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

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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

 

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

Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith

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Cloud Atlas is tough to grasp. I don’t just mean in terms of its scope, its ambition or its lofty sense of grandeur. I mean it’s tough to grasp, because everything about it forces you to think in terms of the universe. To zero in to any one particular element or any particular story seems equivalent to marveling at the banquet laid out in front of you, only to fill up on bread. Maybe if you assembled every singular review of Cloud Atlas, and put them into a single experience, you’d get something similar, a mirror response of the film’s structure. In fact even the production of the film takes this into account, having not one but three directors, the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer   ( A Hologram For The King, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer).

Cloud Atlas (2012) follows a recent trend of ever-present but increasingly noticed genre films I can only describe as “philosophical epics”. Cloud Atlas can hang its hat next to such films as, Interstellar, The Tree of Life, and The Fountainhead. Epic, sweeping narratives which transcend space and time to help illustrate and universalise their themes. Rich, densely textured pieces which press on the higher faculties of your mind, zone out and you might miss important thematic illusions, dialogue packed with ideas and subtext, or visuals bursting with splendour. Usually all three at once.  And if that doesn’t whet your appetite, a film which contains a period piece,  a seventies political thriller, a bohemian composer, a neo-Seoul almost directly birthed from Blade Runner, and a post apocalyptic future/past fusion surely will.

But the real core at the heart of Cloud Atlas, like the core of the other films referenced, is that they all focus intensely on the endeavour of the human spirit.  Especially Cloud Atlas, on the transcendence of our acts outside of their specific space/time context by the ways we can speak to each other through the generations, through the same thoughts and ideas, but transmitted from handwritten journals, to letters and music, to film scripts and holovids and through that ancient but tried and true technique, oral storytelling, round the metaphorical (and literal in the case of this film) campfire. As a species, we’re constantly rediscovering the truths that keep appearing to us, that are dredged up only to be submerged again in the streams of human day-to-day, year-to-year living.

Truths like the irrepressible will for freedom.  In four of the six stories, the desire for freedom, from entrapment, imprisonment, enslavement is omnipresent. It manifests in different forms, in the story of the stowaway slave in 1849, in the story of the composer who is blackmailed into losing credit for his work in 1936, in the story of an aging publisher imprisoned by his brother in a nursing home as cruel penitence for having an affair with his brother’s wife. In 2144, as a Fabricant, a human cloned for slave labour discovers the true nature of her existence and fights to let the world know the truth.

This truth, the same desire to be free, manifests itself inside the story inside the context of the location and the time period, but the essence of the character is the same. Besides David Mitchell, author of the book confirming that each character is the same soul reborn throughout time, it’s visually conveyed through the possession of the birthmark each main character shares, a small comet. The whole film works as a testament to that eternal journey, that eternal cycle of the human spirit which struggles against forces that are not its own, as they encounter worlds they had no part in shaping, but are inexorably at the same time forced to create their own futures.

If that sounds heady and impenetrable, that’s because it is. If that sounds preachy, it’s that too. But it’s unbearably honest in its aims, and as a result, everything that springs from that well will either taste like honey or poison. Because the dialogue is very straight, there are no ulterior motives, no hidden machinations to any of the characters. They all speak honestly and truthfully, which can easily come off as one-dimensional and creaky and more importantly, unbelievable to many. Because human beings often don’t talk like this, we shroud our intentions behind language, often trusting our subtext to communicate what we’re really saying, only saying what we really feel in times of great emotion, when the barriers unfold inside of us, and the torrent of the truth comes out.

And this can very easily come off as grating. It’s uncomfortable to listen to people talk so plainly about what they think; people often describe it as stilted and awkward. But Cloud Atlas occupies the same space that our myths occupy, that it’s not what they say, but what they mean when they say it.

It can be difficult to get accustomed to people talking so frankly, that we are so used to the subtle unconscious social navigations that surround us, as we constantly do our best to perform the version of ourselves that is appropriate for the context; the way we act at work is not the way we act in front of our family is not the way we act in front of strangers etc. But the way our characters act, think and talk is a representation of their ideals, and their ability and integrity to follow them. Time and time again, the same soul of Cloud Atlas sacrifices itself for higher causes. In 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) sacrifices her safety to expose the story of the unstable nuclear reactor.  In 2321, in a post apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachry (Tom Hanks) battles dangerous tribesmen and his own mental state to help Meronym (Halle Berry) send a message to the off-world colonies for help. The young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) sacrifices himself for his music.

Of course the film is far from perfect. Any film that wants to tackle this kind of subject matter will ultimately throw of the shackles of a rigid, consistent formula which satisfies us, for something ultimately more baggy, where characters flit in and out, loose end are never really tied up, nebulous thematic links are put in place of concrete, ‘real’ ones. And if it is not your cup of tea, then the film makes no concessions to its opposite. It is ambitious, or it is pretentious depending on side of the coin you fall on. But then, if human beings are constantly locked in a battle to find meaning in their lives, do they not occupy the same space? It’s heavy-handedness is a by-product of its earnestness, you can’t have one without the other.

There are more examples, but the consistency of the actions of the same soul is what’s paramount here. Not that this is not important in works outside of this, but here its precedence is built on a spiritual level, not just a logical level, because the actions of the soul of all of the characters are consistent across the whole spectrum, even if each character might react differently if they were placed in the experiences of their other time placed counterparts. Even more importantly, is the consistency of the forces the soul faces. In each world there is always good, and always evil, locked in a never-ending struggle of infinite instances.  The cast of thousands in the film is populated by the same returning faces, most of the main cast appearing in at least three out of the six of the stories, often more. They all play different parts on the spectrum, different sexes, different genders, and different paths of morality. Their faces are transfigured by facial morphing, by their period costumes, by the very different worlds they inhabit. But still they recur, to help illustrate the universality of it all.

That ultimately, the spirit will endure. The victory of the spirit’s endurance is one often ignored in the face of the overwhelming odds of the world we live in, whenever we live in it. But the spirit never stops. How much you take that to heart, or how much you reject it, ultimately depends on how much faith you have in humanity.  And love it or condemn it, Cloud Atlas is a very hard film to ignore, simply because it has so much faith.

-Alex

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Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith

Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane

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The mythology that surrounds Saló is more interesting than Saló.

(WARNING: This post contains a discussion on matures themes in a mature film, and if you are underage or possess a weak constitution, I would advise that you venture no further than this warning. And that full stop.)

What I mean by this, is that the ideological conflict which was spawned due to this films release, the censorship, the bans, the death of Pasolini himself, the entire genre of depraved cinema it gave birth to, and the battles of its meaning which have raged (quietly, by intellectuals with too much time on their hands) has been near ceaseless, with the film still inspiring those with that deep instinctual reaction, one of admiration or one of disgust. That history attached to Saló, will always be more interesting than Saló itself. So in provoking discussions on the human condition in it’s all hideousness, the film has succeeded.

I’m struggling to think of anything else it does well.

 

People are desperate to plant their flag after seeing Saló. It’s exactly the sort of film that provokes either extreme love or extreme hatred. You can roughly sum it up as; Admired by Nihilists, Reviled by Moralists. There’s not really much room for my reaction, which was one of mostly indifference.

And I’m upset by my indifference towards it. I wanted to be incensed by it, I wanted to be filled with the extreme adoration or extreme anguish that the film supposedly provokes. It’s a musing on power. It’s an exploration of sexual depravity. It’s a hate filled, misanthropic bastard film. It’s disgusting. It’s beautiful.

It’s not really anything. If anything, the best term I can come up with it is this. “It’s a limp sketch”. Limp because its pretty boring. A sketch because its pretty half-baked. If that’s me throwing down the gauntlet, it’s not much of one. I don’t want to hate this film, generally most cinephiles spend their time railing against mass manufactured, uninspired films made on formulas. The generic if you will. We always try to champion the individual artistic statement (hell it was cinephiles who had the arrogance/self belief to invent the auteur theory, a theoretical prism of viewing film which attributes sole intent to the director) over the mass-produced schlock.

Pasolini made his statement. And I commend him for that. But his statement is caught in an odd place. For its one of the most controversial films ever made, and yet in comparison to the story it is based on, written by the infamous Marquis De Sade, well it looks positively PG.  And I think here lies an incredible crux. Because the depravity of the story has been effectively dismantled, the revulsion inspired by the film is incomparable to the revulsion that can be inspired by the text, because the text is really untransferrable, because its fantasy.

Now of course, millions of fantasies have been transferred from book to screen. But the kind of fantasies involved in this are not the fantasies we ever expose ourselves to. These are fantasies of the most profane, the kind of fantasies we dare not speak them out loud for they represent such abject horror that to utter them is almost a sin. De Sade does not just call for sexual liberation, he calls for absolute sexual freedom, the ability to get your rocks off to anything, no matter how monstrous. And I’m not just talking BDSM (the S is for Sadism, named after guess who) or some peculiar fetishes here. The book uses pedophilic pleasure as a base for every other story told by the madames to enjoy. In the final months of the book, equivalent to Pasolini’s “Circle of Blood”, the madames tell stories about men getting their rocks off to disembowelment of pregnant women, skinning of children alive, and an infinite number of unimaginable horrors. The best the film does in this regard is the torturing of the captives.

Pasolini would have been a genuine madman to ever attempt to properly capture the absolute mental insanity, the unhinged words of Marquis De Sade. No one could ever do justice (ha) to it, besides De Sade himself, and the only way he could do justice to his vision was to enact his fantasies into the real world. The libertine’s destruction. So Pasolini fundamentally changes the internal structure of the tale, turning it from an indulgent fantasy to an indulgent allegory. I can’t find the direct source, but it is said that Pasolini meant the corprophilic scenes as a comment on the fast food industry, the willingness and often desire for people to literally, eat shit.

But who cares at the end of the day, because this film exists almost as a blank slate to inscribe your meaning onto. It’s oppressively neutral. It’s a vacuum, because it ignores for the most part, the second half of human existence. The first is action. The second is consequences. There are no consequences to any of the actions. There’s just a general descent into highly detailed degeneracy. The insular world becomes a mirror to its own hollowness. Even crumbs of construction, the girls that develop a lesbian relationship, the socialist salute of the ‘transgressive’ guard who sleeps with a black servant girl, don’t really offer anything besides fleeting fragments of meaning in an ocean of grey void.

Look maybe the reason why nihilism never took off is because it’s really fucking boring, and it doesn’t contribute anything interesting. It’s the ultimate critic, because all it does is deconstruct everything, and contribute nothing. Sade finds his construction in his pursuit of pleasure. Pasolini doesn’t even find it in that.

It takes no stance. It’s characters discuss the relationships of power without ever coming to any conclusions. They drop famous libertine writers in, Nietzsche being the name most people would pick up on, without actually discussing what the ideas mean, or what they can mean. Nobody contains any depth, any motivation. Because their motivation for desire is completely separate from the films stylistic concerns.

Everybody says exactly what they think, which ends up as an effect described in this video essay underneath as “Talking Wallpaper”:

We are not invited to be part of these events, the window does not open and we cannot climb through. We simply watch them from the vast chasm of the room, their passivity not allowing us any conduit to witness the events from a viewpoint. This is not entrancing, hypnotic cinema. It is not making you complicit in its crimes, it’s simply making you an uninvolved witness. Which is without a doubt, the worst message Pasolini could ever have conveyed.

Pasolini was a well know left-wing filmmaker and political activist in Italy, and his films have been the endless study of marxist film critics and those with Communist leanings. His films are just begging for that indulgent transcribing of political subtext onto film, something I am not a great fan of. And the literature on this film fills books (the BFI edition I purchased comes with a booklet of essays). But at the end of the day, if you really believe this film’s worth, then the best compliment you can give it is your silence. Because it’s not a film which wants to be talked about. It’s a film which does its best to confront you with examples of human cruelty, and its ability to adapt, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions. It’s the abandonment of everything beyond primordial desires, far beyond the realm of judgement. Anybody who tries to inscribe it as a condemnation of fascism is missing the point, because all it is conveying a well-known platitude; that people with power have the ability to abuse it.

So enough with this film. Saló is controversial, but controversy doesn’t mean its good, and it doesn’t mean its interesting. Enough using this film as a litmus test for how out there a film is, because it’s not very out there.

In fact, it’s not very much at all.

-Alex

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Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane