Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

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

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

RISK

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

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

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

REWARD

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

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

RESURRECTION

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

-Alex

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Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

Kino-Pravda Docs #7: Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies

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

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

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

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

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

All sorted?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs #7: Titicut Follies

Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished

a-film-unfinished

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?


A Film Unfinished (2010, Dir. Yael Hersonski) is a film about a film. It’s a film about the context in which a film is created, and how that affects the making, production, and legacy a film can leave behind. And furthermore, it’s a film which helps to pull the wool off of the eyes of anyone who implicitly believes documentaries because they claim to be the truth.

I’ll explain properly. The subject matter of A Film Unfinished concerns a documentary made by the Third Reich which was never finished, made between 1941 and 1942, and concerned the subject of the Jewish community living in the Warsaw Ghetto, an area in Poland that the Jewish community was essentially penned into, before being moved to various concentration camps to be mercilessly and systematically killed. The film, “Das Ghetto” was taken to be a fairly accurate, if undermined documentary which helped to capture the real life of these Jewish people. Undermined due to its obvious propaganda and political uses, but nevertheless a film which claimed a mantle of objectivity.

However, with the discovery of a previously undiscovered outtake reel, locked away in an archive somewhere, the true extent to which the film was staged and created began to unravel. Heronski, who combines this footage with in-depth research into the governing figures of the Ghetto, the testimony of the cameraman himself, and the testimony of Jewish people who were there. By holding her magnifying glass closer to the material, a new film is discovered. One which claims to be a simple truth, but is in fact an elaborately crafted lie.

But don’t all films do this, documentaries or fictions? Claim a reality, when they’re nothing more than elaborate constructs of separated fragments? Well yes, films are chopped up and edited, molded into worlds for you to get lost in, for you to believe in. Even this documentary, builds a world for you to flow through. What it does though, is expose how films can deceive you when they claim to be telling the truth. Fiction films, no matter how close the real world, still have that clear gap, that what’s happening is a story which isn’t true. But documentaries rarely claim that, documentaries stand in front of you and plant their flag in telling you the truth, scouring sources and trying to come to some sort of objective and balanced conclusions. Documentaries are arguments, designed to make you come down on one side of the fence.

And A Film Unfinished tears down the argument of Das Ghetto violently and furiously. The most potent way is arguably the scenes in which older residents of the ghetto, sit in a cinema and are exposed to the film’s reels. Their reactions, their commentary, filled with surprise and pity and disappointment as they watch fabrications constructed in front of them, is the film’s most forceful weapon against the propaganda machine. In a scene where it is explained that the Nazi’s construct a luxurious fake funeral attended by hundreds of ghetto residents (who were forced to be there), to portray the Jewish people as decadent and enjoying lavish ceremonies even in wartime, a resident cries out in the cinema “But Jewish people don’t even bury their dead in coffins!”.

Why is this in my Kino-Pravda series? Vertov claimed that the film camera, in assembling fragments could show a deeper truth than those seen just by the naked eye. That is true, but so is the opposite. The fragments assembled can construct deeper lies, can cement mis-truths and push agendas silently and secretly. In Hersonski’s film, the two choices fight each other. Das Ghetto seeks to tell a lie, to create a new “truth”. A Film Unfinished wants to reveal the truth underneath it, hidden away. More importantly, it provokes the idea that documentaries are not made by an all-knowing all-seeing God figure, that they are made by humans with ideas and agendas and the ability to craft the messy truth into a reality they’re happy selling.

You can choose to apply the same logic to Heronski’s film, but the difference is in Heronski’s ability to admit her subjectivity. She doesn’t claim to be telling the whole truth, admits that her scope may be limited and that we may never really know all of the complexities of that situation. But what she can claim, is a definite violent unmasking of the lies put forward by the earlier film. And what it does, is expose the dark underbelly in filmmakers, the ones who think that anything is accessible to them because they’re making films, that they’re somehow beyond or above reproach because all they’re doing is capturing what’s put in front of them. It reveals a truth that films can manipulate, lie and betray you to make you think a certain way.

And in a world where you’re constantly bombarded by media from all angles, all desperate to convince you that they’re right, it’s good to be reminded that no idea is ironclad, that you should be cautious in believing everything you see, and you should question it all. In doing so, you may not reach “The Truth”, but you certainly at least will be able to see through some of the more blatant and awful lies people try to make.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished

The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

the-human-condition-film-poster

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

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


A final reckoning with death is everyone’s last stop. The infinite paths of life can take you in almost every direction, in any combination, with everything in between ready to distract and re-direct you. But no matter how complex or confusing your path may be, you and everyone and everything around you will inevitably weave your way towards the same point. Whether something comes beyond it, whether you run from it and try to circumvent it, whether you walk willing into its arms or if you’re taken there by a cruel twist of fate is all part of your games with life. But you will always arrive at that door. And it will always open. And you will always have to go through it.

A.O Scott said in his 2008 review that “Kobayashi’s monumental film [referring to the whole series] can clarify and enrich your understanding of what it is to be alive.” Kaji (like all of us) is fated to die. And as he reaches that point, as his soul is stripped bare for a 9 hour and 47 minute celluloid odyssey, I really did gain some clarity in what it means to be alive, or at the very least, I managed to see the flames which drive us onward in the dark of night.

A Soldier’s Prayer (1961, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) is the final installment in The Human Condition/Ningen No Joken. In film history, often the last film in a series has usually faltered in quality in comparison with the first or second installment. Regardless of your opinion of The Godfather Part III (1990, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), it is a laughable challenge to make a case for it being a better film than The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Spiderman 3 (2007, Dir. Sam Raimi) may be a dream or a nightmare in your eyes, but it is tough to argue its a better made film than the first one, Spiderman (2002, Dir. Sam Raimi). That is not the case with A Soldier’s Prayer, this in my eyes is easily the most intense and well crafted of the three, if only because it builds on the already well established expertise and foundations of the first two.

It does this in two ways. The style of the film evolves in this part, most prominently in Yoshio Miyajima’s cinematography, which morphs from its stark realism into these hallucinogenic dutch angles, as characters traverse the increasingly feral landscapes, with increasingly feral desperation. The first episode in the film is one of its most harrowing, as Kaji leads a group of refugees and defeated soldiers through a seemly endless forest, food dwindling, tensions fraying and people dying. As they wander the terrain, the camera’s impact increase tenfold as it becomes disoriented, falling off its axis and looking at its subjects in increasingly strange angles. They begin to brush with death from sheer exhaustion, and even the camera struggles to stand. The cinematography is still just as exquisitely precise, but after two films of realist looking, the switch is powerful.

The soundtrack slowly begins to segue into a more nebulous world as well. Not only does the work of the composer Chûji Kinoshita grow increasingly intense and overwhelming when it is used, but Kaji engages in a series of internal monologues and visions of his imagination, mainly to do with his primal goal driving him home of his devotion to his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). Beyond the sound, the lighting of the film becomes far more impressionistic and influenced by techniques of chiaroscuro, as Kaji’s battle and his character become increasingly darker. This is a far cry from the fresh-faced Kaji who came to improve labour conditions in the prisoner’s work camp, in No Greater Love, and the technical choices of the film are incredibly well orchestrated to reflect that, right up until its final seconds.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been hinting at, Kaji’s trajectory continues on one of the cruelest downward spirals ever committed to celluloid. True there are many stories of suffering, of characters inhabiting worlds somehow even uglier than the one Kaji lives in, but watching every step of Kaji as he is laid low by the world around him, as the half dreams of the socialist republic are destroyed piece by piece when Kaji finds his role reversed, now a prisoner in a war camp rather than managing the prisoners. Every act of his rebellion, resistance to the ugly and vicious world surrounding him, is betrayed the moment he turns his back. His pain lies not just in that people can’t be as good as him, but that people are so indifferent to the concept of good at all. Kaji reckons with the realisation that only the strong survive, but the cost they pay is one he can hardly bear.

When I spoke on part two, Road to Eternity, I talked about Kaji reaching his breaking point to survive. Here however, Kaji breaks well and truly because his pacifism shatters into an act of furious vengeance, rehabilitation giving way to the bursting dams of retribution. Kaji furiously beats a man to death with his own prisoner’s chains, before leaving him to drown in the latrines, a man responsible for the purposeful death of Kaji’s friend and surrogate son, Terada. Kaji becomes unbearably human as the weight of the injustices he had to endure forces him to snap, he can no longer turn the other cheek to the violence he has suffered through. It’s both intensely cathartic and deeply sad.

The film expands even further beyond Kaji here, as he encounters figures beyond his immediate surroundings. Refugees fleeing the fighting are cut from all cloths, and their wounds bleed too. In this existential world, there are no heroes and villains, only humans who are capable of both. This reaches its crisis when Kaji and his soldiers enter a town made up almost exclusively by soldier’s wives. In what many would simplistically as a detour into a fantasy harem, Kaji understands the morbid revelations told to him by one of the more outspoken wives, as oaths of fidelity and marriage are broken against the terror of the abandonment the women suffer. The conflicting ideals and desires and fears are the stuff of humanity, and the film’s scope is enriched more so than the previous installments simply due to the range and variety of people encountered.

A Soldier’s Prayer really is a reckoning. A reckoning with death yes, but also with every theme and instance of suffering Kaji and the audience endured. Due to the novel’s and film’s immense popularity, it’s said that Kobayashi received letters reportedly begging him to give Kaji a happy ending. What really cuts through this, is not the fact the letter was written, but where the letter came from, a sense of profound empathy and a desperate hope to allow Kaji some grace, some respite from his sufferings. And Kobayashi’s unwillingness to compromise is reflected in Kaji’s unwillingness to give up, right up until his last breath. What it cleared up for me then (in being alive), was the reckoning that life contains many sufferings with only glimmering moments of relief snatched from its jaws, no matter who you are. You may never win, but resistance is not futile. For all of Kaji’s trials, what makes them worthy is his ability to inspire, not through physical violence or shrewd trickery, but by sheer force of will.

Even if Kaji is just a fictional construct, a character in a story that was put together in the head of another man, who’s played by an actor (with legendary eyes) it doesn’t matter. Kaji is an idea. And you can’t kill an idea. It will just wander in the wilderness until its rediscovered. Go rediscover it.

Kaji

-Alex

The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

Blow-Up : Antononi’s Lens and Why I Don’t Like It

Blow Up

I find it easy to talk about films I don’t like, but very hard to write about them. When you take a film that is also critically lauded, seeming universally loved and canonized in the great pantheon of “Great Films”, it becomes even harder to talk about or write about, simply because I don’t want to look foolish. I don’t want to try and scale a critical mountain only for halfway through to suddenly see the light and realise what a colossal mistake I’ve made. But I’ve accepted that even if that happens, you have to at least try the mountain first. Whatever will be will be.

I didn’t like Blow-Up (1966, Dir. Michelangelo Antononi). I found it to not just be a film which failed to impress me, but a film I actively disliked and found dull as hell. There, I said it.

Maybe I have an agenda with this, conscious or unconscious. I mean I’m not gonna lie to you, the concerns of nihilistic, self-indulgent and grimy middle class artists is not exactly high on my list of priorities. I find it difficult to sympathise, or even empathise with the listless yet arrogant character David Hemmings portrays, a fashion photographer called Thomas.  On one hand I think its because I don’t have anything in common with this person, but a meaner darker voice inside of me says it’s because I only see the worst of myself in him. I could probably make a case for both, but more importantly characters are not the only cog in a film’s machine. Furthermore, there are plenty of characters who are out of my experiences who I could still empathise and sympathise with, aliens and murderers and ancient Romans and really characters from all walks of life, real and imagined.

I find its obfuscation and vagueness to be an irritant, it’s dream-like meandering provides no logical chain of events to follow, but it doesn’t provoke any delirious and irrational reactions in me from my unconscious, no response is generated from in me either rational or irrational. A series of events unfolded before me, but only indifference remained constant. Even as the films nature finally reveals itself at the end, as it shows its hand, I still remained unimpressed, or maybe just too tired after putting up with its idiosyncrasies. In its final scene, as it locks into place as a film which looks at the relation between a man and reality, musing on the strange nature of perception, it still fails to provoke anything other than irritation in me. It simply graduated from being a dull stoned murder mystery to being a dull stoned philosophical mystery.

On the other hand that is what the film is meant to be about. It’s a ennui injected film about a world which is ugly, which is alienating, which is bored with itself. And all the dynamism, all the desperation to find something of worth, is still glossed in a dream-like coat. But I don’t think my criticism is a misinterpretation, I don’t think I’m confused as to what was going on in the film, I at least was somewhere close to its intent. My issues seem to be with what it’s saying, if anything at all? It’s that kind of navel gazing which takes the world, models it as something boring but still feasts upon it, a film about ennui and alienation but still shows enough skin to at least unearth some of the more animalistic natures in us. It’s pulp-y in that sense, all mysterious beautiful women (with some whacked out gender politics) and murder plots. There’s nothing wrong with pulp, but pulp that pretends it’s something else just seems to be crass.

Did I dislike it because I felt it was pretentious? It was getting across the idea that it felt like it was far more important than it actually was? I mean after all,  the “Swinging Sixties” has become an era so iconic that it’s actually forgotten what it was really like, that most people’s lives weren’t filled with sexual and narcotic revolution, hanging out  and schmoozing with fancy London art scenesters. Maybe the fact it was made in the Sixties by someone who was involved in that scene (a filmmaker) grinds me even more. Everything about the film seems convinced of its own importance, its own unnecessary need to explain or justify any of its parts. Everything must be drawn from it, so much of it must be explained by either you trying to fit its pieces together or by a critic applying his own understanding of its mysteries. I don’t like films which need guides to be understood, that just signals to me an inability to use cinema’s tools properly.

But ambiguity is key to cinema! I don’t want everything explained to me, but Blow-Up pushes so much the other way that it leaves you almost in complete darkness, the vagueness and unfocused nature of its parts, it’s precise but shrouded cinematography, it’s scatty and complex score, its mysterious plot and bizarre, almost non-direction. It’s scenes which seem to possess no strong bridges between them, since it still possesses the mask of being in the real world. Perhaps the film landscape now has left me spoiled, in a world of David Lynch’s and Cronenberg’s, the surreal dreamlike qualities of Blow-Up have dulled in comparison.  After all, Blow-Up is a film about vibe, atmosphere, and atmosphere dates, goes out of style. I can’t deny that this would have been a breath of fresh air when it came out, even a revolution in cinema. But cinematic history and appreciation is not the same as cinematic preference.

Films can’t be everything to everyone, and no matter how universally acclaimed something will be, someone will always be there to disagree with you. Criticism is about constructing arguments, in favour or against things. As time goes on the majority opinion takes precedent, and the dissension is forgotten. And the longer time passes, the more the films take on a kind of “sacred” quality, an obvious and unquestioned mark of assurance that “you will appreciate it because it’s a classic“. That is not always the case, and you must never be afraid to attempt to tear down an idol if you feel like it should be. Someone will disagree with you anyway, at least this way you’ve got a better understanding of why you felt this way.

I’m glad Antononi made Blow-Up. I’m sure for many people this is even their favourite film (definitely for this guy). It’s still a radical break from cinematic convention, and it stakes its ground in unexplored territory. It may not work for me, but as a lover of cinema I can appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t have to like it.

I think I just don’t like the way Antononi looks at the world. And if that’s the case, how could I ever like this film?

-Alex

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Blow-Up : Antononi’s Lens and Why I Don’t Like It

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

the-human-condition-film-poster

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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

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