Swiss Army Man – Something I Just Need To Get Out

Quick Thoughts: Swiss Army Man

Hank, stranded on a desert island, about to kill himself, stumbles upon a corpse capable of getting him back home.

Swiss Army Man

I’ve been waiting for ages to get my hands on this movie and… fuck yes! This is an inarticulably brilliant film. I won’t go to the effort of spitting out adjectives and so on, but this is an absolutely great picture. There’s a million more ways to say it, but, please, just trust me. It’s absurd in the most perfect ways, using a surreal blend of psychological delusion and metaphors to convey the story of an individual that has broken down, abandoned society, lost grip on all ideas of humanity, self-worth and life, but, with the help of a revived corpse, manages to find a way back to them, to see his life in a new and glistening light. For this, I can say no more than this is a film I will be watching over and over; this kind of film is the reason why I love cinema. It’s not perfect, the direction of action around the third act gets pretty choppy, but, there is just so much splendour and awe-inspiring… just… greatness in this film that it really doesn’t matter that much.

This might be a film I come back to with a coherent Thoughts On: talk to delve deep into the narrative, to actually say something worth reading, but, for now, I just want to tell whoever reads this to find Swiss Army Man and watch it. Please, just do yourself that favour.

 

 

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Repulsion – Metamorphic Cinema

Thoughts On: Repulsion

Arguably, Polanski’s greatest film.

Repulsion 2

Repulsion is a film that has great influence over me as a writer and is one I’ve covered before. But, whilst I talked about the psychological distortion of Carole, essentially pulling apart the film’s subtextual narrative in the last post, here I want to pick up on the form of the story Polanski tells us. In doing such, I want to focus on the final image…

This image not only identifies Carole as a character struggling with a complex past, but transforms the film entirely. It’s this image that speaks as something much more than a plot twist or a crucial revelation in the story. We see films transformed across a plethora of films with endings like these…

      

But, as mentioned, the ending to Repulsion isn’t just a mere plot twist, it’s not really comparable to many of the films above or those like them. The endings to Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Dr. Caligari and  The Usual Suspects all change the physical spaces of their films. To clarify, once we know Tyler is a projection of The Narrator, we rewatch the film knowing that he talks to himself, that he sabotages his own operations. Once we know who Keyser Söze actually is in The Usual Suspects we look at the interactions of characters differently. The rest becomes obvious from this point. Plot twists are there to act like the punch line of a long and elaborate joke. Take for example this one (which I stole from here)…

Little April was not the best student in Sunday school. Usually she slept through the class. One day the teacher called on her while she was napping, “Tell me, April, who created the universe?” When April didn’t stir, little Johnny, a boy seated in the chair behind her, took a pin and jabbed her in the rear. “GOD ALMIGHTY!” shouted April and the teacher said, “Very good” and April fell back asleep. A while later the teacher asked April, “Who is our Lord and Saviour,” But, April didn’t even stir from her slumber. Once again, Johnny came to the rescue and stuck her again. “JESUS CHRIST!” shouted April and the teacher said, “very good,” and April fell back to sleep. Then the teacher asked April a third question. “What did Eve say to Adam after she had her twenty-third child?” And again, Johnny jabbed her with the pin. This time April jumped up and shouted, “IF YOU STICK THAT F*****G THING IN ME ONE MORE TIME, I’LL BREAK IT IN HALF AND STICK IT UP YOUR ARSE!” The Teacher fainted.

What we see here is a slow build to a heightened point. Essentially, we see the same comedic beat repeated three times, only emphasised. In other words, the same joke is told to us over and over and over – a girl is jabbed with a pin, inadvertently answering a teacher’s question – but each version of the joke is better than the last. Films with plot twists aren’t exactly like this in that they don’t repeat themselves in form, but they are incredibly similar in the way they repeat the points they make. For example, all the hints of Keyser’s identity throughout the film, or all the scenes with Crowe not knowing he’s a ghost in The Sixth Sense, hint at the final reveal, the final point. This means we see both plot twist films and jokes as having very similar rhythms. The audience is emotionally or mentally warmed up before being hit with the final punchline, resulting in shock/laughter. For me, this is a huge distinguishing factor between the likes of Repulsion and the films mentioned. Whilst Repulsion has something you could call a twist ending, it doesn’t adhere very strictly to this rhythm. Repulsion doesn’t really want to lead you anywhere, it doesn’t set up the reveal, neither does it make you feel like there has to be one. The final revelatory image is there not to spark an emotional reaction or the feeling of being duped, the final image is there to solidify the narrative. This concept combined with the next thus defines what kind of ‘twist’ Repulsion holds.

We’ve touched on the idea of physical spaces in The Usual Suspects and Fight Club being changed because of the ending. Things such as a film telling us a character was never there or that they weren’t who they told us they were is a physical manipulation of space and thus tantamount to a magic trick played out before your face. We know a person with a ‘magic pack of cards’ is using sleight of hand to fool our eye though. The same thing happens as we’re told Tyler was never there in Fight Club – there is a deception. However, there is a cheapness to this trick in cinema. As Méliès teaches us…

… magic on the big screen is astounding at first, but a trick worn tired very quickly. Physical manipulation on a screen is almost a cheat because of editing, because you have tangible control of the film. This is something a street magician doesn’t have. A similar thing may be said of films such as Chinatown or Memento. There’s a cheapness in being able to use sleight of hand on screen. For this, it’s incredibly hard to find films with twist endings that work, that are worth rewatching. In fact, the distinguishing factor for the twist ending films that you watch once or twice for fun and those you watch over and over because they are simply great films is of the physical spaces we’ve been talking about. The best twist ending movies aren’t episodes of Scooby Doo with a nice little unmasking in the end. The best twist ending movies change how you look at intangible things such as the meaning of the film and the relationship between characters. It’s this added layer that brings the likes of Fight Club and Memento closer to Repulsion. The twist ending changes the way you look at the film not just in terms of the physical spaces, but the narratives and characters. But, whilst Memento holds commentary on the mind’s biases, on its incapacity to deal with the trauma it causes and Fight Club says a lot about the individual’s growth the films also strive toward an ‘A-HAH’ moment. This defines them as films with plot twists as well as narrative twists. We discussed the difference between narrative and plot in the previous post, but to recap, narratives hold plots (a specific sequence of things happening), but overlay artistic devices dependent on the medium – things like character arcs, metaphors, editing, camera movement. With Fight Club we are not only seeing the plot being twisted on its head by the physical space changing (Tyler not being there) but also the narrative being tuned on its elbow by the mental state of the Narrator being revealed as a means of commentating on the plot twist. In other words, the moment of the twist says more about the film overall than just the plot. And because there is much greater complexity in the narrative twist rather than the plot twist, we rewatch the films that have strong ones.

It’s here where we come straight back to Repulsion. Repulsion holds one of the most poignant and effective narrative twists. More than this, Repulsion hasn’t really got a plot twist – only a narrative one. This is what distinguishes it from the likes of Fight Club, Memento or The Sixth Sense. It focuses on changing the intangible aspects of the film, on imbuing the narrative with meaning, all whilst appealing to a very subtle version of a punchline-chasing format. This produces a complex, evolved kind of cinema that uses an idea of ‘meaning’ in an astounding way. Because it’s my belief that the best films both entertain and have something to say, I’m often faced with a question of where the line is drawn. I love films with symbolism, subtext and metaphors. However, most people don’t. For many, the existential themes of a Disney film don’t come through – and even when they’re explained, they don’t count towards much. However, what Polanski teaches us through Repulsion is how to turn the pretentious, artsy side of a film into the entertaining factor. He takes the idea of a twist ending and all the emotive power it can hold, but directs its momentum towards explaining Carole’s inner conflicts and the psychological horrors they hold. To me, this is what made my first viewing of this movie so poignant, so revelatory. It demonstrated how to emotionally play the audience as well as mentally challenge them. Moreover, Repulsion presents an artistic challenge. Through its last image, the film demonstrates that it’s capable of explaining itself through pure cinema, without words and with one image. The succinctness of this flawed me, the fact that there is so much behind such a simple image made clear the complete control a writer/filmmaker can have over their narrative, not just on physical plot-based terms, but intangible ones too. When you watch the likes of Eraserhead you’re left in awe. But, when you watch/read interviews with David Lynch on this film, you’re often left somewhat dissatisfied. You see so much depth in his film, but get nothing from him – which can be frustrating. More than this, it can suggest to you that art and artist must remained undefined, that their meaning has to be down to your interpretation, that there was no true conscious drive towards saying something specific. This doesn’t make films such as Eraserhead pure splatter paintings; there is a presentation in these movies of something ambiguous and because of this it doesn’t always make sense for their meaning/narrative movement to be concrete. Nonetheless, there’s something beautiful about a film that can be very artsy, but also conscious.

Film as an art form is in large part all about expression. This is because art is an emotional interaction between artist and audience. An artist feels a certain way and wants to share that with someone else via a medium. The medium between them is art – it is the grounds of communication. What we’ve just picked up on are two interpretations of this connective tunnel. With Eraserhead we see a leaning towards an idea that this channel between artist and audience mustn’t be recognised, that, by leaving the means of communication to its own devices, we can be sure that it works best. In other words, it’s because Eraserhead appeals so much towards your own opinions, biases, interpretations, that Lynch can say what he intends – even if that is something he refuses and or finds hard to articulate outside of the medium of film. But, whilst there is this kind of artists, this interpretation of artistic communication, there is an alternative. In films such as Repulsion, I see an artist who wants to be succinct and consciously articulate, I see an artist that means to be expressive, but also finds the fun, the joy, his/her reasoning for being an artist in having control over what they say. There is a complex beauty in this attempt towards conscious filmmaking, one that arises comparisons as cliched as those to Michelangelo’s David or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa…

  

In both pieces we see the fruits of years of work – 3 for the statue of David and 4 for the Mona Lisa. This doesn’t imply that art should take an awfully long time to create. The time is merely representative of a conscious effort to produce something great, is representative of a long and arduous struggle to control ones art, to present something intentional. With Repulsion’s final image, the great depths it implies, I see a similar struggle to control art, to articulate with knowing precision the intention of your movie. This then brings us further away from narrative twists and devicive cinema and into a much more complex concept of filmic art, however, the basic principal still stands. Through The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Dr. Caligari and The Usual Suspects, we see an attempt to tell great stories. And the key to telling stories is quite simple – it’s change. A story is a sequence of things, it’s a journey; it’s a movement from A to B, from emotions B to C, from state L to H to X to V – whatever your story dictates. All stories imply some kind of change – even those caught by singular images. The reason why the pivotal picture in Repulsion, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David, can be still items trapped in space without time is because there’s an implimence in their being that suggest something beyond themselves. With David we see an idea of beauty, of human form, stature and presence. For this, the stature captivates. With the Mona Lisa, we see the character behind the face that tells something of a story, that begins to imply something more than a blank space. With Carole’s childhood picture, we are seeing more than a sullen look, we are seeing her past in juxtaposition to her presence. In this idea, we see story, we see meaning, we see the attraction to art in the implimence of context – that banal imagery or physical presences are attached to something more than themselves, that through them we have stumbled upon a journey. What’s most important is that through these windows to journeys we are finding stories, we are finding change through the said idea of context. In such, you can understand how Polanski identifies such a poignant image. He picks up on a crucial idea of change in Carole’s life, he expresses how this was her years ago…

… but that this is her now…

What this does is build a story and an interest from the audience that invests them in seeing the film through, to allow their imagination to stretch beyond the physical confines that the art exists in and into the immaterial space it implies. In such we see the purpose of art to an audience as taking them on a journey, as implying some kind of movement from a here to there. Great art such as Repulsion not only takes the audience on the journey from the beauty salon with the spaced-out Carole to the sordid, festering apartment full of Carole’s projected fears, but opens up the world of the story and character to the audience. This is what facilitates my writings on the film. I’m lead to discuss the inner workings of Carole’s character, her past, the hidden subtext of the narrative by the implied grounds of the story that haven’t been physically put to film. That means the journey, the story, given by the film isn’t just a simple A to B tantamount to a singular level in a Mario game. This is what a lot of mediocre films are, they see art and story telling as a simplistic here to there, they express little more than a means to an end. What’s pivotal is that no matter how flashy you make the film with good acting, great cinematography, a good colour pallet, you are only upping the quality of the graphics card, or at most making the level of the Mario game more difficult. The beauty and evolution of gaming towards open worlds then speaks perfectly to the analogy at hand. Repulsion doesn’t have you hit the end of the level or walk into walls, transport back on track when you hit the water. Repulsion leaves the story and world it implies open for you to explore on a temporal and philosophical level. Whilst we can’t physically see all inches of Carole’s house, talk to her or the characters surrounding her, we can use the given information to understand something larger than that, that there is a two-way conversation between art and artist because the film contextualises itself in relation to ourselves by giving us a premise, by guiding us to see themes and ideas – but on our own terms.

In the end, it’s Repulsion that speaks most clearly of what stories can be, of how we can use an idea such as art to articulate an entertaining journey of change, but also a succinct point to an audience. Its final image is then a tangible representation of how you can bring stories into that higher dream space and grip the mic by the stand in preparation for your speech.

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Meshes Of The Afternoon – Narrative And Perceptual Cinema

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Meshes Of The Afternoon – Narrative And Perceptual Cinema

Thoughts On: Meshes Of The Afternoon

This is the first film that is part of the…

Maya Deren’s quintessential experimental film.

Meshes Of The Afternoon

Much like Un Chien Andalou, Eraserhead or The Holy Mountain, Meshes Of The Afternoon is a film meant to be left somewhat undefined. It holds a narrative, but no tangible plot – the semantic difference between plot and narrative being a palpable idea of a story moving forward; plots are defined as the things that happen in a movie, narratives the bigger, more convoluted, idea. For this reason Meshes Of The Afternoon is a film about ideas. Now, ‘a film about ideas‘ is a pretty pretentious term you hear thrown about a lot, but, if defined, the term becomes easier to swallow. Meshes Of The Afternoon being a film about ideas simply means it hasn’t got any true incidental movement to the narrative. We see this captured by the themes that stitch together the narrative. It’s the recurring imagery of the key, knife, cloaked figure, flower and mirror that build up the ‘story’. In this respect, the ‘ideas’ this film is about are, in other words, the themes. Thus, it makes more sense to say this is a purely thematic film, that it translates its ideas and story through symbolic imagery. We open on these ideas as they are the crux to understanding or seeing this film in the most coherent light. It’s seeing Meshes of the Afternoon through themes and an idea of narrative that enables its presented philosophy of cinema to enunciate itself. However, whilst we’ve touched on the film in respect to theme, we haven’t yet brought up narrative. This is a film usually given the label ‘non-narrative‘. This, to me, is a redundant, ill-defining term. Narrative means story, more specifically, narrative means a story made up of character, theme, plot, motif, metaphors and a plethora of other filmic devices. I think its important to make this distinction of what a narrative is over pot and the non-narrative because it says to both writer an audience how to judge a story. A story is quite simply a concept, its a very loose sequencing of events. You can tell the same story in a book, film, painting, song, dance, joke – anything. The same can almost be said for plot too. If a plot simply says John does A, B, C then D, then this can in all likelihood be presented in a book, on the stage, on the screen – wherever. But, because a narrative is more complicated then these two things it relies on devices and so the specific form of storytelling supporting it. To clarify, to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet through a poem you would purely rely on words, on verse, measures, beats, enjambment, similes, metaphors – all of the terms crammed into you by high school teachers. What the story of Romeo and Juliet looks like on a page in poetic form is an incredibly nuanced narrative. The romance, scope and emotion of the plot, characters and so on would be told to the reader in a completely different way than a film could manage.

What we’re then picking up on with an idea of narrative is a concept of experience. Narrative defines, in large part, the experience of a story provided by the medium or form it’s told in. As mentioned, a poem feels different than a film. Some people hate poetry. Reading Star Wars, Fight Club or Casablanca as a poem could kill them – but seen as a film, these stories could be the best thing they’ve ever heard/seen. This is all because films and poems use different devices. Whilst we have enjambment, stanzas and feet in poems, we have editing, scenes and pacing in films. These different mediums, however, use similar devices and such is made obvious with those like metaphors and themes. All story telling forms – dance, stand-up, painting, composing – use metaphors and themes. However, a metaphor in a book, let’s take a cliched one, an ocean of emotions, would be translated as such. Depending on the context used this would mean one thing or another – someone is steeped in happiness, melancholia, maybe a mixture of emotions. However, the translation of the ocean of emotion on film would be a completely different thing. How would that been shown? Would you show a character’s face, wrought with emotion, before inserting the image of an ocean? Would you use V.O? Would you superimpose? Would you a transition to a new setting with a huge body of water in the establishing shot after an emotional scene? There are many ways, through filmic language, that this metaphor may be translated. What is important however is that an audience views the metaphor in a completely different light than in a book. It’s here that you could delve into the details of a metaphor, the difference between cinema and literature, but the main takeaway is simply that the viewing experiences are, forgive the metaphor, an ocean apart. What this point says to us is that you can take a story, a loose sequence of events, and turn it into a narrative once you apply an artistic medium. Narratives are thus the expression of a form for the large part. However, what happens to this when you bring in an idea such as ‘non-narrative’? Frankly, we should be left flabbergasted, simply asking: what the hell does that mean? What does it mean for a film, book or poem to not have devices, to not tell a story via a medium? There’s two answers to this. The first is simple: there is no such thing as non-narrative because people are inherently telling ‘stories’ by translating a sequence of things to an audience through a medium (such as film). These things could be events or ideas however ambiguous. I’m telling you a story right now believe it or not. I’m using a sequence of concepts from plots to narrative to themes as to build toward a point. And it’s exactly that that we can suppose is the crux of this argument. Stories, just like narratives, have a point. And everything has a point when seen by someone – it’s given or taken, nonetheless, a point is there.

But, whilst there is a good argument for ‘non-narrative’ not really being a thing, there is a justification for the term – it’s quite simply that narrative and plot are so delicately intertwined. In fact, it could be argued that all the themes, metaphors and so on we’ve been discussing are the meat tethered to the backbone of a plot. In other words, narratives are made up of a plethora of devices, but is primarily the expression of plot. By taking away plot you may argue that narrative falls floppy…

… leaving it something alien, weird, purely thematic, a movie about ideas or… non-narrative. Because there are these two strong arguments for and against the concept of non-narrative, the only way to distinguish the outcome of the debate is to ask of the purpose of the term. What does non-narrative tell us? It tells an audience that they are going to see something experimental, weird, artsy or untraditional. But, from my perspective, having just easily thrown those four synonyms, the term is redundant – it says only what so many other terms can say. More than this, I see non-narrative as a distraction to anyone trying to analyse or understand a film. By understanding that allegedly non-narrative films have stories, have structure and a point, they stop being splatter paintings, empty rooms with flickering lights or signed urinals and become something no more than a few steps removed from Transformers, Paranormal Activity, heck, even reality TV. Whilst it sounds insulting to say that Meshes Of The Afternoon isn’t too different from a Michael Bay picture, or pointlessly pretentious to suggest that a Michael Bay picture isn’t too different from Meshes Of The Afternoon (whichever way around you want to see it) I see the comparison as a respectful nod to both the medium of film and the audience that consumes it. Meshes Of The Afternoon and Transformers are split apart simply only by the weighting of their narratives. Transformers isn’t really very concerned with themes outside of bland, rather empty, statements of patriotism, heroism and morality. In the same respect, Meshes Of The Afternoon isn’t really very concerned with robots punching each other in the face. Nonetheless, they are both communicating through narrative and through emotive art. It’s exactly this that brings them together and demonstrates a respect for the art and audience – there is an attempt to say something worthwhile as well as show a good story. The reason why Meshes Of The Afternoon isn’t comparatively (to simpler blockbusters) a splatter painting is then that it speaks their language and makes a point – never just asks a question. To clarify, a splatter painting, from my biased and rather uneducated perspective, asks more from its viewers than it gives, moreover, it doesn’t say much to them. You could argue that splatter paintings are a commentary on form, on anarchy, on automation, on human creativity subconsciously flowing from us. But…

… does that really say as much to you? I think not. I see aesthetic, an artistic manipulation of colour to produce something somewhat captivating. This produces a form of art that is inarguably non-narrative – if we had to use the term. It stands only to capture the eye, its point being only to distract. This triggers one to see Transformers as more a splatter painting than Meshes Of The Afternoon. However, such a comparison would be empty. Transformers’ main goal is to entertain, but added to this, it has to juggle character, choreography, editing, writing, themes – a myriad of other cinematic devices. Whilst the Transformer films don’t juggle these devices too well, it sets itself apart from a splatter painting by trying. And the main distinguishing factor is that all Transformers films, whilst having a similar purpose, don’t just look different, they have to say different things. Even if they don’t do this, even if the plot is recycled film to film, that is something you can pick up on as a judgement or critique of the film. When it comes to splatter paintings, they have their point of being purely aesthetic, but no matter how many you produce, no matter how many different strokes you use, you cannot seriously argue they make different artistic points – something that is beyond criticism because of the unnecessary constraints of the medium/technique, something that is then quite clearly not the same calibre of art as a (good) film. A Transformers film can be about a coming-of-age, it can be about terrorism, it can be about betrayal, it can be about love. What can a splatter painting be about? That’s a crucial question, one that can only be answered with the preemptive ‘I feel‘. You can say the painting above makes you feel humbled, aggressive, agitated or whatever, and thus say its about aggression, free flow or displacement. But, where does it says this on the painting? What squiggle, drizzle or drop spells that out? Point me out one, but then do me one favour: show me how that builds into a point, a succinct, intentional statement worth listening to.

It’s that somewhat tangential meandering through Transformers and splatter paintings that brings us nicely back to Meshes Of The Afternoon. This film holds a narrative. It’s in the themes, the succinct, though ambiguous, sequencing of images that a story is told. From the frames of this film comes a point not just on the medium of cinema (just like splatter paintings serve as commentary on the form of painting) but a point on human behaviour and our reality. It’s this exact point that we’re then going to discuss, and seeing it will tell us something not just of human perception, of circumstances and situations, but broaden an idea of what cinema can do.

Meshes Of The Afternoon is quite simply a film about perspective. What we experience is our protagonist’s, The Woman’s, reflection of self through her relationship. In short, it’s The Man that is the Grim Reaper-esque figure with a mirror for a face. This is a point made clear with the image of his face in a circular mirror and later his reflection being smashed, the juxtaposition of images solidifying a link between himself and the cloaked figure. And by assuming The Woman and Man are in a relationship (boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, brother/sister, simply friends) we can understand why she thinks of him, why they live together and seek each other out. The purpose of The Man being represented largely by a mirror is to suggest that he is a reflecting agent. In other words, it’s The Man that is making The Woman question herself: where she lives, why she is there. It’s this simple assertion that makes clearer the meaning of the flower, the keys, the knives and the confusing representation of time. The flowers represent incentive. They are something The Woman picks up and The Man is drawn to. This could, if they aren’t family, suggest something sexual as emphasised by the bed scene, or possibly something of beauty, or natural ownership. In other words, The Man wants something The Woman has – her body or something closely linked. This combined with the keys further emphasises the house as a feature of their relationship. It’s her way to, or means of establishing, home, comfort, security. To keep the key is to have control – is to be able to keep Th Man out if she wants. However, under the theme of a relationship, a physical key is never going to be enough to keep someone out of your life, out of your thoughts and emotional make up. This is why the key transforms into a knife – a symbol of violence both towards herself (suicide) or him (murder). The key is then her way out of the relationship – allowing us to assume its not a good one. The use of time, of things repeating themselves, The Woman meeting figures of herself, seeing herself in the past, suggests further reflection. She sees simultaneously what could be the mistakes of her pasts as well as the coinciding emotions, thoughts, intentions. What this all says is that we see The Woman on a short journey. She chases the illusive figure – The Man in different form. She cannot find him and so retreats into the house. But, it is disrupted; the phone off the hook suggesting suspended communication, an open, but forever vacant line beyond the world she lives in. In the house she questions essentially what it means to her, what the relationship in this place means. This produces the layering of time and the physical paradoxes that emerge. These all coalesce into the actual Man walking in on The Woman to find her covered in seaweed as if she’s been out at sea. A sea of emotion if you’ll have it. Another interpretation could be that she drowned in the depths of the emotion, or of change, the tides of it. This all leaves her stricken by her revelation or introspection. She either decided she wants out of the house – the man seeing her drowned figure as a representation of the end of her as his, as owned by him. Or, this could imply she decided to end it all, maybe turn the knife on herself, wade into melancholy, depression, suppression – possibly stay with the man.

With the film briefly explained/outlined it becomes clear we have a film that is about a tragic story, a story imbued with hopelessness and a search for reprieve. (I wouldn’t suggest that there aren’t alternative interpretations of the film). However, we’ve seen these stories a million times over in a plethora of differing forms…

      

What transforms Meshes Of The Afternoon into its own being is the use of these themes to accentuate an idea of perspective. There is no real plot in this film because it aims to be ambiguous, it aims to imply an emotional sequence of events, not a spatial and literal one. This is what makes it an experimental film and an untraditional narrative. It expresses its story not through literal events, but perceived happenings. The fact that The Woman sees this contemplation of the relationship in the way she does speaks of her character, it says she doesn’t know The Man too well, that she is many people both to him and herself. Through the images of the mirrors and multiple selves it’s made clear that there is something of herself she sees in The Man, that she sees him as saying something about her, possibly something about her own weakness. All of this coalesces into a narrative that is meant to appeal to concepts – ideas of relations, trust, isolation, despair, unknowing – but all to speak of a character and for a character. This is then great cinema as it uses filmic devices in effective, expressive and intriguing ways. Not only does it tell us of something captivating through its imagery, but it allows us to experience them (the story) in an enthralling manner. It’s the use of the soundtrack, the editing, the physicality of the handheld shots, the POV, the slow motion, that create an atmosphere that is quite simply entertaining – an enticing cinematic experience. And, as I’ve said many times, it’s the appeal to elements of entertainment as well as more artistic commentary, or an attempt at putting across a point, that makes films great. It demonstrates a care for a movie in respect not just to the audience who endures/watches it, but also the audience subjected to what the film has to say. In other words, as a concept, this film looks good and sounds good, it is both something to experiencing, but also something that has a point to make, something to say.

The takeaway from this film is lastly a philosophy of cinema. Through Meshes Of The Afternoon we see an approach to narrative through character, we see an emphasis on images and filmic devices such as camera movement, the juxtaposition of images, visual metaphors and so on, to express an incredibly ambiguous story, one we have to fill the gaps in by using the provided themes as context. This approach or philosophy of cinema is highly technical, is at first glance a splatter painting, but from behind the chaotic brush strokes comes concise, detailed and irrefutably conscious marks of theme, character and great story telling.

 

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The Conjuring 2 – Modern Paranormal Horror

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Repulsion – Metamorphic Cinema

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The Conjuring 2 – Modern Paranormal Horror

Thoughts On: The Conjuring 2

Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators, confront the infamous Enfield hauntings.

The Conjuring 2

This is a good film. It has quite a few faults, but it is a good film nonetheless. More than this, The Conjuring 2 is an interesting example of a high-end modern horror film. The faults in the narrative then, to me, speak to a wider concept of the modern horror film and essentially what it tries to be and is, in some ways, falling short of doing. To explore this, we’ll look at the film in respect to direction and writing. James Wan has constructed from a pretty mediocre script a captivating cinematic experience. He does this through complex camera operation and choreography, building enthralling, quite flashy shots/sequences. This really helps to sell the story in the confines of the home whilst injecting tension with an interesting blend of POV and lingering handheld shots. This kind of direction adds fluidity to the narrative, moving the story along with great pace whilst also implying a ghostly presence. Such a technique is found a lot in paranormal films – the best example being The Shining. However, Wan’s coverage of many static scenes is cluttered, his use of cinematic language not incredibly articulate. What this means is that we get a lot of unnecessary angle changes, or subtle camera movement, that neither says much about the scene, action or characters, or really adds to the atmosphere. By far, the most impressive and poignantly directed sequence is near the centre with an important figure out of focus. This scene works so well because the camera is static, it allows the tension of the scene to build naturally, the eye to edit the sequence and so the audience to participate in an immersive moment. In juxtaposition to more complex scenes, Wan’s excess of coverage becomes more apparent. This, in short, means the fluid long shots, the reactive hand held sequences and static scenes work best for the tension. Meanwhile, the character scenes are a little jumbled with the excess of angles, camera movement and editing – which falsely implies a narrative movement that is not there. However, on the grounds of filmic language, we see Wan’s greatest downfall in how he directs the emotional scenes. Segments near the end where dire moments of character need to be embellished do not hit well. This is because the camera, especially in the final sequence, is far too preoccupied with action. Almost all action throughout the film is shot ok, but, if we were to be hyper-critical, it’d be easily labelled as sub-standard. All action is very hyperbolic – and this is a problem rooted in the script–but we’ll come back to that. The action sequences simply feel out of place, they shift the tone of the movie, the exuberant camera movement being dragged down from a device to control atmosphere and the spatial relation of character and location to a cliched attempt to add flash to mediocre action set-pieces. The final result of the badly captured action juxtaposed with the flat attempts to express crucial emotional moments of character is the juddering final act.

It’s seeing these faults in direction that it should become all the more clearer that we’re talking about high-end modern horrors – genre films with big budgets and considerable talent behind them. Because The Conjuring 2 is part of a growing series of films, it’s essentially a blockbuster. This leaves it reflecting many of the tropes/expectations of the time. However, this isn’t criticism in itself as the tropes reflect a communication between audience and filmmaker with this film holding certain elements in response to the jarring cliches of many terrible horror films. What we’re then talking about is the aversion from jump scares – though the odd one or two are snuck in. We’re also talking about a self-awareness of the film, the appeal to sequels, paranormal activity, religion and so on. The means of inciting horror in this film, under the umbrella of the jump scare, has clear attempts to be original. Through this we are seeing a reprisal(ish) of surrealism – something seen in everything from thrillers to horrors to comic book movies. This gives us some complex editing sequences and a handful of powerful images (discluding the opening – which is bad). However, the appeal to the paranormal in The Conjuring, as in many modern horrors, has almost every single film blend into one indistinct mesh. Watching The Conjuring 2, I was left incapable of deciphering what I was watching from the average horror story. There’s families, dogs, friends, belief, disbelief, floating people and dead faces – little more. This sticks out despite the attempt to stay away from cliches and boring direction because of the writing. The strongest parts of the script are of character – the only original thing it really has going for it. The plot itself is a clear attempt to rework the formula of the average horror films we’ve all seen a trillion times. This leaves us with a half-twist near the end, but the film plays predictably for the most part. To talk without a crippling vagueness about this, I’m going to have to delve into…

**SPOILERS**

The biggest let-downs of the film, as implied already, are in the script. The focus on character, on the Warrens, begins to justify the sequels we’re getting; the chronicles of this couple’s career being intriguing with them as the centre-piece. However, what the script is desperately missing in respect to Ed and Lorraine is their pasts, is the issues of their relationship expressed through cinematics and the surreal imagery implemented throughout. What I mean to talk about here is the image of the Nun which turns out to be the central antagonist – the demon thing. This demonic figure is reduced to a terrible joke: knowing the evil thing’s name as to beat it. We see it in The Neverending Story and we see it in Batman V Superman. The example in this film isn’t as bad as in Batman, but fails to justify itself as is done in The Neverending Story.

If you’re not familiar with the film, in short, a kid’s imagination is being destroyed by the pressure of his life under the stifling roof of his widowed father. To save his imagination, the Neverending Story he reads from a blank book, from a great nothing he has to utilise his mother’s name. Though this isn’t the most sophisticated use of a metaphorical plot, it makes sense for the film. It’s exactly this that The Conjuring 2 and a plethora of other modern horror films are missing. I can’t praise it enough and should probably do a post on it, but…

… this is, in short, how to fully utilise the paranormal/psychological horror genre. However, without diving too deep into tangential subjects, The Conjuring 2 is simply missing subtextual meaning. It’s here where spoilers become crucial. Throughout the film with the character of Billy (the ghost) we see glimmers of child-abuse as a hidden theme. This shines through with the use of Janet, the little girl, as the central character, her fatherless family on the periphery and the constant reference to calling out for help as to change your life. The use of child abuse as a recognised theme, in my opinion, would elevate this film in almost all elements of the script. Not only would it construct much deeper dramatics, but leave open the chance for wrenching, disturbing and truly terrifying moments of horror. I point to the scene where Janet is locked in the room with Billy. If she wasn’t simply smothered by the curtains, but the audience given the implimence of something much darker, the moment would have been imbued with much greater desperation and potency. This would transform the narrative, through the scary sequences, into a story of a victim facing one of the worst things that could ever happen to a person. I see huge conflict in this idea though. The juxtaposition of this with the church could imply heavy social commentary. This would seem unwarranted as The Conjuring is clearly quite a conservative, theologically centred film. It seems to respect Christianity and the church and so to imply scenes of child abuse with the church refusing to act, to try to prevent it, says…

… well, it says a lot. Nonetheless, the use of this mature theme would allow for a much stronger narrative with the dire subtext deepening character and elevating the movie towards another film it references, arguably, far too often. The Exorcist has clearly influenced this film. We see this in the simple use of the religiously paranormal as a genre. Moreover, The Exorcist’s influence is inherent in all the voice changing sequences – but, they’re simply not done to the standards Friendkin portrayed. Furthermore, it’s the comparison to The Exorcist that strengths the criticism of Wan’s direction. It lacks poignancy because of the concentration on camera movement instead of filmic language. By comparing Friendkin’s style to Wan’s we see a major difference in the portrayal of character. However, staying on the concept of themes, utilising an explosive and devastating idea of child abuse, The Conjuring 2 would have an inkling of the pure balls The Exorcist did. In using the theme maturely, we wouldn’t be seeing a shit exploitation picture, but, as said, a film steeped in character and subtext. This subtext would imbue the film with great depth in respect not only to the Hodgeson family, but the Warrens. The use of the demon, calling its name and so on, under a narrative centred subtextually around child abuse, would imply an awful lot about Ed and Lorraine. It’s possible that they too have dark pasts which transforms their God-given skills into metaphors of strength and inner turmoil.

Nonetheless, wishing an emphasis of theme and meaning on the script as is rather futile. This is because of a few reasons. As mentioned, the inadvertent commentary on the church and religion here wouldn’t fit the tone of the film. But, what’s more is that this is based on a ‘true story’. This is biggest flaw with the script: verisimilitude. Not only does it try to say the Enfield cases were real (I’ll leave you to research) but it confines itself to real life people and situations. This would leave the suggestion of child abuse unsavoury at best, insulting at worst. However, abandoning the idea of adding the theme, the fight for verisimilitude throughout the narrative is painful. The film being religious is nothing to object to, but the use of religion to sell cinematics is something I’ve always found to be little more than poor writing. I can’t speak for all people, but… do we really believe in ghosts? Who out there truly believes that anything like the shit we see in The Conjuring has or could happen? Forgive my lack of imagination, but I honestly couldn’t see anyone believing this, which leaves me questioning the film. Why is it trying to convince us that ghosts, chants, hauntings and so on are real things? A sci-fi writer doesn’t have to make you believe that parallel dimensions exist, that light speed could be breached. The writer implies some kind of capability, but what sells ideas of time travel, warp drives and so on is simply imagination, a question of What if? This is the same in horror films. We only need our inherent fear of being attacked by a monster or chased down by a killer to understand the fantasy and cinematics of a horror movie. We don’t need conspiracy theories, a network of beliefs and so on. It’s this constant battle for verisimilitude that grinds on the viewing experience, but also makes the action of the third act ridiculous. Wanting to tell a true story, but also a deeply cinematic one, one with crazy stunts, surreal sequences, hyperbolic camera movement, is utterly nonsensical. It adds an air of pretension to the far-fetched, almost overly sentimental narrative.

For all of these things, it’s easy to writhe in your chair as the movie plods along. However, this isn’t a terrible film. What brings The Conjuring 2 down is primarily its relationship with the movies around it – modern horrors. They almost all suffer from mediocre script work, a futile emphasis on verisimilitude, but also a lack of meaning – of metaphorical imagery. This can only leave us questioning how to make these films better, how to hopefully create our own, improving the genre, forming it into something greater.

 

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Burden Of Dreams – The Harmony Of Overwhelming And Collective Murder

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Burden Of Dreams – The Harmony Of Overwhelming And Collective Murder

Thoughts On: The Burden Of Dreams

The documentary depicting the monumental struggle that was the production of Fitzcarraldo.

The Burden Of Dreams

I toil over a question of, what is better: Fitzcarraldo or Burden of Dreams? Which is the expression the other? Which stands taller and says more? Ultimately, I’d take Fitzcarraldo as the more poignant piece, the film imbued with a narrative drive and cinematic illusion of the dream so desperately clambered after through this documentary. Nonetheless, Burden of Dreams is an astounding documentary, one that speaks directly to its audience with little more than questioning intent. Whilst neither this nor Fitzcarraldo present answers, imply some kind of solidified reason for why people do insane things, Burden of Dreams not only conveys its metaphors, guides the emotions (though, not nearly as well as Fitzcarraldo) but contextualises them in a fourth-wall-breaking glance behind what ends up to be the the inner eyelids of our closed perception. This is then a film that asks: why do we make movies? In doing such, I see a strong link between this documentary and one of Dziga Vertov’s – Man With A Movie Camera. It’s Man With A Movie Camera that serves as a powerful outlet for an idea of the audience, us, in respect to cinema. It cites our importance in the creative art and demonstrates the flaw in human perception that it fills. We watch films because we crave the control of humanity, the replication of our perception, a tangible copy of our human complex as to provide some kind of comforting implimence that others like us exist–despite being hidden from us by their bodily shells. It’s the focus on sequence, time and movement in Man With A Movie Camera that implies this mechanical yearning in people. Through Vertov’s eye we are suspended in the imagination of humanity, one which takes the world, takes our numbed pining, languish and discontent at the experience of it, and paints it the shades of euphoria. But, steeping into this pretentious lyricism, I drift further away from Burden Of Dreams tonally and philosophically. They key distinction between the narrative textures of Man With A Movie Camera and Burden Of Dreams is of an inherent physicality. Quite simply, Man With A Movie Camera is closer to a movie than it is a documentary – unlike Burden Of Dreams. Through Herzog’s presented ordeal to get this film made we aren’t told of people and ‘modern society’, much rather the spiteful nature of organic life. It’s Herzog who I quote with the title as he talks about the irrational love he has for the Amazonian rain forests:

“… there is some sort of harmony… it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder”

It’s this disconnect between people and reality that is picked up on by an idea that our perception is flawed, is poked full of holes. In other words: why, if we were created by this world, by the laws of nature and the universe, must we experience such dire constraint living in it? This is a funny idea to pick up on in a blog – the irony itself painfully self-evident. However, whilst this idea is one easily criticised for fear or discomfort in one’s ability to empathise, to relatively decipher and compare situations; see that others have it worse than us, I see something worse than irony in denying the idea that all people suffer – I see a disingenuous lie, one that means to do nothing more than quash conversation, thought, contemplation – sublime wastes of time. Trudging into miresome ground, there is pragmatic (completely unscientific) reasoning in assuming that we are all somewhat the same, that we experience the world with similar presets. These presets, our bodies and the minds they conjure, seem to perceive the world in context of themselves. This was touched on in an early talk about Grizzly Man. We all have our 100%s. We all have an emotional maximal, something that ranks as the scariest, hardest – something-est – thing we’ve ever experienced. This something-est, if we all are founded upon the same presets, is equal amongst us all. You’re 100% as it feels to you is completely equal to how my 100% feels to me. In other words, you may have been stabbed – the most pain you’ve ever felt. The worst I may have ever experienced may have been a sharp stubbing of the toe. Our minds perceive each injury as the same thing; equally painful. This, without clarification, is of course utter bullshit. You could test the amount of stress, the severity of wounds, how the brain lights up in these two different people to scientifically prove that the pain felt is different (I assume so, no real research goes into these things). However, there’s a catch 22 I get to lean back on: the mind. How does the mind know pain it has not experience? How can it judge its experienced 100% in respect to another’s? It simply can’t. In such we see the reason why we all suffer. We all live under the chemical illusion that we have experienced the most something-est of everything. And whilst, put down in words, this idea seems absurd, there is a clear and inherent understanding of this in all people. We all moan, we all feel some kind of suffering, and we rarely deny ourselves those outlets on the grounds that there is worse to be had because our bodies feel they are snowflakes at the centre of the universe. With hope, to comprehensively convey this point, I’ll round it off with a song:

In moving away from this idea that we are selfish, utterly self-centric with our suffering and 100%s, we have to see that there is often a recognition within us all that there is worse out there. Whilst our minds and bodies conjure the illusion that our something-ests are equal, fear dares us to live as such – essentially keeping us in check with an idea of ‘reality’. Having traversed the distance from the Amazon to the self-absorbed individual, it’s best to reprise Herzog’s quote as to delve into Burden Of Dreams…

“… there is some sort of harmony… it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder”

This idea of universal evil, a prescripted spite in the world around us, expressed through nature, death, competition, perpetual forward momentum driven by the engines of time itself, contextualised by an idea of film, of Herzog trudging through rainforests to haul a boat over a small mountain, draws us to the individual. We see the physical world through a cinematic veneer in this shot:

We thus see a complex interaction between something that struggles for relativity and a self-defining reality, we see the mind trying both contain and transcend itself by attempting to comprehend its place in this world. It’s this that marks the importance of recognising people and their 100%s, but also fear, our incredulous attempts to not live by the seemingly fatal illusion that we exist on the edges of human capability, to not assume we are alone in this emotional plummet away and toward unknown, but maybe different, voids. This then leaves people in a existential scramble to comprehend the world, but guided by pessimism, by an idea of malice; things around us constantly trying to hurt, destroy, take us out of this world. This is a simple evolutionary consideration of the human psyche. We are animals, and thus we are organic packages of food, free-range, roaming the aisles of the world as predacious monsters stalk the peripheries of our anxious perception. With our species having physically and very literally been this for thousands of years – hunter-gathers duking it out amongst the rest of the food chain – the sudden turn towards relative safety, a utopian reprieve that is modern society, we find ourselves without time to change. We are, as the cliche goes, monkeys in shoes. Genetically, with our presets, such and so on, we face the world expecting the lion to jump out of the bushes because this, quite simply, makes sense for us to do. It makes sense to be on edge when there is so much at stake and your life inherently perceived to be precious–something you kind of want to cling to. And because we are monkeys in shoes, out physical meerkat-isms…

… have turned social. In other words, our concentration on the external world as to protect the human shell encapsulating our will to survive has turned in on itself – has been given that luxury. This is what cinema is the expression of. Cinema is human exploration and the dangers that come along with it confined to a screen. The metaphorical human meerkat is looking out into the world in search of peril and threat, in search of answers to a question of: when and how are are they going to die? In other words, is it hyenas or lions that attack us today? This is a question asked for incomprehensible reasonings – we just do, we want to live and so we try to ensure that by looking out for when death is coming. What this means is that this…

… us watching a screen is irrevocably no different than the meerkats watching the horizon. Whilst this idea sounds like it makes sense for horror films, action pictures, films where there are dire constraints that force a physical reaction from the audience, it is not that simple. Higher, more complex, art in cinematic form is also people asking the question: when and how am I going to die? We look to stories of humanity, everything from Taxi Driver to Paths Of Glory to Some Like It Hot, because there is an ape-like drive within us that wants to peer over the rocks, see what’s on the other side and whether it’s going to pounce. Good films are pictures that show us life as we don’t know it – to varying degrees. Good films express to us in succinct and poignant terms ideas and experiences. Taxi Driver tells us of the torrential upturning, the brewing storm, that can develop in a conflicted individual. Paths Of Glory presents a wider idea of society under constraint, of people as objects of war and manipulation exeunt of morality. Some Like It Hot shows us the comedy of desperation, desperation that forces us toward the alien in social terms. With these movies we can see how all film is there to teach us of experience. Cinema as a concept is essentially a form by which any perception of any reality can be shown to us through our personal perception, our personal shade of reality. Cinema is a window pointing out to a variable void. This void is filled by Kubricks, Wilders, Scorseses, Herzogs. Filmmakers, artists, are the architects of dreams spaces that we may gaze into as to engage our ape-brains in productive activity.

In this, we see the link between chaos and destruction and film. Cinema captures the harsh nature of the world, the idea of a food chain, of living in a forest, a toad on a tree, waiting to be pounced on and devoured, preparing for that moment by mating with everything you can, possible seeking some kind of higher existential pursuit (what toads think of, I won’t speculate). Cinema is then the expression of the monkey given his shoes. He no longer has to physically worry about his feet being cut on the rocks, but, his body is built for that fear and so dreams of it nonetheless. It’s exactly this that Herzog is referencing when he talks of himself as a person who creates films for the sake of our dreams. Herzog understands that dragging a boat over a mountain is an extreme dream, maybe nightmare, of the collective human psyche. It represents technology having to be supported by raw human physicality. It represents, for those in the 70s and beyond, a dream space where we don’t have the homes we do, the incredible standards of living – instead, just a will to fight to realise that dream of comfort, success and happiness. This is why Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, why so many have seen it. Because of how effective it is at translating this idea of lost struggle to a modern world it is a great film.

It’s now that we can see Burden Of Dreams for what is truly is. Burden Of Dreams is itself a cinematic look at pain and suffering; a struggle to create a cinematic look at pain and suffering. It’s a film about making a film. In being such it asks: why do we film things? The answer is inherent to all we’ve discussed as summed up by this quote:

“… there is some sort of harmony… it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder”

Because the world is harsh, Herzog has to capture it for us. The harmony he is facilitating is the connection, through film, between us and the painful physical world; the Amazonian rain forest that, by human attribution, looks like it wants to consume, torture and slowly destroy us. This harmony is beautiful, just as Herzog tells us the rain forest is, because it expresses an overwhelming truth – the spite and collective murder of the universe. Film, just as going to the rain forest, has us see the world as beautiful because we concede to its power, we bow down in its looming shadow. It this interaction between the world and humanity that implies a connection, that implies some kind of universal purpose. Because we are apart of the natural machine, we see ourselves as driving time itself along, we see ourselves as forcing the expansion, the perpetuation, of the literal universe. By being a cog in the machine, we know our place in this world – and it feels good. We have thus come full circle. It’s because there are 100%s, an idea of suffering inherent to how we perceive the world, that films exist. There is only a need to contextualise this suffering, to rationalise the idea of 100%s, because that is how we know we are apart of things – something we are driven to do by undefined reasoning. In the end, it’s Burden Of Dreams that presents a evolutionary and physical reasoning behind why cinema exists.

 

 

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Captain Fantastic – Shade Of You

Thoughts On: Captain Fantastic

I’ve previously covered this film without spoilers giving general thoughts. For a spoiler doused talk on why I love this film, you’re in the right place.

Captain Fantastic 3

As touched on in the last post, what makes this film so strong is its narrative. It perfectly juggles each character, pulling from them the plot, not making them walk a clearly predefined path. In this, Captain Fantastic isn’t a very formal film, it grows into a plot with the mother dying so early on, but very loosely adheres to the subsequent idea of the road trip. The likes of Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle or even Lord Of The Rings are road trip movies, but examples that have an end to be sought out that is the singular, most crucial, focus of the film. And whilst Harold and Kumar do change somewhat, The Fellowship take broad arcs of character, this material end goal (White Castle, destroying Sauron) is the point of their narratives. The reason we watch these films is to experience struggle, a dire and true struggle of war, of world war, presented by Lord Of The Rings, or a much more hyperbolic and comedic – though relatable(ish) – struggle in Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle. The reason why I bring up these two polar ‘road trip’ films is that, formally, Captain Fantastic sits somewhere between the two. But, again, this isn’t a very formal movie. Whilst it sits between these films in terms of tone, having both comedy and a tragic emotional struggle, it distinguishes itself greatly from these two and every other road trip movie (that comes to mind) with the purpose of ‘the road trip’ being purely of self-discovery. This, I know, is an arguable point with all films holding significant character arcs essentially being about their self-discovery. However, this idea of self-discovery realises itself in different ways. With something like Lord Of The Rings, we see a struggle for peace, an incredibly physical one presented by a cacophony of external conflict. With Harold and Kumar, we see a struggle for reprieve, for a good meal to satisfy some heavy munchies, as presented by, again, physical conflict. Through war or escaped cheetahs both films create change in their characters lives. In Captain Fantastic, we are seeing almost entirely an internal conflict wear away at the main characters, forcing them to evolve. This is a major point of distinction because the narrative created from conflict within characters – their worries, regrets, anger, passion, love – is one by and for them. It’s from this that you can fully comprehend the astounding depth of character in this movie. Using these characters as voices Captain Fantastic then manages to say so much; primarily, and to paraphrase: it is not our words that matter, but our actions.

What this outlines about the film is that everything characters do is an almost irrefutable statement. We don’t just hear about; eating right, education, living off the land, not being a pure consumer, being truthful, being care-free, adventurous and liberal; we see kids hiking every morning, reading books I haven’t the slightest idea about, killing their own food, expressing the painful truth of their mother’s suicide, climbing cliff faces, sticking together. This not only demonstrates the concentration of the narrative on these characters’ beliefs, but transforms a road trip rife with, what you might call, physical conflict, into a personal test of this family’s dictation of self. Getting to their mother/wife is not about rolling down a highway, batting away crazy mishaps, just about beating the clock to crash the funeral and fight for what their own personal characters in the beginning of the narrative told them was right. Getting to the funeral for the Cashes is about exposing a deep wound: venturing into a world they refuse to be apart of, but also exploring an idea of death under the guise of responsibility and family. By getting in Steve the children are being asked, are you willing to lose your father? Are you willing to test your loyalty to him and your mother? Assess your belief systems with the powerful indulgences of modern society in your face? Risk losing who you are now for an inevitable change of persona and outlook? In the same respect, Ben is being asked, are you willing to risk losing your kids to the world? To an easy way of life? To grandparents? To face the implied idea that you’re responsible for killing your own wife? To have everything you stand for torn apart by the big, bad and questioning, wide world? All of these questions coalesce into a narrative imbued with subtext. And whilst the subtextual questioning (all we’ve picked up on) is quite prominent, their implication on character’s lives and a greater narrative message is deeply poignant. It’s this that not only creates an astounding film of entertaining, endearing and captivating characters, but constructs an abstract dream space above this movie whereby the audience is forced to emotionally and mentally invest in the narrative, to think, to feel, to thoroughly experience, this movie.

It’s the former idea of character, entertainment and emotional resonation that I’ve already tried to convey as to kind of sell the film in review-ish form. However, it’s the latter concept of a message that I want to get into here. And to start, this movie demonstrates, to me, the best kind of cinema. This has been said time and time again, but cinema is an art form that can both entertain and inform; it can be of inconsiquence or strive to be of great importance. The best films, in my opinion, are the ones that do both of these things, and such is the task of a filmmaker – to balance their art, their technical, abstract, pretentious and pithy inclinations with that which an audience is looking for: a good time at the pictures. The best films are then those that show you something worth seeing, but leave you with something that was worth telling. Captain Fantastic is such a brilliant demonstration of this kind of cinema as the message, the artsy and pretentious, side of this movie serves as added entertainment. The conflicts brought about by the philosophical enquiries of this movie are where the comedy, the tragedy and every emotion in between come in. In other words, the fundamental question of this movie is of how we fit into this world, and from this flourishes the way in which the Cash family is compared to their cousins for comedic effect, the struggle and pain of seeing how they react to their mother committing suicide, us experiencing what seems like social terrorism, but what also kind of makes a lot of sense – things like kids swearing, not going to school, having an honest and true relationship with violence, death, sex and all of life’s: ‘you’ll understand/see when you’re older’s. However, the film clearly isn’t as simple as a presentation of these alternate ways of thinking; there is a clear and concise evaluation of these ideals through character and through narrative. And to this speaks best Ben’s arc of learning the fragility of the individual: Ben starting the film seeing himself and children as invincible, but ending realising their sudden frailty, seeing his and his kid’s convoluted humanity. This arc is then split into two. There is a moral and a physical recontextualisation of Ben’s perspective.

To start with the physical, we primarily experience with Ben this idea of societal flow. He retreats, completely backs away from society and into the woods. Society continues to be and to move on around him though. This is what we are being told with the threat of the Grandparents, them taking away the children and Ben going to prison. Most poignantly, it’s best to look at the first act juxtaposed with the arrow scene where the Grandfather takes Rellian from Ben. Throughout the opening scenes we watch the kids endure arduous training, Rellian break his hand, but we are, through tone, made to see this in positive light. We are made to see the power of the human body, to revere an idea of physically being the best you can and working incredibly hard for that. However, this is an acutely contextualise perspective of the kid’s ‘training’. As Jack, the Grandfather, makes clear: seen through the eye of the average person, the ‘training’ is child abuse, is something that produces bruises, scathes, cuts; tests the human body in a way that cannot be explained away so easily to a police officer, a social worker, a judge, a jury. This juxtaposition of ideals is so powerful because it instils into Ben, just as it does us, a sharp reflection, an abrupt cross-examination of self: am I doing this right? It’s this question that is effortlessly translated to an emotion, a narrative device, throughout the film, and so establishes a fascinating ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy. With the crucial theme of parenthood, Captain Fantastic best sets up an idea that the world is of the individual’s making. It shows the power of a single person able to survive on their own, and in doing so reveals society to be little more than the expression of blind, somewhat denied, ill-understanding. In other words, no one knows what they’re doing on this Earth. No one knows what we’re really supposed to do when we wake up. We feel that we don’t want to die, we don’t want to be in any pain, and so we go to work or school, we build upon our material resources, cling to and expand our social circles. But, these are actions incredibly hard to question and analyse. Why do we do these things? Primarily, fear, apprehension, incomprehension. We don’t want to die, we want to survive: the singular guiding force of the human complex. This has us construct our own fabrications, has us tell ourselves of heaven, hell, eternity, but tremble at the idea of dying. It’s without a serious analysis of this paradigm, this conjecture, that most of us live the majority of our lives. We live behaving like we will never die.

It’s this singular idea that stands central of all character motivation in this film. As touched on, a key philosophy paraphrased is: it is not our words that matter, but our actions. With the key theme of death and this philosophy, we see in the Cashes the true meaning of the grindingly annoying: YOLO. This isn’t something to say–it isn’t something you should say full stop – nonetheless, this isn’t something to say as to justify a stupid, irrational action. The concept of only having one life is not something that should catalyse anarchy, that should allow a person overcome sense. The modern interpretation of this in pop culture is the fundamental expression of humans living without questioning death, living like we will never die. YOLO is why you are waking up, going to school, going to work, obliging yourself into that low-level, rumbling and privileged pain. Also at fault is arguably the human bond with theology or spirituality – especially in a convoluted, nonsensical, undevoted manner. In other words, it is the lack of thought, the appeal to an aphorism, a movement, a cliche, a wider abstract idea not belonging to you, that has people live blindly, that drives the emotive understanding of the arrow scene. It’s Ben being told that he could be sued, have his kids taken away on grounds he cannot defend, because he was teaching his kids to live a toughened, yet (what he saw to be) true life, that demonstrates the dogmatism of a brazenly naive and unknowing race. Society knows best; listen to it. This is the conflict Ben faces – both internally and externally. It’s here where you then see the physical and moral implications of his character arc and conflict. He faces a society of people who know no more of life than him, but still have the power to dictate his. It’s exactly this that is the consequence of people, us humans, not thinking about a fundamental question of death in a deep, sensible and true light. And this to be a core message of the narrative. It’s because Harper, Ben’s sister, cannot tell her children about his wife’s suicide, cannot express a true and grounded facade to the world that the funeral happens the way it does. She essentially represents an average person who, through their actions, advocates an idea that society knows best; listen to it. The best scene to demonstrate this would be the one where she questions Ben’s kids’ education and is made to look the fool. She thinks public education, her state, country, government, knows best and is the only qualified being capable of imparting knowledge. Such, when you think about it, is complete folly, is utter bullshit – but we live under these idea constantly. The link to death here is easily seen in the crowd attending the funeral – they know this is not Leslie’s wish, but think they know better, think the best way to handle things is to do what everyone else around them does: have a Christian funeral service.

The larger ideal Ben then represents then comes down to the individual. There is a philosophy of acceptance, seeing us all as equal and blithering idiots, but ones who have the capacity to question, to see truth, sense and then live by it – ones who nonetheless often choose not to. Death is the best ship for this because a truer meaning of ‘YOLO’ is expressed by riding in a bus with your mother’s open coffin, singing and dancing as her corpse burns to ashes and then smiling as her remains wash down an airport bathroom toilet. With utmost confidence, I can assert that the majority of people who say YOLO do not see the world in this way. Such is the fault of how we perceive death in society composited. However, it is at this point where we cannot forget that whist Ben retains many of his philosophies from the first act, he has endured a change of character. It is not the purpose of this narrative to call most people dumb, allergic to introspection, scared of deep thought, incapable of living as they think, being what they preach. If it were then we wouldn’t have the end of the film showing Ben’s oldest going off into the world, the rest of his children getting ready for school. Ben’s crucial realisation is, again, that people, himself and his children are fragile. Whilst we’ve touched on the physical side of this – them being able to climb mountains, but not fight off police, government and society – there is an added moral side. The biggest risk Ben takes is exposing his children to the ‘real world’, to the condemned, fascist, consumerist society he escaped. It’s here where we see a quick lesson in writing also. In a recent post or Narrative Purpose we touched on the story telling process and how ideas are turned into stories. In doing so, we came across the first steps of bringing together a story – having something to say. Captain Fantastic, with central themes of parenthood, growth and death, most simply says: you have to let you’re children grow and become their own people. This is cliched, bland and seemingly disinteresting. But, as said previously, your fundamental idea doesn’t have to be the most articulate and original thing (it’s great if it is – though, equally difficult to conjure up a new to-be cliche). Captain Fantastic demonstrates that whilst the core, driving idea can be a simple one, it’s the expression of it in narrative and cinematic terms that counts. Captain Fantastic, on these grounds, is somewhat transcendental. It implies that experiencing truth, not just being told of it, is what actually makes it such, is exactly what turns the cliche into understood authenticity. The film then allows us to experience what is implied to be truth (kid’s having to find their own way – amongst a myriad of other details) instead of just telling us about it – which is exactly why the narrative is so strong, why it resonates and communicates so well, why it’s not cliched, but genuine.

However, coming away from what this film elicits fundamentally, we come back to Ben’s moral struggle. To let his kids go, he must take one step further his philosophy of people being equal, of the individual’s ideas being their prerogative, their beliefs, that should be expressed through action, being true, thought-out, not just rented. He has to essentially learn to let apart of himself be someone else’s. He has to relinquish control, will, personal determination. This is the lasting crux of the film and is expressed directly with his last words to his wife:

My face is mine, my hands are mine, my mouth is mine, but I’m not; I am yours.

What he is communicating is that his tools of action (face, hands, mouth) are his to effect the world, but that his true and intangible idea of self – what can only be an expression of human comprehension: a comprehension of self – is belonging to something other than his body. This serves as commentary on the ideas of collective thinking, being a sheep, renting philosophies and ways of life. It says that these things are irrefutably human, that people are alone in this world, that we are unknowing, individual and somewhat lost – but can nonetheless reach out and grip another lost and wandering hand. This is why Ben accepts society, why he lets his children go to school, travel the world, be with their Grandparents. He understands that there is a human need to belong to something else, to define and burrow out ‘your place in this world’. Such is another cliche, but is one easily misunderstood. Our place in this world is not another prerogative, is not a right, is not something waiting for you. Your ‘place’ is a feeling of comfort and resolution. Your ‘place’ is forgetting that you need to be searching for one. And for Ben, he finds that in his wife. Yes, his kids are an expression of this, but they are not, and cannot be, what his wife was to him. They must find their own place in this world, not just be given one. In this I mean not to push nihilism into a postmodern flurry of directionlessness in hope to stumble into some pocket of acceptable reality. The reason why a ‘place in this world’ is given to a pronoun is that whilst we are finding a means to fit into this world, we are simultaneously creating our own. And this is the pivotal reason why Noam Chomsky is referenced so many times and lastly quoted:

“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”

This is not a quote that suggests we all have to better the world, that we directly have to change the state of things as to match an internal feeling – and instinct for freedom – A.K.A being what you preach, acting as your beliefs dictate. This is not the meaning of the quote in the context of the movie. This quote amongst the themes of Captain Fantastic suggests that, to create a better world for ourselves, we need hope in the form of reasoning – someone or something at our side – for Ben, his, family, wife in memory and world view. This someone or something is essentially demonstrated to be our world – our personal shade of reality. It’s from here where hope flourishes, for hope is the recognition of possibility, the chance and ability to effect – and for most, our capabilities will never stretch far beyond the regions of our personal life: our families, work and efforts. This is why changing ‘the world’ is not about the society around you, cultures, countries, this blue/green spec in infinite space. Changing the world is about adopting a place in your perceived reality, contorting it into something you see as near-perfect, before giving it away to exist as a vacuum of self in this unfathomable void of reality around us. Giving it away is the most important step, is entirely what Captain Fantastic is about. Ben letting his kids go is him letting go of all he created with his wife so it may evolve off its own accord. His reasoning for this: death is an inevitability; death is something humans inherently fear. Whilst Ben doesn’t flinch at the sight of death, a corpse – even of a loved one – he still has an inherent fear of death, one he, just as we all, will never shake. We want continuity in this world, for our legacy to continue. To want this, we have to accept our fragility, and it’s this that lies at the core of letting our created vacuums of self float into a void of reality. We must brave the consequences of letting our children, our ideas live on: they will change, the world you created by and for them is a fading shadow of yourself. Existentially poignant; just maybe a truth – reasoning to start etching out a home in this life. After all, YOLO.

The lasting words about this film must then be to the powers that be. Please, don’t make Captain Fantastic 2 where the younger kids grow up and learn more life lessons. I can do no more than imply the contradiction that this would be, but more so how pointless it will be. Nonetheless, there’s just somethings you can’t control.

 

 

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Captain Fantastic – Perpetually Resonant

Quick Thoughts: Captain Fantastic

An estranged, highly educated and athletic family living in the wilderness lose their mother and so must venture across state lines to crash a funeral she would have never wanted.

Captain Fantastic

I absolutely love this film. From the moment it started I knew I would. Without a doubt, the best film I’ve seen this year and one of the strongest narratives produced in a long time. It wouldn’t surprise me if over the years Captain Fantastic grew into greater stature, proving itself a significant film of these times. Though, such speculation is needless. What matters is that this is a brilliant film. It has an incredibly defined sense of self, it knows what it wants to portray and stays true to that through succinctly immersive characterisation. As touched on, you instantaneously grip the rhythm and rhyme of theses people, their lives, what they stand for and are eager to learn more, stay with them through the meandering, ungrounded plot. Such has this film stand as testament to the power of a focused narrative – the body of a film around the spinal plot. But, in saying that, I’ve dug myself into a metaphor whereby this film is either spineless or a slug. What I mean to communicate is that the major plot points of externalised conflict are of minor importance. What always matters is the extraneous pieces of character, their internal conflicts and the way they interact with their world. In other words, we don’t watch the road twist and turn through towns in what is essentially a road movie, it’s rarely the places travelled that matter, but the time spent getting there with the Cash family. This is the crucial reason why the narrative is so strong. It is punctuated very sparsely with twists, convention and plot-points so it may be imbued with themes and emotional poignancy. And on that note, it must be said that this is a perpetually resonant film. Much like Silent Running this isn’t a technically perfect film. The acting, though great in many parts, isn’t flawless, just as the direction isn’t particularly special (though never bad). However, these are immaterial observations as they do not detract from the filmic experience provided. The same must be said with aspects of characterisation. We are with both an implicitly eccentric family and an intentionally abnormal one. In this they hold small nuances that aren’t going to be relatable – we’re talking about political perspective here–never something to expect universal relatability from. This is the major link to Silent Running though. Even though we may not see the world as the protagonists do, we respect their outlook, accepting it as part of what becomes a flawless package of characterisation. What’s more, despite the somewhat pretentious tone of this movie – pretentious in a good way, much like The End Of The Tour – it breaks through to genuine ground in every aspect of politically charged characterisation. The arcs all characters take aren’t there as commentary on what they say in a political sense, aren’t there to put images and a narrative to the dialogue, instead are there to heighten the thematic journeys they take, are there to explore something an awful lot deeper than political aphorisms. This is where the perpetual resonance starts to ring though. Captain Fantastic speaks to the individual through a narrative constructed by and for great its characters. I can’t say it in many more ways, but this is a truly great film, one that needs to be seen.

However, to really delve into why I love Captain Fantastic, to get stuck into the details of the narrative instead of dancing around it, we’ll have to rely on a part 2 jammed with spoilers.

 

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