Tuesday 28 September 2010

Deer in Film

Deer have long been symbolic of power, purity and gentleness. It is no different in the Cinema...

Forest God - Princess Mononoke


 Plague Dogs

 "Doe, a deer..." The Sound of Music

Nature is unpredictable, deer appearing suddenly on darkened roads. Nature is sacred (and haughty too), deer silently protecting their land from trespassers. They come to represent life itself in The Deer Hunter.

When deer are harmed or their character twisted, then the world is suddenly off-kilter, wild and disintegrating...

Evil Dead 2

 A Stillborn Fawn - Antichrist

"Animals are coming" - A deer about to be hit - A Prophet

Tuesday 21 September 2010

In Praise of Godard - A Short Film

 Jean-Luc Godard said that the best form of film criticism was making films. Here I have made a (very) short tribute in expectation of a review of Film Socialisme to be presented in the second best form of film criticism.

0:03 - Music - Fly-By-Night by Anna Meredith. Reprised at 0:29, 1:46
0:06 - Image from Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) by Auguste and Louis Lumiere
0:13 - Image of Gloria Grahame from In a Lonely Place (1950) by Nicholas Ray
0:14 - Image of Bulle Ogier from L'Amour Fou (1969) by Jacques Rivette
0:15 to 0:25 - Audio clip from Le Petit Soldat (1963) by Jean-Luc Godard
0:17 - Image from Je Vous Salue Sarajevo (1993) by Jean-Luc Godard
0:19 - Image from Je Vous Salue Marie (1985) by Jean-Luc Godard
0:21 to 0:27 - Images of Laetitia Carcano from Le Diable, Probablement (1977) by Robert Bresson
0:29 - Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch - 1485 to 1490
0:31 - Image of Brigitte Bardot from Le Mepris (Contempt) (1963) by Jean-Luc Godard. Returns at 1:06 
0:48 - Sound of cheque being ripped from Tout Va Bien (1972) by Jean-Luc Godard 
0:48 - Image of Nathalie Baye from Detective (1985) by Jean-Luc Godard 
0:49 to 1:06 - Audio clip from JLG/JLG (1994) by Jean-Luc Godard. The voice of Jean-Luc Godard
0:59 - Image of Aude Amiot from Helas Pour Moi (1993) by Jean-Luc Godard
1:07 - Audio clip from King Lear (1987) by Jean-Luc Godard. Possibly the voice of Molly Ringwald. 
1:08 to 1:56 - Music - Theme de Camille by Georges Delerue from Le Mepris 
1:09 - Floor Mosaic of man from Greek comic theatre from Ancient Israelite seaport site of Dor. Made between 400 and 100 BC.
1:20 to 1:32 - Audio clip of honking traffic from Sunrise (1927) by F.W.Murnau
1:28 - Images from Detective 
1:35 - Image from Helas Pour Moi 
1:36 - Nude Girl (1893) by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. The image has been unfortunately squeezed. Here it is as it should be : http://artmodel.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/toulouse_lautrec82.jpg
1:40 - Image of Laurence Masliah from Helas Pour Moi 
1:48 - Image of Jean Seberg from A Bout de Souffle (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard
1:57 - Images of Godard at a press conference at the Cannes film festival in 1988. 
2:00 - Image of cheque from Tout Va Bien
2:02 - Image from Passion (1982) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:05 - Image from Bande A Part (1964) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:08 - Image of Jean-Paul Belmondo from Pierrot Le Fou (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:12 - Music - Amsterdam (1964), written and performed by Jacques Brel
2:14 - Image of Brigitte Helm as Maria in Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang
2:16 and later - Images of screen from Dans le Noir du Temps (2002) by Jean-Luc Godard
2:20 - Gunfire audio clip from Film Socialisme (2010) by Jean-Luc Godard 
2:21 - Image of Anna Karina from Pierrot Le Fou 
2:29 onwards - Video from 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d'Elle (1967) by Jean-Luc Godard

Tuesday 14 September 2010

G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra : Paris Chase


An ordinary enough looking tree, but the race to avoid a terrible fate began here.

Here we are now on The Champs Elysees where the chase reached a fantastic speed. There was honking and screeching and cars flying everywhere. Quite a kerfuffle. It's not nearly as noisy now, of course.

This is one of the trains that runs through Paris. Actually, our heroes ran through it too...the train I mean...

They came through the lobby of this office block, pursuing the villain. The carnage that took place, what with the glass, y-you can't imagine...well maybe it's best you can't. They've cleaned it up nicely, anyway.

The Eiffel Tower. This was a very important landmark. Many people converged here during that terrible business...it's not a nice...I mean...the sound of twisted metal and the st-st-strangled screams of the pedestrians well...oh...it's too horrible to think about. Of course it's all been restored now. Quite a feat really if you think about it...

Setting the Scene

The bad guys (part of the organisation Cobra) are in a car en route to the Eiffel Tower, ready to fire a metal-eating missile at it. The good guys, the Joes, give chase in their own van. As the scene progresses two follow on foot in powersuits, one on a souped-up motorbike and one clinging by his fingertips to the roof of the bad guys' car.

The Scene Itself

                                                Two Flirtations

Usually the development of secondary narrative strands is put on hold while a fight or a chase takes place. These scenes can put an end to a particular story thread, achieve nothing in altering the fate of the characters, or complicate matters in a way requiring resolution in another fight or chase scene further down the track. Generally these action scenes streamline the narrative, shaving off subtext and depth for a focused rush of adrenaline.

This scene, however, moves the relationships between two couples forward. Before the chase Ripcord and Scarlett are slowly building a relationship whilst the relationship between Duke (of the Joes, played by Channing Tatum) and his estranged ex-fiancee Ana (leading the enemy, played by Sienna Miller) seems doomed and done. What we have, slyly slipped into the thunderous action, is two flirtations of two distinct kinds.

Ripcord's (Marlon Wayans) clumsy courting of Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), on the arrogant and sleazy side, is beginning to mellow and mature before they take to the streets of Paris. It reaches some sort of fruition though in a moment in which Ripcord can bring his two sides - self-proclaimed Superman and old romantic - together. Scarlett is thrown off her bike by an explosion and flies through the air. Ripcord leaps to catch her. After he calms her down with his gaze and his embrace, he knocks his helmet against hers:

It is a tender moment.

The relationship between Duke and Ana, conversely, is going nowhere, tinged with bitterness, guilt and resentment. Before this scene we learn that Duke 'allowed' her brother to be killed when they were soldiers and failed to comfort her as she mourned. We are also aware that she is under a sort of mind control that suppresses or mutates some of her memories. 

The flirtation that takes place is one of mockery (which is not far from teasing) studded with little barbed comments and sarcastic waves. The high intensity scene gives them an opportunity to interact closely and provides an opportunity / excuse of sorts for Duke to chase after her in an ostensibly non-romantic way.

The chase ends with Duke leaping into a craft as it is about to fly away with Ana on board. He catches her and is able to disable the bomb (it is made of organic/synthetic beings called Nanobites that can be deactivated remotely). He reaches out and presses the button strapped to her waist.

The physical contact is cruder, closer  and more abrupt 
than in it is for Ripcord and Scarlett. It is sexually charged. Ana's gasp, visually at least, can be read in more than one way. Unfortunately, the Eiffel Tower had already been hit and the huge phallic symbol droops and falls. The relationship is moving in the right direction but it still, clearly, needs time:


Nevertheless, one image remains in our minds, a Close Up that speaks volumes about the outcome of both chases. The bomb, and Ana, have been:

                                            Caring about Characters

What makes a chase is less the kinetic thrill of fast-moving objects, explosions and near misses (and this chase is full of them) than caring about the characters involved and what they are chasing for. Character must never get lost in the chaotic melee, but rise.

It is very important that we know enough about Cobra to care for them too. Knowing about someone, even if it is knowledge of evil deeds, will always bring a greater attachment and emotional investment. We are aware of Storm Shadow's (Byung Hun Lee of A Bittersweet Life) background and the reasons behind the rivalry with his de facto brother, the Joe Snake Eyes : he killed their ninja master out of jealousy when they were young). For us Ana is little short of an honorary Joe who we hope can be turned back to the side of good. The fact that there is danger in eliminating the target, with Snake Eyes battling on the roof too, creates an extra dimension of tension and excitement. Emotional confusion, friendly fire.

By giving us investment in the chased as well as the chasers the scene can unfold from two dynamic perspectives - looking ahead at the people who wish to use the missile and looking back at the Joes. The fact that the bad guys aren't just one-dimensional opponents pays dividends in freeing up the camera. If all the characters on screen have an attracting presence then a Director will be able, while retaining our interest, to put his camera wherever he wants along the 180 degree line of chaser and chased and spin between the ends to make 360 degrees. One dimension to two.

                                 Style, Slow Motion and Perfect Angles

The camera retreats from chaser to chased. It follows a crossbow from chaser to chased, then spins through the car to follow a blast back from chased to chaser. We even, innovatively, track above the chased car right and then left around two corners (the cafe on the corner (image 4) cuts across the line of the chase, making the dash somehow more forceful). This uninhibited filming style goes hand in glove with the cartoonish, hyperreal energy of the action it is depicting.

From beginning to end we are given the best views, the best chance to see what is happening, who is causing it and who is being affected by it. The editing is fast and always geared to showing rather than hiding. A stunt or a computer generated insert aren't shrouded out of  embarrassment or a lack of faith in the verisimilitude and effectiveness of the material. They stand proud. The editing isn't meant to give us a mere sense of the action or to jump-start us with a shallow jolt. It wants to catch every detail.

The angles and perspectives, too, are brilliantly chosen. The still compositions are as dramatic and impressive as the moving ones. Take these four shots that chart the journey of the fired missile towards its target:


The enclosed spaces of the first (narrowed all the more by the two black lines of the window pane's frame) and third image create a tension and an anxious expectation. Image two is a quiet shot of detached awe neatly sandwiched between the two. It is a vacuum for the tension to rush into. The canted angle of the fourth image feels uneasy, as if the world itself has been set off-kilter.

Equally impressive in the chase is the application of slow-motion. It is only used twice. The first time is to make the missiles, and the acrobatics of the Joes to avoid them, visible. The second time it is used to, just for a short moment, give a rolling car extra weight and gravitas. Two good reasons: to make the invisible visible (enhancing our eyes) and to add life and sentiment to something lifeless (triggering a deeper perception). In other words, the slow motion is present neither as a crutch nor as a display.

                                                 Cartoon Action

There should be no negative connotation when stating that the scene is ludicrously inflated. Within the rules of engagement set out by the film, it is a cartoonishness that is perfectly acceptable. 

An action scene functions on all cylinders when these two factors are aligned - over-the-top and harmoniously integrated. The sight of two grown men bouncing about Paris like rubber balls, half Robocop half Tigger, is hilarious. It is a game. A dangerous and life-altering game, but a game. There is no holding back. Characters leap through train windows, spin off airborne vehicles, send sonic missiles clattering through cobbled alleyways. 

Speed is of the essence in a chase. Car chases in films can be blighted, even in those most interested in the chase such as The French Connection or Death Proof; It takes one look at the side of the road to calculate the true speed as far below that which we are asked to believe in. In film pursuits there is an invisible elastic cord linking both parties, tightening and snapping back when they are too far apart and slackening when they are close. This chase is fast, not least because computer generated imagery can take up the baton when the stunt drivers and Director themselves are unable to go any further. The elastic never snaps and is never cut.

A wacky race, that is what this is, with traps, hazards and sniggers along the way. Look at the manic grimace on Storm Shadow's face as he rushes to fire his missile. He is a baddie, no mistake. Look too at how bright and green it is, the thing they are all interested in, the most eye-popping and the most visible. We watch the film like an over-stimulated child. With a forever young gaiety:

One could say that the film goes too far. Moments before the chase proper begins, Ripcord is struck by a car which is going at full speed and honking. However, there is no plausible reason why it would be going at that speed and why it would be unable to stop when there is a wall not twenty metres behind it! Maybe that adds to its charm. It breaks just that once through the barrier of credulity into the nonsensical as if the film cannot contain so much harebrained energy.


Chases are, by and large, dry affairs. The flirtations mentioned above add the nuance and humanity, the rhythmic rise and fall normally left to quips meant to stand for meaningful reaction. There aren't quips during the chase as such, but instances in keeping with character rather than removed from all context. There are funny asides that are derived from centre stage:

                                            "There was training?!"


                                               "There's no door"

                                                    "Make one!"

There is a great mix of characters at play here: one is quieter, one more intense, one bubbly, one nervous, one single-minded. At the same time they are of one mind, segments of one body. They understand each other and at various points the others' personalities spur them and rub off on them.

There is speed and a terrific sense of geography. Any part of Paris (the greatest most seductive stage of all) can be smashed up and torn down. We care for chasers and chased alike and feel that anxious haste that separates mind from body. It is hilariously exaggerated and contrived yet altogether believable, a textbook example of controlled disorder. It is innovative and conventional, overturning and fulfilling expectations. It ends with a giant smile on our faces, and an exhausted sigh. Best of all, it ends with neither a clear victory nor a defeat. It ends on a chord that we can neither describe as major nor minor.

The scene isn't a break on the development of the story but an outrageous boon. It makes the film.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Viewer Authorship

A viewer can always claim a certain amount of authorship over a film. They interpret it in their own unique way, whether reacting idiosyncratically to sights and sounds and events or in the more clearly interactive sense of filling in narrative gaps, bringing together pieces of a puzzle or imagining the past of The Man with No Name. All this is obvious. Opinion and individual experience are authorship as well as viewership or criticism.

In a previous post inspired by reactions to Lars Von Trier's Antichrist I suggested that a work of art, once released to the world, can become as much as ours as the makers'. I also wrote how a Director's intentions may be unknowable and ultimately unimportant, uncoupling the art from the artist (Director, film and viewer as points on a triangle rather than a straight line).

But viewer authorship, putting aside copyright ramifications, can take on a different meaning, with new editing tools available to computer users. Film-watchers can reinstate deleted scenes, or cut away sections they think damage the film. They become authors in its fullest sense. People often think "I wish it didn't have that" or "If only he hadn't deleted..." and yet even if they edit it to their satisfaction the instinctive reaction is still to say "If only he had done it like this".

The fact is the edited version now exists, and can now be called the great film that, in their mind, it was prevented from being. The final shot of The Bourne Ultimatum seemed redundant and too neat. If I remove it (or even just pause the DVD!*) then there is no problem and no annoyance. A confusion over authorship and the rights of people to change and then accept the changes is a block to realising that certain frustrations can be eliminated.

A new deleted scene from Return of the Jedi was recently unveiled and quickly inserted back into (its assumed rightful) place by YouTube users. However, whether it is out of respect for an artist's original vision, or his intellectual rights, these edits are not accorded full and somehow concrete reality by the viewer. Does it need to be slickly put together? Of course the wish would always be there that the viewer's editing be carried out with the same quality as the rest of the film, visually, aurally and so on.

A move towards self-tailored art would seem to fight against the joy of shared experience of a well-known piece. Billions of versions. Think of the outrage at certain modernising edits made by George Lucas himself to the Star Wars saga and you understand both the irritation at not having a single, discrete artefact but also the force of this feeling of viewer ownership. These are interesting thoughts, I think, that speak of the conflicts at the heart of a viewer turned maker. Generally one would only want to change something that is already close to the ideal, the very films that you would be most afraid of touching.

Does the changed film even need a physical copy, given that our experience of a film lives far longer in our minds than it does before our eyes? Perhaps not. In that case, we certainly wouldn't need to worry about infringing rights.

The ideal reader or the ideal viewer describe the man or woman who understands perfectly what the Writer or Director wished to communicate. Yet maybe the ideal viewer, in a new age of art consumption, is the one who understands exactly what he himself wants and is willing to create, or rather sculpt, it.

*Video and even more so DVD has changed the way films are watched. They've given us the option to dip in and out to see favourite scenes are study particular moments (very helpful for film criticism).

It also means that a long and demanding film, such as Satantango or Melancholia, that had to be seen as a whole at the Cinema can be managed at home to keep boredom to bay. What would have to be seen in one 7 hour block can be seen over 7 days. The effect the films have inevitably changes.

Monday 6 September 2010

The Bourne Ultimatum

Jason Bourne is Justice: doubting, probing, fundamentally righteous, and indestructible.

He is believable as a quasi-superman because his action-man status is not decked with the cartoon baubles of comic relief. He stays within himself, not willing to puff himself up or to unnecessarily humiliate others. He's tormented by the memory of the men and women he killed yet the torment isn't thrust out into the film by the fingertips of grand gestures. His humanity is more affecting because it is personal, private and guarded.

The comedy - if we need any- comes from the little victories over those chasing him, the overturning of the established order, the irony of the C.I.A.'s most brutal weapon turning itself against them and their more inhuman instincts and practices. In the Die Hard films John McClane is a man who sometimes works outside of the law for the law, with childish glee and disbelief relishing his supremacy. In The Bourne Ultimatum Jason Bourne is a man returning the law to its roots, cleaning house, giving us the spectacle of authority razed down and then raised up again.* The emotional exhilaration comes from watching a man who is at long last healed in the process, from the culmination of a long journey rather than little therapeutic encounters with whimsy. He has a job to do. He is as serious as his predicament.

The Bourne Ultimatum is tense and it is exciting. Seeing as it is the third part of a six hour story, the whole film can be a third act chase. The chase itself exerts a great torque, a magnetic push and pull. He is coming to the chasers, pulled there by the truth, being pushed away by those who did him wrong. This isn't normal. They don't need to chase him. The battle lines are drawn and scrubbed out all over the world and all the while the arena, the crucible in down-town New York, is being prepared for the final assault.

The death of the reporter in Waterloo Station is extremely important in setting up the film's parameters. It tells us one thing - anyone who helps Bourne, and not only Bourne, can be killed. From then on C.I.A. insiders (not moles) Nicky and Pamela Landy really are, in our minds, putting their necks on the block by helping him. The tension and excitement becomes emotional, kinetic and irresistible, spiralling out of and then into control.

It is indeed an excellent film all the way to the conclusion, but not for all of the conclusion.

The last shot of Bourne twitching to life underwater (resonating with baptismal, cleansing imagery, water being prevalent throughout the trilogy) brings the series full circle in a satisfying and triumphant way. However, with Nicky's smile already greeting the news that he has not been found, it is redundant. The inclusion of this shot feels like trite symbolism and tidy narrative packaging, the desire for which can interfere with the strongest possible representation of the material. The finale would have been more satisfying without it.

Second-guessing a Director's motives is nigh-on impossible (and something I am loath to do) but those moments in film that feel most jarring are precisely the ones that bring their making and their makers most readily to mind. David Bordwell goes further (and probably too far) along this route of enquiry, reverse-engineering the concrete reality of the film to assume certain decisions, deficiencies and deceptions on the part of the film-makers.

I don't mind a shaky camera if I don't mind it. I do if I do. There is no rigid check-list of dos and don'ts. The reason why the film is filmed that way is of little concern to me. What concerns me is my experience not whether the Director is trying to hide weaknesses, as Bordwell says in his pieces on the film.

The style of the film is its substance. The action itself, seen in fragments, not in focus, is a marker, a mannequin on which to hang a sense of the action.  The restlessness of the camera (not even the credits stay still) intensifies the fragments we do catch, much like the low shutter speed, impressionistic abstract action in Ashes of Time enabled individual and fleeting poses and compositions to pop from the screen with iconic power.

 It works by creating a touch of frustration. The fact that shots are obscured by passers-by, zooming in and out or hyperactively jumping around makes us work to see what we need to see and fight through the morass of modern life and technology to get it. The whole C.I.A. technological apparatus (cameras, phone tapping etc.) is used to obscure the truth rather than to see it more clearly.

This associates us, in some small way, with Bourne's state of mind. The fidgety image works as the projection of Bourne's internal rush and panic to discover and process information. The swan's frantically beating feet are overlaid onto the relatively calm exterior. Bourne has to go from points A to B to C but his mind wishes it could go straight to Z.

The style could be said to derive from the story rather than feel like a misguided shortcut to inject 'realism' or 'energy', a point I think clear in that same joyful shot of Nicky smiling at the end. Most films would zoom in on her face in expectation of the smile. Here she begins to smile and then the camera reacts to her by zooming in closer. 

These are not excuses ('Oh, but he meant to do it that way') for the attacks levelled at the Director by some who found it difficult, if not nauseating. It is merely addressing the film itself and the effect it creates. Whether it is meant or not is by the by.

Having said all of this, once you get accustomed to the speed (two seconds per shot), letting it wash over you without concentrating or fighting too fiercely against it, it is easy to follow, giving you just enough information to build the geography of the places and chases.  

The Bourne Ultimatum makes you want to follow, makes you want Bourne to reach his truth...but not a moment too soon. All in all it is a very good film, maybe even among the highest rank of recent years.

*This is a man who is reborn, a man searched for for three days, a man whose sudden appearance on CCTV gets the following reaction: "Jesus Christ!"

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Travelling through film by Train

Cinema's journey never ends, zipping through new and exciting landscapes of unseen worlds glimpsed out of a window, a window that looks like a screen...

The stills are taken from:

Brief Encounter 
World of Apu 
News from Home
Only Yesterday
Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl
Summer at Grandpa's
Strangers on a Train
Limits of Control
Casino Royale
Flight of the Red Balloon
Cafe Lumiere
Fallen Angels