Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 1)

In April 2022, I decided to embark on a journey to watch the cinematic material currently related to Woodstock Festival (founded by Woodstock Ventures), specifically the first event in August 15th, 16,th, 17th and 18th August 1969, Bethel NY. This is a scrapbook of cinema thoughts and understanding related to all materials Woodstock; documentaries, feature films, tv specials, as well as random thoughts about interviews and other pieces on the festival. Nearly half a million people attended over 3 Days of Love, Peace & Music in what was at both a nationally declared disaster area and at the same time one of the wildest gathering of musicians and creative talent in the 20th century, in protest of the Vietnam War and in search of peace. My thoughts on the cinematic visions of the films are below.

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So this is the only bit written after watching the first documentary. It is a revelation, a world of performers falling off the sheer edge of heaven. In sound they find release, reprise, and the foundations of communication. The performers are metal, built from a bunch of hippies and absolute free folk. Things which prevent peace are released in a sphere of mud, music, meltdowns. The power felt watching Hendrix, Santana, Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, Ten Years After, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, all these crazy crazy musicians just shredding in the arena. The camera is boiling with images of musicians in trances, the body on display in a way to accomodate all the shit of physically being in a officially declared ‘disaster area’. Founder Michael Lang said “I didn’t drink from any bottle I hadn’t opened myself” because of how food and drink at the fesitval had become laced with chemicals. The edge of infinity, in a culture of peace, for just three days is one of the boldest cinema experiences I’ve ever watched.

I saw the film over several days actually, the first film in a very long time I’ve split up into multiple viewings. Like a festival, this project is in those moments not at gigs, resting, sleeping, getting food. Talking to people, seeing who they are, why they would even go there. Hippies are enshrined in memory now, their potential in amber now, not flowering in youth. Being a hippie is old, I think I’m old. The people debating the worth and cost of such a colossal undertaking of distressed teenagers is worth recognising, the cop who supports the kids, the community members arguing on camera furious at the local distress.

Like an absolute diamond encased in a director’s cut version, the world of this film (with seven editors, Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorcese among them) it represents a shining vision of human frames glittering across the screen in their thousands. It’s been a long time since I’ve been touched by a film’s hope for the future, however sentimental that may sound in the 2020s of sharp hyper capitalism. But I enjoyed myself, I had fun. Rip it up, have a ball.

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To know that Woodstock, the film, is responsible for reviving the massive financial losses the festival incurred, is something of an even greater achievement. The fact that it is one of the most radically documented films regarding music impact culture, and revolutionary spirit is an even greater one.

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It’s hard finding time to write for this. I don’t usually try a fragmented style, I want my focus on these subjects to have as much clarity as possible. Woodstock ’69 is already growing and evolving in my memory as I watch two further films on the subject. Michael Wadleigh’s seminal doc is from inside the very beating heart of the festival itself, it’s eyes roaming the festival in search of the next great revelation of meaning through experience. It is a delicate canvas dragged through the mud of those days, the spirit churning at its’ centre. And now I find myself with films from further out of the sphere, ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation’ (2019, Dir. Barak Goodman) and ‘Woodstock Revisited’ (2009, Dir. David McDonald).

These are films that are falling from the same tree, rippling like waves against cavern walls. The festival experience is applied through different lenses. That of historical broadcasting (Goodman’s film is a PBS funded documentary), and intricately styled memoir and recollections (McDonald’s documentary is highly experimental by televisual standards). But streams flow back into rivers, and both films are doing their best to understand and venerate an event which changed the face of the Earth.

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It was raining toads when we played. The rain was part of our nightmare. The other part was our sound man, who decided that the ground situation on the stage was all wrong. It took him about two hours to change it, which held up the show. He finally got it set the way he wanted it, but every time I touched my instrument, I got a shock. The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.

-Bob Weir, Grateful Dead Guitarist, Rolling Stone

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I am reading about Jefferson Airplane, Saturday’s star act, who didn’t take the stage until 8:00AM Sunday morning. Country Joe Farm said when he heard Jimi Hendrix play the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ that the guitar “would never be the same ever again.” Joan Baez performed six months pregnant with her husband in prison, she recalls with breeziness. A hurricane of spirit, 500,000 people listening to music. It’s hard to capture the fragments of this mosaic. In David McDonald’s film, he explores in depth the artistic community of utopian communes which preceded Woodstock’s happening; the actual town itself.

Roots of 19th & 20th century American utopian projects by intellectuals propelled the reality of this gathering from long before its’ manifestation in 1969. Artists had been gathering in the space for decades before, winding histories of bohemian festivals and turn of the century gatherings. The film is uncharacteristic in its’ cerebral take of a history of a local community, it’s public-access TV aesthetic really wild to visually interact with. It’s one of the only documentaries I’ve ever seen with serious frame fragmentation and multiple panelling combined with vivid psychedelic colour tinting. It’s interviews are friendly but opaque, tagged with a locals’ knowledge behind the camera of who’s who and who’s relevant. Woodstock as a cultural event the festival, resonates through a chasm of American history. But the spirit of the gathering is part of an Americana, a folklore.

It makes sense that the PBS documentary then, so heavily draws from Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 Woodstock discussed above then. Goodman’s doc is a shrine, a veneration of moments of a beating heart expanded with the context of those young enough to need some insight. A tribal memory of American spirit expanding in the sun, rays scattering out. Here the memory is viewed through the glass of an exhibition, moments of alive spirit now encased in the glass of informational viewing. There are elements of the Woodstock festival expanded on further here, Richie Havens tells a beautiful story about how “nervous he was to go on stage“, as audiences waited and festival managers waited for acts who hadn’t turned up yet. In these moments the film comes the most alive, opening the mind of the musician into the memory of their performances.

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Neil Young refused to be filmed during the festival, claiming the cameras were too distracting. There is a cascade of moments in the experience of that time which can only be reflected in those who were there. The environmental conditions prevent Ten Years After from keeping their instruments in tune. This place is just submerged in conditions, stories, experiences and moments of life which really see everything. 80 lawsuits were filed against them upon finishing, 5000 people requiring medical attention, several unfortunate deaths even (RIP the man who got crushed by a tractor). The town of Bethel, NY passed laws preventing any mass gatherings like this from occuring again.

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Creating Woodstock (2019, Dir. Mick Richards) is a vertiable feast of information on the festival, interviews abounding with anecdotes and stories of a whirlwind production force. In a deal struck with the city inspector, driving behind at 4AM to remove just painted ‘Stop Work’ orders from the city council risking arrest is just one of the many stories that really shook me. Richie Havens improvised his hit ‘Freedom’ after running out of material after being called back 5 times because no other artist’s had arrived. $1.4 million dollars in debt, bands told to ‘F.U.C.K Y.O.U’ in telegraphs while others like The Who refused to play at 6AM until they got paid in cash full. 50 serving stations double sided around 10 areas serving hundreds if not thousands of people a day, the logistics on display here . The inspector’s 15 year old daughter who ran off into the festival, and his futile search which distracted him from inspecting the sanitation of the area (causing a possible shutdown), was matched only by the wildness of having to convince artist after artist flying in on helicopters to consent to being filmed for the documentary without being paid.

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The battle for the site is laid out in much fuller detail here, the Mills farmer (who was responsible for the 2nd, unused site) was on the receiving end of death threats to prevent the hippies from tearing up the surrounding area. The investors/co-producers John P. Roberts and Joel Roseman get special veneration in their absolutely stunning personal and music business force to produce the festival, not only the crew pulling all nighters but everyone becoming exceptionally free together. Michael Lang and Artie Kornfield also get more time for their unique relationship, which allowed them to move from music recording studio dreams to event changing paradigm.

Jimi Hendrix: The Road to Woodstock (2014, Dir. Bob Smeaton) is only a supplementary addition. In the above documentary, one of the participants recounts how Jimi had flew in to the airport, hailed a ride with two random kids and was at the site in two hours somehow mysteriously. Smeaton’s documentary helps elaborate on how his backing band, Band of Gypsys (shout out Larry Lee), were not so lucky in their arrival in station wagons hours later. But his performance is a monumental zenith of guitar trance playing, and the documentary does include a performance of ‘Vilanova Junction’ and encore ‘Hey Joe’, as well as the extended performances featured in Wadleigh’s documentary. It doesn’t get to the heart of what he was doing there, but the artistry is self-evident.

Oh, and the parking lots were drenched in mud. Just a swamp of fertile farmland sinking under the weight of festivities, at one point after raining heavily on Sunday evening, weight from the crowd made the stage start sinking down the hill. Jimi Hendrix came out and shredded the morning sky, under some weathered conditions.

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I’m thinking about when Creedence Clearwater Revival went on stage at 3:30AM and said the crowd looked like a scene from ‘Dante’s Inferno’, playing for one lonesome soul with a lighter. I’m thinking about the fact that Jimi Hendrix’s live performance was released in complete, in both the Wadleigh version, and an alternate ‘Second Look’ performance which is in B&W (really interesting). I’m thinking about the voluminous amounts of people on screen in further representations of Woodstock memory, history and myth.

A Walk on the Moon (1999, Dir. Tony Goldwyn) is Woodstock in the Hollywood cultural memory, it’s extension only relevant to the interpersonal dynamics of Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber and Viggo Mortensen. Woodstock here represents a spiritual freeing of the self. A sequence where Lane’s hedonistic abandon takes her into some acid-tripped revealing of her self in front of daughter Anna Paquin, putting in innings as the wild stubborn teenager. Richie Havens ‘Freedom’ is used to astonishing effect here, the very liberation of souls in the crowd. Here Woodstock is a mirage to enter through, its’ romance and spirituality colliding with characters opening up to each other. It’s not the best material, but I get it.

Taking Woodstock (2009, Dir. Ang Lee) is another sort, a far more authentic mantra of what was happening. Centred on Eliot Tiber, a kid who through being able to approve his own permit to run a music festival in the town of Bethel, NY, leveraging a simple permit with great historical consequences. He connected with Michael Lang and associates to loan his family run motel as the basis for their headquarters of operations for the festival. As thousands of hippies descended on the surrounding area to get to Max Yasgur’s farm, the entire societal architecture around them was transformed to accomodate this mass gathering of people.

A lot of good performances here, history as fiction manafactures a lot of portrayals which really try and emulate the spirit of those involved in the festival’s creation. Using Wadleigh’s technique of multiple divided screens, conversations and scenes lap over each other with finesse. Lee stages beautiful one-take long shots of those in pilgrimage, all pulled with a steady grace towards the site. It sometimes misses, sure. Moments of Eliot gathering his will are empathetic, with some real spectacular performances by his parents, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman. Their transformations echo his, and Liev Schreiber also has a rather stunning turn as a security based sweetheart transvestite. Based on a real character she spent time protecting the Tibers from anti-festival protestors as well as Nazi-inspired youths attacking them for their Jewish heritage.

It’s important to note that the film deals with the danger of the events, though. Centred on the heart of players skirting gently around to see what happened to the people of Bethel as they experienced a mass cultural event. Tiber uncovers his sexuality, perception-distorting drugs, his family’s sad past; a lot is pushed through the main characters. Michael Lang even rides around on the horse, Jonathan Groff playing him in a strangely watchable way I can’t look away from. It ultimately rests its hands at the end of the experience, so as a film I can understand its’ mixed reviews and box office failure. The film links Woodstock’s significance to the 1968 Stonewall riots months earlier, and I appreciate the film trying to break from any one perspective so it can let the love in from the peripheries. That’s a great line.

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I didn’t watch Always Woodstock (2014, Dir. Rita Merson) because honestly it looks like a bridge too far, just awful. Love this review from The Dissolve though.

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Woodstock or Bust (2018, Dir. Leslie Bloom) is insane, even just skimming through it. Surface it’s just two girls wanting to play their music at Woodstock and trying to get there. But it’s surreal, connectedto the anti-war legacies in the bizarrest way, it shows just how far appropriation of the Woodstock spirit and iconography can go in entertainment. Pays homage to the festival’s folk roots by putting up the strangest low-budget spiritual connective tissue to the festival’s spirit . ‘Best ever bust.’ (groan).

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Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2011, Dir. Bruce Beresford) deals with Woodstock in a way that’s both at once achingly banal but also appreciative of Woodstock spirit. It honours Jane Fonda, 60s spiritual child, Catherine Keener, Jeffery Dean Morgan (in a larger role than Taking Woodstock), Elizabeth Olsen, Nat Wolff, a cast of American talent in performances where they are trying at least. It’s Woodstock through a hollywood lens alongside a personal one. Woodstock is explored through the festival’s tourist trade and current situation, alongside generational conflict expressed between mom Keener & hippie Grandma Fonda. The film is painfully inoffensive, liberally indulging the ‘far out’ iconography of a generation it no longer really believes in, only to serve the needs of the story and the eventual familial re-union in drawn out dynamics. Keener and Morgan singing ‘The Weight’ is pretty cool though.

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[Highlights from the photographer being interviewed.] Still crazy that Santana was hallucinating while he was playing, seeing a snake on his guitar and eyes and teeth in the crowd. Max Yasgur got the best yield of corn after they replanted a crop at the end of the festival, probably because of all the human waste.

And for me, that’s been a real education, for sure. The whole thing with the movie and how they had to borrow money to get the film, you know? Things like that. 150 miles of film? 16-millimeter film?18 guys shooting 24-7, collapsing, having somebody take over for them when the collapsed and fell down, because of carrying that heavy camera around? Those are the real stories of Woodstock.

Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone

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RIP Carl Blackstead, who oversaw the recording and producing of the songs during the festival and for the 1970 documentary. Also RIP to Ravi Shankar’s master tapes, which to this day have never been found. The article linked here really dives into how much of the Woodstock documentary soundtrack was manipulated, warped into an artistic presentation of shape. Even in the mode of authenticity, hundreds of little changes have to be sculpted to make a film. There’s David Fricke’s sober take on the improbable accident of the festival, ‘a success and failure’ in equal measure is really important to take in. Events can escape themselves, becoming oversold and overexploited. Woodstock is on the cusp of the end, both year wise and culture. Altamont is coming. But Yasgur put up a sign saying ‘Free Water’ after he heard his neighbours were charging for it.

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I’ve been laying awake in the wake of watching Woodstock Diary (1994, Dirs. Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer & D.A Pennebaker), a 3 hour day-by-day play of some of the other acts at the festival, unseen offcuts, and original interviews with some of the defining players. From the recording studio genesis, unseen performances from acts such as Bert Somner, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Quill, Mountain, Country Joe & The Fish, The Band, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield Blues Band (although I read this performance is actually a recording from an earlier gig in Whitelake), right up to Jimi Hendrix’s revelations on the guitar Monday morning. ‘Nightmare in the Catskills’, so said the New York times as the festival wound up.

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Shout out to the bank manager who flew in a helicopter at midnight to the bank to get the producers of the festival their cashier’s checks to pay the bands. To the Hog Farm Commune as well. The lady who fed everyone on granola as well, and refused to buy even sugar or salt! Hundreds of thousands of people. Mad. The people who marched on the fast food stand overpricing their food and burned it down! They still tried to help him out, but mad.

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I think I’m standing above a wide hill, in Yasgur’s farm, surrounded by people. I can hear the music. I can see the people. I can feel everything. It’s been a ride. – scene in Taking Woodstock where the people turn into the ocean.

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I’m out of this whirlwind now. Just like everyone else, I’ve left the festival, with only memories to keep me company. A friend told me that one of her family friend’s had left mid-way through a set performed by a “Mr. James Helix” (Jimi Hendrix), didn’t appreciate the guitar.

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Woodstock will exist forever. Untold recordings, footage from collector’s editions, autobiographical books, vinyl liner notes; they’re all artifacts from a memory of collective expression. Woodstock’s roots superseded its’ foundations. The town since thrives on the trade of American artworks to this day, for better and for worse. Peace, love and music for 3 days continuously, and genuinely.

And cinema has helped in innumerable ways to ensure a legacy of the festival’s essence. From searingly real direct cinema documentaries to varying levels of Hollywood artificiality; the authentically earnest to the sanctimoniously boring, they understand Woodstock ideals as they fit the confines of other drives, plot situations, and character motivations. All those feedback into the real world. The festival attendees had to do much of the same, filtering back from their natural exodus into American society.

From interviews I saw, the founders and makers seemed happy with how everything turned out. Heritage, safe in the glass case of the past can sometimes obscure the mechanics and engineering behind an event which sat at the crossroads of politics, art, music and business. The four points of a star which helped it manifest into a cultural meteor that hit the ground so hard we’re still feeling it’s reverberations. Woodstock being free was an accidental stroke of genius, and its rare that enough minds get together to will the conditions to make something that important. Later posts will deal with the legacy of anniversary concerts, Black Woodstock, and other associated materials. That is a more complex set of affairs, which deserves its own understanding. Woodstock’s limitations are duly noted sure, but for free I can’t think of a better concert to have not gone to.

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Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 1)

The French Dispatch + Exhibition Review

It’s been a long time since I’ve had time to write about a film. My friend and I got lost searching for The French Dispatch at the cinema, the screens split across two buildings. We sat down with the film already in introduction, its’ colour and verbiage already spilling over us. Divided into article sections of the fictional paper ‘The French Dispatch of the ‘Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (which is also the full title of the film)‘, it works to provide a cinematic boiling down of the engagement with an artefact now more absent from our lives. What unravels from this yarn of spiralling articles, is a series ofshort successions of visually arresting films which play with minatures and scale to such an extent that most frames dance before your eyes. The French Dispatch is a satellite publication of its’ fictitious publishing house, but the whole film works as a satellite in the cinematic space we live in, sending out analogue frequencies and signals about a world just past.

Based on The New Yorker, a publication whose literary prestige and acclaim rival most levels of success, Anderson (who owns hardbound editions dating back to the 40s) sends his own erractically drawn and far flung stories flying out on coloured paper. Echoes of the May 1968 French protests fill the story of ‘Revisions of a Manifesto – by Lucinda Kremmenz’ (partly inspired by writer Mavis Gallant), while ‘The Private Dining Room of the Commisioner – by Roebuck Wright’ (partly inspired by writers A.J Liebling, James Baldwin and Tennessee Williams) draws deep midnight film noir blues across the fictional town of Ennui-sur Blasé, where most of the action is located. ‘The Cycling Reporter – by Herbsaint Sazerac’ (partly inspired by Joseph Mitchell, Luc Sante and photographer Bill Cunningham) is a gentle and humourous tour of the town of Ennui, conducted by Owen Wilson falling through the delicate French architecture of the streets, and their lovingly adored vices. The other main article is ‘The Concrete Masterpiece – by J.K.L Berensen’ (partly inspired by Rosamond Bernier), presented in the film as both article and art lecture (by an ‘art talker’). Here is a journey into the heart of the artistic process as it is seen from those who write about it, rather than trying to authentically mimic what that experience might be like.

If it sounds confusing and entangled, that’s because it is. It is a work which reflects how magazines unite perspectives into a single issue, not by making the film have a consistent singular ringing tone to its’ music, but by playing a range of harmonies and stacking a range of perspectives side by side to each other. I used the word verbiage earlier to take a swipe at it, but I can also see it is a work of deep lyrical mystique, one where the very act of listening is far more actively necessary to process the wit, intrigue and melancholy that so lovingly unfolds across the dimensions of Anderson’s canvases.

This film is “actually three things,” Anderson says: a collection of short stories (“something I’ve always wanted to do”); a tribute to The New Yorker and “the kind of writer” it is famous for publishing; and an ode to “French cinema.”

Zach Johnson, “The French Dispatch A Love Letter to the Written Word”

It is a phenomenal world, the circus of illusion and trickery in full display. The stellar cast is abounding in a world full of delicate little moments of visual ingenuity (filmed by longtime collaborator Robert D. Yeoman). Items burst in and out of frames continuously, entire tableauxs are arranged of dozens of figures posed left to right (or vice versa) as the camera drifts over them. The scale and shape of architecture is made malleable for gentle affectation of scenery by puppetmaster strings unseen. The film twirls with delight at its’ own magic, positively bursting with details. Few films world feel as lived in, so rich with supplementary material to enfold you, scattered book titles and snappy art references filling the film floor to ceiling. I admire his sense of place, his dedication to elaborately staged histories of characters; their lives and their prides. It takes remarkable skill to create such positions of cinematography and mise-en-scène, a keen eye for illusion and depth and the intimate boundaries between the eyes and the projections they witness.

Assembled too, with abundant glee, is a cast who go headstrong into the performance of the film, every actor whirled into the discordant winds of Anderson’s style. Subsumed are Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Jeffery Wright, Saoirse Ronan, even Henry Winkler; while old favourites such as Jason Schwartzmann (who receives story credit), Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Adrian Brody and a continuous riot of actors and actresses. Apparently Wes Anderson even knows all his extras by name, curating with them canvases of a wry nature with a formal grace and precision. The techniques to display the human form are on display in a slim and subtle way, one eyebrow constantly raised at the missteps and bumbling figurines at work and play in a minaturised world. Although I experience issues with Andersons’ often extreme suppression of emotion in performance, this style continues to allow the performers room to shine lights into the dark spaces of their acting range; often requiring a demanding stillness with a shrewd and witty distance. This is then tempered with restrained, incisive breakthroughs of emotion, like bubbles reaching the water’s surface and then disappearing. The spaces and performers are laid out in architectural sectioning, portions of spaces (and the perspectives when viewing them) give room for the humans onscreen to tug at the strings of its’ loose cinematic reality, to the film’s benefit.

I would not be honouring the film’s loose chronological style if my own writing did not take the form of a series of thoughts running parallel, as oppposed to any review. The French Dispatch is a world made of up of various chunks of creative grey matter splattered onto the walls, its’ intersections with the world of art, student politics, romantic ideology, food, crime and various perspectives of theatre is an explosion of tone, sardonic and genuine together. It is a smörgåsbord, various visual canapes and dishes served with treats. I can’t always find the film convincing and I can’t return easily to such a dense work, but I would struggle to find a moment in the film not twisted around some delightful root of creative growth, some optical interaction that at least attempts to engage a more cerebral part of the viewing experience.

It is best for me not to go on any longer, lest I overwhelm thee with any more expository information or analysis. Even the film is exhaustingly overstuffed, I found myself zoning out by the time we reached the third major story simply due to the sheer amount of information being processed; my brain just couldn’t fit any more in. Does that mean that the film is easily watchable, digestible, Wes Anderson’s best film? I don’t think those are necessary questions to entertain alongside a work which so spasmodically grips the rivers of culture and tries to transfer them (with spillage everywhere) into the form of a film, one hour and fourty-eight minutes. It gently remoulds history, art, politics, love, imprisonment, freedom; it weaves them together in a pastiche of newspaper atmosphere. The worlds’ stories are there for you to be entertained by, not to find them all entertaining. A collage of symbols gets worked out by the reader, and they decided whether it’s worth the paper it’s written on (or celluloid it’s printed on). It works like a deliberately charismatic attempt to see the tragedies and brutalities of our pasts to be off to the side of our lives not always front and center, which somehow softens their often corruptive blows. A collage, a maze, a scaffolding framework of how life is sometimes experienced and shaped by the circumstances around it, rather than assuming that any one story is “the truth”.

Here the characters engaging with the silliness of the world’s frayed edges to convey numerous sad exposures of the modern human condition. Here lies a cast in bedlam, a cinematography in a perfectly sculptured riot, skeletons and mechanisms and stageplay abound. It is a work by a master of his craft, so recklessly abandoning conventional filmmaking mechanics to create a work of shining lumosity, uneven in places burning hot.

Signing off from our broadcasting station,

Alex

(04/12/2021)

(05/12/2021)

Alex

Signing on from our broadcasting station,

These are some pictures I took at to day’s exhibition at 180 The Strand. Rarely do you get the experience to see the raw materials of set design and production on display as here. The level of detail on display is astonishing and I am struggling to put into words how exciting it was to be in a space of a film like this, after enduring the pandemic. Looping soundtrack sections accompany you through an extremely deep dive into the subterreanean sewers of a film’s actual construction, making my experience of the film far more visceral. At the end there’s a cafe done up in the style of the film’s one, and it is a bizarrely nice way to end the exhibition.

These paintings done by Sarah Knopp (except for the last one I believe) are astonishing, displayed here in this sequence is really breathtaking, and the full story behind their creation, their abstract collaging of paint and working on them right up until the moment the camera’s rolled for that scene, mark a beautiful intersection of sculpted art inside a film’s world. It is a titan-sized mural to the film’s fusion of artistic elements to create a convincing enough scale replica of a modern art genius’ ambition.

The post can’t handle much more information, and I feel like I leave this issue of my own publication in pictoral wonder, rather than continue to expound about the film’s minutae or merits or flaws. It is a vibrant, special piece of cinema in a time which often struggles to find people with enough vision to make the whole world their playground. It is a honorary tribute to the writers who inspired the film, names who are treated with the dearest life in his work.

Cut! Print!

Alex

The French Dispatch + Exhibition Review

From Dune (1965) to Dune (2021)

Original 1st Edition Cover of Dune

“To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”

Dedication of Frank Herbert in Dune.

There has been a spectre shadowing me for almost as long as I can remember. In all my life, the name of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction epic has been impressed upon my mind. In the main bedroom of my family house, a few bookshelves sit mounted high on the wall. High enough for a child unable to reach, and residing there pressed inbetween a collection of my parent’s books, sat a copy of Dune and its’ sequel. The reason for this, is that as my mother was growing up here in London, into her lap fell what she called “her Star Wars”. The narrative threads of the House Atreides, the spice trade of Arrakis and the Fremen ecological struggle were to her, a fantasy world to be enveloped in. Those books still sit on that shelf, undisturbed as they ever were. But I used to stare at the spine of that book, and it left an impression on my mind, one that has been activated from time to time whenever I encountered the name across time. A copy of Lynch’s film sat in a neighbour’s house of mine, still in its shrink wrap. Years ago now, the surprise of that discovery helped dig up that clarity of impression the spine left on me.

So I found myself as of yet an unknown, barely disturbed knowledge of the world of Dune. The few fragments from cultural references and my mother’s own dim recollections from reading it in her youth. And where is here? Well “here” lies amidst the impending release date (already pushed back) of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, a projected two-part adaptation of the eponymous novel. With this on the imminent horizon, a copy of the first three novels graced themselves in my care under the umbrella of a gift from my mother, who had wanted me to get to grips with the story of Arrakis. It lay in my room, growing in the darkness and cacophony of a million distractions of everyday life. But if a seed is planted, with the right conditions, it will grow. By the time I had begun to submerge myself in the sweeping winds of Arrakis, it was rapturously clear that what I was reading was one of the most deftly constructed and intelligent pillars of literature I had laid eyes upon in a long long time.

Dune captivated me in a way that few stories have done, the wisdom of its’ presence breathing out through the pages. But it has also captivated plenty of others across time since its’ initial release, and its’ own internal history with film has been well-documented. Presented here then is a journey of my own; traversing from thoughts on the original novel, onto the well-documented ruins of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to transfer the novel to film (chronologically first) recounted in Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, Dir. Frank Pavich), through the controversial adaptation masterminded by David Lynch in Dune (1984), arriving at the impending release of Villeneuve’s version. Much like Paul’s consciousness, the meaning and understanding of my relationship to the story will change with each new interpretation, what each artist chooses to take from the lineage of the imagination of Frank Herbert. So I will chronicle my perspectives as I arrive at each milestone, and leave them here as a testament to the enduring spirit of Dune.

The Novel

There is a tremendous amount to be said, regarding Dune. It is a work where the ambitions of the ideas at play encircle an atmosphere of intrigue, of struggles ranging from internal conflicts of the psyche to interplanetary diplomatic tensions. The pressing of Dune’s lens to the worlds of Caladan, Arrakis and co. is one of razor sharp intensity, as it steers a course through a desert sea of high court drama, grassroots rebellion. The complicated and ever-evolving nature of leadership and those who follow.

It orchestrates a veritable strata of layers that are traversed, the scope of action in play often matched to the environmental surroundings of the characters involved. This is not done by accident, as the dedication above helps to make clear. Where Dune seemed to lift above a lot of other literature I’ve encountered, was the sheer vibrancy and clarity on which these worlds were being spoken aboutThe tension lying inherently in House Harkonnen’s vice-like grip of Arrakis is that they may have a fist enclosed around the people, but they are not emeshed into the world or the culture they are living in. Like a hawk with prey wriggling in its’ talons, they can only consider how best to feed themselves from the spoils of war.

There are plenty of internal and external dynamics to be hooked on in the exploration of Dune; Atreides & Harkonnen, the Imperial forces & the Lansraad, the Guild & the Houses, the Fremen & the rulers of Arrakis, even the Bene Gesserit & their position in the ranking hierarchies. Herbert spent plenty of time sketching out these forces caught in the chaos of an environment working out its balance. The style conveys a sense of physicality to these forces, as their interests begin shifting and moulding the psychic and physical landscape around them. Carefully detailling life on Caladan and Arrakis conveys a collective weight of how the environment comes to be around us; something we can take so easily for granted.

The story constantly shifts through a more complex set of relations than what fantasy is often funneled through; good vs bad, righteous love vs evil hate. The binary position that most fantasy readers are placed becomes a more complex beast to tame, aligning yourself to either side of a struggle will still mean shedding blood. It feels more tribal, and this is only enhanced by the story’s shifting focus as it shifts from character to character in a very deliberate arhythmical way.

The men who have walked the sand teach Paul & his mother Jessica on how to navigate the dunes, “to walk without rhythm”, as they step and drag their way across the horizon to avoid alerting the maker worms to their presence. The asynchronous patterns are hard to keep up with, shifting beneath their feet, and the story scales up to a structural level. The focus whips between point’s of view, a lightning-fast sense of presience. The imagination is not just excited from the potential of what could happen, but how are the events are being seen across the space. This feature is not particularly unique to Dune, but it is amplified by the extraordinary nature of the characters. From the ground to the sky, the insight borders on colossal, vast swathes of knowledge about human relations and power flowing from all sources. And that is before the story begins to unravel the horizons of its’ vision.

Because as the environment and the ecological inhabitants churn in place, Paul and his mother Jessica are channeling a sense of vision across the pages. Jessica’s Bene Gesserit training becomes a focal point for extremely minute analysis of social conduct, dissecting layer after layer of psychological deflection, deception, privacy. These effects find their zenith however, in Paul’s gradual, shifting transformations as he grows on Arrakis. His prescients visions, dimmed and streaking through cracks in his consciousness, split open into a world where he can percieve everything around him in a way which is threaded with infinity. The mathematical undertones of analysis and investigation ripple outwards into the perception and alternate potential futures. Paul stands as a psychological crucible for the elements of the world, as they catalyse, combine and conflict around him. The plights of those around him are many, be they emotional or rational or long-term or short-term; and all of this earth is upturned in the negotiations of the land around them.

So Dune as a novel is a breathtaking, liberating experience to become drawn into. To read it is to encounter a superposition of thought which few stories find the time to be concerned with, an epic. It’s concerns cross from tiny, fleeting and delicate moments of time blinking across pages, right up to a muted understanding of a history of the environment so wide that it encompasses all imagined thought. The struggle for Arrakis and the control of the spice trade was reflecting a concern at the time of writing regarding oil and America’s supply/control of it, but the struggle for resources and their management has been a human concern for time immemoriam. There is a line by Stilgar, one of the Fremen leaders that Paul encounters, where he says “The leader is the one who is strongest, the one who brings water and security”. And in this line, like a pearl reflecting back the world around it, the concerns of Dune are laid bare alongside humanity’s existence. Water is a precious resource in Dune because it helps to bring life, and the struggle with how best to sustain life has crossed cultures, histories, peoples, has been part of our natural relationship to living in the world around us.

To draw from the well of Dune and drink in that perspective, it is a lot to ask for, but it reveals such sights, such dreams and there is something I admire in that greatly.

(28/01/2021)

The Film

Original Poster for David Lynch’s Dune

“I had such a great time in Mexico City, the greatest crew. It was beautiful. But when you don’t have final cut, why did I do it? I don’t know. When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death. Die the death. And dying I did.”

David Lynch on Dune

It has been a while since I’ve returned to the story of Dune, even as it has carried me through this year in ways I am still learning to understand. Paul’s journey, the descriptions of his states of awareness in percieving experience and possible change around him, has mirrored an internal artistic flourishing of my own, as I have embarked upon the construction of a short film. It has inspired works of mine over these past months, as the climate has slowly reawakened into inhabited space and territory. The tremor of voices resounding in the cityscapes is becoming louder, and it is that siren song which drew me to a viewing of Dune (1984, Dir. David Lynch/Alan Smithee) on 70mm. Besides the story’s own impression on my life, I distinctly remember holding an unrwapped special edition DVD of this film in my neighbour’s house nearly ten years ago. To experience film is often an adventure into the unknown, and so I finally collided with the jagged peaks of Dune.

I say jagged, since Dune’s production is one of the most notorious in film history. Starting with an already interrupted attempt by Ridley Scott, famed Italian super producer Dino De Laurentiis contracted a young David Lynch (fresh of the set of his second film The Elephant Man) to make Dune.

”Mastodon” is Rafaella De Laurentiis’s word for the movie she is producing from Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. The statistics and logistics could describe a war rather than a movie. There are 53 speaking roles, 20,000 extras, four separate planets to be created, nearly 70 sets to be built and torn down, 900 men and women who have worked on the crew at one time or another during the last year. Two hundred of those men spent two months crawling on their hands and knees over three square miles of desert to clear it of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and every inch of cactus. Nothing grows or lives on the surface of the deep deserts of the planet Arrakis…”

From “The World of ‘Dune’ is Filmed in Mexico” by Aljean Harmetz

The article is a delight to read, which is always the bizarre sad irony reflecting the truth of a hellish production. The desire to keep costs low led the film being made in Mexico, in a studio filled with the frenetic howls of chaos. Not only sharing set, crew and design materials with another running Di Laurentiis production (Conan the Destroyer, 1984 Dir. John Milius), Lynch encountered spaghetti delays, a shooting location uncovered as a dump for dead dogs, mechanical and electrical shortages, endless frustration. Illness plagued cast and crew, so said Francesca Annis (Jessica) ”You do not meet anybody here who isn’t ill, about to get ill, or just over being ill”. Not wanting to become a lecture on film history, but the phenomenon of Lynch creatively unravelling the tendrils of Dune, spilled through an tremendous amount of creative conflict in its navigation. Having accepted the role of director without having ever read Dune, or really being interested in science fiction, he signed a contract which did not allow creative final cut on the film. Working with Raffaella Di Laurentiis, the production was both unstable ground for Lynch’s artistic senses, and a battleground of director/production company concerns.

As a result the balance between artistic adaptation, production dynamics and directorial intent is one of an uneven nature. Where Lynch’s eyes and his vision are interested in exploring areas different to Herbert’s focus. The creation of a sci-fi so unconcerned with traditional science fiction imagery (the film was meant to be designed as a Star Wars for grown ups and as a result meant to be far beyond it) places it in a filmic space which inhabits neither of its’ aesthetic intentions satisfyingly. The bizarre Lynchian visions of the Harkonnen atmospheres are described by Kyle Machlachlan as being his secret focus, and it is here in which the surreal cuts of the unconscious knife run deep. Industrial spaces sick with diluted colours, bare walls and exposed pipework reflect back deliriously mad character intentions and performances. In the illustriously rendered dream imagery, the viscera of nature is matched by the delicate meditations on water. There are moments seen between the peaks of its mangled construction, where the synchronicity of those desert-drenched visions align.

Raffaella Di Laurentiis said when he finished making Dune, he “never wanted to make big movies again” and after this moved only onto small scale productions. To spend time detailing the film’s numerous frustrating choices in creative construction has been well-documented by others and I won’t add to the pile. Maybe the most agonising design choice is in how much of the Fremen’s struggle is collapsed, significance ripped from the generational struggle for the environment. That alongside more lies in the creatively sad void of Dune’s half-finished scaffolding. It is a film of ruins and unfinished mosaics; a vision half blinded by the sunshine of reality. Directing is a superposition to be put in, collapsing all the thousands of micro-choices down to a few selected canvases. As Paul walks his way through a world tearing at those precious gifts which can be corrupted; integrity, loyality, love, Lynch spent his time navigating his way through an overambitious production which collapses trying to orchestrate its own mad chaos. Dune will remain as an uneasy reminder of how difficult it is to orchestrate our expressions, in these maddening and chaotic times.

(06/07/2021)

Alternative Posters for ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ (2013)

The Document

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s encounters with Dune nearly destroyed him. Not many people can lay claim to having the creation of a work be so ruinous upon their ambitions, as he attempted to navigate bringing Dune to life on the cinema screen for the first time. It’s ruins lay scattered across the popular consciousness of cinema’s science-fiction obsession. The fabric of its’ artistic skin is woven and quilted into other works, other mediums across time.

And all of this, from a film which doesn’t exist.


Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, Dir. Frank Pavich) is a document of Jodorowsky’s attempt in translating Dune to the silver screen long before Ridley Scott or David Lynch were ever approached to helm the project by Raffaella Di Laurentiis. In fact, H.R. Giger (famed biomechanical artist whose designs would be used for Alien) refers to her as the ‘woman who came along and took it from us’, an invisible sense of thievery in the ruins of Jodorowsky’s conceptual creation. For the documentary dives deep into the creative force behind Jodorowsky’s divine vision for the film, assembling a crew of ‘spiritual warriors’ to form the backbone to a transformative production. One which would impress upon the audience a new style of cinema; which would flood the audience with hallucinogenic impressions of a swirling tale of spice, consciousness, intrigue, power, transformation. All on the arid desert plains of Arrakis.

Jodorowsky himself describes the conception of the project as beyond Frank Herbert’s original story, and that thought lays in my mind also, as we approach the release of Villeneuve’s upcoming film. “I did not want to respect the novel, I wanted to recreate it. For me Dune did not belong to Herbert as Don Quixote did not belong to Cervantes, nor Edipo with Esquilo.” It is interesting even in this last year sitting with the story, how its’ influence has unfolded as I’ve known the story for longer, as more people around me become accquainted with its’ ripples. The story is steeped in the waves of legends; Arthurian, Bibilical & Messianic, Islamic to name a few. Those who might want their interpreters to remain more faithful to Herbert and any precious texts would no doubt have struggled with Jodorowsky’s blinding devotion to the artistic channeling of ideas, come hell or high water.

And under the spell of the acidic hazy early 70s, under the spell of El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky decided to create a tsunami of artistic undertaking, and the documentary takes us through the now empty canals Jodorowsky once carved. His producer Michel Séydoux rented a castle for him to stay in as he adapted the script. He brought onboard genius collaborator after collaborator, famed bande-dessinée artist Moebius, sci-fi cover design artist Chris Moss; both of them contributing fascinatingly detailed concept art. Orson Welles and Salvador Dali were both hunted down for their ostentatious talents, their salaries and demands rivalling each other in lunacy. Thrones of dolphins catching waste and a restaurant hired personal chef are the price of madmen. His son training six hours a day seven days a week for two years from nine years old was the price to pay lead character Paul Atreides. With the world at his feet, Jodorowsky was assembling an alarming array of talent who would go onto find success in Hollywood’s shining sun as Jodorowsky phantom moved towards it’s ill fated end. Dan O’ Bannon would later go onto to write Alien (1979, Dir. Ridley Scott), David Carradine and Mick Jagger both flew in and out of it’s orbit. Pink Floyd and Magma both signed up for the score in ecclectic meetings. Both the Algerian government and Charlotte Rampling were never able to assemble their talents (however willingly) to the making of Dune, which even supposedly including a scene involving 2000 extra defecating inf front of the palace (no really). The production heralded garguantuan horizons.

“I think that this is the most fully realized… This was completely storyboarded, completely cast, musicians, everything. His team of artists was ready to go in front of the cameras. That’s what makes it cool. It wasn’t something spoken about, it was actually something that was gonna happen.

Frank Pavich, Indiewire (2014)

Jodorowsky hadn’t read Dune before he picked the project, he called itdivine inspiration. To make a film ‘about a prophet’ is a surreal undertaking for a man navigating the experimental art world of the late 70s, strung out on cynicism and acid. The project seemed to exist like an optimistic vortex, beyond the cultural milieu of the time, sucking in those minds associated with it as it struggled desperately for financial life. It was not to be. Reluctance from Hollywood personnel left Jodorowsky’s vision encased in a tome filled with over three thousand concept drawings until Pavich’s excavations. Made with intense admiration, the original score by Kurt Stenzel is echoing of that void of wonder left behind in the meteor craters of this never-vision, this cinematic consciousness-raising cannon. Before the march of merch, Star Wars and sci-fi iconography as set dressing, it lived in the potential swirl of existence, spiralling patterns of art, its’ coils encased in amber for us to see. Arrakis as a planet entered a state of moving understanding through the universe, and Jodorowsky’s power of vision is to be respected as an artist. As a moving tribute to the spirit of artistic endeavour and Frank Herbert’s Dune.

(28/09/2021)

The Cinema

“All the sand! It was all just fucking sand!!”

Audience member

I lost my ring as I was descending the stairs after finishing Dune (2021, Dir. Denis Villeneuve), a tibetan circle of patterns. Into the red stairs it melted, as my friends and I left our premiere seats at Britain’s largest cinema viewing screen (20 metres high and 26 metres wide). I had wanted to ensure if we were to see Denis’ visions of Caladan and Arrakis, of spice and intrigue and terra, we should see it in the best possible way. To see it with clarity, nearly overwhelmed by the visions of sand dunes and sounds of sandworms crashing upon us, was important for me.

In the time of awakening, Dune represents a shard of a new future, just as it once did for David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Frank Herbert’s spirit is encased within multiple experiences now, a full Sci-Fi TV adaptation exists of the story through Dune Messiah and Children of Dune (the following books).It had become the brainchild of videogame developer Cryo Entertainment, who helped revolutionise tactical genres as well as create a work (Frank Herbert’s Dune, 2001, PC) which helped bankrupt them entirely. The ruins of Lynch’s and Jodorowsky’s expeditions lay foundations for this film, but Villeneuve has different priorities at work. Balancing the story’s in-depth character intrigue, parallel plotlines, and melody of language is a tough act with bringing people back to the cinemas at all.

One of my friends attended the Q&A with Director and Main Cast, and I wonder what they discussed as he holds up a potential vision of intelligent sci-fi in the shifting sands of culture. I say that, because Dune is a work which is tied to the mechanics of its’ own industrial creation. A joint venture between Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, this monolithic entertainment release makes certain concessions to try and envelop the global audience. I want to make clear that I have a lot of respect for Villeneuve’s vision, and I think the film succeeds in adapting the story of Arrakis to the big screen. There is big money here, smart money sure, but nevertheless requiring of its’ own financial and capital investment to make a return.

This means that subtle guiding currents run through the film; the army of House Atreides has an eerie American-esque Gulf War/Iraq quality to them, that the Arabic and Islamic elements of the script are downplayed to an extent, that battle sequences take on a HBO style spectacle but also a structural narrative which demands battle sequences play out at a certain scale in a certain routine. These choices are like oil mixed into the water. These are choices and techniques which subtly shift and change the meaning of Dune’s language, its’ spirit, its’ poetry. That is not a word I use often, but the golden threads of Dune extend in such a way through the fictions around us and before us that is hard not to overstate its’ importance as an artistic work.

I don’t want this review to just be an analytical breakdown of what is lost in translation between the dunes of the last sixy years. Where is Dune located, in the life and death of this world? As time and writing pass, I have found that ring I thought I lost in the cinema. I have listened to Denis in interviews discussing the film, in his attempt at navigation and adaptation. Locations like the coast of Norway, Budapest, Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) in Jordan and sand seas in Abu Dhabi. Schedules and casting and VFX and set design, Villeneuve speaks of his attempt to capture Frank Herbert’s words in the desert for real; to capture the dreams of his thirteen year old self reading Dune. Our best fictions keep us company, and that is enough to be discussed in the cinema experience of us all, beyond any one piece.

Now with the greenlighting of Part Two in recent days, the possibilities of paths continue to unfold from a nexus of hallucinogenic politics of the earth. The soil which makes our faces, our dreams, our cinemas. Dune does not dilute its’ story presentation down, it is a dense piece to unfold across a mind first coming into contact with Arrakis (like my co-writer on the site, Ed). Chalamet is Paul, navigating an heady cocktail of spiritual music (composed by Hans Zimmer), politics beyond the average range of a fifteen-year old, and visions of a mystical nature balanced against naturalistic performances with actors in a range of roles above him. Stellan Skarsgård is a Colonel Kurtz-esque nightmare of oil and evil, while other characters and actors are subtly shaped and sculpted as the demands of massive cinema release in 2021 demand. I do not want to talk on the specifics, partially because of length, but also because of the texture of Dune‘s experience in the world right now. Some casting I feel misjudged in the film, and some I wish actors were playing alternate roles. But my general opinion on the shape of Dune is awe and notable admiration, and what it is trying to do for cinema I stand by more than any of it’s individual parts.

Where is Dune located? In Frank Herbert’s book? “Either too short to make sense, or too long to get made”, in one of those ruinous visions? Villeneuve is deeply moved by the text, by the symbols of arrangement which spark thought and imagination. The film is done with reserve sure, often dour and filled with ceremony. It hides behind jagged glass, whipped by the sands of commercial and artistic concerns. There is a large testament to the scale of the “spice opera” of Arrakis and melange, thrusted onto the screen with an immersive pool of unknown worlds. It speaks towards its’ own future, calling for the audience reaction to greenlight another sequel, but also to desire in their hearts and eyes to see more. A dune is not a spiral, it has a rise and a fall. I could dissect the timeline of Dune endlessly to locate its’ heart, but the life of it lives in the experiences conjured by it, the spice in the air surrounding us all.The book crashes into it’s own future, spiralling upwards towards an ending, so why not I? There will be an end to everything eventually, just as my year with Dune comes to a close. The rise and fall of my own internal apocalypse, matched only by the crazy conditions of the world which surround us, find some solace, peace and balance in accepting the organic growth of Dune in my life.

So from Herbert to Villeneuve, thank you.

(25-8/10/2021)

“To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”

Dedication of Frank Herbert in Dune.

-Alex

From Dune (1965) to Dune (2021)

Eros + Massacre (1969)

Eros + Massacre

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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Eros + Massacre (1969)

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

War and Peace

Cinema. Cinema, in all its forms is an unusual thing. Because what can you do with it? Bring images, captured from the real world or made from other sources, to the eyes. Bring sounds, made in studios or recorded on location, into the ears. You can cut the images together, or you can play a singular shot. A “film”, can be a short that is shown to friends or yourself, or it can be a spectacular Hollywood blockbuster with rip-roaring effects. Hell if you’re wild, you can do one of those 4-D experiences, which have 3-D spectacles as well as some activating some of the other senses, the spray of the sea with a mist of water or the smell of something in particular.

Or maybe, with the backing of an entire nation’s government, you use cinema to create an adaptation of what is considered one of the finest artistic and literary achievements in human history. And you do it in four parts. And you spare no expense. And it’s just under seven hours.

Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.


When you have epic literature, and by extension epic cinema, the world becomes a different place. Main characters exist, but they exist in an encompassing world, a world which has multiple levels of orbit. Characters exist in multiple levels of strata, of layers of social status or decorum or class or gender or faith or in fact, all of them. Epic literature is not viewed from the ground, it is viewed from well…everywhere. War and Peace as a story, while it may not literally view the world from God’s eyes, certainly does its best to force you to surrender yourself to such an experience. The shift of the world and all its inhabitants, is one of great moments of voluminous experience, and the gradual unyielding shift of time slowly but surely moving on. War and Peace takes place over the scope of 10 years or so of Russian history in an extremely volatile period, that of the Napoleonic Wars. 7 hours doesn’t seem so big when you consider that amount of time to force into the frame of a film.

What catalyses in the brain of any reader or viewer of any true ‘Epic’, is the sheer scale, the sheer volume of what occurs. An epic may not need 10 years (Homer’s Iliad doesn’t take more than 55 days), but what is needed and what is conveyed, is a true sense of the story beyond any one individual. A story of people, not a person. Because life from the fixed perspective of any one person, can only see so far. So by far, the best and most breathtaking technique employed throughout the film, is scale. And Bondarchuk had an opportunity like no other. Thousands, thousands of extras fill up the space for miles on end, armies moving across the landscape like little blocks, seen from a commanders perspective. But the sheer volume of them is something unseen, something which I can only imagine being matched by the experience of modern-day stadiums of just physically seeing that many people. But those marching blocks soon are involved in the hideous, fascinating art of war. The seemingly endless bloody fields of soldiers, a number in the film so small in comparison to the real battles (At Borodino, 70,000 men died in a single day) is not only unrelenting, but they push you to see the war only as a force, like the wind. The merciless slaughters are only accentuated and revealed by time, never made better.

But the scale of the warfare is only half, albeit an unbelievable, colossal and deeply deeply overwhelming half. The nature of the story can only reach its fullest heights, when war is complemented by its intertwined sibling, peace. And the scale of peace is not something to be brushed aside in favour of the sticky blood spilled across the fields. For the world of this story, is operating under a grand sweep of time across its landscape on all its levels. The rich, vast halls of the aristocracy tower over the parts I & II, an environment for gods and giants to exist in, where every room is a chasm and a theatre simultaneously. Palatial estates are only complemented by the extravagant and unending decorations; the food, the clothes, the ornaments and chandeliers and furniture and more, endless endless arrays of the excesses of the well-to-do of history. The scale of their wealth is staggering, and overwhelms the senses. To really capture extravagance, there is nothing else to do besides show it, and Bondarchuk’s infinite reservoirs of it are a wonder to behold.

A story and a film which runs along the knife-edge of history, especially an aristocratic one, can only do so much for the poor underneath them. For most of history has been written for those above that level, and the voiceless left without a coin to wish upon in history’s fountain. But war, and peace, affect everyone. And the scenes where Pierre spins through Napoleon’s war-torn Moscow, encountering the masses, hold the same spiritual resonance they must do in the original story. For the only thing the poor truly possess in these times is held up as a valuable, dusty and grimed covered object; their spirit. For a story as grand as this, more than blood must be seen, we must look at the chamber that holds it. The heart.

And the film more than many I’ve ever seen, possesses such a wealth of spirit. The story itself is by far the baseline of all that resounding human experience, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and everyone cascading through your mind and imagination. But also Bondarchuk’s cinematic spirit, is so fantastic to be a witness to. Although often the camera is convinced to play a scene straight, long shots for rooms and close-ups for important conversations, there is some beautiful cinematographic experimentation bursting through the edges of the story. Camera shots which run vertically forward across the battlefield, deep expressionistic smoke-filled backgrounds, completely absorbing you into the gun-powder hell of cannons and mud. A location jump through a transition through a rainy window says so much. One of the most dreamlike and quietly painful executions to ever fall into an image. The camera roves through the landscape, searching among the blown out ruins and palatial spaces picking up whatever it can find, occasionally finding time to ballet around its elements. Covered in blood, it dances.

What more can I ask of War and Peace? What more is there to get from a film? It charts a journey across time, love, war, peace, and everything in between which makes up the rich feast of life. It manages to capture most of the eternal human spirit, it shows us the most significant stories we encounter during a lifetime on Earth. And it does it with such a dizzying, magnificent spectacle of various elements. Of space in its vast expanses of world. Of riches and extravagances, or of poverty and the unyielding mud. The film’s hands pick up the gemstones and the soil alike, and hypnotises and absorbs you into the deeply reverential, deeply mythical, but ultimately deeply human world. And like life’s arching and winding course, it ebbs and flows along a current of events where varying degrees of fate and free will collide and intermingle with each other.

To do this with the mechanics of cinema, to use it to reveal the greatest highs and greatest lows that we can understand, not necessarily through any one particularly overpowering element, but a continual blend and mix, foundations building upon foundations, is cinema on a level that personally I have nothing but the deepest admiration, and reverence for. I could never commit to some of the inevitable brutalities of the film’s arduous and gruelling creation, but Bondarchuk’s sweep is a vast expanse which makes the world feel infinite, overflowing on all sides with the wealth of human lives, ugly or not. Stories and films can exist for infinite reasons, but I find it so brilliant that a film this tectonic, a film which pushes cinema to its absolute limits, really exists at all. It elevates cinema to the highest point of art, to reveal and reflect our understanding of the world, and to take us beyond it.

Truly, what more is there to say with cinema, than to take us on that journey? To make us part of their company, to make us walk through their halls in fine footwear, and walk in soldier’s boots through the mud into the abyss. To climb a mountain, step by step upwards and upwards as life begins to take on a greater and fuller meaning until the story itself ends, regardless of whether any of its characters continue to live and die. For it is cinema. And it is life. And in a rare moment, in this beautiful piece of art, they are the same.

-Alex

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P.S – This post will be updated in the future, once I take the time to watch the new Criterion Release with Janus Films, a 2K restoration of the entire project. It can be pre-ordered here, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you can!

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

The Producers

“Getting the audience to cry is easy, just kill the dog” – (Unknown, because I can’t remember)

Comedy, by its nature is something you should never take too seriously. To laugh and to cry, those are two of the oldest traditions in Western storytelling, with roots dating back to the Ancient Greek tragedians and comedians.  I spent some time last year doing university work on Ancient Greek theatre, and one thing I discovered has helped me greatly in understanding how to appreciate comedy. The thing I find endlessly fascinating about it is that it takes such considerable work and careful refinement to be funny, but you can never indulge in the big dramatics of emotional weight. Comedy is meant to appear easy, effortlessly done and at the end of the day, just a joke. And comedy depends so much closer on context, the jokes that split sides 50 years ago would be met with crickets today, but the enduring power of even the oldest tragedies still seems timeless. I’m sure there’s a few comedians out there who hate that word: timeless.

Comedy then, tragedy’s bastard younger brother, is seemingly condemned to not being taken seriously. Which always makes me smile in a sad way, because I honestly believe that to be a good comedian requires you to be a good tragedian. To really understand what’s funny, what’s a joke and what to take the piss out of, you’ve got to understand its opposite, what not necessarily can’t, but what doesn’t need to be laughed at the time.

And someone who seems to truly possess that skill, is Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is one of my all time favourite directors, yet a lot of his work rests on the backs of ripping into the genre trappings and clichés of movie genres, rather than any pioneering complexity in acting or storytelling. To pioneer in the area of parody, is to sling well-aimed tomatoes at the faces of its’ more serious siblings.

But that doesn’t mean respect is not due. To craft comedy, to craft laughter (genuine not canned) is no easy task. So I’m gonna take a look at his story The Producers, the original 1967 version written and directed by him, and the 2005 musical film counterpart to the 2001 stage musical revival of the original film. How does the comedy come to life, and how does the comedy survive its passage through time?


Then (Now?) – The Producers (1967)

The Producers 1967.jpg

The Producers (1967, Dir. Mel Brooks) is a film which was made in one of the biggest crucibles in American history. One of Hollywood’s biggest jesters growing up in the same generation of those radical self serious New Hollywood auteurs. But this is a different type of molotov cocktail, one whose firebrand material relies on taking the piss out of the past, not trying to set fire to the present. Ripping into both the Hollywood establishment, and making a mockery of Germany’s Third Reich, The Producers was never a story designed to play it safe.

Approaching these films is interesting for me, since I watched them backwards (the musical first). It’s interesting how often the way a story (especially in film) can be fixed once its committed to celluloid. The Producers is one of those films that must have cast a long shadow over any potential later versions, or any film which carried characters found in this film. Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leopold Bloom are performances which just ooze with life. In a film landscape where characters are often flattened out and made generic, both their performances are so profoundly idiosyncratic and deep that regardless of the rest of the film, it would still be worth visiting.

Luckily there is more to The Producers than its central pillars of Mostel and Wilder. Although it was Mel Brooks first film, a project he both wrote and directed it gets away with it through sheer force of will. The Producers managed to beat films by both Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes, as well as Gilles Pontecorvo’s Battle For Algiers to win the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and listening to it is still a joy. Mel Brook’s eyes and ears for characters bursting with absurdity is incredible to this day, and the fun he has with them is a rollercoaster.

Comedy has a context though, and some of its edge has faded over time. That’s the thing with cutting edge, it’s very thin and very quick. The outrage over its objectionable content is lost on a modern audience. Making fun of the Nazi’s seems second nature in this environment of 2018, but its important to remember its shock value at the time. The jaws dropping in the screen would have mirrored those in the real audience. It’s hippie jokes as well, a character called Lorenzo StDubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) can only really reach an audience well versed in 60s culture (LSD wears a Campbell’s Soup can around his neck, an Andy Warhol joke) and its interesting to see how comedy can age.

It’s context is more than just the comedy though. It is by no means a cinematic marvel, not pushing the boundaries of fields like cinematography or editing. It’s opening credit sequence I find incredibly irritating for example. Or its ancillary characters can often take parody to extreme, so one-dimensional the joke sticks around longer than it needs to. It is a debut film to be honest, and to expect every piece to land and wow you is unreasonable.

Comedy is very easily wrapped up in only what’s funny and how funny it is, and it’s important to remember that a film is more than just comedy. What makes The Producers endure, at least in my opinion, is that it in a film filled with piss-taking and joy-riding the Third Reich, it asks you to jump on board earnestly with their hair brained scheme. Brooks puts you on board with characters you want to succeed, spectacularly. That’s a rare skill, rarer even than good comedy.


Now (Then?) – The Producers (2005)

The Producers 2005

Usually by the time of adapting old material comes along, it’s original creator is long since dead. What drew me then to this story, is that this version of The Producers (2005, Dir. Susan Stroman) was co written by Mel Brooks, alongside using his music and lyrics written for the original 2001 Broadway musical revival. Mel Brooks spirit and DNA is still running through this project like a spinal column. It’s very rare to see that in cinema, regardless of how this one turned out.

Mel Brooks’ films are always easy to love for cinema goers, because they’re often about cinema, consciously or not (mostly consciously). But The Producers is also about musical theatre, and for it to be turned into a musical seems remarkably and unsurprisingly natural, all at the same time. Things can often get lost in translation through adaptation, and it was interesting to chart those decisions backwards, not through the prejudice of it being immediately inferior to the version I already knew I liked. It’s fascinating how in a film which carries so much of the same characters, same plot points and even the same jokes, can still feel different. That’s the power of direction I guess.

If all the world’s a stage, then Susan Stroman takes that to its absolute limit in this version of The Producers. A lot of the popular criticism of the film at the time seemed to come from it feeling too “stage-y”, but I’d argue that in a film about a play revamped into a musical, it turning its environment into a stage would work in its benefit. Comedy has no issue bouncing between tones, and to not jump on-board with it is to miss the boat. When adaptations come out, it is very easy to look past the material and only judge what looks different to you from your first experience, but its important to remember that for some like me, this is the first exposure to the story of The Producers. Not everyone has seen Romeo and Juliet, yet.

It cuts and it fills when necessary. Ulla (Uma Thurman), the dumb Swedish secretary picks up more of a character in a romance with Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick). The tone is lighter, it’s characters more exuberant and joyous in their world, the world of musical theatre really is the brightest star it seems. It also is safer, sticking so close to a formula from over 50 years before will do that to any story. The Producers of 2005 doesn’t feel like a film that’s out to shock, it’s laughs are a lot cuter now. And it’s a trade-off that Mel Brooks was always ready to make, and rightfully so. If you’re not taking it super seriously, you might as well have a little fun with it. Especially when Nathan Lane is singing his bloody heart out, sweaty comb over and everything.


Now, Then…Who Cares? – The Producers (???)

One of my favourite stories of Mel Brooks is that he is the one who produced The Elephant Man (1980, Dir. David Lynch). For a man associated with comedy to produce a film about one of the most pitiable men who ever lived, I always find that story interesting and incredibly revealing. Mel Brooks is also the only director to win all four awards (Academy, Tony, Emmy and Grammy). For tragedy’s bastard brother, it’s not bad.

It’s easy to write off comedy, too easy. After all, it makes its mark off of the back of all those serious works. Especially The Producers, a story which is self-consciously in love with its medium. A film about producers on an odyssey through artistic lunacy is sure to attract the admiration of those artistic lunatics. It could also have very easily become a sycophantic ass-kissing ceremony, as the worst elements of art can sometimes produce (see: Andy Warhol, sometimes). It’s an amused romp through some of the insular elements of art, its crowd who make up the theatres and the musicals and the films. And to a lot of people, The Producers is unrelatable, boring and worst of all…not funny.

But then…who cares, honestly? Mel Brooks sure doesn’t, he’s dead. Everyone wants their work to do well, and I’m sure Mr. Brooks stayed up during the nights hoping it would do well, but if the joke doesn’t land you just keep going till the next one sticks. And Mel Brooks comedy might slowly get more and more defanged over time, as it looks safer and safer from a distance and people get more and more accustomed to a longer history of comedy. But who cares, someone’s still gonna sit down in front of these films for the first time for the next infinity until the human race has reached its end.

And as long as they keep finding it funny, it’ll keep working. And there’s nothing like seeing Leopold Bloom, be it Gene Wilder or Matthew Broderick or anyone else in the role, screaming in terror “You’re gonna jump on me!” while Max Bialystock, be it Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane or just an idea in Mel Brook’s head jumps up and down screaming in confusion.

Godamnit, it’s just funny. And it makes me wanna be a producer, and I hate producing.

-Alex

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Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished

a-film-unfinished

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

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

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

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

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

All sorted?


A Film Unfinished (2010, Dir. Yael Hersonski) is a film about a film. It’s a film about the context in which a film is created, and how that affects the making, production, and legacy a film can leave behind. And furthermore, it’s a film which helps to pull the wool off of the eyes of anyone who implicitly believes documentaries because they claim to be the truth.

I’ll explain properly. The subject matter of A Film Unfinished concerns a documentary made by the Third Reich which was never finished, made between 1941 and 1942, and concerned the subject of the Jewish community living in the Warsaw Ghetto, an area in Poland that the Jewish community was essentially penned into, before being moved to various concentration camps to be mercilessly and systematically killed. The film, “Das Ghetto” was taken to be a fairly accurate, if undermined documentary which helped to capture the real life of these Jewish people. Undermined due to its obvious propaganda and political uses, but nevertheless a film which claimed a mantle of objectivity.

However, with the discovery of a previously undiscovered outtake reel, locked away in an archive somewhere, the true extent to which the film was staged and created began to unravel. Heronski, who combines this footage with in-depth research into the governing figures of the Ghetto, the testimony of the cameraman himself, and the testimony of Jewish people who were there. By holding her magnifying glass closer to the material, a new film is discovered. One which claims to be a simple truth, but is in fact an elaborately crafted lie.

But don’t all films do this, documentaries or fictions? Claim a reality, when they’re nothing more than elaborate constructs of separated fragments? Well yes, films are chopped up and edited, molded into worlds for you to get lost in, for you to believe in. Even this documentary, builds a world for you to flow through. What it does though, is expose how films can deceive you when they claim to be telling the truth. Fiction films, no matter how close the real world, still have that clear gap, that what’s happening is a story which isn’t true. But documentaries rarely claim that, documentaries stand in front of you and plant their flag in telling you the truth, scouring sources and trying to come to some sort of objective and balanced conclusions. Documentaries are arguments, designed to make you come down on one side of the fence.

And A Film Unfinished tears down the argument of Das Ghetto violently and furiously. The most potent way is arguably the scenes in which older residents of the ghetto, sit in a cinema and are exposed to the film’s reels. Their reactions, their commentary, filled with surprise and pity and disappointment as they watch fabrications constructed in front of them, is the film’s most forceful weapon against the propaganda machine. In a scene where it is explained that the Nazi’s construct a luxurious fake funeral attended by hundreds of ghetto residents (who were forced to be there), to portray the Jewish people as decadent and enjoying lavish ceremonies even in wartime, a resident cries out in the cinema “But Jewish people don’t even bury their dead in coffins!”.

Why is this in my Kino-Pravda series? Vertov claimed that the film camera, in assembling fragments could show a deeper truth than those seen just by the naked eye. That is true, but so is the opposite. The fragments assembled can construct deeper lies, can cement mis-truths and push agendas silently and secretly. In Hersonski’s film, the two choices fight each other. Das Ghetto seeks to tell a lie, to create a new “truth”. A Film Unfinished wants to reveal the truth underneath it, hidden away. More importantly, it provokes the idea that documentaries are not made by an all-knowing all-seeing God figure, that they are made by humans with ideas and agendas and the ability to craft the messy truth into a reality they’re happy selling.

You can choose to apply the same logic to Heronski’s film, but the difference is in Heronski’s ability to admit her subjectivity. She doesn’t claim to be telling the whole truth, admits that her scope may be limited and that we may never really know all of the complexities of that situation. But what she can claim, is a definite violent unmasking of the lies put forward by the earlier film. And what it does, is expose the dark underbelly in filmmakers, the ones who think that anything is accessible to them because they’re making films, that they’re somehow beyond or above reproach because all they’re doing is capturing what’s put in front of them. It reveals a truth that films can manipulate, lie and betray you to make you think a certain way.

And in a world where you’re constantly bombarded by media from all angles, all desperate to convince you that they’re right, it’s good to be reminded that no idea is ironclad, that you should be cautious in believing everything you see, and you should question it all. In doing so, you may not reach “The Truth”, but you certainly at least will be able to see through some of the more blatant and awful lies people try to make.

-Alex

For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished

The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

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.


A final reckoning with death is everyone’s last stop. The infinite paths of life can take you in almost every direction, in any combination, with everything in between ready to distract and re-direct you. But no matter how complex or confusing your path may be, you and everyone and everything around you will inevitably weave your way towards the same point. Whether something comes beyond it, whether you run from it and try to circumvent it, whether you walk willing into its arms or if you’re taken there by a cruel twist of fate is all part of your games with life. But you will always arrive at that door. And it will always open. And you will always have to go through it.

A.O Scott said in his 2008 review that “Kobayashi’s monumental film [referring to the whole series] can clarify and enrich your understanding of what it is to be alive.” Kaji (like all of us) is fated to die. And as he reaches that point, as his soul is stripped bare for a 9 hour and 47 minute celluloid odyssey, I really did gain some clarity in what it means to be alive, or at the very least, I managed to see the flames which drive us onward in the dark of night.

A Soldier’s Prayer (1961, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) is the final installment in The Human Condition/Ningen No Joken. In film history, often the last film in a series has usually faltered in quality in comparison with the first or second installment. Regardless of your opinion of The Godfather Part III (1990, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), it is a laughable challenge to make a case for it being a better film than The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Spiderman 3 (2007, Dir. Sam Raimi) may be a dream or a nightmare in your eyes, but it is tough to argue its a better made film than the first one, Spiderman (2002, Dir. Sam Raimi). That is not the case with A Soldier’s Prayer, this in my eyes is easily the most intense and well crafted of the three, if only because it builds on the already well established expertise and foundations of the first two.

It does this in two ways. The style of the film evolves in this part, most prominently in Yoshio Miyajima’s cinematography, which morphs from its stark realism into these hallucinogenic dutch angles, as characters traverse the increasingly feral landscapes, with increasingly feral desperation. The first episode in the film is one of its most harrowing, as Kaji leads a group of refugees and defeated soldiers through a seemly endless forest, food dwindling, tensions fraying and people dying. As they wander the terrain, the camera’s impact increase tenfold as it becomes disoriented, falling off its axis and looking at its subjects in increasingly strange angles. They begin to brush with death from sheer exhaustion, and even the camera struggles to stand. The cinematography is still just as exquisitely precise, but after two films of realist looking, the switch is powerful.

The soundtrack slowly begins to segue into a more nebulous world as well. Not only does the work of the composer Chûji Kinoshita grow increasingly intense and overwhelming when it is used, but Kaji engages in a series of internal monologues and visions of his imagination, mainly to do with his primal goal driving him home of his devotion to his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). Beyond the sound, the lighting of the film becomes far more impressionistic and influenced by techniques of chiaroscuro, as Kaji’s battle and his character become increasingly darker. This is a far cry from the fresh-faced Kaji who came to improve labour conditions in the prisoner’s work camp, in No Greater Love, and the technical choices of the film are incredibly well orchestrated to reflect that, right up until its final seconds.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been hinting at, Kaji’s trajectory continues on one of the cruelest downward spirals ever committed to celluloid. True there are many stories of suffering, of characters inhabiting worlds somehow even uglier than the one Kaji lives in, but watching every step of Kaji as he is laid low by the world around him, as the half dreams of the socialist republic are destroyed piece by piece when Kaji finds his role reversed, now a prisoner in a war camp rather than managing the prisoners. Every act of his rebellion, resistance to the ugly and vicious world surrounding him, is betrayed the moment he turns his back. His pain lies not just in that people can’t be as good as him, but that people are so indifferent to the concept of good at all. Kaji reckons with the realisation that only the strong survive, but the cost they pay is one he can hardly bear.

When I spoke on part two, Road to Eternity, I talked about Kaji reaching his breaking point to survive. Here however, Kaji breaks well and truly because his pacifism shatters into an act of furious vengeance, rehabilitation giving way to the bursting dams of retribution. Kaji furiously beats a man to death with his own prisoner’s chains, before leaving him to drown in the latrines, a man responsible for the purposeful death of Kaji’s friend and surrogate son, Terada. Kaji becomes unbearably human as the weight of the injustices he had to endure forces him to snap, he can no longer turn the other cheek to the violence he has suffered through. It’s both intensely cathartic and deeply sad.

The film expands even further beyond Kaji here, as he encounters figures beyond his immediate surroundings. Refugees fleeing the fighting are cut from all cloths, and their wounds bleed too. In this existential world, there are no heroes and villains, only humans who are capable of both. This reaches its crisis when Kaji and his soldiers enter a town made up almost exclusively by soldier’s wives. In what many would simplistically as a detour into a fantasy harem, Kaji understands the morbid revelations told to him by one of the more outspoken wives, as oaths of fidelity and marriage are broken against the terror of the abandonment the women suffer. The conflicting ideals and desires and fears are the stuff of humanity, and the film’s scope is enriched more so than the previous installments simply due to the range and variety of people encountered.

A Soldier’s Prayer really is a reckoning. A reckoning with death yes, but also with every theme and instance of suffering Kaji and the audience endured. Due to the novel’s and film’s immense popularity, it’s said that Kobayashi received letters reportedly begging him to give Kaji a happy ending. What really cuts through this, is not the fact the letter was written, but where the letter came from, a sense of profound empathy and a desperate hope to allow Kaji some grace, some respite from his sufferings. And Kobayashi’s unwillingness to compromise is reflected in Kaji’s unwillingness to give up, right up until his last breath. What it cleared up for me then (in being alive), was the reckoning that life contains many sufferings with only glimmering moments of relief snatched from its jaws, no matter who you are. You may never win, but resistance is not futile. For all of Kaji’s trials, what makes them worthy is his ability to inspire, not through physical violence or shrewd trickery, but by sheer force of will.

Even if Kaji is just a fictional construct, a character in a story that was put together in the head of another man, who’s played by an actor (with legendary eyes) it doesn’t matter. Kaji is an idea. And you can’t kill an idea. It will just wander in the wilderness until its rediscovered. Go rediscover it.

Kaji

-Alex

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The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

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