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)

Mr. Nobody (2009)

Mr Nobody

It’s hard not to give up, with life I think. I felt that, as Jared Leto delivered a couple of lines about how the universe extends through entropy and the atoms of the world continue on a trend of disorder and disappation. Growing through time means more experiences, more ups and more downs. More edges to fall off, dead ends to get stuck in, whirlpools of life which you had not prepared for. The metaphor in Mr. Nobody (2009, Dir. Jaco Van Dormael) is life on tracks, different paths. Their intersections, their parallels, their different destination and journeys along the way. Life dances with increasing complexity each day, and it’s design pushes you into spaces and times that unravel around you dizzyingly. If you can hold on, you can. So you do.

But is that really it?


Sometimes we look up to the skies, and think. The reason we don’t do this all the time someone once told me, was so we could avoid being eaten by sabertooth tigers. There are no sabertooths now, but we still don’t stay in that state of contemplation today. Should we? Mr Nobody, concerns a man at the end of his life, in a future where death has been put on pause. Except for Nemo Nobody, a 118 year old man who is remembering his life. Except for the fact that he’s remembering possible versions of his life, experienced from the point of the present, when the human element of choice allows more than one outcome to happen. Which way does he go? Every way. Routes unfold along separate tracks simultaneously, and Nemo is along for every ride in a different form. His life is malleable, changed by the circumstances of chance.

Nemo has a lot of time to think, and several metaphorical sabertooth tigers to confront. It’s something of a cerebral house of mirrors, Leto’s performance reflected and transforming in the moment, across different lives and different experiences. Leto shifts like a true chameleon in a role which is akin to water, Nemo fills up whatever space and time contains him, taking on elements of their form. We’re asked to see Nemo in a perspective which cuts across our usual viewing senses, not to relate to him as a singular entity, but to relate to him in whatever adaptation his life has taken across multiple streams. Actions in childhood affect our older selves, which affect our oldest selves. The consequences are often unclear, distant, only revealed with time and reflection and even then maybe not. But the water of Nemo’s character fills the shape of the film itself, and we are asked to push beyond our normal understanding of time to see with greater clarity, the way life happens.

Nemo has big worlds to think in as well. The environments of the Earth (and beyond) fill up the screen, with VFX work which really blew me away. The visual aesthetic of the film is woven deep into the film in general. The cinematography is varied and dense, the codes of each world cinematically helping us to form understandings of different worlds. If “life is a playground or nothing”, then the artistic construction of the film lives up to it, as it plays effortlessly with different cinematographic styles. It’s music spills over at times, and gently accompanies at others. The stylistic expressions follow those possibilities, ebbing and flowing and evolving with where Nemo is, who Nemo is, when Nemo is. There is breadth and power in variety, and Van Dormael knew that when he stitched together the pieces of Mr. Nobody. 

Is there a great resounding answer I need to write here, to prove to myself and you the reader about the worth of what the film has to say? Life is there to make of it what you will, and holding onto its dizzying turns is a complicated procedure. Mr. Nobody wants you to know what life could mean, and it pushes through the very fabric of our understanding of the world to do so. It splits open the human experience in a way only the imagination can do, to show us the possible fruits growing at its core. But it’s a film, 2 and a half hours of a day which turns into a week into a year etc. Life is communicated through art. But life isn’t lived through art, it’s reflected by it. Art is our hall of mirrors, our water to fill up the forms of our lives. The reflections you see, only you can make peace with them. Van Dormael offers a path, one that doesn’t have to be taken. To him, they are all meaningful, whichever one is taken.What is important is that paths can be taken, life can be lived.

Art is not going to be around forever, or maybe it is. We’re not going to be around forever, or maybe we are. The answers are what we seek, but we don’t live in answers. Most of our lives are spent searching for them, so that’s where we spend most of our perspectives. I know I’ve gone off on a tangent, but life can cope with that. Life copes with tangents, with edges and dead ends and whirlpools and whatever else is here in the playground. The variety of it all overwhelms any one particular answer, one particular life. Questions about life can only get you so far, answers can only get you so far. Thinking about life can only get you so far. What is meaningful is that life got us anywhere at all. And the sooner I can make peace with my reflection, the sooner I can get back to avoiding those sabertooth tigers. “If you never make a choice, anything is possible” goes the tagline for the film. Well, I’ll try make anything happen then.

-Alex

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Mr. Nobody (2009)

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Werckmeister_Harmonies-703408826-large

Sometimes you see movies, and sometimes you see films. It seems like nothing more than a minor linguistic distinction, but the rope that ties the two together can also stretch for miles. And so, with Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Dir. Béla Tarr) we encounter, at least I’d say, the far end of the “film” rope. A film which seems to eschew general cinematic convention, a film so primordially focused on the ability of film to show us images, that it asks you to encounter and relate to the film in a completely different frame of mind.

One not focused on aesthetic entertainment, images designed to purely amuse and impress on you a highly glossy view of the world. A different kind of filter is applied, one which reflects the jagged and coarser edges of the world around us. And the film’s images then ask you to see the beauty in them, rather than demand your awe in the presence of its well sculpted god-like actors, the elaborate and dazzling fantasy landscapes, the endless obliterating action sequences which command you to be overwhelmed.

No, this is a different kind of cinema for sure. And your response to it will be guided by whether you can move into a harmony with its’ rhythms.


János (Lars Rudolph) lives in a desolate provincial Hungarian town. A circus has come, with a giant whale and a mysterious figure called the Prince. Trouble is brewing. The context of the films wider landscape, something never explicitly alluded to, was originally lost on me. Set during the Hungarian communist regime, it’s a film whose history is everything to those who know it and very little to those who don’t. For life here seems on the edge of the world, one consumed on a knife-edge by isolation and loneliness and small folk life. In the 21st century interconnected network of existence, Werckmeister Harmonies speaks to a time and atmosphere which almost no longer exists anymore, one where life was not connected to the globe, but only to the surrounding miles of land around you.

As a result, the tone and rhythm of this film’s life seem almost alien, especially filtered through the vision of Béla Tarr. 39 long and detailed shots make up the entire running time of the film, and the fast paced interactive editing style of today is inverted on its’ head and smashed underground.  Shots don’t just breathe, they seem to gain life and evolve through delicate camera tracks and pulls. The world is presented to you as a quiet, mute observer who stands in the shadows of these village places, presented with the faces and bodies of people who have lived long and died longer. The whole place evokes a haunted town, one populated by ghosts drifting into the space of life only to fall out of it again just as quickly.

And everything in this film feels ethereal, its entire presence seems like it’s completely removed from the experience of our world, of conventional cinema. The wraith-like auras of its actors, Lars Rudolph eyes carrying what seems to be like centuries of experience. It’s score (by Miháli Vig) does some absolutely moving work.

I don’t know, you know. I honestly don’t know what or how to feel about this film. It seems to invert language and speech about it, it’s a film which feels difficult to talk about. It feels like it’s so natural to try and analyse it and intellectualise it, but it also feels so deeply like that is missing the point. It’s a film which rides such a wavelength of just quiet, ponderous experience. Not thought, not conversation, just raw stylised experience that you end up submerged in. It’s hard to talk when you’re under the water. And this is not just me getting so wrapped up in how much I love it that I can’t even begin to explain it, in fact the film sometimes grated and annoyed me as to its own peculiar idiosyncrasies. It’s not a film I could come out boldly and stake my flag in the ground to defend it to the ends of the Earth.

But I can’t deny its overwhelming spectral presence. It’s a film which truly earns the moniker film, because it feels like something made in that cinematic mold not to entertain, but to show something greater. And so much of the film is not shown, people and places and events alluding to a terrifying off-screen darkness which surrounds them. It feels like a film with a heart of darkness, one which beats through its very core but also hides inside the films’ exterior body. What do you do when confronting a film like this? A film which is deeply hidden, who’s parts are not on display for you to easily pick up and inspect, analyse and critique at your leisure.

For me, it was an encounter with a cinema which is hard to love, but easy to respect. There is no doubt that what Béla Tarr does here in this film is impressive. The haunting tale of man waiting for a circus, an obsession with a great whale, and a nightmarish village is told with such bold unconventionality, that at the very least the experience of it feels like bringing your head above an icy bath, even though at times watching it you can feel like you’re morphined to fuck. The rhythms of this film, polyvocal and atonal, are ones which are difficult to grasp and hang onto as they fly into your experience.

But they are deeply, deeply worthwhile to encounter. They can give you the gift of perspective, which is rare. And like the closing shot of this film, they can give you a profound sense of the abysses of experience we can sometimes live in.

-Alex

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Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

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)

A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

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

the-human-condition-film-poster

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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

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

the-human-condition-film-poster

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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

Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven

Zardoz

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths

Author-The-JT-Leroy-Story-e1468956707139

Disclaimer: Before watching this film, I had never heard of anything pertaining to the JT Leroy Saga. I have never read any of JT Leroy’s works, nor any of the literature surrounding this literary scandal.

So with that out-of-the-way, and all attempts at establishing any credibility in being an expert on this matter scribbled out, let’s move on as to just what the hell is going on here.

I shall not reveal the whole eclectic saga, that was director Jeff Feuerzeig’s job in making this film. In short, Laura Albert, a woman, invented or channeled a persona into her being, that of one Jeremy ‘Terminator’ LeRoy, an abused boy who had endured prostitution, drug addiction, AIDS, a sex change (which is explained later) and vagrancy.She then wrote from this persona’s perspective, and became wildly well-known, courting fame and time in the spotlight for the searing, brutally honest fiction that was being written.

All this without a body, and without being real. Because JT Leroy didn’t exist, at least not as a physical presence on this earth. So Laura Albert recruited her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop to play JT Leroy. And it worked, from 1998 to 2005, JT Leroy was a real construct who swooshed around the celebrity and publishing world, accompanied by Albert in another persona she had created alongside the real Terminator story, a British woman named Speedie, and her boyfriend Astor (who was really her husband, Geoffrey Knoop).

So the labyrinth was pretty complex, and the labyrinth was pretty well embraced. Her books sold, and she was the toast of the cutting edge, with Savannah even engaging in a passionate affair with Asia Argento. But all good things come to an end, and an exposé in 2006 by one Warren St. John in The New York Times collapsed the house of cards.

Make no mistake though, the house of cards is not truly laid out here. That’s not to denigrate the film, it’s just that the film is doing a very different kind of thing that a regular documentary might angle for. This is not an investigation, this is Laura Albert’s confession, her account of it all. It is a serious unraveling of her perspective of how it all went down, the puppet master behind the board locked into an unceasing performance. The supporting cast of this film circle tangentially at best, only their to provide light context and not much more. And that’s okay, the film is delving into the mind of Laura Albert, a mind which spawned JT LeRoy.

And there’s a lot to it. Drama and betrayals, affairs and desperation, the truth and the lies becoming so indistinct that you should be riveted by it. But of course, that depends on your point of view. If that seems vague, I’ll put it another way. Half of the importance of the story is simply because she’s not just deceiving regular people, but because she’s deceiving celebrities. Laura actually tells us at one point, that she knows she’s made it when she illustrates the ‘Bono’ talk that Savannah as JT got from you guessed it, Kings Of Cool, Bono from U2.

Cool is always nebulous, and always notorious to pin down, very subjective. But the anti-U2 sentiment is fierce among people my age, and I can’t ever remember a time when anyone even remotely discussed Bono as cool who wasn’t over 30. Bono, for anyone who even vaguely pays attention, represents the shallowest of cools. He’s probably a top bloke, but U2 have never been anywhere near the cutting edge of cool, and belong somewhere along the great “Stadium Fillers” genre.

I mean, U2 diatribe aside, the credence given to Laura’s story rests on the fact that the elite incestuous celebrity circles welcomed her, and the fact that she suffered great trauma in her life. The second bit is very valuable, but the first bit is basically a very indulgent walk with all these famous people who really like JT LeRoy, and how cool it was that all these cool people liked her. And the deception runs deep. Albert would make (and record) all calls she made as JT, so she’d live vicariously through Savannah, as Savannah would have these experiences with the cool-illuminati, an affair with Asia Argento, chatting with Gus Van Sant, ambiguous happenings with actor Michael Pitt, and much more, Laura would chat as JT to them.

And you know…cool I guess? Like it just doesn’t really move me much. It’s like her actions are meant to be far more grandiose because she’s deceiving celebrities. And that only works if you buy into celebrities being better than other people. Which I do not. We’d all like to live that fantasy, of well-known, very successful people telling us that they love us, our work, our personality, ourselves, I understand it, and I understand what drives that. But her actually getting to live out her fantasy is not something that can really be enjoyed, maybe only by her and the conspirators involved. Because you can’t live vicariously through Laura Albert, because you know she’s lying. It’s so far removed that all you can do is watch the journey slowly unfold passively.

I’m rambling here but bear with me. The title talks about the ‘Truths’ in this film. Camus says in his seminal work The Myth Of Sisyphus “In psychology as well as logic, there are truths but no truth.” He’s referring to the inability to perceive the whole world from all sides, so we can’t really know the details we’re working with. The same can be applied here. We can never really know the whole story, because the whole story depends on multiple people, with internal dialogues and psychologies, that we can never really draw the boundaries in it between what’s true and what isn’t. Albert specifically denies that it was a fake, because LeRoy is real to her. In fact she states that she suffers from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

This is the stuff I find much more interesting. The reveal of JT LeRoy’s ‘hoax’ is really interested, because the reaction to it was so damning. People implicitly believe that what they see or read or listen to is true. You have to, its logically ruinous to assume everything is a lie. There could be no truth if everyone was lying. And people took it for granted, but they were also so willing to believe the story, so desperate to accept her truth, because even though the books are published as fiction, we always assume that fiction is molded from the human channeling the world around them, and when stories are told with such uncompromising brutality, when they involve such hard times of human suffering, when those trapped in ivory towers see such earnest hardship, they marvel at it. They marvel at the human audacity to take good from the bad no matter how rough it might get. Especially those who are protected from it.

I feel like the film is both too long and too short. Or maybe its just focused on the thing I don’t find interesting. The film seems to wrestle with two tracks, the track of recounting the whole sordid affair, as a train of well-known faces walk through, their intimate conversations of real life played in voyeuristic scenes where tapes roll, and the other track which revolves around authenticity, authorship, and the blurred lines between fiction and fact, and truth and lies. because the best lies are inspired by the truth, but the truth does its best to expose lies. Laura Albert suffered, and she channeled it, however indirectly into her writing. And even if she didn’t suffer, she had the capability to imagine and create it. But the thing people seem to get upset about is her creation spilled over into reality, and somehow people were deceived by that. Well art influences life and vice versa, and Laura just took it to an extreme. Her whole life became a performance.

Which is both brilliant and horrible. Because I don’t think she can stop. And with a film of the whole story in the works, it looks like the sharks desperately seeking salacious stories won’t either. A maddening cycle of trash. Waiting for someone honest to come along.

The only thing for me to do is to just shrug and move on. It’s not all that interesting anyways. It kind of fucked me off if I’m honest.

-Alex

P.S If you liked this please follow us on twitter here for updates. Also we have a DONATE button on the side menu and if you have any change to spare would be greatly appreciated, help us keep writing!

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths