Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

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?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars

MulhollandandMaps

There’s something a little schizophrenic about cinema. We take our experiences and influences from the world around us, past present or imagined future and form them into a captured space, a captured time one that is displaced from the actual space and time its occurring in. The film set in Hollywood is not actually the detective’s office, the space ship, the 18th century manor. And when we move into most films (i.e not the avant-garde experimental works) we move into a realm where the words, the performances the details and look of the world that we’re meant to take as being real, sometimes more than reality itself, have all been meticulously designed, written and rewritten, rehearsed and tweaked and refined and sculpted into a sensuous orchestra of sound and image that wants you, desires you to be taken in by it.

And for the cinema goers, those Hollywood dreams mean we watch people perform these highly polished and preened versions of ourselves and who we might wish to be, we watch the regular everyman (or less often woman) snatched out of their existence, usually humdrum and quaint in a way we slightly shamefully relate to. And we watch as they are vaulted upwards, their talents are required or recognised in a way the real world rarely if ever brings to us. Luke Skywalker goes from shooting womp rats in his T-16, destined for a life of obscurity on a desert planet, to the fighter of the greatest evil the galaxy has ever seen. And only he can do it, his special privileged genes mean no one else can take his place. He’s not expendable, and more importantly he’s the only one who can succeed where everyone else will fail. Darth Vader would not be killed halfway through by a stray Rebel laser.

Exceptions to my overgeneralisation are overwhelming, and I’m grateful for it. Hundreds, thousands of films which don’t follow that structure, of focusing only on the extraordinary. But that’s where film can often find its greatest power, its simplest power because everyone deep down wants to be somebody. In a book called The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, there’s a phrase in it which talks about how the temptation for riches and wealth is not as hard to overcome as the temptation to be important, to have status or just simply be remembered.

He doesn’t agree we should deny that ambition, and neither do I. But ambitions are double-edged swords, the very things which lay in our hearts, burning in our chests at our core can consume us, make us hollow husks consumed by our relentless desire to achieve these goals. And so in a world filled with people who make their living inhabiting other people, who live in a world where they do their best to inhabit a different one, who are the type of people to be attracted to that world and what happens to them? More importantly, why do their dreams get so corrupted by the reality of their world?

Mulholland Drive (2001, Dir. David Lynch) and Maps To The Stars (2014, Dir. David Cronenberg) both have a response to this, and it’s perhaps important to note that these two long revered cult directors (both David’s) have for all their merits been considered outsiders in the highest echelons of the film world. They are cinematic artists, but they are not cinematic businessmen. And yet that put them both in a position to deliver stunningly different but strikingly cutting accounts of the plague in those stars we lionise so much.

WARNING: IT’S ABOUT TO GET VERY SURREAL.


DREAMS

In a film so surreal and entangling, it seems rather counterintuitive to start talking about Mulholland Drive‘s links with reality. It would be a lot easier to talk about Lynch and the subconscious, how his films which purposefully wrestle with not fitting neatly together should best be appropriately attached to one psychological schema or another. This character is a manifestation of this idea, this character’s psychological split represents this idea coming into collision with reality etc. I’m not going to pursue that, other people more knowledgeable in their fields can provide you with those analyses. For me, Mulholland Drive will always occupy this space which grates against its separation and segmenting. There’s no clear indicators as to what’s his version of reality you’re meant to buy into. Sure you can make cases for some parts being “real”, some parts being “dreams or fantasies” but the whole thing blends into such a writhing singular beast that it’s hard to tell where one bit ends and one bit begins, and it was made that way on purpose. A film is a dream, not a copy of the world. It can be close or it can be far away, but those who get so wrapped up in it can end up being ruined by it.

So what am I saying? Well Mulholland Drive‘s is a film where its characters are haunted by their fantasies which haunt them, fantasies of dreamed grandeur and stardom, of nightmarish ghosts and strange conspiracies, of possibly imagined mysteries and possibly “real” kindled romances.  Wrapped in murky illusory shrouds, the people who inhabit the world of Mulholland Drive are illusions and stereotypes which develop along dark and mysterious paths. One of Naomi Watts characters’ Betty, is a “small town girl with big dreams” of becoming a Hollywood actress. Her wooden acting is just a mask for her powerful scene stealing, scene making abilities. Her naiveté and stereotypical “pure wholesomeness” mask her subconscious desire for Rita. Her entire performance is one side of a coin, the other of the broken disillusioned actress Diane.  On the flip side, Laura Harring’s dual performance, one of the amnesic loving fantasy of Rita, the other of the painful achingly cruel fantasy of Camilla, point to an item in this world of near fetishistic obsession, one which torments as much as it brings pleasure.

Beyond this, it’s a realm of bizarre shaded sketches of conspiratorial figures, of actors whose role is not clear to the audience. Figures which populate this strange surreal landscape of movie-making, of the “dream factory”. The whole of the setting literally starts to personify that name, swallowing up its cast in this fractured, distorted dream factory.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? They’re all on desperate searches, for their dream career, explanations, revenge. They’re all people who play roles, who transform themselves, bend to the wills of those around them and expect the world to do the same for them. And this sun-soaked swamp which swallows them up, is one which presents nothing tangible for the characters to grasp onto. The very form of the film even challenges them, with its sequence of events which seem to occur with no clear beginning or end, scenes matching each other but diverging on different paths. The land of dreams is one which is literally that, one which has no anchor for anyone to grab onto. Entire characters, storylines, scenes and worlds vanish, get morphed and transfigured in the film.

In a world so devoid of all the ropes which tether us to our reality,  how can anyone expect not to be driven mad?

REALITY

Stacking up against Mulholland Drive, it’s strange to talk about Maps To The Stars as being the sane, rational film in this comparison, namely because the film is anything but. In its own fascinating and brutally clinical fashion, Maps To The Stars is just as disorienting, creepy, numbly horrifying and spends a great deal of time blurring the inner psyches of its characters (which are becoming dangerously unhinged) and the “real” world around them.

You could say this is a more in focus look at the world of Hollywood. Although Mullholland Drive is set in Los Angeles, its hard separation from any landscape we might encounter in the real world makes it difficult to bring it down to Earth. Maps To The Stars though, shows what happens when you bring the magnifying glass close to the mud. You see a lot of dirt.

The dreams and desires of its cast are so perverted by the world they live in, that it’s horror of the world it’s looking at lays in its silence, in the lack of noise people make over actions and events a less exposed person might find at least, emotionally difficult. From child deaths to 13-year-old drug habits to cynically motivated publicity stunts involving a dying girl, everything in their world is channeled to serve their own self-interest, to help promote their brand. Every action becomes reconstituted as a transaction which takes place, sex is just a way of getting a part, jobs are just a way to climb the ladder while eating shit, the glamour of the exteriors’ fail to hide the sickly shallow, vapid personalities they express in pissing contests with each other.  Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (the Star Wars talk was relevant earlier, since he shot Empire Strikes back, 1980 Dir. Irvin Kerschner) look upon this world like you might look at insects in a glass box. He never makes the mistake of putting us in their shoes. Because their shoes are either empty or filled with shit.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? These people are haunted piranhas, who would devour each other if they could. The only characters who engender emotion are those who are visibly tormented, either by ghosts as Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore) is tormented by her dead mother who was a cult cinema hero, and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is tormented by a dead girl who tricks him into strangling his child co-star, or Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) who is Benjie’s sister, who is humiliated and physically assaulted by her father (John Cusack) and humiliated again by Havanna. She responds by bashing Havanna’s face in with an award and committing suicide in an incestuous marriage ceremony with her brother, one which had set of the chain of events which led to her original separation.

If this reads as convoluted, it’s because it is. In this hermetically sterile world, these people almost operate like a virus, incestuous (metaphorically and literally) breeding with each other and clawing the flesh from each other in an attempt to maintain control. No act, no crime is too big not to be swept under the rug or spun by a PR doctor. And the world they live in? One which enables them, even encourages them. The money sent their way is gargantuan, enabling them to live in worlds divorced from the common reality of most people’s everyday life. Their sterile kingly estates, no matter how luxurious and pristine, trap them in with their own ugliness, their own trauma, their own mind numbing boredom.

In a world where everyone is devoid of what makes human experience meaningful, how can anyone not expect to be driven mad?


HOLLYWOOD

There’s a lot going on under the surface, you don’t need two surreal films by two cult directors to tell you that. But for a world which can turn its lens to every part of the world and beyond, where people can dress up as kings and queens and Zygons and big robots hitting other big robots and orcs and elves and policemen and thieves and on and on and on and on it goes, never-ending the amount of roles to inhabit, of other people’s skin to wear, why does the world that produces these images of our reality seem so ugly underneath? Cinema is the most vain bitch of all the arts, and a tradition which started with Billy Wilder’s seminal classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950) of exposing that dark underbelly that lies beneath cinema’s Mt. Olympus is more alive than ever. Film rarely has enough daring to challenge the people behind the finished product, and maybe it’s why both films you find yourself schizophrenically entranced and repulsed, bored and yet still paying attention, confused and yet disturbingly clear.

After all, you’ve got to be a bit mad to spend your life re-making reality. To spend years performing to a black box, only for people to sit in a dark room and watch things which never really happened. Crazier still to love it.

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-Wallpapers-2

-Alex

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Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

Guardians OF The Galaxy Vol. 2

It’s getting more and more difficult to imagine a time when sci-fi was seriously uncool. Not just slightly still uncool as it is to be obsessed with it, but in the it was something to be kept hidden from the world. It’s very ironic that of all the places that could have become synonymous with nerd culture, the stereotype that grew was in the basement. Even now as its exposed in the light of mainstream culture, with Hollywood’s biggest actors signing themselves up to play aliens and goblins and all sorts, it still retains some of its outsider, underground status. The biggest tentpole film of the year comes from an obscure run of Marvel comics which would have remained hidden in basements if it had not been resurrected.

Movies can often reflect the times you live in as well as the culture it came from. The ironic, sarcastic, self-deprecating and misaligned heroes of the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Dir. James Gunn) are very much a reflection of today. It’s difficult to imagine Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Joker bickering like children at the dinner table, clever remarks and funny one liners matched only by characters trying to explain their unspoken romance with references to Cheers, a live-action US sitcom from the 80s. We carry our cultures with us, and in 30 years a new generation will understand these techniques even less. And while its impossible to say that any one person was responsible for what was in this film, it’s important to note its mix and remix of timeless themes and time specific aspects (songs, jokes) is what makes this series work.

One of the brutal facts involved in this sequel’s judgement is the fact that people are already in on the jokes this time. A large unspoken part of why people talk about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to returning to a franchise or story is because the director can’t get away with as much as when he’s introducing the world for the first time. This is why the jokes maybe fall a little flatter this time, why as I sat in the cinema I could predict a few of the one-liners a couple of seconds before they land. Humour always lands hardest when the balanced scales between the audience and the director/joke-teller are weighted heavily towards the latter. When you’ve already got a whole film’s worth of previous material in your memory, the film has to stretch much harder to ring laughs out of an audience who have, to put it bluntly, seen it all before.

That’s not to completely let Vol. 2 completely off the hook though. A style needs to constantly evolve to remain fresh and interesting. The first time you hear a joke its funny. The second time round its less so. A couple more times and it becomes downright aggravating. Even being ironic gets annoying, and Vol. 2 suffers from a constant struggle of trying to undercut itself in an attempt to balance its humour with drama. Honestly on multiple occasions I was trying to decipher whether a scene was meant to be serious or a soon to be joke, and only with the help of its dramatic orchestral score (not its 70s/80s jams) can you actually orient yourself and figure out whether a scene’s meant to be funny or not. It’s sad I guess that the film is being crushed under the weight of its own previous success, much like Joss Whedon experienced with his Avengers Assemble (2012)/Avengers:Age of Ultron (2015) projects. Lightning can’t strike in the same place twice.

So what’s left? Well there’s a serious amount of spectacle going on here. This is really the highest level of money in filmmaking, and as a result no expense is spared. The world is as fully realised as can be, the relentlessly good CGI covering for any of the practical sets and worlds built, all of which no detail or expense is spared. Really the set pieces in this film remind me of video games and their boss fights, worlds which simply up until now would be too inhumanly expensive to even attempt recreating on film. It’s strength also lies in its ability to actually have colour, to make it more of a fantasy and pull itself away from the brown-grey colour palette of “gritty realism”. It’s world feels tangible at time, and as a result a lot of its more technical parts can rely on tried and tested classic methods to get its point across, when its production design is doing most of the work for it. You won’t find any experimental editing or cinematography here, but then if you’re looking for that you’ve come to the wrong film.

So while its humour takes a beating and its spectacle is only a backdrop, what holds it in place? Well I found it in its core, the same place which made the first one catalyse so well; it’s characters. The film really stretches its legs in this department, and manages to keep its spectacle playing second fiddle to the character’s and their relationships. It’s coincidental that in a film where it’s villain is literally a giant brain, its primary concern and what keeps it focused is what goes on in the heart. From its ramshackle family dynamics, ranging from the explosive to the intimate,both of which don’t feel mawkish or cringe at all, to the introduction of a character who is an empath (can feel other people’s feelings) Mantis (Pom Klementieff). In all of the monumental CGI spectacle, Vol. 2 never loses sight of the grounding it desperately needs in just what these character’s feel, about themselves and about each other.

The messed up ensemble family dynamic was and always has been Guardians strongest pillar to stand on, and credit to James Gunn for managing to stay mostly on that track. I always rated the first installment of this series as the best thing to come out of the MCU, since it’s the film that’s least concerned with the “super” part of superheroes. As this film shows, it’s difficult to care about gods unless they’re human. I mean, its shiny aspects of irony and nostalgia and flashy soundtrack may stick out more, but it’s the very human heart which keeps the film from completely disintegrating into a very colorful vibrant mess. It’s strange watching it, because the film itself seems pulled in so many different directions it can be disorienting and overwhelming at times; family drama, heady concept film, mindless popcorn fodder, cheesy 80s mining of nostalgia, operatic violence and low-brow brutish humour. It really is a reflection of the times we live, of remix culture, the obsession with the 80s (which I’m still not on board with). witty bantering and CGI dream worlds.

I’m not saying its a perfect film. But it’s a film that reminds me why I go to the cinema. It was a film I got lost in, both ironically and un-ironically. Even in its weaker moments, its something to enjoy, cinema which does its best to make its audience actually enjoy themselves. It’s power lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously, and while not everything lands, does it really matter? Like your family, not every moment with them is the best or worst in your world. The point is that they’re there around you, their presence and their personalities more than enough comfort in what would otherwise be the empty black void of space.

-Alex

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

The Handmaiden

WARNING: The following blog post, like the film itself deals with some very frank and explicit mature themes, sexual and non-sexual and please be noted of that before reading on.

There’s a saying about buses. You wait and wait for the bus which never arrives, and then suddenly two or three or all of them come at once. It’s not Shakespeare, but it constantly resurfaces in my mind. While I try to look at every film on its own terms, I find it humourous than in my life, I should have experienced two films concerned with lesbianism, BDSM themes, and the undercutting of audience expectations in such a short space of time, the first being The Duke Of Burgundy (2014, Dir. Peter Strickland) and now The Handmaiden (2017, Dir. Park Chan-Wook). Of course they’re not two sides of the same coin, but I find the parallel too relevant to pass up.

The Handmaiden is lots of things, most of them shrouded in shadows until they’re suddenly brought out into the light. Primarily, it’s an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Taken from its original setting in Victoria era England, it’s replanted in 1930’s colonial Korea under Japanese rule. It gains much from this, allowing the director to fuse his own culture into the film’s DNA, melding quite literally its English heritage and its Asiatic influence into every part of the film. Most prominently in the mansion which the characters inhabit for half of the film, as the English style manor, (which echoes the Manderley estate found in Rebecca (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)) literally has a Japanese inspired wing attached to its side. This, alongside with far more subtle and delicate introductions, shows how impressively a story can be transported across the artistic and cultural boundaries we might unconsciously draw when placing a work into a particular time, a particular history.

One thing The Handmaiden might be is not necessarily timeless, but certainly in that place where it becomes a lot harder to keep track of. It’s world is isolated, enclosed in itself. You could imagine months, years passing in its languid flow and barely noticing. It’s characters are so interested in each other, that everything else falls away beyond their own commitments and desires to each other, or against each other. It’s world is one of suffocating isolated beauty and cruelty in equal measures, like an alluring but poisonous flower.

Another thing The Handmaiden might be is profoundly intelligent, for better and for worse. I find it wryly amusing that in a blog whose name literally means truth, it should be so concerned with a film which is based on so many levels of intimate deception. But the genuine pleasure of watching (more on that later) the film is mainly involved in its careful intricate layers being revealed to you, as your expectations are constantly conned, the nature of the hustle like playing cards with someone using a stacked deck. You may feel cheated at times, furious you have been taken in so completely, but its a tribute to the film’s quiet entrancing power.

One thing The Handmaiden could be is incredibly sensitive, both in its eroticism and its handling of its themes. It’s world is muted and dreamy, and its’ two main inhabitants, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and the Handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) find that fragile blooming of love in a nest of vipers, which Park Chan-Wook displays most intensely in moments small and large. In small moments, a delicate tooth filing while the Lady bathes (much weirder in text form than in the imagery) and in large moments, in intense erotically charged sex scenes. The scenes probably will provoke strong analysis’s  from those who love to politicise film and its makers, but I believe you’ll be hard pressed to discover more genuine and more sensitively crafted scenes of intimacy in film that are this uncovered and open. Furthermore while they’re arguably crafted in a voyeuristic way for the camera, this is integral to that key aspect of cinema, of watching without being seen, all of us Peeping Tom’s and voyeuristically taking part in their relationship, just as the men surrounding them try to do.

The thing The Handmaiden could be about is those power dynamics which take place in those hidden secret realms of men and women, those dark corners where perversions and desires grow in our hearts, which can turn them black and twist and distort those around us to places we don’t even let ourselves imagine, much less speak out loud to each other. It’s opulence, its exquisite surroundings, its beautiful landscapes and obsessively fetishised clothing hide such ugliness underneath, an ugliness which lies in the revelry of pain and the inflicting of it, on themselves or others. Those power dynamics of darkness twist round these characters, and its only through outmaneuvering the black hearts, not by appealing to their better nature that our main protagonists can allow themselves the freedom and the ability to allow something light to grow from their darkness. It’s power dynamics feel horribly real because good doesn’t triumph through its own virtue, it triumphs because it’s guarded, kept secret, kept hidden while its murderers are pitted against each other.

I can’t be completely sure about anything in The Handmaiden, it would be missing the point of the film. What I can say is Park Chan-Wook’s work is elaborately and intricately well crafted, it’s subject matter both emotionally and intellectually strong and twisting and at each level its style is unique and entrancing, even if it might not be to everyone’s taste. There’s a lot of truth in that, even if I can’t be 100% sure of it.

-Alex

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The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

MM-DEER_HUNTER

I definitely have something to say about this film. I’m 100% sure of it. I’m not entirely sure of what I have to say on it, but it has definitely provoked me into thought.

The Deer Hunter (1978, Dir. Michael Cimino) is a landmark film, regardless of the opinion surrounding it. It stands in that pantheon of 70s films made by the New Hollywood era filmmakers which was not only an international phenomenon at the time of release (among other things, happened to find out it was my grandmother’s favourite film), but it has transcended its space-time to be one of those films that you just “have to see” if you love cinema.

So what do I have to say about it that’s not been said already? Well with the passing of Michael Cimino still in recent memory, I wanted to examine what has made the film endure and what made it capture the hearts and minds of people so successfully in the first place.

The Deer Hunter follows a small group of friends in a steelworks town in Pennsylvania, all of them from a Russian American background. We’re guided through they’re world, from its opening in the steel mill itself, their downtime in the bar, a long illustrious wedding sequence (which I think must be the greatest one ever filmed), and more. I’d like to say we inhabit this world more than anything, because we spend time with all of these characters, who put the plot on the back-burner to allow us time to actually see who they are in the context of this world. We watch them in their loud moments, in happy moments and angry moments. The three dimensionality of everyone involved is paramount to the world,  and it helps to capture that feeling of life when there is no “supporting cast”, just people. It’s unbelievable how well this film manages to observe “mirth”, that warm joyous feeling of spending time celebrating with the one’s you love and know, even if they can’t keep it together for very long.

It’s this world then, this world of people who have strong faults but are not evil, that feels so close to our own and by spending so much time in it you become entrenched in their humanity. So when the film jarringly cuts to Vietnam, and we bear witness to the extensively stark scenes of Russian roulette, it hits hard just how terrifying the situation is. I found it very interesting how restrained the cinematography is in this sequence, as I feel the scenes are so intense that naturally the cinematography could have been ramped up to 11 to match it, but instead its quite restrained, allowing the performances to take center stage.

When we return from Vietnam there are no grand confrontations. I think what elevates the film in its highest points is its very absence of conventional dramatics. Mike (Robert DeNiro) and Linda (Meryl Streep) growing closer together is not a torrid love affair against all odds, it’s this quiet intimate desire for closeness that speaks to the unsaid loneliness and isolation in both of them. Mike comes back to the world fundamentally changed, evoking an experience that almost every veteran must have faced returning to civilian life. That disconnect between what you see, what you live through in wartime and how to adjust to those around you who just can’t understand. Mike’s desire to save his friends, Steven (John Savage) who’s been left with only one arm in a mobilised wheelchair and Nick (Christopher Walken) who went AWOL in Vietnam, is the one thing which cements the two periods of his life and what pushes him to return.

In the climax of the film then, the piece most ripe for dramatic confrontation, we find instead this muted, desperate pleading to save his friend. With the cinematic history of films set in the Vietnam war, the likes of the hellish Platoon (1986, Dir. Oliver Stone) and the nightmarish Apocalypse Now (1979, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola) it is strange to see a film that is so interested in rescues, in salvaging anything left rather than the hellish destruction of it all. The forces of evil in the film is the nature of war and the other side, and it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in the camps of the Americans treating the North Vietnamese POW’s. It’s final scene, the ambiguity lending itself to those wanting to wield it as a weapon to condemn the film for being pro/anti-American is ironic to see considering the follow history of extremely anti-war films that Oliver Stone would build his career on.

But all I’ve done so far is just recount its narrative. So why did the film itself capture the imagination so powerfully, not an escapism blockbuster like we experience today but a thoughtful, emotional reckoning with American history of the time? I really can’t say for sure. Robert DeNiro’s presence must have been a massive draw, but according to my mother it was “the film which people who didn’t go to the movies went to see”. So what drew them in?

I’ll never know, I can only look at why it deserved such attention. Cinema’s history is filled to the brim with the exceptional, the out of the ordinary, the piece of gold among the rocks. What makes The Deer Hunter so very compelling is these actors are doing their best to play real people, people you imagine being on your level. When you watch someone like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942, Dir. Michael Curtiz) you wish you could be friends with him. When you watch Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter you feel like you are friends with him. No one is idolised in the film, no one escapes the ravages both minor and major of war. And the film is not a piece of propaganda either, even though it was held up as one by both sides. For a film so mired in the politics of the time, its focus lies on the human costs and interactions. It evokes an experience that most drafted men in America must have experienced, going off to fight a war they had little to no say in. From the ground, the politics of it all seems very far away, and I believe this must have resonated strongly.

It’s also a far more emotionally sensitive film that what had defined the American New Wave at the time. All the main characters are good guys, and I found it easy to imagine that before the war the Vietcong shown in the film could have inhabited the same space. The violence corrupts men, like an infection, and through Nick it consumes him. Under the strain of the psychological trauma, the heroin to numb the pain, its easy to see how someone can truly lose themselves so far they can’t be brought back.

I like The Deer Hunter because it’s an epic of people on a small-scale. It’s really about people, and that’s the most interesting topic out there. It’s about the long internal struggles we have with ourselves, often within us in the silence of our souls. I guess it’s a film that at its core, everyone can relate to, and that’s what makes a lie, a film filled with actors and staged action, feel honest. That’s what makes it hold the truth.

My mother told me when she saw the film in a cinema in Switzerland, behind her was a Asian couple, possibly Vietnamese, and the woman cried through the whole film. Then when they left the cinema, my mother and her partner went to dinner at a restaurant and the Asian couple also happened to be there, and she couldn’t stop crying through the whole dinner. She could have been crying for multiple reasons, for the films political views or for the noted poor treatment and one-dimensionality of the Vietnamese people, I’ll never know why she was crying. I just like to believe she was crying because it was sad.

-Alex

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The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

The Holy Mountain – ???

the-holy-mountain-french-film-poster

 

I mean…I don’t really…

How do I even start this one?


Words don’t do this film justice, so here’s the trailer. Which doesn’t do it justice either.

I don’t think there’s an inherent value in pushing limits for the sake of pushing limits. Call me crazy but I’m not a fan usually of extreme cinema, cinema which pushes visuals to such an overpowering degree that its messages and themes beyond the visuals have to be explained externally through directorial interviews. We watch cinema through a frame, and cinema which frames the illegible only transmits the illegible, or since the act of interpreting is done by both a director who makes the film, and the audience who sees the film, the audience interprets something completely different or unintended. The famous example of people starting their own fighting clubs after watching  Fight Club Dir. David Fincher, 1999) can show how even when transmitting an idea, it’s other parts, namely its irony at the whole premise of the clubs themselves can be lost.

The benefit of extreme cinema though, in all its forms some I like more than others, can show us how much power the image still holds over us, more so than the word which can only conjure up images in our head, but when actually seeing images beyond anything you ever imagined at the time, it reminds you just how visceral the cinema experience can be, removed from its usual standard gloss. Finally, its other benefit is that it again works as a transaction for the alternatives in the audiences, the more open you are in mind and spirit, the more you get out of these abstract, unconventional pieces of art. But that’s a rabbit hole that one can fall too far down into, one that leads to cinema I can’t stand (read this for my thoughts on an example).

I didn’t know what I expected when I went into this film, and I still don’t quite know what I saw as I sit here writing this. Nevertheless, this film needs to be seen to even be believed, let alone understood. It’s made me question some of those tenets I expanded on above. It’s also, fucking genius.

I have a post it note stuck above my computer that says “write something timeless or something radical of the time”. The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) is both and more. It is a film of genuine astonishment, a testament to the power of cinema in its most abstract, most peculiar and most visceral form. A film which contains the images of a true surrealist, someone who takes the real world and inverts it into itself in profound and weird and bizarre contortions and distortions. It is also a a film made by someone who has faith, in what that’s for you to find out and interpret and for Jodorowsky to know, and its definitely made by someone who’s spent a lot of the time on a drug induced spectral plane. To be able to create a cinematic capsule which can help truly transmit those visuals and those impressions, requires someone to have first experienced them, and then to be far more than competent (and just the right amount of crazy) at imagining them into the real world to be captured by a cinema camera.

It’s hard to talk about the film in non-mystical terms, as obscure as my language may appear. It’s just a work which exists on the symbolic level, and the reason why I love this film as opposed why I would dislike a work like this is because the visuals contained are not exploitative of the body. Usually when we watch films we might term extreme cinema, it is usually due to the nature of exploiting the body, either through graphic sex or graphic violence or graphic acts. It uses the body as a vessel to convey ideas, and as a result, the impressions are so strong of what we’re seeing directly done to a body that at least for me, it becomes a moot point as to what the images represent because that’s not the primary intention of the scene.

To bring it back down to Earth, imagine a film (or watch a film) like The Human Centipede (Dir. Tom Six, 2009) which the director himself said to be partially a reflection on fascism. Now regardless of how genuine that claim was, by having a concept which is so alien to the discussion of fascism (read: the entire concept of the human centipede), and one which is explored so graphically through the body, I just can’t help but shake my head ruefully. Everything can be art I’m a firm believer, but what makes good art is an understanding of the tools you’re working with. Graphic exploitation with indirect thematic links behind it will never properly transmit any other than graphic exploitation images.

But what makes The Holy Mountain different then, is that while there are certainly some strange and overpowering visuals throughout, they are visuals which on their own are overpowering through their composition, not through the exploitation of the actor’s bodies. The meeting of the alchemist in the rainbow room (what a sentence) is such an overpowering visual because of its aspects which inspire awe, not voyeurism. The bold colours, the thief moving forward knife in hand, the alchemist in one of the most amazing costumes I’ve ever seen. All those aspects and more help to build a cinematic experience, not sink us lower into the mud. Most of those who watch The Human Centipede or Salo are the morbidly curious, rather than the insane or genuinely mentally imbalanced, but morbid curiosity imbalanced against other things is depressingly empty.

And beyond that, beyond the pure immediate visual language, lays a film which is so rich in its themes and ideas that I just can’t help but get enraptured by it. It’s a film which I feel can be enjoyed how you want, whether just for the sheer absurdity of its visuals, or for the strong metaphysical backbone behind it. It certainly requires you to approach it with an open mind, and I can’t say how much you’ll get out of it, but at the very least I can say you’ll see some of the most interesting images ever put on the silver screen, just for their sheer imagination.And if cinema is the land of dreams, then what a dream this one is. And like all dreams, we need to do as the alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) says and wake up, “real life awaits us.” One can only dream for so long.

-Alex

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The Holy Mountain – ???

Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

leviathan_teaser

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?


Leviathan is a tough film to watch, both in its subject matter and the way it’s presented. The film is a surreal trip to the ocean onboard a North American fishing trawler, and the sensory recordings of several GoPro’s strapped to the boat, to the chains and winches, to the crew, to the fish. Like a true fly on the wall, the camera gets everywhere, presenting angles that jar and disassociate you from feeling fixed at any point. The cameras simply watch, for indiscriminate amounts of time at various places; one of the crew members falling asleep in the kitchen area watching television, coursing through the sea alongside the ship as fish guts and waste are dumped  just ahead of it, watching hungry seagulls upside down or watching nets be hung out  from the top of the ship. Maybe watching the crew behead fish or watching a bird try desperately to clamber over a wooden board too tall for it.

This is the film you’re going to watch, for its one hour and twenty-eight minute running time. It is not the best film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the worst. I’m sure it will have its fair share of detractors for being an abstract, completely unconventional experimental work that lingers on far too long (even my patience was stretched a little thin by its last scene), and maybe the detractors are right. But that’s not what this series is about. This is about documentaries that promote that ethos that Dziga Vertov was aiming for back in the 20s, of the camera being used as a way to show the deeper truth behind what we regularly saw. And Leviathan (Dir. Lucien Castanig-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) does that, phenomenally.

In a world where most of the food we eat is seen only on our dinner plates, the brief visions of the food industry we are shown can be quite alarming. I do not just mean the mass industrialised slaughter of animals that makes up the fast food industry, I mean the inherent necessary cruelty that comes with the killing of any animal for food. Especially in the Western world, there is a strong distance between the actual production of food (the raising and slaughtering of animals), the preparation of food (i.e cooking) and the eating of the food. A chicken unfortunately, does not come pre-breaded and pre-deep fried, already separated into drumsticks, breasts and wings.

Leviathan, if anything shows the pure visceral nature of an industrial process of catching and killing fish. In a spirit more akin to body horror than nature documentary, stunning and graphic scenes of the catches of the day being prepared (read: having their heads chopped off and being gutted, or with skate having their wings hacked off with a machete) are shown close up, in detail. The knee-jerk in all of us wants to say that it’s being exploitative, just using the power of the camera to shock us, to show us what’s really going on behind our freshly battered fish and chips. But as the shot lingers, I for one began to see the mechanical efficiency one must develop when working with animals as supply. In the same way a master carpenter knows how to hammer a nail perfectly, these fisherman who work for 20 out of 24 hours a day must be masters at what they do, the fearsome nature of the job leaving little room for ethics or compassion. The sea is not compassionate, and those who take to it must do what it takes.

I am not either implicitly endorsing or condemning what they do, and neither is the film. It’s not interested in the why, merely the here, now and how. As we watch the thick industrial duty chains coming out of the deep, the clank and din of machinery in motion, ugly dissonant noises fighting against the constant thrash of the sea, the whole film ends up functioning as an abstract immersion tank (perhaps this is not a coincidence, the two directors working at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) as the camera becomes a proxy for watching this profoundly alien seascape. Watching a scene attached to a crew helmet where nets are violently shaken out, before returning to the scene from the top of the mast of the ship, it evokes the curious ballet-esque nature of the machines, a link perhaps most famously exploited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

If anything, the best metaphor I can imagine describing the experience is like watching CCTV cameras if the CCTV cameras were tripping out. It’s a testament to countering every notion we have of modern cinema. The shots are blurry, sometimes out of focus, the camera wildly rotating and dipping into the sea, often turning the world not just upside down but around the entire 360 degree axis. The whole world of the ship becomes a globe being viewed from the outside in, filled with extreme close-ups of unknowns to us. Ominous blood-red shapes rise suddenly out of the water, only to register slowly as a net. But the net floods the vision in bold colours and the sea floods the aural senses, so that its presence becomes no less disturbing even though we’ve managed to make out what it is. At other times, the hypnotic clatter of a crew member gathering masses of clams from on deck. Again, the immersion tank, stripped of all pretenses of narrative or overarching intellectual provocations, it becomes a chamber to best convey the raw sensory flood engaged  in this inhuman landscape.

Films are often compared to dreams, and this one is no different. It’s hypnotic elements are just as likely to send you to sleep as they are to induce a strange dissonant zen state in you, so the experience you will find in watching this, I honestly cannot say. But Leviathan is a film which documents without words and language, in more pure cinema, the seafaring life of these fishermen. It also is a sensory experience which, separate from a critical appraisal or damning, is one which stays with you. And finally, it is a film which provokes awe and curiosity and strangeness and repulsion and fear and boredom and more. It expresses elements of the world film can gloss over, and by allowing us to linger in these emotions that stories often do not have time for, it creates a reaction which cut me far deeper than any traditional documentary might have.

It will not be for everyone, but its a work of cinema. Whether it provokes rapture or boredom or anger, it’s a piece of the world that wouldn’t work in any other medium, and that makes it something I appreciate here. Like the best cinema, words don’t do it justice, it needs to be seen to understood. Even the trailer doesn’t do it justice, because the whole film is an experience that requires you to be immersed, just like its camera, in the raging leviathans on the deck and under the sea.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan