Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 2) – ‘Woodstock Generation’

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To understand what’s happened at Woodstock, it’s important to look at what came after, what came before.

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Gimme Shelter (1970, Dirs. Albert & David Maylses and Charlotte Zwerin) is a look at the festival which dealt a death blow to the spirit of the Sixties, only months after Woodstock ’69. The Rolling Stones are shown in their total fuck up of the infamous Altamont Speedway free gig, where violence and rioting led in part to the death of Meredith Hunter, a black man involved in an altercation with the Hell’s Angels (who were providing security to the event). Jerry Garcia’s (Grateful Dead band leader) face drops when he learns that Jefferson Airplane’s lead guitarist got knocked out, which is a sight to behold.

It is heavily laced with the implications of the recklessness and drug-corrupted spirit of Rock & Roll superstars at the time. Mick Jagger’s face is reflected back through the lens as he watches the footage on camera of the fan being stabbed. His bare void of expression, as he struggles to accept the reality of what happened. It’s a hard film to stand in front of, the live footage of a crowd in chaos nauseating as the Stones and other groups try to keep the crowd under control. Everyone is fired out, exhausting their cylinders between intensive tour schedules and drug addictions; it’s a sad vision balanced with earlier interesting footage of them touring the US. Still as much of a firecracker, to this day.

Monterey Pop (1968, Dir D.A Pennebaker) is a welcome step back in time, almost ironic that I saw these festivals in this order. Woodstock (1970, Dir. Michael Wadleigh) is a film defining a generation of teenage idealism, but Monterey Pop lays down the foundations of musicians who performed there. Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and more got a lot of exposure from the festival, organised by John Dorris of The Mamas and The Papas, alongside festival producer Lou Adler and more. The focus here is ultimately what drives the movement of people to Bethel, N.Y; the performers who play their instruments to others. This footage is about the San Fransisco community who grew a lot of this movement. People who spoke with their instruments & voices, with more verve and feeling than some people do in their entire lives. All their tools and words. It had a performance which made me spontaneously cry in joy,

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There’s been a lot to think about since starting this Woodstock project. My expanse, the horizons of what I’ve been looking at, are much wider now. Moving beyond Woodstock, has allowed me to notice the reverberations the festival sent out across the American musical landscape.

For all the ink spilled on Woodstock its’ cultural impact was not infinite, and certainly not indefinite. The unique confluence of events which had led the festival; the performers, the documentary and more into a state of celebrated existence, was still just a drop in the cultural ocean. With rock music’s major debt to rhythm & blues, soul music and more, it’s important to note the impact (or lack thereof) on the African-American community at the time of the festival, and also the attempt to create their own Woodstock-type event 7 years later in Watts LA, That’s first, in WattStax (1973, Dir. Mel Stuart), but not chronologically first. Summer of Soul documents the Harlem Cultural Festival happening months before Woodstock (June 29th – August 24th 1969). Hundreds of thousands of black people turn up to see some of the most ecclectic artists of all time. Sly & The Family Stone had to have the Black Panthers do security for his gig because the NYPD refused to provide security because the expectation for the show was expected to be too crazy.

Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson dives into the Harlem Cultural Festival, reflecting how music as a whole is developing at the time, Sly & The Family Stone is maybe the only act who crossed both festivals. Here was my first experience last year with concert filmmaking, and the film does a tremendous amount of grace in restoring a piece of neglected history. The film does work to make its’ history appear more ‘lost’ than in reality, but filmmakers do what they need to make a convincing cinematic experience. Woodstock manipulates its’ chronology, and it can be important to recognise the power of singing as a performance first and foremost. Music can cross so many boundaries, and the organisation of these radically free festivals pre walkie talkie set ups, just organising by hand and voice and power. It can be hard to quantify that.

WattStax is a direct from the old testament style of American 70s new wave recording, of the Stax records free concert. Two years after Altamont obliterates the white hippie movement, Mel Stuart puts onscreen Reverend Jesse Jackson who performs one of the most powerful speeches in cinema history. The music here is distinctly 70s, tickets at one dollar each for an incredible array of talent. When people storm the field to dance to Rufus Thomas’s ‘Funky Chicken’, its’ excitement and freedom is stacked alongside The Emotions gospel performance of ‘Peace Be Still’ which is genuinely soul-wrenching; people having metaphysical convulsions in the church. It’s a beautiful if uneven portrait of soul in America at the time, still alive with passion as Isaac Hayes mounts the stage in a gold chain vest (with the drip) performing soul classics that roar across the sky in fire.

Richard Pryor narrates a long walk through the black experience that ducks and weaves between topics with searing fierceness, his intricate comedy maybe softer now, but at the time must have really exposed people to the black lens, the black vision. Power, unity. WattStax is an expression of that, “I Am, Somebody”.

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[On A Film About Jimi Hendrix] “The reason Warner Bros. made the film,” Boyd said, “was because of the record company, because Mo Ostin [chairman of the board of WB Records] was in favor of the project. But Warner Bros. films didn’t interfere or censor the film in any way, and when the film opened at the UA Westwood they were stunned by the business.” (It set a house record, $46,000 in two weeks.)

-Hendrix plays Delta blues for sure – only the Delta may have been on Mars.

Tony Glover, Rolling Stone

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Documents. I’m thinking a lot about documents, documentaries. I’ve seen a lot of films now in search of Woodstock ideals; exploring multiple musicians and alternative festivals. I’m tired of watching endless processions of sonic experimentation, mass gatherings, artistic synthesising. I’ve been on a solid tear watching film after film, and I’ll try sum up what I’ve seen so far.

The Last Waltz (1978, Dir. Martin Scorcese), Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue (2015, Dir. Amy Berg) & A Film About Jimi Hendrix (1973, Dirs. Joe Boyd, John Head and Gary Weis) were the first three documentaries. Here I started at the end, with The Band‘s final farewell performance in 1973, directed by Martin Scorcese (Woodstock editing alumni now risen) expressing how everyone at the time is saying farewell to the ideals of the Woodstock generation. Althought the concert is self-congratulatory, a lot of it is earned in how real the music is, symphonies of rock n’ roll and and a whole artistic tribe onstage.

Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue is a American modernist documentary, archival footage mixed with talking heads on her artistry The interviews are the main thing I remember from it, a particularly shocking sequence where Janis was voted ‘Ugliest Man’ in her university town/fraternity society,near ruining her self confidence of painful note. Footage of her before her untimely end is particularly harrowing, but each time she’s on screen she’s a vision of a beautiful talent. Still it’s a tapestry of powerful material about her.

A Film About Jimi Hendrix is a different beast, gentle interviews with the people who knew Jimi closely shortly after he died. Although Noel Redding (1/3 of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, his defining band), refused to be interviewed for the film for moral reasons (quoted in the article above), it is a nonetheless frighteningly frank conversation with the people around him who supported his rise to fame and witnessed him fall off the side of a cliff. Performances, wild.

The original Rolling Stone article declared that Woodstock was never actually officially declared a ‘disaster area’ by N.Y Governor Rockefeller, and it made me think about the disaster areas left in the wake of these positive, successful artistic expressions.

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These direct accounts from Woodstock are filled with positive recollections of the mud, the swamp of the environment. These films do wonders in expressing the collective mud of the counterculture at the time, detailing various Woodstock-era projects and festivals. Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church (2015, Dir. John McDermott) hits the Atlanta Pop Festival, where Jimi played in front of 500,000 Americans in a performance which is maybe the best I’ve ever seen of his, even if it doesn’t have the raw power of his Woodstock set. Watching this and Janis (1974, Dir. Howard Alk) was like watching two virtuosos endlessly explore their own inner rhythms and patterns; Jimi a master of guitar and Janis a master of voice.

But first, Festival Express (2003, Dirs. Bob Smeaton & Frank Cvitanovich), a record of the Canadian train tour across Toronto, Calagary, Winnipeg and other cities, weeks onboard of musicians jamming together in a ultimately unprofitable venture. Alongside the Avandáro festival in Mexico in 1971 and other Latin American festivals, Electric Church and Festival Express chronicle musical and tribal explorations into the wider cultural landscape, physically as the music traveled to different parts of the continent. Canadian students protested and rioted that the concerts should be free, causing panic and low attendance at the stadiums where musicians were scheduled to perform. Jerry Garcia sets up a free stage to get 6,000 protestors off the of the venue in a move which ultimately reflects bravely but sadly on a world now filled with extortionate ticket prices.

There’s performances on the train from Rick Danko (of The Band), Garcia and co., Joplin, Buddy Guy, even Woodstock bizarros Sha Na Na come back for a brief appearance, their appearance like an odd relic on the horizon of rock n roll’s decline from the top of the sun. Janis then, is such a deep return to that sun setting, as Hendrix’s ‘Electric Church‘ was quietened upon his death. Janis Joplin would die only weeks after her appearance on the Festival Express tour, all the films beginning to reflect off each other in delicate ways like that. Electric Church compares Atlanta to being maybe even bigger than Woodstock, while at the end of Festival Express someone declares it better than Woodstock due to being able to jam with the musicians for so long.

Still even Janis, filled with absolutely touching moments of footage only captured when she was alive (giving the film a mysterious presence of vitality) returns to Woodstock. Performance footage I’ve never seen before of ‘Can’t Turn You Loose’ is again crazy, actually enhanced by the context provided by Amy Berg’s later documentary referenced above. Janis here is on full display in her ability to carry the weight of her own pain, alongside the demonstrated talent and recklessness that accompanied being a rockstar. The footage collected is searing enough to understand why it’s a base for all other future Joplin-related material.

It’s honestly quite amusing that Ayn Rand gave a lecture about how the Woodstock generation represented the end of the ‘Dionysian’ spectrum of infantile passivity and madness. In positing the Space Race gathering of over a million, self sufficient families and spectators in witnessing an extreme achievement of supposed ‘rational thinking’, I feel she misses several key details. Already amusingly touched upon in Summer of Soul, the Moon Landing represented very little to poorer underfunded communities on the ground. Also, that this rational pursuit of lunar exploration and search for exterior space, reflects back across the counterculture’s collective need for interior space, psychedelic space.

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This has taken a long time, to get here. My final part of this Volume is dedicated to artists who impacted and were impacted by Woodstock, the final pieces in a puzzle in understanding the culture of the Sixties. Bob Dylan, captured here in glittering impact in Don’t Look Back (1967, Dir. D.A Pennebaker) is then explored by now artistic savant Martin Scorcese in No Direction Home (2005, Dir. Scorcese).

Meanwhile, The Grateful Dead Movie (1977, Dir. Jerry Garcia & Leon Gast) is Garcia’s own mixed attempt at capturing The Deads cult-like vision in producing a touring, travelling musical circus and spiritual sanctuary, for decades. Long Strange Trip (2017, Dir. Amir Bar-Lev ((with Exec. Producers Scorcese & Justin Kreutzmann, son of Mickey Hart & The Grateful Dead filmmaker)) chronicles that psychedelic vision across the seas of time, as the band contended with fame, rampant drug use, cult-esque worship, and a continuing back and forth with musics’ pre-established rules and distribution methods. Bob Dylan has catalogs of bootleg material to his name, even creating the first ‘gold standard’ in bootleg material. The Grateful Dead on the other hand, revolutionised broadcasting material when countless fans recorded live performances, cheaply copied and distributed them in local areas to an ever increasing number of fans, trading recordings like Pokemon cards.

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Dylan makes me restless. The whole processing of writing about him seems like a fool’s errand, because of how connected he is to his art being whatever it can be in the moment. Dont Look Back (deliberately spelt without apostrophe) is a erudite, cinema-vérité styled embarking on a career beginning to get distorted by mass fame and recognition. The film is his tour, his endless becoming as an artist performing to crowds who are just desperate to listen. It is a work which connects Pennebaker indefinitely to the music scene, for good reason.

No Direction Home is more alive for me, if only because of how great the scope is. Scorcese clears through the direction of a man who’s presence was continually expected of at Woodstock, his ghost lurking over the whole show as people thought this mythic presence would come to play. His son was in hospital at the time of Woodstock, but Scorcese’s scorching documentary about this 1961-1966 folk/rock and roll hybrid run, and the presence behind lyrics which are blessed with grace and unfolding is fantastic. Here the whole career of a man who not only mastered instruments, but positively expanding new genres with almost lacksidaisical focus is a true mystery. His lyrics just sculpt around a moment, and the film crashes through audience’s booing, people desperately trying to understand him, pull him towards a political path he seems relatively uninterested in pursuing.

I don’t know what that means for artists, other than his path is his own. And the melodies, textures and refusal to conform to any shape other than what’s required of the moment is really critical for being a great artist, to write a song such as ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

Live Performance, Manchester, 1965, during the famed ‘Electrical Sets’.


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The Grateful Dead Movie is where things get heavier, because The Dead, ghoulish and playful as they are, weren’t the haunting presence at Woodstock that Bob Dylan was. They actually played the original festival, in a set which both electrocuted them and put the audience to sleep with a 50 minute version of one of their songs late into Saturday/Sunday early morning. Bob Weir said that they spent 20 years making up for their poor performance at Woodstock, and their lost performance (existing in partial video footage) is a sad reminder of what can happen when you miss an opportunity to be embraced by those paying attention. Mutliple fans and commenters however refer to the band’s own journey which took them taking a sort of ‘portable Woodstock‘ to towns and cities for decades after, which is a presence and burden that Dylan deliberately tried to shrug off. Here, is Garcia’s vision for their last performances in 1974, or so they thought.

Opening with an animation sequence which supposedly cost half the entire rest of the movie, the film is a surrealist surfboard through the interior of Garcia’s music tribe, a minimal amount of interview material is made up for with images of the Statue of Liberty in the zany acid-soaked apocalypse, before moving onto endless scenes of deeply tranced-out audience members. The film has some really disorienting and hallucinatory nitrous scenes, fans in their own universe in the interior of the venue, not even near the stage. Some great performances, some annoying endless performances (a lot of patience is needed or being completely tripped out helps appreciate the finer points of their psychedelia way of playing). I like them though, and the film is a heart-warming tribute to an artistic project which at the time had built from a phenomenal small district success in Haight-Ashbury 1967 up to then 74-77, during the 3 years of challengable production which split the band in various ways during hiatus (they ended up performing again by the time the film came out).

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Oh, the guy selling hot-dogs who loves Sha Na Na and thinks The Grateful Dead are too loud, love him what a guy.

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Long Strange Trip then, is a final cavernous account of the success, but sometimes demoralising weight of the entire Grateful Dead project. Over nearly 4 hours, the film lays out in often thorough detail the ins and outs of an artistic project which survived long after Woodstock Nation generation had return back to humble mortal reality. The Dead were on a reckless fun spree with abandon for years in a peace project of art, music, and mind expansion. After doing The Acid Tests across America with Ken Kesey and just performing for trippers at random, their band philosophy became like that of fingers all connected to a hand, each performing individually but connected at the core. This led to a revolutionary approach to touring musichood and stardom, not as a famous edited performer group repeating the same identical melodies; but as a continually evolving, continually growing, continually changing live touring peformative entity.

This then carries the project into the scope of music’s technological revolution, as 10-15 years after both Janis Joplin & Jimi Hendrix have passed away, The Dead are riding the wave of bootleggers trading their tapes at the height of their popularity during 1984-90, as Reagan clamps down on the free festival spirit which birthed and sustained many of these movements. It is sad to see their success clamour for more, endlessly more, and how the band had to keep giving into that momentum. They refused to play Altamont after the reports of the violence, but by the 80s & 90s reports of violence, deaths and unruly followers had begun to marr the entire spirit of the red and blue skull. The Wall of Sound’s history is chronicled in detail, postively exploring at times how the band could be at the forefront of sonic experimentation as artists. They hired The Rolling Stones previous manager, a British fellow by the name of Sam who cuts through the bullshit of the hippie cult with reckless aplomb. Jaggedly successful, but held back by certain leaderless qualities of the entire group.

Because The Dead, for all their ego-dissolving spiritual roots in the pure pursuit of music, becomes soured by heaven falling from the sky, fans becoming obsessive and inducing reclusive behaviour for the band. Unwanted gigantic crowds, arguments about Hell’s Angels being present and serious drug use begins to soak through the edges of the timeline; the frame. The whole frame of the band begins to sag under the weight of its’ glorious celebration of a communal other-society, draining Warner Bros. (and later their own) financial situation by supporting entire teams of staff and families through the project. They party without talking to each other honestly. Which keeps them tied to the project, for founders Garcia and Pigpen until their painfully sad deaths.

The artistic performances end up near endless, and two things drive the health of members to decline. Ron ‘Pig Pen’ McKernan passes away due to alcohol abuse related conditions in 1973, which is covered in touching detail. Garcia’s passing is ultimately more haunting, his entire presence radiating throughout the entire band’s life like a huge sun of love, he described the band ‘as a little patch of flowers growing in a clearing in the forest’ for God’s sake. The whole project is a much more intense vision of what happened to the Woodstock ideals as the few who did carry a torch genuinely kept it lit. You don’t need to take into account the individual success or failure of any one resonant strain of the band, it was a phenomenon which even for those bizarre hundreds and thousands lifted them out of a kind of mass sleeping even temporarily. The Deadheads are the ultimate fans, proto-religious converts of a wave that wanted to believe in the pure release of expression above all else, in a mandala of people (a deaf section where people listened to the vibrations through balloons and had a sign language interpreter for Jerry’s lyrics, for example).

A really touching moment is when Jerry late in life said to his then wife “I could just live off of the ice cream money you know” (referring to Ben & Jerry’s flavour ‘Cherry Garcia’, released in Feb, 15th 1987). But ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ and he comes for everyone in this land. The last footage of Garcia playing on stage is haunting, a shadowed husk hunched over his guitar performing the echo of a once great noble dream. I’m glad the band managed to be such bizarre countercultural successes, outliving and lasting many of their more famous and more respected peers. Perhaps then this is all there is to say for now, on the Woodstock generation. I feel like I have a much greater understanding of how such a gathering could have manifested, a thorough and ongoing obsession with ruminating on the soul of America, entertainment, and music.

-Alex

Stay tuned for the final Vol. 3, where I’ll bring my understanding up to what happened after the initial festival; the re-occurences, the organised festivals of ’94 & ’99 and the various fiascos that followed, and its’ eventual place in the world now. Alongside some other offcuts.

Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 2) – ‘Woodstock Generation’

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.

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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.

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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)

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“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)

The Animatrix (2003)

Animatrix_High

­ In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final instalment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.


Regardless of your opinions on The Matrix series, the ethos of The Animatrix is one I wished existed more in film. The Wachowski’s, riding high off of the cult of long trench coats they had established with the series first instalment, set their sights higher for the rest of their stories. In the creation of its’ second and third instalments, they managed to birth this surreal side project. To create an anthology of tales to do with the world of The Matrix, but not specifically relating to its main canon of Neo. Oh, and they would all be animated, each done in a different style by exceptional animation directors from the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Shinchirō Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Koji Morimoto, Peter Cheung, Mahiro Maeda, Takeshi Koike and Andrew R. Jones all contributed to the project.

It’s interesting when looking back at it, to see the path the Wachowski’s carved out with this series. Because honestly projects like these in cinema, especially today are practically non-existent. The genuine example of vision here is so bold I’m kind of awed by it. Ideas in film today are so psychotically and irrationally guarded, it’s amazing to see the wildly different directors continually chewed up by the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a rainbow coloured sludge. For the Wachowski’s to offer up their baby so to speak, to the whims of other visionaries and not just through contractual obligations, but through active enthusiasm and engagement (they collaborated on each film and wrote four of the nine total scripts, one being a two-parter) is fiercely brilliant, even if it had been a colossal failure.

Fortunately, the films themselves are not colossal failures. What really gets me is the range shown, the range of ideas and the range of how much they engage with the world of The Matrix. While all are connected in some way, some are much looser than others. In particular Beyond (Koji Morimoto) about a girl looking for her cat in a house where the physics of reality (read: computer simulation of reality) stop working, is not interested in “waking up from the conspiracy”. In fact if you didn’t know it was officially part of The Matrix canon, it could very well exist without that connection, and that goes for a few of these short films. But they don’t just stand on their own; they fly.

To start, the animation styles on display here are a brilliant showcase to the world of animation. Everything from 3D CGI of western animations, to classic anime styles, to stylised pastiches of film genres, to experimental and wild animation that tears and drips out of the screen. Honestly, the project deserves to be seen just for that. It’s just wild that a project like this contains so much aesthetic variation, even if that was the intended emphasis. The animation style in a film like Matriculated (Peter Cheung) is just one I don’t have any reference point to compare to, beyond the extremes of The Holy Mountain (1973, Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky). What an insane but cool comparison point to have! Animation has always been able to transcend the limitations of reality, and this anthology is a testament to just how far animation has been able to do that.

And the films themselves take the material of The Matrix, something they’re all fans of, and pull the ideas and themes they’re interested in and mould them into their own films. Like comic book writers taking a long-standing character, and putting their own mark on them, the world of The Matrix becomes fertile soil for these films to grow from. While I appreciate some more than others, all of them contribute a unique spin on what makes them tick when they connect with The Matrix. Program (Yoshiaki Kawajiri) is a special example of this. One only connected through the concepts involved (i.e plugging into a simulated reality), it shows what clicked in Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s mind when he built his own personal relationship to The Matrix series and ideas.

Ultimately, The Animatrix is not essential viewing in regards to The Matrix series. Besides some limited promotional screenings, it never showed in cinemas and was released direct to video/DVD. While it provides context (some of it definitely important) to the main films, those main films still function without The Animatrix. But to skip by it is a mistake for every other reason not regarding to The Matrix. Short stories are underappreciated, and anthology tales like these have the opportunity to add texture to that world, but more importantly they are original, arresting at times and beautiful to look at. They are the work of some fine animation directors experimenting in a world under the supervision of its’ original creators, a working environment unheard of in cinema. This series of films is a beacon, and one you’d do well to pay attention to. Just make sure you’ve seen The Matrix first to really get the juice out of this one.

-Alex

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The Animatrix (2003)

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016)

my_entire_high_school_sinking_into_the_sea

Poor people don’t have time to make animations which look like Disney films. This isn’t a dig at any of the marvellous and varied selection of PIXAR and Disney animated motion pictures which have filled our lives since the first fully digitally animated feature Toy Story (1995, Dir. John Lasseter).  What it explains is just the fact that the work required to fully render an animated motion picture on the level of detail and quality of the highest quality animated films of today requires a small army of concept artists, graphic artists and digitally trained animators, alongside an entire team to keep them all running along. If time is money, then animation on that scale is notoriously and obscenely expensive.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea (2016, Dir. Dash Shaw) is removed from that world of animation. That does not mean it did not cost tremendous amounts of money to produce, or that the time put in by Dash Shaw and his team of cohorts is any less valuable than that of a different more well-funded studio. It merely is not a film that is interested in replicating that same aesthetic that is funded by the wealthiest of animation studios.

Good.


My mum, when she briefly flicked her eyes onto the screen I was watching the film on, asked me why I was watching “a kid’s film” so late at night. Now I usually want to move straight onto the film and its contents but a brief digression is needed here. The history of animation, bar some outliers, has been almost exclusively wrapped up with entertaining children. Many reasons for this I imagine, the one I like to think of is the long history of illustrations in children’s books. Kids love pictures. But the very fact is, animation is starting to grow beyond that. Perhaps it has always been beyond that, but I think in the mainstream consciousness the boundaries of who can and can’t watch “cartoons” is slowly disintegrating, or at the very least becoming way more flexible.

But if this film floats on a sea of animation history, let’s focus on the high school floating in it, the film itself. What does Dash Shaw want to talk about? A lot to be honest, in a film people have termed ‘mumblecore’. The term amuses me a lot, it’s basically just shorthand for films which have verbose and idiosyncratic dialogue at this point and is definitely much more useful for critics and potential audiences than it is for the makers of the films themselves. I think they just want to make films about people as real people as opposed to stock characters or idealised ones. My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is about that, a fictionalised version of Dash and friends as their high school fractures off a cliff and sinks into the sea. They climb from layer to layer of this semi-allegorical high school, encountering loose political allegories and dangerous sharks.

More than that, they come to terms with the weird lessons of growing up, of checking your ego and of accepting the roles you give yourself. All this while not dying as the high school sinks. Honestly it’s not hard on first glance to mistake this as a weird remake of Poseidon (2006, Dir. Wolfgang Petersen or if you prefer the original The Poseidon Adventure: 1972, Dir. Ronald Neame) but set in a millennial high school. It’s definitely floating in a couple of inspirations, a cynical person would say it’s a Wes Anderson rip off. What a dumb criticism to make.

This is not a film which has the deepest darkest depths, high school students haven’t lived long enough to inspire that kind of focus. They wear their personalities on their sleeves, their desperation or delusional arrogance is one most people know all too well already. They grow, they realise they should try not to be cruel to each other and they do it with a far more subdued and surreal energy than most other exposés of high school life. That’s down a low-key but still very enjoyable voice acting cast. Still, you may have seen stories like these before if you’ve watched a lot of films, but that’s okay. Just because you’ve seen something similar before doesn’t ruin your experience of something new, in fact it usually enhances it.

I guess what made me talk about this though, is the boldness of Shaw’s low-key animation style. It is bold, it is simply drawn but wildly experimental and self-aware. Most importantly, it’s vivid. In a world filled with insanely detail and scarily lifelike CGI, it feels so comforting to have an animation which looks like a picture, a drawing. Something which has no interest in photorealism, and just is far more interested in exploring the bounds of what it can do as a picture, not pretending it isn’t one. Some of the colour sequences in it are just fantastic to be a part of, to see with your own two (or one) eyes. It’s animated style is one which does somersaults, electric somersaults exploding with colour and which delight you, even if nothing in the film threw me into the depths of feeling and emotion I could never recover from.

But then this film isn’t supposed to, I don’t think. This is the theme I’ve only just discovered now, is that almost all of this writing has been about what My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is not. It’s not expensive, smooth-edged, army built animation. It’s not a Wes Anderson film. It’s a testament to my failure that I’ve barely spent any time talking about what the film actually is. And that’s one of the points of the film! It’s not that big a deal to just be what you are, and once you get past that you can just appreciate everything for what it is.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is a film. That’s what it is, and so much more.

-Alex

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My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016)

Ghost In The Shell (1995)

Ghost In The Shell

At one time, Ghost in the Shell (1995, Dir. Mamoru Oshii) inspired the zeitgeist. It’s part of the genesis of both The Matrix series done by the Wachowski’s, and garnered great praise from Hollywood darling James Cameron. In its homeland, it was both a massive cultural project (it was the most expensive anime movie made in Japan at the time) and a high point in a long lineage of anime movies. It helped give birth to the more modern version of cyberpunk, and has inspired countless acolytes of its aesthetic of sleek machines made into flesh in industrial landscapes, and of its thematic centre of transhumanism. This is a very fancy paragraph trying to explain that Ghost in the Shell is tremendously important in the history of cinema.

But why?


This is a strange, strange film. Before everything that came after it, The Matrix and such, it must have been even stranger.  It’s a film which on its surface should be filled with conventional, easy to digest cinema. It’s got naked robots and guns and conspiracies and far out sci-fi and everything which seems perfectly marketed towards the male 13-17 age bracket. It’s style is that kind of techno-futuristic vibe that doesn’t play to more obvious, eye-catching design. I’m talking sci-fi’s like Tron (1982, Dir. Steven Lisberger) filled with vibrant and bright colours. The style of Ghost in the Shell is layered and dense and sometimes stark in its contrast and sometimes muted. Honestly the range of this film I think is what’s captured my imagination and that’s what I’m gonna end up coming back around to.

The range of its style to go on then, is not just in its design, but also in its tools. The merging of 2D and 3D animation tools really does bring the best of both worlds into the fold, and the animation itself is just exquisite. It’s not exact to deconstruct the cinematography of the film since it was not shot in front of a camera, but all films are viewed from a position, and the positioning of this film is often beautiful to behold. More must be said of its soundtrack, quite simply unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time. It’s main score is so at odds with the dark synthesizer sounds we have grown accustomed to after decades of sci-fi scores. Kenji Kawai’s score genuinely feels otherworldly, so unlike any modern sounds you might encounter that it’s a better way to transport you to this alternate cyberpunk future than any visuals.

All of these elements would make Ghost in the Shell more than worth your time. But what sends this film into a near blinding ascent is what it wants to show you. It’s an explosion of themes, stories and issues from start to finish. It’s characters are part of a complex nebula of imagined limits imposed by their world, cyberware enhancements and identity crisis’ caused by total biomechanical replacement. Human beings are robots and robot beings are human, or something along that line. And all of this trapped in an elusive search for the Puppet Master, a character who is as abstract and nebulous as the future world shown to the audience. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a robot who looks human, who isn’t sure if she/he/it(?) has any human left in them, and that seems both very human and profoundly inhuman.

This film is tying me in knots. It’s a work which blurs the boundaries which separate our world now, that is intentionally difficult to wrap your head around. It is an experience equivalent to floating down a river, looking for a rock or something to cling onto to anchor yourself, but everything keeps slipping through your grasp. I guess this comes in part to me having less of a grounding in Japanese and Asian culture through which to view the film, I definitely feel less comfortable talking about this film than others in the past. But it’s intentionally opaque, it delves into imagined subjects which seem to have no clear answer, no clear right and wrong and no clear justice.

Art never has one interpretation, no matter how much people try to limit it. Everything gains new meaning with time whether we like it or not and it’s easy to get wrapped up in viewing a film from where “you are now”, whether that’s 2007,2017 or 2077 and beyond. But the ideas Ghost in the Shell puts up are both very old and very new, they’re packaged in a fully realised and never fully explained breathing world but the quest for meaning, for survival and for evolution is a tale as old as time.

Ghost in the Shell asks something of you, it asks you to engage. It’s not a film that can sweep over you and wash away, it clings to you, grasping at the edges of your mind. It’s deeply stylised cyber aesthetic, it’s complicated social and sexual politics, it’s existentialist rumination and meditative qualities. It’s haunting score at least. It creates a world which asks questions, questions people are still trying to determine. It’s a film which seeks to elevate you, which bypasses the more primal instincts haunting the action genre, and asks you for more than just doing.

It asks you to think.

-Alex

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Ghost In The Shell (1995)