Ivan’s Childhood – War’s Corruption And Destruction

Thoughts On: Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo Detstvo, 1962)

A 12-year-old Russian boy escapes from a Nazi prison camp, yet wants to turn back for vengeance.

Ivans Childood

Ivan’s Childhood is a masterpiece. The cinematography, the mise en scene, the sound design are… this is a film by Tarkovsky, and there is not much more to be said. For reasons I cannot fully articulate, Tarkovsky’s cinema and image hold such a tremendous atmosphere and an immersive tone that indisputably distinguish his features as films that exist in a realm of their own that is only ever approached by the likes of Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Dreyer and Deren (amongst a few more select others). With Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky of course confronts war, essentially making a film about his hatred of the phenomena that, in many respects, reached its most dismal heights in the 20th century. Concerning his image and cinema in regards to the war film genre, what distinguishes Ivan’s Childhood from almost every other war film I have ever seen is the aesthetic quality and its ability to capture an alien world of unfathomable despair, destruction and futility. Without depicting the act of war, acts of murder and destruction, Tarkovsky then imbues the genre elements of this film with a unique emotional quality, that, as said, captures the alien aspects of a war-torn world like no other film I’ve ever seen. The only film that comes slightly close would be Klimov’s Come And See. In comparison to Ivan’s Childhood though, every other war film only captures some shade of a spectacle of sentimentality, horror and action that often does the philosophical and emotional implications of war an utter disservice. And though I recognise and even confuse myself in suggesting that the likes of Schindler’s List, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan pale so significantly in the face of this film, no matter how much I think about it, this seems to be a stark truth. As films judged unto themselves, the mentioned war classics are tremendous, but when I think of Ivan’s Childhood, I stumble with dissonance.

What makes Ivan’s Childhood such a singular war-film masterpiece is not only its formal design, which can only truly be understood by immersing yourself in the film, but its heavily thematic narrative. As we then follow Ivan, a young boy whose family was murdered by German soldiers, as he seeks out revenge, brushing aside all notions of him sitting out the war and retreating from the Eastern Front to attend a military school, we are thrown into a whirlwind of ideas all encapsulated by the motif of war’s destruction. It’s this intention to communicate and depict all that war destroys in the human complex that raises the intense melancholy and overriding sense of loss that pervades the narrative of Ivan’s Childhood from subtext to plot as to surface through the mentioned aesthetic design. What then lies under this skin is an exploration of war’s promotion of inhumanity and its quashing of family, culture and the human glue that binds individuals into these collectives.

You will then see allusions to maternity, romance, naivety, art and callousness throughout Ivan’s Childhood. Primarily it is callousness that Tarkovsky uses to show what war does to the human nature. We see this in Ivan of course through the manner in which almost every one of his intentions and actions are motivated by little more than revenge; him joining the Russian army or partisans to somehow contribute to the destruction of the Nazi enemy for no other reason that he has nothing else to strive for. Nikolai Burlyayev’s sturdy and, in the present chronological scenes, unemotional performance captures this all-consuming will for revenge that ultimately leaves Ivan a brick wall; the subtextual implication of this being a question of, if Ivan was raised by such tragedy, just like so many thousands more have been, what will the rest of the world mature into? There is nuance and further tragedy added to this question when we consider the only chink in Ivan’s brick armour: his yearning for a father-figure that parallels his longing for his lost mother. Left with this emptiness in his life, Ivan strives for revenge as a means to a futile end. And with his to-be adopter’s death, later his own, the futility of such a melancholic existence is only emphasised. Ivan then becomes a martyr to futility and a calloused shell, packed until his seems stress with a hapless hope for some familial attachment to fill the void that will be left in his life by a successful security of the vengeance he seeks.

This stagnation that pervades all of Ivan’s actions, which is often brought to life by the constant act of waiting that makes up a significant proportion of this narrative, is always of course overshadowed by the looming notion of death (which eventually consumes him). Symbolised by the two hung soldiers, those that failed to followed Ivan onto the enemy banks before the narrative opened, this death is bound to the image of a rope – one that hangs. And of course, just like the dead soldiers that overlook this narrative, Ivan is eventually hung. We are left wondering, however, if it was only the Nazis that hung Ivan. After all, it is he who persisted, who wanted to join the war, against the advice and will of those around him. Then again, is his death not the fault of those that could not stop him? Or could we even begin to blame them? Does it come back to the Nazis? Is this march towards death just an inevitability of war? These questions change the noose that slips around the neck of so many soldiers, essentially asking the rhetorical question whose only purpose is to stun: who is to blame?

Reinforcing this unanswerable question and its inconfrontable symbol of a rope are further themes bittersweetness. We see this in the seemingly tangential cut-scenes in which two soldiers flirt, one more directly and forcefully than the other, with a nurse. Though these scenes, at a first watch, seem to have nothing to do with the narrative, they are moments which Tarkovsky uses to allow humanity – romance, love and aspiration – into the film. However, just like Ivan has his dreams that are doomed to hang, so is the romance. Moreover, so is the record in the record player – one that is never really listened to. What we are then seeing through these sub-plots are characters struggling to retain some level of norm and engage some of what makes life worth living, but failing due to the war around them that forces a more calloused, rigid and unemotional state of living in which romance and the arts can’t really exist.

The crux of this conflict between war, its calcifying effect on the human nature, and normal cultural being is signified, of course, by the title of this film: Ivan’s Childhood. For this to be the title of a war film is already a devastating enough juxtaposition, but we see Tarkovsky’s further commentary on this through theological symbolism such as the Virgin Mary cradling an infant Jesus as well as the cross. With the Virgin Mary, we have an archetypal image of maternity and protection, also purity and goodness. To juxtapose such an image with a cross in the context of a war is to draw attention to this dichotomy of protection and suffering for a greater purpose through Jesus (possibly Ivan too), and comment on the strain that these ideas are under in these times. The fact that both of these symbols are almost always partially destroyed in Ivan’s Childhood suggests that not only is there a tension in humanity between this archetypal protection and self-sacrifice, but that it has been strained to the point of exhaustion; to the point that all greater purpose begins to fade and erode out of view. In other words, war not only destroys the protected family unit (which is microcosmic of a larger community or country), but reduces suffering to a banal act of futility. With all of this fed through Ivan we are not only seeing him used as a figure meant to comment on how war corrupts human nature despite suffering, self-sacrifice and protection, but also how it tears it apart – again, in spite of all that is well-intentioned about humanity.

Tarkovsky’s disdain for war is then shown to be predicated on its utter destruction of life at its deepest roots. Not only will it suck the life out of countless millions, but also all existential reason out of those that remain in its aftermath. War then reduces humanity to a horde of calloused creatures, all acting on over-simplified impulses to destroy and self-protect – a mass cultural shift that has long-lasting effects. But, this can only begin to be recognised in its true profound scale when we realise that the very archetypes of human stabilisation, the mother, the father, the child, are shook to their core by the act of war in a way that will propagate for generations to come.

Simply remembering the time in which this movie came out, 1962, will solidify this narrative message and its intentions. Looking back a mere 20 years, Tarkovsky would be peering into his childhood and the WWII era. His father, looking into his childhood, would also be seeing world war. The 20th century, as said previously, is one of the most devastating decades of all of human history. Having been apart of generations that saw the worst of this, sometimes first-hand in his father’s case who was in WWII where he lost his leg due to injuries he sustained as a war-correspondent, we can only imagine through a film like Ivan’s Childhood the dismal perspective that those like Tarkovsky had of war. For him to use this incredibly dark contrast of all that can be stable in life with all that humanity can destroy encapsulates the precariousness of the whole world that must have been perceived by all of those living in these eras. Ultimately, it is because Tarkovsky articulates and captures this so well that Ivan’s Childhood is such an affecting and poignant masterpiece as well as a poetic insight into so much that we in the modern day can only comprehend as alien.

 

 

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End Of The Week Shorts #11

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Shorts #11

Today’s Shorts: Labyrinth (1963), A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903), Hunting The Panther (1909), The Spirit Of The Beehive (1973), Dawn Of The Dead (1978), Oldboy (2003), Braveheart (1995)

Labyrinth is a surrealist short from Jan Lenica, a significant artist who changed the face of Polish animation in the 60s.

With an incredibly unique style, this film seemingly explores freedom and tyranny as it follows an angelic figure, a suited man with wings, into a city where he confronts evil to no avail and later witnesses puerile and lewd spectacles before being captured, his mind infected, and then destroyed. This short has been compared to the Icarus myth, but is clearly a reversal; instead of flying too high, our figure flies too low, only to be consumed by darkness, leaving this narrative a pessimistic critique of charity and good intentions. The manner in which this idea is captured through the aesthetics is quite penetrating and so is something I’d certainly recommend.

An impressive early example of multiple location linearity in cinema, A Daring Daylight Burglary is one of the first archetypal chase/action shorts. In such, it follows a burglar who, as the title suggests, daringly tries to rob a house during the day before leading police officers on a chase.

This is a significant film as it is one made by Frank Mottershaw whose films were an influence on Edwin S. Porter who would go on to release the first American western in this same year, the famous Great Train Robbery. In terms of structure and pace, Mottershaw’s film feels much more mature thanks to a stronger sense of space and time jumps as well as a surge of energy gathered in the final few shots – though, this may just be a result of the varying frame rates (which may or may not have been corrected in the version I saw). Moreover, A Daring Daylight Burglary has a much stronger sense of realism thanks to the use of real locations, distinguishing it from a tradition of sensationalised and romantic retrospection that begun with Porter’s first western.

This is a film by Alfred Machin, a prolific French filmmaker who was quite significant in the the nineteen-teens thanks to his work during WWI as an operator in the Armed Forces Cinematographic Services. This documentary-esque short (there is clear fictionalisation within) pre-dates his work in WWI, however. Employed by Pathé, Machin travelled all over Africa recording film of people, animals and their practices.

This is then, especially by modern standards, a highly unethical hunting film that sees a panther caught in a trap, poked with sticks and then shot at close range before being skinned. Quite like other shorts in which Machin would document the hunt of animals such as giraffes and hippos, this is then a form of spectacle and an extension of early cinema scenes which would simply document life (which would of course be dated by this point – which explains the expansion into more exotic and dangerous regions).

Most likely inspired by his interest of animals, Machin shot many of these movies in his early career and would go on to own exotic animals, such as a chimp that would star in a few of his narrative films once he owned his own production company. Almost by some macabre sense of karma Machin would go on to die in 1929 due to injuries he sustained after being struck by in the chest by a panther he owned.

Instantaneously recognisable as a masterpiece, The Spirit Of The Beehive is a beautifully shot film with a heavy reliance on pure cinematic language and the image.

Despite its allusions to the Spanish Civil war, which add great depth and a poignant social commentary to this narrative, what struck me most was another level of subtext that explores childhood, maturity and imagination. In such, as we watch our protagonist, the young Ana, naively trudge through profound contacts with ideas of good, evil and the grey haze that embodies the two concepts, there is a tremendous sense of resonance thanks to great performances as well as highly metaphorical and symbolic writing that ingeniously incorporates the most complex elements of Frankenstein into this film.

All in all, The Spirit Of The Beehive is a brilliant cinematic experience that I’ll surely be diving into again.

Seen as a straight zombie movie, Dawn Of The Dead is good fun, but objectively a pretty terrible movie. The direction is ok, just like the editing, but the acting and the script are so incredibly dumb at certain points that it’s ridiculous. And the zombies… just bad. The main flaw with this movie is then the awfully designed narrative that has no real conflict and shallow characters that only manages to give us some bursts of spectacle to be immersed in.

However, as most will be able to tell you, Dawn Of The Dead also serves as a poignant commentary on commercialised mindlessness and destruction – and it explores these themes pretty well. For this, Dawn Of The Dead is not only a classic zombie movie that had an immense cultural impact as part of a changing American movie industry, but is also one with, somewhat ironically, a bit of brains.

All in all, this movie has significant redeeming factors and is intermittently quite a fun movie, but nonetheless suffers from a lot of dumbness – again, somewhat ironically.

A flawless film that really didn’t need the remake – which I’ve not seen in full, so don’t really have a valid opinion on.

With his newest feature, The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook certainly proved himself to be one of the most interesting directors working today. But, the Vengeance Trilogy, which Oldboy is apart of, is an example that Chan-wook has been making great films for well over a decade now. As the most sensational film of the trilogy, Oldboy is edited and directly masterfully with great, though over-the-top at points, performances all round.

What stands out most about Oldboy, however, is the story which, looking past the plot twists on numerous re-watches, is very intricate and darkly profound. In short, Oldboy is an exploration of inhumanity and isolation – a crushing aspect of existence that can leave people only wanting to be numb. The manner in which these themes and ideas are explored is entirely exceptional with some unforgiving dark humour.

All in all, I think it’s safe to say that Oldboy is probably a masterpiece – one that maybe isn’t for everyone.

A tremendous epic, Braveheart is a movie I’ve seen from beginning to end about 3 times now – but have seen to the half-way mark about a dozen times more than that. What this of course implies is that this is quite a long movie (just over 3 hours) with an awful lot going on within – maybe a little too much. The only faults with this film in my view are then its somewhat bloated nature and over-abundance of plot beats and characters.

Despite the plethora of notorious historical inaccuracies, this is an all-time classic and a near-perfect movie when viewed with the right amount of time and energy. What stands out most are of course the action scenes, which, much like any great battle scene that somehow makes it to a screen, are a tremendous and quite rare feat – and there are many in this movie. Added to this is a performance of a lifetime given by Mel Gibson, who, no matter what he does or has done, will be the guy who made Braveheart.

All in all, what more can be said other than that this is a brilliant movie that everyone has to see at least once.

 

 

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Africa Paradis – Transportive Mediocrity

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Ivan’s Childhood – War’s Corruption And Destruction

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Africa Paradis – Transportive Mediocrity

Quick Thoughts: Africa Paradis (2007)

This is a film made by Sylvestre Amoussou, and is the Beninese film of the series.

Africa Paradis is a weirdly transportive movie. Not only is this a sci-fi(ish) film about a world in which the West essentially falls and Africa unites as a world-leading power, but Africa Paradis feels so much like a movie directly from the 90s – even though it was made in 2007. To better define this movie, it feels like a very mediocre movie from the 90s (a class of film I seemingly have a weak spot for). I then found this oddly entertaining and was, quite unexpectedly, left wanting more.

Starting with the positives, this is a very amusing film thanks to its use of light satire. What’s more, the direction is fine – never anything spectacular – just like the performances and writing. Moreover, the characters are all well constructed and probably the most compelling aspect of this movie. The real downfalls of Africa Paradis come with the dumb action scenes and jarring soundtrack. However, concerning the narrative, this is an ok story that is just a little too sentimental and simple. As could be guessed, this is a highly political film that essentially means to comment on immigration by depicting an alternate, reversed world in which French people struggle to immigrate into African countries such as Benin and find work. Whilst this is an interesting concept, however cliched, and the narrative handles the perspective of an immigrant somewhat well, the wider commentary is nothing more than a call for open boarders and more lenient immigration laws. This is certainly nothing profound, nor nuanced and complex enough to really be considered and pondered upon too deeply.

So, all in all, this shouldn’t really be a movie you go to see for its subtext, rather its characters and weirdly immersive narrative. Whilst many people probably won’t like this, if you’re interested in world cinema, certainly give this a go.

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2012: The Curse Of The Xtabai – Skin Deep

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2012: The Curse Of The Xtabai – Skin Deep

Thoughts On: 2012: The Curse Of The Xtabai (2012: Kurse a di Xtabai, 2012)

This is the Belizean film of the series made by Matthiew Klinck.

This is an awful movie, but a very… unique cinematic experience. It is the first major full-length movie that has been ‘100% made in Belize’ and is centred on a curse that suddenly plagues a small town, many people stricken dead for unknown reasons, leaving a group of students to venture into the forest to find a cure.

A Creole-language film, The Curse Of The Xtabai can be understood quite well without subtitles – and this was one of the more amusing elements of this film as it did keep my mind active in the duller moments. Beyond this, the director, Matthiew Klinck, has some degree of competence and shoots some strangely beautiful and weirdly effective sequences, but the quality of this film’s direction and cinematography undulate significantly. The acting is consistently bad though – as is the script. Actually, the script is probably the worst aspect of this movie, just about beating out the horrific soundtrack.

What makes this script so terrible isn’t really the complete lack of sense, tone, atmosphere, drama, verisimilitude and character. These elements (or the lack of them) actually work with the alien cinematic approach that the director takes as you do get the sense that this is just supposed to be a dumb movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously; a Belizean remix of The Blair Witch Project and Predator. What takes the fun out of this is the allusion to the folklore that is completely out of place, making this film seem like a 10-year-old Sam Raimi was once told a Belizean bed time story and then given a camera for the first time.

The underlying tale that this film refers to is of the Xtabay or X’tabai. This is a story that follows two women, one that is promiscuous, a prostitute who sleeps with anyone who asks, and another who is beautiful and austere. Xkeban, the promiscuous one, is, however, an honest, humble and self-sacrificing person that, in the archetypal fashion, serves the poor, sick and homeless. On the other hand, Utz-Colel, the virtuous woman, is cold, full of pride, disgust and disdain.

One day Xkeban is found dead after villagers follow a sweet scent to her home. Here, Utz-Colel proclaims that there shouldn’t be anything so sweet coming from such a vile being and that such a perfume should come from a body like hers when she dies. As you could guess, one day, Utz-Colel dies, a virgin whose corpse emanates a disgusting smell. Embodying the Tzacam cactus flower that grows from her grave, Utz-Colel surmises that she met such a foul end because she was unlike Xkeban, whose sins must have came from a place of love. And so, by calling upon evil demons, Utz-Colel moves back into the realm of the living so that she could seduce men, becoming the X’tabai. However, her nature had not really changed; she was still cold and corrupt of compassion. So, when she attracts men, she kills them, disguising herself in tress, even as trees or, some say, as snakes and other animals.

Whilst this isn’t the most profound of parables, it conveys an idea of internal worth with clarity and so is a thousand times more intriguing than the incomprehensible narrative that we’re given by The Curse Of The Xtabai. There are allusions to themes of selfishness and destruction within this narrative, but the manner in which they’re implemented into the script is below an amateur level. With some grip on their story, the screenwriter could have used this folklore and the tropes of horror to produce an interesting commentary on a vast number of things – most directly, promiscuity, envy or charity – as to expand on this legend. However, using a cheap reference to a ‘scary story’ to give this narrative a Belizean texture that’s only really skin-deep (what lies beneath is a lot of influence from dumb-but-fun American movies), The Curse Of The Xtabai really sullies all of its initial elements of cheap fun and dumbness. In such, with just a little bit of effort and thought in the scripting process, this could have been a much more respectable film, but, as is, it’s a bit of a let down.

All in all, this is a bad movie that you may be able to have some fun with if you go in completely blind (though, at this point, you can’t – sorry), but it ultimately shoots itself in the foot with its cheap attempt at capturing and projecting complexity and depth from its own culture.

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Every Year In Film #13 – Poor Pierrot

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Every Year In Film #13 – Poor Pierrot

Thoughts On: Poor Pierrot (Pauvre Pierrot, 1892)

Two lovers meet. A third man, Pierrot, comes to sing to the woman, but is scared off by her lover.

Made by Charles-Émile Reynaud, this is not only the first known movie to operate with perforated film stock, but is also one of the first ever animated and narrative films. Reynaud built toward these innovations, much like many inventors of these days, seemingly from his childhood. In such, he was raised by his father and mother, home-educated in painting by his mother, and mechanics by his father. This lead him into many apprenticeships as a young kid; he would work with optics, industrial design, precision engineering and also photography. However, one of his most significant meetings would come in 1864 when he went on to become the assistant of François-Napoléon-Marie Moigno, otherwise know as Abbé Moigno, a Catholic cleric, an educator, writer and lecturer of science. Working with Moigno, Reynaud had to operate the magic lanterns that would accompany his lectures – and such must have sparked an interest in projection that would come into play later on in Reynaud’s life.

However, a year after he started to work for Moigno, Reynaud’s father died and so he moved to Puy-en-Velay with his mother. It’s here that his late father’s cousin educated him in chemistry, engineering and other sciences. This would eventually lead to Reynaud working with Moigno again, however, this period of study was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which Reynaud served in as a nurse. After a period of retirement in which Reynaud tried to overcome the lasting trauma that his experience in the war had on him, he would be called upon by Moigno where he continued to work with magic lanterns in courses taught to students. After a few years of this, Reynaud would begin to significantly contribute to film history.

It was then in 1976, a year before Muybridge would shoot and project some of the first major moving images, that Reynaud produced his prototype praxinoscope. This is yet another device to add to a lavish list of pre-film inventions with crazy names. The praxinoscope was then an improvement upon devices like the early stroboscope, phenakistoscope, daedaleum and, most directly, the zoetrope. Remembering the early Every Year post on these devices, these were all mechanisms that would feature elements with moving images on that would rotate behind slits of some kind:

There were always three major problems with all of these devices, however, and Reynaud began to solve them all. The first problem with devices like the zoetrope was that they were too simplistic and impractical; they were mere toys. In such, to view the moving images, you’d have to bend down and look through the slits…

It’s this fundamental restriction, which was largely a technical one, that deeply impacted film for years to come; for about a decade after the Lumières, films were seen as short spectacles and so, in certain respects, were simply more complicated zoetropes. However, this is a tangential idea that we may come to explore at a later date.

What Reynaud initially did to combat the impracticalities of pre-filmic devices was to invent the praxinoscope.

The similarities between the zoetrope and this device are obvious, yet subtly significant. Instead of using slits that act as a shutter of sorts through which to view fluid moving imagery, Reynaud used mirrors. Because each mirror was angled individually, the difference between one reflection and the next would have, in an around about way, acted as a gap or shutter between them. This is exactly what allowed for the the reflected image to be crisp and fluid – all without the arduous and intricate mechanics of actual shutters and stop-start mechanisms.

This is a significant device because it not only made the zoetrope a more practical idea with easier access, but approached light (reflections) in a more nuanced, yet ingeniously simple manner – which would later become pivotal to Reynaud’s innovations.

In 1977, Reynaud patented this device and began to sell it commercially – which was met with much success and acclaim. However, despite being a significant improvement on the zoetrope, the praxinoscope was still, quite clearly, a toy. A major reason as to why the praxinoscope was still a toy comes down to its scale. Understanding this, Reynaud’s next endeavour was the praxinoscope theatre.

This initially began as an extension of the original praxinoscope. In such, Reynaud designed a small theatre around his device with backgrounds and a peep hole…

Expanding upon this, however, he wanted to project his moving imagery in a similar manner to which he’d project magic lantern slides for Moigno. And it’s here where the use of mirrors became an irreplaceable design choice. With a simple use of lenses and lights, Reynaud would bounce light from the mirrored moving image onto a screen…

This would then allow Reynaud to project his circulating, gif-like sequences with a background setting provided by a painted magic lantern-esque slide – all for dozens of people to watch at a time. You can see each of these elements by studying the above image, paying attention to the two projectors, one for the background and other for the praxinoscope image (whose own background was black so that it could be superimposed onto a setting). As is clear, with this, Reynaud solved the second major problem with pre-film devices whilst eradicating the first problem. In such, he made the device practical and accessible to numerous people at a time, increasing the scale of his spectacle.

It’s this increase in scale that gives arts greater complexity and in turn leads to forms being respected as significant mediums of storytelling. But, as one of the most forward-thinking filmmakers of this entire era, Reynaud recognised that a looped sequence of movement wasn’t a viable form of storytelling.

This is something so incredibly significant because, by this time, the only forms of ‘film’ were scientific and spectacle. In such, around the 1880s and 90s you had figures such as Marey, Muybridge and Demenÿ working on the study of motion itself. Added to this, you also had Friese-Greene, Le Prince and Edison rushing to produce the first viable form of spectacle cinema (Edison would win this race with W.K.L Dickson and the kinetoscope). What all of these endeavours lacked, however, was a narrative. Figures such as Muybridge and Marey were only interested in a few seconds of movement, never any form of storytelling, and the same can be said about Greene as well as Edison and Dickson; these figures were clearly more preoccupied with technological innovation rather than innovation in storytelling during the late 1800s. In such, you do not need complex moving imagery lasting at least an hour to put across the points that these figures were trying to make, as well as satisfy their intentions – which is not really cinema as we know it today.

Reynaud then distinguished himself from all of these figures because his innovation was clearly focused on bettering the content of devices such as the zoetrope as well as improving the manner in which audiences interacted with them. It’s exactly this that we can see as the guiding force of his simplistic, yet substantial decision to project his praxinoscope strips and later out-do himself yet again.

It is in 1888, after quite a few years of producing and modifying praxinoscopes, praxinoscope strips as well as praxinoscope theatres, that Reynaud decided to confront his realisation that these short, cyclic images were not sufficient ways of telling stories. He did this with a patent of his Théâtre Optique. Reynaud’s Optical Theatres’ main intention was to extend the dozen-or-so frame cycles of praxinoscopes into something much longer through which a story could be told. So, as many people were at this point, Reynaud decided to approach film as opposed to solid static plates. However, he was not going to dive into the huge technological mess of photographing the real world with photographic film. Instead, Reynaud mimicked the form of film strips with his own flexible gelatin plates that he painted on and then fixed into cardboard and fabric, creating a reel of his own ‘film’. These would then need to be perforated so that they could be spun on an outer frame.

The perforations on this film would be on the segments between each frame and would simply serve as holes that the sprockets on the outer frame (look to the largest upper circle of the diagram) would use to move the film. However, these original designs were modified with outer spools so that Reynaud could both move the film around the mechanism better, but also inject in his light system. You can see this here:

In the simplest terms, light would then be reflected through the film strips made up of up to 700 frames as it spun around the system. This light would be bounced off of mirrors and onto a translucent screen that simultaneously has a background slide projected onto it. To have a better practical understanding of this image, check out this brilliant visualisation:

What isn’t visualised here is Reynaud’s later use of sound. He would often animate his films to scores that would be played live, as well as inject synchronised sound effects, such as buzzers and drums, into his narrative through electronics (these effects and sounds have been injected into modern ‘prints’ of his films).

So, what we are seeing here is the establishment of sound in cinema – which, spoilers, did not just pop out of nowhere in 1927 – as well as Reynaud solving the 3 major problems with pre-filmic devices. He firstly made the devices practical, then took them out of the home, giving them a greater scale through projection and various attributes such as backgrounds and, finally, Reynaud found a way of telling actual stories through images; extended narratives in shows that would last up to 15 minutes. This, as anyone could recognise, was a huge jump in cinematic sensibilities, which is of course represented through our subject for today: Poor Pierrot, or, Pauvre Pierrot.

Made in 1892, Poor Pierrot was one of Reynaud’s initial works to be publicly and commercially screened in Paris – which of course pre-dates the first Lumière screenings. However, on the note of the Lumières, with the rise of Cinématographe in 1895 came overwhelming competition from both the Lumières and their imitators. So, despite new films, modifications with colour and sound design as well as experimentation with mirrors, Reynaud’s Optical Theatre was doomed to fail, and performed its last show in 1900 – a point at which over half a million people would have seen Reynaud’s work.

The reason for this decline was quite simple. Though Reynaud had solved the 3 major problem with pre-filmic devices, his solution wasn’t practical enough and the scale wasn’t great enough to compete with the advancing complex motion picture photography and projection (which had of course caught up with him in the 3 years after he began the Optical Theatre). With Reynaud’s decline, longer form narrative cinema was lost for a few years, but cinema nonetheless evolved past Reynaud’s ingenious invention that was unfortunately too perfect as is; it simply couldn’t evolve any further.

In the following decade, Reynaud moved on from his Optical Theatre to work on a stereo-cinema, but this never amounted to much. So, in 1910, depressed, financially ruined and almost entirely forgotten, Reynaud discarded almost all of his work, including his precious films and equipment, into the river Seine. He would then go on to die in a hospice during 1918 at age 73.

All but two of Reynaud’s films were thrown into the Seine, Autour d’une Cabine and Pauvre Pierrot. It is through these films that Reynaud is then remembered as the founder of animated film and narrative cinematic storytelling who significantly contributed to cinematic technology as well as its publicly perceived image. Without much more to be said, I’ll leave the importance of Reynaud to be articulated by one of his surviving films…

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Au Hasard Balthazar – Cinema As A Religion

Thoughts On: Religion, via Au Hasard Balthazar (Balthazar, At Random, 1966)

This is a post that very lightly touches on Bresson’s film.

The following, the title of this essay, is an idea I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, but have been refraining from writing about. Firstly, this is because it sounds like a frivolous and rather silly idea that would take some careful articulation to do justice. But, secondly, I had not yet seen Au Hasard Balthazar. This is a movie I’ve been wanting to watch for years, but have only just managed to find, sit down and watch. In doing so, it has become an immediate personal favourite and one that has really lit a fire under me to pursue this idea.

So, as the title suggests, I’ve been contemplating cinema’s textures and qualities as a kind of religious body. By this I do not mean to suggest that there is a God, certainly not one of cinema, that needs to be prayed to – nor are there rules, doctrines or particular hierarchies and divinities (beyond maybe personal conceptualisation). The parallels I mean to draw between a religion and cinema as a holistic body of art is a simple one predicated on the nature of stories as a medium for the sharing of ideas and values.

We all, arguably and in a certain sense, have some kind of religion. This is a common idea that is often used cynically to suggests that T.V, material objects or certain celebrities have become a form of pop religion. Whilst I understand that this can be a valid form of critique as many ‘pop deities’ are useless, vapid and, frankly, stupid, there is an impulse or sensibility in all people that clearly has them drawn to ‘religion’. It must be said, however, that I use this term very loosely. In saying ‘religion’, I do not really refer to an idea of God or even an entity of superhuman power – as most definitions will outline religion to be. I instead mean to imply that most people are bound to some form of hierarchy, an ambiguous one that often transcends realistic, tangible comprehension, that provides reason or purpose to an individual. As suggested with the allusion to ‘pop deities’, these figures, their provisional reasons and purposes, may be ridiculous and harmful – just as many sects and interpretations of actual religions have the capacity to be. However, the paradigm stands as a poignant, self-evident and strong one nonetheless.

With that established, we only need to recognise that all forms of religion come with some body of narratives and stories to begin to see my point of ‘cinema as a religion’. In such, all established religions have texts; the Bible, Qur’an, Guru Granth Sahib, etc. Mirroring this, all other forms of ‘religion’ have texts too. If T.V is your religion, then your texts are the T.V guide (if those things are commonly used anymore), more specifically, the T.V shows you watch. If the internet is your religion, then the sites you use that provide you information and entertainment are your religious texts. If science is your religion, then the texts are the lectures, papers and text books. If a sport, say for instance, football (soccer), is your religion, then your texts are the statistics, matches and written histories. We could go on establishing hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative religions, but what all of them have in common are individually voiced, yet archetypal, narratives that each teach fundamental lessons and philosophies about the human condition.

This is something that, in my view, has been overlooked throughout the world and history. Religion, philosophy and thinking have seemingly always been bound to entities that govern us all – if not, huge sects of populations. This often occurs through education, religion and government. All of these entities are perceived as established and true mediums through which people may unite under common ideas, beliefs and practices. By suggesting a more ambiguous definition of ‘religion’, I am then essentially asking the following: Why are there so few recognised structures that act as uniting concepts of philosophy and action?

The reason for this seems to be an obvious one: my distinction of religion is far too arbitrary. Religion, education and government are institutions that are often protected and managed by a collective idea of a country. In such, these are often state-run entities or are sympathised with greatly by states. You only have to consider the function of taxes and law in respect to the mentioned entities to realise how they are managed and sympathised with as significant pillars of human dedication. It is for this very reason that all arts and entertainment can’t, and won’t (and probably shouldn’t), be recognised as traditional religions. After all, we cannot all claim that T.V is our religion and expect to have national holidays and for our industry to be tax exempt (among other things) – the effect on the world would, after all, be catastrophic.

However, there is another answer to be given to our question, Why are there so few recognised structures that act as uniting concepts of philosophy and action? The second answer is actually a contradiction. The fact is that alternative entities, arts especially, have almost always been considered significant elements of society through which education, thought, politics and philosophy have ran through. After all, why would any art form, whether it be painting, writing, dancing, songwriting or filmmaking, ever confront censorship if they weren’t universally recognised to be, under our current interpretation, ‘religions’; pillars of education, philosophy, morality and ideas?

There are then only a few entities that are protected and governed by states that serve as archetypes of thought, morality and action because people need to have as few distinct categorisations as possible so that these institutions can all be best managed. However, I nonetheless question this notion. I don’t so much question why there can’t be a plethora of religions recognised by states – T.V, sports and cinema being amongst them. Instead, I question why any religion (not so much government and education) is supported in the manner it is.

Whilst I respect religion as a medium through which people find structure, reason and purpose, whilst I can respect elements of its humanly fundamental content that teach stories and ideas, I don’t respect the form that religions assume. In such, I think that dogma, especially when it concerns ambiguity, is reprehensible. When people do not have definite answers, they should be truthful and suggest their ideas, their personally sourced answers, as exactly what they are – no disguises. For there to be a ‘word of God’, one that is often translated through parables, metaphors and content that must be interpreted, is a huge fault of thinking and propagating ideas. Not only are we suggesting that ideas are inherently true on only belief and with no evidence by doing this, but we are providing ‘answers’ through constructed stories with no direct clarity – only a plethora of mines and catch 22s that tie indoctrinated subjects into a web. In such, religion often associates authority with ambiguity, and that is the biggest problem, in my view, with the whole phenomena.

If ambiguity is a device or tool that humanity is to wield responsibly, it must be done so with clarity. In such, though religious texts have profound answers and guidance within them, to mask these with authoritative references to a benevolent god is to treat people, religious followers, like complete fools who cannot handle the truth – that truth being that, though humans have a lot of great ideas, we’re not sure if this is what ‘God’ said, designed or wants.

This is a significant reason as to why I’m suggesting that cinema can or should be seen a ‘religion’. Not only does cinema have countless narratives that can contain profound, life-changing messages within, but cinema, especially in the modern age, is a somewhat democratic and an entirely transparent entity. In such, everyone knows that cinema is a constructed entity once they hit about age 6 and realise that people don’t actually die for real in films. This means that the use of ambiguity and answers by cinema is a relatively ethical one (relative to religion – there are of course ethical conundrums concerning cinema). No matter how full of verisimilitude and seeming reality a film is, we all know that ‘cinema’ is made by people and industries. All other religions have their human touches, their prophets and founders, but always refer to something intangible, a god, to deceitfully appeal to an inescapable authority that cannot be rationally argued against due to its basis outside of reality. What’s more, cinema can be contributed to by any and everyone. Whether it is with your phone’s camera or through your free blog on the internet, everyone has a potential voice when it concerns cinema. And this is so important as it fully embraces the idea that human ideas come from people – not some constructed deity. However, whilst it is certainly true that the market place for film is heavily weighted toward big-budget American cinema, anyone can quite easily find a plethora of directions towards a more diverse cinema that isn’t entirely weighted down by Hollywood’s influence if this is what you seek and are concerned about. Moreover, anyone can make films and change the landscape (even to a minute degree) of cinema, inserting into the vast, ever-evolving body of text their own chapters.

What I am then imploring with an idea that cinema can be your religion is nothing at all radical. You do not need to change your birth certificate, drop other religions, start or join a film society or go pray at your local cinema – and I think that is a major advantage of cinema as a religion; there is no real form or structure if you do not want it. With an idea such as ‘cinema as a religion’, all you are recognising is the cultural influence of stories, moreover, the powerful ability for cinema to articulate them. This is the crux of all religions; it is the substance of the stories they tell – a lot of everything that surrounds that is just bullshit. Recognising that cinema may be one of your ‘religions’ is simply a way of grappling and taking control of this entity and what it provides to you. In other words, seeing cinema as a ‘religion’ is simply a means of recognising it as important to all of humanity as well as personally significant to you.

A note I then have to touch on before concluding is the film that spurred me to write this: Au Hasard Balthazar. Whilst this is a subtextually religious film, one that you may say entirely corrupts my idea that cinema is a purer or better religion than others as it differentiates itself from the traditional archetypes, it can be interpreted and understood without this given subtext. What this film then does is, in my view, transcend dogma, using its intertextual nature to refer to age-old ideas instead of allowing them to engulf it. Another film that manages this in a different light for me was The Seashell And The Clergyman. This is a seen to be a feminist film, but I simply don’t view it as such. What this suggests is that cinema can also act as an ideology – and maybe that is a part two to this initial claim. Nonetheless, what lies at the very heart of all we’ve discussed is this ethical use of ambiguity to tell stories and impart knowledge, philosophy, morals and ideas.

In conclusion, if you choose to consider cinema as a religion, what you are recognising is its capacity to provide meaning and purpose to people through stories. An extension of this may – this probably will not directly apply to all people – an extension of this may be that you appreciate more, or have better hopes for, the structure of the world-wide cinematic industry than any other religion; you believe that these stories are provided and voiced in a manner that is overwhelmingly more accessible and pliable (in that it can evolve and change as cultures do) than any traditional and established religion.

So, to end, I simply leave you with a question I always do: what are your thoughts on this subject?

 

 

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Au Hasard Balthazar – The Silent, Voidal Archetype

Quick Thoughts: Au Hasard Balthazar (Balthazar, At Random, 1966)

The troubled lives of people from a small town are seen from the perspective of a continually abused and exploited donkey.

Profound and emotionally charged to an almost torturous degree (in the best way possible), Au Hasard Balthazar is a masterpiece above masterpieces. There is so much that could be said about this film, but, in my view, there are only a handful of things that really need to be articulated – the rest of the film speaks for itself better than most would be able to speak for it. In such, all that has to be noted is the incredibly poetic and intricate manner in which Bresson brings to his screen life’s simplicity through a donkey. He juxtaposes this archetype with the complexity of humanity – often its worsts shades – to reveal its absurdity and utter unawareness to a degree that is entirely flawing. His commentary on humanity is then one that comes from ourselves; the audience being made to look at themselves and humanity with sudden clarity – whether it be subconsciously felt or consciously perceived – all thanks to the looming presence of a personified void. Balthazar is then much like all suffering, silent archetypes – one of the most symbolic and recognisable being Jesus – as he acts as a dark mirror and an ambiguous, shadowed reflection that demands humanity to question itself. However, it is because he lacks a voice and because he can never articulate what he ‘means’ to reflect that he exudes such deep profundity.

Au Hasard Balthazar is then not only one of the most tremendous examples of a pure cinema, but is, certainly in my view, one of the greatest stories humanity has ever told; one that has, of course, been told time and time again over centuries, but never with such articulation.

 

 

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