The Last House On The Left – Exploitation Is Intimacy

Thoughts On: The Last House On The Left (1972)

Two girls on their way to a concert are kidnapped, raped, tortured and then killed.

The Last house on The left

As promised, a disgusting, violent and stupid film to follow up a string of Disney mush. The Last House On The Left is an incredibly mediocre, sometimes terrible, film. It doesn’t really need to be said, but the acting throughout is completely awful. There are a few believable moments, and a handful that are covered up by Wes Craven’s direction, but the acting is fundamentally terrible. However, it’s here where we find the strongest part of the film: the direction. Wes Craven is of course a staple-name in the world of horror with films such as A Nightmare On Elm Street, Scream and The Hills Have Eyes. Despite not being a fan of these films, it is undeniable that Craven captures ridiculous stories poignantly. The Last House On The Left is a great example of this. Despite the dog-shit dialogue and terrible acting plodding along this weak story, Craven, through direction and editing, makes this a watchable film. It’s this that elevates the film from terrible to mediocre. However, under the guise of exploitation, this film takes another jump. Whilst The Last House On The Left isn’t The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night Of The Living Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Foxy Brown, Pink Flamingos or A Serbian Film, it is a significant feature in this class of cinema and a particularly good exploitation film. Before we can get into this though, we have to ask what an exploitation film is. The key definition of ‘exploitation film’ is one linked to pop culture or current events. These kinds of films will capitalise on trends; take a concept to an extreme and bring in a very niche audience. This means exploitation films are, in large part, rather vapid thrill-ride money-grabs. However, I don’t think this definition of the exploitation feature is the most clear and expressive explanation of this kind of cinema. Firstly, the link to current trends isn’t always a strong one. If we take Night Of The Living Dead as an example of this, we see a film some say is linked to capitalist critique, and others the projection of a diseased-based fear. In other words, the zombies can be considered semi-conscious, selfish, flesh-seeking, consumers who want nothing more than more. Moreover, the zombies may be seen as diseased people, our fear of them being a mere fear of infection and so on. However, as we all know, zombie films never stopped with Night Of The Living Dead…

      

Whilst this is largely because of the money this film and genre of horror can amass, we have to look to audience to see why they want this content. The answer seems to be in the fact that the subtextual themes picked up on in Night Of The Living Dead are still current trends; they still have emotive power behind them. This cites the longevity of many exploitation films. Most pick up on themes of murder, violence, torture, sexuality and so pick up on universal human fears – not just trends zipping through the zeitgeist. This leaves our initial definition of the exploitation feature rather unsatisfying. Because of this I think we can find better definitions. In fact, I believe there are three major tenants of the exploitation picture that aren’t represented by this definition – all of which we’ll pick up on today with The Last House On The Left as our focus.

The first definition I can offer has to be in the design of the exploitation picture. These films first and foremost exploit one concept or theme. As touched on, this is often something violent and/or sexual. With The Last House On The Left, we see a transparent example of this. To an almost ridiculous extent, this film strives to show us intensifying sexual barbarity; from molestation to rape to biting dicks off, this is clearly a film obsessed with driving deep into our most reflexive fears. And such is the purpose of the exploitation film in this respect. They mean to push cinema to places no one has dared to before. The catch 22 of the exploitation under this pushing of bounds is, unfortunately, popularity and attention. The more money these films make, the more will be made. And to stay relevant, each exploitation feature must escalate, must push bounds further, otherwise it’ll be a mere let down. This is exactly why there was a huge decline of these films as we moved out of the 80s and an almost completely loss of them by the 90s. Filmmakers seemed to have ran out of creative resources and audiences turned to something else. A key hallmark of the exploitation period has to be…

… Cannibal Holocaust. This is probably one of the most vulgar film of the class and pretty much bookended it as one of the last popular releases. It’s in the early 80s and with this film that the exploitation picture hit its peak in terms of pushing bounds. You only have to see 20 minutes of Cannibal Holocaust to get what I mean. I myself haven’t got more than 30 minutes in because the film really does go too far with the murder and torture of live animals. But, in my saying that, I’ve probably livened the interest of a few who will, if they haven’t already, try and watch this film. And in such, we see the purpose of pushing boundaries, of taking a concept such as violence to such an extreme. Nonetheless, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the last classic exploitation films and so the last breath of a tired approach to filmmaking.

However, in Wes Craven, we see an interesting character to study in respect to the exploitation genre. The Last House On The Left came somewhat early in this period and was Craven’s first film; the one that popularised him and led onto The Hills Have Eyes. It’s with The Hills Have Eyes, however, that we see Craven moving somewhat away from the exploitation picture. Whilst this film has the all-important elements of gore and sexual violence, it also incorporated heavier action elements and utilised a larger budget. And it’s because of this that The Hills is much more a genre film than The Last House On The Left. Craven’s most popular film, A Nightmare On Elm Street, makes this point over again. A Nightmare On Elm Street is undeniably a horror film – a psychological slasher. It is not thought of as an exploitation film, and neither is The Hills Have Eyes for the most part, because they lack the stark simplicity of The Last House On The Left. That is to say that they have too many cinematic elements to them. The Last House On The Left is a succinctly focused film, one that zeroes in on sexual violence in an almost plotless narrative. A key part of this concentration is of course absurdity – a staple of all exploration films. They are all incredibly absurd, almost laughable at points; this is what we get when Fred’s dick is bitten off. However, the Hills Have Eyes doesn’t really have this absurdity as the design of the film is there to imply some sense of verisimilitude. That is to say that we’re made to believe that a town of insane deformed people may live out in a dessert and prey upon stranded people. But, coming back to the scene where Fred’s dick is bitten off, what we’re seeing here is a huge jump in the narrative. The film is almost a just very gory thriller up until the point where the gang returns to the parent’s house. This is only made all the more clearer when the parents decide deal with the criminals on their own. This makes absolutely no sense for the characters to do – however, this is something we’ll pick up on in  a moment. To round off the first defining element to exploitation films, we see that there is a succinct focus in the narratives, one that means to exploit a singular theme or concept, in turn, and audience’s reflexive reaction to this. In such, we see an extremism in the design of exploitation pictures, one that will inevitable destroy all ideas of verisimilitude.

Ok, the second rule or defining aspect of exploitation pictures is their approach to character. To me, this is the essence of the exploitation film and what you really must understand to be able to write/make them. There are no characters in exploitation pictures. At most, you have caricatures, but, you will almost always be dealing with pawns. This speaks to, us, the audience. The exploitation picture only works because there is an inherent contrivance to them; one that leaves them predictable. Filmmakers know this and so step up to the task of not only meeting expectations of extremism when they make their films, but surpassing expectations, giving the audience more than they expected. This is the playful game that belies the exploitation picture, one played between filmmaker and audience. In going to a film of this kind, an audience member is both stepping up to a dare, but also laying down a bet. They’re risking being horrified and offended, possibly scarred for life, secretly hoping that they aren’t – but kind of are. Knowing this, both filmmaker and audience have certain expectations of character. They don’t really want to root for anyone, they don’t really want to empathise, nor do they want to understand. The characters are there as a weak vessel for the audience, one they slightly empathise with, but also one they’re willing to see be put through torture – usually, quite literally. In such, characters as mere pawns is an inevitable element of the exploitation picture. The filmmaker uses them as a mere object subjected to their stature as a creative God or sense of fate.

Pushing deeper into this idea of fate or ultimate power, both audience and filmmaker use exploitation films as an extreme form of voyeurism. This is the crux of the dare and game they play. It’s an almost sadomasochistic push and pull – characters being the rope between the two. Moreover, exploitation films capitalise on fate as a structural element to produce anti-tragedies. The anti-tragedy is a concept of mine that defines the relationship an audience will have with an exploitation character. There is the element of fate; the fact we know they’re probably going to die horribly or do something inhuman, but one that isn’t tragic in the same respect something like Romeo And Juliet is. The Shakespearean tragedy is mostly masochistic, is us being swept away by romance knowing it will all fail in the end. Conversely, the anti-tragedy present in exploitation film yearns for this failure and embraces it. In such, it is much more sadistic as there are no tears to be expected by the end of The Last House On The Left or a contemporary take on this kind of narrative such as A Serbian Film. We are almost made to sneer at the tragedy in these films. A Serbian Film is probably a better example than The Last House On The Left because there is such a brutal dismissal of the family in the end of this film. Without spoiling it, the inevitable tragedy is one used just to continue the horrific cycle that the characters try to escape. There is no poignant gut punch to this ending though, one nothing like you would see in a tragedy such as Bicycle Thieves of Rififi. This ending is just the films final ‘fuck you all’.

This only works, however, because the characters in this film are empty. There is some amount of traditional characterisation put into them, but this is all ridiculous. That is to say that it is not taken seriously by the audience, nor considered the purpose of watching the film. You see this so much more explicitly in The Last House On The Left. The parents aren’t characterised at all – no one is. They say stupid shit about tits in the beginning, act teenagery or like a happy family near the middle, and then they’re all tortured or turn into monsters by the end. With this, there is no sympathy needed from the filmmakers. The attraction is simply the violence, not necessarily the characters it is inflicted upon.

With such a dismissal of character in exploitation films what we are then seeing is a incredibly rebellious form of cinema – one that is often rebellious without a cause, without much perspective or intent. The Last House On The Left is a convoluted example of this. As the title may have already indicated to you, this is a film with something of a political message to it. It takes progressive themes of love and peace and instills them into the victim caricatures – the teens. Their meeting the criminals because of drugs is a commentary on being a hippy, free and all those other cliches. They thus fall into a nasty trap as the world isn’t full of people we should love. Moreover, the sexual sadism inflicted upon the two girls further demonstrates how ‘free love’ isn’t something people really want to embrace. There is only horror in these sequences because we are a culture which will not accept free love, that needs consent, that conserves sex as an act that is not at all free to all. If we were truly a ‘free love’ culture, we firstly would not observe the term ‘free love’, it’d be ‘free pleasure’. Secondly, if sex were free, given away as conversation is, then rape couldn’t be a thing. Just as someone couldn’t rape you with unwanted small talk, they couldn’t rape you with forced penetration. This is what the film means to serve as commentary on. What’s more, the dismissal of cops, the reliance on self-sovereignty and guns make this film seemingly very pro-right (the latter being a much more cohesive example of this) leaving the lasting commentary a somewhat conservative one.

What this says about The Last House On The Left as an exploitation picture is incredibly confounding. It is both conservative in its message, but incredibly liberal with its presentation. What this leaves this film as is a spit in the face of both left and right in a political sense, and ultimately a very rebellious feature. This is what makes this feature a undeniable great exploitation picture, but, character cannot be forgotten at this point. It’s the caricatures of political archetype that fuel this narrative. And in such, we see the duel purpose of ‘characters’ in exploitation films. They are there as pawns of both emotional engagement and intellectual inquiry. They serve the audience and filmmaker as an extreme approach to what are usually much more subtle aspects of cinema. Whilst we usually try to make characters seem like real people as to get across the emotional message of our films, the exploitation picture makes the point that creating them as them pure objects can be emotional impactful, too. Whilst I believe that traditional characters, complex ones we’re made to believe could be real people, are more effective devices in a story, I think exploitation characters are the only way to speak to people in such a directly reflexive way. When characters are real people we can’t see them as mere monsters, as mere sex things, as just a teenager. When characters become more like people, they become less like archetypes and so distinguish themselves from our biases. Staying away from this, exploitation films can be so visceral and troubling to people. Moreover, they allow filmmakers to make much more explicit commentary. Again, real people aren’t archetypes; it’s with archetypes that you can make broad statements. That’s what you see in The Last House On The Left in the parents, teens and killers. They are little more than extreme representations; through and through archetypes.

So, it’s by seeing characters as cinematic pawns that you can both define an exploitation picture and start to know how to write one. Before moving on with the point though, I want to touch on the stigma that must be attached to the term exploitation film, not to mention all of the phrases I’ve been using to describe them. Whilst exploitation films are brutal, are extreme, are sometimes pretty empty, they’re often a class of cinema I can, maybe not fully embrace and enjoy, but certainly accept. This is because they’re a cinematic class of films. Whilst they push things to an extreme like Warhol or von Trier have, they do so for the audience and filmmaker. This is why, despite all that’s fucked up about them, I don’t mind them. In fact, I only have two reasons for not liking exploitation films in general – and they’re pretty subjective. Firstly, the actors and characters are designed terribly. Whilst the characters on the page make some amount of sense and are justified by the intentions of this type of cinema, the way they’re acted out for the screen is often unbearable. Some might like this style of acting, or just not mind it, but I have no yearning to really get into these films, nor re-watch them. The second reason why I’m not a fan of the exploitation genre is their contrived nature. By dismissing all aspects of verisimilitude with the inevitable absurd acts, these films become almost pointless to me. For some, I know this is their purpose – just fun experiences – but, I get frustrated with throwaway films as I just see no point in them. I much rather prefer films with elements of exploitation that manage to sustain verisimilitude, that are believable; film such as:

    

    

These films, to me, seem to be the fruits of exploitation. Whilst some filmmakers push the cinematic form to extremes, others slot in behind them and see what they can do with ground covered. So, whilst A Clockwork Orange is incredibly controversial with aspects of exploitation present in its elements of brutality and sexuality, it is a film by Kubrick and so is a serious movie, one that has great depths and doesn’t just mean to just be vulgar as to entertain. That isn’t to say that all exploitation films do is this, be vulgar as to entertain, but, none are in the same class as A Clockwork Orange, none are as good or better. Whilst I could sink deeper with this subject, it is one I want to save for another time. So, moving on…

The final defining attribute of the exploitation film is a somewhat paradoxical one. When I feel exploitation films working, it’s because they’ve managed to suck me in. They do this with a cinematic atmosphere of intimacy. What I mean to imply here is an almost childish fascination. In the same way a teenager may find porn for the first time, just out of interest and intrigue, people usually stumble upon exploitation films. In such, they want to see something that they maybe shouldn’t. For this to work, for it to really speak to the curious viewer, there must be an air of intimacy and so a sense of safety generated. That means that the film won’t condemn the violence or sexuality wherein; it is always played out with a tone of ‘yes, this is fucked up, but it’s ok to be watching it’. You don’t see this in blockbuster action films; In short, anything by Marvel or DC…

      

Batman is a great example of this anti-exploitation. Violence has to be justified, it has to have conditions. The same can be said when we look to The Avengers. There is a explicit stigma attached to violence in the action elements of these films. This is exactly what exploitation films relinquish.

This is a lesson that these kind of films need to learn from – it’s ok to to have elements of exploitation in your film; it makes things fun and we really don’t need morality nonsense thrown at us so much. It’s here where I have to say I have huge respect for exploitation pictures. Just like they agree to play a game with their audience, they agree to say that we’re adults and can see some fuck up shit if we want. These films are a middle finger in the face of age certificates, in fact they wear them as badges; the gold being what was an X, what later became NC-17 or an 18. The crux of this agreement between audience and filmmaker is, however, one founded on an intimacy. This is generated through the pure explicitness of the films, and so, to know when you’re watching an exploitation picture, all you really have to ask is: am I somewhat comfortable going into this film? Do I feel ok when seeing this fucked up shit?

I can then only compare the experience of seeing a good exploitation picture as to seeking out and finding fucked up YouTube videos. I’m fascinated with people getting jacked, bitten, dismembered and killed by animals. I also like to see them do it to each other. Why?  I suppose there is a transcendence when I watch these ‘fucked up’ things. I don’t feel like I’m engaging in something taboo or something I know I shouldn’t be; it’s just interesting. In such, there isn’t really a violence in seeing a person having there arm torn off by a crocodile. There’s just a ridiculous sense of awe. I don’t indulge the fact that the guy is currently experiencing the most horrifying and painful thing he may ever, instead I focus on that consequence as a concept. Yes, this is dehumanising, yes, I’m seeing the man as an exploitation character, but I think this is a very human thing. In the same sense, I have a great interest in hunting videos and MMA. These are things I could never see myself engaging in, but they’re a great interest to me sat on one side of a screen. Whilst there’s a contrived and very fake element to this engagement, it seems to be a watered down expression of the human inclination to learn and experience – everything from the positive to utterly negative. Many centuries ago, you’d be able to see your neighbours die of disease or in battle, centuries before that, you’d likely be seeing those in your village being picked off by predators, daily. This experience has been eradicated in almost all areas of the developed world. We do not see our food killed. We do not know what battle is. We don’t know what it is to die of disease, to fight for your life against the real monsters in the dark. I’m incredibly grateful for this fact and so embrace the byproduct of this societal cushioning: fucked up YouTube videos.

The exploitation picture of course proceeds the fucked up YouTube video though, but nonetheless shares its essence as a piece of intrigue; something that will safely push buttons of horrific experience we don’t really get to play with anymore. It must be said though, again, that these films have a contrived element to them. They are very clearly cinematic; they’re not fucked up YouTube videos as they’re not real and don’t try to be. Because of this, it is difficult to make an exploitation picture – especially nowadays for people like me who consume real messed up video footage. However, I’m sure that you’re shouting bullshit right now. Beforehand, said that I had to turn off Cannibal Holocaust because of the animal torture, and now I’m saying I watch people and animals die on YouTube. The reason why I can consume one media and not the other is that killing animals for a film – and in such a sadistic manner – goes a step too far. This is all to do with the contrived nature of cinema. You can accept real accidents and documentations of animals existing in their natural state; humans hunting, because it is real; it is the state of things. Documentaries of lions having sex and killing things are shown in the middle of the day because there is a consensus of reality in these documentations agreed between all of us. However, you can’t even see a hit of sexuality or heavy violence in cinematic form on most channels at the same time of day. This is because cinema is created, it has a purpose as entertainment and commentary. Documentaries are purely observational, we accept things such as death in them as they are considered to not be contrived. This, again, links into our ape side. We all used to watch our friends die of diseases or in the jaws of animals almost every day centuries/millennia ago. This, whist tragic, must have been something somewhat accepted. That is to say that it would be acceptable in comparison to someone feeding their friend to a lion. Whilst a lion making off with a friend is apart of life, feeding that friend to a lion shouldn’t be acepted – even for art and entertainment. This is because there’s a human control present here. The same can be said for cinema and documentaries; we don’t like to see someone/thing thrown to the lions, but, we will accept the lion taking someone/thing.

This all speaks to exploitation pictures. They have to walk a thin line. They must figt their contrived, human created, nature with cinematics and a sense of intimacy to work. Because Canniabl Holocaust doesn’t manage this well at all, it is an exploitation film that goes too far for me. When we look to The Last House On The Left, we see a film that has some moments of intimacy where the violence is immersive and awe-inspiring in a horrific way. We see this in scenes such as Mari’s murder, but it is lost quite a bit in the final act due to the utter absurdity. Nonetheless, the crux of exploitation films working is undeniably intimacy.

So, those are the three extra defining parameters of exploitation films:

1. It is a concept that the exploitation film exploits, one that is fixated on to an extreme.

2. Characters do not exist in exploitation films; they are caricatures or pawns for audience and filmmaker.

3. The exploitation film, at its best, is intimate.

So, there you go, these are extra elements to exploitation films that further specify and clarify this class of cinema. What are your thoughts?

 

 

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Beauty And The Beast – Escaping The Throes Of Abuse, Destruction And Dysfunction

Thoughts On: Beauty And The Beast (1991)

A young prince, turned into a beast, has to find love and be loved as to break his curse.

Beauty And The Beast

I know I always try to write about a wide range of films, constantly jumping genres and periods, and that I’ve been focusing on Disney quite a bit recently, but this is a film I’ve got to write about. We’ll find and look into something disgusting, violent or stupid next, I promise. That said, Beauty And The Beast is a film that is, in large part, about child abuse. Ludicrous, I know, but we’ll get into it soon. Before we start, it must be said that this is one of the greatest Disney films ever made. I’m so close to saying it’s the best, but I’ll save those thoughts for a later date. What makes this film great is obvious. The plot is simple, yet effective with the music splashed throughout with astounding dexterity and pace. Moreover, the sound design. This film is so stunning because of how intricately each and every piece of audio has been weaved into the narrative. We see this in voice acting, in the way speech will be distorted in accordance to rooms, but also the use of sound as a means of really selling the weight of this story. With the guttural undertones belying The Beast’s dialogue, we’re always made to feel his presence, the gravity of his personage. Also, the Foley merges so well with score – a great example of this being the action sequences. And this is a truly revolutionary aspect of this film. With sound design Beauty And The Beast achieves what no other Disney feature has before. The sonic sound-scape not only emphasises the emotion, tone, atmosphere and feeling of the film, but locks you into the world, bringing you from song to song with such fluid expertise. For the sound, both musical and otherwise, this film is masterful and so has a definite foot up on every single Disney film in this respect. But, make no mistake, this film doesn’t just have a great audio track. The story is, of course, brilliant. In fact, I have nothing negative to say about this movie; it’s perfect. Whilst I don’t need to outline the plot and throw more adjectives at you, what I do want is to delve deeper into this narrative. This is a rare film, one imbued with so much subtext. And, yes, this is what brings us back to the theme of child abuse, but don’t worry, things brighten up.

Ok, the crux of this theory is outlined in its entirety by the film’s opening…

The Beast’s backstory, whilst easily over looked, is something that can entirely change your perspective of this film. We initially find out that the young prince is arrogant and vapid. This is before The Enchantress shows up – we’ll get to her in a minute. One thing you always find yourself asking with Disney films though is… where the hell are the parents? I don’t think there’s more than a handful of Disney films where parents either don’t die or aren’t a complete mystery. Beauty And The Beast certainly doesn’t fit into that handful. Not only do we have no idea who Belle’s mother is, but, we know nothing of The Beast’s parents. We’re simply left to assume that he was raised by his servants. Whilst this is no excuse for growing up to be arrogant, it does explain why The Beast, pre-transformation, isn’t a great guy. That said, one late night, an old woman turns up at his door and offers him a flower. The prince turns her away. She warns him not to do so, but, he sends her away nonetheless. For this he’s turned into a Beast. Now, please, say it with me: WHAT THE FUCK!? How is this in any way justifiable? He didn’t take a flower from an ugly old woman who’s shown up in the middle of the night, and so he deserves to have his life ruined? That’s bullshit. However, things go deeper. This lady is called The Enchantress and she offers a young prince a flower. When you realise that this exchange is really all about love, beauty and the old lady essentially cock-blocking the prince in the most evil-genius kind of way, you see a sexual element added to things. With this theme at hand, and despite it being hidden below layers of subtext, this flower seems to be symbolic of something a little more sinister that just a rose. Though this cannot be confirmed, only inferred, it seems that, at the least, some kind of nasty and malicious trick with sexual undertones was put upon the beast. At worst, something much more destructive and damaging may have occurred at this point. It is here that some level of child abuse is hinted at in the narrative. And because The Beast tried to disengage or stop this, he was punished.

Whilst that seems to be the pinnacle of the messed up nature of this film, it gets worst. When we’re told ‘young prince’ and then shown this ambiguously aged young man’s portrait…

… we’re being fed a fabrication. Though it is understandable, the makers of this film have buried the true age of this young prince. However, it is easily figured out. We’re told that the flower will wilt and the curse be made eternal when The Beast turns 21. This means he’s 20 throughout the film up until the very end where the final petal falls. Knowing this and that The Beast was left in the castle for ‘years’ it becomes clear that the young prince was at the least a teenager when The Enchantress showed up. It’s now that the opening becomes more creepier, right? Hold on though. How long exactly has the curse been upon The Beast, his servants and castle? As Lumiere says: 10 years. This means that the boy answering the door to the old woman who tricked him then unfairly punished him was 10 going on 11. Firstly, for a 10-year-old to open a door at night and turn away the stranger that wants to come in, well, that’s a responsible kid, right? Secondly, a kid called an old woman ugly? What a travesty. I remember hating girls near this young age because ‘ew… girls’. To try and put oneself in the princes’ shoes with the implication of something very sinister happening and, again, this Enchantress becomes all the more evil. Consider this as further evidence though:

Belle and The Beast obviously understand one another’s plight. In the same respect that she is pursued for her beauty by Gaston, would it not make sense that the orphaned young prince may be pursued by someone equally deplorable, maybe someone tantamount to an Ursula or Queen from Snow White? This means, as a young boy, The Beast was probably pursued and harassed by the archetypal imposer who means to steal everything from an unsuspecting and young prince/princess.

This all, whilst very reliant on inference, seems to be transparent. Something dark went awry in The Beast’s past to make him who he is. We will find greater evidence for this that deepens his character as we push into the film.

After the rather chilling opening, we’re introduced to Belle and her provincial little town. It’s here where the film lays down it’s other major themes: isolation and community. Belle’s core internal conflict is that she wants to escape, and like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, wants more from life. It’s here where a quick comparison must be made to show how great this film is. Essentially, Belle is everything…

… Ariel wasn’t. We discussed her character in the previous posts, and whilst she serves her story and narrative’s message well, there isn’t much depth to her. The crux of this is that Ariel faced no real conflict. Belle is very much like Ariel in almost all aspects of her character–her will to escape, to find love and adventure beyond her small town–but, Belle is so much more mature. She suppresses everything that Ariel acts on when she knows it’s what’s best for those she loves. Because of this, we see a move away from a film focused on a mindless yearning for a sense of freedom (as seen in The Little Mermaid) to one focused on personal responsibility and integrity. This allows Belle to be our archetypal Disney princess, but arguably the one with the best design. We understand her actions, we see no hubris in her. And this helps the narrative along so well. It doesn’t need a ditsy blond, horror movie archetype, it needs a concentrated and rational person. For this, Belle is certainly one of the greatest characters produced by Disney.

However, coming back to themes of isolation and community, what drives this narrative forward is both a metaphorical and literal mob mentality present in this little town. It obviously intensifies to fruition over the course of the narrative, but with the introduction we see the seeds of conflict that this town represents. They want Belle to fit into a paradigm and they don’t understand why she isn’t ‘normal’. In such, they are obsessed with facade…

… Gaston being the face of this ugly mob. We’ll come back to the town later on, but this idea of facade makes a call back to The Enchantress. Her issue with The Beast was essentially that he didn’t accept her as an ugly person. Whilst this doesn’t feel good, to be rejected for things you can’t change, this is the stark reality of life. For The Enchantress to mean to reverse this aspect of human nature in the young prince, in a literally Pavlovian sense, must imbue the 10-year-old boy with an overwhelming dissonance. This seems to be why the curse is so hard to break. He can’t just learn to love people, look beyond facade, but, must be loved back. This part of the curse is the most evil as it forces The Beast to assume that no one will ever love him, and can never do such a thing. Whist this may almost sound vapid, I think that, with a little empathy, it’s not. Moreover, for the Enchantress to try and teach The Beast to become a better person through acceptance, why would she approach this in a such a base and impersonal way? Whereas The Beast must become a better person to earn Belle’s trust and acceptance, The Enchantress does nothing like this. She just punishes him. Nonetheless, this imposition of ideals put upon The Beast are also put on Belle. Instead of being told that she must accept people less attractive that herself, she is told she must accept personalities worse than her, people who aren’t worthy of her. (Such seems to have been the case with The Enchantress too, but, this can only be mere speculation).

What the town do to Belle is trap her in a rigid ideology of accepting the norm, of taking another’s word and structure as rule – this is why provincial is an adjective repeated so much in her opening song. This dogmatism and rigidity is exactly what she fights to escape – a formalised sense of community. This is where isolation seeps its way into the narrative. Belle and The Beast are forced out of community, forced to recede away from people, because they won’t oblige their standards. This is what the film thematically sets up, and allows us to transition away from the great opening song to meeting Belle’s Father…

… again, not the most normal person. However, it’s with Belle’s father that we must pick up on Disney and parent’s again. We can assume that Maurice’s wife/girlfriend, Belle’s mother, is out of the picture. This leaves him entirely responsible for Belle. It also leaves him with a troubled past concerning women. This thematically links him to The Beast. But, whilst The Beast’s troubles with women are much more serious, Maurice’s must have left him, at the least, rattled. This is something we have to hold onto after we learn that he’s an inventor (further link to responsibility; caring for his daughter) and is going to present his wood chipper at a fair. This is all in the hope of changing his and Belle’s life. The subtextual implication is that the invention will get them out of the town. This is crucial as this event leads onto…

… the first wolf attack. Whilst the wolves could be dismissed as mere conflict meant to energise the narrative, they can, when looked at in an alternative light, fill a huge plot hole of this narrative. This has been pointed out by many, but, The Beast is prince of what and where? If the king, queen and royal family suddenly just receded into darkness, wouldn’t the town be aware of this? Would they not have knowledge of The Beast; knowledge at least tantamount to the Whovillian’s idea of The Grinch?

I don’t know what to think when faced with this question. Is it just a huge oversight? Maybe. But, I’m not sure. This film certainly seems to be much more metaphorical and symbolic than it presents itself as. In such, I don’t think that The Beast is really this:

I think this facade is a projection of his character; and that it to say that it’s an impressionist representation of the broken prince within – which explains an awful lot about Belle’s attraction to him; she sees him as an ugly personality, maybe not directly a wolf/bear thing. This will become all the more clearer as we move into the narrative though. But, I think the town itself is also somewhat metaphorical. They are a rather simple group that will easily be turned vitriolic given the chance. Their core purpose seems to be to sustain a tight community. Whilst there are a few outliers in this group, Belle, Maurice, maybe the book shop owner, everyone is pretty tight. When we push on out of the town and come across these guys…

… I don’t think it’s just mere coincidence. The wolves seem to be the final layer of projected community and doubt that encircle the town. That is to say that they act in a similar way as the town to those trying to escape or be different; they’re a violent deterrent. This becomes all the more clearer when we see Maurice leave. With doubt and weight on his shoulders, intentions to escape the town with his daughter…

… Maurice is a character with a lot of internal conflicts bubbling below the surface. Not only is there self-doubt, but a fear that he fails his daughter, that he’s lost in the world, stuck with the townspeople. This leaves the wolves a projection of his doubt somewhat linked to the town and themes of community. They possibly attack as a way of forcing him back home, back to the overbearing town and townspeople. However, the wolves fail, leaving Maurice to find himself in this position…

This is where the thematic link between the three main characters becomes all the more important. The Beast, Maurice and Belle all meet in the enchanted castle under the guise of being in similar situations – pushed away from community, isolated. This leaves the castle as a place tantamount to an Outlook Hotel.

I won’t delve too deep into this comparison, but, I think it’s evident that characters under this roof share a similar plight, and because of that, we can see it as somewhat metaphorical or symbolic.

Understanding exactly what the metaphor is, is pretty simple. It’s not so different from the metaphorical veil put over the prince. Everything in the castle is drenched in an ugly gloom and made to loom. It is a projection of character and so an extrapolation of mood – The Beast’s depression and self-loathing. This projection of The Beast is put upon those who inhabit the house also…

The Beast’s servants are reduced to caricatures just as he is. This implies they were sucked into his ‘curse’ – what would be the implications of his ‘meeting’ with The Enchantress. If something as dark as child abuse occurred at this point, it makes sense that The Beast would be stuck in a childish mindset and so metaphorically transform his carers into caricatures. We find further evidence for The Beast’s childish nature in his behaviour. Not only does he eat like no one has ever taught him how…

… but he has an uncontrollable temper…

… does not know to interact with people…

… and cannot read…

These are all hallmarks of a child in a grown person’s body – a damaged person. This is the essence of The Beast’s character and is projected across the entire narrative, from his castle to his servants. You may say it even stretches out into the forest, the wolves being a violent projection of his psyche, maybe a product of ‘the curse’ – in short, part of the larger metaphor centred on community and isolation that all characters exist under. This all suspends the film in a rather intangible space of imagination, but through theme and character, this suspended plot and world becomes all the more comprehensible.

So, with Maurice held captive by The Beast, Belle having sung more about how she wants to escape after Gaston proposes…

… she is pushed towards her own captivation…

This juxtaposition mimics Maurice’s attempt to leave town via his invention and allows us to see Belle’s imprisonment as her being sucked into this curse of isolation. The trap Gaston sets up back in town, is then one that embodies the conflicting conceptions of community and standard this town put upon Belle – a conflict that, again, links to The Beast and The Enchantress. however, this conflict thematically catalyses Belle’s movement towards The Beast. The reasoning for this brings us to the turning point of the movie. From here on out, this film isn’t so much about being trapped, about having nowhere to go, but trying to figure a way out. For The Beast, Belle sacrificing herself for her father’s freedom is a pivotal moment too, one that shocks him, one that demonstrates in front of his very eyes, love. This marks The Beast’s slow unwinding. And so, from here the film begins to coast towards an end. But, the purpose of this meeting is one with implications of romantic magnetism; that Belle were meant for each other, that they’re meant to help each other in life.

But, before jumping into that, we have to quickly pick up on this sequence…

There are few greater villains than Gaston because when you say “you love to hate him” you aren’t just spewing a cliche. The Gaston song is the undeniable example of this. The song is so good, but only because Gaston is such a vain dickhead. In such, all I can do is commend the genius that is this segment of the film.

However, this song is of course interrupted by Maurice, back from The Beast’s castle. It’s here where we see the mob mentality of the town grow and the general community shift a little. Having heard Maurice’s claim, they dismiss him as crazy – all of course led by Gaston. This segment makes next to no sense without recognising Gaston as the leader of those at the bar. This is because, despite the ludicrous claim, Maurice could easily begin to prove that Belle has been taken. All he has to do is show that she’s not at home and that his cart and horse are gone. With this said, he would easily be able to convince the town to go to The Beast’s castle. However, this doesn’t happen for two reasons. The first is that Maurice leading the siege on the castle would not just ruin the final act but seriously convolute the message of the film. It thus has to be remembered at this point that Belle, The Beast and Maurice are thematically connected – they are outsiders. This segues into the second reason a siege on The Beast’s castle can’t occur right now: Gaston. He controls the town, as his song pretty much outlines, and so he leads them to act as he does. But, this ultimately leaves them to the consequences of his hubris…

Nonetheless, Gaston only really needs to be kind to Maurice to get in with Belle. If he helped her father, if he saved her from The Beast on the first night, well, I’m pretty sure things would have gone his way. But, because this line of thought is antithetical to Gaston’s self-centric and malicious thought process, he would never do this. Instead of earning Belle’s trust (even if that means lying and being something he’s not) he wants to force things his way and be a dick. Such calls back to the core conflict of this entire film: rigid communities run by idiots. All of this means that Gaston would rather exploit those that are different from him, take them under his control and continually use them as he wants – such leaves him an archetypal bully and the town a horrible high school made up of butchers, bakers and candle stick makers. This is exactly why Maurice is left in the cold once again.

However, back to The Beast’s castle we go and it’s here where we see the ramifications of this moment:

Shocked by the self-sacrifice and love displayed by Belle taking Maurice’s place, The Beast is forced to see her as a person, not just an intruder. It’s here where we see the film’s core romantic attachment to a fatal attraction.

No, not that kind of fatal attraction – an attraction dictated by fate. In such, we see Belle finding herself in the castle as an implied ‘meant to be’. However, with the moment that The Beast realises that he has Belle in his castle he also sees the way to breaking his curse – not just romance. And this is an interesting moment as it speaks to this one:

Both The Beast and Gaston essentially want to use Belle for their own gains. Whilst this seems sinister, it must be pointed at that this is kind of what love and attraction simply are. You initially just want the other person to be yours. So, the subtle undertones of ‘ownership’ are nothing to get to flustered over. Instead, what The Beast and Gaston seem to have in common is really what separates them most. The Beast, while he wants Belle as to break his curse, is willing to change for that, is willing to engage in an social exchange – whereas Gaston is not. This means that The Beast has quite a way to go as to reverse the bullshit he pulled in imprisoning both Belle and her father, but, understandably so.

We thus see The Beast trying to get on with Belle…

… as the start of his character arc. This of course starts out rough and is thinned out by Lumiere and co. with another timeless song…

And in case you’re blind – one of the best sequences ever animated. But, it’s in welcoming Belle that another key theme is reprised; change. What we see in this sequence is the home coming to life, is the servants reversing the atmosphere of the castle. This theme of change is pivotal to everything that occurs in the castle from this point onwards and is linked, again, to this:

Just as Maurice ran into conflict when trying to change his life, so do Belle and The Beast. This isn’t only evident in the action sequence depicted, but the interactions between Belle and The Beast. Each time The Beast tries to be nice, he’s shot down, just as each time Belle becomes inquisitive she runs into trouble – which is what brings us to the wolves. This sequence then marks a significant moment in the relationship between The Beast and Belle. Not only does he save her life, she care for his wounds and the pair work through an argument, but, as before, the wolves show up at a dire moment of change. It’s when Belle runs away and The Beast runs after her that both characters attempt to reverse who they are. Belle breaks a promise, endangering her father – something she’s forced to do. The Beast begins to care for someone, to see them as a person. It’s here where we see The Beast confronting all that is fractured inside him, all that was shattered by this moment in his life:

The cut away that interrupts the growth in Belle and The Beast’s relationship is the setting up of the Insane Asylum Trap. Again, this is a return to the motif set up by the opening. One person wants something from another, whether it’s The Enchantress or Gaston, and they decide to use threats as a means of getting it – when that fails, punishment.

Moving back to the castle, however, we come across the Something That Wasn’t There Before segment. This is the crux of the film, the Rocky montage of The Beast reversing all that’s broken inside him. The focus of this segment is weakness being revealed in The Beast and a playful exchange occurring between himself and Belle. In such, we see the first major lesson The Beast learns; learning to love someone. This essentially marks him being able to transform the way he sees others and the world around him. It’s because of this that he sees something different in Belle and his Outlook Hotel-esque castle is transformed in the ‘Human Again’ sequence…

What we’re seeing here is the first major instance that change is embraced in the environment of the film. However, this, as we know, isn’t enough. Not only does The Beast need someone to love him back, but he essentially needs to see himself change; needs to not see himself as The Beast. But, this is all thrown in the air after this sequence…

…. when Belle is given the mirror. When Belle is asked what she truly wants to see, it’s her father – and it’s here where The Beast has to let her go. What this says about themes of change, isolation and community all brought up throughout the film is simply that some people need each other, i.e, Maurice needs Belle. Moreover, those who have lost someone, need those they have most – which is why Belle returns to her widowed father. What this links well to is The Lion King…

Just as Beauty And The Beast is an expansion on themes of adventure and love brought up in The Little Mermaid, The Lion King is an expansion on themes of responsibility raised in Beauty And The Beast. Thus, we see the holes in this film, the lack of exploration into Belle’s responsibilities – all characters responsibilities – being somewhat made up for by later features. This raises a very interesting conversation on cinematic universes we’ll surely pick up on another time. Coming back to the moment in which Belle is given the mirror, however…

… what we are seeing here is another moment buried in subtext. The Beast gives Belle the mirror as a way of looking back on him. Belle accepts this mirror without much of a word. This means that there is an understanding between the two that she’s never coming back. Watching this film as a kid, I never understood the huge emotive beat that was this moment, because, can’t she just come back? The truth is, Belle doesn’t really want to. Not only would she rather be with her father, but seems to embrace the little town she wanted to escape as her future. To pick up on the comparison to The Little Mermaid, this is the equivalent to Ariel deciding to stay with Triton in the ocean instead of going off with Eric. However, there is the added element of change present in Belle decision to leave. She essentially disengages from The Beast’s plight, leaving him as a kind of broken kid. Whilst this seems both unfair and completely sensical (would you really want to live with a Beast that loved you?), this is primarily a moment of suspension for Belle. She decides to not walk away from the people she can help, her father and The Beast, but decides between the two. This is all reversed, however, by the town who can’t let things be…

The ‘Kill The Beast’ song is actually a very interesting one. This film is often seen as one closely linked to the composer, Howard Ashman. The theory behind this implies that The Beast is a projection of Ashman, who had HIV and later died of AIDs. (Link here to a more in depth explanation). Whilst Ashman had to have allowed this to contribute to his characterisation of the lead through songs, there is also a strong link to the theory we’re exploring now in this song. In such, we see the depth of subtext in Beauty And The Beast, one you could probably draw a myriad of theories and explanations from.

However, staying with our current theory, the lyrics of this song seem to paint The Beast as a potential paedophile or child molester – all because he was maybe molested himself.

[Gaston:] The Beast will make off with your children.

[Mob:] {gasp}

[Gaston:] He’ll come after them in the night.

[Belle:] No! 

[Gaston:] We’re not safe till his head is mounted on my wall! I

Say we kill the Beast! 

[Mob:] Kill him! 

[Man I:] We’re not safe until he’s dead

[Man II:] He’ll come stalking us at night

[Woman:] Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite

[Man III:] He’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free

[Gaston:] So it’s time to take some action, boys

It’s time to follow me

Through the mist

Through the woods

Through the darkness and the shadows

It’s a nightmare but it’s one exciting ride

Say a prayer

Then we’re there

At the drawbridge of a castle

And there’s something truly terrible inside

It’s a beast

He’s got fangs

Razor sharp ones

Massive paws

Killer claws for the feast

Hear him roar

See him roam

But we’re not coming home

‘Til he’s dead

Good and dead

Kill the Beast! 

***

Light your torch

Mount your horse

[Gaston:] screw your courage to the sticking place

[Mob:] We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way

Through a mist

Through a wood

Where within a haunted castle

Something’s lurking that you don’t see ev’ry day

It’s a beast

One as tall as a mountain

We won’t rest

‘Til he’s good and deceased

Sally forth

Tally ho

Grab your sword

Grab your bow

Praise the Lord and here we go! 

***

[Mob:] We don’t like

What we don’t understand

In fact it scares us

And this monster is mysterious at least

Bring your guns

Bring your knives

Save your children and your wives

We’ll save our village and our lives

We’ll kill the Beast! 

This song, when looked at under the themes given to us by the opening of the film is very transparent. The townspeople seem to think The Beast will do to others as was done to him, but, given themes of change, we know this not to be true. There is no predacious subtext of this manner present in any part of the film, ‘The Beast’ is a facade that the prince took onto himself as a person who could never love and never be loved because of his tortured perspective of others – primarily, it seems, women. This is what the narrative fights against; a hatred and self-loathing built up in The Beast over his decade alone in his castle.

With the final conflict, we are then seeing the poison in the town that is Gaston confronting the epitome of its opposition; The Beast that has tried to change himself. Again, what we are seeing here is conflict constantly proceeding a change in a character. What the final fight represents is the fight that The Beast has to have fought to better himself. This is the guiding pattern of the film, it’s all about escaping the environments and people that try to control you and designate you a way of life. This is where The Shining comparisons I’ve been hinting at really come into play – but this is something we won’t delve too deeply into.

With the fight concluded, what this final transformation means should be clear by now. The Beast, almost taken down by the essence of conflict in this film…

… that which of course destroys itself, transforms. This is because Belle comes back, allowing The Beast to see that someone cares for him, that he isn’t the inevitable product of his past. This reverses his perception of self and billows out into the final surge of change that the film needs.

The commentary of this film is thus very simple, it’s all about recreating a perception of self by over coming external pressures and the myriad of elements of life that we ultimately cannot control. And in doing this, The Beast becomes a person capable of fully embracing Belle, of creating an environment in which they, the weirdos of a provincial little town, can live their happily ever after.

This brings us to the conclusion of the post. Beauty And The Beast is a film largely centered on changing the symbolic stained glass that filters the light into The Beast’s home. Where it once contorted all that shone in with memories of a dark past…

… it now allows him see the true light of a brighter present…

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The Little Mermaid – Character & Story: An Adventure In Fantasy Beyond Imagination

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The Little Mermaid – Character & Story: An Adventure In Fantasy Beyond Imagination

Thoughts On: The Little Mermaid

In the previous post, we started the exploration of this film by looking into a question of why we like Ariel. This is what we’ll continue…

The Little Mermaid 2

To pick up where we left, to understand why we like Ariel and her narrative, we have to consider her in terms of her story. This is where we can really sink our teeth into this movie, and is also where themes and a deeper analysis of narrative meaning come into the picture. So, what this movie is clearly about is, being a teenager. As many Disney films do, The Little Mermaid focuses on the transition we all make from adolescence to some weird place beyond that comfort. In such, naivety is a crucial element to this story. Which is why Ariel is a bit…

… ditsy. This isn’t just a moment of levity in the film, however. The fork is symbolic of a larger paradigm present throughout the narrative. There is a clear divide between an ‘up there’ and a ‘down here’; an under the sea and beyond the ocean. Ariel is interested in the other side, in… what’s it called?… land. (Sorry). Due to the divide, Ariel is both curious and unknowing. This is what the fork simply represents. But, just as she enthusiastically brushes her hair with the dinglehopper, she wanders into Ursula’s cave and gives her voice away. To delve into the subtext of this, it has to be noted that the ‘up there’ and ‘down here’ discussed are, in Ariel’s view, characterised by others:

Eric is land, is humanity, is up there; King Triton is the ocean, is… mermanity? is down here. Eric is the ruler of his kingdom just as Triton is his. With this, the almost irrefutable cliche of parent/child, daddy/daughter issues has arisen. Through Eric we thus see the convoluted relationship Ariel has with her father. Whilst she loves him, there’s that teenage rebellion which has her seek out the near-equivalent in a different context. This is the crux of why she never really changes throughout the film; people’s parent issues don’t just fade. Bergman surely made a career out of the fact…

Staying with The Little Mermaid though, another core reason why Ariel doesn’t change is that she has little to learn given the current themes. The only person who really needs to have a character arc with romantic themes of adventure and change at hand are the likes of Sebastian and Triton.

P.S. Who the fuck is Sebastian? He’s the royal conductor/composer and babysitter-to-death of a princess? I really don’t understand the hierarchical system of Triton’s ocean. Nonetheless, with romantic themes of change at hand, the ultimate goal of this narrative is to say that Ariel’s spirit and yearning for adventure isn’t only a good thing, but something all parents should embrace. Thus, I see the true crux of this film to be in the lesson Triton learns: even if your kid’s an asshole, you’ve still got to love them.

There is greater depth and details to be found in this film’s message, however. We’ll start with one of the most popular sequences in the film, the Part Of Your World song…

This is where the greatest bits of teenage commentary come into the film, but also where we see the crux of The Little Mermaid as a representative of the Disney resurgence. As we’ve been covering in the last few posts in the Disney Series, after Sleeping Beauty, Disney films changed…

        

What these films represent is a move away from the classical Disney formula, away from their traditional fairy-tales. This, in my opinion, was a much needed breath of fresh air. 101 Dalmatians and The Aristocats in particular are great Disney new-wave classics that hold their own in face of any other. However, there was a commercial decline that ran over this period, one almost completely reversed by The Little Mermaid. That is to say, The Little Mermaid is the first in a string of monumental box office smashes:

    

These films, whist holding onto some elements of the previous period of change around the 60s and 70s, came back to the softer aesthetic of the classics as well as embraced the traditional romantic themes. This of course welcomed The Little Mermaid – which is probably the most extreme and, in certain respects, vapid example of a Disney cliche or paradigm: a young princess finding prince charming. However, the film isn’t as flat-out bad as this description. Because of character, music and aesthetic, this simplistic narrative has been elevated. Nonetheless, it’s the Part Of Your World song that truly makes a call back to older themes. We see this in the blind yearning perfectly symbolised with this juxtaposition:

These two halves of the narrative display the yearning and the receiving; Ariel’s blind desire clumsily realised. This is the epitome of almost every Disney classic, but with all looming conflict discarded as fat. That is to say, The Little Mermaid is Cinderella without the stepmother, keys and locks; Snow White without the witch, huntsman and apple; Dumbo without the circus, ring master and cage. All of these characters have a blind and burning desire that drives them; for Cinderella, a dream of freedom, for Snow White, true love to take her away, for Dumbo, a mother to comfort him again. Their conflict justifies their struggle, their pining, their songs. This isn’t so true in The Little Mermaid though. All conflict in this film is a projection of Ariel’s character flaws. This is where we see the deviation from the classical Disney pictures in a certain sense – in a lack of tragedy and malice. Whilst the characters, themes and goals are similar across the mentioned films, the conflict filling the gaps is not. However, what lies at the emotional core of this song is incredibly reminiscent of such moments:

A young girl sings to us her hopes and dreams, ones that come true by the end of the movie. In such lies the idiosyncratic magic of the Disney feature, in such is best representation of a romanticised optimism that’s irrefutably indicative of a more classical Disney.

Beyond conveying a change in the form of story telling, Ariel’s key song puts across the essence of the film and its commentary on teenage-hood. To pick up on this we’ll just need a few lines from the song:

Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl,

The girl who has everything?

***

But who cares?

No big deal

I want more

***

Flipping your fins you don’t get too far

***

Up where they walk

Up where they run

Up where they stay all day in the sun

Wandering free

Wish I could be

Part of that world

***

Betcha on land

They understand

That they don’t reprimand their daughters

Bright young women

Sick of swimming

Ready to stand

***

Out of the sea

Wish I could be

Part of that world

With the first two sections, we see Ariel’s blind desire put to words. She has it all, but wants more. This is something that combines with the next two sections to further comment on something Sebastian picks up on frequently; the grass being greener. It seems so strange that Ariel would choose the physical attributes of land-life as symbolic of freedom. With the ocean being a voluminous and three dimensional liquid realm in face of the flat two-dimensional experience of land-life, wouldn’t the ocean be the physically freeing place? You can swim in any direction you want, whereas feet can only fight gravity to drag you forwards, backwards, side-to-side – which leaves those fins getting you pretty far–and with ease, However, Ariel doesn’t speak in terms of physics (even though that’d be a huge deciding factor – for a mermaid especially). Again, the sea is Triton’s domain. Ariel simply doesn’t feel free under these conditions–which is what leads on to the line, ‘they don’t reprimand their daughters’, meaning everything is perfect on land for teenagers. This is of course nonsense, everyone is reprimanded in some sense growing up – just look at Eric…

… he’s constantly moaned at for not being married, gossiped over, such and so on. This line then speaks directly to Ariel’s naivety and her irrational optimism. The last line of the song sums everything up; she just wants to be out of the sea and apart of another world. This cites that Ariel’s internal conflict and goals are sourced from this reflexive and semi-conscious need for change. She wants to grow into her own person, but doesn’t really know that that’s what she wants. This may imply that her ‘falling in love’ with Eric is a white lie, and that the ending isn’t really a happy one, but, within the confines if the movie this blind chase is justified. This is all because Triton is the one who learns his lessons. Ariel is a character that facilitates this – which is ultimately tantamount to a slightly obnoxious teen getting their way. However, this only equates Ariel to…

We picked up on this in the previous post, but Ferris Bueller here doesn’t have a huge character arc, he just gets his way by the end of the movie.

It’s Jeanie that has to change, that needs a character arc. The only difference between The Little Mermaid and Ferris Bueller in this respect is thematic. Ferris is a bit of an anarchistic while Ariel is a romantic. However, both of their narratives are enjoyable because of the stories flourishing out of these rebellious teens, each under their respective thematic connotations.

In a certain sense, it’s this senselessness that lies at the core of Ariel’s character. She doesn’t really know what she wants. She probably likes the security of being a princess linked to a king, of being able to explore freely, which is why she gravitated towards Eric. But, because upbringing stigmatise the teenage perception of parents, Ariel feels the need to relocate – not change as a person, just relocate. I think this is what we all understand as she sings her song in spite of concepts of character arcs or more complex and mature messages. There is a maturity in this acceptance of Ariel as a stupid teenager which gives this film a natural flow, and so room to breathe, to be a flippant musical where being eaten by a shark…

… is just no big deal. It’s this embrace of teenage-hood and Ariel as a character that has us find our way here:

It’s in Ursula’s cave that Ariel, of course, gives her voice away. This is the most interesting part of the story. Not only does it mark a transformation of character…

… not just that one, but, it is the ironic epitome of the movie. Why, if there are such strong pro-freedom and pro-woman undertones to this movie; again…

Betcha on land

They understand

That they don’t reprimand their daughters

Bright young women

Sick of swimming

Ready to stand

… would you symbolise one of the most damaging non-physical forms of suppression: taking away a person’s voice? The answer lies in another ironic aspect of Ariel’s transformation:

When Ariel can’t speak, she’s a much better character. This isn’t too surprising to anyone familiar with silent films. This is the all-important factor of figures such as Chaplin and Keaton. It’s because they can’t talk that they have a disability in the way they may present themselves. Just as a novelist may only really describe images, and so is constricted, a silent film actor may only use action. This doesn’t mean silent film characters or novelists are inexpressive though. They work around their confines and manage to turn them into positives. Ariel as a silent figure is a great example of this. Without her voice, she charms Eric inadvertently; again:

This action reveals Ariel’s true character. Words could not have done the same for her. So, in a certain sense, it’s Ursula taking Ariel’s voice that allows her to reinvent herself – not only to us, but to the characters in her world. What happens when we get to the big reveal, Ariel having got her voice back…

… is that Eric sees Ariel in her best lights. Ariel’s song is representative of her saving his life – which is why Eric initially fell in love with her and, in realising that it was her that saved him all along, marries her. Combine this with the essence of her character being non-verbally voiced perfectly and their bond seems to make sense. Ariel not only demonstrates the best parts of her character, but the heart of it to Eric, the truth resulting in this…

This is why we can be swept along by this narrative. it’s not just about getting to know Ariel and what she wants, but that desire combining with a myriad of other intricacies to produce something almost magic – in the perfect Disney fashion.

We then see the crux of this entire film in its flawless tagline:

An Adventure In Fantasy Beyond Imagination

The adventure is what Ariel pursues throughout this narrative; it’s fun, it’s change, it’s the new. All of this is born out of a teen fantasy, catalysed by daddy issues. But, this fantasy is beyond imagination; Ariel doesn’t know what she wants, she can’t imagine it. This is why she blindly pursues her emotive compass as it pricks in any direction away from her father. All of this reduces the narrative to romantic goop, but intentionally so. It is very clear that this narrative was designed around Ariel getting what she wants without any true conflict. The reasoning for this is so that, we, the audience, are sucked into story and setting through characterisation. We take Ariel’s side throughout the narrative, feel as she fells, and enjoy her narrative as it unfolds.

So, that’s it. The Little Mermaid is a very enjoyable film. It’s a great lesson in how character may work with both the audience and story to create a great narrative and timeless film. Though there are risks in the characterisation of a narrative through such an excruciatingly teenage character, Disney has pulled this off well.

 

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The Little Mermaid – Character & Audience

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The Little Mermaid – Character & Audience

Thoughts On: The Little Mermaid

A teen mermaid dreams of living among people.

The Little Mermaid

First things first, The Little Mermaid is a terrible title. It doesn’t have the finesse and punch of titles such as Dumbo or The Aristocats nor the acceptable directness of Cinderella or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. It’s just as on-the-nose and inexpressive as The Jungle Book. However, because these films were based off of books and are so famous, they kind of just roll off the tongue. For that, critiquing the title seems pointless and nit-picky, but… yeah, that’s just what it is. To restart, The Little Mermaid is a fairly harmless film on the surface and a slightly interesting one when pushed deeper into. In terms of form, however, this is a staggering film. The animation of the many tiny details throughout this film to imply an underwater effect, details such as hair, eyes and fins…

… are a testament to the diligence and focus that went into producing such a smooth and believable cinematic world. The greatest scene to look at as an example of the sheer detail of movement animated in this film has to be the Poor Unfortunate Souls sequence…

Second to this has to be the ship sinking sequence, which took a year to animate.

On a side note, something of a theme, no?

But, whilst all of these films (The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, Frozen) have been theorised to be linked through these very events and their setting, this isn’t something we’re going to get into. (Just Google “Little Mermaid Tarzan Frozen theory” if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Beyond boats and form, The Little Mermaid has some great songs and characters. It’s Ariel herself that is definitely the strongest and most compelling part of the film. However, it’s with Ariel that you find the rabbit hole of critique in this film – one that’ll quickly spiral into gender politics. In short, the plotting of this film isn’t considered very strong as Ariel’s character arc is quite flat – arguably, non-existent.

Taking a slight side note, it often seems that when you hear terms such as ‘character arc’ being used to analyse or review a film, it’s often used in a very flippant way. This is also true when you critique actors’ performances – but this is a side note in a side note we won’t explore. In short, ‘character arc’ in a sentence produces a statement that is often very banal. You have to delve deeper into the term, ‘character arc’ to justify its use. To say a character doesn’t have a strong arc is amateur screenwriting nonsense. That is not to say that to be a professional screenwriter your characters mustn’t have arcs though. I simply mean to imply that character arcs are incredibly subjective concepts; subjective to story. This means that, whilst Ferris Bueller doesn’t have a great character arc…

… he still exists in a great film. The same may be said for Scarlett O’Hara…

… Jordan Belfort…

… even Rocky…

Rocky is a very interesting example of a character that doesn’t change much. Whilst he goes from rags to riches, a bum to a true contender, that is all an external change. The true heart of Rocky lies in the story of an underdog – and to sustain levels of empathy and to maintain a real character, a screenwriter won’t change who they are. They won’t alter Rocky as a hard-headed crook who can’t sing or dance, only dig his heels in and take a beating–dish one out when he has to. Just check out Rocky III to see what I mean; The Italian Stallion’s character arcs are always incredibly subdued or back to a more familiar place. What screenwriters then do instead of putting characters such as Rocky through an arc of character is put them through some shit – what is often a very cinematic (translation: slightly contrived) plot. This creates the illusion of change, but it’s not an arc in character, just in plot. This is simply because some characters need no arc or growth to become great – they just are. This is true of Rocky, just as it is O’Hara, Belfort and Bueller. The aforementioned archetypal anti-heroes are so fun, are so absurd, are so ridiculous from the very get go. It then seems that the plot is often there to facilitate mere time we get to spend with them – Ferris Bueller being a significant example of this. What this says about films with character arcs is… nothing. The two types or approaches can co-exist. This is mainly because figures like Luke Skywalker…

… and Thomas Anderson…

… don’t start off as great characters. They’re either boring or annoying. They have to become great – and that’s the point of their narrative. All of this indicates the stark subjectivity of character plotting; it’s all very much intertwined with the plotting of your story and so dependent on a specific narrative. Keeping this idea at hand, we can come back to Ariel…

This is an incredibly interesting character considering her arc. She doesn’t change by the end of the movie, but she doesn’t start out as a particularly likeable character–yet, she is the strongest part of the film. In such, we have what seems like a paradox, at the least, an outlier. To understand how Ariel works, why we like her by the end of the film, we only have to consider two points. The first is of emotion, and the second of story.

Starting with emotion, we only need to turn to the audience. There are a plethora of biases that few but casting directors probably focus on when it comes to movies. We often like characters because of what lies beneath them, the piano playing the concerto…

… the actor. Whether it’s an unpopular opinion or not, we usually like characters because of something we often sugarcoat with a term like screen presence. What lies beneath this sugary term is the truth that Will Smith…

… Scarlett Johansson…

… Brad Pitt…

… and Margot Robbie…

… are near-perfect human specimens – attractive ones at that. No, not to all, but to most. Sure, they can be great actors on top of this, and sure skill, talent and craft can mask looks, can allow you to transcend facade, skin deep judgment…

… but…

… the whole package is so much easier to sell… so much easier… because, as they say, if you like it, you put a ring on it – our proverbial ring being attention, money and an unwavering gaze. What this says about characters, about Ariel…

…. about the teen drawn with perfect facial and bodily structure, with all the primally ingrained targets embellished, who is almost always in nothing but two shells, who is innocent, naive, in search of–let’s not make things pornographic. The point is, if you have a dick, yeah, you’ve probably whacked off to this child’s cartoon character. If you haven’t… I don’t know how the other half of the species works. Nonetheless, the point stands that a huge part of characterisation is aesthetic. Whilst looks and sexuality are the most obvious example of this, there are a plethora of other details to this concept. If you, again, look to the likes of Will Smith and Margot Robbie…

… you don’t just see two attractive human beings, but two attractive personalities. The latter can also be said of…

Not really a good actor. But, an iconic one nonetheless. This is very clearly down to the fact that John Wayne plays John Wayne in almost every single one of his films. This is a notoriously recognised phenomena by both critics and audiences. Whilst critics may sometimes moan, sometimes embrace, this paradigm, audiences almost always welcome some amount of predictability in their films. We see John Wayne movies because… duh, they’re John Wayne movies. With this recognised we can begin to put on the hat of a casting director. Who do you want in your western? A John Wayne, a Clint Eastwood, or, a Jim Carey, an Eddy Murphy? With the answers being obvious, take off the casting director’s hat and put on the screenwriter’s one. How do you write your protagonist in this western script? If you’re paying attention, yes, this is a very subjective question. However, you will approach this character with an understanding that what fits into a classic or spaghetti western won’t fit into a comedy. You only need to look to Blazing Saddles to see comedy born from antithesis…

With all of this said, it should become clear that Ariel’s role is one that draws upon an archetype:

No, Snow White and Ariel aren’t the same character, but they’re both teens; naive and fair maidens under duress who seek true love and have a nice voice. There are many other similarities to draw upon, just as there are across all Disney princesses. And in such, you see the archetype hidden behind the character which holds an emotional grip over your viewing experience. Ultimately, because we’re draw to patterns, we are drawn to Ariel as a Disney Princess. This covers the broad emotional angle of why Ariel as a character is one we like.

Moving to a more acute angle, an essential part of characterisation is perspective, is putting an audience in the shoes of your protagonist. To quote Howard Ashman who co-composed the music for The Little Mermaid:

“In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place that’s usually about the third song of the evening…[where] the leading lady usually sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her and then routes for her to get it for the rest of the night”

A major reason why we like Ariel is that we understand her – all because we understand what she wants in life. She resonates with us through theme and implied relation. You find this to be true in many aspects of life. The people you often don’t like are the people you don’t get, are those who don’t resonate with you. Moreover, one of the most annoying things in life is dealing with problems, worse, dealing with people with problems, that don’t want to be solved. When people make you go around and around in circles because they don’t know how to fix things, they don’t know how things can be changed, they don’t know where the solutions are, and they manage to drag you into that horrid cycle… it’s soul crushing. Screenwriters would never in their right minds leave you with these kinds of people without a concise point to be made. Characters often need goals and something to do because we don’t want to be stuck with inert conflict that cannot be resolved or faced with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I would have opened with this reasoning for why we like Ariel, but it’s not the whole truth – especially the former part of the explanation. The people we don’t like aren’t always those that we don’t understand. This is a point made in the film…

Without knowing each other, Ariel and Eric fall in love. Is this unrealistic? Somewhat. But, it’s a clear truth that the people we like, those we are drawn to, aren’t the people we know best…

… right? In such, we see the crux of Ariel’s characteristic paradox made comprehensible by aesthetic and perspective. In other words, because she’s attractive, archetypal and we understand her, we like her. However, because characterisation is subjective to narrative, we have to look at Ariel in the context of her story.

But, for that, you’ll have to wait for a part 2. Sorry, not sorry…

 

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A History Of Violence – Where The Western Classic Meets The Gangster Movie

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A History Of Violence – Where The Western Classic Meets The Gangster Movie

Quick Thoughts: A History Of Violence

A forgotten past barges its way into a small town.

A History Of Violence

A History Of Violence is a great study in the antithetical, yet similar, nature of both the western and the gangster picture. The influence of both the classic western and gangster films is very apparent in the two halves of this film. In the first half we see, both through setting and theme, the western side of this movie. The middle-American locale with a close community is archetypal of westerns. Added to this we have themes of family, self-sovereignty and simplicity. All of these link the opening of the film to westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon. The High Noon influence is key as its acts as the catalyst of the film; the mobsters from Philadelphia showing up. This mimics the ‘big trouble coming to a little town’ seen in High Noon and many other westerns. With added themes of a past coming back to haunt a man and rattle his family, we see the true strength of the connection between both A History Of Violence and High Noon. As the narratives moves along, we get into the latter half of the film and the ‘gangster film’ side of things. Here we see the influence of films such as Public Enemy and Scarface. This obviously encompasses the grimy city aesthetic and themes of violence. But, with the end of the film, we see the true essence of the gangster film coming to fruition. With themes of familial betrayal and loyalty, we’re steeped in the fabrics of The Godfather, On The Water Front, Goodfellas, The 25th Hour and Carlito’s Way. The crux of all of these films lies in tragedy meeting themes of family and violence. However, it cannot be forgotten that there is powerful classical western base to this film. This re-introduces the essence of films such as The Searchers, Unforgiven, Once Upon A Time In America and, of course, High Noon. What this coalesces into is the internal conflicts of Tom/Joey. Whereas the archetypal gangster faces ruin and tragedy having tried to save his family and preserve his way of life, the archetypal white hat cowboy faces noble futility, an open door to walk out of and away from family. This is the subtextual poignancy of the climax to this film; the question it asks as Tom/Joey sits down at his dinner table. Can he reassure the facade of the white hat cowboy? Will this cause him to walk away from family? Will it help him preserve it? Or, will he embrace Joey, his gangster archetype? Will that work in his favour? Will this destroy his family, result in tragedy?

These are the great questions asked by A History Of Violence, ones best understood through not just our main character’s dichotomous identities as both Tom and Joey, but also the film’s dichotomous identities as both a western and gangster film.

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The Dark Knight – The Vanilla Problem

Thoughts On: The Dark Knight

The Joker, Batman, eventually some Two-Face–you’ve seen this film.

The Dark Knight

We all know that The Dark Knight is a great movie. All that is great about it has been praised beyond mention. However, I have what is probably going to be an unpopular opinion. This is most definitely an overrated film. In fact, this whole trilogy is overrated. I’m not saying that these films are in any way bad. Many aspects of these movies, apart from some bits of plotting, are incredibly good. However, there are a multitude of elements to The Dark Knight Trilogy that are little more than really good. Thus, these films do not reach the heights at which they often are praised at. Again, these are great movies. They aren’t the best films ever made though – not by a long shot. I’ve then chosen Dark Knight, the best of the trilogy, to make an argument for why.

In short, the problem with these films is in Nolan’s incredibly vanilla direction. This is a major problem with all of Nolan’s films; from Memento to Inception to The Dark Knight Trilogy to Interstellar, all of Nolan’s films suffer from a lack of style, character and nuance. To understand what I mean, I simply ask you to compare how you feel when watching Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to the likes of Inception or The Dark Knight. The comparison to Goodfellas is the most blunt. There is in no way the same level of style, entertainment and levity captured by any of Nolan’s films as in Goodfellas. You’re instantaneously swept along with the narrative because of Scorsese’s (and crew’s) masterful control over sound, light, framing, composition and editing – not to forget, acting and writing. When you compare Nolan to Spielberg, which many have before, there is often the temptation to say that he is the ‘Spielberg of our times’ because of his audacity to create such successful blockbusters. However, 1) Spielberg is not dead and is still making films, so I’m sure that makes him feel great, and, 2) have you seen Jurassic Park? Indiana Jones?? Jaws??? Heck, even Hook???? All of these films are better, in my opinion, than any of Nolan’s films. This is ultimately because Nolan is, in some ways, very much like Spielberg. He creates great blockbusters that you can’t imagine anyone else making. Films like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and Interstellar are a testament to modern filmmaking as they say that there are still people willing to take risks to create something new and exciting. However, the tone of Nolan’s films are so often incredibly drab and boring. He takes astounding concepts and really waters them down. Sure, he presents them in a cool way, with respect and integrity. But, his shooting of films, such as Dark Knight, is little more than competent and so adds little to what the concept and story already have to offer. This is his major fault. He is nothing like Spielberg in respect to his ability to project a script and make it better, to manipulate an audience’s emotions and create quintessential blockbusters.

The question I ultimately want to ask with The Dark Knight–in turn, all of Nolan’s films –is: how could they be better? Before getting into that, two things. Firstly, I’m not saying I know how to make movies better than Christopher Nolan. I’m just saying that, in comparing his films to all I’ve seen, I can join together dots to speculate how these films could be better. Secondly, before asking a question of how to make The Dark Knight better, we have to go over its faults.

First things first, aesthetics. The Dark Knight is consistently given a strong colour pallet, some great composition, lighting and framing. However, none of these details are very interesting. This is something very common of a multitude of films being put out these days. With digital filmmaking, having films look good and fit a certain aesthetic isn’t incredibly significant. A great recent example of this would be the horror film Don’t Breathe…

This film has been shot incredibly well. The lighting is great, the compositions are incredibly strong, but for the majority of the first act, this doesn’t do anything. In fact, there is a sense of pretension about the first act and films that fall into this paradigm. There’s a great focus on visuals, but they barely impact the telling of the story. However, when you break into the second act of Don’t Breathe, you see some incredibly interesting shots that tell the story and engage an atmosphere. This comes with a combination of steady-cam and CGI assisted long shots.

When moving about the house as the criminals first break in, the camera has us walk/run/creep through with them. And in such, we see a fantastic use of cinematic language throughout the majority of the second act. And ‘cinematic language’ is a key term. The shots aren’t just flashy, they aren’t just derivative of Kubrick and Scorsese (Goodfellas again and The Shining). These shots draw you in as an audience member and help contribute to the story by giving tone and texture to the mood of the narrative. The third act of the film is drawn out and tiresome, but we’ll leave the film at that.

The Dark Knight doesn’t have the kind of cinematic language present in the best parts of Don’t Breathe. The shot types throughout this film are nothing interesting and neither are the aesthetics. There’s a dark tone given by the heavy use of blue and blacks that is often made poignant with the sparse use of reds and oranges, but this does little in the way of assisting story. That is to say that the use of colour, framing and camera movement rarely reaches from the screen and punches you in the gut. There simply isn’t that immersive awe-factor in these films. Because of the strong aesthetics not assisting story, not doing much in the way of generating a better tone and atmosphere, there is, again, an air of pretension produced. In short, The Dark Knight has a great facade, but one without much depth – it simply isn’t very expressive.

The second major fault with this film is also about expression. It’s all about the how the story’s message is translated through character. To pick up on the comparison again, this is the true separating factor between Spielberg and Nolan. Almost all of Nolan’s characters are just…          . The Dark Knight, however, is probably one Nolan’s best films because of Alfred, Batman and The Joker. These are great characters – a rarity in both this Trilogy and Nolan’s cannon of films. What makes them great characters is their expressive behaviour. Characters such as Commissioner Gordon and Dent are little more than technically strong characters because they’re written and played in a very formal way.

This is one of the biggest faults of technical screenwriting (something explored with Die Hard). When characters are written technically, they do little more than serve their plot whilst having a bit of back story or guiding morals. This is the case for every single one of Nolan’s characters. They are strong in a technical respect, but almost all lack strong traits that elevate them off the page and help them evolve to be more than just dialogue and the words that described them. Alfred, Batman and The Joker make this transcendence though. This is largely thanks to the way the actors worked with the given script. Alfred and The Joker are obvious examples of this. They hold an emotive facade that really sells the characters beneath. I won’t get too deep into these characters, namely The Joker, just yet though. With Batman, however, what makes him great isn’t so much Christian Bale’s performance. He is inherently a cool character – he fights crime in a goddamn armored suite and cape. Because of this, he is almost always defined by actions; by him literally fighting crime. This reliance on action is what makes Batman such a great character. He resonates on a very primal and emotive level with the audience – simply due to his behavior. Other characters do not have this. They are words, very rarely action. What this picks up on is a Star Trek approach to narrative meaning…

A large part of what made Star Trek so strong was its powerful messages. These, however, were often said explicitly through dialogue. This is not very cinematic. In cinema, you show, you don’t tell. That goes for the plot points of your movie, character motives and the subtextual meaning of your film. You don’t shout them out. When you combine this lack of ‘show, don’t tell’ with characters who don’t project their personage very well through behavior and action, you end up with very empty and bland characters. You see these kinds of characters riddled throughout The Dark Knight. This is not just true of the main and assisting characters, but the plethora of smaller parts. There are about a billion Cop #1s, #2s, #3s, and #4s in this movie. There are also a billion other Citizen #1s, #9s and #56s. This is a huge issue and something you see in a multitude of big movie blockbusters – an overuse of extras and small parts. This is something we’ll pick up on again later. But, to summarise the faults in characters throughout this movie, all you have to recognise is how technical and rigid they are. This hurts how you view the movie as it produces so many empty moments. It spreads the emotional high points of the film like too little butter over too much bread – to paraphrase Bilbo in The Lord Of The Rings.

Before leaving characters completely, we have to pick up on another weakness in Batman: Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne as little more than a watered down Patrick Bateman…

Instead of being a hilarious megalomaniac by day and a murderous sexual deviant by night, Bale plays Batman/Wayne as a slightly egotistical asshat by day and a quite violent, yet slightly moral, vigilante by day. Whilst this isn’t an entirely solid comparison, I make it to suggest the faults in Batman; he is expressive in his actions, but only to a certain extent. Patrick Bateman is, whilst hyperbolic and driven by a different mental predisposition, a much stronger character than Batman/Wayne because his internal arc is projected so much more articulately. This is the crux of what all of Nolan’s characters lack. There is just a lack of… this…

Another huge downfall of the film lies in editing. This is something that is linked to both the direction of the movie and its tone. In respect to tone, this film simply isn’t violent enough. I say this as a blood thirsty fan of violent YouTube videos – and for that you have my apologies and your critique. But, I can’t buy the ‘dark and gritty’ tone of this film with its ultimately child-friendly design. This is a fault I don’t hold as too important, however. This is because it’s a subjective opinion, but also because of the obvious fact that this film couldn’t have been made or have sold as well if there was blood flying everywhere. However, there is weight to this class of criticism and it’s linked to direction. The action in this movie is shot in a satisfactory manor – it’s nothing amazing though. I point to the best sequence of the film…

… the chase sequence. I know this will hurt any film buff’s heart, but… Michael Bay would have filmmed this sequence better. Call me a know-nothing dickhead, but this is almost undeniable. Michael Bay, for all of his faults, knows how to shoot exciting action – and he does so in innovative ways. Sure, he uses the same old gimmicks quite a lot, but why do we criticise him for this? Because he’s not doing anything new or exciting; his directorial style is becoming bland. But, what’s the major fault with Nolan’s direction of action? It’s bland. And guess what, it never was new or exciting. This is where you must say Michael Bay has the foot up on Christopher Nolan. Not only is this chase sequence shot in such a basic and uninspired manor, but the sound design is borderline terrible. This is true throughout the film. Not only is the sound design lacking, but the music is so, here’s the word again, bland. This, however, is something that has been picked up on by many before me. Music is a huge downfall of many big blockbusters nowadays. I suggest this video as great look into this topic…

The final note on the action in this film must be made on the fact that we never see Batman do anything particularly cool, badass or Batman-like. We got to see a glimpse of this in the shit-show that was Batman V Superman near the very end…

… but this is something lacking in all of DC’s films. However, what this all segues into is the final major fault in The Dark Knight is something first touched on with my review of Batman V Superman. This is the concept of Human Cinema and is at the crux of every moment of banality in this film. Though this concept has a lot to do with the confines of cinema in respect to fantasy, to the everyday, Human Cinema is a concept that can pervade an entire movie. You see this in The Dark Knight from the myriad of minor characters and heavy focus on morality to the persistent focus on the everyday. This underlies the movie with a very boring human touch as well as imbues the film with an ugly sense of self-centricity. In other words, this is a film designed by and for people in a very direct sense. You see this in the constant appeal to the average Joe. Whilst this is a noble approach to cinema in some people’s perspective, it’s complete dog shit in mine. This is because all films are ultimately about people anyway. Just look to Disney to understand why…

Despite these films being about lions, tigers and bears, they still resonate with us. Why? Because people have an inherent understanding of personification – just ask your kids or younger family members as they watch their cartoons. It’s because of this that Human Cinema is such a nasty poison in fantasy. It dumbs down films, but also needlessly confines them. It forces a painful focus on realism and plot. And this is the absolute worst part of The Dark Knight: it’s plot-centric design. Every single goddamn moment in this film is about plot–there are very little fun moments in which we get to enjoy the fact that this is a Batman movie. This is what I meant when I said I wish there was more action and violence in this film. I didn’t just mean to suggest that it makes more sense to see more blood and violence, but that the movie should capitalise on its crucial draw: Batman vs The Joker. We get some great moments of Batman vs The Joker throughout the film, but the plot really cuts this down. This is all down to the way this film was both written and edited. Everything in the movie is fined tuned to the max – something admirable. But, without fat, a film like Batman V Superman is… kind of disappointing. The reason why highly fine-tuned films work is often because they’re either Back To The Future or Die Hard. These films are so fun in their initial design that each moment has the texture of ‘fat’. (That is to say that it’s juicy and tender). Films like Back To The Future don’t need to have add-in scenes to inject extra humour or fun – this is what they’ve been designed to be. The Dark Knight could use a bit of fat, could use a few cooler sequences that aren’t slave to a plot. Moreover, this film is begging for some fattier, juicier, flashier direction. However, we’re about to find ourselves retracing familiar ground.

So, with the major faulted aspects of this film outlined, we can ask the question of how to make this film better. We’ll start with the characters. You only need to look to The Joker to see how to better characters. Heath ledger’s work with this character, whilst over the top and indicative of Jack Nicholson’s kind of acting…

… is so enjoyable because he sinks into the insanity of this character in an incredibly genuine way. (P.S A comparison to Nicholson’s The Joker has not been implied). Ledger doesn’t just foam at the mouth and scream, but allow the insanity to imbue all the little gestures…

It then comes as little surprise that some of the best moments of the film are not only provided by The Joker, but by accident. This speaks to Nolan himself. His direction is way too formal, it is not stylistic and expressive, but rigid and incredibly vanilla. This doesn’t just effect the aesthetics of the film, but its tone. Everything is focused on talking about morality, white nights and doing the right thing – and always as a preface to action. The action is rarely allowed to speak for itself, nor is it given breathing room to really blow our minds. This films ultimately needs to relax, needs to push its bounds in respect to being a fantasy film – not just a nitty, gritty crime thriller. It needs to relinquish itself from plot, explore its world and characters – even in the simplest ways. I mean, wouldn’t you like to see more of this film from The Joker’s perspective? Take out the trillion minor characters and show us his side of things. If not, at least the movie from over his shoulder from time to time. Where does he go at night? What does he do to relax? How does he get around? All, in my opinion, interesting questions than could, in a positive respect, dehumanise the cinematics of this film.

The final notes I’ll make on this film is that it will inevitably be looked back on as a classic or great film. However, The Dark Knight will be a great in the same respect Double Indemnity or Casablanca are. These films have so many great elements to them, but are’t the best of their kind. This means that just as Rififi is much better than Double Indemnity in respect to crime thrillers and film noir, so is Intermezzo a better film than Casablanca in respect to romance and drama.

  

  

This all suggest that The Dark Knight will go down in filmic history as great, but in a class of great that, whilst revered, has faults in design. Furthermore, I think The Dark Knight can be bettered. In fact…

… maybe it has been? To end, I’ll say that, for The Dark Knight to be great, it doesn’t have to be the Goodfellas of the superhero genre – but it does need something more to it. This is ultimately a strong film, but one that is definitely lacking.

So, what do you think? Am I talking out of my asshole, or do you think The Dark Knight is overrated, at the least, subject to many primarily directorial faults?

 

 

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