The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The_Ghoul_UK_quad

I think it’s easy to forget three things in cinema.

1) Films are made by real people. Even though they often pertain to fictional events and involve a complex network of people who work in different departments who work to feed themselves or at the very least, be fed by the catering department, films are still spearheaded primarily by real people who have a significant stake in not just whether the film makes money, but whether its well received or not. They care is what I’m saying.

2) That by the time a film reaches distribution level, the creators behind it have often been sitting on the film for at least 1-3 years, pre-producing, actual production, and long periods of incubation in the edit. By the time it comes round to a director’s Q&A such as the one I attended when seeing this film,  the sparks which set off the idea are long since gone, resigned to the past. Film is always about creating a space and a time which doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s also important to remember that it often has a different relationship to the artist that you might immediately assume from the outside.

3) Almost every artistic choice is influenced by financial availability. Every acting performance, every part of a film’s mise-en-scéne, every camera motion and every cog it’s machine is in some way affected by the amount of money they have to play with. Things in films which can on first glance seem aesthetically motivated, choices by the director on how to convey this world, can often be simply issues of there not being enough money to do it any other way.


These three things informed my watching of The Ghoul (2017, Dir. Gareth Tunley),  as of writing a brand new low budget British independent psychological thriller. Attached to the project is Ben Wheatley as an executive producer, a name which surely helped to get the film’s status get above the water line of thousands of micro-budget produced features each year. But this is not Ben Wheatley’s film, and according to the Q&A he came onto the project at a much later date in the film’s lifetime, so let’s put that to bed right now.

The Ghoul is on first glance, a horror movie about a riddle which can’t be solved. By the end of the film, it is still that. Just in a very twisted, disorienting and unexpected fashion. See, The Ghoul is also about psychological issues, about people who construct realities around them, realities which become true to them. For example, if a person constructs a reality where they believe everyone really is out to get them, and then they find some evidence of that,  it reinforces that reality, it becomes more real. A chain of logic begins to develop, it’s just that logic can be at odds or it might fit in with what’s happening around you.

When you see someone who is mad, it is always hard to imagine “how” they can think like that. How someone can really think the whole world is made of eggplants, or that their own son is actually a secret service plant who also is an exact double of their son (thanks Human Traffic, 1999, Dir. Justin Kerrigan), or even those opinions I might find difficult to understand, like people who believe the Earth is flat or people who believe global warming is a myth. What I can never see, is the logical (but not necessarily correct) chain of events leading up to how that person can think in that way. The Ghoul is a class in how that happens, and at times it’s a very disturbing class. So it’s a film about madness.

But then, it’s also a film about dealing with issues. The main character spends large portions of the film in therapy, talking with those who engage with the mind in all manners of ways, psychotherapy and later mysticism and the occult. It’s concerned with those draining and intense psychoses which follow so many people around, cling onto them and build pressure inside their brains, feeding into our unconscious minds. And how to deal with them, and how to battle them, and the very scary fact that sometimes we could potentially lose. That not everything is a celluloid dream, sometimes it can be a nightmare. So it’s a film about psychotherapy, the unconscious and recovery.

But then, it’s also a film which has other film DNA in it. If you wanted to be mean and glib about it, you could say it’s a lo-fi and weaker Lost Highway (1997, Dir. David Lynch). None of the style, and half of the substance, but the themes and the structure and the content mirror each other in extensive respects. It’s also aping the detective genre, paranoid and nebulous mysteries to be revealed or perhaps not, like The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). Dangerous and confusing labyrinths which while desperately trying to sort out its pieces, only get more and more blurred together. So really it’s just a film about remixing old films.

But then it’s also a micro-budget film. So it has scenes where the seams come through. Portraying depression is always a filmmaker’s nightmare, because you have to convey someone doing nothing and somehow make it not boring. Sometimes The Ghoul gets away with it, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the production details hold up, and sometimes they don’t. And I felt the acute sense of pain that must come with every film made on a shoestring budget, as the director and producer discussed the fact that honestly there was so much which had to be parred back, shaved off and cut down just so the film could get made, let alone get made well. Entire scenes, production designs and even time when filming, which affects everything else, all the mechanical cogs in the production machine. So just due to financial restrictions, the film is about people because they didn’t have a bigger budget.

All these perspectives are ways of looking at the film, and all of them make some good points but fail to capture any of the other ways of looking at the film, all equally valid in some respects. I like the film a lot, its intelligent and thought-provoking even if its ability to do so is restricted by real world problems. But that’s what marks out filmmakers, those who can at least work around their restrictions to create something. What marks out good filmmakers is getting around those restrictions and making something that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

The Ghoul did not waste my time. For the sum of its parts, its a grounded and creepy genre film (kind of) that had moments of genuine dread. It may not have an unending legacy, but it was a film made by real people who did it with practically no money and have spent years trying to piece it together. And it was good.

That’s really important.

-Alex

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The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Beguiled

So in a recent episode of one of my favourite film discussion shows, Welcome to the Basement“, they briefly discussed the film Marie Antoinette (2006, Dir. Sofia Coppola), a Mr Craig Johnson declares the great theme of Sofia Coppola’s work to be “poor little rich kids”. I haven’t seen enough of her work to agree with this statement, but I can say this does run through The Beguiled (2017, Dir. Sofia Coppola).

Taking place in an etiquette school for “Southern Belles” (upper class Southern American girls), a deserting and wounded Yankee soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by hardened headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Staying in the house is the softer teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and a variety of students, key to them is the precocious and trouble starting Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the young student who first finds McBurney, Amy (Oona Lawrence). A handsome man, in a house full of women, things begin to get heated as the subtle competitions for affections kick off.

But this isn’t just an erotically charged drama. As the cauldrons boil over, and McBurney becomes grievously injured, his  arousing demeanour collapses and the sense of tantalising danger he presented is turned inwards, onto the girls. The big focus in this remake of the novel and 1971 adaptation (Dir. Don Siegel) is the presentation of the film from the female perspective, and so we witness McBurney from the outside as the women plot to deal with him, their fears and their conversations. The fluidity of this adaptation very well done, as I only found this information out after watching the film, and did not realise the roles had been somewhat reversed.

Honestly while I saw the film I was intensely caught up in the slow bubbling drama. The first half in particular for me, draws you in with a rope around your neck as you seek every single subtle hint, every glance of the eyes or subtle smile, the film becomes something of a Chinese plate spinning act and the tension builds and builds in this luxurious Southern chamber of a house. Combined with the impending sword of Damocles hanging over McBurney as his wound heals and the threat of being forced back into war, and you have a sleepy fire which is really absorbing.

The technical choices on display also work to convey a very tight if subdued style. The colour palette is one of sepia and pink tones, of dry suns and candle-lit oak rooms. So too is the watchful, voyeuristic camera which peers from corners and darkened spots to observe the comings and goings, the tiny verbal confrontations and competitions everyone is having. The editing too, builds at a steady rhythm, the cuts slow and precise and giving just enough time to be unsettled, to reflect on the possible motivations and outcomes of each power play.

Honestly reading this back there’s a lot to like about this film, and I can say for sure that while watching it I was pretty entranced, caught up in its action. And then in its last moments, I suddenly snapped out of trance and realised; I didn’t like it. Now liking or not liking a film is not a new phenomenon, but I think what was different about this was how rapidly the house of cards began to collapse in my mind. There’s serious pacing issues in the second half (and to a lesser extent the first half), characters make choices without really having enough of a relationship to justify their actions, the film’s droning score is ambient without setting a lot of atmosphere. Just it fell apart in my head from being a unified whole work to being parts of a puzzle which didn’t quite fit together.

I think one of the things I often forget about cinema being an adult is that it’s mainly a lot of technical choices, a lot of creative choices, and a little bit of magic. Cinema is magic because it casts a spell on you, makes you believe in worlds which don’t exist, makes you understand people who never existed, makes you believe that hundreds, thousands of different images made at different times in different locations are all part of one single linear world. And I think with The Beguiled I experienced both the spell, and the accidental reveal of the trick. Like a magician who accidentally reveals the rope behind the curtain, the whole thing drops to a level of mechanical functionality which you can never get back.

If you can see the strings, it can still be excellent, it can still work, but it’s never magical again. I had to write an essay for my university course last year deconstructing the cinematography in another of Sofia Coppola’s works, Lost in Translation (2002), and even through an extensive deconstruction process, I never once lost sight of it being anything but a film I believed in.I know that seems a messy distinction, but its hard to define this kind of feeling since its so mysterious and nebulous, so I’m doing my best. Furthermore I’d still recommend a watch, because a film like this, of a director with a distinctive style whose films are neither shining masterpieces nor grubby trash, work which can be both enjoyed and/or criticised, is what makes up the interesting middle ground of cinema.

I was beguiled by The Beguiled I will confess, in that I was charmed and enchanted by it. I was totally caught up and drawn into it’s world. But it’s almost a victim of its own success in that respect, because, like the characters in the film itself, you can’t be beguiled forever. Eventually you see through the masks we wear, you see the natures and real faces underneath, and once you’ve done that it never quite looks the same. The mysterious aspects disappear, and so does some of its’ magic.

-Alex

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The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

the-human-condition-film-poster

Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

fantastic_mr_fox

Making a film charming is a tough task, and like comedy, can turn off just as many people as it attracts. Charming involves a level of care and obsession to appear nonchalant and easy-going, but to the point that others genuinely believe you don’t care. It also involves having your own idiosyncratic style, one which there is the potential to warm to. Finally you’ve got to have authenticity, that behind the carefully crafted layers you can see the genuine want of connection, of admiration and friendship.  It’s always about love, and charming people (or films) want to give love, but more importantly to receive it.

Wes Anderson will piss off just as many people as he endears. But there’s no doubt that his films come from a place of warm affection (and love), including this one, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, Dir. Wes Anderson).


Honestly I love heist films, caper films.  What makes this genre so special to me is two things: the thrill of the chase, and the awareness of almost every cog in the machine. The thrill of the chase involves the risks and constant danger the main people put themselves in as they paint targets on their backs to gain rewards (usually money but not always) under the threat of exposure, capture, even death. The awareness of the cogs is how in heist films, each stage of “the job” is crucial and has to be witnessed to be understood (mostly, Reservoir Dogs 1992 Dir. Quentin Taratino obviously comes to mind as an exception). You have to see the assembly of characters, understand their relevant skillsets, watch the planning as well as the execution, and finally, whether they can get away and not get executed.

This isn’t just a feature of heist films though. It’s in classic war capers such as The Great Escape (1963, Dir. John Sturges) or The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich), it’s in Westerns such as The Magnificient Seven (1960, Dir. John Sturges), you could even argue you find it in sci-fi in Ghostbusters (1984, Dir. Ivan Reitman). And yes these primarily male orientated fantasies are just that, fantasies. But then, what could be a better model for an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous book “Fantstic Mr. Fox”?

Far be it from an auteur to not put his own spin on all that cinematic history though. Not only does the film stray far beyond Roald Dahl’s story, but the film brims with the style and substance of Wes Anderson. There’s so much additional material here, so many flourishes and quirks.  Wild animals discussing the tree housing market. The word “cuss” replacing all expletives. Ash (Jason Schwartzman) desperately seeking his father’s attention and trying to emulate him, the curious question of why everyone cuts out their ransom notes in newspaper cut outs when they know who they’re speaking to, the invention of a ridiculously complex high school sport which becomes oddly central to the film. There’s so much going on here that I’ll confess when I first saw this film in about 2010, as a 13-year-old boy, I missed so much of what is going on.  That’s never a bad thing though, it’s important to have films you can return to and discover new things.

Talking of things to return to, the stop motion animation (shot at 12 frames rather than 24) in this film is nothing short of a delight. The painstaking detail involved in any process of animation is one I continually admire and respect, because it would take a far more patient person than me to ever commit to the agonising production of animation. The price you pay for complete control over your image, to be able to design every single aspect of it, is that it takes up your life. And the image here is in a tradition of animation which is rough, handcrafted and has its own aesthetic. Against the vein of super smooth, completely digitally modeled animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox instead handcrafts a stop motion masterpiece, wiry hair and glass eyes and painted backgrounds and real fabric costumes. I’m always impressed by stop motion animation, but when its done this well it’s something I just fall in love with.

And I can definitely continue raving about the other technical areas that I love in this film, its eclectic soundtrack, it’s wry characters, its tight script and its impressive colour design. All of its disparate elements which are united into one cohesive design. But honestly I just want to talk about my favourite scene. After Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has escaped from the farm after rescuing his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), he spots a wolf in the distance, something he’s actually afraid of. He tries to communicate with it, calling it by its Latin name, speaking French. He finally raises his fist in a moment of solidarity, and the wolf after a brief pause raises his fist in return.

It’s a moment which seems to pause the entire flow of the film, occupying an almost otherworldly space in the film. The serene score underpins it, but it’s a moment of clarity in the eye of its ramshackle tweed tornado. It’s a reconciliation of all the themes in the film, of wilderness and wild animals sometimes suffocated by the pressures of civilisation. It’s honestly just one of those rare marks of quality in a piece of art which contains a moment of reflection and emotional clarity. I’ll put it up here devoid of its context, but inside the film it’s in my opinion, the point which elevates the entire film into something far greater than just a children’s animation. Or maybe it just properly unveils and reveals the power that sometimes lies inside the stories we think are only for children.

I live in the city, and I’m surrounded by foxes here. And every time I spot them, they stop and stare at me. And there’s a kinship there, alongside the distance. We understand each other. It’s not full, and it’s not complete understanding. But it is there.

-Alex

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

Rosemary’s Baby

rosemarys_baby

When you watch old Horror films it is so easy to feel underwhelmed. What may have been scary for an audience in the 60s is now so far removed or normalised for a modern audience, all the actual scares will often just leave you cold to the effect that is talked about at length. Think of the scenes of Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) and their (at the time) horrifying depictions of possession. All the head-spinning and vomiting may have been shocking to a naïve 70s audience, but in this age of realer than real CGI and more informed directorial shock tactics they can feel almost laughable to fresh viewers.

Whilst I do still feel there are scares to be found in the film and others like it, Psycho (1960, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock), being another prime example) the disconnect with the hysterical shocks remain an unfortunately unshakable barrier for me to actually recommend The Exorcist as a shockingly scary film any more (at least to a younger audience). This is not to say of course that all older Horror films lack impact and with Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) we can see that through effective direction and mood that perhaps chills rather than shocks are the more lasting effect of some of these Horror classics.

The story focuses on Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes), a young couple who move into a huge old townhouse flat and are greeted by a series of strange encounters. Firstly Rosemary meets a young woman who’s being rehabilitated from a junk habit by Rosemary’s new neighbours, the eccentric Castavets. Shortly after meeting the woman she kills herself, this is of course a surprise to Rosemary and yet they strike up a friendship with the elderly Castavets and things only get weirder for her from there.

To explain this plot further would for me be a disservice to the film as so much of the joy of Rosemary’s Baby is to be found in its hesitancy to reveal what is true and what is not. This is a total mood piece by Roman Polanski, as the story progresses both Mia Farrow’s Rosemary and John Cassavetes’ Guy play their parts with extreme conviction, Farrow in particular lending Rosemary a particular innocence which only serves to add to the mood of the piece even further. It is partially this innocence in Farrow but also the brooding detachment shown by Cassavetes that seem to mesh into this strange psychological chess game between the characters, however the game is often being convincingly won by the male characters in the story. These performances and the narrative arc of the film as a whole really do give off a very strange feeling for the viewer, whilst these two are meant to be in love, this strips away and although they do have sex in the film you cannot help but feel that already there is a sexless nature to the relationship as a whole. And yet Polanski often uses the men in the film to exert a particular dominance over Rosemary in a very creepy and unsettling way. The sexless nature of their relationship as the film progresses has the audience looking at the men in the story as bad guys even if they are seemingly innocent.

It is clear then from this that Polanski is far from aiming for a straightforward Horror film and as I mentioned before seems to be aiming for mood and chills rather than the grandstanding moments so often associated with the genre. Polanski is questioning relationships and friendships, continually asking the audience to distrust almost every interaction a person has with Rosemary. It is this disturbing psychological game that Polanski brings to the film that really makes this film stand so proudly in the horror cannon, the sense that just under the surface there’s a whole world of weirdness waiting for our heroine, if only she knew how to find out exactly what was happening to her and those around her.

The other main character that Polanski uses to create this suffocating mood is from the setting of the apartment itself. We see early on the couple refurbishing the space, from an old woman’s decrepit forgotten home to a modern light space. The lighting remains bright and flat in the apartment for much of the film and yet we rarely go outside, as Rosemary stays in the flat the tension rises and the camera slowly creeps in towards her. When the couple are in their housewarming stages the camera is often further back showing more of the flat but as their relationship diminishes in the story and Rosemary’s own journey takes over the camera will often just show Farrow grappling with her demons and her situation. The close-ups of Rosemary near the climax of the film even start to become unhinged with the director using a handheld style to both reflect the characters psyche but also just to bring this coiled spring of a film to an almost unbearable breaking point.

As you can probably tell I’m fairly in love with this film and if you haven’t had the time to see this or even better if you don’t know anything about it I really do recommend this as an alternative actually scary old horror film. A brilliant example of tell don’t show genre filmmaking with a compelling and creepy narrative and an iconic ending scene which gives me chills just writing this.

-Ed

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Rosemary’s Baby

The Human Condition (1/3) – No Greater Love/Fury

the-human-condition-film-poster

Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


No Greater Love (Ningen No Joken I in Japan) is the first experience and introduction into the world which Kaji inhabits. And Kaji is onscreen for almost 90% of the film’s running time, anchoring us in place around the constant swirling cast of characters which move alongside him. Given a chance to be exempt from military service, Kaji and his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) move to a mining camp in Manchuria to govern the labour management, who Kaji believes are being ill-treated and thus causing low productivity.

Not just that, but it becomes Kaji’s battleground as he fights an ideological war on how human beings should be treated. For the first in a war epic, there’s little to no experience of anything you might see as traditional warfare. Instead Kaji takes on the welfare of Chinese POW’s against tyranny, corruption, fervent nationalism, hostility from the POW’s and the snakes in the grass which threaten to take him down. Make no mistake, in entering any part of The Human Condition, you are entering a world of moral and ethical conflict.

Kobayashi’s technical work on display here is very simple, very clear. Strong, multilayered deep focus compositions abound throughout the entire film. The film stages its action very classically, but by doing so keeps everything in focus, making sure not to drive the film into Kaji alone. The film follows Kaji, but Kaji spends little time on anything else beyond the welfare and the warfare of his friends (who could be enemies) and his enemies (who are enemies). Because so much of the action takes place through different depth planes, shots seem to breathe and the editing of the film is set to a slow pulsing rhythm which only rarely feels at times it drags. Of course, to the hyper sensitive, hyper frenetic editing paces of today’s visual media, the film will naturally feel slow.

But its slowness allows time to ponder and reflect on the events unfolding. So too does its sparse, austere sound. Technological limitations of its time mean audio tracks were mixed in mono sound, with the third and last film being the first in Japan to release with a stereo sound mix. Technological details aside however, the film is constantly quiet. Dialogue fills the space and the sound of brutal thuds and slaps on flesh recur, and the musical score reveals its melancholy tone, or allows for a few fleeting seconds of joy to burst through the screen. Mostly though its sound is devoid of distraction, which keeps the film more “pure” if you would like. The clatter and din of reality may be absent, but then this isn’t a documentary.

Kaji’s clash with the forces of reality is incredibly prevalent however, as the film chains us to him as we watch his ideas meet the muddy and soiled nature of real men and women against his unbreakable spirit. His unwillingness to compromise continually places him in danger, aggravates his situation, allows him to be played and fooled by those willing to exploit his desire to protect others from harm. You could imagine how this might get repetitive after 2 out of its 3 hours, but Kobayashi mines the source material (how much, if any was written purely for the film I cannot say) and brings to life not only engaging subplots, which explore ideas that can’t be expressed through Kaji, such as the story of the prostitute (comfort-girl) who falls in love with a hardliner idealist POW whose story becomes a symbol of both manipulation by shrewd higher-ups and love blossoming in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Not only that, but the subplots also produce enough variance while being able to continually hammer away at the same bitter theme; the suffering encountered in being human. Like the encroaching tide, each wave which approaches Kaji is both the same and completely different, and all of it washes over him. It’s a profoundly existential film, or maybe that’s just my reading of it, but I found it awash and brimming with that continual torment of being alive, the incessant negotiations of a landscape of people who are often indifferent or hostile to your concerns. Watching a particularly naive and fresh-faced Kaji endure biting pain is a testament to the resilience of any of those who have suffered under similar chains. The rule of those who are unkind, brutal, sadistic or perhaps just plain incompetent and inefficient. The conflict that rips Kaji apart (driving him to near death) is those that care more about the word of law and how to apply it/circumvent it and the spirit of the law.

Resilience seems to be the key theme, at least in No Greater Love. Each character is profoundly resilient, both the good and the wicked. They care greatly about survival, but like Kaji, not all of them care about themselves. Kaji’s survival is a spiritual one, of trying to retain his humanity in the face of increasingly difficult and inhumane conditions. Michiko tries to retain her husband’s survival along with her survival of her self, as forces Kaji to stop being blind to her. Kao (Shinji Nanbara) and Wang Hen Li (Seiji Miyaguchi) (names are akin to the ones presented in the Arrow version) represent the strain for survival under the net of imprisonment. The Kenpeitai (Japanese military police) enforce the survival of strict miltary discipline and imperial honour, at the expense of anything else. While other characters may be driven by more base motives, they are no caricature villains in this. Just the ugly, dark natures involved in existence.

Despite all this, the reason for its power lies in its ability to stay true to the world. The world is not unrelenting in its pain. Even if it’s only fragments, moments snatched away from the jaws of darkness, there are powerful moments of joy and of triumph. A river ebbs and flows, and even the darkest world needs a little bit of light to illuminate it. Kaji exists like a candle in the black and white frame, almost glowing at times with determination and resistance in the face of physically and spiritually overwhelming odds. Of course it is bleak, but the bleakness of the world motivates Kaji into being, drives him to near obliteration to stand up and do what is right. Perhaps its bleakness lies in the fact that we know it to be so true, but that should never be the end of the story.

For people like Kaji, it’s only the beginning. And even though he may be a fiction, an idea and an ideal, having a star to look up to is a refreshing change of pace from wallowing in the mud.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (1/3) – No Greater Love/Fury

Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven

Zardoz

It opens with a meta-commentary of the illusory nature of film itself, and a giant stone head spitting guns from its mouth before Sean Connery rises from the dirt inside the head, in a red loincloth and shoots God with a revolver. That’s within ten minutes.

If you take Zardoz (1974, Dir. John Boorman) seriously, it’s a strange and disorienting fantasy journey through, philosophy weirdness and sexual politics. If you look at ironically, it’s a blithering mess filled with ridiculous and embarrassing moments bursting from it in every frame.

If you’ve read any other essay on this site, you’ll know which lens I saw this film through. But I’m not blind. This movie is baffling and weird and there are design choices which have dated it to sometime before dinosaurs existed, even if it is set in the future. Sean Connery does indeed wear a loincloth. If you don’t get on-board, it’s a prominent and uncomfortable reminder of the film’s failings. Luckily it only took me about six seconds to get on board, and once I did I was locked into one of the films which most deserves the adjective “crazy”.


Zardoz is about…lots of things if I’m honest. Immortality, death, God (or Zardoz’s equivalent, the “Tabernacle” which google also tells me was the Hebrew portable meeting place to communicate with God, so it’s kind of God anyway?), human nature and all the fictions and facts which come with it; class conflicts, ethical conflicts, aesthetic conflicts and more. If there was ever a film designed to collapse under its own ambition, this is it.

In a future where Earth has essentially reverted to pre-industrial living but with guns, we are following Sean Connery, a “mutant” human from the class of Executioners (who essentially rape, kill and pillage the “Brutals” in the name of Zardoz, their “God” who travels in a massive stone head), who kills Zardoz and lands in the heaven of the “Immortals”, humans who figured out how to stop dying. But Heaven and immortality are actually not perfect, sex doesn’t exist and people want for nothing except for the ability to die. Which they can’t do because the technology they built has (on their orders) erased their knowledge of how it works, so they can never go back. Instead they continue on in “bliss”, become so numb that they are the “Apathetics”, or cause trouble and are aged significantly (without dying) and become “Renegade”.

I don’t want to walk you through the entire plot of Zardoz, because for those of you who have seen it, you know what I’d be spoiling, and for those who have not, know that you are still in for considerable labyrinthine twists and turns before its 106 minutes are up. Explaining its narrative density and elaborate structures is only one part of its madness however,  as so much of what makes Zardoz arresting is in its visuals; its psychedelic sets, it’s de-saturated pastel colour palette (worked on extensively by the film’s cinematographer,  Geoffrey Unsworth who shot 2001), it’s absolutely insane sequences of touch teaching and inside the Tabernacle’s hall of mirrors.

Not just that, but its thematic elements and philosophical implications are really worth engaging with. Questions of immortality and the strange “death drive” that psychology has so concerned itself with really are on display here. This isn’t just a “high-concept” film, a film that has structural intelligence but still remains at its core a very simple story (read: Inception 2010 Dir. Christopher Nolan). Zardoz refuses to compromise any kind of narrative simplicity, as Zed undergoes a philosophical evolution throughout, taking him into mythic proportions by the end of it.

Even if you consider the film a spectacular failure, my admiration of Boorman at least attempting to grapple with these themes is commendable as it is admirable. Film’s don’t always have to be easily digestible, easily understandable and easily consumed. Sometimes they’re allowed to be difficult, ambiguous and confusing because often life is too. Cinema is not just escapist entertainment, that’s cheap and it does a disservice to what cinema could be. Cinema which fails spectacularly playing a bigger game will always be respected and remembered more, even if it takes time.

It’s a bleak film. It’s an oblique film. It’s hard to keep up with it, elements continue to get introduced pretty much from start to finish. It never stops whizzing by, and if you get off the train it all falls down (according to a story told by the production designer, at one point during a break one of the sets did fall down). It’s a walk through a singular, surreal and chauvinistic vision on a threadbare budget, and the modern psyche can split you into thinking its just campy trash with severely outdated sexual politics. The critical narrative will tell you to watch this film with a keen eye to take the piss, that there’s not much here besides silly sci-fi trash and the mad whims of an indulgent director. And that interpretation is valid if you want, but you cut so much of the meat of the film away just to enjoy scraps.

Good films take you on journeys you remember. It has not aged well, but I won’t forget Zardoz, its good and its bad. It’s ambivalent, bored heavens and it’s bizarre, weirdly engrossing hells.

-Alex

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Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven