Friday, 26 February 2010

Avatar and Language

See the elephant, Cut up didoes,
Crazy as a lion. These are phrases that were widely used in the United States 150 years ago when New York was Gotham and long before it was The Big Apple.

Since then, figures of speech have vanished and been replaced, words have been contracted and terms have evolved.

Avatar is set in the year 2154, 150 years from now. Rockets have developed into spaceships, man can physically become one with machine, and his mind can be king in a foreign body and yet...we speak as we always did. Or should I say, as we do.

It is easy to extrapolate the present into a mechanised future and it is a simple step to imagine earthly beings with a twist of the exotic.
In all sorts of ways more attention is lavished on Pandora than on us. Humankind may not have learnt its moral lessons in Avatar but the film-making fails to rise to or acknowledge the challenge of communicating the cultural leap from now to then through the linguistic footprints of an intervening century and a half. A culture exposed to extraterrestrial influence, no less.

Things change, especially in times of war and struggle. Screwing us, Death from Above. The film talks to us in our language
throughout with, what should be for them, archaic words and anachronistic references.

Blade Runner unveils a world grown smaller, with the shards of other languages embedded in our own. There is a mix but the ingredients of each language are not altered by the other. New words for new objects and new concepts but no progression and no fruition. New languages for newly discovered peoples in Avatar, Star Trek and hundreds of other films but, all the while, English remains untouched. Perfected and polished.

This is not a criticism of Avatar in particular. I don't think any film has succeeded in this aspect. The vast majority do not try. It is a very difficult task, to subtly and intelligently sculpt a new English. It is an undertaking, no doubt, open to ridicule. But wouldn't it be wonderful to make tangible that we have gone forward in time and not just outward in space? Wouldn't it be rousing to feel how our future is their past, how disease and triumph and invention have shaped them.

Our language is as close a telling of our history as the artefacts in our museums. Why, then, do we never realise the incongruity of a way of communicating locked in a cryo capsule and released at journey's end?

Zoe Saldana deserved an Oscar Nomination for her performance

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Psycho II

There's something special about
Psycho. It has been written about perhaps more than any other film and a morbid curiosity has overtaken many a film-maker, inspiring them to try and grasp its beating heart. In 1998 Gus Van Sant released a fascinating experiment, an almost shot for shot remake of the 1960 original in which he seemed to pose the question : where lies Psycho's soul? In 1993 Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho slowed the film down so that it would take a day to play, trying perhaps to capture flickers of genius between the frames. These films, however, do not dare build on the sacred ground, they dare not write another chapter to a story deemed complete and completely brilliant. In 1983 Director Richard Franklin, working from a script by Child's Play's devilishly clever writer Tom Holland, did dare.

Suppose we have another look at the place? What harm can it do? Is it unnecessary, is it sacrilege to go back? Psycho is revered as a masterpiece of horror and there are people who, quite understandably, don't want to go back. They don't want those memories to be sullied. But Norman Bates doesn't want to go back either. The last thing he wants is a sequel. He doesn't want to give those voices and those urges a chance to lead him into the temptations of the old, old ways...

That any conflicted feelings an audience might have correspond so closely with Norman's own trepidation forges an important bond between the film and us.

It is mighty rare for a direct se
quel to be made 22 years after the original and even rarer for it to be set 22 years later. Seeing Norman Bates again comes as a shock. That gaunt and gauche boyish young man has got older. He has wrinkles and a greater air of maturity that comes with age; but there is still something of the boy about him. He has never really grown up or grown away from his childhood trauma, something alluded to in Psycho III by a breakfast spread tin labelled 'Peter Pan'. There is a sadness underneath the tics that spreads its inkblot stain.

This time Norman is the protagonist from start to finish. The gaze of the film is keener. It is both more forensic and more sympathetic. Newly released from prison, exonerated 'by reason of insanity', he decides to go home. He is wary but confident that he has at last gained control over himself. He is scared and much of the success of Psycho II lies in making us scared for him more than we are scared by him. He is scared of going back to that house, scared of being alone, or rather of suddenly not being alone. He knows it's not going to be easy but he's determined to have a stab at it...

Psychological therapy has made Norman more self-aware than ever. It may be counter-intuitive but, precisely because of this, he is that much more in danger. He is that much more at the mercy of paranoia. Into this potent mix comes Mary, a young woman who works at a diner where Norman has been placed as part of his rehabilitation. He invites her to stay at his home and she accepts. All in good time it will be revealed that Mary is as much manipulated by a domineering mother as he is. Her mother is Lila Loomis, the sister of Norman's / Mother's first victim and Mary is being used as bait to tease out Norman's insanity and drive him towards renewed incarceration. They place telephone calls purporting to be from his mother and appear at the window dressed in her old clothes. Soon the fear bubbles, the blood begins to flow once again and the finger of suspicion is pointed unerringly in Norman's direction.

The film is distressingly and grossly unfair on Norman in the relentless persecution visited on him by its characters. Tragedy is never far away from the surface.

Mary, grown more fond of Norman and more guilty of her involvement in his distress, refuses to continue the charade, attempting to pacify Norman and lullaby his fears to sleep. Their relationship glows with much tenderness and much sadness ("What if I told you I needed you to stay"), one never completely trusting the other but clinging to each other as if surrogate mother and son. The glimmer of hope he holds that she may 'like' him is monumentally heartbreaking and skin-crawling all at once.

However, the murders and the calls continue and soon it is impossible to tell who is doing what, who is killing who and the extent to which Norman is falling or is being pushed. Or maybe, just maybe, he has leapt willingly feet first into 'madness'.

Psycho II takes the more cut and dried, cool, procedural nature of the original and brings out more refinement in its cavalcade of psychos: psychotic, psychopathic, psychosexual, psychosomatic. In this Psycho story there is a new sorrow in the eyes of a cornered man, new affection in the embrace of a lodger, new chills in that anxious frame, new horrors in the churning blood.

Psycho II
is receptive to wider emotional frequencies than its predecessor.

It is very enjoyable, knotted tight with baffling twists and cul-de-sacs. Be it in the slicing of a cheese sandwich or the slow pan across and into the wallpaper of a shower-room, the tension is held high, inches shy of fever pitch. The Freudian serial-killer sub-genre is oftentimes overly delirious or baroque but Psycho II only very rarely allows itself to be held hostage to such excesses. In fact it manages to retain much of the original's understatement.

Franklin meticulously adopts elements of the 'master's' signature style* - a sudden switch to a high angle, a bird's eye view, a dolly zoom. He even contrives one last Hitchcock cameo by casting that all too recognisable podgy silhouette onto a cupboard door. Nevertheless, he is his own man and he offers himself his own Hitchcockian cameo standing by a videogame machine. 

With Psycho II Franklin acknowledges that this is Hitchcock's world but proceeds reverently and imaginatively to create his own myth beside it and within it.

Franklin uses a soupcon more gothic and a pinch more sensation, taking his own route and locating his Bates Motel on the road from Hitchcock to Argento.

There are even murmurings of the ghostly turned supernatural in Jerry Goldsmith's terrifically poignant score. With no little panache and elan, Franklin masterminds compositions all his own, on one occasion sliding us out of an attic window, shrouded in darkness, into the blinding sunlight of the next day. There is a style and a verve here.

The performance of Anthony Perkins, though, is the sine qua non of a successful Psycho and it is the most impressive aspect of this film. Tormented or tormentor, his expressions switch effortlessly between the registers. Whether he is the innocent, awkward and eager to please Norman or the nervous, torn and vindictive Norman, Perkins concocts and shapes the apotheosis of the kindly beast. Look at the way he nonchalantly moves the phone from his right hand into his left hand to indicate the presence of 'Mother' and lets that unsettling vacant wonderment pass over his face with the quietness of a shadow.

Meg Tilly as Mary is less convincing. Her delivery can be a little blank but her unassuming and likeable presence contrasts well with Perkins'.

In the end the machinations are unfurled as the machinators fall one by one. Nothing is truly solved. We do not know if Norman is more lost than ever or merely at the controls of a new and more hideous form of evil. In the penultimate scene do we see in his eyes a perfect clarity as if the sane and the insane sides of him had overlapped to act in unison? At the beginning of the film Norman didn't want a sequel. By the end he is hungry for a couple more.

And so the threads are untied and with one final blow the film is unspooled.

I think Psycho II deserves to be remembered as more than just a surprisingly good sequel. I think Psycho II deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its forerunner. It is more tense, more horrifying, more emotionally involved and involving. It is a fine creative achievement and, for me, the best Psycho film bar none.

*Franklin was a Hitchcock obsessive. The two became good friends following Franklin's attempts to have Rope screened at USC. Subsequently Franklin was invited onto the set during the production of Topaz.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Performance of the Decade

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Film-makers' Intentions

In critical circles I think too much stock is put in what the Director (and his team) thinks, hopes to achieve and seeks to convey. The art itself, and the effect it has on its audience, should be the paramount concern. Foremost in our minds must be taking the film on its own terms. It is the creation of the director, yes, but just like a child (of his mind rather than his body) it has its own life.

There are two issues that some get caught up in. Two fallacies. The first is that a film or body of films can be considered representative of who a director is.

Lars Von Trier's Antichrist caused quite a stir, with charges of misogyny quickly laid at his door. This attitude, seen from a little distance, is baffling. If an individual and fictional character believes women to be evil and mutilates herself, is she her creator's mouthpiece? Is her hand an extension of Von Trier's? Though there may be an overlap, one simply cannot work back through a film to arrive at its maker's character, his ideologies and his preoccupations. It is fiction, after all. If he had not told us himself, could we use Avatar as proof of James Cameron's peace-loving world view? No. Do Martin Scorsese's films glamorise violence? Yes. Does it logically follow that he loves violence and wishes to promote it? No. It is too easy to see the film as a portrait of its maker.

You cannot even, with any confidence, assume that Michael Mann's 'concerns' with men, their identities inextricably linked with their jobs, actually 'concern' him. They could be the motifs he finds easiest to explore. There are any number of reasons for people to make the films they do - a niche in the market, ease of distribution, money, pushing boundaries, provocation...

The second fallacy, a partial corollary of the first, is that we can work out, from a film, precisely what a director wants from said films, or what he wants to communicate with them. Fallen Angels is full of jump cuts. Wong Kar Wai has stated that a good number of them are not there to create a certain energy, a dislocation of time or anything else but because passers-by could not be prevented from getting in the way of his location shots. Those feelings are still created. They are still there, but not in the way intended.

It is for this reason that the notion of a director's intentions holding great import (beyond academic interest) loses some traction - at least if we are to use the film as evidence.

Many critics I think make a leap of faith (or at least they write or talk as though they do) in imagining a director picking from an infinite array of choices. The question often implied is: 'Why did he do it like this and not like that?'. A director's vision is walled in and warped by limits at every turn: Time limits, budget limits, logistical limits, the limits of the collaborative process, the limits of adherence to well-established film language. Most importantly of all, the limits of their own imagination.

What matters most is what is left after this process and what an audience can get out of it. An extreme example, but what if a film-maker sought to create a sombre treatise on loss but the work came across as an uproarious comedy of manners? Is it any less funny if it is accidental? Perhaps. Perhaps not.*

You know what is in front of you and how it effects you. A film will almost mystically set its own parameters, asking, so to speak, to be judged in a certain way.**

Cinema has no rules and each film has a unique fingerprint that could be radically altered (without us realising) by an edit a second earlier or the use of mustard instead of custard yellow. Bad acting may be a killer in one film but not in another. If I were to write 'the film lacks depth' I would mean to say that the film in question suffers because of a lack of depth - not that depth or 'character development' or any other factor is a pre-requisite for a good and worthy film.

Take the film on its own terms and praise or bury the director for it (we can do no other) but hesitate to assume who he/she is or exactly what he/she wanted to say or do and why. One could say that once an artist has completed and exhibited his art, it is ours as much as it is theirs.

*It goes without saying that an audience will generally become painfully aware of an absurdity in the gap between what the film seems to want to do and what it is actually doing (i.e. The Happening, a parody of itself) and the film may well be damaged because of it.

**It may be useful not to think so much of a straight line from the director through his work to the audience but of the three as the points of a triangle.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Chungking Express, Identities and Labels

Chungking Express
concerns two policemen in search of love in the vibrantly modern milieu of poly-ethnic Hong Kong. Amongst the faceless throng (the policemen are only known by their numbers - what's in a name when 'Boy meets Girl' can suffice?) is emphasised the clinical nature of time and the ephemeral taste of emotion here in rundown Chungking Mansions.

Intimacy is rare and proximity in and of itself is cherished - a centimetre here, a millimetre th
ere. Love is transient. It can be consumed like a can of pineapples and violently expelled from our bodies once its expiration date has passed. Lovers can be 'tried' or sampled like a pizza or a "cheesy salad".

Chungking Express gives us a platonic, unspoken connection as well as a more traditional, swooning romance. In the first story a drug-dealing woman (Brigitte Lin), touched by the simple selfless attentiveness of her sad-sack suitor, seeks to leave that life behind her. She wipes out everything associated with that identity, culminating in the killing of a man who models his girlfriend in her image. As she walks away from the murder she discards her wig, her former identity, and in the near distance flashes a neon sign advertising her new purity (see photo):

"Snow White"

The concepts of identity and labelling are ubiquitous. In the second story the various characters' identities are portrayed as permeating all that they own and do. In this sense their identities seem fixed. Cop #663 (Tony Leung) anthropomorphises all his possessions. In his withering soap bar he sees his own depression at the departure of his girlfriend, funnily enough the selfsame depression he sees in its overweight replacement.

His whole apartment is representative of his heart, an amplification. When it is accidentally flooded he reproaches it for its tear-soaked sentimentality. It
cannot go on without his former girlfriend either. Later, stood up by Faye, one of these inanimate objects finally turns the tables on him, giving him a reality check. The beer bottle responsible is summarily drained as punishment.

His former girlfriend's identity is also fixed. She is an air hostess (that is how she is referred to in the credits) and that role is her life's uniform. She seduces him to the sound of an airline safety routine and he lands model planes on her naked back. Towards the end she is finally apart from that role and literally invested in a new identity - a biker's girlfriend, appropriately clad in black.

The waitress with whom #663 falls in love (helping him forget the air hostess) sneaks / breaks into his flat ("You asked me to visit sometime!") and rearranges it. She is effectively invading his heart and remaking him in her own image. She leaves traces of herself on his soul. By the end of the film he is clothed
in products she bought and left behind. When she swaps the labels on his tinned food, she is forcing him to snap out of his hazy pining and see the world in a new way. She is producing within him, inadvertently, the symptoms of (new) love: that everything looks different, smells different, tastes different.

These are extreme measures but it shows how difficult it is to alter these fixed identities. Nevertheless they can be altered precisely because that unwavering nature ("I don't like thinking") is, deep down, empty. These people are waiting to fulfil roles in the same way the blank plane ticket awaits a destination.

The role of 'girlfriend' is up for grabs. Faye wears a heart on her t-shirt as if she is tailor-made for it. When his former girlfriend appears Faye compares herself not so much to the air hostess herself (her height, her legs, her comportment) but to the position of 'girlfriend'. Evading capture after another session decorating his flat, she hides in the cupboard thus unknowingly mimicking something the air hostess used to do. She therefore fulfils in his mind too that 'girlfriend' role (interesting that she drowns a toy plane in his aquarium during one of her 'redecorations').

To rouse himself from his lovesickness, he must change more than just the labels. He says about his dripping and dejected towel:

"Despite the change of its look it still remains true to itself"

He must go further. Eventually, though initially attracted to the label, he allows Faye into his heart to take him wherever she wants to go, to vitally and significantly change and be changed. Faye too must learn to look past the labels. Incessantly she listens to 'California Dreamin'" as an escape from the mundanity of her job. When she goes to California for real the dream is just as boring as reality. Happiness is internal; it is not to be stuck on.

In the first story the cop's former girlfriend May bemoans the fact that he has become "more and more unlike Bruce Willis", her label for the perfect man. Again, as morning breaks in on his encounter with the drug-dealer he cleans her shoes because his label for that woman demands it: "A pretty woman like her should always have clean shoes". Only when they allow themselves to break out of these expectations, these incorporeal dreams and these defining roles do they fully connect.

When they connect, though, it's quite a sight. After the cop asks her out she serves dozens of customers with a wide, manic grin and a barely contained jubilation.

Chungking Express highlights that in a cold urban climate love is the one thing that can find the space in the crowd to change us and our identity and do more than just apply labels. Chungking Express
is electrically energetic and full of catchy invention. It is a cute, doe-eyed fairytale bubbling with crumpled anguish and ecstatic frivolity. But, above all things, what better metaphor could there be for the blissful state of love than a woman redecorating a man's house to sign her name on his heart?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Scenes of the Decade

Avatar (2009) Pandora at Night

Jake is rescued by Neytiri and led through the bio-luminescent
Pandoran landscape. With every touch the flora and fauna, and the ground itself, is lit up.

This is a l
iterally breathtaking introduction to a new world.

Battle Royale (2000) Welcome to the Game

Kinji Fukasaku takes reality television to its ill and (il)logical conclusion. A class of school-children are shown an instructional, educational video - about how to kill and survive. The scariest thing is when terror wears a cute face. You can taste the sweaty dread throughout.

Chocolate (2008) Building Ledge Fight

A highly contrived situation, I admit, but what a contrivance! Our heroine, played by Jeeja Yanin, has a ferocious yet approachable tomboyish charisma that elevates the scene to a celebration of danger and broken bones.

The Company (2003) My Funny Valentine

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The New World

Terence Malick takes us back to the beginning of America as if back to the beginning of time itself. Water, wind, fire, the sun and the moon, The New World revitalises the first of symbols by pruning away at their pabular metaphorical entanglements. Here they are no more than what they are -
life itself.

In Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line similar compositions of sunsets and swaying fields appeared somewhat cool in their glossy impeccability.
I think there is a difference between a beautiful view in real life and a beautiful cinematic image; a distinction that is hard to quantify and a skill difficult to master.

The slow sunrise in Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, for example, did not for me have anything like the sheer force of a sunrise outside of the theatre. There is an altogether separate and possibly unconscious mindset when approaching art and the representation of the real. In The New World the beautiful of our world is not only preserved in the transition to the screen but heightened, our senses always pricked to the clanking of sails, the crackle of thunder, the rustling of leaves.

As threadbare as the phrase may be, The New World really is pure cinema. Its images are its heart and they slide with such graceful ease into ours like the oiled hull of a boat through the tide.

Ephemeral and eternal, the title The
New World refers to the first steps on American soil, the first shivers of love, the first glimpse of heaven (the tall trees stretching ever upward are like the spires of great Cathedrals) And yet it catches us between the old and the new, at the cusp of transcendence and at the threshold of understanding. It feels like we are slipping in and out of consciousness, sometimes within, sometimes without, sometimes just lost - internal monologues, wordless sequences, moments that seem like meadow-bound dreams and ones that are live and filthy and crawling. 1st, 2nd, 3rd person narratives pass balletically across each other.

Thus The New World is an immersion. It does not want you to pass by on the waters as the English ships, but dive beneath as the natives. Once he is taken captive, captivated by Pocahontas, Smith swims in the ocean.

However, this is not conveyed as a two-dimensional tract on the evils of materialism or a call to return to man's essence as there is no hard and fast dichotomy made between pure-of-heart 'naturals' and English 'invaders'. We see that, through fear and mistrust, both sides jealously guard what is theirs and both sides may turn to violence in defence of it. Captain Smith's dialogue is not ours or the film's. We can see beyond the idea of love and paradise that has so enchanted him and the glimpse of heaven is rapidly revealed to be the distorted face of a mirage.

However, love and openness can bridge any divide, a divide between cultures, the vast Atlantic itself. In the honourable, steadfast and strong John Rolfe 'Rebecca' finds the truth that lies behind the
myths of peoples and idealised emotions and sees that is something even deeper and even more powerful:

"Mother, I know where you live".

Words, words, words. Is it ever enough in film criticism to say with humility and awe that something is beautiful and yet not know exactly how or why? Is its beauty any less if its nature is not finally comprehended? Or is it greater still when it is too overwhelming and too ethereal to seize and hold to one's breast?

Friday, 5 February 2010

Citizen Kane

Charles Foster Kane is an infinity of mirrored images, a multiplicity of versions receding into nothing.

Only once, right back at the very beginning of the film, do we see him unfiltered by someone else's memory. Even then, on his deathbed, his image is distorted by vast and grotesque close ups. We never look upon Kane as a whole, unbroken portrait. The sign on the gate we float over warns "No Trespassing".
No trespassing on him, it means to say and the film does indeed keep us at arm's length.

Can we get at the truth of the man? Can any person ever be fathomed and encapsulated by one symbol? This question is never allowed to flower, nor ever properly posed within the film. The more pertinent question is, given the flashback structure, whether these accounts are relayed as if the teller were there at the time or whether they are coloured by the sepia tint of hindsight? Who can tell? These witnesses are never interrogated. The reporters are always in the dark, literally as well as figuratively. As no-one could have heard Kane whisper "Rosebud" it is maybe we who are the ones driving the search to solve the mystery (note how the woman photographer at the end takes a snap of us as though we are part of the story). The implication of viewer as director/detective, though, is never given room to breathe.

The flash photo frame

The flashback structure of interlocking accounts could have proved a Pandora's box of overlapping and chaotic 'truths', confounding and enlightening, with space left over for our own interpretation. Sadly, each account fits snugly in the overall pattern, neatly butting up against each other. No different style is used for each section, no thought applied to exhibit the uniqueness of disparate authorships. The introductions to these dreams of the past are stilted and stunted much like the linking parts in a Simpsons clip show. The journalist equates his investigation to "playing with a jigsaw puzzle" and yet, even if it were a puzzle, it wouldn't add up to much. The play with structure is pitifully limited and does not achieve anything akin to the integral force of the flashbacks
in Memento or Mulholland Drive.

*** ***

The newsreel declaration "Few private lives have been more public" has two potential interpretations. One is that his private life is laid bare for all to see. Another, more apt, is that any private life and inner depths became entwined into the persona of Charles Foster Kane the global personality and vanish between the threads of his 'CK' monogram. Some call him "fascist", some "communist". Kane as a character is a chimera, a symbol of American success derailed, all over-weaning ambition and greed: "I am, have been and will be only one thing - an American".

What do we know of his morality, his beliefs? He signs his 'Declaration of Principles' with his face shrouded in darkness - in other words, effaced. There is no doubt that he will break these promises and leave us still in the dark over who he is. Slowly and surely, as he grows old and his hair recedes he comes to resemble a statue of himself in cold and lifeless marble.

Citizen Kane is the tale of a man's search for his identity, maybe lost, maybe never truly held or owned. Xanadu is unfinished. Kane is unfinished. Still, the mystery of who he is does not come across as mysterious and a viewer's first guess will almost certainly be right - the film is at heart dime a dozen Freudian whitewash or worse still a rehash of that ancient moral: What profiteth a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?

The story comes, or rather may come, to concern Kane's desperation to be heard. He never wanted to leave his home, no matter how impoverished it may have been. No one listened to his protestations. In the childhood scene he dances happily in the snow, spotted through the open window. The snow is the white of purity and innocence*. From then on, the moments of relative happiness - successful sales figures, the announcement of his first marriage to Emily - are enacted through open windows. When Kane dances again, though, he is reflected in a closed window, cloaked in black. His figure is still small and the freedom of old is now an illusion. He is trapped within the room and jerks around in the manner of a sad automaton. He has no control over himself.

He does, at first. Many are the occasions where he sits or stands as calmly as the Sun while nervous movement revolves around him. We are often in retreat in this film, tracking backwards as a character moves towards us. In the beginning of his life Kane is in retreat as his Mum walks towards us. Later, he bounds into the room after his holiday, forcing us and everyone else onto the back foot. He is in charge of everyone but not himself. With The Inquirer his megaphone to be heard again by the world. Kane grows too big, pressed down on by the ceilings. Bernstein has plenty of headroom yet Kane's side of the room is foreshortened:

Kane, frustratingly, remains two-dimensionally childish. He feels betrayed by everyone around him and roars his disapproval in maniacal tantrums: "They'll think what I tell them to think!". He is a ravenous monster ("are you still eating?" "I'm still hungry!"). His selfishness walks hand in hand with his pride, his hubristic zeal. Everything is about him. In one scene transition Kane's applause for Susan's singing melds with applause for Jedediah's praise of Kane. He wants power, approval and control to balance his childhood loss of power and love.

Yet Kane's monstrousness is overplayed. The grand speech in the gargantuan hall is too much, too extended, too embroiled in the iconography of a plastic dictator. His insertion into historical events (standing proudly alongside Hitler on a balcony) borders on comic-book pastiche.

The scale of his image, though, affords us a tantalising glimpse at parallels to King Kong where now it is Anne / Susan who is treated as the ape and put on display to appease Kane's beastly American ego (above).

There is a mournfulness to this idea of a man groping for a tantalising mirage of love. He rejects anyone who gets close and surrounds himself with replacements for the living and breathing people that he let slip from his grasp. I say 'idea' because we are not allowed to see behind the cardboard backdrops to the mechanics of these motivations. The signs and symbols are there but not what may project them.

The many doors that close in our faces close again in his. Jedediah, who was there at the birth of Kane's idealism, tries to get him to see sense: "You talk about the people as if you own them!" (Kane was taken as property by Mr.Thatcher - a cycle of abuse, no less). Confronting each other, their new-found opposition is as flagrant as yin and yang. Jedediah has a hat, Kane doesn't. Kane has a tie, Jedediah doesn't. Jedediah wears his coat, Kane does not. Peculiarly they complete each other:

One of the final shots is of his statues, his decorative pieces, the crates and pallets that he collected. The camera takes in the panoramic view, artefacts uncannily and deliberately arranged to resemble a cityscape. Kane wanted to own the world and ended up with empty and fractured bits and bobs. It is the film's one spectacular coup, a construction of genius, a symbolic chef d'oeuvre sans pareil:

He receives the 'Declaration' back from Jedediah and its stark lettering on old greying paper makes it his epitaph. There was a state funeral, the greatest of 1941 we are told, but his real funeral, his cremation, is in the fireplace at Xanadu and his ash billows out with the black smoke. He was rosebud. Perhaps.

*** ***

The revelation of Rosebud as the name of a sled is not a material revelation. It does not alter anything in our perception. It reveals what rosebud is and nothing new about the man. A tawdry device. An awful amount of time is spent telling us nothing. He loses himself in fame and power, but what is himself?
The whole mystery that sets the tale in motion is established too early, before we come to care about what it entails. Kane's traits of arrogance and bloody-mindedness are demonstrated again and again within a story old, hackneyed and deadeningly predictable. There is little or no light and shade cast onto this inevitable rise and fall.

I contend that we must care about the characters and be carried away by the story. The films of Jean-Luc Godard play with the medium as if to demolish it and raise it up again. Those are his terms. Citizen Kane, conversely, is bombastically narrative driven, barrelling along in the wake of Welles' presence. It demands to be taken as an enjoyable yarn on a purely story level and on those terms it fails. It's narrative must be served by its technique and instead it is let down by it.

Kane smacks of the work of a student of film not yet a film-maker. The compositions do not derive from the characters' internal world (like a snow globe smashing, spilling the internal out) but are imposed externally, untethered to what they mean to speak of.
On first viewing I missed an entire scene's worth of dialogue, distracted by overblown expressionist design. Time and again the acute chiaroscuro, the giant sets, the muddying echoes fall into parody. The film essays foreboding grandeur but the text is simply drawn and its illustrations seem ridiculous in their imposition of hifalutin, steroidal 'meaning'.

The imposition of meaning is a thorn in Citizen Kane's paw. The visual illustration is more often than not pleonastic. Distressed by Susan's refusal to sing Kane stands over her threateningly. She looks scared and we understand that she is scared. Only Welles' strategies are anti-intellectual. He wants to make blatant the blatantly implicit. Therefore he has Kane slowly cast his shadow over her face. Can this be said to add anything? I believe it only takes us out of and turns us away from the film.

Frequently the story is obfuscated by a magician's puff of smoke. In the aftermath of Kane's election defeat the camera is placed at ground level, or just below. I was sat there thinking: "What am I doing on the floor?". The compositions are not assimilated and therefore they stand out. The picnic scene, when his marriage to Susan faces irrevocable breakdown, is played quite laughably to the strains of It Can't be Love. Back in their mausoleum home Susan and Charles sit miles away as they talk. Does one get the feeling, I ask, that they are drifting apart?!

Why must our hands be held like this? Welles substitutes the possibility of genuine emotion with a more hollow stylised representation of the same emotions. If emotions could be intellectualised there would be no need for art. He relies on something far less reliable than simple human empathy, which is directorial shorthand. By this I mean that he places too much faith in the idea that such and such a composition / angle / lighting will produce such and such a sensation in the audience. Citizen Kane's innovative images are too ambiguous and incongruous to be charged with carrying the bulk of the artistic load. Deep focus adds depth but not necessarily the kind that cannot be seen.

The attempts at humour - the opera coach, Jedediah's boredom at the performance - are broad and broadly misjudged. The acting lacks nuance and depth, Welles showing little behind the bravura and Dorothy Comingore unconvincing in her hysteria. The fact that I have often prevented myself from writing Kane for Welles and vice versa demonstrates that Welles' force of personality is all over the film, battling against audience engagement with the character stuck behind the teeth of a smirk.

Citizen Kane does not engage. All we may gain from it is academic ideas of feelings and not the feelings themselves, scooping tiny insects with our net on the surface of a thick and opaque swamp. I should want to know about Kane, I should feel for him. I should worry for his abused wife. I should be transported by the tale of a man at the coalface of history, sculpting both it and himself. A modern Midas indeed. Citizen Kane is an intricately carved and gilded shell with nothing within. It has no heart and I confess that I was bored. It has studied and pioneering technique but to what end? Without a purpose, an achieved aim, technique is nothing. Welles shows off in the same way Kane does when he poaches seasoned journalists from the Chronicle. It is not a great film and I couldn't, in all sincerity, call it a good film.
It is a peacock display for the cameras by the cameras.

*The cold snow preserves too. It preserves his secrets until the flames melt it away to reveal the truth. Snow slowly turns to rain outside the windows of Chicago and he begins to lose what was buried there.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Your Animated Reviews

(Final Part of Animation Month)

As a conclusion to my 'Animation Month' (including my own top 21 rankings - opinions welcomed) I thought that I would post a splurge of links to reviews of animated films. I have always seen animated films as as valuable a part of Cinema as any other and the purpose of a series of reviews dedicated to these cinematic media was not to show them as separate but simply to bring them further into the fold.

I have cast out my (inter)net to gather in some of the most interesting and well-written pieces around (and shamelessly borrow their screenshots) as an encouragement to more intelligent and open-minded discussion. So, thank you and enjoy...

I will start with two exceptional write-ups on Wall-E, one a conventional review by Just Another Film Buff and one impromptu and impassioned comment from Jennybee:

"It is 29th century. Amidst the exanimate garbage wastelands, happily compacting the dump is
WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), a rusty little robot with notably large eyes. There are no traces of life in the whole area. Yes, there is earth, there is fire, there is wind and there is water, but not life."

Just Another Film Buff:

"It’s a film that like the best of sci-fi asks, “What if?” and then takes us on a bleak path that does not have to be. It’s a film that channels the deep undercurrent of hope, even amidst the darkest of crises–the death of our planet and the devolution of our species–and has a resounding echo of the rallying cry of a very frightening 2008: “Yes we can!” "


One of the best film bloggers around, Marilyn Ferdinand, brings together two distinctive films at her site, Fantastic Planet and De Profundis:

"Treating sentient creatures like pets, exterminating them like vermin, and doing the equivalent of pulling the wings off a fly as a form of recreation underlines the folly of human hubris over the natural world. Reverence for the mind over the body can lead to species suicide. The reasons for this divorce are clear from a very original scene of giant, but fragile statues in human form dancing as a prelude to sex and then falling to pieces. Ultimately, the fanciful Fantastic Planet says humility and frailty must be the price for life."

Marilyn Ferdinand:

In order of seniority I should have begun with Mr. Roger Ebert. A couple of days ago I left a comment on his blog asking him if he would share his thoughts on what he considered the greatest animated film. Obliging as ever, he responded simply 'The most powerful is Grave of the Fireflies". Here is the original print review and a link to a short video essay of his #1:

Now for a review by Daniel Thomas McInnes, at the beautifully presented ghibli blog, of another Isao Takahata film, Only Yesterday.

"Isao Takahata is not a name most Americans will recognize. Mention his name, and more often than not, you will be greeted with shrugs. But make no mistake: Takahata is a poet who has revolutionized animation as an art form."

Staying with Ghibli and moving onto MovieMan's insightful review of Spirited Away at the Dancing Image:

"Also, this aspect of the film gives us a rare animated opportunity to follow the increasingly ubiquitous service jobs, the hard work of the grunts who grease the wheels and keep things shiny for our usual type of protagonist. Most of the film's inhabitants are resolutely and unapologetically working-class, albeit with tentacles and slithery tails."


Onto a quality review by Ryan Kelly at Medfly Quarantine of Coraline, a film that has impressed many:

"Coraline’s use of 3D is never distracting or gimmicky; it effectively highlights the visual transcendence of the fantasy world, and the more morose nature of the real world."

Ryan Kelly:

And here is a great review by Carson of another beloved recent hit Fantastic Mr Fox:

"Often times it seems like frames may have been mistakenly dropped as figures jerk purposefully through Anderson's dioramic tableaux, a result that is at first jarring but ultimately delightful. Every panoramic view is carefully constructed from left to right and top to bottom, with not a pixel of wasted space..."


Craig, The Man from Porlock, takes a look at Sita Sings the Blues:

"Nina Paley clearly is out to challenge myths like The Ramayana that reinforce gender stereotypes and self-justify male dominance along with female servitude, and at times the movie is almost as bracing to watch as would be a musical revival of The Satanic Verses."


A couple of erudite posts on classic American animation by David Bordwell and Ed Howard:

"Or consider pacing, at which the Disney cartoons excel. Most studio animation of the period, constrained by smaller budgets than Disney had, speeded up production by filming each frame twice. That way only 12 cel drawings were needed for the 24 frames that consumed a second of film. One way Disney achieved expressive action, and the high quality to which Gabler refers, was to devote single frames–and cels–to details of particular movements."

David Bordwell:

"The scene is filmed from straight on, so that as the transformation is completed the monster begins to take up more and more of the frame, leaning forward until the whole frame is filled with his horrifying face, his teeth bared as though he's about to devour the audience."

Ed Howard:

The film hub extraordinaire, Wonders in the Dark, has two reviews of films that I must say left me cold (I mean the films left me cold!): Allan Fish on Akira and Sam Juliano on Up:

"The minority who already knew of manga before Akira hit the west must have smiled satisfactorily when people announced a new age in animation; simply, to quote the film, “because it had already begun.” "

Allan Fish:

"While for many it brings to mind a sense of deja vu, it’s a singular achievement where artistic elements are informed by the deepest of philosophical concerns: the passage of life."

Sam Juliano:

To wrap up, then, a timely and riveting discussion begun by Amid at Cartoon Brew about what really constitutes animation. Is Waltz with Bashir animation? Is Avatar?:

This is the end of Animation Month. Thank you everybody who has taken the time to comment and offer their recommendations and thank you too for giving me your permission to link to these reviews.