The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

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


Okay, so here’s where things get weird.

The Matrix of 1999, the original is a world unto itself. It briefly references the larger conflicts surrounding them, the war of the Machines and against Zion, but they are alluded to like an oral history, events experienced by others which set the background to the conflicts your following. Every world has to have causes, and the causes in the Matrix are stripped down, unknown, and simply defined. Machines are bad, they enslave the humans in dreams. What we can see is what we follow and are interested in, Neo’s journey to master himself and the world around him, and to best Agent Smith. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey. The Matrix is a story which if it had not had sequels greenlit by Warner Brothers, could exist on its own. Even if the Wachowski’s had ideas for it to be part of a trilogy, The Matrix itself stands by itself.

Fate would not have it that way however, because The Matrix became massive, gigantic even. A phenomenon that captured the imagination. And with that, The Wachowski’s expanded the world of The Matrix into something that had never been done before, with so much intention and imagination. They began production on four projects, the second and third instalments of the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, a video game which contained a side story intertwined with the films in Enter The Matrix, and a side-quel animation project The Animatrix which contained universe expanding short films. This multiple media storytelling venture was approached with the same level of vision and attention to detail that the original film was made with, but only now on a much grander crisscrossed platform. If the chapters of a single story are not all in the same book, then a problem arises. The trade-off for scale is focus. And The Wachowski’s always had a grand sense of scale.

To bring it back down to Earth then, The Matrix Reloaded is made with a different idea in mind to its original counterpart. It must be two things, its own self-contained story while also being the first half (two fifths maybe with the game) of a story which still has another film to come. Not only that, but The Matrix Reloaded has success to deal with. The first film’s budget was much smaller than that of the second, and with greater freedom comes greater ambition. And The Matrix Reloaded is nothing if not ambitious, standing on the shoulders of the giant of the first film. Everything has become bigger, and less concessions are made to the audience. The Matrix is an introduction to a world, but this second instalment has no interest in rehashing or repackaging that introduction again, it moves forward like a freight train and you have better done your homework from the last film otherwise you’re going to fall off.

Expansion is the aim of the game, and everything is more. The human world expands beyond the confines of a ship, it goes from an individual journey of enlightenment to a communal environment of conflicting desires. Neo has his path, while the humans return to their city and have dense ideological sparring matches while multiple clocks tick down. “The Matrix” program itself is no longer just set dressing, but a riddle to be solved as to why it exists. The plot of this film is so overstuffed with events, conflicts and characters that it is difficult to keep track of who is doing what where and why (sometimes when aswell). I can pinpoint the exact moment I suddenly lost track of what was happening, right after an absolutely exhaustive freeway chase scene and the film doesn’t even come up for air or give us some to digest what just happened, so concerned it is with moving onto the next even bigger complicated infiltration. I think a lot of the frustration that came with the plot is not necessarily indulgence, but that it is simply an overwhelming amount of information in too short a space of time.

Even this reflection I’m writing feels dense. Furthermore, knowing that some key story and structural information is actually hidden and explained in the video game accompaniment makes it even more bizarre to reflect on The Matrix Reloaded, simply because it feels incomplete. How can too much be going on and not enough at the same time? A conundrum this film’s existence can’t ever solve, a glitch in its own matrix. It almost begins to feel like a lost ancient text at points, fragments simply missing from its whole which we can’t retrieve. Which is saddening to me, because some of the fragments still present really are tremendous to witness.

Truth be told, I actually enjoyed this one more than the original. The Wachowski’s didn’t hold anything back for this one, and it’s a spectacle and a half. Dizzying, absolutely dizzying fight sequences which make the original’s seem tame in comparison. That freeway chase I mentioned earlier is just incredible for the amount of focus it manages to keep, and one testament to the entire series achievements (maybe the key to its’ success?) is how almost every fight scene manages to keep its focus and you can keep track pretty easily of the action. And as for the environments themselves, everything seems to come alive more. The aesthetic of the first film which I may have derided, suddenly clicked with me. I no longer saw the all black sunglasses BDSM lite costumes as tacky and naff, but actually saw them for how the Wachowski’s saw it. Cool. Full credit goes to Kym Barrett for that.

I honestly can say I thought there were some masterstrokes in this movie, but it all gets lost in the flood. And the flood contains good and bad. It’s ironic that for a film series who’s main message is how love can conquer anything, every time it moves to this subject it feels more lifeless than ever. Neo and Trinity’s romance is just…it just seems too detached to be convincing. Maybe it was an intentional directional choice, but if it is what a strange one and if it isn’t it’s just a grand shame that the core of the movie feels like one its weakest parts. Furthermore this film falls even further down the philosophical rabbit hole set up by its first part, its’ ambitious and heady cocktail  giving too much of a kick to be appreciated properly. It reminds me of Zardoz (1974, Dir. John Boorman), except the difference being so much of Zardoz’s heady and confusing philosophy is presented through its images, not its dialogue.

The first reflection I ever put up on this site was about ambition and cinema, and how I appreciated the ambitious film which might fail to the safe film which succeeds. But does The Matrix Reloaded stretch my ideals to breaking point? Because it’s so ambitious, it needed a separate video game and another film to even begin to properly comprehend its full story.  I think so. While I may actually love this fragmented film more than the first one, its’ very nature just means it can’t communicate as well as the original. It’s a book missing a chapter. It’s a train missing a carriage. It’s a metaphor missing a clear connection. It’s-

I guess I’ll leave that one unfinished. Seems kind of appropriate.

-Alex

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The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix

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


So it all starts here. With a chase scene that reminds me of a Backstreet Boys music video that I love.

This is the beginning of the film. It’s weird for me, who was too young to properly understand and digest The Matrix when it was first on TV, to be watching it with adult eyes. It’s weird to remember that The Matrix actually has a beginning if that makes sense. Because for me, the only thing I can remember from it, is certain memories of images. The image of the bug crawling inside Neo’s stomach. The image of his mouth shut by his own skin. The image of the abstract empty training zone. And obviously there are the more iconic moments, the bullet time and the kung fu and the “Misterrrr Anderrrrrsonnnnn”. I guess what I’m trying to say was the memories in my head of The Matrix are those of moments, of images. It’s kind of bizarre to remember those moments are actually part of a sequence, a story.

And usually when I’m writing about films for this site, I’m trying to do it without bringing any personal baggage to the project. But The Matrix series is weird for me, because I remember watching it all the time and loving it, but I can’t actually remember anything about it beyond some memories of images. It’s ironic then that this is part of the same stress Neo goes through, of carrying the baggage of his remembered past, into an illusion shattering present. His life spent inside the simulation, “the matrix” is as real to him as our lives are to us. Even if it’s not real.

I think in a technology driven world, technology driven stories are going to interest us inherently, and I think the sustained influence of The Matrix, of its ideas is testament to that. Although its pre-Y2K “hax0r “aesthetic looks dated as hell now, it’s interesting to think how much our collective common thinking about the internet can be traced in this film. It’s a paranoid film that’s for damn sure. You can almost draw a straight line between this and the next big reality breaker Inception (2010, Dir. Christopher Nolan), where reality and dream become inseparable.

But just because The Matrix could have been interesting, doesn’t mean it would become the classic it’s revered as. And watching it now with adult eyes and some distance between us, it might be easy to only look for the faults of the film. The aesthetic of the film looks a little bit school shooter, but that’s because that image was co-opted later, after The Matrix came out. It’s not the fault of the film’s aesthetic designers at all. But the whole film’s imagery, from its costumes to its cinematography is possessed by a bleakness. Colours and walls are washed out, filled with sepia and gray tones. It’s a world drained of colour, of life. And the world itself is filled with unrecognisable personas, characters who speak in lectures and riddles while others speak in b-movie clichés. The Matrix is filled with big ideas, but on its surface it’s a techno grunge-y guns and fists brawl. In fact it’s very minimal in this regard, its ideas are distilled to a degree of experience above all else. Cinema-kinetics.

And because of that vision, it’s also so difficult to capture what makes it worthwhile in words. I mean, the fact alone that it’s an intelligent sci-fi film which was marketed as a blockbuster and actually lives up to that title is worth it alone, but also its’ restlessness and genre crossing make it a hybrid which just needs to be witnessed. In the world of the Matrix, it makes sense why this idea captured the imagination of the populace. It’s a distilled vision, one which definitely has some drawbacks and one which is distinctly individual (if a vision by two brothers can be individual, including the input of a technical and creative team of probably hundreds).

I don’t have to explain and sum up The Matrix here. This whole film is the first part of an intended trilogy, a film meant to be experienced as part of a larger whole (although the unity of this film is due to it only being signed on as a one-movie deal). Which is good, because I’m finding it difficult to conclude what I feel about this film. It’s like being exposed to a web, and the sheer volume of different strands and points you’re riding on and the things you discover means that it’s very hard to actually stand back and view the whole thing, even to comment on it. Keanu Reeves awakening into this techno-future is one we ride alongside on, and we have about as much time as he does to reflect on the events of his cybernetic world. It bursts with ideas though, and doesn’t have to answer any of them yet.  So I’ll end for now, with this.

The Matrix is a flashpoint in cinema history. Love it or hate, it’s a film which was born first as a film. It has voluminous influences, from comic books to philosophy and chucking in the kitchen sink in-between, but it’s a film that will always first and foremost, be cinema. I’m not waving the flag for this to be the greatest film of all time, but inventive cinema that’s not riding the coat tails off of other mediums is something valuable.  And I wish there was more of it.

-Alex

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The Matrix (1999)

Ghost In The Shell (1995)

Ghost In The Shell

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

But why?


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

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

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

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

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

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

It asks you to think.

-Alex

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Ghost In The Shell (1995)

Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

Cali Split Miss Grind What does it take for a film to be “original”? Well the easiest way to do it is to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. This approach is not ideal, it praises newness over excellence, it praises pioneering spirit over actually being good at your craft, and beyond that, it’s very very difficult with the weight of thousands of years of human history on our backs to tell a new story, when so many have come before us. So what do you do with two films, one of them part of a wave of 70s classic gambling films (the script for California Split was inspired by the screenwriter’s Joseph Walsh real struggles with gambling), and another one made 40 years later, which owes such a considerable debt to the first one it might as well have written “Inspired by California Split” on its cover? Do you crudely write off one as a pale imitation of the other, because you’re so keen to stress your plethora of film knowledge?

No. California Split (1974, Dir. Robert Altman) and Mississippi Grind (2015, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) are films which share the same DNA, drawing from the same well of gambling loose cannons in the underside of society. It’s locations, events work in tandem with each other, and each film is enhanced by knowledge of the other. But like most things in life, they’re fundamentally the same and fundamentally different all at the same time.

RISK

Gambling is this weird phenomenon, wrapped up in desire, skill and the most ethereal of all traits, luck. And while the art of gambling is held up as a symbol of vice and dangerous living, it’s inhabitants are largely the people you see around you. Both films are filled with “common folk”, the kind of people who keep the world running, they’re not big heroes with big dreams, they gamble because to win is their dream. Both films chart the journey of two gamblers on a knife’s edge of winning and losing, and their obsession with both leads them to chase their own tails to a self-destructive extent. Both of these films understand that common people can’t be “heroes”, at least not indefinitely. Sooner or later, everyone bows to reality’s crushing weight. The protagonists of California Split win more money than they could ever need, and yet Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliot Gould) are left feeling empty, their flight taking them so high they don’t know how to get back down to Earth.

And our protagonists in Mississippi Grind operate much the same, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) after pushing themselves to the point of self annihilation, with nothing left to lose, catapult themselves skyward into financial heaven, over half a million dollars of it. And yet both of them are left listless afterwards, temporarily contented but also untethered to everything that held them onto Earth for so long, getting the money they needed. And Mississippi Grind’s frankly beautiful last shot, which has the American flag reflected off of the windshield of Gerry’s car as he sits in it, pushing himself upwards to a more secure position, provoked in me the question of “If the American Dream (and the dream of most capitalist society) is the pursuit of wealth as a way to happiness, what happens when you win? Where do you go from there? When your dreams are realised, what’s left?”

All this is me interpreting the thematic cores of these films, so obviously it all must be taken with a grain of salt. But for two films obsessed with those endless games of risk and reward, and those who play them, both seem to land on the idea that really does make sense, that money is a pathway to happiness because it opens your horizons, and the rush of obtaining it is so compulsive it can consume you. But ultimately, it’s also only as good as what you do with it, because money is a tool, not the end goal. Sooner or later you have to jump off the merry-go-round, either because you’re gonna be sick or it’s just not fun anymore. Money doesn’t fix the holes in their hearts, the flaws in their character, it’s just a tool you use to live, and how you choose to live and what you live for is up to you, regardless of how much money you have.

REWARD

Both films are incredibly interesting experiences. Altman’s direction here on a story which has less grandiose notions than more of his well-known work, is just such a cinematic treat to take in.  The dialogue of a real world, conversations overlapping and forcing you to follow and pay attention, are just so seamlessly crafted it’s easy to forget they’re rehearsed. The roving camerawork by Paul Lohmann, a camera possessed by constant motion, forever tracking in or out of its settings just translate the restlessness of a gambler’s world better than any expository dialogue ever could.  The performances are charismatic, inviting and a lot of them, driven by a hidden pain only ever glimpsed, never fully seen. Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles) play two  prostitutes are perhaps the unsung heroes of the film, women who do their best to maintain their dignity and their hope, despite the cruelties inherent in their job. The visual and aural elements show their age, but Altman was master of his environment and craft like that doesn’t fade easily.

Mississippi Grind too, in its own (similar but different) way has excellence bursting through it. The performances, mirroring those of its predecessors, are channeling them and yet bringing their own unique and intimate performances to them. Their subtleties affect you, provoking emotions without being overwhelmed by showy overdramatic performances. The camerawork too, while more static, is rich with lush colour schemes and moments of visual composition which just bounce off the screen. It’s soundtrack, brimming with Delta blues and music of the south, is rich and muddy, just like it’s characters. The point I’m trying to get across here is that both films are incredibly well crafted, those elements which make up a film are refined and cultivated in such a way to make two different styles work for the same story, and regardless of your interest in its story, the technical elements of both films are a delight to behold.

RESURRECTION

Depending on your view, Mississippi Grind is a homage, a rip-off, or nothing more than a cheap copy of California Split. But fuck that thinking, both films are resurrections of the ideas of gambling which get subsumed into the glamour and the frenetic chaos of its image. Luxurious casinos and the dreams of walking out with millions are the things which draw in people’s lives, their time and their money, all for the chance to win or lose. It’s fascinating to me that the message in these films, that the limbo space in between winning and losing, when both the joy and the fear are contained in the same body at the same time, is the most crucial thing in a gambler’s life. The money is only a marker of success, not the whole story. The thrill comes in the competition, and as the stakes get higher so does the terrifying reckoning with the burgeoning of your dreams, or the crushing of them. Gamblers are dreamers, cynical or idealistic, they dream. And both films do what great films do, communicate dreams.

-Alex

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Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner (1982, Dir. Ridley Scott), a dystopian vision of a bleak, inhuman future is one of the most acclaimed science fiction films of the last 50 years. Its influence on science-fiction after its release has made it become a totemic text for many film buffs and just general fans of the genre. I must admit that I am a huge Blade Runner fan, or should I say Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007) fan. For me it stands alongside other Sci-Fi masterpieces as an example of what can truly be achieved through genre cinema. It may contain schlocky violence and far out concepts, but it also fuses genres seamlessly whilst delivering a visual marvel at the same time. It has long been a film I have held onto and watched time and again an embarrassingly large number of times, I just love it that much.

It is understandable then, why I was so hesitant to even think about the possibility of a sequel to what could possibly be my favourite film. When you watch the Final Cut  it is clear that it wasn’t made in a way which would gesture towards a sequel. The ending is so iconic and untouchable in my mind, that the notion of a sequel filled me with a real sense of dread. I felt that a new director and continuation of the world would only result in something embarrassingly wrong-footed. Denis Villeneuve however has done something so rarely achieved, he’s actually nailed a sequel so convincingly that many fans of the original are now feeling conflicted about which is better.

This is certainly close to the predicament that I find myself in, whilst I know the original will always be the one which I hold dearest to me, Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Dir. Denis Villeneuve) has expanded the world perfectly and brought a new story to match if not surpass Scott’s original effort. Villeneuve continues on the world of the original. But 30 years after the death of Roy Batty and the disappearance of Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, the world has moved on from the dense chaotic Los Angeles of 2019. Things are sparser now, bleaker, and less human. The original is so often remembered as a philosophical navel gazing piece of neo-noir, which it certainly is. However this sequel doesn’t just ape the questions on humanity and what it means to be a sentient being in this dystopian future. Instead Villeneuve and Hampton Fancher in partnership with Michael Green use this opportunity to further these ideas.

What I mean by this is that Villeneuve shows himself to be completely aware that by doing this sequel he has to enter into the questions on what it means to be a mortal being in the world the film creates. The nature of replicants as being manufactured life has to be expanded upon and through the use of both plot and character this is achieved to an even deeper level to the first film.

It is here that I feel I have to shout out Roger Deakins, who once again dazzles the audience with a compositional eye for detail which is rarely matched in modern Hollywood filmmaking. The use of light in so much of this film draws you into this harsh, brutal America of 2049, a world where nothing is natural and pure anymore, and is so saturated by human influence that even the natural light of the world is shrouded in fog and dark tones. Deakins and Villeneuve’s implementation of expressionistic shadows gives the interiors of the film a tight control and a coldness. This contrasted with the queasy oranges or bleak frosty grey and white panoramas gives the film an aesthetic palate that truly draws the viewer in. Blade Runner 2049 will be seen in years to come to have some of the most experimental and best cinematography to be seen in a movie in a mainstream blockbuster this decade. Excuse me for becoming breathless here, but the film really just does look that good and I would be very surprised if it didn’t win at least one Oscar for its aesthetic input in either Cinematography or CGI.

The further I get into this review the more I realise just how pleased I am with the fact that they made this film, and this is something I didn’t expect. I thought that even if it was good that I would still find things to nit-pick about it but as a die-hard Blade Runner fan it was just so perfectly spot on in so many ways. For me it will be near or if not at the top of my end of year list. It managed to take a story that I know inside and out, in a world that I am obsessed with, and pay homage in a completely respectful and yet innovative way. When leaving the cinema I was stunned by it and as I get further away from my initial viewing, I am only more impressed. Thank you Mr Villeneuve for giving me a new film in my favourite cinematic universe to watch again, and again, and again.

-Ed

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Blade Runner 2049

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

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished

Mother!

Mother!

Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) is a film which as that exclamation mark in its name suggests, is not for the fainthearted. It has quickly become one of the most controversial pictures of the year, with many critics and audience members being torn over what to think about it. When I had first came out of the screening I was in the same boat, baffled at what I had just seen. One thing I knew for certain was  that it’s an experience that will need a strong constitution to take. This of course shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Aronofsky’s past work, he is not exactly a comedic romp kind of guy. As he has shown in his past work, he really does not have any fear in delving into darkly twisted moments of depravity and horror. He sits in the same box as Lars Von Trier in my mind as an individual enfant terrible kind of figure, railing against sense and decency with an admirable verve. Unfortunately for many of Mother!’s paying audience they did not quite get the memo on Aronofsky’s style and it feels like he really has pushed this boat to its limits for many people.

The storyline of the film really comes as secondary to the experience of watching the film, the second half especially almost defies any kind of pithy explanation. Ostensibly the film is about an evening that goes awry for a poet and his wife when a doctor turns up out of nowhere, forcing himself on the couple. He is then followed by his wife and as time goes on more and more people turn up, much to the husband’s amusement and his wife’s alarm. The husband here is played with an eerie level of glee by an electrifying Javier Bardem who is a both charismatic and crazed character the role of ‘Him’ (as he is credited). ‘Him’ is a poet, a title that as the world starts to crumble around Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence’s character ‘Mother’ comes to mean a lot more than first thought. Bardem is surely one of the best psycho actors working today, the way he can portray a crazed and unpredictable temperament at times come startlingly close to a Kinski level of crazy. In many other films his performance here would seem ridiculously overblown and scenery chewing… However this being one of the most ridiculous films in so many years he fits right in.

Bardem however only remains so effective due to the at times subdued but at all times masterful performance by Jennifer Lawrence in one of the most unique roles that she has surely ever attempted. The film is from her viewpoint for almost its entire runtime and Aronofsky has used her in such a way that he really has no choice as an actor but to push herself to her limits. ‘Mother’ is not an easy role for her to undertake, she is so often a reactive figure in the plot, not really contributing to the overall path of the story and instead having to play off of, whereas the other characters force the plot. However the focusing on Lawrence for so much of the film means that Lawrence has to do a lot of the legwork in keeping the audience grounded to a sense of place and viewpoint. She is often not saying or influencing much but Lawrence always hold the attention of the camera in her grip and never lets your attention stray from the screen. In such a melodramatic and attention grabbing film as this Lawrence is the lynchpin that without her, the film would fall apart.

The film is centred around these two main roles and does give these characters a lot to do, however Aronofsky’s figure looms large in this film and it is clear that he is the real star of the film. Mother! is so dense with little details and clues as to what is actually going on, every moment is significant to him, it’s clear to see. He wants to baffle and astound you and leave you naked to the possibilities of the film. I am trying here to be as vague as possible to the actual events of the film because I feel that if you are interested in seeing the film it is probably best to know as little as possible about it beforehand.

As I noted earlier though, there are probably some caveats to this you should take into account before seeing it. I would say that to actually enjoy the film you do have to surrender to its surrealist, allegorical viewpoint, just let yourself go along for the ride and make sure you have a stomach for some darkness before going in. For me the coiled spring at the heart of the narrative just tightened and tightened to an almost unbearable level, this is not to say I regretted seeing it . It was an experience akin to being on a truly terrifying rollercoaster where you may want to get off, but you can’t because you are strapped in for the ride whether you like it or not.

Mother! is at times beautiful, at times horrific and at times willingly ludicrous. I never found myself bored or found my attention straying from the events on-screen and as I get further and further away from my initial viewing I have certain images from it that will stay in my mind long after this review is published. It’s an impressively daring piece of work by a divisive filmmaker, which is worth seeing if you know you can take it. If  however you just like Jennifer Lawrence and home invasion films I would say, this is not the film for you.

-Ed

Mother!