Irreversible (2002)

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This one is going to be tough.

WARNING – BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF ADULT THEMES, VIOLENCE, RAPE AND MURDER.


 

When you make a film, you make a statement.

When you make a film which concerns the darkest of natural evils, it only succeeds if it accurately reflects those evils in the real world.

The reason why Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noé) is so terrifying, is because it feels so real.


 

But a film is not reality. And what this film does is take the human world, a world in which such awful acts and awful consequences can occur, and make it more real than real. And there’s two big ways that occurs. The first is the film’s structure, the story told from end to beginning in 13 scenes. It’s an experience equivalent to walking up a flight of stairs, the whole set of stairs moving rightwards but you’re walking up them leftwards. It’s a truly disorienting structure, akin to walking up(?) a flight of M. C. Escher staircases. It forces you to reverse engineer everything, something so abstract from our normal processes of daily life. Usually you start with thoughts, motivations, expectations which then lead to action, doing and consequences. But to be forced to refocus your mind, to not grow with and alongside the characters, but to witness their ending’s first and work backwards.  It’s a perspective which forces you to understand the events in a different way.

More than that, it’s a perspective which forces you to encounter the consequences of the actions, and their abhorrent nature, before you can use the framework of character motivation to talk about justice and justification. The film’s guttural, inexpressibly dark actions are presented as raw as can be understood, horrific actions that happen to the humans in front of us. Before we have gotten to know them, their motivations, their loves and fears and tensions and relationships, we witness what they’re capable of. And you are forced to bear witness to it, in some of the most uncompromising cinema and cinematography I have ever seen. You have to reconstruct the story, but not in the way you might in a film noir or crime story. You are not a detective working out a puzzle, because the ending is your starting point. All you can do is witness the strands slowly unweave themselves, as they become darkened by the knowledge of their ending.

It’s style is the other bastion of refocusing your mind, and it is delirious. The cinematography is mind-bending, the equivalent of starting off at the harsh end of an acid trip. It pays no attention to the traditional markers of human experience; scale, distance, orientation, perspective.  It rolls backwards, passing through the walls and skies of Paris with reckless, trippy abandon. It destroys your normal limitations of how you experience the world, but its power is volatile and explosive. It throws you into a cinematic typhoon at points, barreling through space and time completely lost, as a drunk might do on the edge of blackout. And then at other moments, it becomes still and clear, resolutely focused on witnessing the black, pulsing heart of humanity, rape and kill its way through the world.

It’s whole world is tainted,  tainted by the inevitability of its actions, but also as the film moves forward and backwards simultaneously, it’s tainted by the sheer horror of its actions. The irreversible actions you bear witness to, it is impossible for their effects to be irreversible either. There is no going back, no way to un-experience it, even as it moves into a time before those events. The hellish red, a colour which invokes blood, sex, violence, seeps into everything, practically bleeding through the films walls both literally and metaphysically. The scenes that happen earlier, become charged with sickening dread, charged with the knowledge that God might have of knowing how every story ends. And the sound of the film, explored here from pg 87 onwards, is one which matches that hell. One which through music and sound, is discordant, grotesque and nausea inducing (literally, through low-frequency sounds).

And you can’t talk about the hellish experience of the film, without invoking the actors, the human participants who you are anchored to. And never has that anchoring process, of aligning yourself with the characters of a story and sharing their experiences, felt so caustic and soul-destroying. As we watch Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) have their lives up until then obliterated, our empathy is assaulted alongside it, the waves of events crashing over us and rippling through us. The obscene violence, the degrading and unending nightmare of the rape, all of those are endured, channeled through the actors into our vision, experiences so brutal they can often not be lived through. Noé asked his actors to go further, to do more than almost every other film ever made. To put them through the knife-edge of darkness, and it is some of the bravest performances I’ve seen.

The whole film is one of disorder, the most violent assault of chaos on the human soul. And it’s nightmare is so violently unendurable, just like the nightmare of rape is for so many sexual assault and rape survivors. It’s an experience which creates a void space, something that can become impossible to process, reconstruct, to ever properly heal from. The phrase “Time heals all wounds”, feels pitiful and ironic next to Noé’s ending statement, “Time destroys all things”. The one thing I was terrified of, going into this film, was the potential for the films events to not be given the weight they truly represent. Rape especially has had a poor, often misogynistic treatment in cinema history, but violence itself has also become something cartoonish. Countless experiences of action films, superhero movies, war films and all the like, portray the aspects of violence we want to believe in. The thrill of the fight, the valiant defense, the fight against invisible and unknown enemies we don’t need to empathise with.

Irreversible does not do that. It forces you to encounter the colossal, unimaginable weight of the real life actions. The ugly, brutal, cruel and often unpunished nature of humanity’s most irreversible sins. It presents unflinchingly, the closest experience besides real life. And it is a film which sears itself into your consciousness, a film which gives screen violence and screen rape the core-shaking effects it has on the real human psyche. And for Noé to pull that blood-drenched heart out and expose it to you, to confront anyone brave enough to watch it with an experience that mirrors the trauma of real life rather than try to hide it or edit it out, it’s to be supported. Films should not just be made for entertainment, because life is not just entertainment. And art must reflect the world around it, through whatever stylistic forms it chooses. And while the legacy of this film will remain forever muddied, in its violations of normal good taste, decency etc, it proves one thing.

Fearless works of art are irreversible, for better and for worse. That’s the truth.

-Alex

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Irreversible (2002)

The Animatrix (2003)

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­ 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)

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