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)

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)

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

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

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished