A Clockwork Orange – Antihero?

Thoughts On: A Clock Work Orange

This satirical sci-fi by Stanley Kubrick follows Alex, as a gangster, through the futuristic streets of England, through a judicial system, as a prisoner, where conditioning is used to correct offenders, before he’s let back out into the world again, not quite himself to say the least.

clockwork

After taking a look at Grizzly Man and then Irreversible I wanted to return to lighter material. And so, I chose this. What does that say about me? Well, let’s find out. But, I really enjoy this film. I know this is not what Kubrick would have wanted, well… actually, I don’t. This film is a perfect example of how to create a likeable bad guy – in other words an antihero. It all comes down to what you show and how you show it. Now this sounds obvious, but, think of all the ‘heroes’ that have failed to resonate with you. Before I continue, I know there are some who are completely disgusted by this film and Alex respectively. I can see why, but that doesn’t mean I understand you. That means for part of this I talk mostly to those who stand with me and find Alex somewhat likeable, but, in the end, this is all about you, so stick around. Here we go, the antihero has always interested me as a writer. I watch films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Gone With The Wind, Dark Night and I’m drawn to what are clearly bad guys – the Don Corleones, Henry Hills, Scarlett O’Haras, Jokers. These characters make for fiendishly entertaining films, even endearing personas. The likes of Scarlett O’Hara, Alex or Anton Chigurh have directly influenced me in the way I write. More than making entertaining movies, I think antiheroes allow you to explore a wider field of concepts and moral standings. The word ‘hero’ just means rules in my mind. With the likes of a Harry Potter movie you can judge what’s going to happen, what the goals of each situation are. If you watch Fight Club that first rule, second rule, any rule, doesn’t mean much. With a little moral ambiguity we are kept guessing throughout good gangster pictures. You just never know who’s going to come at you, smiles or not. SOME LIKE IT HOT! What the hell is going on there? No, not as a gangster picture, but as a Marilyn Monroe picture. Same with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Awful Truth, My Fair Lady, The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, Ball Of Fire, Young Frankenstein (Fronkunshtein), His Girl Friday, the list goes on and on. Screwball comedies are my major weakness if you couldn’t tell. Here’s where the antihero became popular though, where cinema really figured out that ‘bad’, that moral ambiguity, sells. But, with the likes of Some Like It Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes we don’t just get to spend time in the grips of the alluring Miss Monroe, Wilder and Hawks can also teach a little bit about tolerance. How does Some Like It Hot end? ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’… And why shouldn’t Jack Lemmon take it tush from his old man once in a while in exchange for a comfortable living? Marilyn in the same respect–you even–if you wanted to?

Kubrick uses the concept of an antihero to lure you into the very core idea behind why we like them. In short, he gets us to contradict ourselves so we can stand back and ask, ‘Well, why not?’. Now, how an antihero works is, as I said before, all to do with what you show and how you show it. Let’s take a quick look at Goodfellas. The film opens with a few familiar faces and then a murder. We get De Niro’s cool and dangerous (even when sleeping) facade, Joe Pesci’s squat, already a mark below boiling, figure, bubbling in the back ground, as well as Ray Liota’s charm and suave. Then… knock, knock… uh-oh. Yeah, trouble. But trouble with best friends is just a bit of mischief. It’s fun. And soon enough the knife’s brandished, blood squirts, splurges with a gargle, ‘look at my fucking eyes’, and BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’ THUNK. Freeze frame. BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM Tony Bennet swings in hard with Rags To Riches. MM! Perfection. But what just happened? Yeah, we just witnessed a murder… but so what!? The opener gets better and better every time you rewatch the film. This is because none of the characters are ever shown to be doing anything bad without Scorsese justifying it or making it fun. Scorsese may say he’s against violence, but Goodfellas is another thing. Henry can sell drugs, cheat on his wife, kill, just… I swear on my fucking mother, if you touch her again you’re DEAD!… that scene does something primal and wrong to me, I don’t know about you. Fuck those assholes! Right?… I don’t know (Lorraine Bracco, it’d turn me on too (P.S. 1990 Lorraine Bracco, marry me, please! (anyone else, hasn’t she got one of the sexiest accents ever? (I don’t know (excuse me))))). Anyway, the point is, we get to live in a world of mischief. This is where everyone gets it wrong, we don’t get to be in the world of a gangster for a while when we watch Goodfellas, we get to be in a world of ineffectual mischief. The film is the equivalent of your mother telling you, ‘Its fine, yeah, you and your brother can smash each other in the face. Just be careful and wear the boxing gloves.’ There’s no true malice behind wanting to blast you ass-face brother in the mouth–just mischievous delight. You’ve got to be with me on that one.

On top of not showing the truly heinous acts an antihero commits and showing the ‘bad’ ones with a fun tone (music helps so much with this–Scorsese and Kubrick alike provide perfect examples), an antihero needs to be a mark above you – the friend you’d follow to the end of the Earth because you’re secretly in love with them. Could Superman ever break the fourth wall? No. Could the Joker. Of course! Why? Because the smart-asses break the fourth wall, and only those who exude devilish charm can get away with that. You don’t have to be bad to do this, simply charming. I mean… Ferris Bueller… there’s my point in itself. Enough said. I don’t even know why I’m making a case for antiheroes, I know you love them. But, with Alex and A Clockwork Orange we can dive deep into what that means to us. A Clockwork Orange’s moral message is entirely in the hands of an audience member. The narrative is in the complete control of our dear narrator and protagonist, Alex. That means everything that happens is seen through his perspective. When he’s beating the old man we look down on him as he spews on and on about space and no one paying attention to worldly problems. With Alex, us literally looking down on the old man, we don’t hear or care too listen to what he says. As dictated by Alex, we decide to not care about about themes in other films we’re bound, If we look at a later scene of similar dynamic after Alex has been detained, we are taken down to his level. What leers over us is the crotches of the police officers – who are really just pissed that this 15 year old kid has killed someone. But, the old woman was nothing more than an annoying hag and we don’t see her die. Moreover, we’re told by the creepy pedo, Deltoid. In short, with camera positioning and tone of characters we feel sorry for Alex and only because we’re forced to see things through his perspective. What, I’m sure you’ve noticed, has happened is we’ve been turned against the system of police officers and the seed of our mistrusts has been planted. The film has basically got us to wrap our own questionable moral around it.

Through the course of the narrative Alex is then used and abused. And we feel sorry for him. Why? Because he’s the only consistent character. People hate flip-flopping in general. Contradiction, lies, hypocrisy are all traits of the ‘real bad guys’ in cinema. Alex has his messed up ideals and sticks to them, and so when he’s not taking us through the narrative, we’re supporting him. The only character who doesn’t really contradict himself is the Chief Guard, on top of that he’s nuts, so we kind of like him too. But, what prevents us from completely liking him, and the priest as well, is their link to the system that we’ve already been turned against. Throughout the film we’re turned against the judicial system and then the media. This is because these are the systems that use Alex to push their own prerogatives. This is what reveals a lot about an audience – you. We have an inherent mistrust for the faceless and nameless that extends to anyone connected to the anonymous system. This is why we all hate politicians. They all stand for a system that essentially has responsibility for our lives (the government). Our, mostly irrational, distrust of faceless systems allows us to take the side of what most would consider the ‘real enemy’. Try this for me, think of the following personas either appearing on the news or living next door to you. A 15 year old sadist who rapes, assaults and is just an anarchist in general. A good looking 20 something year old who does drugs, sells drugs, has witnessed many murders, been to prison, cheats on his wife, neglects his kids and can sleep soundly at night. Picture those two living on either side of you, or try to imagine seeing their faces on the news… You don’t like them, you can’t see Ray Liotta or Malcolm McDowell, can you? How do we let cinema bridge this gap then? Beyond showing what you need to and in the right way, an antihero is made likeable because he or she is a lot closer to heart than we think.

Remember the bit where you agreed that you’d love to blast your brother (or insert anyone person close to you that is annoying)? Well, we put all of that down to mischief, not true malice. But here’s the thing, mischief and malice not too far apart. Antiheroes appeal to the wish fulfilment aspect of cinema. In the same way we all love Shawshank Redemption because we all believe that, if we were wrongly imprisoned, we should be able to escape, we love Godfather because we all believe in an idea of family and looking after the ones we love. Don Corleone appeals to the side of us that would happily rob a pharmacist for the medicine our sick daughter needs. However, in the film we are doing the foot work, we implement the sick daughter. We imagine Don Corleone’s past as a kid with nothing who worked his way up through a savage and unforgiving world. What keeps him the antihero and not bad guy is the link to us through family. There’s always a basic instinct that antiheroes appeal to. In Wolf Of Wall Street we’re fending off poverty, we’re paying off problems, we face them in a $5000 suite, a sparkling Rolex, rocking up to the place in a brand new Lambo. In Rambo we’re breaking the arms, we’re stabbing, slicing, blowing up every single person who refuses to understand us. Cinema is so good at appealing to problems because of its dire need for conflict. If we look at something like… I forget what they’re called… the Sweet 16 or 18 or 21, whatever they are, programs. We watch the spoiled brats try and construct they’re ‘perfect day’ just hoping it all goes wrong and they end up in tears. These people appeal to our dreams of a great party with a billion friends and a millionaire father paying or it all, but, the conflict they face isn’t real. We couldn’t care less if the asshole 16 year old has a good day or not because nothing is truly at stake. Henry Hill’s life is always in the balance, in the hands of other psychos, I mean… ‘How am I funny? In what way do I make you laugh?’… We’re laughing in the end of that for the same reason Henry is, because we just came inches from death. For the same reason can stand with Alex – we know he’s just a kid and those Droogs are in no way to be trusted.

So, we’ve come full circle again. We couldn’t imagine the evil 15 year old kid on the news, but now we’re sympathising with him again, lost in how good Wolf Of Wall Street or Rambo was. This is why A Clockwork Orange is the key focus. What it demonstrates is the malleability of people and more importantly the audience. The question the film poses is. is freedom and individuality more important than a controlled and safe system? The film’s answer is yes. As is yours if you’re satisfied when Alex is gleefully back to his old self telling cartoons to shove eggywegs up their asses or dreaming of naked women wrestling in the snow surrounded by a crowd of weirdos. Here’s the crux of it all. We prefer individuality to conformity and social contortion because it’s all about me, me, me. We are scared of a world where Alex can be conditioned against the sight or thought of sex or violence because even though it may make sense that rapists can be made to not want to rape, there’s the idea of control. You see this all the time in the world, America is the archetype of this blind need for individuality. Liking Alex is the equivalent to wanting to bomb the whole of Iran or Afghanistan because… TERRORISTS! It’s the same as absolutely hating the current teen heart throb because… I don’t know, they make you feel insecure, or you fee you’re sister, mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter might love them more than you. You may object to being one of those people, but I bet you love an antihero. If it’s not Alex, it’s Rambo, Jordan Belfort, Ferris Bueller, Scarlett O’Hara, Henry Hill, Travis Bickle, The Joker, Lorelie Lee, Derek Vinyard, Jim Stark, Holly Golightly, The Man With No Name… the list goes on and on and on and I assure you, you like at least one of them. Liking the antihero is the same as fearing terrorists or God or ‘the system’ because we all put ourselves in the centre of the world. We assume that all the good and all the bad in the world is at our doorstep. Paradoxically, we also forget the dangers of the charming antihero.

This is all about power. Antiheroes let us feel powerful and we like them because we’re allowed to be on their side. Bad guys are bad guys because we’re told they’re against us. This is all a question of ‘us’. What A Clockwork Orange is really asking you, with its twisted moral end, is, where do you feel safe? A Clockwork Orange is about fear – just as all films with antiheroes are. They are about vicariously facing our fears and maybe just winning. Is this a bad thing? Is liking Alex wrong? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just clambering for friends and security in life. Cinema just gives us that opportunity – the fantasy that the word is a forgiving place, even to the worst parts of us, and even when the film ends and our antihero didn’t quite make it… well… we get to go home or turn the T.V off anyway. Who is you’re favourite antihero? What’s the best film that uses one? Tell me in the comments and tell me why you like them.

 

 

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Irreversible – Inevitability As Perceived

Thoughts On: Irreversible

This is Gaspar Noé’s titan art-house film about two men taking revenge for their friend, and girlfriend respectively, being raped.

Irreversible

Yes, this is the film with the brutal however-many-minute-long rape scene. For that reason I hope it will be clear that the following talk is not for the immature. Whilst this film is very easy to pass off as an exploitation picture with little depth (and so isn’t worth being seen), to assume so, to never see this film, would be a mistake. Moreover, to assume this film is in any way unsympathetic, overly brutal or, in any way shape or form, over steps the mark, you’d also be very wrong. If you look at films that claim to be dealing with sensitive or mature subject matter, take a film like A Streetcar Named Desire for instance, and compare it with this one, they’re almost reduced to  a lie. In my opinion, A Streetcar Named Desire is phenomenal, an undeniable masterpiece. For its time, it dealt with its mature themes with as much clarity and honesty as it was allowed (censors stripping away what they thought of as inappropriate). But, the way main stream cinema has often dealt with themes such as brutality (rape, extreme violence) is to imply or sensationalise it. By ‘sensationalise’ I mean a film either exploits or uses cinematic language to conjure up its own reality, not have itself manifest on screen. No, that doesn’t mean a real rape needs to be seen, but the raw long take is one of the most convincing yet grounded pieces of film ever shot. What the directors reflex when filming such a scene will be is to adopt Hitchcock-esque methodology with dozens of cuts, close-ups, shaky cam, low, direct angles, never really showing anything. Emotive, powerful, but cinematic fantasy. If you’re familiar with my blog you’ll know I revere the fantasy of cinema. This is because realism is a way of trying to quash the lie, leaving the fabrication itself a further lie. However, realism done well is an attempt toward honesty. Realism concerning one of the most heinous acts commitable, allows it to speak for itself. By using cinematic language to emphasise and emote ideas surrounding rape treats an audience a little like a child. In the same way we tell children not to sit so close to the T.V otherwise they’ll go blind or get square eyes, we cut, imply and shake the camera. Whereas sitting inches from a screen for hours on end will not do your eyes any good, square eyes is just ridiculous. Whilst Psycho’s shower scene is poignant and reflects an aspect of the horrors of murder, it’s sensationalised and, in the end, a lie not much better than square eyes. The realism this film tries to portray is what makes it so brutal, what makes it so hard to watch. After all, why on Earth should we assume that a film with a central conflict of rape should easy, at all, to watch? If you manage to make a film about rape fun and easy to watch than I think you’ve betrayed your themes and don’t deserve to be taken seriously. That’s not to say that this film doesn’t adopt cinematic language (camera angles, movement, such and so on), in fact it adopts a fair chunk of the dictionary whilst writing a few pages of its own.

This film is full of insane camera movement, a myriad of complex digital effects and is made up of long (15-20 min) takes that are all in reverse chronology (like Memento). So, of course the film is rife with artifice and the realism is ultimately a fabrication. However, the illusion of reality in this film is entirely incredible, it stays true to its core conflict, allowing the act to play out with all its raw horror. Doing this stays true to the point that a film with such violent subject matter shouldn’t be at all easy to watch. That aside, I want to talk about the film’s stance on determinism and fate. As the title suggests, this film is very deterministic, it sees control in the hands of time and asserts that ‘time destroys all things’ from the very get go. Knowing the synopsis of the film and its core idea, you’d get a sense that this is a fatalistic and pessimistic piece. Again, assumption with this film isn’t going to get you any place far. Determinism is often lumped with negative connotations such as fatalism, but this film shows the flaw in such thinking. This film is in reverse chronology to de-signify the revenge that takes place at the very beginning of the film, to repeal fatalism, violence, pessimism, the negative interpretations of an idea such as fate. This film is ultimately about retrospect, it is about Alex, not the rapist, her boyfriend or friend. The film is constructed to have you forget that the rapist (the Tenia) is not killed, that he stands by and watches as the two men seeking revenge for Alex brutally murder the wrong person. If the film was in chronological order it would start with ‘time destroys all things’, move on to show a woman discovering she’s pregnant, have her raped, beaten to a bloody pulp, have her rapist get away with it, her two friends, her baby’s father, imprisoned for life and then, again, say ‘time destroys all things’. What you have there is a narrative of moral equivalence to A Serbian Film. Such a film pretends to have insight, pretends to be dealing with difficult subject matter, but fails to say anything more than evil exists and it always will do. It doesn’t do so in an effective or lasting way at all, in fact A Serbian Film merely devolves into bland absurdism in the end–simple exploitation. What Irreversible does is flip the tables to reveal an honest and human perspective of fate.

Whilst this film is about fate, it is more importantly about the perception of such a thing. As a result, the film strives to explore the perception of violence. It questions the purpose of revenge. Before (after, in terms of narrative) Alex is assaulted, two gangsters offer revenge to the two shattered men with the justification that ‘vengeance is a human right’. Such a statement reveals a lot about the whole concept of rights. Vengeance is a form of fate. People assume others should get what they deserve, and that, with law, we can help the process along the way. We can further this idea with the basic human rights: equality, life, liberty, personal security, freedom. Compare these ideas to reality. We live in a world where people rape and murder, we live in a world constructed upon natural selection, survival of the fittest. In what way do rights fit into the natural progression of time–of fate–of the every day? Vengeance is seen as a form of fate because humans believe they are due predictable and favourable consequences to the actions that befall them. Here, the film opens up, making clear that inevitability is nothing more than attributed cause. This all links into the structuring of the film and its purpose for doing so. The film is in reverse chronology until the very end. With the first scenes of the day (the last of the film) Alex learns she is pregnant. This isn’t explicitly stated, but we then jump ahead in time. We jump past the night that changes Alex’s life, we cut to her months later, no bruises, no facial disfigurement, smiling, hands on her belly, children playing around her in the middle of a park. What is being made clear is that the effects of the night do not affect her in the ways we think it does. With time, the memory of the night has been destroyed. This is the positive spin and why the aphorism is reasserted in the end of the film. Time destroys all things is shown to be the equivalent of time heals.

This is the crux of the film. It takes a horrific event and makes it seem like the source of the film’s core question. This film isn’t a question of vengeance in the respect of right or wrong, but worth. This is all explained with the conversation in the train station and on the train. The three friends (Alex, Pierre and Marcus) have been compared to the id, ego and superego. This is clear with Pierre always calling Marcus an animal, a chimp, a monkey (id). But, Freudian terminology is used quite a lot in film, so, to avoid exhausting the subject I’ll skip over this detail and leave it to your own exploration. What matters most is Pierre as a pragmatist and Marcus as impulsively driven. Pierre has a history with Alex, but could ‘never make her come’, he doesn’t understand why and wants the method as to how. Marcus, more impulsive, is said to manage because he’s ‘selfish’ and concentrates on himself. In short, Alex makes clear that sex, making a woman come, cannot be explained, there’s no method. You don’t talk about it, you just do it. Here is the movie explaining itself, it tells us of the futility of intelligence, of formulaic understanding. If we reintroduce the idea that this film is about (is in) retrospect, this becomes all the clearer. With the film ending on Alex in the future, the night of her assault not as effectual as one would assume, the reverse chronology of the film implies that we are seeing reminiscence. The whole film is a projection of Alex going over the night’s events and being able to accept its apparent inevitability. In short, what happened is irreversible, but, that doesn’t matter. In juxtaposition to the awful memories (coupled with speculation) comes the last scene which is Alex, alone, in a park, relaxing–the colour green, not red, becoming dominant. With the two 2001: A Space Odyssey reference we can understand why. The first comes with the penultimate scene of the beginning of the day. Above Alex and Marcus’ bed is the 2001 poster with the tagline ‘The Ultimate Trip’. And on the poster is the starchild. Childhood is implied too be a journey of evolution and is reinforced with Alex seemingly being able to cope (as symbolised with green as opposed to red) after a few months of the assault whilst her baby’s father and her best friend are most probably in prison – and for the rest of their lives.

This is why the rape scene is so integral to the film. The rape is entirely about dominance, it is unflinching and it looms. Like it takes up a significant section of the film’s run time it will take place as a significant event in Alex’s memory for the rest of her life. Here we can link back to the idea of rights and humans trying to construct their own take on fate–control. We have law to protect ourselves from the animals within ourselves, from the ‘mephisto’ within. But, law stems from the same internal, base, drive. Why is rape the worst crime of all? It’s not just because a person’s control over their body is taken away, but also because sexual selection is taken out of the female’s hands. I’ll stop to say that men of course can be the victims of rape, but the term appeals to the prejudices. What the film concentrates on is a woman being raped and so that’s what I’ll be talking about. The film states that the ‘woman decides’. This is why there are two men and one woman–to tip the tables against her presence whilst giving her control. Rape is the worst crime because a woman is not deciding what happens to her, a man is. As far as relationships are concerned, women have the majority of control. I don’t need to explain the paradigm, I feel it’s a clear enough idea. In a society where a woman is the key enforcer of natural selection, who she has sex with is integral to the existence of us all. Rape is universally unacceptable because a base and animalistic part of ourselves knows the importance of a woman’s choice. For the same reason, rape is never a thing of passion, its an act of dominance, a display of aggression–it’s an act in face of social norm. Men are wired to spread their seed, rape is often a retaliation to the denial, both on an individual and societal level. This feeds back into the narrative in two ways. First it links to Alex and turns the story into one of resilience. The ultimate trip of evolution she faces comes with the test to her sexual choice as a woman. On one hand there is her kind friend who was sexually inefficient, that through the movement of the narrative became a vicious killer. Instead of refusing revenge, as his ideals direct him, he takes it when opportunity presents itself. On another hand, there’s Marcus who decides to seek revenge, but fails in taking it. His character arc too is one of devolution. And the third man she faces is her rapist. All three key male figures are bound to a theme of dominance in deficit, loss and need. And to what end? A pointless one. All characters try to rise above law and the extent of their control and all probably end up in prison. Social rule wins in the end. But, that whom the narrative affected the most and becomes more and more detached from (another reason for reverse chronology – we move closer to Alex) is being tested. This is an tale of strength because Alex is the only character with a character arc of evolution, of growth. The theme of dominance and the whole idea of women and sexual selection feeds back into the narrative with the idea of control.

Control is also the summed up by the second 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. The last sequence of the film is clearly inspired by Kubrick’s stargate sequence. In Kubrick’s film this was a moment of transcendence, but it was granted by the monolith, maybe some alien species. This equates to power, control, being granted, not inherent to the human condition or complex. In the same respect Alex is facing a thematic power struggle. Whereas Hal and the astronauts race for the monolith, Marcus and Pierre race for vengeance. Power, however, wasn’t granted to either Marcus or Pierre. Neither achieved anything, they didn’t kill the rapist and they devolved as characters – Marcus losing his masculine strength and Pierre his pragmatic sense–the characteristics Alex loved them for. Alex is the only one who passed the test as given by the monolithic tragedy of the assault. By seeing the irreversible effects of the night, not trying to decipher who is at fault, what was the right way to retaliate (like many would upon analysing the film) she accepts that life must be lived. This throws back her asserting that sex cannot be explained, it cannot be talked about, you just do it. The lesson Alex learns is that she can simply carry on, endure. She doesn’t stop to question the themes of dominance and control. In the end all three men who fought over the idea of a females decision, of her choice, end up imprisoned. Alex, as expressed through the camera movement, is free. The film employs her perception to explore the events of the night, they are nauseating and wandering in the beginning to reflect her disrepair at imagining her friends downfall (the final/first scene). They come under control with the rape because she no longer speculates and can only face the memory as is. For the same reason the narrative becomes more and more controlled as she recalls the details of the hours before. But, in the very end the camera is free again, the movement is however liberated, playful. Camera movement implies that Alex feels free, that she isn’t broken, she simply gets on with her life.

This is why a deterministic world isn’t a negative idea. All characters, male and female, are bound to their internal wiring. The film uses this idea to take control away from them. This lack of internal control contributes to ideas of fate – that it was inevitable that Marcus would get drunk, that Alex would one day end up in trouble because of his neglect. But, with a lack of control comes freedom, a huge weight lifted from anyone’s shoulders. To not know leaves you ignorant and ignorance is bliss. Alex cannot know if the events of the night were set in stone and not knowing allows her to handle the present. But, before we finish, one question remained unexplored. Is there such a thing as fate? The truth is we can’t know and we can’t figure it out. And so, the idea makes sense. If we do not have control then something, someone, does–not a just conscious body, but possibly a deciding physical force. This leaves inevitability as perceived and, in the end, all that matters in the film is perception. Alex cannot change what has come to pass, all she has control over is how she deals with it. By accepting, not fighting an idea of fate, of blame attributed to someone, something or possibly no one, Alex is given the illusion that she controls the path she travels. Hence, the stargate-esque sequence in the end. However, there’s a big difference between Kubrick’s and Gaspar’s sequences. Kubrick’s is ominous, Bowman cannot close his eyes, he’s terrified. Alex blinks, faster and faster, we only see from her point of view. The flashes imply that she blinks, that she alone experiences this path she’s taken along. The film ends with the final movement toward evolution because that’s the goal in a human story. Kubrick was concerned with an idea of ‘what’s next’, for this reason the starchild is born and approaches Earth. Gaspar is concerned with ‘now’, not that ‘then’ is gone. Everything about the film is grounded in perspective as the path under our feet is only there because we see it. As always…

Control, the fantasy; control the fantasy.

… not a bad catchphrase, no? Anyway, my final words have to be to give the film a second chance. I know this is one of those films that you can only ever watch once, but on my first viewing I was entirely repulsed and only got a hint of the film’s ideas. If you’ve read this far and have only watched the film once because it was so brutal and realistic, I recommend trying it again. The scenes that are supposed to be hard to watch remain so, but the rest of the narrative deepens and the film’s complex perspective as well as final levity really make it worthwhile. Watch it again and be sure to tell me what you think in the comments.

 

 

 

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Grizzly Man – The Invisible Line

Thoughts On: Grizzly Man

This Werner Herzog documentary containing a compilation of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell reveals snippets of the man’s life as a self-confessed ‘kind warrior’ who lived in close proximity to the bears of the Alaskan peninsula for 13 summers until his death in 2003.

Grizzly man

I’m not a big fan of documentaries because, ultimately, anything intentionally filmed holds an inevitable degree of artifice. Documentaries thus constantly fight the illusion of cinema, which can be distracting, and so doesn’t always interest me. I have always had a soft spot for natural documentaries though, those about wild life and the inhuman world. I dislike the human elements of documentaries, I’m not too fond of human stories, neither do I like stories or ‘narratives’ constructed from footage of animals. This is because of their artifice and indecipherable true nature. When dealing with real situations, real human lives, I’m not fond of opinion. Art’s core is in perspective and so to project one’s opinion on circumstances contorts them. This is fine for me in a world without effect (cinema), but our real everyday lives, not so much. However, Werner Herzog has constructed a film beyond the average constraints of a documentary. He explores the idea of nature as caught not only by the lens of a camera but the perceiving eye of a human. This film for me explores the epitome of artifice and does so without major prejudice. Before we start, the true story of the tragedy of Timothy and his girlfriend, Annie, is not what I want to talk about. This is because with that comes questions of a man I do not know, a situation I am unaware of and, ultimately, circumstances I have no need to be exploring. In the documentary there are questions as to whether Timothy was right or wrong in the way he lived and eventually died. Some say ‘if it don’t scare the cows, who cares? and also that it was what he wanted. Others say he ‘got what he deserved’ and that the way he lived was a ‘disrespect’ to bears. These are opinions found in the documentary, they are not mine. I ask myself if he was right or wrong and… I simply don’t have an opinion. So, what I want to talk about is the film’s profound effect on me – as it is enormously poignant. I also want to talk about the key philosophical points Herzog brings up throughout the course of the film about nature and indeed human nature.

This is the only film ever to truly scare me to my very core. With the opening to the film in juxtaposition to a minimal (ineffectual) face-off  Tim has with a bear in which he has to fend it off, backed by the looming threat, the inevitability, of Tim’s end, a piercing fear is driven deep into my chest. The physical reaction I have is completely different to being creeped out by good atmosphere, than being shocked by a jump scare or disgusted by a vulgar display of pulp, blood, carnage and guts. What I feel, the bear mere feet from the camera and Timothy, when it simply flexes and the camera jolts is only comparable to what I can only describe as to be my greatest moment of weakness in life. Straight off the bat, I’ve not been through much at all, nothing in the way of traumatic. The smallest I’ve ever felt is as a little kid walking my old dog and coming upon a much bigger, seemingly violent, one. The dog was, no joke, up to my chin on all fours and, shit I don’t want to imagine, on its hind legs. Set-up’s simple. I turn the corner, and there it is. I freeze. WOOF!! My dog, a medium-sized Staff, cowers, rear dropping, tail coming between her legs, backing toward me, stopping against my shins. WOOF!! The dog bolts forward. Frozen stiff, a sinking dread opens my hand. I drop my dog’s lead. I’m seeing this in slow motion, this beast of a dog, I don’t know its breed, it was as big as a Great Dane, but not at all skinny with a strange off-balance look. This thing was a tank, a machine that emanated power with a deep, resounding bark that just marks terror in my mind. The thing is mid pounce, jaws open, I’m just hoping it’s going for my dog and not me, and I’m not sorry to say that. WOOF!! I’m frozen. WOOF!! I drop the lead. WOOF!! It pounces. CLANG!! Yeah, the thing had an owner, a strong one at that with a thick chain lead. I swear I then blacked out. I can’t remember what happened, I must have picked up the lead and me and my dog must have slunk past with some embarrassing exchange of apologies and reassurances. In truth, I just remember the fear, the sound, the sight and then being a good 100 feet from the thing.

That, if you’ve read my last post, is my 100% – my most trying experience (don’t laugh). For a film to reinvoke that, I hope, says a lot. What the film, for me, captures is the precise moment when man faces nature, when he looks the tiger in the eye, knowing it’ll pounce. Yes, I only dealt with a big dog, but give me a break, it’s my only reference point. Assuming all humans work off the same mechanism, the fear I felt faced by a dog I knew could kill me if it wanted, has to be at least comparable to what Timothy ultimately doesn’t feel. This man is something –  to say the least. For him to be able to stand before a live bear is beyond comprehension for me. My big, scary dog experience and Timothy’s fearlessness in face of bears describes perfectly what Herzog means by the invisible line between man and nature being blurred. Fundamentally, humans are animals. Call it as it lies and we’re either pretty crappy ones, like on the level of giant rabbits–we can nip and look weird, but aren’t too formidable–or we’re simply not animals any more. Over the course of time humans have constructed a solid and tangible divide between us and real nature. My once in a life time 100% is an antelope’s every other heartbeat skipped, is a lion’s every other roar of self-defence, is a bear’s every other juttered breath below the mass of another bigger bear, its jaws clamped on its jugular. I’ve used the George Carlin quote, ‘we’re barely out of the jungle’ before, but the distance between us and it is lightyears in retrospect – from where we stand now. My takeaway after staring blankly at the screen for a good while after the film had finished was simply that I’m glad we’re not in a food chain any longer. What this film made truly apparent to me is that humans are incredibly fragile. Actually, that’s not a complete truth. What the film did was make me feel fragile, like all humans are pathetically small.

What’s most interesting about the film comes at the end with Herzog asserting that the film Tim shot is not an insight into nature, but into ourselves. What he means by this comes two-fold. It means what I just said above, which is the film calls out something in ourselves, allows us to draw our own perspective on nature. But the second fold pertains to something a lot wider than this film alone and links back to what I said in the very beginning. Documentaries are never 100% true or real as they capture light. I talk mostly in metaphors here, but, light reflects off of objects and is caught by our eyes. Such is perception–sight. Light reflected off objects and caught by a camera is cinema. It’s stored perception, recycled when we watch it. In the same way eyes in a painting follow you because you aren’t looking at Mona Lisa, but Leonardo da Vinci’s view of her, films have a forced perspective. This here also links back to Timothy and the ethics surrounding him. Like I did with Silent Running, I could talk about perspective and give reason to why Timothy as a character is so likeable. But, what’s of most significance is to recognise that Timothy is clearly a character, not a person, in this film. He performs for the camera, giving real insight into his personal self–but only as he wants us to see it. This film is about artifice as it is largely about a man presenting himself and his perspective.

We get to learn an awful lot about Timothy over the 100 odd minutes of the film, but most telling of who he is, in my opinion, comes with 2 key elements. The first  element is of his contradiction. Before I go any further, ‘contradiction’ in my books is not a negative term. It’s simply juxtaposed states. The first example of this is with Ghost and the hat. Tim lives quite close to a family of foxes. At one point he leaves his hat out and a few investigate whilst Tim tells us he loves them. But, one of the little fuckers gets away with his hat and he never (as far as I’m aware) sees it again. What this symbolises is an incredibly human behaviour of social currency. Yes, your mother loves you with ever ounce of her flesh, but, as we all know, forget that one particular Sunday, or neglect one too many calls, and she’s liable to hate you for a moment–at the least, be quite sour. What such a paradigm makes clear is that humans are not completely made up of one thing. They’d love to have you believe it, but that’s a lie. Your mum loves you a lot, but not completely–but a lot is enough. What this has to do with artifice is, internal consistency isn’t completely lucid. There’s a norm, but it falls within bounds. A second example of contradiction within Tim’s character comes with the rain in 2000. A delightfully human moment. Tom calls upon God, Allah and a floaty Hindu version of a deity to asks for them ti please give him and the animals some FUCKING RAIN!! From his love and need for the bears to be fed, the water levels to rise, comes some magnificent anger. All is glum, Tim is down, but then the rain starts pouring, torrents of it. And despite his tent caving in, he’s back in love with the universe. Both of the above cite that people act in tandem with circumstance. We act as we need to, or feel we must be perceived. Hence, artifice, fabrication.

The second key element we get to learn about Tim that is telling of a general human nature comes with his incomprehension. There’s two key instances of this. The first comes when Tim talks, again, about his foxes and how they are hunted. He says ‘if only they (hunters) knew’ how wonderful or lovely the foxes really are. He furthers this tone with his idea that animals are ‘misunderstood’. Tim tells, and shows us, about what he calls ‘the challenge’, ‘the moment’. This is what we were talking about before. It’s standing before the bear that’s liable to attack. If Tim makes the wrong move, behaves inappropriately, he’s dead. For this reason, Tim asserts that if animals are approached correctly they are safe. In short, they are misunderstood because of the experiences humans have with them. However, for Tim not to openly comprehend the flip sided argument is why he is most criticised. He sees a universal love and unity when he looks at the world, Herzog on the other hand sees that the common denominator throughout the universe is in fact chaos. Who is right? A matter of opinion. I lean toward Herzog personally. But, Tim stands in opposition and his 13 summers remain as evidence for the contrary. Tim doesn’t express the same critical thinking. He, as the film as his characterisation of himself for the camera expresses, is set in his views and sees not why fox hunters wouldn’t want to get to know a fox. This again cites artifice as Tim tries to polarise the argument on whether humans and animals can coexist. As in most debates with foundations in opinion, the only true answer is probably within a mid-point of sort. Before I move on, another example of this as Tim’s mindset comes with him finding dead bears, or the fox he knew torn apart by wolves, and refusing to accept the occurrence of predators in nature. Again, by putting up a façade of incomprehension Tim shows himself to be more of a character than critical thinking person.

What has ‘characters’ and ‘artifice’ got to do with anything though? Well, I believe that this film’s key teaching point is that people are cotton wool coated in silver. Mirrored sponges. What am I going on about? What I’m trying to say is that humans have a huge capacity to absorb and perceive so much, yet we chose not to, or to pretend that we don’t. This links back to cinema and art in general. When faced with a person, just like a film or painting, you are facing a forced perspective. There’s no meeting the real Mona Lisa, there’s no meeting anyone. Just the picture they paint of themself. This is the hugely philosophical argument behind this film. It shows that the world is nothing more than perceived. With the other huge questions it also poses, it resultantly gives us the answer at the same time. Here’s a fun one: what about aliens? This films shows a huge rift between us and animals. Human’s cannot form any inter-species bonds beyond pets, farmed animals and zoos. What Tim represents, or wanted to, was a future where animals and humans can better coexist, the invisible line between us blurred. The tone of the movie really drives you in the opposite direction. If we can’t completely connect with any of the millions of species on this planet, only stay out of each other’s ways or manufacture circumstances in which they can be conditioned to live with us, are we at all ready for aliens? By the way, aliens exist. By this I mean life on other planets. It’s an inevitable probability. Anyhow, there are plenty of test down on Earth. Are we at all ready for those beyond our safe blue sphere? Big questions I’ll leave to you and the comments. But beyond the hypothetical, the films makes a huge point that the future is nothing more than a path that will ultimately be trodden, it’s not perceivable as of now for the same reason a tree fallen in a forest doesn’t make a noise. Here is the film posing questions, but then showing that, again, the world is nothing more than perceived.

Overall, this film is about perception and the lines drawn not only between ourselves and animals, but each other too. We are all trapped in our own worlds, just trying to project some kind of character and this is what the film shows with poetic precision. Who are we? An unanswerable question. Of  course you know, but such a thing is incommunicable. Who does that leave us? Where does that leave us? What can be done? Such is life’s dilemma as mirrored sponges…

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