almost a sin. De Sade does not just call for sexual liberation, he calls for absolute sexual freedom, the ability to get your rocks off to anything, no matter how monstrous. And I’m not just talking BDSM (the S is for Sadism, named after guess who) or some peculiar fetishes here. The book uses pedophilic pleasure as a base for every other story told by the madames to enjoy. In the final months of the book, equivalent to Pasolini’s “Circle of Blood”, the madames tell stories about men getting their rocks off to disembowelment of pregnant women, skinning of children alive, and an infinite number of unimaginable horrors. The best the film does in this regard is the torturing of the captives.

Pasolini would have been a genuine madman to ever attempt to properly capture the absolute mental insanity, the unhinged words of Marquis De Sade. No one could ever do justice (ha) to it, besides De Sade himself, and the only way he could do justice to his vision was to enact his fantasies into the real world. The libertine’s destruction. So Pasolini fundamentally changes the internal structure of the tale, turning it from an indulgent fantasy to an indulgent allegory. I can’t find the direct source, but it is said that Pasolini meant the corprophilic scenes as a comment on the fast food industry, the willingness and often desire for people to literally, eat shit.

But who cares at the end of the day, because this film exists almost as a blank slate to inscribe your meaning onto. It’s oppressively neutral. It’s a vacuum, because it ignores for the most part, the second half of human existence. The first is action. The second is consequences. There are no consequences to any of the actions. There’s just a general descent into highly detailed degeneracy. The insular world becomes a mirror to its own hollowness. Even crumbs of construction, the girls that develop a lesbian relationship, the socialist salute of the ‘transgressive’ guard who sleeps with a black servant girl, don’t really offer anything besides fleeting fragments of meaning in an ocean of grey void.

Look maybe the reason why nihilism never took off is because it’s really fucking boring, and it doesn’t contribute anything interesting. It’s the ultimate critic, because all it does is deconstruct everything, and contribute nothing. Sade finds his construction in his pursuit of pleasure. Pasolini doesn’t even find it in that.

It takes no stance. It’s characters discuss the relationships of power without ever coming to any conclusions. They drop famous libertine writers in, Nietzsche being the name most people would pick up on, without actually discussing what the ideas mean, or what they can mean. Nobody contains any depth, any motivation. Because their motivation for desire is completely separate from the films stylistic concerns.

Everybody says exactly what they think, which ends up as an effect described in this video essay underneath as “Talking Wallpaper”:

We are not invited to be part of these events, the window does not open and we cannot climb through. We simply watch them from the vast chasm of the room, their passivity not allowing us any conduit to witness the events from a viewpoint. This is not entrancing, hypnotic cinema. It is not making you complicit in its crimes, it’s simply making you an uninvolved witness. Which is without a doubt, the worst message Pasolini could ever have conveyed.

Pasolini was a well know left-wing filmmaker and political activist in Italy, and his films have been the endless study of marxist film critics and those with Communist leanings. His films are just begging for that indulgent transcribing of political subtext onto film, something I am not a great fan of. And the literature on this film fills books (the BFI edition I purchased comes with a booklet of essays). But at the end of the day, if you really believe this film’s worth, then the best compliment you can give it is your silence. Because it’s not a film which wants to be talked about. It’s a film which does its best to confront you with examples of human cruelty, and its ability to adapt, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions. It’s the abandonment of everything beyond primordial desires, far beyond the realm of judgement. Anybody who tries to inscribe it as a condemnation of fascism is missing the point, because all it is conveying a well-known platitude; that people with power have the ability to abuse it.

So enough with this film. Saló is controversial, but controversy doesn’t mean its good, and it doesn’t mean its interesting. Enough using this film as a litmus test for how out there a film is, because it’s not very out there.

In fact, it’s not very much at all.

-Alex

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Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane

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

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

-kogonada, Sight and Sound Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading that back it’s almost incomprehensible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does this all mean?”

-Alex

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