Friday 9 December 2011

Sucker Punch - Film of the Year 2011

Sucker Punch is the story of the abuse of women, domestic and institutional historical and modern. It is the story of five girls/young women, and one in particular - Baby Doll, an orphan.

She has been placed in a mental hospital (framed by her step-father for the death of her sister) in which she is destined to receive a lobotomy. As she is about to be operated on, she finds it within herself to move to a new reality - a brothel. Here she is being prepared to have sexual intercourse with a man called the High Roller. In preparation for this meeting, Baby Doll is told that she must learn to dance.

Her dancing transfixes the men in her presence, which hypnotism her new-found friends (also present in the brothel reality) take advantage of to acquire five items that she believes will help them escape. Just as the men are distracted, so are we, for we do not see her dance but are instead led into a splendidly exciting third reality - where the girls fight battles with samurai monsters, zombie nazis and fire-breathing dragons (traditionally male arenas) - through which we see those quests played out.

Here the girls adapt the costumes of exploitation, cutting their outfits into attractive uniforms for battle against it, draining them of associations of filth and breathing soul into body, turning revulsion into revelry and an adventure of freedom. Within seconds I did not see exposed flesh and live toys to be fondled - I only saw them. We revel in them and with them (and of course there is nothing wrong with finding women attractive or with lust).

What is ugly is made beautiful, just as the tomb of a moth secretly becomes the womb of a butterfly. What may tempt some is acknowledged, laid in front of us and then remodelled.

What is more, there is no hatred, no vindictiveness, no revenge. Baby Doll's abusive step-father quickly disappears from the stage. No-one is hounded, humiliated or 'made to pay'. The girls show mercy throughout. Only inner strength and self-respect count. This is not about women versus men but right versus wrong and humanity versus inhumanity. Calling for a reductive label to be put on a film (feminist, chauvinist, degrading or empowering?) pretzel-twists all nuance, delicacy, and personal responsibility and morality out of the equation.

All that matters is that we care. And I did.

Sucker Punch speaks the right language. It places us both in the girls' shoes, pained, uplifted and inspired, and in those of their oppressors. Sucker Punch lives in the midst of what it criticises (the type of person, the type of film).

Are we to be distracted from what is really happening in the brothel, what is really happening in the hospital? Will we allow, like those men in the dark, our soul to be stolen from under our nose, bewitched by these loud noises,  these propulsive songs and intense gyrations? These abstractions are used to divert us, to make the story palatable, to turn barren, po-faced lecture (many films about abuse tastefully leave our possible complicity and the gradations of exploitation to one side) into apt demonstration and to mirror the closed doors and drawn curtains behind which awful acts are perpetrated.

There are risks to giving medicine with sugar (to having one's cake and eating it) as some will taste only the sickly sweet and relish the boobs (albeit there are no lascivious or gratuitous shots whatsoever), the lipstick smears and the ejaculatory gunfire. For them the film may be encouragement for 'objectification' or 'mindlessness'. Many critics and viewers have indeed seen the film itself, rather than its situation, as degrading and misogynistic.

What do you see?

Each action is code for another on a different layer, each object has a counterpart elsewhere on a second and third map. Sucker Punch is strong and dark with metaphor, its structure brilliantly interwoven with its message. These are not the tangential puzzles found in Mulholland Drive or Inception. Rather they drive to the very heart of the narrative. There is no obfuscation.

We are exhilarated and moved by camaraderie and solidarity and sacrifice. We are saddened and perturbed as the meaning of what we see is exposed by its echoes. Sucker Punch is massively enjoyable and increasingly hard to watch for what's at stake.

When do these stories begin to break through the screen?

What do the dances in the brothel mean in the hospital - do they stand for therapy or for rape? Does sex with the high roller in the brothel mean a lobotomy in the hospital? There is no easy way out. The realities are not dreams or escapes, but vivid and tangible expressions, paths to clawing back a little independence, dignity and happiness. This is non-escapist entertainment that, cleverly and (I believe) necessarily, looks and sounds like escapist entertainment.

Sucker Punch promotes the significance and power of love, of the mind, of stories, of film, of allegory, and of physical intimacy.

Are we perverts for pulling these curtains back? Or are we exposing something true and rotten?

Fun, intelligent and emotionally powerful. The finest film of the year.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Film and Musicality : The Importance of Tempo, Rhythm, Length and Timing

Why we like or dislike a film may rarely be in step with our conscious rationale of why.

Art is an odd spell and few of us know which of its words make us fall into a slumber and which snap us back to reality. The tiniest things can make all the difference - even a pink sweater instead of red...

We talk about liking the plot, the ideas, the look, the atmosphere, the music, the characters, the acting and all the combinations of the above. It is easier to quantify, understand and communicate these bigger and more obvious components of a film, and much harder to pin down the smaller parts that give each film its unique fingerprint.

We must struggle, too, with the idea that films may be made out of different components but that they categorically do not work on us in that way. These components cannot be fully separated once they have been put together.

One of the elements least (consciously) acknowledged when we look over our experience of a film is what we could call the work's 'musicality'. Yes, we may talk about a film being too long or too short, or about it moving too slowly or too quickly, but little else besides.

So what are we discussing when it comes to tempo, rhythm, length and timing?

Shot length / Placement of Cut 

Is the shot too short or too long? In a film that sets its heartbeat at 40 a shot that lasts for a few minutes may be perfect.  One such is a mesmerising journey on a train at the beginning of Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks.

One shouldn't underestimate the difference that a fraction of a second can make. Intrigue can flip to boredom at a moment's notice.

Is the movement of the camera or movement within the frame demanding a cut? Is the action inappropriately truncated? Has an emotional arc, or a developing ambience been betrayed?

Scene length

Is the scene too short or too long? There will come a point where a scene will outstay its welcome or, on the other hand, stop when we wish it hadn't. This may only be felt as a barely perceptible twinge.

The pace/build of action and plot progression

Is the story being served properly? Is it being allowed to breathe the right air? Is it ahead of itself or behind? Is too much said too early or too late? Is there enough in the film to sustain the time given to it?

What is the mix of quickness and slowness? Is it too programmatic, episodic or set to one particular rhythm?

Time spent on each part of the story or each geographical location

Is too much emphasis placed on certain plot strands?

Let the Right One In, having established the core of the story as the relationship between the two youngsters and courted our interest with its flourishing, wastes a surfeit of time on Eli's quest for blood.

Timing of reactions to actions / Timing of Edits

We must bear in mind that actors aren't actually 'reacting' to what is news to the characters.
Let us take Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as an example. On multiple occasions people act and react a split second too early or too late, whether through the fault of the acting or of the editing. We are instinctively alarmed by the unnatural.

These are only brief thoughts, a polite pointing in the direction of something camouflaged. The right thing at the right time can produce magic; the right thing at the wrong time, discordance;  wrong thing at the wrong time, ruin.

All of these elements form part of an overarching mother rhythm and length. Have we spent enough time extracting the juice of the story - exploring implications, feeling emotions, sensing surroundings...?

It is a mistake to think of a film as having one body with one unchanging rhythm. It changes itself and it changes as we change in response. It is constantly adapting itself to serve the story. You cannot think of a film as being in four-four time or six-eight.

This is not pro the metrics of cinema, which are intriguing as tools to map cinema's mechanical evolution, but of limited use in explaining our idiosyncratic thoughts or sensations. Such-and-such a technique can never guarantee such-and-such an effect. We can say that something made us feel in a certain way but there are no universal conclusions to be drawn.

It is for each of us to feel and, in any way we can, explain our individual responses. 

It is useful, nevertheless, to be aware of what may have an influence on the viewer. We should try and engage with the musical in film, that which flits between the scientific, the personal and the philosophical

This musical nature will make or break a film in spite, often, of everything else within it.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Forest of the Hanged (Pӑdurea Spânzuraţilor)

Forest of the Hanged opens on a dusty road. Hundreds of soldiers are marching. Suddenly one of them turns around and looks at us. Conscience, a challenge. He has turned against the tide and looked us in the eye, humanising in an instant the whole machine of war.

This 1964 Romanian film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1922 by Liviu Rebreanu. The novel was inspired by the fate of the writer's brother Emil, a soldier who was executed during the First World War for attempted desertion from the Austro-Hungarian army

In the story Emil is Apostol Bologa, a sub-lieutenant. We first meet him as he attends the hanging of a deserter; the look in the dying man's eyes as he swings from the noose will come to haunt Apostol, a man who prides himself on his acute sense of duty.

The Austro-Hungarian Army comprises many different nationalities. This means that, across Europe, from Italy to Russia to Romania, men are being asked to fight against their own people. The General is aware of these temptations and complications. Loyalties are tested : friends asked to condemn friends, countrymen to kill countrymen.  The man we saw hanged, Svoboda, was a Czech trying to cross to the Czech side. Now Apostol, a Romanian, has been transferred to the Romanian front.

What will Apostol choose, death for betrayal on one hand or moral death on the other?

Eventually, disgusted by the senseless carnage of war and by his part in the fate of his own kind, Apostol takes a stand and refuses to take part in the show trial of twelve Romanian farmers.

In the midst of his turmoil he had found love with a Romanian girl Ilona, the only purity still sparkling in the quagmire. Nonetheless, unable to live with himself, he chooses to die with his soul untouched : he is caught crossing to the Romanian side, an act for which he will pay with his life.

Apostol is taken off in a cart to be hanged. He is taken away smiling. They ride under the trees, from whose leafless branches hang dozens of men like strange fruit. Here is the forest of the hanged:

*        *        *

Forest of the Hanged, directed by Liviu Ciulei, is an especially evocative film. The characters not only debate their philosophical dilemmas but live them with every fibre of their beings. The world they inhabit is a dirty one in all senses of the word. It is hard to get out of the mud and find your way from darkness to light.

The black and white photography is wonderful and runs deep with rich shades. Two examples :  the carriage surrounded by a wall of old shoes in which Apostol's friend Muller has made a home is a fantastical creation. Even in a black and white film it looks golden; the beautiful embraces that Apostol and Ilona share are bathed in a stunningly clear, virginal, light. Images such as these recall those of Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. Both films place particular emphasis on quality and tone of light.

In the opening scenes of the film the camera seems too near to, or too far from, the action as if trying to get its bearings. Throughout the film it glides (for example into and out of mirrors - symbolic of reflection and introspection) but also turns violently or even swoons...sometimes the director will leave a part of the image deliberately out of focus. What, I think, helps make Forest of the Hanged so involving is that the film has both rawness and elegance to it; visualising our worse and better natures.

We also come to find subtle religious allusions. The film makes an apostle of Emil by calling him Apostol. Furthermore, why, we may ask ourselves, are there twelve Romanian insubordinates?

Apostol, though, is no saint. He values some lives (Romanian), above others. Muller, on the other hand, finds all killing wrong and teases Apostol, who wants to be transferred away from his quandary to Italy, with biting sarcasm : “On the Italian front there are no brothers....only here there are brothers”.

With so much degradation and death around them, and when suffering reduces us to our basic, naked, human characteristics (those we all share), such discrimination on the basis of nationality suddenly seems ludicrous.

The film puts this across in quite brilliant fashion. At one point Apostol is asked to act as interpreter for three Romanian prisoners. All the characters in the film speak in Romanian. However, none of them, apart from Apostol (a Romanian), can understand the Romanian characters. In this way the director underlines the idea that the differences between sides and the reasons for lack of understanding (or indeed for war itself) might as well be imaginary (or at least are intentionally exaggerated). The distinctions between nations are confused and blurred again: Muller is heard musing to himself “Mozart...a great composer”, to which his companion responds: “Ah, one of your Germans”.

With Apostol's fate secured, Ilona comes to bring him his last meal. All dressed in black, she prepares the little table as if it were an altar or a grave. She is honouring and mourning him. They look at each other without saying a word and eat. What caring and dignity...

A soldier stands watch over them. He says that she begged him to let her see Apostol. He gave in. “We are people, aren't we?”, he explains. What beauty...

It is easy to see why Forest of the Hanged is considered one of Romanian Cinema's greatest achievements gained international renown in 1965 when Liviu Ciulei won the best director prize at Cannes.

Friday 21 October 2011

Words as Visual Storytellers

One rarely come across discussions of the visual manipulation of words and letters in film. I am not referring here to the symbolism of naming characters or places (to denote personality, role, destiny and so forth) or of the sometimes unorthodox presentation of subtitles and unvoiced emotions (e.g. Night Watch or Crank 2 : High Voltage, Scott Pilgrim)

I am talking about putting words (and their constituent letters) on screen and altering them or presenting them in such a way as to add to, or comment on, the story. There is something in the world inhabited by the character, a world whose fabric, imbued with a new and nascent reality (effected by the character) communicates directly with us. An aside, if you will.

As a start, here are three examples I have mentioned in passing before. The first comes from Superman Returns. Superman is taken to hospital through the transparent doors of an operating theatre called "Trauma 1".

We see the name only from the other side, from which it reads "I AMUART". The film is about how the "father becomes the son" and "the son becomes the father". It is also about the ties of life between God and man and how we are made in his image. All that he is we can be. I AM U ART. I am, you are:

Click to enlarge

In a flash that may pass us by, much is encapsulated (like the inscription over church doors) with inconspicuous ease.

Olivier Assayas, in his film Demonlover, uses the same subtle technique, that of simply flipping a word back to front. The purpose this time is to reveal, to those sharp enough to notice, a hidden truth and an imminent danger. Diane is a conniving woman in a conniving business that thrives on back-stabbing. Repairing to an aeroplane restroom, she prepares to drug a colleague's (a superior) tub of water. She thinks, and we think, that she has the upper hand but as she plunges the syringe into it we see that she is:

Evidently Evian spelt backwards is naive, but flipped over visually the clue isn't at all obvious. A little work is needed to decipher this piece of dramatic irony.

A third example, found in a chase scene in G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra (full analysis of the scene here), does not alter the word seen on screen but springs it into the frame at the perfect moment.

The scene involves Duke (part of a team of good guys) chasing Ana (and her team of bad guys) as she and her partners in crime attempt to blow up the Eiffel Tower. Duke and Ana used to be together and used to love each other, though we are led to believe that those feelings still linger beneath a new animosity. The chase through the streets of Paris (the city of love) can be seen as a variation on a romantic chase.

Duke gets to Ana just too late, as she already launched a missile at the tower. The missile's load, crucially, works over time, eating away at the metal. It can be stopped by a remote control that Ana wears around her waist.

Ana, fleeing from Duke, boards a craft. Duke leaps onto it and quickly reaches out to press the button strapped to her waist. The physical contact is brusque and Ana's gasp can be read as both one of frustration and gratification.

 He reaches to push the button...
Ana gasps.

The word that tells us everything both in terms of the bomb and Duke and Ana's future is on the screen of the remote control in bright red letters. The bomb and she have been :

The same double entendre, I suggest, could not have been done verbally.

The reconciliation is not complete, though, as the Eiffel Tower is already falling and beyond help.

*        *        *

Now for the transformation of Selina Kyle into Catwoman in Batman Returns. As she undergoes this change she does many outrageous things : gulps down cartons of milk, stabs her soft toys and sets fire to her doll's house.

She does one thing, though, that is a throwaway gesture. On one of her walls she has the words "Hello There" written in neon lights. Sashaying through her apartment she nonchalantly flicks at these letters, smashing two of the bulbs. She doesn't seem aware of what she is doing. We though are shown a long shot from outside the window of a new message she has spelt out that sums up the fieriness of her metamorphosis : "Hell Here".

The next example comes from an episode of the television series Moonlighting called "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice". One of the main characters, David, is a self-satisfied sort. In the dream of the title he is a horn player. We see him sitting on a window sill..."I always play my horn with my shirt off, late at night, by an open window  next to a flashing neon light, I know I look good that way".

Across from the window is a neon "HOTEL" sign. The camera slowly moves back and then stops. Now, next to this apparent paragon of manliness, with a couple of letters now obscured, is the flashing word : HOT.

One final example, not so much of manipulation but of subtle and amusing visual commentary, comes from Jean-Luc Godard's Une Femme est Une Femme. A young woman, Angela (played by Anna Karina), is waiting on the street at night. Before we see her, we are shown a large neon sign affixed to a building which we presume houses a beauty shop. The sign is in the shape of an arrow pointing down. On it is the word "Beaute".

We pan down the arrow...

...which points almost straight down at Angela:

Monday 10 October 2011

Melancholia - Lars Von Trier

Contains spoilers

Justine suffers from depression. She is detached. She is sad. She is mournful. She feels things both deeper and not at all. She is a foreign body weighed down by the world. Her emptiness has such mass, this black bile.

At first things simply happen to her: a wedding she cannot delight in, a job that follows her all the way to the reception. As the night draws in she withdraws from the festivities and, through apathetic bitterness, takes control. Her active disinterest makes her husband see that their marriage is already null ("What did you expect?"). She erupts in a vicious parting shot at her selfish boss. She doesn't want the rituals, the constraints of position. She doesn't want the company. These are the death throes of social niceties. This is the casting off of artifice.

The next day, with the reception over, she falls deeper into depression, unable to eat or wash or even get out of bed. She seems defeated.

As night turns to day and as our focus moves from the disastrous wedding to the threat of looming planetary catastrophe, Justine moves (slowly, as if across the night sky) from complicity.

Somehow knowing her fate, she succumbs to it. Nay, welcomes it. Her and it are magnetised and in unison. Melancholia has destroyed her life and now it will end it. She, suffering for too long, believes that the world is "evil" and that "no-one will miss it". Before Justine's depression appeared like mourning. Now she stands in a sublime and calm detachment. There is nothing to lose.

Her sister Claire, meanwhile, seeing the end coming, trembles from her very soul. The film's power comes from these two opposing forces - halting panic and the dark eye of peacefulness.

*            *            * 

It is wrenching to see Justine suffer. It is painful to see her tangled in the grey roots of melancholy and to see Claire's passionate love for her sister disguised in passionate loathing : "sometimes I hate you so much". Cynicism and nothingness show the opposite. It is amusing and triumphant to hear her scorn her sister's tasteful plans to celebrate annihilation with a glass of wine on the patio ("I think it's a piece of shit").

And it is overwhelming, all of it. Moving, battering and crushing. Wagner's Tristan and Isolde prelude (the only non-diegetic music in the film) swells aloofly, comforting, teasing, epic, romantic and tender. It is played in its entirety to begin the film and from then on dipped into; parts are introduced, played and replayed, the canvas repainted with an echo of those first images.

The key to a brilliant film can often be the spectacle of something strange, new and extraordinary witnessed by characters whose every movement, decision, and every uttered syllable makes perfect sense. Even though no reason is given for Justine's state of mind, we understand. It all becomes terribly clear.

Top: Melancholia, Albrecht Durer
Above : Melancholy, Paul Gauguin

Thursday 22 September 2011

Toy Story 3

Saying how you think a film could be improved isn't arrogant or disrespectful. People are more comfortable with 'it's too sentimental' or 'it's too long' than 'it should be less sentimental' and 'I would make it shorter'. If you have judgement then you should be constructive and offer an alternative vision.

The basic story of Toy Story 3 - a child grows up and goes to university; what will happen to his toys? - is a good one. There are a number of things you can do with this premise.

Toy Story 3 takes the first step towards something interesting and enriching  just as the first step of Up, the home lifted from the ground by a cloud of balloons, offered so much promise. Would we see challenging things for children, new things, truly breathless things? No. We see not much more than shortcuts to the surface of emotion, to a sadness and a reflection that dries out as quickly as the tears.

Firstly, I think that it's a shame that neither Andy nor Bonnie, to whom he gives his toys at the end, ever discover that the toys are alive. How would they treat them? How would the toys act? Given that the toys are meant to be representations of people or at least types of people, then the revelation that they are alive would open up a raft of possibilities. Could they ever be disposed of or left lying around? What of their individualism, seeing as there are, for example, "100 million just like" Barbie? If Andy knew about the toys the story would become one about the responsibilities that come with being an adult. It wouldn't be just about moving on or leaving childish things behind. The themes we are given are rigged. We know he won't take his toys to university.

A third film should give creators some leeway to try new variations once the basis of the story has been established - to improvise on the foundational chords of the first two. Trilogies tend to either return to a starting point, with new light shed upon an old order, or opened to a new future and a new order.

Each Toy Story film is essentially the same as the last – the toys are separated from Andy. Toy Story 3 ends differently but with the beginning of the same story : Andy is reincarnated as Bonnie. “To infinity and beyond”, toys never die. Will these miniature Peter Pans really go through these upheavals of death and renewal for eternity? They never really grow up.

Interesting avenues again briefly appear...

Dragged towards a hellish furnace on a pile of trash, the toys look to their erstwhile enemy Lotso to help them. He climbs to the button, saying he wants to stop the machinery, and then runs away leaving them to their fate with the words : "Where's your kid now, Sheriff?"

It sounds like 'Where's your God now?'

Earlier Lotso, "the evil bear who smells of strawberries", shouted : "Think you're special? You're a piece of plastic, you were made to be thrown away".

What if he had said 'You're flesh and blood, you were made to die'?

These troubling ideas (too troubling for children if laid out in the open quite so clearly) and incidents end up going nowhere as the film returns to the antiseptic world (no insects, or dust) of being played with. Their minds are not opened by danger, by exposure to new ways of living, or by the bonds they make with each other. All the toys want is to be part of someone else's story, such as the opening chase over a crumbling railway bridge. They are happiest when floppy and submissive. Mrs Potato Head “deserve[s] respect”, she says, because she has “over 30 accessories” and not because she is a living thing independent of her owner. The toys do not mature. They don't even look scratched or beaten up with age (which would help put across how time makes them obsolete). I suppose, as a throwaway joke, it is funny to hear a toy say that it improvises its role, but it is also sad. They wear the same expression as they are flung about, made and forced to smile. And they like it.

Toy Story 3's 'darkness' (Lotso's prison camps, destruction by fire) is nihilistic. Critics have said it is an allegory for Communism or Socialism or even the Holocaust. Does it make the film more worthwhile if you can constipate out a link between its simple story of bullying, control and violence to something else more 'adult' or 'intellectual' or politically significant? There are no specifics in the film that justify these parallels, let alone illuminate the story through them.

Nothing comes of the darkness. It is only there to scare and terrify kids. It is a black hole. It isn't mitigated by imagination or transfigured by the good of the characters or of the world.*

*   *   *

What would have been interesting in a story about people growing up is if, just as Andy realises that he can live without his mother, the toys realise that they can live without Andy (or any humans at all for that matter). What if he had gone to his box of toys at the end and they weren't there? What if they had taken the same step into adulthood?

I understand that they are toys with a toy outlook (and it is admirable that they are a little more than stand-ins for people) but, when so human in other respects (and we are invited to empathise with them), their actions seem eternally childlike, their existence depressing and their minds stuck on original factory setting. If they are to stay on this smiley treadmill, the film would need to be changed quite significantly to properly grasp at all this would or could entail.

It is charming that Chuckles the toy clown has a tag from her owner that reads “My heart belongs to Daisy” but it appears that it actually does. The toys cannot just be. They are unable to form a proper family together, one that gives them meaning and security, not without the benevolent Parent / Guardian / Owner / Friend / Companion / God above. All this is a little abstract for young children. There is nothing that they can relate to, from the toys point of view, as they grow up.

This would work better if the toys were more literally 'given life' by their owners. It would work better if a good owner had good toys and a bad one bad toys (touching on nature / nurture) but bully Sid in Toy Story's nightmarish toys turn out to be perfectly friendly. The fact that the toys are more than what they were made to be makes it even more disappointing that the protagonist toys are not allowed to make a break of their own into the adult world.

Although the toys are saddened that Andy may not want them any more, they are never angry at him. Their loyalty is almost perfect. They wish for the joy, enlightenment and fulfilment that comes from being played with. They never truly turn against him.

It reminds me of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Jesus has profound doubts about whether he is the son of God and about what God may want from him. He rails at God but never, not once, doubts that he exists. It is those hard yards, much like the ones avoided in Toy Story 3 (turning against Andy or Andy realising that they are alive), that would have made the narrative stronger and deeper. Where is that lack of faith and certainty that one would expect? Will they reject their Gods for a life of self-made fresh-grown morality? The little green aliens end up controlling the claw that they worship but can't make anything of this discovery of the mechanics of the world.

*    *    *

In Up the antagonist Muntz fell to his death from a Zeppelin. In Wall E human beings were polluting, obese babies. In Cars the fundamentals of the human character were depicted in the automobiles – farting. Toy Story 3 continues the trend of mean-spiritedness. For a second or two it looked as if Lotso was going to help the toys and turn over a new leaf. Instead, despite being told that his former owner replaced him (the start of his bitterness) precisely because she loved him and missed him, and despite being saved by Woody from the trash compactor the film would not let him be good. Evil cannot be transformed. In fact irredeemable Evil exists, children, and deserves to be tied to the front of a truck for flies to splatter into him for the rest of his life (which is neverending, don't forget). Stuff the stuffed bully.

Why? What if Andy had taken Lotso to College? It's a thought.

What I did enjoy, in Toy Story 3, how children like Bonnie are seen as givers of meaning, as nurturing, as magical (the way she strokes Jessie's cheek when she receives her). It is a shame that that goodliness was not extended to everyone or everything. A film doesn't need a message or a moral (and, yes, destruction can be fun) but does it need a negative one? Defeating evil is one thing, but revelling in your victory with schadenfreude is quite another. Who knows what the film-makers meant but this element of the story leaves a sour taste.

I enjoyed how Mrs Potato Head could leave her eye somewhere else and still see through it remotely. I enjoyed how Mr Potato Head could stay alive, his mind and soul somehow intact, with his eyes ears and mouth embedded in a tortilla. The latter is perhaps the only flash of imagination, of something that makes you giggle or sends shivers down the spine.

I have always thought that Pixar's films, and many of the new breed of animated films, are schizophrenic. Half the film is aimed over children's heads at the adults who they know are accompanying them. The other half is the simplest and most banal 'kids' stuff' whose progression can be guessed after five minutes. At times, parents and their children are watching two separate films. What is wrong with a children's film for children? Why do we need any innuendo, or meaningless pop cultural shout-outs, or tedious and strange riffs on Ken's 'girliness'? Something can be wholesome without being safe.

A good story for children is a good story for anyone : Aesop, Roald Dahl, Kipling, C.S.Lewis...I think of animated films like the Danish animation Valhalla or America's own Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs or anything from Studio Ghibli. They are fun and clever, excting and enthralling for children and adults on the same level.

Toy Story 3 isn't fun or funny. I think that the gags are too obvious. What is most disappointing is how predictable it is. Once a ball is set rolling down a hill, you can never predict exactly where it will go. But Pixar can. Once the story starts it is only ever going in one direction...

*In a way the hands of the film-makers' are tied, as they cannot fully follow through on all the implications of life and death that occur to us because we are in a children's film. We are just left with unnecessary dread.

Saturday 3 September 2011

A Fearful America : Heroes and The Village

Claire Bennett climbs to the top of a Ferris wheel. At this moment our eyes, the eyes of the world, television cameras following her into the night sky, are fixed on one young woman. She isn't hiding herself away any longer, nor any part of what makes her uniquely her.

Is this desperation or is it hope? What did she mean by "people never change"? Does she think that she (and other 'specials' like her) can live in the open as part of a harmonious society?

Standing on top of the wheel as if on top of the world, she spreads out her arms and jumps. She hasn't given up on us. She has taken a giant leap for mankind.

The question: will they, will we, welcome her? And so Heroes ends on a note of ferocious optimism.

M Night Shyamalan's The Village tells of a place isolated from the world, set back from modern civilisation. Its elders have been caused great pain and grief by society, the society they once lived in, a society such as we might recognise. Their hearts were blackened by the "towns". Out of fear they have forged a village in which to "protect innocence" and with which to shield the young from suffering. In an effort to keep their children safe, they recount tales of deadly monsters who lurk in the woods that separate their new home from the towns.

One day one of the younger villagers, Lucius, falls ill and Ivy, who is to be his wife, travels through the woods to the towns to get medicine. She is blind. Beyond the boundary of the village and beyond the woods, she meets a man from the towns and she is shocked to find "kindness" in his voice.

When she returns to Lucius' bedside has she brought hope back with her? Can she conquer the fear of those who have only mourning, a hardening void, to comfort them? Could she lead them out to a communion with the world?

In Heroes and The Village an older generation controls how a younger generation experiences the world. They attempt to keep them from dangers, and jealously guard secrets that maintain illusions. They both concern responsibility and power - the power of special abilities, the power of being a parent and the responsibilities that come with both. They show how a genuine concern becomes a constricting possessiveness as damaging (in Heroes children are experimented on, given injections of a formula meant to give powers) as that very influence which they seek to protect their charges from.

They keep them fragile, using fear, perpetuating fear, saplings with weak roots.

Earth-mover Samuel, the embittered visionary of Heroes' Season 4, gathers 'specials' in a travelling circus. In a place of eccentricity and easy deceit where they can hide in plain sight. He has created a temporary America within America, one such as it is, or was, meant to be. Almost every tent-pole and archway is decorated with American flags. His brood of misfits and foreigners, recalls the nations who first came in the hope of forming a cohesive new world. He talks of founding a "homeland", a word nowadays followed by "security", the double-edged sword of safety and fear.

Edward Walker, founder and chief elder of The Village's community, has likewise forged an America within America and set it in a late 19th Century whose values and behavioural conventions he believes offer a healthier template for living.

Samuel and Edward have retreated from harsh reality to comfort in the shape of a(n older) narrative - gifted circus performers and selfless villagers in a benign and gay 19th Century that may never have existed.

However, whereas Edward and the men and women who have collaborated in his project want to be utterly isolated, Samuel plans to burst out of this artificial womb. He ultimately wants to use fear against the world, to bend it to his will, rather than lord it over a huddled, cowered and benumbed micro-empire. He wants to show his powers and, by revealing what he and they can do, force acceptance, and the opportunity for life, liberty and the fruits of labour, through fear.

 Two Ways of Facing Fear - Edward Walker and Samuel

Claire is different. When she exposes herself and her kind, in those last moments of the series, it is not with a threat but a prostration (she lands face first). Her subsequent stare into the camera (see end), and into the homes of potentially millions of Americans, is part challenge, part act of humility.

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How real are the dangers they fear? Can fear be quantified and weighed for rationality?

The elders of The Village reacted to real murders that afflicted their families. Near the end of the film, in the office of a modern man, we hear a news bulletin about the death of a young girl in America and the loss of soldiers in Afghanistan.

Isolationist or interventionist?

Crucially, this is not a representation of the world, from the Director's or our point of view, that is skewed to the negative. This is what the world is like. People are killed and the villagers are the usually unseen victims, the 'collateral damage' of these atrocities. They are trying to withdraw to the fiction with which, in the eyes of the masses, the distant and unknown victim is glazed.

You are either personally affected by these horrors (1) or you are not (0). On or off.

The fear they teach to the younger members of their community is all-encompassing - fear the creatures, fear the woods, fear people - and no less real to them for being half-based in fiction. It is apt that where make-believe stands in for fact (or grows from it - the elders talk of rumours of creatures that were the basis for the full-grown horrors they visit on the young), the naive and brave Lucius will conclude a plea to go into the woods with "The End". This fictionalising could be their route to salvation outside the village, too, as the mind of a young person is receptive to the magical and transformative nature of fantasy.

The people of Heroes face the very real and constant threat of murderous ability-collector Sylar. In Season 3 the threat is wider still, as they are hunted and rounded up (orange jumpsuits, detained without charge, flown abroad - all echoes of Guantanamo Bay) by the Government. Noah, Claire's father, knows about the cruel and brutal experimentation undertaken on Elle (who can create electricity) by her own father. The 'specials' and their families know too of potential or embryonic futures (that involve 'specials' being driven underground, war and quasi-apocalyptic destruction) witnessed and reported by time travellers Peter and Hiro.

However, how a normal person in a position to shun or embrace someone different to themselves, would react to a 'special' in their midst is unknown. The heroes will occasionally show an individual what they can do, when it is absolutely necessary, and the thrill and danger they derive from this may be extrapolated to the ecstasy and dread they might feel if their secrets were blown onto the wind once and for all.

The authorities in Heroes are fearful too, especially in the light of Sylar's killing spree. They seek to hide specials away in prisons or, in one future, cure their 'mutations' with injections. These authorities are led (The Company, Pinehearst), or encouraged into action (the Government in Season 3), by 'specials' themselves who see first-hand what a cornered individual of this kind is capable of. These institutions become increasingly destructive as fear and self-loathing feed each other.

Those working for the Government, made aware of 'dangerous' specials by another of their 'kind', Nathan Petrelli, manipulate them as patsies, as false-flags to rally support for more stringent actions against what they paint to their superiors as terrorists. Matt Parkman (who can read minds) is drugged and sent out into Washington with a bomb strapped to him. The chains of imprisoned Tracy Strauss, who is able to freeze objects, are loosened so that she will escape and cause untold, and convenient, damage.

In The Village Ivy, as she is about to journey to the towns, is made aware that the creatures are only men in costume. When she is subsequently stalked by Noah (a simpleton apparently driven to insanity by his knowledge of the "farce") now dressed as the monster, her testimony give the elders a chance to perpetuate the myth and to bolster the boundaries of the village.

These are the tactics - exaggeration, opportunism and borderline falsity - that some in America and beyond have suspected their governments guilty of using to gain backing against terror, through terror. That of course is the whole set-up of the village - a fake ring of danger against a larger danger beyond. Again, this fiction embellishing and strengthening fact. A bete noire, a pacifier, the double-edged sword.

Excuses and Fear used against Fear:
Matt Parkman primed to explode (above)
Noah dressed as a Creature

Sometimes those in power are the terrorists themselves. In Heroes Linderman advocates the use of a nuclear explosion in New York City to bring people together in "a united sense of hope couched in a united sense of fear".

Fear coming from actual experience can grow larger upon closer scrutiny by grief and hate like the shadow of a menacing shape lit closer and closer. It is fuelled by ignorance, by lack of confidence and by pessimism. The village, the circus, are magnifying glasses to the rays of fear.

Perhaps one could reduce it all to age or to the battle between optimism and pessimism. The older generation of Heroes and The Village have either strayed from the straight path or wilfully abandoned it. They are set in their ways and afraid to live. They cannot imagine a life different to their own. Their experience, their 1 cannot be subtracted or cancelled out. Their fear is ossified.

The village elders demand their children eradicate the colour red from their sight as it attracts the creatures ("those we don't speak of" - a classic occupatio technique). Red is blood. Pain attracts more pain and fear multiplies exponentially.

Those who are immortal or capable of healing in Heroes, who have seen so much suffering, so many lives come and go, the same chronic illnesses of mind and body afflicting mankind, their pessimism transmogrifies into a desperation and misanthropy of a terrifying order. Adam wants to wipe out humanity with a virus and Linderman wants to wipe the slate clean. Only a cataclysm will do. Claire too, herself (if Sylar is to be believed) undying, flirts with militancy and rage in her darkest hours.

And hope? Can these lost souls truly achieve freedom and tolerance?

The curiosity and will to be independent of the young are bedfellows of hope. They want to dig up secrets and to test limits and it is this lust for discovery and truth, for finding out who one is, that is the motor for both narratives. This search will look to shatter the skeleton of fear once and for all.

You see, fear does not imprison children but embolden them. The boys in The Village stand with their backs to the dark woods and see how long they can go before they get too scared. The young here can achieve baby-step victories over fear, dipping their toes into the water until, on the precipice of adulthood, Ivy and Claire will eventually dive in, having conquered their fear of drowning.

The younger they are the more optimistic they seem. Candace, in Heroes, is a woman who can make you see what she wants you to. We are led to believe that she is a fat woman who has been bullied and abused because of her size. She appears to us and the other characters as thin and conventionally pretty. Candace tells Micah, a young boy, that the planned nuclear explosion will "heal the world" to which Micah replies defiantly that he "didn't know it was sick". In The Village Ivy, blind, says "I see the world, just not as you do".

If you are at peace with yourself, your circumstances and your abilities then you may view the world bathed in a forgiving light. This is because the world isn't Us vs Them or the U(nited) S(tates) vs Them, whether them is other races or nations or beliefs or physical attributes. Us is them. Heroes is firmly rooted in this idea. Those who are normally 'them', the odd, the 'specials', are our protagonists, our eyes and ears. They are our heroes.

So, for these people hidden away physically or hidden away within themselves, is the world good or is it bad? That is the pivot upon which their actions swing. What will happen to me when I step out into the world? Will I fall?

In other words, is it a world worth taking a chance on?

If I, Claire, am good and hopeful then the world can be too. If I, Ivy, have trust and love, then the world will move for that love. There are many obstacles for those haunted by loss and those saddled with grudges and insecurities. But life cannot be retreated from. That society you run from will grow around you from under your feet. Out of fear came hope. In The Village a bloodied knife in Lucius' chest forced courage to the fore. In Heroes when baby Claire's house burnt down she needed to be able to heal, and she did. When Becky, hunted by The Company, hid under the bed and didn't want to be found, she turned invisible. When Daphne was struck down by cerebral palsy she was given the gift to run. And faster than the wind.

Friday 26 August 2011

Shameful Criticism

There is a mean streak in film criticism or, more specifically, film reviews. It isn't enough for some people to say that a film is bad or unsuccessful. Some reviewers are negative with a force that seems personal. They hurl insults that are over the top and insinuations that are baseless.

Reading certain reviews it would be hard to believe that a bad film is not an attack on someone's God-given right to honest-to-goodness entertainment. They are paid to watch films and, when presented with a poor film, act like a spoilt child whose lollipop turned out to be bitter, not sweet.

Every release provides an opportunity for these critics to bend their basest instincts into vitriol. At the merest encouragement a review of a film can turn into a writer's showcase, the more creative and insulting the description of the failure, the more heroic the reviewer. It's a see-saw : the film goes down, the critic goes up. A few may even feel rigged, exaggerated, in bad faith.

There's nothing wrong with saying a film is bad. You cannot prove somebody wrong in their opinion. What we want is sober, erudite and constructive appreciation. So much of what we have (in the mainstream, linked to on sites like rottentomatoes) even sometimes from the more lauded, is an eloquently embroidered "it sucks!". Even the best, most level-headed, critics can indulge in snarky puns on the film's title. The problem is in approach and attitude.

And it is spreading...

"Marshall deserves credit for putting the "show" back into the Pirates business. But, let's face it, he's polishing a giant turd"

"[Sucker Punch] proves that while masturbating over your cast may not make you blind, it can impair directorial vision."

"...a film that unspools as a limp, cynical attempt to replicate the nuance-rich tapestry of her 2003 gem Lost in Translation..."

"Yes, Sofia has unfairly had to live with the embarrassment of being blamed for the failure of The Godfather Part 3, but it wasn’t just her fault. The entire movie and casting were terrible. As payback for that crippling humiliation, Francis Coppola has given his daughter a career as a writer-director."

"I simply hated The Last Airbender and I know I'm not alone in this. This is one of those times where hate may not be a sharp enough word for such wasted potential. In the right hands, this could have been something special. Instead, it was in Shyamalan's hands, and if this film is any indication, he didn't wash them after using the restroom."

Monday 15 August 2011

Jean-Luc Godard - Women in Close Up 1959-2010

If a film-maker has a singular voice, each frame will be as good as a signature and each image like a self-portrait. 

Some believe that the Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is a self-portrait. In that spirit here is a portrait of Jean-Luc Godard (and his films) via the faces of his actresses - from Charlotte et Veronique in 1959 to Film Socialisme in 2010.

Music: Rachmaninov prelude op.23 no.5, played by Sergei Prokofiev

Friday 15 July 2011

WWE: World Wrestling Entertainment

There has perhaps been no more consistently inventive or enjoyable television in the past 15 years than World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship shows Raw and Smackdown.

In what other programme would an Olympic gold medallist spray milk at his opponents out of a fire hose and another week perform a 'moonsault' from 15 feet off the ground? In what other show would the millionaire owner and his family participate as fearless fighters and offer themselves up as the chief villains of the piece? In what other show would you find the most childish of behaviour and the most brutal of beatdowns?

It is funny, clever and exciting. Most importantly it is ridiculous.

Professional wrestling is one hell of an odd bird. If a limousine is dropped from a crane, we could call it Action. If two enemies mock each other, Comedy. If a daughter slaps a mother, we call it Soap Opera. It is more often than not lazy and imprecise to diagnose genres, especially if the art in question isn't trying to follow or break conventions. The WWE isn’t a mishmash of types. It reminds you of other and varied things (Saturday Night Live, Dallas, anything and everything) but it is its own thing. There really is nothing like it.

North American professional wrestling (as opposed to Japanese professional wrestling, which goes without storyline set-ups, albeit retaining character styles and types) is fundamentally about so-called feuds, compelling confrontations over honour or ego or title belts. These rivalries are the bread-and-butter of the WWE (the finest of all wrestling organisations) and even extend to the snide banter between commentators who will sometimes side with particular competitors. For feuds, the build-up is as important as the fight that takes place in the ring. These are the speeches (promos), the challenges, the interviews, the backstage sketches that create personality and motivation. Resentment, rage, disdain, negative chemistry. Hype.

The WWE avails itself of many different tones and colours; types of humour, of character, of plot or of match.

There are hard-hitting brawls with very little complication or variation of 'moves'. Then there are intricate tussles that involve speed, holds, a repertoire of moves and counter-moves that are amateur wrestling (in which a few wrestlers have a grounding) sprinkled with gold-dust.

The first kind are more 'fights', so to speak, and can degenerate into ultra-violent encounters (often sanctioned as 'no disqualification' matches) involving sledgehammers and steel chairs, ludicrous considering this is meant to be a real organisation with real rules. In these matches intelligence is used to be sly or underhand or vicious. The second kind is often known as 'technical' and intelligence here is knowing how to get the upper hand with a flick of a wrist, the flip of a body or a perfectly applied submission hold. These are more 'believable' as true battles for supremacy.

There are spectacular moments in the ring too - leaps off the top rope, a ladder, or onto the perennially cursed, and crushed, Spanish Announce Table. A good mixture of these in-ring ingredients, as with those outside, makes for a satisfying two-hour programme.

The WWE doesn't want for creativity or fantasy. The Undertaker has made a habit of 'dying' and then rising again and Mick Foley played three characters (Mankind, Cactus Jack and Dude Love). Once two of them discussed whether the third, Cactus, should emerge from the shared psyche. In the past couple of years the dashing and narcissistic Cody Rhodes has suffered a broken nose and, believing himself hideous, shuns the camera's gaze. Elsewhere CM Punk has led a Straight-Edge Society to save people from the dangers of drink and drugs. The entire roster has recently been menaced too by the Nexus, a group of rookie wrestlers who announced their wish to rule the WWE by dismantling the ring and anyone who would stand against them ("You're either Nexus or against us").

A few years ago the WWE began to take the edge of its violence (no blood), profanity and provocation. Thankfully the dirty side (going as far as necrophilia and hanging in their two darkest hours) has been washed away with a new commitment to a PG certificate. Intensity of combat and pushing the envelope artistically need not entail cussing, sex and gore. Going specifically after a younger fanbase should eventually help creatively as well as financially; restrictions are the mother of invention.

There are many elements that need to convince and work in harmony to put across such wild concepts as WWE offers. The person striking or speaking needs his opponent to 'sell' surprise or anger towards words or appropriate physical discomfort towards blows, just like in any drama or fiction on television. You won't look good unless the person you are fighting wants you to. The commentary team must do justice to the larger-than-life goings on, to imprint them in our minds as incredible ("Oh my GAWD!") and credible ('he's focusing on the injured right knee'). The live crowd, in fact, plays the biggest part of all with cheers, boos, signs, shock and the accumulated energy they bring to the arena. If we see people excited then we will be too.

The crowd is both audience and performer (unscripted, even if they know their role) for the second audience sitting at home.

The men and women who perform in the WWE are athletes, actors, choreographers and creators of personas with distinct backgrounds, ideologies, catchphrases and gimmicks. Professional wrestling in its mainstream American guise is the craft of an all-round entertainer. It is the craft of an athlete training and preparing not for competition with others but, with the same dedication, preparing to meet the demands of themselves, their audience and their art.

No matter how much you work to minimise injury, the almost daily trans-American schedule is punishing on the body and the mind. This toll has been blamed in some parts for a couple of high profile tragedies that have befallen wrestlers in the past decade. It takes courage. Things can go wrong. Fake or not, the human body remains flesh and bone.

Some of the performers are best in the ring. Some are better at talking. Some are better at telling a story non-verbally, of nuancing a physical and emotional dynamic in the ring. Some shine at being mean, some at being heroic. The trait that most characters share is arrogance. They think they deserve a shot at success, they think they're the smartest, the coolest. the most righteous.

A number of these personas cleave closely to the person at their heart. Several of the storylines of corporate machinations or of love or of poisonous grudges originate in the real. The actual purchase of WCW by WWE owner Vince McMahon was dramatised and spun, with his son Shane buying it from under him out of spite. Conversely, stories can bleed off-screen and outside the fictional sphere. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon were married in the show and then subsequently fell in love and wed in real life (they are still married in the show too). In the past few months CM Punk, rumoured to be annoyed at how he was being treated by management and dissatisfied with the direction the company was taking, was allowed the freedom to give an in-story speech bemoaning the self-same things.

When you buy a Rey Mysterio or Stone Cold Steve Austin toy, you are buying a character and a real person all at once. When you buy a toy Thor, you aren't in the same way purchasing Chris Hemsworth along with a Norse God.

Indeed, performers have been known to get caught up in their personas to the extent that they are reluctant to, or downright refuse to, relinquish a title (let's not forget that success in the story is success and money for the 'actor'). How far an artistic persona represents the artist him or herself is a debate that causes much consternation and confusion. The line that separates the two is one that we sense and understand instinctively, taking into account the conventions of each genre.

There is a sliding scale. In some arts the two overlap more than others , at least according to unwritten rules. An actor is not attacked for his character's deeds. The ideas and viewpoints represented in a book may or may not be espoused by the writer unmediated. In music we feel that the persona is more transparent. Do rappers speak as themselves or are their lyrics filtered through a character? In the last case a defence of violent proclamations seems, rightly or wrongly, harder to make.

Professional wrestling plays with the balance and understanding of real/fiction and the WWE does this more brilliantly than any other television.  As a matter of fact it exposes the extent to which real and fiction in these arenas and elsewhere are in opposition at all. If there is an accidental or a fleetingly purposeful  revelation of that which cannot be fully understood or explained within the story-frame (known as Kayfabe) an audience educated in switching between viewership registers will easily put it to one side. Those who are curious about the world is put together or negotiated would consider behind-the-scenes and on-stage as forging a newer, stronger and more vital 'reality'.

This isn't like Moonlighting or The Simpsons (or Shakespeare's soliloquys, or the Marx Brothers) where characters break the fourth wall. The WWE is constantly giving and taking from the audience , seeing what absurdity it can get away with, adjusting plots as they are unfolding, skirting the myriad lines between too much and not enough.

The WWE shows how quickly we can put ourselves in a different place mentally - how very little square footage is needed to suspend disbelief. We can get involved with something that has only the surface of truth. That is all we need : a mask of pain, an expression of delight, the thud of the canvas. If it looks right, who can say it isn't?

Having said all that, constantly making oneself aware of the irreality of the contests does not make for greater enjoyment of the contests and tales at the core. It isn't clever to know that something fictional is fictional. Though it is interesting to dissect its creation (for essays such as this, for example) I doubt it does anybody any favours to constantly alienate oneself from the story in this way. You have to, or at least I have to, get 'into it'.

*        *        * 

In some circles Professional wrestling has been given 'legitimacy'. Roland Barthes and others compare it to ancient Greek theatre. Others say it is like a live-action cartoon. These essays can sometimes smack of cowardice. The writers clearly enjoy wrestling but can only laud it indirectly through more established and respected forms. Wrestling should not seek such dubious cachet.

Wrestling is still being attacked. They say "it's not real" or "it's a farce". The fact these criticisms exist shows that the world created by the WWE is more realistic and its artifice therefore more disquieting than other programmes or plays. Regardless, that no-one is actually trying to cause brain damage is a strange criticism.

Even in a fresher and younger incarnation the WWE has a grungy energy to it. It is slick, yes, but not antiseptic or anodyne. Other wrestling promotions are comparatively amateurish in terms of acting or camerawork even if they may occasionally surpass the WWE in wrestling quality (the lowlier organisations are called 'Indies', a bit like independent studios against WWE's Hollywood machine). The sets are impressive. Wrestlers enter to fireworks, a wall of big screens flashing out their entrance videos, speakers roaring with their theme tunes. John Morrison (the goofy and gymnastic 'rock star') comes out in slow motion while Mexican jumping bean (the Mexican 'luchador' style of wrestling is high-flying and acrobatic) Sin Cara fights in a dimmed mysterious blue light.

The WWE leads the field with their video packages. Montages are used to summarise a feud or a story and whet the appetite for the coming final showdowns on Pay-Per-View. These two/three minute trailers are superbly edited and rarely fail to make the so-so epic. With the quality of film trailers in decline the employees of the WWE are simply the best in the business:

The company structures its product along the lines of genuine sports. It has a hierarchy of belts and titles. There are marquee events like the majors of golf or tennis Grand Slams (such as Wrestlemania, Summerslam, Survivor Series). The way the calendar is arranged to peak at PPVs gives a satisfying rhythm of ups and downs.

For all its spangly ostentation and insolence, Professional Wrestling can actually make boxing (from which it takes a few of its modes of confrontation) or mixed martial arts look silly. Why? Because something that is surreal or unreal can digest a lot of hype. Hype in real fights, with people going out to hurt each other, is laughable and disturbing. They try to make the real into a film. Are all boxers deluded egomaniacs? They don't really want to decapitate others or eat their children. Yet they still act up to an image. Or just act up.

Because outcomes are pre-determined the WWE is not sport. It is true sport in another sense - play and trickery. They make harmless fun out of the spectacle of harm. The WWE is great entertainment : rib-tickling and rib-cracking. It is fantastic fun.

Monday 4 July 2011

Letting Objects Tell the Story : Robert Bresson

Instead of showing what has happened to the person we can be told the same through the objects that they are, or were, in contact with.

I am not referring here to the metaphorical or symbolic aspects of these moments but the simple 'What has happened?' and 'What is happening?' that they answer.

Robert Bresson may be the finest at communicating in this way. He accentuates, paradoxically, the physical presence and the soul by not showing it - and he does so with brevity and with power. Here are two examples taken from L'Argent and Une Femme Douce (first thirty seconds of the clip) :

They are different. The first is a product of what we already can hear and expect. A hand is raised but we do not see it strike. Instead the cup shows the force. The woman then carries her pain (the cup and coffee are now a representation of and vessel for it) away with her. The second is the purest of this technique; it uses objects to reveal or take us down a path towards understanding.

Another well known example, of the first kind, is in Fritz Lang's M. Elsie's treasured ball is seen rolling alone on a patch of grass. This is the most elegant of a representation of loss that has become hackneyed - balloons floating free, a slipper left on the road...

Friday 10 June 2011

Humanity Through Excess

Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls

A group of films in the last couple of decades have highlighted the perturbing underbelly of entertainment businesses through super-saturating and adrenalising their most loved qualities.

They offer a more concentrated version of our dreams, fantasies and desires. They place them under a microscope and, by doing so, push them gently to absurdity. They show us potential presents and plausible futures where what is now deemed excess will be the accepted norm.

Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven 1995), Demonlover (Olivier Assayas 2002) and Gamer (Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor 2009) take what we want from unrestrained entertainment (power, unlimited possibility, freedom for expression and exploration) shake it up and hand it back to us fizzing.

It is critical that what we are shown remains recognisable and believable for the exaggeration to work. If they do, they can sicken us as they thrill us. It is a fine line to tread, here finely trodden. We could compare them to the similarly brash They Live (John Carpenter), whose vision of a world under complete government control is too far removed and too jokey (purposely I’m sure) to make us stop and think.

The three films in question are, in different ways, about the commodification of people. They are about the image becoming untethered from its origin – the real. They are about a chosen profession (striptease vaudeville), a particular field (animated pornography) and a certain trend (video games becoming more ‘realistic’ and immersive) in which people give themselves to, or are lost within, an amoral web. We find that people are no less disposable or controllable than icons and avatars; exploiting, being exploited and allowing oneself to be exploited.

There is a sliding scale of agency for the human protagonists that moves from control to complicity, acquiescence and, finally, enslavement. Backstage politics and back-stabbing in Showgirls; power over pornography rights and over others in Demonlover; a struggle to keep one’s body and soul from the puppet hands of a grand game player/designer in Gamer. These are the battles that allow a climb or a fall.

These films say that the virtual or the escapist can change our attitude to the real. Everything is a representation of something else; an echo on a new plane. The image can replace the real. The problem with increased game realism is not that it will appear like real life but that real life will seem just like the game. These films play on the two meanings of the word “object” – something that is acted upon (1) can become a mere thing (2).

Only in Gamer does the main character gain leverage and is able and willing to extricate themselves from the milieu. Tillman is able to turn off the network that allows his brain to be at someone else’s fingerprints (for the purposes of a deadly video game with real live people controlled) and free the world.

In Showgirls Nomi witnesses bitchiness, selfishness, inhumanity and rape on the Las Vegas strip (expose yourself to get a place on the strip) yet, despite seeking revenge for the last, stays in the feverishly glamorous and seedy world. For her the exterior image is what matters : on the billboards, pumped pink and shiny through neon tube veins. Once she has conquered Vegas as the star of the show "Goddess", she emerges from her chrysalis to take the road to even greater stardom. The final image of a road sign directing her to Hollywood is an awfully dispiriting one, a kick in the guts to "A Star is Born" cliches.

In Demonlover Diane, no longer an executive playing with chips, becomes the slave to a teenage gamer, the victim of the next level of play: interactive sexualised torture. Skin pores, the pupils of eyes are reduced to pixels. It’s different when you are porn’s pawn and not its pimp.

These films imply that it is hard to get out of the system when hidden compulsions can dictate one’s ‘decisions’. Circumstances can make decisions compulsions. Tillman’s wife in Gamer has allowed herself to be controlled in a live game called “Society” to gain money. There, in society, she is more often than not subjected to violent sex. What more should we expect : she is an attractive woman at a man's mercy. Nomi, the face of Showgirls, is practically “forced” to step on others and turn a blind eye to degrading practice in order to reach her perfectly reasonable aspirations. Money, desperation and low self-esteem lead these people to market places where hierarchies, and we, as the drivers of the market, hold them and weigh down on them.

 Gamer - A teenage boy controls a real man with real bullets

These films use fun, or the style of high-end low "trash" to percolate our defences. They exaggerate and extrapolate. Ultimately shown 21st Century’s possible destinations, the journey that had seemed so pleasurable sours and hollows, collapsing in on itself.

By the end we wonder what violent games, and our control over things that look like us, may do to us. We wonder how human images, that can be twisted and deleted, may alter us irrevocably. We wonder why people ‘willingly’ offer themselves up to exploitation and what it may mean to sit by spurring the flesh fair on. We think how the quest for fame at all costs may be anything but a sign of aspiration or a beacon of inspiration.

The direction in which our moral compass is set, or the extent to which we separate what is within the cinema from what is without, will determine the nature of the films. I believe that they rely on us to follow the path from excitement and titillation to disgust and disquiet. They can be seen purely, and perfectly legitimately, as an indulgent taste of the forbidden but they work best as efforts to bring together image and reality, fiction and reality, to show us what we may not want to see. They bring the distant viewer and player face to face with the consequences of his actions. Is this what you want? Then have it.

Lest we be reminded : the experiences and memories that we bring into the theatre mean nothing can ever truly be ‘just a film’.

Some critics may call those films that show people degraded “degrading” as if depiction can only condone. They may also call them “sick” for even touching upon such potentially sickening subjects. They call them “sexy” just because there is sex or nudity, without looking at how or why. They call them “guilty pleasures” but they do not appreciate or specify that the guilt is not at the quality of the production (they are superbly put together) but at the increasingly self-conscious pleasure we may derive from the troublesome things that occur on-screen. The films' high-mindedness is (necessarily) camouflaged.

Showgirls, Demonlover and Gamer manage to both celebrate themselves and question themselves. 

They use the staples of lavish and lurid storytelling (what could be referred to as ‘Exploitation cinema’) to both royally entertain and subtly satisfy a vital aspect of much Exploitation Cinema : a mirror and commentary on emerging social trends (cf. George A Romero's zombie films). They are almost completely guileless, a lesson without a professor, satire (of megalomaniacs, C-list wannabes and Hollywood rags to riches conventions?) with barely a wink. In other words, straightforward not snarky, and never condescending.

Yes, these are films that really are studies of exploitation. Maximalist, outrageous, in-your-face, balls-to-the-wall films with a profoundly human(ist) bent.

Demonlover - Waiting to be abused by an unseen player