Shorts #22

Today’s Shorts: Baby’s Day Out (1994), Gone Girl (2014), Irene (2014), Horse (2014), Leviathan (2012), Lucky Number Slevin (2006), Island Of Lost Souls (1932), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007), The Adventures Of Prince Achmed (1926), TV Ping Pong (1978), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

Funnier, more endearing and more entertaining than it probably should be, Baby’s Day Out is a masterclass in how to play an audience a repetitive gag yet keep them engaged.

We all know that Baby Bink would, in reality, die, fall off of a building, be stepped on, squashed or at least seen by someone. Yet, we all also known that this movie has a nearly 100 minute run-time to fill and can’t depict any harm coming to the baby – much less it being pulverised by a 350 pound gorilla. We then know that, some way or another, the three schmuck bad guys are going to mess up and fall on their assess. But, the creativity and the pacing of these cyclical events – which are made to escalate until the finale – mask the formula and the predictability with a good dose of coincidence, cheese and character.

So, whilst this isn’t a truly brilliant film, and whilst it has its faults in the acting department, it is easy to love and a comedic feat in regards to screenwriting.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed this more on the second watch than the first. Going into this, all I could remember were the contrived elements of writing and the awkward tone. Not much else was memorable. On this watch, I was confronted by the same faults for the first half of this movie, but, it grew on me. So, whilst it still felt like many moments were empty and contrived, that things weren’t paced brilliantly and that there is too much plot and a not enough character or story, I came to enjoy the this film for what it is. In particularly, the exploration of truth, lies and hysteria put meat on the bones of this story, leaving this is a rather horrifying narrative about making too many wrong moves with the wrong woman.

All in all, this is a pretty good movie, it has its ups and downs, but it held its own against my, somewhat unwarranted, sceptical presumptions.

Irene is a truly tremendous short film that is essentially about being trapped in a cycle of personal and familial necessities coming into conflict. In such, it follows a single, young mother who lives with her son and mother who attempts to find love again.

Whilst this didn’t have any subtitles, with my very limited understanding of Spanish and with thanks to the minimal dialogue, I managed to keep up with this film. However, the absolutely brilliant lead performance of Liliana Biamonte transcends words, capturing all of the emotions and beats of this narrative effortlessly with silent expressions and gestures. Supported by the sumptuous cinematography that uses warm hues and colours perfectly and the subtly impressionistic direction, this short then exudes pure cinematic expression, leaving there no real need for subtitles.

Paced with concentration and focus, Irene is utterly immersive and well worth the watch. Check it out here:

A spectacular showcase of animation, editing and experimentation, Horse is a surreal mesh of images that imply abstract themes of impersonation, conflict, violence and illusion. In such, this short seems to use repetition to slowly move through time, implying the cyclical nature of these themes as we hurtle towards what is ultimately an image of a ticket and then triumph. Do the two figures – the front and back end of a pantomime horse – then fight amongst one another to see who is the better? Or do they merely break out of their disguises and put on a show that they are the primary people to profit from? Or, is this is an amalgamation of this implication of a battle between oneself as well as a show of self-destruction put on for attention? Assuming the latter, this seems to be about the concept of in-fighting between any unit made up of more than one person. It could then be about a relationship, a family or even a larger community. And in turn, it questions the point of the fighting and the illusion of unity, the pantomime horse, itself.

Whether you question all of this, or simply enjoy the animation, Horse is a film to check out:

Leviathan is a documentary masterpiece that, in my opinion, rests in the same realm as Man With A Movie Camera. Whilst Vertov pushed his technology to its very edge in the late 1920s, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel push the modern GoPro to its artistic limits with realism that embodies an awe-inspiring kind of truth.

In essence, Leviathan is everything that Hutton’s At Sea isn’t. Instead of having you stare rather pointlessly at impersonal and distant images of a ship, Leviathan brings you almost too close to the characters and elements of a fishing vessel. The result of this is a hypnotising tableau of intricate detail and alien perspectives that is sometimes so hyper-realistic and raw that the camera’s invading eye leads us into a surreal and abstract realm that breaks the fourth wall and has us marvel at the spectacle of this concept and technology barefaced.

One of the most ethereal films I’ve ever had the luck to fall into, Leviathan, if it manages to resonate with your interests, is undeniably one of the greatest movies ever constructed.

Lucky Number Slevin is an incredibly smart movie, one that is, first and foremost, hyper aware of itself as a piece of cinema. With an astounding script, one that manages innumerable moving parts with pure ease, and some acutely playful direction that brings together Godard, Hitchcock and a classic Hollywood vibe, Lucky Number Slevin is about a slick as movies get. Added to this, there are a plethora of great characters brought to life with seemingly perfect casting choices.

As a thriller of sorts, the endless twists and turns kept me on edge, and I did prematurely figure out the end, but the ending is very satisfying as it balances themes of coincidence, destruction and nihilism with a nice touch of romance and forgiveness that really left things with a genuine sense of completion. Without wanting to say anything to spoil this, I’ll say that the only negatives of this film concern a few continuity mishaps and that this certainly feels like a one-time-watch. In such, I couldn’t imagine myself watching and enjoying this as much a second time around. However, I’ll only know that with a re-watch. So, with that said, I highly recommend this movie to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Island Of Lost Souls is a phenomenal pre-code picture based on a H.G Wells novel that is seemingly both a retelling of the Frankenstein myth and a precursor to The Planet of The Apes. In such, this combines horror and science fiction with violence, torture and sexuality in a way that only a pre-code picture could. As could be expected, this was then very controversial in its day and was banned in some countries for decades.

However, there is more than just pre-code spectacle in this picture. Within we find some great moments of direction, genuinely horrific and violent moments, brilliant costumes, sets and cinematography and a compelling story. Whilst this is not an incredibly smart picture, it does chase after a few controversial topics of evolution and the consequences of humans tinkering with biology quite well. As cliched as this topic has become over the years, considering the context of this film and the way in which its story is told, Island Of Lost Souls is a particularly impressive film, and another example of a pre-code picture that makes you wonder “what if…” in regards to the rise of censorship in Hollywood.

Sweeney Todd is, somewhat ironically, a beautiful tragedy, one with astounding songs and brilliant characters. Whilst all the performances aren’t universally excellent and the CGI has aged badly, this is a film I can return to at anytime.

In essence, Sweeney Todd is about tragic characters who fail to find love, and so resort to evil, violence and revenge to the consequence of becoming a monster that can never be loved, and cannot accept love, no matter how much they, themselves, try to love others. We see this with almost every single one of the main characters with the youngest and most innocent falling victim to an initial act of vanity intertwined with an abuse of power. An age-old story, Sweeney Todd is essentially about a place that bleeds rubies: in this film, London, archetypally, any place in which vanity and revenge chase their own tails.

The Adventures Of Prince Achmed is a wondrous fantasy adventure that amalgamates many different strains of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) into an hour long piece of cut-out animation, making it the oldest surviving feature-length animated film. (Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs would be the first cell animated feature film in case you’re wondering).

The aesthetics are what make this film so brilliant; the use of the figurines and colour tinting brings a simple, yet magical, quality to this fantastical story – one which felt very familiar thanks to some iconic sequences that can be found in a plethora of other fantasy films. And a note must be made on the cinematic nature of this film. Despite being 2-dimensional, this never feels constrained and flat, instead bursting with energy and life. For this and so much more, The Adventures Of Prince Achmed is certainly worth the watch.

This is a short and somewhat simple experimental film that plays with video tape technology made by Ivan Ladislav Galeta.

In such, it uses what was a somewhat new technology – though video tape technology was invented for television in the 50s, it spread around the world in 70s because it became cheaper and so available to the public – to film two men passing a ping pong ball back and forth to one another. Taking advantage of the rhythm and repetitive motion of this game, various different trick cuts and exposures are used to warp the reality. The result of this is cinema being used to provide an alternative perspective of what is a very mundane subject, which in turn produces a commentary on cinema’s developing abilities to manipulate space and time to create new perceptions of reality. Check out this short experiment here:

King Kong vs. Godzilla is a good candidate for one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I stay away from bad movies as I don’t find them novel or fun, but I was hoping that the many filmmakers who made this movie would have some dignity. Apparently not.

There’s no need to make a comparison to the original Godzilla out of respect here, and there’s little need to mention the original King Kong either. King Kong vs. Godzilla is bastardisation smacked onto celluloid with pritt stick and cheap glitter. You’ll find better cinema by going eye level to watch children play with their toys than you would watching this film. Nothing at all works; the sets, the costumes, the direction, the script, the comedy, the performances, the sound design… everything sucks. Maybe this worked a little better in ’62, but if I hear someone call for more models and costumes in modern movies as opposed to CGI, I may slap them in the face with this movie.

If you want to watch this… good luck.

*Note. I watched the English version.

 

 

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Prometheus – Profound Parables vs. Cautionary Tales vs. Pointless Cynicism

Thoughts On: Prometheus (2012)

A crew attempting to discover the origins of human life come across more than they were hoping for.

Prometheus has been on my watch-list for years now… I’ve finally seen it… and I hold not regrets at all. Prometheus is a pretty great movie, but, much like The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, without more supporting narratives in the form of sequels that extend this prequel – which Alien: Covenant is (and is another movie I still need to see) – this will remain only on the cusp of genuine greatness.

As is, there are a few minor faults, as well as one possible major fault, that hold this film back from transcending greatness. The minor faults of this movie aren’t, surprisingly so, to do with pacing and a slow start. Whilst I heard that this movie takes time to pick and was boring in parts – even pretentious – I certainly did not feel this way. In fact, the first hour of this movie was the most immersive part. It was when things started going bad that I began to find the faults in this film, and so distanced myself from the narrative. These faults primarily concern dumb character choices and stupid elements of writing and structure. As anyone who has seen this movie could tell you…

… this is one of the most egregious examples of running away from a huge falling object when you can merely…

… roll to the side to escape it. And there are many infuriatingly moronic character choices in this film which are hard to overlook. For instance, taking off the helmets; not telling anyone about your infection and the damn worm in your eye; splitting up; getting close to and trying to make friends with an alien snake thing… the list goes on and on. The only way in which we could forgive all of this stupidity is to accept that these characters are all supposed to be faulted and dumb as they were written to be – and all under the guise that this film is, in large part, a cautionary tale akin to the likes of Terminator. However, this, in itself, is an approach that leaves me conflicted. But, we will return to this idea.

What cannot be looked over throughout Prometheus is the terrible dynamic between the crew in this ship. No one communicates like they do in Scott’s original Alien.

Here, almost all problems are discussed by the whole group; they argue, they fight, but they work together and try to figure things out. This approach is reference throughout Prometheus. Take, for example, the scene in which Theron’s Meredith Vickers shuts the crew out and then, rightly so or not, decides to burn our protagonist’s, Elizabeth’s, boyfriend to death. When Ripley locks the crew out of her ship, everyone freaks out and Lambert even attacks her.

Everyone is affected by this decision and it is not skipped over. Cut back to Prometheus where our protagonist’s boyfriend is murdered before her eyes and… nothing. She doesn’t say a word to Vickers–no one does. This issue is completely by passed over like someone’s iPod was destroyed, not a human being. And when we look to later scenes, such as Elizabeth performing an abortion on herself, I was seriously left thinking… what the fuck? This has nothing to do with the logic of the scene itself as it eventually makes sense why David would be fascinated by this pregnancy and, consequently, why Elizabeth would want the thing out of her. However, the logic of everything around this scene is mind boggling. Does no one in the crew care even slightly that she just ripped an alien from her womb? Can they show no sympathy? Did they not see all that went down on the cameras? Why didn’t David try to stop her if he was so fascinated? Why doesn’t he inspect the alien life form after it is extracted? All of these ridiculous moments,  and the questions that they force, stem from the fact that the dynamic between the crew in this movie is horrifically designed. Understandably, this is again done to construct a cautionary tale with dumb characters, but, moments like this are absurd. For this, Prometheus has its problems, and leaves a lot of questions.

However, if we look for the positives of this film, we can see quite a few major ones. In certain respects, I think that Prometheus is a better movie than Alien. I’d like to watch Alien another time before committing fully to this idea, but it seems to me that Alien didn’t have a very (relatively) strong subtext. Prometheus, however, concerns itself with existential questions in a way that only science fiction can manage. The core question that this narrative asks is then: why believe in anything? This in turn has us question: what makes us human?

This narrative quickly implores that belief makes us human – and we know this from the role that the subservient, existentially wandering robot, David, plays. Instead of simply dropping this cliche before us, this narrative suggests that belief in fact has very little to do with, say for instance, a god. For characters in this film, belief is the construction of meaning and motivation, and we understand this through Elizabeth, who, though she is on a scientific mission, still bares a cross. The cross for Elizabeth seemingly represents sacrifice for the greater good – which is symbolised affectingly and graphically with the abortion scene; though Elizabeth wishes she could have a child, she sees the alien to be a corrupt and malevolent being that she should in no way think of giving birth to. Because David is merely curious about this birth, he shows himself to be a robot and not a human by not understanding the danger that this symbolises. Giving birth to the alien is to utilise destruction – what some would refer to as evil – to skew natural law, which would in turn lead to further decimation. David does not understand this element of destruction because he, too, was created by humans. This wrongly implies that a non-natural birth of something resembling life is possible, and even a positive thing, to David. However, David does not have a soul – and this is incredibly important to recognise.

What is a soul? This is an abstract question and one that no one should attempt to directly answer with rationality. A soul is a metaphor which people use to describe the essence of life. If we were to begin rationalising from this stance, a soul is the recognition of the human spirit or our motivation to live. Because humans have this motivation to live, to survive fundamentally, we are compassionate; we take care of our young and support one another through positive societal acts. However, because we have a motivation to live, and primarily as an individual, we kill and suppress other organisms – for food, for sport, for the protection of ourselves, etc. We even kill each other; those that we deem inhuman, or less human – at the very least, less important – than ourselves. In my opinion, this element of human nature is not entirely corrupt and in need of change, though, it does need to be carefully managed. These conflicting motivations that reside within ourselves to destroy and to create as to sustain humanity are arguably the most crucial element of living. To expand, take, for instance, one of the most iconic symbols of Christianity, The Virgin Mary standing on a snake…

This image simultaneously represents the highest virtues of creation and compassion as well as the destruction of evil. When we see Elizabeth abort the alien, we are seeing a very similar symbol of compassion and destruction. After all, one of the most fundamental lessons of Prometheus is sacrifice: it is the most virtuous people in the crew sacrificing themselves to save the rest of humanity. However, there is a difference between Mary standing on the snake and Elizabeth aborting the alien: Elizabeth does not kill the alien to secure humanity’s safety (and maybe she couldn’t, which is an expressive idea itself). Instead, the alien instead is allowed to become one of the most destructive and evil organisms that have ever been put to screen: the xenomorph. However, whilst this does occur, the alien also destroys what we could archetypally see to be the devil: the malevolent Engineers. So, this sets up a complex paradigm which will likely be explored further in the sequels to this film.

To take a quick step back, the Engineers in Prometheus that made humans, turn on us. They seemingly do not see the goodness in humanity. So, whilst the Engineers are initially compared to Prometheus, the Greek Titan who created humanity and stole fire from Mount Olympus for us, this betrayal of humanity parallels Satan’s fall from heaven. This then leaves the crew aboard the ‘Prometheus’ to be the Titan that attempts to steal fire from Mount Olympus and the Engineers. That said, Satan, unlike God, did not see the good in humanity and so used his free will to turn against him and then humanity, much like the Engineers do. So, whilst we get no direct allusions to the Engineers being the devil, this seems to be the case in Prometheus as it is quite easy to recognise this archetypal kind of character.

With The Engineers as fallen angels and the alien as a snake that Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary, lifts her foot off of so that it is allowed to destroy the devil, we see many twists built into this very old kind of meta narrative. The result of this is ‘Mary’ deciding to confront the devils and ask why they wanted to kill us, in turn, why they didn’t see good in humanity. (This is, of course, the end of this story that sees Elizabeth go looking for the Engineer’s planet). We can, however, infer the answer to this question of the Engineer’s motivations to destroy without waiting for the sequel.

What does this opening mean? It seems that this figure here sacrifices himself to create life on Earth. This, of course, draws up parallels to Jesus’ compassionate sacrifice. However, what if the other Engineers didn’t think that the sacrifice of their own kind for the birth of a new species was a good thing?

This is a very rational position for a species to take, and it is one we have already come into contact with. Why, after all, does Elizabeth have to abort the alien? We have already suggested that this was because she would be skewing natural law – to give birth (to something we presume is a snake, and so evil) when she is unable to conceive. However, and as David the robot represents, there seems to be a way for humans to give birth to a new form of life, that being A.I. But, as Terminator asks, will this bring fourth our judgement day and the end of our species?

This is a question that is often answered without much nuance. However, when we look to David in Prometheus we find access to a more nuanced view of this question. As said, David doesn’t understand that giving birth to the alien is a big no-no. This is because he doesn’t have a soul. David, first and foremost, is a somewhat safe creation of humanity as he has no free will; he has no soul and so no means to disobey orders. (Again, this is explored in many films such as Terminator and I, Robot). Nonetheless, the aliens in Prometheus do have a soul. And as we explored, having a soul means that you have an inherent motivation to live, which can drive you to destroy anything that threatens your, and your species’, existence. Humans are a threat to the aliens. This is why they kill. They recognise everything as a threat; they cannot be reasoned with; they are pure destruction, a snake that never stops trying to bite you. Elizabeth could not give birth to a creature like this that has a soul. But, David does not understand what it is means to want. What this means is that he does not understand or appreciate life itself like humans, and I’m sure the aliens, do. In turn, David doesn’t understand what it means to want to save your soul and your species like Elizabeth and the best people on the crew do.

What Prometheus is then about is the conflict that arises from different species, all of which, in a way, and for better or for worse, worship this image…

… coming into contact. All species with a ‘soul’ understand that to have a virtuous life, evil must be destroyed. However, how different species define evil can be relative to themselves alone, not always a greater ideal (which is often what a god, ultimate goodness, symbolises). Whilst many people, many species even, have different gods – as is picked up on in the film – this understanding of the preciousness of life can allow us to communicate and co-exist despite these differences. However, if you don’t have a god, or a higher set of morals and standards which you adhere to, then nihilism and anarchy can become overwhelmingly destructive forces – as with the xenomorphs. So, to believe in something, is not a mere cliche; to believe is to have a soul, is to recognise that you do not want to die. However, to merely not want to die is not good enough; to want to live righteously, and in a way that only leads to the destruction of evil, never innocence or goodness, is what separates angels from demons and good humans from bad humans – in this story, good species from bad species.

What the ending of this film then suggests is that the Virgin Mary is going to attempt to confront, and possibly, transform a lost species, Satan’s spawn, and convert them into angels once again by showing them ‘the light’; the good side of humanity. As awkward, cheesy, cliched and preachy as this sounds, these are all archetypal and truthful ideas. And I say this as someone who is not religious. By recognising the parallels between the profundity that can be found in religious texts and Prometheus then reveals how great this narrative really is.

However, we have not yet touched on the one possible major fault of this film: its cynicism. All of the minor issues concerning dumb characters, in turn stupid choices, moments and scenes, all stem from this narrative trying to construct a cautionary narrative, not just a profound parable, without much optimism. Whilst the final scene is redeeming as it implies that evil will be confronted by Elizabeth and David, and that the initial questions of belief will not just be set to the side, but properly investigated by the pair (which represent humanity and its child: robots/A.I), there remains a strong sentiment of pessimism. For example, if we compare this image…

… to this image from the end of 2001…

… there seems to be a clear parallel. However, this left a bad taste in my mouth as the end of 2001 is ambiguous; the coming of the Star Child is neither positive of negative. However, it is a test of your optimism, and a question of if the Star Child’s coming to Earth is going to be good or bad. What Scott seems to assert with his reference to the end of 2001, which cannot be confirmed, but seems obvious, is that the coming of the Star Child that Weyland prophesieses is in fact the destruction of himself and humanity. This taints the ending of 2001, taking away its ambiguity and replacing it with an undeserved and ill-explained sentiment of pessimism.

Much like in the original Alien, there are also many implications of commercialism and capitalism meeting with science being the great evil force that will guide humanity towards its destruction. This is what we see in films such as Terminator, too. Whilst I can appreciate that these films are constructing cautionary tales, the focus on the faults of humanity to a degree that paints them out to be so dumb is a trope that I don’t like. This is because Prometheus raises some astounding questions and concepts, but doesn’t have the time to fully focus on or explore them as it is too busy constructing absurd and dumb scenes that just say: aren’t scientists stupid? With smarter, more self-aware characters that try to work together, Prometheus would have managed to bypass much of its obvious and shallow commentary on capitalism, feminism, nihilism and science and delved into serious questions. For instance, instead of just implying that this whole mission went awry because of a selfish rich guy, this narrative should have made him a little more of a complex and intelligent bad guy that could make a good case for what is ultimately his own evil. In such, this narrative would have revealed that the line between good and bad is not so obvious, and so would have challenged itself to define what is ‘goodness’ with greater skill. Concerning feminism, instead of just utilising a strong female protagonist and implying pro-choice sentiments, this narrative should have delved into a greater confrontation between the males, both good and bad, and the females, both good and bad, as means of properly asserting its ideas. With the nihilism, the Engineers should have implied some reasoning for wanting to destroy life. And concerning science, instead of showing scientists as extremely cautious or extremely curious to the point of their own destruction, this narrative should have shown the tension that arises between these two inclinations upon a more sensible middle-ground.

The issue we’re faced with when bringing up much of this criticism, however, is that Prometheus 2, or Alien: Covenant, exists. This film may correct many of this film’s faults and delve into what Prometheus couldn’t have. And so this is what we’ll all have to find out soon when I watch and write about this film. For now, however, there is much we didn’t touch on in this film; a lot more concepts and symbolism. I found Prometheus to be pretty excellent despite its shortcomings. But, what are your thoughts on Prometheus and all we’ve covered today?

 

 

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Black And White In Colour – Satire, Poorly Thought Through

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Black And White In Colour – Satire, Poorly Thought Through

Quick Thoughts: Black And White In Colour (La Victoire en Chantant, 1976)

As I was unable to find a film by an Ivorian director, such as Roger Gnoan M’Bala, today we will be looking at a French film shot entirely in the Ivory Coast for Cote d’Ivoire’s place in the series.

I’m quite torn on what to think about Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black And White In Colour. I thoroughly enjoyed this film as a satirical black comedy, and it is made quite well, but, its approach to its subject matter was poorly handled.

Black And White In Colour is about a group of quirky French men and women – a geographer, two shopkeepers, a prostitute, an alcoholic, etc. – settled in Cameroon around 1915 as WWI begins. This predominately European conflict of course spread across the globe and, in turn, pushed the Germans who occupied Cameroon (what was then referred to as Kamerun) into conflict with the French, also the Belgians and British as they invaded the region. The result of this was the Germans eventually surrendering and German Kamerun being split into French Cameroun and British Cameroon. Cameroon would only gain independence 15 years before this movie’s release in 1976.

As the settlers first learn of WWI and this conflict with the Germans develops, Black And White In Colour chooses to ridicule the French settlers – and this is done quite amusingly – before skipping through the training and the battles that, of course, involved the exploitation of native Cameroonians. For a film that has an ultimate point that is anti-war and critical of colonialism, Black And White In Colour sheds no sympathy at all for, nor does it even propose a substantial thought towards, the natives. In such, the manipulation, pain, death, torture and enslavement that the Cameroonians and other regional Africans faced is only ever briefly referenced, and characters spend almost no time thinking about this, whilst jokes are made about an idiotic shopkeeper slapping his native servants. There are a few hints of racial commentary with a mixed race relationship developing between a Frenchman and a native woman, but this is entirely overshadowed by the fact that this is a dark comedy and a war film. What’s more, this film’s resolution concerns the Germans and the French sides befriending one another whilst the natives look on at their absurd celebrations with exasperation (which is the only emotion that the native characters are really given). So, whilst the French are ridiculed throughout, if the point of this film was to comment on colonialism and war, then this is a huge failure, one that very lightly utilises and references history.

So, whilst I enjoyed this film, its decision to utilise real-world history is its biggest flaw and, ultimately, something that this story really didn’t need. If this was a more ambiguous story with a somewhat anonymous context, and so akin to Africa Paradis or The Gods Must Be Crazy, in turn, clearly a speculative film primarily for entertainment’s value, then this film’s merits would shine through. However, as it is, this is a fun movie that wasn’t thought out very well at all.

 

 

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Saturday Night Fever – Two-Headed Coins

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Saturday Night Fever – Two-Headed Coins

Thoughts On: Saturday Night Fever (1977)

A nineteen-year-old paint store worker’s life takes a turn when he finds a new dance partner.

I was way too young when I first saw this movie; I must have been around ten, and was expecting a movie about a disco dancing competition – one with a lot of Bee Gees songs – after seeing a trailer. For the first 5 minutes or so, this is what you get, but, beyond this… not so much. As you could expect, ten-year-old me was quite surprised at the dark depths to which this movie dares to burrow. And re-watching this today after not having seen this in years, I was struck even more by Saturday Night Fever as this is still a darker movie than I was anticipating it to be. (However, this may be due to me watching a different cut of the film when I was younger, though, I can’t be sure of this).

With one of the greatest and most iconic soundtracks of any movie… ever, and with aesthetics and a style that helped further popularise disco world-wide, it’s impossible to say that this film isn’t a classic. Added to this, Saturday Night Fever goes under many peoples’ radars as one of the most affecting and poignant “lost teen” movies. The archetype of this genre of film that most will refer to is of course Rebel Without A Cause. After this, however, it is very easy to jump to The Graduate and then all the way up to the 80s and the John Hughes movies. Skipping past the bulk of the New Hollywood era, however, we all miss Saturday Night Fever, which, in my view, is a much more darker and grimier, also less melodramatic, version of Rebel Without A Cause. In such, this film delves deeper into the angst and fear of having to confront oncoming adulthood without being given the tools or the means, by ourselves and by our upbringing, to stoically and successfully do this. For this, Saturday Night Fever certainly affects me more than any other “lost teen” movie that I can bring to mind.

With Rebel Without A Cause, I’ve always felt that the teens were a little too childish, and with The Graduate, the angle of painting the protagonists as bumbling, immoral and stupid certainly works, but, it just doesn’t resonate so well with me. Conversely, Saturday Night Fever really embraces the darkness that can reside within ‘adults’ moving out of their teens. And though this story is based on a fabricated magazine article and, in turn, a fabricated idea of the 70s teenager and the ‘disco scene’, it seems to capture a realistic balance between self-awareness, naivety and stupidity in its characters. Because of this, when all the expected questions and themes are raised, they seem to be materialised genuinely. For example, what do I do about the dead-end path that life has set before me? What do I do about my dumb-ass friends? What do I do about my neurotic parents? What do I do about my inadequate and useless self? Many of these questions are answered for John Travolta’s Tony before he asks them. However, when Tony does go ahead and begin asking these questions, he does so with a facial expression or an action before speaking.

One of the best examples of this would be when he thinks he has lost his job, and returns to the paint shop only to have it given back. Merely looking at the workers who have been employed at the small shop for years upon years, we hear him scream: is this all I’m supposed to amount to? And this is after he enthusiastically accepts a minor raise from his boss. The juxtaposition of these two events then says a lot about how Tony is growing and developing without any guidelines or knowledge of what to do – and largely because he’s only ever critiqued, never really praised, which leaves him drowning in between two choices of either transitioning into a void of self-contempt in which he begrudgingly accepts the life-long job at the paint store or an empty well of vapidness as a small-town disco hero that sleeps around and jerks off with his friends. However, reflecting upon this, this narrative utilises his relationship with Stephanie, who is trying to find a path in the world with more open eyes, but, ultimately, an equal sense of haphazardness.

Time and time again this narrative pulls up parallels like this that formulate this core theme of ‘lost’ by juxtaposing two sides of the same coin, creating a seemingly useless two-headed coin with no tails. Without a thesis and an antithesis, there can be no synthesis. Translated into the “lost teen” genre film, this means that two lost teens do not make an adult. At least, this is how those around Tony seem to view themselves and life. And so, without transformation and without preparation for the road ahead, the characters of this narrative, as is suggested by Tony’s boss, are just waiting to be fucked by the future.

As poignant and expressive as this idea is, we do find such a suggestion in a film like The Graduate with its iconic ending. However, Saturday Night Fever ends with hope and with an implication that these two sides of the same coin, Tony and Stephanie, can transform into something that is more than just a symbol for chance; something that doesn’t rely on the unlikely probability that everything will be fine. And so it’s this that reaches out of the screen whilst Saturday Night Fever plays. This is then a film about escaping escapism and the feverous Saturday night which we live for to die upon; the night in which we become a zombie with abstract dreams and a synthesised, soporific buzz. For the daring choices of plot and character that are used to project this story, Saturday Night Fever is certainly more than a classic in my view.

Before we end, I’ll note that this post speaks pretty well with the previous post on Inside Out in being about the exiting of teenagehood as opposed to the entering of it, so check that out. But, with all of that said, I’ll leave things with you. What are your thoughts on Saturday Night Fever and all we’ve covered today?

 

 

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Inside Out – The Reconciliation Of The Fractured Self

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Inside Out – The Reconciliation Of The Fractured Self

Thoughts On: Inside Out (2015)

Stepping inside the head of a girl transitioning into hard times, we get to see her world turned inside out.

Inside Out is perfect in a way that kind of tingles. With beautiful animation, great direction, good editing, but a masterful story, Inside Out is one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen. Its every moment pulsates and reverberates with an understanding of the Disney-Pixar craft, and so its no surprise that it projects one of their most articulate and touching narratives of all time. Whilst this isn’t subtextually as complex as, for example, Monsters Inc, Inside Out manages to balance its deeply metaphorical side with its more accessible side. Thus, as most people could tell you, Inside Out is a film about growing up and embracing the wide range of human emotions. However, there is nuance and more to this story than just this, and so this is what we’ll explore today.

For practically all of modern human history, societies have found a means of representing one fundamental idea: the fractal nature of the individual. Ancient societies, such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, represented this through polytheism, a belief in multiple gods and goddesses. In Roman mythology, Cupid was the god of desire, Mars was the god of war and Vulcan was the god of fire. There are a plethora of other gods, including the 12 central and a myriad of other peripheral figures, that all represented different aspects of humanity and society. With these three examples, however, we can see expressed three central human attributes: violence and aggression, love and affection, and creativity and malleable change. Furthermore, we have an example of a fundamental representation of the idea that people, and in turn societies, are made up of separate, even individual, compartments that, only together, make a cohesive, functional whole.

As time progressed many societies converged upon one God, relying on monotheism for meaning and a unifying force in the individual and amongst the masses. Abstractly and non-universally, this implied a change in humanity whereby we took control of ourselves whilst maintaining an idea of a literal higher power and purpose. This higher concept, this God, for many cultures, was a guiding force that gave people the freedom and free will to live as an individual who could, to a degree, lead their own life. No longer did it then seem that Mars would embody societies and drive them towards war. However, with a belief in a literal God remained a concept of embodiment; i.e, the devil, demons or evil embodying someone. And thus there still remained an idea of fractal societies and people existing through forces of evil, good and shades in between. But, as time again progressed, God became ever more abstract and less literal. This signalled to some that society was breaking down. It is at this point that we begin to approach the 20th century where Nietzsche declares that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” in his 1882 collection, The Gay Science. This idea of “God is dead” deeply worried Nietzsche, which is seemingly why he proposed that we have to become supermen and in turn gods ourselves.

With Freud, who was greatly influenced by Nietzsche, seemed to come an answer to this proposition. Freud brought back, into mainstream thought, the idea of the fractal nature of the individual. He did this by suggesting, not that gods controlled us and our emotions, but that our unconscious and subconscious mind did. And in this hazy realm of non-consciousness came three abstract personalities – what some would call gods. These were the ego, superego and the id. Without wanting to delve too deeply into these concepts, Freud, having resurrected polytheism’s essential understanding of humans as fractured beings, gave us new tools of self-expression. However, over the 20th century Freudian and Jungian psychology faded out of popularity.

In the latter half of the 20th century, however, Paul Ekman proposed the concept of the “6 Basic Emotions”. These, as you may know, are fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, anger and surprise. (He also proposed a seventh, and that was contempt). Ekman was not the first to propose a list of core or fundamental emotions, but, it was his list that seemingly stuck. Thus, in the modern day, we usually describe ourselves through emotions as opposed to gods and our unconscious (though, both of these ideas remain relevant, and even important). This has its positives and negatives, much like polytheism, monotheism and psychoanalysis do, and they manifest in society. However, much like societies before ourselves had to make the gods happy, walk righteously under one god, reconcile with their childhood or confront their shadow, we have to manage our emotions. And thus we find ourselves at the narrative expression of this idea through Inside Out, which, who knows, may be a significant marker of thinking in our day and age in the future (much like many of the Pixar and Disney films could be).

When we now take a look at our main characters, they may seem a little more important and profound than you’d initially assume…

However, let us take a step back. Ekman proposed that there were six or seven core emotions. Why are there only five represented here? The truth is, there are many theories and many different numbers concerning core emotions. It was decided, by Pete Docter and with Ekman’s aid, that five would be the right amount of emotions for the sake of simplicity. There are nonetheless many more emotions expressed by this film than these five. For example, we get contempt and nostalgia through a combination of the references to memory with sadness and anger. And, most important of all, this film lets surprise be represented physically in Riley’s inner world.

Surprise, the discovery of the new, can lead to creation…

But, taken badly, surprise leads to destruction…

All of this is of course dictated by the unknown world. Thus, surprise will come to be one of the most important ’emotions’ of this film. This is because this is a coming-of-age story in which Riley moves into her transition away from childhood and into adulthood. This movement is catalysed by, in essence, life happening.

Life, seen through a responsible adult’s eyes, is not all fun and games. This is because life is made up of chaos, entropy and a lot of forces trying to do you harm. To confront life, you must prepare for the unexpected by constructing a flexible, evolving tool kit with which you can cope with almost anything. And this is indeed maturity; it is letting go of life as a dream, of life as seen through a child’s eyes; a life filled with almost constant joy thanks only to naivety and parents.

As an adult, you must construct your own happiness whilst dealing with the chaos of life. This is represented by Inside Out through our look into the parents’ minds:

There are a plethora of things that these two images tell us, but there are two key ideas that we’ll pick up on. The first is that adults have a different panel to a child’s: each emotion has their own controls. Secondly, there is nonetheless someone in the director’s chair in centre. Unlike with Riley, however, Joy is not in control in the parents’ mind. Instead, sadness and anger are.

This is one of the most expressive and pertinent ideas in this entire film. Whilst we are told, by the end of this film, that joy alone cannot rule a person’s mind, it is here that we are told that more daunting emotions must take control. So, whilst we’d all like to think that we’re lead primarily by joy in life, most people aren’t. As we have discussed, life is difficult and it forces us to forge our own happiness and create a tool kit with which to confront it. Contrary to what a child would believe, to confront the world, you can’t just be positive. This doesn’t mean that positive thinking and the whole branch of positive psychology is null. However, it does mean that, reprising a Jungian idea, people must embrace their shadow and dark side. The mother is shown to do this by letting sadness be her guiding emotion whilst the father utilises anger. Interestingly, sadness is then attributed to an imaginary image love…

… and anger an imaginary hockey game…

Whilst these are jokes based on the personalities of the parents, this also reveals how these core emotions, as negative as they seemingly are, function. Starting with anger, we see a form of destruction that can also create something positive. Anger is then, in a certain sense, what Riley channels when she plays hockey…

… and we hear this to be true when Anger has to take over as this game starts. In this respect, anger is shown to motivate competition and the joy it offers. So, whilst Anger will play his part in the protection of Riley and her sense of self, he is not just darkness, but a combination of the good and the bad. However, whist Riley’s dad is an influence upon her, much like Anger is, anger doesn’t play a huge role in this narrative. Instead, the conflict throughout is between Joy and Sadness.

As is implied initially through Riley’s mother, Sadness seems to be a kind of understanding or empathy; it is only by empathising with someone that can you be compassionate, and it is also only through understanding that you can learn to let things go. We see this manifest itself with this later, crucial moment:

Sadness, through empathy and understanding, manages to raise Bing Bong’s spirits. By accepting his despair, instead of suppressing it through positivity as Joy would suggest, Bing Bong soon manages to move on and again be happy. This is one of the core elements of Riley’s final lesson:

What develops from this reconciliation between Sadness and Joy in Riley is both the ability to let go and be weak, but also be strong again. This is so important because, with only Joy, life becomes deluded, and this is made clear with the expansion of this core memory…

… to include sadness…

However, letting go and being weak before regaining strength as a means of maturing, is signified best through one key moment: Bing Bong’s death.

To grow up and accept that sadness, in a certain respect, must run your life, you must first learn what it means to let the things that need to be let go, go. Bing Bong’s death is then the realisation that Riley is no longer a child, which can be a difficult thing to endure, but it is nonetheless something we must all go through. We can assume, because her ‘headquarters’ is run by sadness, that Riley’s mother also had to learn how to let go for the better. Conversely, her father would have had to learn how to control his frustrations and turn them towards positive creation. (Or, at least, these would be their core, defining lessons in life; we all must learn how to control all of our emotions). However, with Riley learning a similar lesson to what her mother had to have, we see her accept that there is something that can flourish from the destruction and challenging of self.

There is conflict along this road of maturation with Joy refusing to let Sadness take control, and such leads to the decimation of Riley’s personality:

But, this destruction of personality only eventually leads to the growth of something new and better:

Thus, the judgement and questioning of her core being, and ultimately its deconstruction, is what teaches her that, from darkness, essentially comes a brighter light than one she has ever seen before.

Coming towards a conclusion, what we ultimately see with Riley maturing into a more complex and stronger person is the reconciliation of the many parts of her fractured self. This story is then a meta-narrative constructed over thousands upon thousands of years that ultimately sees all the gods that rule over, and the subconscious elements that reside with, the human complex come into peace, ready to confront the ominous beast that is reality, as someone moves closer towards adulthood. For this, Inside Out is not just a masterpiece, but a truly significant story of our times in my view. However, with all of that said, what are your thoughts on Inside Out and all we’ve covered today?

 

 

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Of Love And Other Demons – Dissonance Persecution

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Of Love And Other Demons – Dissonance Persecution

Quick Thoughts: Of Love And Other Demons (Del Amor Y Otros Demonios, 2009)

Made by Hilda Hidalgo, this is the Costa Rican film of the series.

Of Love And Other Demons is a slow and contemplative film that explores and questions the concept of forbidden love through a 13-year-old Sierva (handmaid), María, that is bitten by a rabid dog. Assuming that she is infected by evil, priests have her sent to a commune to be cured. Here her upbringing – she was raised by black maids and so elements of their culture and language have been embedded into her – and her looks – her long red hair – become the catalyst for conflict. This conflict is predicated on an emotion that is hard to describe; it is a blend of disgust and jealousy, but neither term is accurate enough to define the phenomena put to screen. The jealousy is encapsulated by the nuns seemingly fearing and being wary of her striking looks and in turn persecuting her for this. And the disgust comes from their aversion to the “negro” influence that is about her – also the rabies which she is soon cured of. Again, these terms aren’t an accurate means of describing exactly what occurs in this narrative. The best way to surmise the events in this story is to reiterate the title, Of Love And Other Demons. To equate love and compassion – that which María represents through her upbringing and eventually attracts through her looks – to a demon is to use superstition as a facade through which other unspoken inner complexes can be projected. In such, whilst it is implied, it is never said that the characters persecuting María merely do not like other cultures, are afraid of a disease that they do not fully understand, and nor do they like the sexuality that she inadvertently represents. There is then a clear dissonance and sense of confusion, or disharmony, that the characters in this narrative symbolically absolve by confronting and destroying, not their own prejudices and complexes, but the stimuli – the person – that triggers them through an exorcism.

Of Love And Other Demons is then a narrative not just about the persecution of an innocent girl because of religious dogma being bent around prejudice, but is an allegory about this archetypal “dissonance persecution” in society. For this, Of Love And Other Demons is an intricately woven film that, though it drags its feet just a little, is worth seeing.

 

 

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Every Year In Film #22 – Chamonix: Arrival Of A Horse Carriage And Descent Of The Travellers

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Every Year In Film #22 – Chamonix: Arrival Of A Horse Carriage And Descent Of The Travellers

Thoughts On: Chamonix: Arrival Of A Horse Carriage And Descent Of The Travellers (Chamonix: Arrivée en Voitures des Breaks D’excursion, 1901)

Today we will be exploring the birth of documentary film.

As we established with the previous post of the series, now that we are in the 1900s, cinema has entered a new era. No longer do Edison’s Kinetoscope shorts, nor anything resembling their aesthetic, really represent the form of 1900-1910 filmmaking. We are now in the realm of simple narratives and tricks, and so it is Méliès that particularly defines the first half of the 1900s along with narrative and comedy filmmakers from companies such as Pathé. There, of course, are a plethora of copy-cat filmmakers and pioneers of lesser stature, but it is the narrative and the trick film that evolved over the 1900s, until the 1910s when Griffith, World War, Hollywood and the feature narrative began to dictate the shape of cinema. This shift of paradigm, as we explored recently, saw the trick film fall out of favour and industries begin to thrive, and all because audiences were paramount in the shaping and building of this art form alongside the filmmakers and studios. But, before we can again delve into this line of evolution, we should give a genre of significant importance its fair due, and that genre is the street scene, the actuality, documentary or ethnographic film.

When most people think of cinema’s birth, they think of the ubiquitous street scene, one such as our subject for today, Chamonix: Arrivée en Voitures des Breaks D’excursion (Chamonix: Arrival Of A Horse Carriage And Descent Of The Travellers). With blunt titles that seemingly say all you need to know about these pictures, there doesn’t seem to be much that needs to be discussed about Lumiére street scenes. This, for instance, was shot somewhere between the 25th May, 1899 and the 15th April, 1900, made by an unknown filmmaker, and would have been first screened at the Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris in 1900 alongside other films that documented and explored France. This short will be catalogued on many sites, like Letterboxd, but probably dated incorrectly and attributed to the wrong directors. So, just as Letterboxd says this film was made in 1901 (as I have as to make this point) and by both of the Lumiére brothers whilst the Catalogue Lumiére (a useful site constructed using the book, La Production Cinématographique des Frères Lumière) contradicts this, most people look past the context of these films and straight to their content: the titles.

Seeing the Lumiére films in such a way would likely parallel how many people would have seen these films at a fair, in a music hall, a vaudeville theatre, a converted shop front or at a travelling, pop up theatre when they were first released. At these events, you may have been given some information about the scenes – and, as we have explored, this was certainly the case in regions such as Japan – but the purposes of these films to the general public can be assumed to be of basic interest and amusement. This is why the term that Thomas Gunning coined to describe this era, “The Cinema Of Attractions”, has stuck so well. Knowing that Chamonix is a city in France that someone photographed areas of for the Lumiére company is then the basic attraction and the fundamental reason for people seeing these films.

To focus on this archetypal kind of film with such a notion, it becomes clear that cinema was born and popularised as a mirror and as a spectacle of human capability – one that often marvelled at itself. However, there was a tension between spectacle and science in the earliest days of cinema’s existence. Take for instance the first ever series of pictures that could be manipulated into motion:

Muybridge made this film for the sake of curiosity and for a bet on behalf of Leland Stanford. So, whilst Muybridge made scientific leaps with his process of photography, this was born out of curiosity – maybe of the scientific kind – but motivated by a bet seemingly of a more puerile nature. When we look to the rest of Muybridge’s work, there remains this tension between what he would claim is science…

… and what seems to be puerile interest and basic spectacle…

We can say a very similar thing about other pioneers of the pre-cinematic era such as Marey and Le Prince. With Marey, there is a heavy implication of science in his work…

… but also clear beauty and, what we would call, and despite his intentions, art..

With Le Prince, too, we have the same tension…

Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge is the first known actuality or documentary film depicting people. Previous films by Marey and Muybridge would have been constructed, and so contrived, but, you could argue that their depictions of animals and insects were natural enough to be considered earlier actualities. However, did Le Prince make Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge to preserve this space in time for future anthropologists? Was it is a scientific experiment? Or, was it a test for a new piece of technology that he could exploit commercially? We cannot know this for sure, but these questions hung about filmmakers and their products for decades upon decades – arguably until the present day.

The lines between science, spectacle, actuality and fantasy are made ever more grey with the first commercial, staged films to be shot outdoors. The first of these would come from Edison’s Company in 1894.

Bucking Bronco was shot outside of the Black Maria studio, presumably through its open doors by the immovable Kinetograph, on a set that was specially constructed for this short. Despite this, audiences could have been fooled into thinking that this was a  piece of documentary shot on a ranch in Texas if exhibitors wished (if I wrote this, would you have believed it?). What this says about the actuality film is that verisimilitude, not necessarily reality and truth, is what made this kind of film – cinema itself even – popular. We can understand this by looking back to the Lumiére street scenes again; we know of them and are interested in them for what their titles explain; we are attracted to the spectacle and the fact that they hold a mirror up to culture and human innovation. This is seemingly why we look at these shorts with awe and curiosity; it hasn’t got much to do with the building of characters, the exposition of history and cultural facts, instead, it is the mere implication of all of this through verisimilitude, a.k.a believability, a.k.a cinematic magic, or trickery, or lies.

It is difficult to assess the early actuality films without some tonal implication of cynicism. But, if we move forward to find another one of the earliest actuality films, we come to Birt Acres’ The Derby…

This, to me, is so far one of the most exciting actuality films we have covered because of the movement captured by the swelling of the crowd. What we then have here is one of the two types of street scenes; there is the impersonal and the personal, and each have their spectacle. With this impersonal look at a crowd swelling, there is a sense of magnitude captured by the implied social importance of this event. This is then like looking at pilgrims on Hajj circling the Kaaba in Mecca…

Whilst the scales are vastly different, seeing a crowd surge, alive and moving, captures and preserves a rare perspective – one that our million-year-old brain probably wasn’t built specifically for. Humans, as social creatures, would then understandably be hooked to views like that captured by The Derby just as a chimp would be hooked to sugar after stepping out of a forest for the first time. And the other side of this coin would be the personal actuality film represented by a Lumiére scene such as Querelle Enfantine (Babies Quarrel):

There, too, is a rarity in these little snapshots of genuine life. Whilst most would have seen their own infant family members quarrel, there is a precious sentiment captured by the preservation of this small moment that would naturally be lost in time and from memory. This is where we then see awe seep into the process of the personal actuality film; it is not just centred on the content itself, but the fact that photography itself makes this moment significant and gives it a greater life than it ever should have had. What cinema and actualities, better than painting or photography, allow people to then do is live outside of ‘the moment’. Whilst this has its downfalls, and we all know this to be the sea of people looking at the world through their phones instead of with their eyes…

… living outside of the moment can be a positive thing. Take the Lumiére scene for example. The two babies within are the Lumiéres’ children (I many be mistaken, but one of each). Seeing their children quarrel is probably nothing particularly new or exciting. However, given a few months or years when this moment in time should be long lost, with this film, they’d be able to step back into that moment and live it again through new eyes. And this is certainly an idea that we are all more than familiar with in the modern age – which may be why we’re more cynical about seeing other people’s children. But, there is nonetheless this effect in play.

When we look at the actuality films, what we are seeing is technology redefining nature; they preserve authentic pieces of space and time, giving them significance or capturing their significance through a technological ingenuity that is, itself, a form of spectacle. When we then look at Workers Leaving The Lumiére Factory we have the first publicly exhibited actuality film and a perfect example of this spectacle selling itself…

Whilst this is not the first actuality film ever shot (we have seen previous examples of this already) it was the first one screened; Acres’ The Derby was shot before this, but screened in 1896; Le Prince’s films were never publicly exhibited to a paying crowd; and the Skladanowskys, who were first to publicly exhibit moving pictures with a projector, did not shoot actualities. So, with the Lumiéres as representatives for a commercialised cinema shown to dozens, hundreds or thousands of people at one time, what this short encapsulates is the novelty of the first moving pictures. (Again, these were the first movies publicly screened to large audiences; whilst Edison’s Kinetoscope had been public for 2 years already, these moving images could only be viewed by one person at a time).

However, having explored the virtues of this spectacle and its complications concerning verisimilitude over reality, we now have found ourselves at the start of the Lumiéres’ career and, in turn, at the birth of the actuality film. So, whilst it is more than true that they were born as mere novelty and remained this way throughout the 10 years in which the Lumiéres’ company functioned, the actuality films did evolve over this brief period. Around 1905, you will then very rarely find simple street scenes like the early Lumiéres’ as actualities began to fit into newsreels or would be shot in more elaborate ways (from the front of trains, on busses and so on). But, before simple street scenes began to morph into the documentary – which wouldn’t really happen until the early 20s with the first successful full-length documentary film – actualities became ethnographies, which brings in a whole other set of complications and issues.

Whilst the Lumiéres didn’t demonstrate much care for narrative film, and famously didn’t believe that cinema had a future – at least, their kind of cinema didn’t have a future – they did have a commitment to what we are calling actualities, what they coined and called Actualités. It was then the Lumiéres that played the greatest part in the spreading of film technology across the world as they sent out for and collected more 30-50 second exposures of film than any other company. Furthermore, the Lumiéres were committed to preserving and storing their films. So, from the 1423 films that they accepted and catalogued, only 18 have been loss – which, as we have found out many times over already, is an unheard of statistic for silent film preservation. By contracting and training filmmakers to shoot specific subject matter and with a particular mise en scéne, the Lumiéres (their company) captured the world, everywhere from the Americas to Europe to Asia to Africa. They did this consciously and with Louise personally accepting and rejecting films that did or did not meet his standards of production.

So, here we find again the conflict between science and commercial spectacle. Unlike with other filmmakers, we can confirm that the Lumiéres meant to preserve their short films for the sake of social science. However, they still played a significant role in the commercialisation of cinema and didn’t truly ‘document’ life. After all, documentary as it evolved has much more to it than distant observation. If we take a brief look at the work of Alaxadre Promio, one of the most prolific Lumiére cameramen who shot over 300 films all over the world, we can then explore why this form of filmmaking had to evolve beyond the Lumiéres.

Shot in Regent Park’s zoological garden in London, this short portrays a lion in his cage being fed scraps of meat by a guard. If we question the specific function of this short, it would be to simply preserve this space, time and the action within. This is what makes it an actuality; it is mostly transcendent of an idea of truth and contrivance. In such, it doesn’t claim to portray the lion in its natural habitat, nor does it claim to capture normal behaviour (the guard is clearly making the lion seem more aggressive by the way he throws the scraps). However, whilst this defines Lion as an actuality, this is its biggest downfall: there are no facts nor a commitment to depicting the true actuality of a lion – after all, this is the subject of the short. Instead of being called “Lion” this should have at least been called “Lion in a Cage”. Nonetheless, the absence of facts and a lion in its true form is what this actuality lacks – as did most like this.

Shot in Jerusalem, this depicts pilgrims around The Holy Sepulchre, a Christian church. Whilst this would be programmed to be screened to audiences who possibly knew of the religious context around this short, we again have no facts. So, just as nothing is told of the lion in the previous short, no personality or character is given to the subjects of this scene. Of course, this is due to the limitations of the technology, but the approach that those working under the Lumiéres utilised was very distant and cold. So, if we compare their style, which they trained their cameramen to conform to, to that of the Mitchell & Kenyon company in Britain, we find examples of how it was possible to capture personality and character through actuality.

This short is very clearly constructed – we can even see it being set up and organised – but, there is a sense of life and energy present here, and in many of the Mitchell & Kenyon street scenes, that you never see in the Lumiére shorts. This is because, working mostly in the North of England, which was predominantly working class, Mitchell & Kenyon would photograph people going to work or walking the streets whilst encouraging them to interact with the camera. The difference between these two approaches is then clear; the Lumiére cameramen would silently film scenes from a distance whilst Mitchell & Kenyon would invite their subjects to be apart of the process. In fact, this was their business model. Working under the slogans of “local films for local people” and “see yourself as others see you”, they would take pictures of people and show it to them in local fairs or theatres as part of a bigger show that involved music, a showman’s commentary and even sound effects. People will then refer to the Mitchell & Kenyon films as non-actualities, but, in my view, what they were doing was far more documentary-like than what the Lumiéres attempted with their actualities.

As the documentary form was born and developed, “truth” was always a question. The first significant documentarists, for example Flaherty and Vertov, would always be toying with this notion – and this remains true in the modern day; we only need to watch a Herzog or Moore documentary to understand this. The Lumiéres assumed that their distance captured reality, but, in certain senses, it failed to bring truth out of their characters. This is what we can see the Mitchell & Kenyon films to do; they engage their audience and let them represent themselves (which is a huge and convoluted subject in documentary). So, when we move onto more Lumiére enthographies, we see this detrimental distance manifest itself in different contexts.

Now in Egypt, Promio shoots the Sphinx and Pyramids with a nice depth of field and layers in his image that have the background and foreground interact – and such is the Lumiére aesthetic. But, we must again ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this? Considering a filmmaker’s perspective, this may one day serve as some B-roll that could be spliced into another narrative picture. But beyond this, what does this short do? Promio captures the spectacle of this scene, but no detail, no close-ups, no alternate angles; nothing that could qualify this to be documenting a scene. What this mise en scéne implies about the Lumiére approach is that it was not forethinking; why document the world without detail or personality?

One of the last major downfalls of the Lumiére approach concerns the concept of experience. With films such as the above Football or even Children Digging For Clams…

… there is no personality, detail, nor a projection of what it means to be in these scenes. It would take decades–until the impressionist movement of the 20s–until cinema consciously attempted to capture the human experience and perception. As we have explored, this was all born with camera movement – which Promio is thought to have pioneered – however, Promio never used camera movement to bring people to life. As we have previously explored, an example of this early impressionism can be seen with Panorama Pendant L’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel:

In this short, the experience of being on the Eiffel Tower is captured by a camera. But, in films such as Football and Children Digging For Clams, we’re only made to know what its like to be a bystander – which certainly doesn’t make for an exciting or an engaging scene, nor one that documents what it is like to play football or be a child digging for clams. That said, cinematic language in the documentary is a difficult subject as it can be seen to create an alternative and false reality. In fact, the use of cinematic language and impressionism is often reserved for recreation – which began as antithetical to the actuality, and was often called recreated news reels, but would later be integrated into the documentary as a valid form of projecting truth through experience. And so it was this that the early actuality film never came close to achieving when it concerned people.

To bring things towards a conclusion, let us look at our subject for today one more time:

What we have done today is critically look at the actuality films. We have done this because we have already, indirectly, explored much to do with the street scene in the Every Year series. In taking a look at some of the earliest and most intriguing actualities, but now focusing on a later, ubiquitous example, we come to a point at which the street scene began its decline. By understanding what the actuality film lacks – especially the most popular and wide spread which came from the Lumiéres – we can understand what documentarists would have to develop from across the silent era. In such, they had to confront questions of reality, experience, facts and representation with a strong sense of self-awareness. Without the ethnographies and the street scenes, these questions could never have been raised and the documentary could have never evolved. So, whilst we have critiqued them today, their importance and significance will always remain self-evident.

 

 

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