Kino-Pravda Docs: #9 – Hale County This Morning, This Evening

hale_county_this_morning_this_evening

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?


Documentaries are not always the easiest things to watch. They look at the world in a different way, often a more reflective way and as is the case with RaMell Ross’s documentary feature, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, documentaries can create experiential rides which aren’t bound by the laws of common film practice. There is no conventional narrative or conventional narration, it’s a documentary which is not bound by the constraints of stories or the usual guided tour structure documentaries often follow. Hale County decides instead to connect the world of Hale County, Alabama to anyone who watches, through the space, the time and the inhabitants of it.

Ross’s camera orbits around certain people more than others; we follow Daniel Collins who is at Selma University on a scholarship for basketball, and his mother Mary Collins who has spent a large part of her life at the catfish plant which is the area’s largest employer. We spend time with Latrenda ‘Boosie’ Ash, and Quincy Bryant, a couple who endure life’s volatile rhythms while trying to raise their children. We meet Tomeko Elliott, Bert Williams & Nathaniel Davis, basketball players who’s moments in front of the camera resonate long after their image dissapates off screen. And there is the voluminous other faces and people of Hale County, figures which orbit in the backgrounds of images, in the soundscapes which ride along, who are just as important and rich in life to the camera’s eyes and ears as anyone else in the film.

And when the film is not accompanying the figures of Hale County’s space and time, it focuses on the place itself. Time-lapse photography of road bends, of basketball nets against the overwhelming night sky, of the animals, buildings,landscapes and the delicate, complicated images of life which have been given existence, and bottled by RaMell Ross to be witnessed. Life is presented how it often occurs, without commentary. As the smoke from a tire fire rises through the sunlight and treetops, the silence of the sequence provokes you to think, to see a reflection of life thrown back at you and to inspire (no doubt) multiple interpretations, multiple avenues of thought. The film’s imagery provokes thought, but it does not tell you what to think about. RaMell’s faith in the pure cinematic effect is breathtaking at times, as life’s various moments do more to inspire reflection and understanding than many many pieces of art I’ve seen.

But it is not just an ambigious force, unknown and left to the audience to mould it into whatever they want to see. RaMell weaves images together, physically impossible images which evoke a spirtiual understanding. At one point, Kyrie Bryant, a young child is having a bath and ends up holding the moon in her hands. I’m not clever enough to see what RaMell Ross was probably trying to evoke with it, but the experience and composition of frames such as these reach for a connection with the world, and with nature that goes beyond our normal understanding. Or as the smoke continues to rise from the tire fire, we are audio witnesses to a conversation RaMell has off camera with another man, explicitly discussing his intentions to grow a greater understanding of the black image through the use of photos and cinema. Hale County has an orbit (to use the film’s terminology) but it is a multifaceted one, concerned with a human experience as much as a black experience, and plenty more beyond that.

More and more as I get older, I realise that what you choose to put in front of the camera is where filmmakers stand. And it is important to be reminded that life is worth capturing, worth understanding, and worth showing to the world. A lot of Hale County’s worth stems from the sheer sincerity, respect and genuine love Ross possesses for the life of this world. That place of understanding drives what RaMell chooses to capture, and how it is captured. Life’s turmoil and life’s hope are presented in a way which reflects reality in a much closer way, without fictional order and dramatic hysterics. And in moving past that facade, he allows us to see Hale County and its residents, its space, its time in a way which resonates much closer to all of our lives. And that is worth championing. Because our nights and days are not infinite, but our experiences  of the world are, and our connections to them only continue to grow.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #9 – Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Kids (1995)

Kids

Kids get old. And kids get complicated. Children grow into older beings, they change over the course of life and develop. Into what? Whatever makes them, moulds them. The experiences they gather impress themselves on them; the conversations, the actions, the dreams and lies and everything else in between. All the time they spend moving through their own cities and their own social connections, it builds up like the pages of a book, one after another.

Kids (1995, Dir. Larry Clark) has gotten old. And the impression Kids leaves, it’s legacy, is still just as complicated and ambigious as before. Kids is not the unknown debut it used to be, it comes to any new generation with a different understanding of the one which existed with it in 1995. All the impressions it’s made on those who watched it, those who were inspired by it and revolted by it, its’ legacy which has built it up into a cult film have left their marks on the minds who’ve witnessed it.


It will always be complicated to talk about Kids, if only because its subject matter will always be provocative. Built into the film’s DNA is the idea of exposing a world which for most parents, and most of society, is invisible. It’s the filmic equivalent of turning over the rock to expose the underground world of creatures beneath it, to show what was previously hidden. It follows its characters through the streets of New York in a way which is rarely portrayed by glamorous, conventional cinematography. It spends time on the streets, not just to shoot B-roll or to exterior shots of faceless skyscrapers. Larry Clark’s background in street photography no doubt pushed this ethos from the beginning, but the camera work of Eric Edwards and Clark together is motion picture photography, it’s interested in how the figures in its landscape, move, act, see and communicate. It’s handheld, docu-drama/cinema vérité aesthetic pushes you to see the city from the kids’ level, bringing their perspective into focus and ramping up its intensity.

Because being a kid, especially in the world of Kids, is intense. The stories of Telly, of Casper, of Jenny, Darcy, Ruby, and every other figure which moves through the story, are stories which reflect the blurred, ambigious lines of the darker stories of a lot of kids growing up. A lot of stories have passed through my head, stories of friends and friends of friends, of people I’ve never met before. Stories of kids being exposed to things they shouldn’t do, doing things they have been told not to, exposing themselves to parts of life they are supposedly too young for. Harmony Korine went on record saying besides the AIDS storyline, pretty much everything in the film was events he’d seen happen. The questions and ramifications of Kids authenticity have caused debate and even the production of a new documentary by one of the cast members, but what Kids shows to those who have experiences which resonate with it, is a reflection of the stormy seas kids sail in their journeys of growing up.

The power of placing certain events in frame, certain stories, certain stylistic choices, is what makes up cinema. Watching Kids, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its most pitch-dark moments. It is unrelentingly strung out, and the film often feels like a warped spiral downwards, as the haze of murky actions, murky behaviours, and murky consciences continues to bleed into your head too. Seemingly too young for self-awareness, the kids continue to charge forward not just with the recklessness of youth, but with a fiery combustibleness that often burns the people around them. But their lives are left darkly unreflected upon (save the ominous last line), the conventions of cinema do not twist around the story to make an audience feel satisfied that ‘justice was served’. Real life, all it’s ugly thorns and painful experiences are often left unrepented for, unexamined. For Kids to do justice to that world, to even lay any claim to authentic roots, it portrayed those events as the kids would handle them, whatever the cost.

I don’t have much more to say about Kids, simply because Kids does not have a lot to say. It is a film which shows, which spends time showing you what the lives of people you’ve never even met are like. The experiences of life are often disordered, chaotic, fragmented and more dangerous than we’d ever like to imagine, especially for our children. Humanity’s precious children, the little babes in our beds, grow into a world and take their place in it. Kids is far more honest about that world than so many coming-of-age tales, it bleeds through the cracks of society’s walls. It condenses the experiences on the fringes of young adulthood into an hour and a half of spiralling, fragmented faces and warped moralities. The lives, the experiences, the possible horrors of what it can mean to be a kid are kept here as a cinematic record.

Because kids get old, and they forget what being a kid was like. As an adult, the urge to nostalgise your childhood, to romanticise it and cleave from your memory all the unholy relics and thorns that actually being a kid can experience. Life may not be as high-octane, as chaotic and cruel as the life of the kids in Kids, but if you can’t see any part of yourself and the child you were in any of their faces, any of their smiles or their tears, you’re denying the life you once lived, thorns and all.

-Alex

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Kids (1995)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

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?


‘Fragments of actuality’.

That’s the driving force often behind documentaries, to weave together the fragments of actual life and present them to us in only a way a film can. Life weaves its own path, with no regard for anything other than what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It can be frustrating though, to try and map the complex nexus of life onto a couple hours of experience.

Especially with a story such as this one.

Because sometimes stories in the real world, though they may not reach the operatic heights of fiction, matter and reveal a lot more to the world, simply because they’re true. They’re true, but more importantly they need to be seen to be believed. The story of Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran is one which should be logged in humanity’s ‘bizarre’ folder indefinitely. Three identical brothers separated at birth for reasons which rapidly are revealed to be ominous at best, who come to know and meet each other at the age of 19, before their lives take off into a media whirlwind and into a spider’s web of secrecy, pain and scientific investigations. The film circles deeper and deeper into an ethical maelstrom of human nature which eventually spins you out back into the world, drenched in the knowledge of a story which is real, and shocking.

But a documentary is not just a 1:1 representation of real life, and director Tim Wardle delicately sutures the entire story together, drafting and redrafting the story as it continues to unfold. Each interview is a Russian doll, exposing the secrets and the hidden figures lurking in the wings of the story. Archival news clips are strung together under a common narration, emphasising the audience to see what is necessary at the time, only for those same clips to be reconstituted later under a deeper layer of understanding. What is beautifully drawn out of the film’s subjects, not through any particularly intense interrogations, is the continued revelations of information becoming part of the story. The events and timeline of the case are not depersonalised, it is not a maze to be solved.

One of the reasons for this is simply because the film is so earnestly concerned with the real tragedy, the real existential story of the brothers themselves. Audiences love thrillers, and conspiracies are notoriously tantalising, but the film really only goes as far as to show how the mechanisms at work have so deeply affected and grown the colossal void or absence that being separated did to the brothers as a whole. More than anything, the film frames their experiences, their resilience and sense of loss as the centrepiece of the story. It’s documentary 101: show the humanity, whatever the form, and it pulls it off in a deeply moving, mind-boggling way.

But another reason for this, is that the film is also hampered by (and excellently shows) the process by which legal institutions and places of power protect themselves, not through any obvious displays of power, but simply by abusing the regulations and understanding of the law. The documentary process usually does its’ best to not make you aware of its inner skeleton, of all the boring record hunting and the other parts of the production process. Usually all the information is streamlined into the documentary, with some nice appealing visual aids and appealing narration. But a documentary is always limited by how much information the story and its participants will reveal, and the legal entrenchment of power and silence hurts the truth of many, many stories. So by Wardle displaying that process, that invalidation and silence and refusal to partake in the story’s necessary revelations, it takes the story and the film beyond that of a conventionally great documentary, and highlights a deeper, more disturbing truth of the world that is being reflected; that it doesn’t have to give you the answers you’re looking for.

With a story such as this it’s always best to take it with a pinch of salt anyway and not buy into it 100%, simply because it so complex, so tangled, and still open-ended. In fact Wardle does seem to encourage it, keeping the film more balanced towards to the human truths of the brother’s experience as opposed to any irresponsible speculation or hypothesis making. The indictments it makes are more delicate than damning, but the film doesn’t play down the colossal scope and weight of the story. Most importantly it speaks truth to power, it exposes the internal workings of a story too surreal not to be real, and it uses self-aware and acrobatic documentary techniques to sculpt the story into something stylistic, beyond just the straight raw material of life.

What more could you want from a documentary?

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers

Palindromes (2004)

Palindromes

Films are easy, but that’s only because they’re hard. They’re easy because you can put them on and no matter the film, whether it is a light piece of popcorn fare or an intense vertiginious dizzying rollercoaster through the very depths of human experience, everyone (with exceptions) gets the same assembled piece of film to draw from, the same well to drink from. Hundreds and thousands of individual choices; lines, shots, sound effects, takes and performances, they all sculpt a film from thin air, from a story inside someone’s head to a written, formatted text, to an audio-visual chain/superstructure which is packaged and shown and most importantly, seen.

But they’re hard, films are not the same. The eyes and minds of the world are many, and the films which are sculpted into being are not always of the same shape, the same order, the same schools of thought or design. Films are experiences which resonate with people, and the resonations that ripple outward from any film great or small affect people differently. And those affects are not simple and isolated, but films often evoke a great deal of perspectives, feelings, and movements simultaneously, engaging like an explosive rippling out onto the suspecting and unsuspecting alike.

So we come to Palindromes (2004, Dir. Todd Solondz).


 

I’m struggling already with Palindromes, simply because I always feel that no matter what I write about it, I’m not properly capturing the vertigo-inducing complexities of it. In short, Aviva (played by eight different actresses of race, gender, and age) is a 13 year old Jewish girl, who wants to have a baby, and falls into a dark Americana labyrinth, crossing the landscape and the people in a journey which stares unblinking into a world of abortion,  Christian evangelicism, and underage and pedophilic sexual encounters. Aviva travels down a polluted river, and stares innocently into it for most of the film’s runtime.

Having Aviva played by different actresses is the film’s mechanical wondershow for the audiences, forcing most people to interact with a constructed film world which people rarely encounter. The film’s construction forces you to keep Aviva constant even as everything about her physical appearance changes. It creates a relationship to the film which at once distances you and brings you closer. Watching different physical bodies portray the same character created more than just an internal resonance with Aviva, it pushed me to start thinking about how we can carry different versions of ourselves inside us. How our past selves can stay with us, old clothes stuffed inside the new ones. The film never does more than wryly comment on the technique once or twice, and by taking itself seriously it punishes an audience which would like to turn its head, to try and create some distance from the uncomfortable closeness to the dark heart of America.

Because portraying the world through Aviva’s eyes and truly being committed to it, means experiencing her world without the kind of moral stabilisers and framework that the adults would like to believe they possess (which sometimes they do, sometimes). Aviva is a child, and Solondz was never interested in constructing a how-to-guide for society why all of the things Aviva sees are wrong. In fact, Solondz stays truthful to Aviva’s point of view in that as a child, it is often hard to fully understand why adults do the things they do, and the consequences of their actions. This leads to what feels at first like a moral vacuum, as Solondz’s script doesn’t blink at how truly ugly life can be, but also leads to a perspective of life from inside what society has deemed evil as it is experienced in life. The unplanned pregnancy is an act which nearly tears Aviva’s family apart, and the ironic cruelty of events after is not a replacement for being confronted with the murky murky depths of human life.

Palindromes understands that everything stays the same, even if you think it gets different. But also everything is different, even if you think it stays the same. It is locked in its’ own paradox, just like films being both easy and hard. Because Palindromes is not the film you walk out of, raving about it’s obviously gorgeous cinematography, or any of it’s more conventional stylistic flourishes. It is uninterested in Hollywood stars, or facades of reality which cash in on cheap entertainment values. I’m not saying those things are inherently bad either, merely that the perspective it contains is one which travels a less well-trodden path. But it is a film anyone would come out of with lots to say, a film which provokes and presents the world around it in a light devoid of a romantic sheen. And the thing about Palindromes is that it might occupy the same space, the same time as many many other films. It’s only one hour and forty minutes, and there are hundreds of thousands of films which run for the same amount of time. Palindromes, like every film, is just a film. Palindromes, like every film, is so much more than just a film.

And that is the end of what I have to say about Palindromes. And it is also only just the beginning.

-Alex

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Palindromes (2004)

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

War and Peace

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

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

Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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

 

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

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)