Scorpio Rising – Symphonic Cinema

Thoughts On: Scorpio Rising (1964)

A mishmash of music video and montage explores gay Nazi biker culture (… I know).

Scorpio Rising

Scorpio Rising is probably the most iconic of films by Kenneth Anger, a gay filmmaker focused on the depiction of homosexuality in cinema with interests in the occult who worked from the late 30s to this very day. The style Anger developed over his many decades of work has strong formal links to silent cinema. In such, there is no dialogue in his films, but still a dependence on music. One of the most blatant films of his that showcase this relationship with silent cinema must be Rabbit’s Moon.

In this short film, a format that Anger has solely worked in, we see overly expressive, pantomime-esque, acting, surreal imagery with nods to Un Chien Andalou…

… and a montage that produces an incredibly ambiguous narrative. This, bar the acting, finds its way into many of Anger’s films. The strongest of these elements we see in a film like Scorpio Rising is certainly the montage. This is a film shot with an abundance of close-ups that all mean to characterise figures through their surroundings, their actions and their possessions. We cannot forget, however, that there is further characterisation imbued into this narrative with a long list of songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s by artists such as Ray Charles, Elvis and Bobby Vinton.

This infusion of music and selective close-ups ultimately creates a hypnotic effect whereby you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative. And this is something you see in many of Anger’s films, particularly Scorpio Rising, Puce Moment and Kustom Kar Kommandos. But, I’ve often wondered how and why this approach is so immersive, and there seems to be an answer in the idea of symphonic imagery.

The most famous examples of cinematic symphonies would have to be City Symphonies of the 20s – films like Man With A Movie Camera…

But, also Disney’s experimental Fantasia…

Both of the narratives (if you can call them that) in these films are hugely supported by music. With Man With A Movie Camera, the music would have to be performed live (and so there was no music that Vertov and Svilova edited to), but this was certainly compensated for with the camera work and the rhythm of the edit. Both of these elements are so strongly musical that you may watch Man With A Movie Camera without sound and recognise a symphonic beat. What this then says about cinema is that it has a quality that music also seems to have; a strong hold on time.

If cinema is sculpting in space and time, then music must be the tunneling through time alone. And that is to suggest that cinema means to contort spacetime (movement) into something that is supposed to be observed and visibly absorbed whilst music on the other hand doesn’t have that static prominence, perceptually speaking, in someone’s mind. That seems to be why we can listen to the same songs over and over again, day in, day out; they take us through time, they let us forget its passing, they do not necessarily show it to us or make us concentrate on and experience it (albeit in another realm) like cinema means to. As a consequence, music seems to tunnel through time, taking us on a roller coaster ride in which we feel the thrills and pleasures of seconds and minutes passing without necessarily feeling the friction of moving through them. Man With A Movie Camera, with its cacophonous editing, gives us so much information about Soviet Cities that we simply can’t draw a linear, temporally cohesive story from each and every juxtaposing image, that it begins to embody this paradigm. What we then do when experiencing this narrative is clump all of the information provided by hundreds of images into a collage of, or sense of, Soviet Cities (as guided by Vertov). This is what makes the imagery, as it is editing together, symphonic. So, instead of perceiving a static sculpture that you must observe in a linear manner, as you may with other narrative films, you must observe a city symphony with a loose grip on space (the information it gives) and let time take you in a ride.

To further explain, let us look to Fantasia. With surreal imagery and camera movement, especially in the Dance Of The Sugar Plum sequence, Fantasia reduces the information given by the images down to their most basic form. In such, it doesn’t really matter so much what the fairies and flowers are saying, what their purpose is, what they are trying to achieve and why. All we care about is the process of their movement and the colours, shapes and patterns this produces. This is the substance of this sequence and it clearly reduces the spatial element of cinema. To expand, cinema is 24 pictures a second. As looking at photography and painting makes clear, still images can tell complex and profound stories. Cinema, because it is 24 pictures buzzing by every second, has the capacity to do this. But, because of that ‘buzzing’, there is also time. And time can alleviate the artistic burden of having to say or do something for an audience from the image. So, with a film like Fantasia, which is a particularly pertinent example because it is a hand-drawn animated feature, each frame means less because it only has substance when juxtaposed with thousands of other frames to produce the allusion of time. In such, every frame in Fantasia is arguably less of a painting than in other narrative films in which mise en scène, composition, framing, acting, dialogue and plotting are so important in terms of narrative information. However, Fantasia is still a complex cinematic experience. Where does this complexity and power come from if not the image? The answer is simple; time and the movement it allows.

This seems to be why symphonic cinema, whether it be Man With A Movie Camera, Fantasia, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Scorpio Rising, is so hypnotic and formally immersive. Through these films and other movies alike, cinema is allowed to explore the time in ‘spacetime’ – just a song may – and so will take us through time more than it will freeze it for us to observe.

The reason we are focused on Scorpio Rising is Anger’s management of this divide between space and time; the informational power of the image and music. Unlike Man With A Movie Camera or Fantasia, Scorpio Rising doesn’t reduce its images to their basic parts. In such, we don’t see characters as just a factory worker, or flowers as just bodies that will produce pretty patterns. Anger’s characters, whilst they are not individually explored in the depth that narrative films like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and There Will Be Blood would allow, are given more complexity than what we see in the films mentioned thus far. This all comes down to Anger’s application of montage and the concept it explores. To explain, in Rocky, the montage serves the idea that Rocky is getting stronger, faster, smarter, and is gaining more heart as a boxer.

In Man With A Movie Camera, the montage tells us that Soviet Russia is a highly industrialised and progressive empire; it is, in many respects, propaganda.

But, the montage of Scorpio Rising does not build towards a concept that can’t be so easily nailed down.

This film explores ideas of materialism, gay, Nazi, and biker culture, the occult, religion, youth, teenage icons and probably a lot more. In such, it re-interprets the power of montage. Instead of moving a narrative forward or painting a picture that is too vast to be caught in a wide shot (metaphorically and literally speaking), Scorpio Rising produces a poetic narrative that relies on association. This is all materialised because Anger experiments with the amount of information each of his images conveys…

His shots aren’t then reduced to their most simplistic parts like in Fantasia where we only focus on movement, patterns and colours. Whilst we are largely just absorbing small pieces of tonal and aesthetic information, there are many moments within the narrative, like in the bedroom sequence depicted, where you have to work a little harder to make sense of things.

Moving towards a concusion, this all differentiates a film like Scorpio Rising from other symphonic films, producing an informational scale. On one end, we have the pure spectacle of imagery in Fantasia, moving away from this we come towards Man With A Movie Camera and later Scorpio Rising. We could push things further to see things like Un Chien Andalou and the beginning of Persona, but, once we reach this point of complex montage, the symphonic element of this kind of cinema has almost been abandoned. This is what I feel occurs in another of Anger’s films: Lucifer Rising.

This narrative is far less immersive and enjoyable that Scorpio Rising because the music and imagery do not interact so well. You also see this in a film such as The Colour Of Pomegranates. There isn’t such a strong sense of musicality in any of these films because the informational content of imagery is simply too complex for you to approach it like you may do the mentioned cinematic symphonies; willing to absorb imagery like you may do a song.

This adds significance to Scorpio Rising in my view and ultimately makes it an incredibly interesting representative of a particular side of cinema.

 

 

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Kong – The Sound Of Silence…

Thoughts On: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

For a more general review, check out part 1.

Kong 2

**SPOILERS THROUGHOUT**

In the previous post, we talked about the main negatives and positives of this film. However, we didn’t get into what was truly disappointing about it. This is what we’ll do know by referencing a crucial scene in the native village in which John C. Riley’s character explains the history of the island.

The main leap of faith you’ll need to take to understand this back story is the Hollow Earth Theory.

This needn’t be something incredibly complex, it just states that the world is hollow, and as a consequence some shit could be living underneath our feet. In Kong, they use this conspiracy theory to suggest that, like in Godzilla, ancient creatures live in the depths of this hollow Earth and can find their way out through certain access points. Skull Island is one of these points. And this is where creatures like Kong and the lizard things…

… come from (this is left somewhat ambiguous). Side note, and as alluded to in the previous post, these are awfully designed monsters. That aside though, the plot eventually reveals that Kong isn’t the human’s enemy – instead, their protector – just like in Godzilla. Many parallels, right? I’m smelling a King Kong V Godzilla that plays out a lot like Batman V Superman – in other words, a film where there’s very little Batman V Superman and a lot of waiting before Batman and Superman destroy something else for the sake of humanity. I’m hoping we don’t get this, but that’s what I smell. Back on track, Kong keeps the lizard things from taking over the island and destroying everything. His key threat, however, is the biggest of these Skull Crawlers, who stays underground for fear of facing an able bodied Kong. This is the story that Hank tells everyone – and was the most immersive part of the movie for me. However, looking back, WHY ON EARTH DID’T YOU JUST SHOW US THIS!?!

The answer is money. It’d take a lot more time, resources and money for the back story of Kong to be produced, but it’s so disappointing that it didn’t happen as this would have unarguably elevated many of the mediocre parts of this film into something truly special.

We mentioned that characterisation in this film was pretty good in the previous post. Whilst it is in comparison to the original King Kong, none of the characters have much to them – and they way in which they’re killed off only strengthens this point. You don’t care about anyone as you see them squished, pulled apart, eaten, hit, thrown into water to drown… whatever. Yet, so much of the film is focused on producing complex characters. The truth is, a lot of this time was wasted because of bad direction that does not cinematically convey the inner emotions or relationships between characters. The actors are also at fault in this department. Jackson’s Packard is a particularly prevalent example of this. He is introduced as a silent character with a lot going on under the surface in terms of the war ending and him losing purpose. However, the further we progress into the film the more characters shout at each other, verbally exposit their inner feelings, and all as we get too many shots like this…

This is highly stylised and conveys the conflict between Kong and Packard, but it’s too cheesy and pretty stupid. This is because having a stand-off between a 100 ft gorilla and Sam Jackson demonstrates little control over a sensible and believable (yes, even in a fantasy movie) cinematic space. Jackson, intentionally, is singled out and made to seem bigger than really he is in these shots. This effect is just jarring and, as said, cheesy.

What we are then clearly missing in this film is a concise approach to direction that is expressive as well as a confident use of pure cinema. In other words, the power of silence and the image is disregarded for a weak attempt toward spectacle throughout Kong. In such, this film shows no understanding of what makes things explode off the screen in a long format. The trailers are great, but that stupendous sensation the trailers rouse does not translate to the film. What I then want to propose, as briefly as I can, is how this movie could have better projected the backstory of the film, better handled character, and better generated spectacle through pure cinematics.

We’ll start where the film should have; Skull Island, hundreds of years before the 1970s. We should have explored the placid wildlife and flora – vast and sprawling with humans living peacefully amongst them. All until the earth shakes violently, fissures opening up across the island.

Humans inspect the greatest of these trenches. But, BOOM… BOOM… BOOM… BOOM… In fear they all begin to scatter. Trees shake, branches snap, tree lines convulse… through them emerges gigantic gorillas, a family of them. The eldest silver back male leads the troop to inspect one of the crevices. Hanging back are a few of the females and younger apes. Clinging to his mother’s undercarriage is a baby (Baby Kong). Seeing nothing in the crevice, the leader signals for everyone to move on, back to the rocky peak of the island shaped like a skull.

Night falls. Lizards slither their way through thick jungle, dozens of them, all the size of a car. They snake their way towards thick fog, pushing through it until they reach one of the fissures. With low vibratory clicking noises, the lizards call down. Meanwhile, the family of giant apes settle for bed. Baby Kong plays with his mother and friends – all of which are slightly older than him. It’s getting late and everyone is starting to go to sleep, so Kong’s mother breaks it up and settles him. Back in the forest, we find more lizards congregating around steaming vents – these lizards are only the size of a human. We follow one as it climbs down the vent, through a complex tunnel system, until it reaches a huge opening in which dozens of larger lizards burrow. We now move by ourself through these larger tunnels amongst lizards the sizes of buses and cars, some slightly bigger, seeing that they all dig and exist underground. We find small lizards again and move into a smaller network of tunnels that move further underground until… BOOM… BOOM… BOOM… the ground beneath the creature gives to claws ten times its size.

Above the huge fissures, we see the smog begin to billow upwards in thicker plumes from the depths below. Something is amassing down there.

Day time. We follow the gorillas as they forage and live peacefully amongst other animals – which they help and the younger ones even play with. Later in the day, and now in the jungle, Kong runs after more jungle creatures, moving further away from the family group as he goes. This of course lands him in trouble. Trouble the size of a bus: lizards. Screaming, Baby Kong runs to escape, finding his older friends, ripping through trees with them, the lizards at their heels… CHOMP… one of the teens getting snatched and ripped apart–BOOM. The older gorillas smash through the trees destroying the lizards in a bitter fight. As everything settles and a mother holds the dead body of her child as others try to console her, the leader looks over the tree line and toward the open fissure. He knows more are coming. Baby Kong looks up at the leader from the forest floor, trapped in some place between awe and fear. His mother scoops him up.

We now move into a faster montage that juxtaposes the life of humans, lizards and gorillas. Spliced into this montage are attacks on the human village as well as gorillas defeating hordes of lizards of increasing size and numbers. This goes on for years. Initially, Baby Kong watches the conflicts in fear. But, as he grows, he hardens, starting to fight alongside his family. All the while, the largest of the lizards continues to birth creature after creature, their underground colony strengthening, but resources dwindling as smaller creatures struggle to bring enough food down from above. Simultaneously, the human village’s numbers drop exponentially as people are snatched from their homes every night. The drawings on their walls of lizard bogeymen are wiped clean and drawn bigger. Fortifications are constructed. But, the lizards are relentless.

Years later. Each group lives in hard times as they keep their distance from one another for the most part. The gorillas are fearful, spent, injured and tired. The lizards are ravenously hungry, eating each other’s young. The humans are hopelessly weak. Something has to break. Something has to change.

Night time. The humans work on a new construction just outside of their fortress. Three of the village elders concoct a huge cauldron of black liquid. Everyone in the village helps to carry this huge vat to the walls of the fortress and then pour the liquid over the wooden construct below – which has hundreds of thick ropes attached to its base. Someone sparks a fire. A spear dipped in the ink is held over the flames – WOOOSH. The spear is thrown into the air. The family of gorillas see the light arc into the air from their rocky peak. They venture toward the human village.

The family appear before the fortress gates. The village elders signal with their hands that the construct is theirs, and then point towards a few of the younger villagers, who call for them to follow as they run toward the jungle. Before a small crevice in the forest, the younger group of humans stand with their tools, sparking a fire and dousing a spear with ink. The spear is lit, everyone stands back. A few of the largest gorillas watch closely. The spear is thrown into the gaseous fissure. BOOOOOM. The hole collapses in on itself. The ground trembles. The screeches of lizards scrape up from below their feet. The village boys are left looking up at the apes – all of which are stuck between a place of awe and fear.

The gorillas return to the rest of their family in front of the human fortress. The elders gesture again with their hands that the huge construct – a wooden cube soaked in liquid – is theirs. Everyone looks to the distant crevice – home to the largest lizards. One of the male gorillas opens his hand to a few of the village boys. They climb aboard with their tools. The largest gorilla roars, beating its chest. The humans rally and cheer on at the boys on the shoulder of one of the gorillas. The troop of gorillas march toward the lizard hole.

Meanwhile, the network of tunnels are collapsing rapidly as gaseous fire spreads, burning smaller lizards to a crisp before burying them. Lizards storm away from the tsunami of mud and fire. It slowly subsides before coming to a rest. Luckily alive, a few lizards begin to dig up and out of the tunnels. As they go… BOOM… BOOM… BOOM… they break through to the surface, only to see the family of gorillas charging towards them, destroying the dozens of surfacing lizards as they make their way towards their main hub: the largest crevice. In the depths of this fissure lies the biggest of the lizards – of which there are a handful. They are alerted by the surge of lizards that run their way to escape the collapsed tunnels and fearful crowds within. They also hear the screams of a war above as the gorillas barrel down on their home. The largest lizards start climbing.

I won’t describe this next bit in arduous detail, but their is a battle in which the gorillas fight the lizards – many of them dying – but not before the human fire bomb connected to ropes is set alight and used, by the gorilla leader with help from the village boys, to destroy the main fissure. This leaves the biggest lizards with no escape and no choice but to fight to the death. It’s here that Young Kong, the youngest of all the family (the babies born over the years have all perished), watches the entirety of his family die at the teeth and claws of the lizards. He tries to escape the battle field, but is chased by a few smaller lizards who he, alone, just about defeats, taking serious damage.

Slinking back to his empty home, he looks over the valley as the dwindling numbers of lizards – only one large one – begin burrowing into the ground and establishing a new home. The village of humans also mourn the boys that they lost. But, at least now there is some sense of peace. Some sense of security. What is this all really worth though when Kong can do nothing but look down on the corpses of his family being picked at by the lizards?

And there’s your prologue.

This is how the movie should have started; without a line of dialogue and by establishing Kong as the main character. It’s from this point that we could see Hank Marlow land and fight Gunpie. This would be our introduction to a grown Kong. Then we could have a hard cut to the 70s. From here on out we would see the movie play out in around about the same way as it does, but, with less conflict to shorten the time – and all with more of Kong’s perspective being put to screen. And this is the most significant part of this change. By seeing more of Kong by himself as well as having that intro that sets up why Kong hates the lizards and why he protects the humans, the end battle between the last large lizard and himself would mean so much more. Everything would have emotional impact and when he destroys the largest lizard that killed the majority of his family – his mother included… do I have to say more?

Kong is certainly one of the most egregious examples of an overly human cinema. I’ve moaned about this far too much, but we need more pure cinematics, and we need a more succinct focus on main characters that may not be humans in modern movies. This would have made Kong, in terms of narrative, a truly spectacular film with emotional resonance and tonal weight behind the fight scenes. We don’t need to see 20 soldiers and government officials tell us the story of Kong. Kong can tell his own story. Pure cinema and a non-human cinema could have granted us this. But, this movie was only ever hinted at. We never got it. And this is what was the truly disappointing thing about Kong. This narrative could only inspire thoughts of a movie many, many, many times better than itself with its shoddy direction and cinematography, and half-hearted script.

Alas, what more is there to say, but… yeah, it’s a shame.

 

 

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