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

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

The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

the-human-condition-film-poster

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

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


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence

Hard Boiled

I do my best to be open to as much cinema as I can. Nevertheless, I feel like I’m naturally more drawn to cinema which confronts parts of the human condition, however well it pulls off the result. Every film has some part of that, since films are constructed almost always by humans for humans. However the range of depth found in cinema has often lead me to a particular fragment, one which often confronts the viewer with challenges and complexity and often painful experiences. You don’t have to look further than my post on László Nemes Son of Saul to get some sense of what gets written about on here.

But what about cinema of spectacle? What about cinema which doesn’t ask you to grapple with its themes and its content, which asks you to jump on board and just ride, its twist and turns in its plot rather than in its existential themes or morally grey characters. What about films which don’t ask to reinvent the wheel, merely to make one which rolls incredibly well? Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo) is that film. Cinema is not just art, its entertainment. Trying to hack off either one of its branches does a disservice to what cinema can do. But enough waxing lyrical about cinema, what about the film?


It’s difficult to apply words to Hard Boiled, since what makes it so special is precisely what can’t be described through words. Describing the unbelievably choreographed shoot-outs and stunt sequences, (most of which are still stunning to this day) many rewind worthy moments occur, particularly a scene where cop Tequila bursts out from the wall of a morgue in motion on a steel tray, before landing on a steel bed which rolls forward (all this while spraying bullets and gunning down triads) simply don’t do justice to the visual impact of actually watching these sequences unfold. The complete mastery of smooth graceful motion and construction of extravagant action sequences is Woo’s signature trademark throughout his films, and its dazzling at points.

So much of this film’s style is alien to Western sensibilities, and yet so much better for it. The cinematography is bold and distinctive, and events are replayed from multiple different angles so you can see the carnage from all angles. It’s jazzy score, considerably more dated 25 years on (at the time of writing) still showcases such an unconventional choice in the MTV music video generation. It’s locations are vast complex spaces filled with different traps and scenes which play out simultaneously, and the film relishes showing you every little point of interest. And when the colour of orange explosions is not filling your entire vision, there’s still so much going on onscreen that it’s difficult to think of a time when the compositions were ever dull or flat. It may be relentless gun violence and fetishism for nearly two hours (which is not for everyone, including myself), but you’d be hard-pressed to not admire Woo’s commitment to providing a film which sucker punches you into noticing it’s there.

It seems almost a mistake to focus on the story, since a cynical viewer could easily see the plot of the film as nothing more than a simple vehicle to drive us from fantastical action sequence to action sequence.  But to ignore that side of the world is also to make a mistake, since the characters of Hard Boiled and their borderline massacres are committed with the weight of the moral world on their shoulders. Both Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) and Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)  are cops, enforcers of law and order, vengeful angels of society who stop the demons from taking over.

More than that, they are humans with desires, dreams, problems large and small. For all its unrelenting shoot-outs, a significant portion of the film is dedicated to Tequila and Alan’s friendship, to Tequila and Madam’s (his girlfriend) relationship issues. Even its infamously climactic hospital sequence devotes a lot of time to the issue of getting the babies out of harm’s way. These aren’t just mindless robots with no drives beyond constant one upping each other on how spectacularly they can kill each other. They may be the equivalent of mythological heroes, pulling off feats that no earthly human could achieve (Alan after getting shot in the back with a shotgun blast, still manages to pull off his part in an elaborate yacht shoot-out), but even they must have things we can relate to.

There are already a million essays sitting out there about what a masterpiece of the action genre this is, online or in books. Scott Tobias’s excellent article manages to reinforce the differences which I view this film in, in a CGI drenched world. What makes Hard Boiled pack its shotgun punch is the fact that it’s a continuous stream of elaborate real special effects. When the film released, CGI was still in its infancy and this film 20 years later still makes the case for doing things without digital painters. It’s a celluloid spectacle which is impossible to re-create with digital technology, because even if you could create that film now in an animation suite, without ever filming a single image, you would never be able to fix it in the audience’s mind that what they were watching was real. The reason why so much of the film works, is because the stunts have to be seen to be believed, but make no mistake that the stunts really were done by real people. Bikes exploded on fire in mid-air with a real rider on top of them.

I mean you just can’t make that in a computer. These little machines are incredible, but they can’t do everything. The weightlessness of destruction found in Marvel and DC’s big budget superhero movies, where cities, even entire worlds are continually razed and then replaced or reconstructed manages to lose that feeling of meaningful action this film captures. The violence and extravagance in the film may reach delirious qualities, as bullet after bullet skims across the screen, but every figure shot and every piece of scenery which explodes actually does so directly, mainly because its being shot at. As much as there is going on, Woo’s expertise is in the fact that it’s all so easy to follow.

Hard Boiled is a film where every element reacts to the persona of a director who wants the film to be enjoyed on all levels. Taken at surface level, it’s a hell of an action film. If you want to take the interpretations deeper, exploring the content and sub-conscious of the film’s themes, you can. But it wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s bloody, violent heart on its sleeve covered with gunpowder. Call me soft, but there’s something very human about that.

-Alex

P.S. Don’t watch the English dub. Eeesh.

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence

The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

MM-DEER_HUNTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alex

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The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

Free Fire: On All Cylinders

free_fire

Ben Wheatley keeps making films that I would like to make. His last outing, High Rise (2015) was an adaptation of JG Ballard’s infamous novella, one which I was morbidly enamored with after reading it and have since harbored a secret wish to adapt it to the screen, if I ever was in a position to do that. Well I can cross that one off, and now Mr. Wheatley has grabbed the crime film by the lapels and thrown it back into the limelight, in this tale of a gun deal gone wrong, taking away another cinematic desire of mine.

To be honest I’d probably be upset if he wasn’t doing it so goddamn well.

Free Fire is a film about scoundrels.  All the insects hiding on the underbelly of society, some prettier than others, some who prefer beard oil, but all of them hiding in the dark surfaces underneath the rocks. It’s characters spill all over each other, violently clashing and warring for their egos, and then for their lives. The whole film becomes something of a Chinese spinning plate act, as characters drag themselves around the floor of this abandoned warehouse, all of them slowly bleeding out from various wounds inflicted by the others (when most of them can’t hit anything anyway because shooting people is much harder than most Hollywood films portray). We bear witness as their chances and efforts to actually get out alive grow slimmer and dimmer, and we instead settle into a kind of cathartic rhythm of watching how they perish, and taking solace, joy, sadness and all the rest in between.

And what a cast of characters who pull themselves through it. Ben Wheatley’s ability to draw out the absurd in all of these performers, in Sharlto Copley’s lovable and irritating weapons dealer, Michael Smiley (a Ben Wheatley staple) deadpan old “Grandpa”, Armie Hammer’s smarmy oil slick demeanour, Sam Riley’s laughable smackhead and the list goes on with each actor involved leaving their mark in a way which makes you remember them. Special attention must be given to Brie Larson (the reasons are obvious once you’ve seen the film) and to Noah Taylor because well I just love Noah Taylor.

Honestly though this whole essay could be devoted to just a discussion on the richness and balletic complexity of the characters and their interplay throughout the film, but that would be doing a great disservice to the other elements at play here. The cinematography of Laurie Rose for example, Wheatley’s long time collaborator, helps to bring such a visceral intensity to the proceedings, as the camera keeps itself in the position of the players, low to the ground and confused. Constantly bouncing back and forth around the factory setting, it helps to set up a constant thread of anticipation and tension as you can never quite work out exactly where everyone is or how close they are to each other.

Not just that, but the colour scheme of the film, both in terms of its lighting and in terms of its costume design is gorgeous, this rich gold permeating throughout (even referenced in terms of “the golden hour and a half”, the time period in which medical treatment will likely prevent your death, which is also conveniently this films running time) while the costumes themselves are drenched in 70s style, open shirts and pastel colours abound. It’s just such a gorgeously designed world,  it’s vibrancy there to be looked at rather than just glazed over.

Obviously with a film so skeletal in comparison with some of its action film counterparts of today, there’s not much room for hiding, and if the film’s pace had slacked in any way, the whole ballet would have crashed to the ground. Thankfully this never occurs, mainly due to a clear script and some great manipulations in the editing and the sound design. In terms of its script (which I’d love to read mainly because the amount of “x shoots at y, y shoots at z, ad infinitum”) it’s a lot of pure cinema, just pure action, and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump did a job which he explains in this clip as to how it feels so tight:

As with the editing and sound design, the pace is incredibly well executed, ebbing and flowing not necessarily where you would expect it, but allowing the time for the film to breathe in between its gasping for air shootouts. Really, the editing is the linchpin in a film like this and what a magnificent linchpin it is. Finally the sound design also must be extolled, the gunfire becoming this great cacophony of explosive echoes which are at points near deafening, only punctuated by elements of freeform jazz and a great use of John Denver.

Free Fire is not the most important film ever made, and that’s good because it’s not trying to be. All its trying to be is a good, well crafted film. It’s a film which you can really get lost in, because there’s nothing really outside of its own internal world. And it’s a film which owes its inspirations to other films, from silent cinema to the gangster flicks it evokes. I just think its great cinema, and beyond that, that’s not for me to say.

-Alex

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Free Fire: On All Cylinders

The Hateful Eight : Love?! Huh?! What Is It Good For?!

Hateful Eight

Goddamn what a time to be alive. Quentin Tarantino has not yet joined his cast of characters, and is thankfully still alive, to deliver us with an absolute cannonball of a film.

The Hateful Eight was seen by my eyes last week, in its glorious (unfathomably glorious) 70mm Roadshow Presentation in the Odeon at Leicester Square, London England. Without a doubt, regardless of the content of this film, if you’re a lover of film, a cinephile, a man who doth adore the silver screen, it would be wise to see it in this format if possible. It might never happen again, period, and what an odd graceful send off this would be for the 70mm Roadshow presentation of the celluloid dreams.

So now that is out-of-the-way, I can wade into the veritable shitstorm that is any new Quentin Tarantino film. I’m finding it tougher and tougher to write about films without dragging in their meta context, as I want these essays to be about the artistic content of what is contained, not about their outside influences and swirling drama. Enough think-pieces have been written about Mr. Tarantino and how he’s either an artistic Jesus or racist Devil or somewhere close to either. I’m going to try not to add another mindless voice to this, so I’ll try to sidestep it as much as possible. I’ll say this though.

Quentin Tarantino is a master of cinema and injecting cinematic self-awareness into his films. Now since everyone seems to be on a veritable existential crisis as to whether Mr. Tarantino is allowed to be as black as he thinks he is, I’ll say this; QT is without a doubt one of the few distinctive voices left in cinema, a man who appreciates storytelling over meta contextual diversity rows, and a man not stupid enough to allow knee-jerk reactionary political leeches to affect the way he makes films. I find it personally very disturbing the amount of vitriol spewed at him simply because he’s low hanging fruit. It’s very tough to dismantle sociopolitical systems in place which induce systemic oppression of minorities. It is however, incredibly easy to look at a Tarantino film, mathematically declare his usage of the word nigger/nigga and his skin colour to add up to him being a pretend black man/intentional racist. QT is one of the few people who acknowledges race while not letting it be a defining factor for his films. People are resentful of him whilst being appreciative of him, for bringing women and BME characters to the forefront without being either. Everyone loves Jackie Brown because of Pam Grier, whilst most forget or fail to care about the entire history of Blaxploitation which supports the film. Simply put, QT made race and sex/gender equality more digestible, by combining it with violence. It’s not pretty, but it works, and I hope he continues till he feels finished. The man is a great director, period, and uses the form of cinema like he’s wielding a sword. And clearly it cuts deep.

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Now onto The Hateful Eight. And my what a feast. What a gorgeous, gorging feast of film. I’m not going to fill in the plot for you, but essentially, a stranger danger mystery unfolds between eight bastards, and just what it is they all need.

My god, these characters. What serious bastards. Trying to decide which one is the most evil is a lost cause, and the film revels in this fact. We’ve past the road to redemption, and we’re left to stew in the pool of the unsaved. The driving force behind this all is Major Marquis Warren, a blistering performance by one Samuel L. Jackson. Now my love for Samuel L. Jackson extends little outside of his film roles, since I’m just not a fan of his real life persona. However the man’s acting talent is undeniable, from his turns in QT’s flicks to his role in Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee’s infamous first joint, he brings here a towering presence, a walking anachronism to the times its set in, a powerful Black Man unfazed by the bitter resentment displayed by the Southerners. Each character in this is absolutely drenched in hatred, righteousness, hypocrisy and bastard-ism. What a world to look into. A thing that has always felt so vibrant about QT’s cinematic work is that it eschews the dramatic conventions. There isn’t really a classic hero to be found among his characters, no one who at some point doesn’t do something morally corrupt or damning. So what you’re left with is the cognitive dissonance of associating, empathising and even rooting for characters who are criminals, liars, cheats, murderers, butchers and cleavers of humanity, nothing less than the scum we live in shadowy fear of. QT takes them, stylised as they are, and regurgitates them back on-screen, safe in the voyeuristic comfort of the cinema audience.

We end up being complicit in their crimes, their brutal assaults and murders, but their motives are usually so damn human that we can’t help but want for them. Here in this film, what are the motives? Well, Maj. Marquis Warren and John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) are driven by their jobs, their commitment to their work. Maj. Marquis Warren later on, driven by his shrewd disdain and outright enjoyment of the cruelty he can inflict from his position of raw emotional power. Daisy Domergue and the company she keeps driven by criminality, and familial loyalty. These themes and motivations all bleed into each other, along with the political and racial tensions of post Civil-War America lend themselves to a fully fleshed, complex map of psychological highways which connect each character in many forms. How can you not join them for this ride, when everyone invites you to? When every character truly believes they will be the winner of this scenario.

By the end of course, is there even a winner? Can a winner even logically exist by the end of its fallout? After all, what can be said of the massacre at Minnie’s Habadashery in terms of its morality? Even the most seasoned philosopher would have to spend many a lifetime unpicking each individual act, where each character crosses each line. In fact, in the world it might be easier to abandon morality altogether, to abandon it to something simpler, biology would be an obvious choice. Thankfully though Tarantino has none of that, and by the end of the film, what remains is a blood splattered, tattered and torn sheet of a moral doctrine. Not telling you what to do, dictating any authority, but rather leaving you to work it out, to try to make peace with your inner self as to just how the ethics of what just transpired work out.

I’m getting a bit heady here, so I’ll try to bring it down a bit. The cinematography is these words and more: Sumptuous, rich, phenomenal, spectacular, incredible. Incredible in its original use, because it almost seems non-credible. There is just no reason to believe a film made today can look this gorgeous, not in the age of digitisation and reduced budgets. Gone are the epics of old, and The Hateful Eight is no location picture (well outside location picture). In contrast to the silly accusations of using the very rare Ultra Panavision 70 format only in interiors, in contrast it brings a richness and greatness to everything inside the screen, transforming the film from a closet chamber piece to the equivalent of seeing The Wedding at Cana in its full glory at the Louvre. The score is also fantastic, Ennio Morricone proceeds to induce a searing dread and operatic tenseness which only helps to heighten the films drama. The set designers must also be given strong crediting, along with the costume department, each character and setting an absolute treasure trove of intricate and interesting design features (I could really do with a pair of O.B’s spectacles). Finally the editing, and sound design is nail-biting. Every single gunshot, an explosion in the snowy silence made me leap from my seat.

Talking of gunshots, violence aplomb. And what’s on offer here is not the old, hyper inconsequential violence. The violence here does not play out for laughs (bar the unfortunate demise of John Ruth and O.B) and instead what permeates is an induced dread, broken only by moments of extreme violence. The film is a set of powder kegs constantly going off, but the kegs go off in such visceral ways that it is difficult to tear your eyes away. People are killed in here not because its necessary, there is no cold functionalism or righteous mechanics on play to justify any acts, no in fact to these people killing is what keeps them alive, both in body and in spirit. In this world, violence is respected, and a very integral part of the world functioning. No one can just put their weapon down, and if they did then more fool them. It’s weird to suddenly inhabit this world, where violence and hate is tied to more than just the previous works of Tarantino, of violence being an interpersonal act, rather than standing for something. In its most disturbing scene, Maj. Marquis Warren uses the irrational hatred and resentment of black folk by General “Sandy” Smithers (God bless Bruce Dern) and combines it with the trauma of losing his son into a possibly true almost demonic account of the cruelty and torture of Smithers’ son before killing him, to induce him into a state where he draws his gun so Maj. Marquis Warren can shoot him legally in self-defence. If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is. The violence has so many threads entangled in it, that it becomes an outlet for these ideas and the destruction of ideas, rather than being its own novelty in itself.

I know this all sounds a bit pretentious, but in his most infamous film, Pulp Fiction, the violence serves the purpose of visually shocking the audience and not much else. Violence happens to people just as much as it is induced by the characters themselves. Vince Vega accidentally shoots Marvin, the rapists kidnap Butch and Marcellus because they’re rapists, the world is violent as well as the characters. In contrast, the inhabitants of Minnie’s Habadashery are positively regular, normal delightful folks. People who love each other, who from the little we see, are happy and content with their current lot. All of that upturned, by the cast of violents who sweep in with all the force of a hurricane. It’s difficult to understand fully (especially at 1:14AM in the morning), but the cast we see are the products of the violence which has surrounded them, but for the first time QT showed that not everyone who inhabits his world is just as villainous and reprehensible as the characters we follow. Which really does help to ground the violence, into more than just a mechanic of a crazy world, because suddenly it really is a curious poison picked up by its characters somewhere along the line. And as we watch, as their brutal shoot-offs, shoot-outs, murders, lies, tricks, dirty deals and cruelty reaches its inevitable end, you can’t help but feeling something oddly noble about the whole thing. As Maj. Marquis Warren and Sheriff Chris Mannix (an impeccable turn by Walter Goggins) lie dying in their own blood, a hanging Daisy Domergue (also an impeccable turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh) watching them, and Mannix reads the Abraham Lincoln letter, it all feels very…well very epic. Like wandering through a lost jungle only to find its edge, you suddenly realise that when all is said and done, maybe, just maybe, justice really did get served.

It’s hard to love. But as Quentin Tarantino illustrates here, it’s also pretty hard to hate. Have respect for those who feel passionate for both.

The Scorpion and the Frog

  A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the 
scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The 
frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion 
says, "Because if I do, I will die too."

  The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream,
the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of 
paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown,
but has just enough time to gasp "Why?" 

		Replies the scorpion: "Its my nature..."

-Alex

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The Hateful Eight : Love?! Huh?! What Is It Good For?!