War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

War and Peace

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

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

Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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

 

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War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

Sorry To Bother You (2018)

Sorry To Bother You

Usually I approach watching films with as little background knowledge as possible. Sorry To Bother You (2018, Dir. Boots Riley) is not one of those films. I have been a passenger on its hype train since my friend showed me the trailer last year, and I have been waiting with bated breath for it to make its long-awaited, just-about-made-it landing in the UK (distribution is complicated). I still did my best to keep myself in the dark about it, but I have been amped for a long time.

What I  couldn’t expect however,  was how amped Boots Riley would be. Because Sorry To Bother You is a molotov cocktail into your cinematic consciousness.


Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is a newly employed telemarketer. Poverty, and all its trappings, hang over his world like a gloomy cloud in the sunny sky. But after some tutelage, Cassius uses his “white voice” (overdubbed by David Cross) to climb the corporate ladder, while the socio-economic tensions in his life become amplified by him “selling out”. Cassius’s enemy, the villain which parades through the film is the invisible relationships of capitalism and the pressures it creates and enforces. Friendship, financial stability, self-worth and self-“progress” all become complicated by Cassius’s elevation. And then the rest of the film spirals out, into a whacked-out and cerebral movement through some of current society’s most brutal and bizarre corners. In case I didn’t convey it properly, the film is a lot.

In short, the film has ambitions, and is very clear about you knowing them. Boots Riley wants you to be aware, of the subtext and sub-conscious forces operating in the world around you. The news is not just the news. Blackness is not just blackness. The corporate environment of the highest echelons of our society does not exist in a vacuum, and it does not exist in stasis. Everybody wants things done, from the poorest to the richest. Often their aims conflict, and Riley drops that image in the form of a brutal strike action combatted by anti-riot police, with added extras. The mechanisms of our lives have layers of meaning, and layers of action. Cassius’s “white voice” is a tool which elevates him, not just a fun party trick.  What people present, and how they present it, is an idea which keeps recurring during my watching of the film.

And there are moments where the film goes beyond my understanding. There’s elements of misé-en-scene, of character interactions and scenes which left me a little unsure of what was happening. And I think that’s good, because Riley has purposely presented a world which is dense, complicated, full of ideas bursting and spiralling off from the main plot. Comments on late-stage capitalism, the role of the media, the role of art and performed whiteness and blackness. Riley’s script comes through like an avalanche, ideas and critiques shifting and falling onto even the most politically aware viewers, saturating you with the complicated images of the world. Which is fantastic, because a complicated and unresolved world is the one we live in. To make a satire really function, it has to reflect the world it’s satirising. And for Boots Riley not to capitulate to a sense of order, to keep things purposefully complex, I think is really cool.

More importantly, while Sorry To Bother You may not possess any sense of “classical unity”, it is still a unified film, and it doesn’t forget to be entertaining. Devilishly funny cinematic moments occur, and Cassius’s internal struggle is one which resonates, even if the landscape he navigates is highly surreal and exaggerated. The score by The Tune-Yards and The Coup (Boots Riley’s band), is one which singes the edges of the film with a cool fire, one which feels just as alive and playful as the films ideas. It’s cinematography aswell, shot mostly under the hot Californian sun in Oakland, prevents the film from any sense of gloominess, only fiery anger and fiery hope. I’ve talked more about what telling dark stories in sunlight can do, in Brick (2005, Dir. Rian Johnson), and Riley’s situating of most of the action in the bright sunlight makes everything feel more exposed, the darkness uglier because there’s no shadows to hide it.

The film’s chaos and order is channelled through the performances aswell. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius seems to surf through the world and it’s inhabitants, waves overlapping and washing over him. Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is fierce, and her radicalised agenda grates against Cassius’s apathy, but that soon becomes complicated too. Squeeze (Steven Yeun), is less cool but more politically organised, a potential path for Cassius to walk. Langston (Danny Glover) is an elder, a compromised father/elder figure who’s help is double-edged. And Mr Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), does his best to convince you that you’ve got it all wrong. After all, power is rarely won virtuously.

Sorry To Bother You is a lot, I said that earlier. Because it is so conscious, so hyper aware of the interconnectedness and links between an individual and the society they live in, it can be thrown about for hours, for Riley has a lot to say, and even more for you to think about. But in a film where everything is compromised, by insecurity which ranges from personal to moral to worldwide, an aware acknowledgement and genuine wrestling with those insecurities is incredible to watch in a film, especially one that’s got a kerosene kick of style to boot. It’s a radically political film, it’s unashamed of its political leanings in a world which is not politically neutral, it’s a film which will leave you with mixed feelings, a film which pushes you as a viewer. It will not sit easily with everyone, and that’s good.

It’s at once a warning cry, a rallying cry, and a bitter and despondent cry. But most of all its courageous. To make a film like this, takes courage. And to watch a film like this, you get some of the fruits of that courage. So be brave. Track it down.

-Alex

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Sorry To Bother You (2018)

Irreversible (2002)

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This one is going to be tough.

WARNING – BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF ADULT THEMES, VIOLENCE, RAPE AND MURDER.


 

When you make a film, you make a statement.

When you make a film which concerns the darkest of natural evils, it only succeeds if it accurately reflects those evils in the real world.

The reason why Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noé) is so terrifying, is because it feels so real.


 

But a film is not reality. And what this film does is take the human world, a world in which such awful acts and awful consequences can occur, and make it more real than real. And there’s two big ways that occurs. The first is the film’s structure, the story told from end to beginning in 13 scenes. It’s an experience equivalent to walking up a flight of stairs, the whole set of stairs moving rightwards but you’re walking up them leftwards. It’s a truly disorienting structure, akin to walking up(?) a flight of M. C. Escher staircases. It forces you to reverse engineer everything, something so abstract from our normal processes of daily life. Usually you start with thoughts, motivations, expectations which then lead to action, doing and consequences. But to be forced to refocus your mind, to not grow with and alongside the characters, but to witness their ending’s first and work backwards.  It’s a perspective which forces you to understand the events in a different way.

More than that, it’s a perspective which forces you to encounter the consequences of the actions, and their abhorrent nature, before you can use the framework of character motivation to talk about justice and justification. The film’s guttural, inexpressibly dark actions are presented as raw as can be understood, horrific actions that happen to the humans in front of us. Before we have gotten to know them, their motivations, their loves and fears and tensions and relationships, we witness what they’re capable of. And you are forced to bear witness to it, in some of the most uncompromising cinema and cinematography I have ever seen. You have to reconstruct the story, but not in the way you might in a film noir or crime story. You are not a detective working out a puzzle, because the ending is your starting point. All you can do is witness the strands slowly unweave themselves, as they become darkened by the knowledge of their ending.

It’s style is the other bastion of refocusing your mind, and it is delirious. The cinematography is mind-bending, the equivalent of starting off at the harsh end of an acid trip. It pays no attention to the traditional markers of human experience; scale, distance, orientation, perspective.  It rolls backwards, passing through the walls and skies of Paris with reckless, trippy abandon. It destroys your normal limitations of how you experience the world, but its power is volatile and explosive. It throws you into a cinematic typhoon at points, barreling through space and time completely lost, as a drunk might do on the edge of blackout. And then at other moments, it becomes still and clear, resolutely focused on witnessing the black, pulsing heart of humanity, rape and kill its way through the world.

It’s whole world is tainted,  tainted by the inevitability of its actions, but also as the film moves forward and backwards simultaneously, it’s tainted by the sheer horror of its actions. The irreversible actions you bear witness to, it is impossible for their effects to be irreversible either. There is no going back, no way to un-experience it, even as it moves into a time before those events. The hellish red, a colour which invokes blood, sex, violence, seeps into everything, practically bleeding through the films walls both literally and metaphysically. The scenes that happen earlier, become charged with sickening dread, charged with the knowledge that God might have of knowing how every story ends. And the sound of the film, explored here from pg 87 onwards, is one which matches that hell. One which through music and sound, is discordant, grotesque and nausea inducing (literally, through low-frequency sounds).

And you can’t talk about the hellish experience of the film, without invoking the actors, the human participants who you are anchored to. And never has that anchoring process, of aligning yourself with the characters of a story and sharing their experiences, felt so caustic and soul-destroying. As we watch Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) have their lives up until then obliterated, our empathy is assaulted alongside it, the waves of events crashing over us and rippling through us. The obscene violence, the degrading and unending nightmare of the rape, all of those are endured, channeled through the actors into our vision, experiences so brutal they can often not be lived through. Noé asked his actors to go further, to do more than almost every other film ever made. To put them through the knife-edge of darkness, and it is some of the bravest performances I’ve seen.

The whole film is one of disorder, the most violent assault of chaos on the human soul. And it’s nightmare is so violently unendurable, just like the nightmare of rape is for so many sexual assault and rape survivors. It’s an experience which creates a void space, something that can become impossible to process, reconstruct, to ever properly heal from. The phrase “Time heals all wounds”, feels pitiful and ironic next to Noé’s ending statement, “Time destroys all things”. The one thing I was terrified of, going into this film, was the potential for the films events to not be given the weight they truly represent. Rape especially has had a poor, often misogynistic treatment in cinema history, but violence itself has also become something cartoonish. Countless experiences of action films, superhero movies, war films and all the like, portray the aspects of violence we want to believe in. The thrill of the fight, the valiant defense, the fight against invisible and unknown enemies we don’t need to empathise with.

Irreversible does not do that. It forces you to encounter the colossal, unimaginable weight of the real life actions. The ugly, brutal, cruel and often unpunished nature of humanity’s most irreversible sins. It presents unflinchingly, the closest experience besides real life. And it is a film which sears itself into your consciousness, a film which gives screen violence and screen rape the core-shaking effects it has on the real human psyche. And for Noé to pull that blood-drenched heart out and expose it to you, to confront anyone brave enough to watch it with an experience that mirrors the trauma of real life rather than try to hide it or edit it out, it’s to be supported. Films should not just be made for entertainment, because life is not just entertainment. And art must reflect the world around it, through whatever stylistic forms it chooses. And while the legacy of this film will remain forever muddied, in its violations of normal good taste, decency etc, it proves one thing.

Fearless works of art are irreversible, for better and for worse. That’s the truth.

-Alex

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Irreversible (2002)

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

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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)

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Sometimes you watch a film which reminds you just how plot obsessed we have become in our media landscape. The quest for weightier and more complex narrative continues to drive modern popular cinema, perhaps in a response to the complexities of the great stories being told on our TV screens. However in film sometimes you don’t need a lot of narrative shifts in order to leave a great impression. You Were Never Really Here (2018, Dir. Lynne Ramsay) is an exercise in taut and abrasive storytelling with hardly any meat on the bones to pick on.

We have a hitman hired to seek revenge on child pornographers or paedophiles in general and suddenly n one job things take a turn for the worse. This is essentially the entire narrative of the film, however within this Ramsey challenges the audience and uses every trick in her arsenal to make this short brutal film as effective as possible. Joe is our main character, played by the ever brilliant Joaquin Phoenix, a recent veteran with a gift for reeking bloody justice on the darkest and most depraved of society. His vigilante justice shares more than a little with Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He may be less talkative and perhaps a more endearing a psychopath than Bickle but it is clear that the two share a psycho cinema bloodline. Much like Bickle we feel the nihilism of the main character and his lack of care or sympathy for the dregs of society. Ramsey herself pulls our attention to the comparison between the two nutjobs, we have scenes of Joe walking in the exact same way as the swaggering Bickle. We also have parallels with the political figures of taxi driver, however they are much less sympathetically seen in Lynne Ramsey’s eyes, becoming embroiled deeper and deeper into Joe’s perverse alternative society. Scorsese is clearly the main influence here and it is writ very large for those who are familiar with the 70s masterpiece, however this is still its own film and in essence is more a reworking of the story for a modern age.

As may be apparent this is not exactly a fun watch and at points it can be teeth clenchingly nasty and brutal. Ramsey does not use this subject however to really leer at the violence of the story and instead often chooses to find some kind of prism to view the hyper-violence of Joe through. Be it in a mirror or through the lens of a CCTV camera the audience is often one step removed from whatever horrific thing is happening at the hands of Joe. It is as if Ramsey is reluctant herself to show these actions in stark HD and would rather the audience itself was able to step back and just observe him, like a caged animal ripping apart its lunch.

The film as a whole is more a character study than a video nasty and often spends a lot of time not progressing, Ramsey would rather give Joe the space to think and contemplate what he is doing in his life and in turn let us sit with him and contemplate our own reactions to him as a person. Instead of just powering ahead and letting the audience gawk at the horror of Joe we instead get to see him as a human being, we see him with his mother and the care he brings to her. We hear him be funny with her and also see the violence in his own past which has led to his own insensitivity to violence and his line of work. The film asks us to consider Joe as a real person much more than is often comfortable and as the film moves into its final act you do start to care about him much more than you may expect to. He is a man removed from the world around him, the film pays attention to him but also the spaces he leaves behind and will linger and shift its eye from him to those around him. We see the normality of the society that surrounds him and yet we know that we are not here to really look at that and as Joe spirals out the film starts to become more and more insular, we zone in whilst Joe zones out.

Ramsey here has created a razor-sharp, taut and Brutal meditation on the human psyche at its limits, and the confidence and strength of Phoenix’s performance pummelled me into submission to its savage viewpoint. If I see another film this year that is this tightly constructed and gut punching I will be very impressed.

-Ed

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

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

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

RISK

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

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

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

REWARD

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

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

RESURRECTION

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

-Alex

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Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

Kino-Pravda Docs #7: Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies

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

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

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

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

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

All sorted?


Titicut Follies (1967, Dir. Frederick Wiseman) is a buried secret of a film. Once it’s uncovered, brought back to the living world every single time it’s viewed with new eyes, all of its life comes hurtling back through time with all the force of a fucking hurricane.

The film itself, is direct and simple to comprehend. Wiseman with a minimal crew (2-3) and a single camera, followed the goings on of a state penitentiary for the mentally insane for an extended period of time (29 days to be exact). After shooting a considerable amount of film, he extracted key sequences from his celluloid stock and placed them next to each other, fragments connected without regard for conventional notions of narrative, time or chronology beyond his own personal rhythms. And that covers what is in the film.

But of course, if that was all, I wouldn’t be writing this. Because much in the same way describing a film doesn’t really describe what’s in the film, the sights, the sounds, the emotions and thoughts it gives rise to, neither does my distant summation of Titicut Follies explain what awaits anyone who watches it. Because inside Wiseman’s rhythms and fragments, lays the most direct and brutal confrontation regarding the mentally insane I’ve ever seen. Not against them per se, but against the very nature of what it means to be insane and what it means to be someone who deals with them. There is a reason our asylums are places we build like prisons, to lock out and keep out of view and to be removed, isolated from the larger societal world. Because quite simply, we don’t want to see.

The rhythms of Titicut Follies contain in them many different movements and motions, and it’s people who were captured by its lens are ones which perform and unconsciously dance for us. Sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes disturbing in their engagement and sometimes mind-numbingly dull. If I’m talking about this film in opaque terms, it’s because the film confronts you with that idea. Wiseman offers no constructions to hang onto, no place to pin your tail on the donkey. The film is bookended and interjected by the performance of a musical put on by the inmates, and beyond that the film is a slate for you to inscribe your meaning on. Wiseman’s editing rhythms push the ideas he wants to communicate, but you may not always get them, you may miss them or they may go over your head. But your experience of the film and what you draw from it, this intense and visceral confrontation of those who hover between sanity and insanity, is still one which simultaneously pulls you in and pushes you away.

I’ve gone over the waterfall on this film. It’s rooted itself so intensely into my mind, through personal reasons and filmic ones that I’m struggling to talk about it in more conventional terms. Partially because it’s construction is so subtle, sound blurring and separating between images to keep you from becoming completely disoriented, or camerawork by John Marshall which simply refuses to turn away, which completely focuses on its subject and never cuts away from the gruesome realities of reality.

It’s a relic of its time, but the fury Titicut Follies still provokes is that deep knowledge around you, that injustices and cruelties are perpetrated and accepted not even necessarily because people are evil, but just because people get used to things, people don’t want to confront difficult subjects, and people are often afraid. It’s a film whose power hasn’t degraded, simply because there’s about as little pretense as you can find in the medium of film, one which is so interested in fantasies. It’s a film which goes beyond that petty issue of “who’s really the mad ones, those inside or those outside?”, and becomes a film which is nearly punishing in its ability to crystallise the horrors of going mad, and the dangers of those who are ideally meant to take care of them. In any system of power, there are chances for its abuse. Very rarely have they been captured so honestly, power’s use and its’ misuse.

This film holds a truth, one which suppressed and held hostage by the United States government, one which they tried their best to bury. But it still lives, and every time it’s seen by another person, it’s a testament to the hope that one day things will get better. And since the release of it, the treatment of the mentally ill has improved and been raised considerably. It’s just important to remember what we could lose if we slipped backwards.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs #7: Titicut Follies