Finding Nemo – The Family Circle Of Trust: Tragedy

Thoughts On: Finding Nemo (2003)

A film we’ve briefly covered before, but will now be looking at in a multiple part mini-series.

The last time I watched (and then covered) Finding Nemo, I felt that the film was basically perfect, but lacked a hint of ambiguity or openness. As a result, Finding Nemo’s subtext seemed air-tight and very self-evident: this is a movie about a pessimistic, anxiety-ridden father learning to let his kid be free as he can only grow from duress. This implied a more general purpose of the adventure movie; they all teach characters through experience and physical conflicts that inform inner journeys, and in turn guide characters towards defeating the demons deep within them. However, whilst Finding Nemo can certainly be viewed in this way, having watched the film again, I think I have stumbled across the nuances of this film that profoundly complexify the subtext. So, having re-visited and re-thought this film, it’s clear to me that Finding Nemo is about, to reference Meet The Parents, a “Family Circle Of Trust”.

As novel of a device that “The Byrnes Family Circle of Trust” becomes in Meet The Parents (also Meet The Fockers), I think this movie works so well as a family comedy because the theme of trust and unity in the family group is deeply embedded into people. Recognising this gives Meet The Parents an ability to silently articulate something very true and resonant whilst Stiller’s Greg continually ‘focks’ up; from truth comes comedy. However, whilst Meet The Parents is about someone alien entering this circle, Finding Nemo is about this circle being constructed with focus on the environment in which it exists.

To start where the film does, we find ourselves at the drop off.

This is the point where the coral reef ends and the ocean begins; this is suburbia facing a chaotic jungle. This suburbia, as Coral, Nemo’s mother, puts it is “desirable because of the great schools and the amazing view”, but, to paraphrase the rest of her sentence, do they really need of all of that space?

The difference between the suburbs, the city and the jungle is an idea that is implied throughout the opening of this movie. The city is a jungle of its own, one that is slightly civilised and highly developed, but, it is a jungle nonetheless. Escaping this jungle, you find yourself on the fringes of human chaos and in suburbia. However, when you attempt to escape people, you stray ever closer to nature’s embrace – and nature is not very civilised. So, when Coral asks if all the space is necessary, Marlin says, “These are our kids…they deserve the best”. This suggests something somewhat disharmonious with our concept of chaos; why, if you want your kids to have the best life, would you put them in the face of danger? The answer is, as Marlin suggests: it’s in their best interest. Whilst the “space” Coral references is freedom, and freedom comes with dire risks – after all, to be free is to be outside of the bounds of human control – humans intrinsically yearn this mobility and choice.

I remember hearing a joke, probably from Joe Rogan if my memory serves me right, about zoos and how they are like prison for animals that make them depressed and, in essence, prevents them from being true animals. We’ve all heard this before, but a debate on the ethics of zoos is not the fundamental basis of Rogan’s joke. He goes on to add a caveat: giraffes are fine with zoos. Putting aside all real-world evidence, here it is suggested that giraffes are happy in their enclosures because they are no longer running from lions; they, lucky for them, get to escape nature, its freedom and its chaos. Bringing this back to Finding Nemo, the commentary on people through the idea that space, freedom and danger are best for children is: humans are not giraffes, and nor are we clown fish who hide in anemones all of our lives. Though humans have a serious tendency to box themselves into cities and civilisation, we all recognise that space and freedom are essential – which is exactly why holidays, breaks, weekends and free time are so important to us. Freedom is being allowed to look at calamity and walk towards it. Civilisation is the human zoo or prison, however, when civilisation functions, it preserves freedom like it were a precious source of life and vitality (which, in a way, it is). So, when we return to this image…

… we see a representation of the ideal suburban life. In a balance between the structure of human civilisation and the chaos of nature, Marlin and Coral are in heaven and they feel their kids will be, too; they will have the freedom to be real ‘people’, to run out into the ocean and play, but also go to school and learn. As said, however, utopias do not seem to exist; with freedom comes danger…

The barracuda here is nature’s response to Adam and Eve frolicking in the Garden of Eden. We see this idea represented in many suburban drama films, everything from Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, a 20s silent film about a couple living on the outskirts of a city, All That Heaven Allows, a 50s melodrama about a widow and her grown children in suburbia, and American Beauty, which is about a dead-inside suburbanite man who yearns for meaning. The barracuda in all of these films manifests itself on the edge of suburbia as a commentary on the non-existence of paradise (even in the upper-middle-class home) and nature’s tenancy to inject chaos into structure. The barracuda in Sunrise is then the City Girl who attempts to destroy a couple by luring the husband towards murder (towards murdering his wife). In All That Heaven Allows the barracuda is the selfish, judgemental and restrictive reactions of the protagonist’s family to her, a lonely house wife, falling in love with a young bachelor; it is the old 50s television set that is the barracuda as this the the symbol of her suppression. In American Beauty, the barracuda is existential imprisonment; it could have been Lester’s descent into childishness, the crazy, cheating wife, the enraged teenage daughter or her slutty friend. However, these are all red herrings that disguise the true threat, which is the highest  expression of suppression: the war vet that fell in love with a Nazi soldier (a confounding commentary on a broken individual who, by virtue of his being, is incredibly far removed from the constructed normality of suburbia).

There are a plethora more examples of films about civilised monsters living in houses (we could reference films such as The Housemaid, The Maid, Psycho, House, etc.). However, with Finding Nemo, we find one of the purest and most literal expressions of monsters prowling on the periphery of suburbia as an age-old commentary on the idea that there is no such thing as a utopia: we are not giraffes happily wandering in captivity and so must face, and live amongst, the lions of the plains. However…

… walking this tightrope between the human prison and nature’s monsters is hard: you can fall into either end of the deep pool – and we see this beautifully realised with the emergence of darkness in this scene; it starts off bright, then the monster comes, bringing with it shadow that, once it is gone, completely veils the scene, Nemo, Marlin’s only light in this darkness.

When Marlin’s children are destroyed, it is understandable to see him scramble away from nature and into civilisation (the busy coral reef city), happy to embrace the cage that it represents. (It would be important to note that this film doesn’t plainly criticise city life – but we’ll come back to this at some point later). However, bringing with him his child into this prison marks the construction of a faulted family circle of trust.

What we see realised here with this hair-raisingly beautiful transition that is bound together wondrously by the melancholic piano overture is the concept of unity and the broken. As we touched on when looking at Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, the Taoist (Daoist) creation myth suggests that The Way gave birth to unity – which then evolved into duality, trinity and then a multitude of creatures. This idea materialises in Chinese mythology with the story of Pangu, or, P’an-ku. In certain incarnations of the Chinese creation story, Pangu was the first creature who separated the gestating universe – an egg encapsulating heaven, earth and chaos. And much of this is represented by the famous Taoist symbol, the Taijitu:

**This is actually the modern and expanded Taijitu, the Bagua

Whilst we won’t go into the depths of that story or this symbol, Carl Jung dedicated much of his time to the study of similarities across religions, and, in turn, what this implied about the psychological make-up of humanity. One symbol that he found to be highly recurrent was the mandala, which is what the Taoist symbol above is. Mandalas were, in Jung’s view, and as is widely quoted, “the psychological expression of the totality of the self”. Circular symbols to Jung then represented not just the holistic individual, but the different levels of the individual self which are bound to the ego and collective and personal unconscious.

Whilst I’ve dropped a whole lot of key words there, the fundamental point is that mandalas are a symbol of unified living – living as a complete person in a compete familial group – and our specific example, the Taoist mandala, comments on the birth of humanity coming from an egg; from chaos, earth and heaven. When we return to this image, we then have many tools to see its depths.

Nemo in Marlin’s fin here is all that remains of himself as a holistic being; his ego, his personal sense of self and his sense of self in relation to the world is in this little spec of light. We can deduce this as Marlin is now a parent and this is all his world revolves around. And so, what this egg, a mandala, suggests is that Marlin has been born anew. However, this egg also represents chaos, hubris and tragedy….

The scar on the outer casing of the egg is then a reminder to Marlin that he attempted to become a free fish and live on the boundaries of civilisation for the greater good of his children, but ultimately failed; he was not strong enough, smart enough, in enough control; fate was stacked against him and he was powerless. The transition from this scarred egg, this fractured symbol of creation that embodied chaos, heaven and earth (Marlin’s future), to the moon is then deeply touching…

It is hard to articulate exactly why, but the moon has always been a symbol of romance and solidarity; the earthly human’s closest celestial body. The moon, which is often seen as a she (for instance, in Spanish, the moon is la luna; it is gendered to be feminine), is the antithesis of the sun. The sun, which is one of the most fundamental gods (often seen as male) that ancient civilisations worshipped, represents the the day time and so human reign. On the other hand, the moon is a solitary beacon in the night. The sentimentality that is so easily attached to the moon is then predicated on humans being weak and lost in darkness. We could then understand the moon to be a romantic view embodied by the abstract feminine archetype as it is akin to nurture; a nightly mother. To juxtapose Marlin’s new life, Nemo, the egg, with the moon leads us to think about Coral, his mother, and a distant concept of creation and guidance, high above the ocean. (And, on a side-note, whilst many religions attribute creation to a celestial location – amongst the stars or floating in the universe – the sea, or a great body of water, is also a prevalent motif that is suggested to be the abstract and metaphorical cradle of life). This transition is then so affecting as it joins together the concept of heaven (the deceased mother, Coral), earth (Marlin’s new life) and chaos (the tragedy that initially tore these items apart), which leads us to see unity and harmony in the trichotomous image.

To return again to Nemo, we have the final commentary from the opening of the narrative. This is Marlin’s new life and self, it is fractured, but, linked to a heavenly, feminine body that looks down upon him. Nemo will come to be Marlin’s projection of self that has to confront the duality of his being and of his world. There was once himself, the giddy adventurer, and Coral, the cautionary maternal being. They lived between the prison of civilisation and the chaos of the natural world, and were dealt a tragically devastating blow by chaos. Alone and embodying the lost anima, the female, Marlin takes shelter in the civilised prison; he finds a new unity without the fundamental duality; the tension between the male adventure and the female preserve and the tension between natural chaos and human structure.

We will not continue to discuss every scene of this film in such depth as things will become tedious and I’m sure we’ll exhaust this narrative by attributing too much detail. However, with the understanding of this narrative through the opening scene, it is clear that the conflicts and the journey ahead will cause our adventurer to confront certain inner demons. In such, Marlin will have to re-establish a duality within himself to transform what was a scarred egg – a mandala representative of his being; Nemo – into a solid family circle of trust, a new and wider mandala of unity.

To re-establish himself and his family, Marlin has to reconcile with three concepts: the anima, the world and the son. We will then look at the rest of this narrative through three representations: Dory, adventure and Nemo. This will be done across two or three more posts, so look forward to more.

 

 

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End Of The Week Shorts #26

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Shorts #26

Today’s Shorts: Feast Of Love (2014), Yellow Earth (1984), Lessons of Darkness (1992), Alexander Nevsky (1938), Hotel Transylvania (2012), King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017), Spring In A Small Town (1948), The Housemaid (1960)

A highly enjoyable, despite being imperfect in many ways, romance. What makes Daawat-e-Ishq, or, Feast of Love, work are the light touches of comedy, the chemistry between the major characters and the brilliant, rounded tone.

The downfalls are plentiful, but not too damaging. This is a highly contrived movie that sticks to the romantic formula quite strictly – all the way down to the final scene being in a train station or airport. Added to this, the musical numbers, whilst fun, aren’t impressive. And the snippets of action…. not good at all. There is also an attempt to construct this romance around the social issue of dowry exchange – which is illegal, but still prevalent in India. There is further commentary on materialism and love in this narrative, but it is held together rather loosely by the heavy demands of the genre which push much of the social commentary to the side.

All in all, imperfect, but highly enjoyable. I had a great time with this one. Maybe you will too.

Yellow Earth is a conflicting film that reflects on the impact of communist revolution in rural northern China. In such, whilst the communist movement is praised through song and dialogue throughout, the desolate and arid imagery of this narrative suggests antithetical political ideas. It’s this highly visual and cinematic approach to story that not only implies a critique on communist revolution through depicting its failures to adapt and being adopted by people, but also makes this film a significant piece of Chinese film history. In such, this is considered one of the first Fifth Generation films that emerged after the fall of the communist state in China. It’s Kaige’s approach to visuals, in turn, story, that played a part in reinvigorating Chinese filmmaking after it had been neglected (outside of propaganda filmmaking) during the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s.

For its complexity, on this first watch Yellow Earth struck me most as a visual piece whilst its narrative fell subservient. Maybe with a re-watch I’d see things differently.

An audio-visual masterpiece, Herzog’s Lessons Of Darkness is shot after shot after shot after shot of devastatingly beautiful imagery, so awe-inspiring that they seem to transcend earthly description as to silently depict the alien and the ethereal.

Capturing the aftermath of the First Gulf War and the Kuwaiti oil fires, this film embodies the concept of ‘apocalyptic’ with sheer grace and no context. Less a documentary and more a fantasy, there is then little that can be easily articulated about this movie. We are invited to step into a new and monstrous world and are soon left stumbling away without comprehension, just a slack jaw and an obliterated imagination.

A historical epic from Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky follows the rise of 13th century Russian people, lead by Prince Nevsky, against the German Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire.

Whilst the scope of the battle sequences in this film’s final act are pretty astonishing – not to mention influential – there is a clear weight on this film; Eisenstein is very clearly been suppressed. And this is not just an observation, but the truth. Following blunders and failures with previous films that, in fact, got producers murdered by Stalin, Eisenstein was given a final chance to make a film in 1938 under the supervision of Dmitri Vasilyev who would keep him in budget, on schedule and operating within traditional means of filmmaking. This meant no formalism and no montage. So, though Eisenstein works closely with the sound of this film, which is intricately designed, this film is somewhat disheartening.

Ultimately a piece of cinema meant to rouse the Russians against the Nazi Germans with on-coming WWII, Alexander Nevsky is quite brilliant, but clearly the subject of artistic suppression.

Hotel Transylvania is… I suppose you could say that it’s a passable kids’ movie. Somewhat enjoyable, but very dumb, this isn’t hard to sit through. However, if you chose to judge this film harshly… well, you’d have a lot to say.

I’m fairly certain that if we resurrected Bram Stoker and made him sit through all of the films that have been made over the decades that involve Dracula, by the time he got to this, he’d have died of heart failure. The height of bastardisation and an exhausted piece of cinema, Hotel Transylvania is just a highly cliched, not at all smart, throw away movie. What stands out most to me is Sandler’s shameless performance. When I imagine him recording this nonsense I can only bow my head and think of one word: fool.

Without much more to say, this movie does quite well in keeping kids quiet for a while, but, I’m not sure how great of an achievement that is.

A modern masterpiece. Ritchie consciously incorporates classical symbols with powerful archetypes and a traditional tale into the modern blockbuster, which is given flair by a unique style. This ticks all the boxes that I could ever deem important: character, subtext, entertainment, style, etc. I cannot fault this movie; it takes advantage of great stories of the past and re-contextualises them in one of the greatest expressions of contemporary digital cinema I’ve seen.

Yes, this was a flop. Yes, a lot of people disliked it. Yes, very few people saw this. Such is to be expected, and such says very little about the quality and depths of this film. Without a doubt, this is a masterpiece and an inspiring expression of the state of modern cinema. With all cynicism and pretence melting away, I can assure you I will be writing about this in greater depth sometime soon.

Without melodrama, spite or simplicity, Spring In A Small Town is a film centred on a love triangle. Rooting out a profoundly deep conflict between morality, romance, desire and duty in all of the characters engulfed by this mesh of social ties, this narrative left me speechless in a way that was reminiscent of my first viewing of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

Shot with precise classical cinematic language with clear inspirations from Hollywood, Spring In A Small Town intricately constructs a confined space, dense with emotion and heavy with confounded thoughts. Contemplatively paced and predominantly very quiet, the mise en scene and atmosphere open up avenues of empathy that lead right into the hearts of characters. It is very clear why this is considered one of the greatest Chinese films of all time.

The Housemaid should end after about 70 minutes with a mutilated and decapitated housemaid – and so is, in many ways, the complete reverse of certain contemporary South Korean films such as the infamous Oldboy – but this narrative sustains its confined dramatic horror tropes into satirical oblivion. This leaves this film a slightly confounding one that, on one level, critiques men, on another, depicts an utterly failed family, and on another, is a frothing tirade about conflicts between classes and cultures (western and Asian). I cannot say that I derived anything substantial from this film’s critique, instead was infuriated by the impossibly evil antagonist and over-civilised family (which says both good and bad things about this film’s script). This is nonetheless an intriguing look into South Korean film history as this is considered one of the best film’s ever produced from the nation.

All in all, The Housemaid is an incredibly well-designed movie that shocks and manipulates the emotions more than it communicates.

 

 

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Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind – The Saviour Witch

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Finding Nemo – The Family Circle Of Trust: Tragedy

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Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind – The Saviour Witch

Thoughts On: Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (風の谷のナウシカ, 1984)

A princess must confront the encroaching poisonous nature, as well as the people who want to destroy it, of a post-apocalyptic world to bring it into harmony.

Whilst it is undeniable that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is an aesthetic masterpiece, this film’s narrative can too easily be boiled down to simplicity. In such, whilst Nausicaä is, on one level, anti-war and pro-environmentalist, there is so much more imbued into this narrative that allows it to transcend this description; after all, an anti-war and pro-environment statement is an easy and popular one to make (and has been for many decades now), but nonetheless takes skill in articulating in a way that ensures it is sincerely heard.

With its basis in Miyazaki’s own environmental concerns (it is said that he was inspired to make this film following the mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay) and his anti-war sensibilities (he was a young boy during WWII), Nausicaä is a clear condemnation of man’s capacity to poison the earth and then turn to a hammer and nail to begin ‘fixing’ it. These concepts are laid bare in the narrative through dialogue and the character of Obaba, the blind wise old lady of the valley of the wind. This is certainly the one downfall of Miyazaki’s storytelling; he does not always figure out ways to exposit plot details or important elements of the subtext without barefaced dialogue. However, whilst this does degrade this film ever so slightly, the use of symbols and classical tropes throughout this story is astounding.

Turning directly to the crux of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, we should start with a look at Nausicaä herself. A brilliant embodiment of Miyazaki’s female protagonists, Nausicaä is an amalgam of many female archetypes with a few traditionally male ones. Most starkly, Nausicaä is a reference to Homer’s Odyssey and the character of Nausicaä, who becomes a mother figure to Odysseus after she rescues him and sends him on his way home. Nausicaä, both Homer’s and Miyazaki’s, project a fundamental idea of femininity; that being one with links to nurture, understanding and a temperament that seems to inspire worship. Miyazaki’s Nausicaä is, however, a fighter and an adventurer forced to step into the king’s – her father’s – shoes, too. So, like more recent characters such as Disney’s Moana, Nausicaä has a strong animus – both in regards to the Jungian male archetype in the female personality, and in regards to motivation. Added to this, however, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä is a saviour and a witch.

The Christ-like images of this narrative have clear connotations; not only will Nausicaä open her arms, ready to bare the crucifixion of her own (somewhat curtailed) pacifism and others’ blind violence through this film, but she, like Christ, is resurrected after her great sacrifice. This reference to the abstract saviour meta-narrative is inevitable considering Nausicaä’s role as a prophet of the people of the Valley of the Wind, which makes her an antagonist to the impulsively destructive war tribes. However, Nausicaä is not a just a prophet. As could be argued with most prophets who manifest a malicious opposition through their magical abilities and leadership, Nausicaä is a mage or witch.

Classically, the witch can be good or bad, but is often a figure of greater sight; they can see into the future, or possibly into the realm of darkness or light. The witch is then often defined by deception and/or mystery; she cannot be understood, nor is she predictable in nature. To make sense of this manifestation that crosses many cultures, we could look to the Abrahamic creation myth of Adam and Eve. It has been suggested (I came into contact with this idea through a lecture of Jordan Peterson’s) that Eve being deceived by the serpent to eat fruit from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the archetypal female waking humanity up. Whilst the Adam and Eve story is framed under the guise of the Original Sin, to label such an action as mere sin then seems too simplistic. For humanity to steal its vision, just like Prometheus stole fire from Olympus, is an act of independence that seemingly granted humans the right to live consciously in a world of chaos and malevolence; and to further make good out of this world. This makes Eve a hero who defied an over-protective parent.

Returning to Eve granting humans passage into the disorderly and malevolent real world, the concept of chaos – and humanity being born of it – in the creation myth is common throughout many of its cultural incarnations. For example, the ex nihilo concept (from nothing came something by virtue of God) sees chaos and nothingness given order via the presence of consciousness; light is let into being – and ex nihilo is found not just in Abrahamic religions, but also ancient Egyptian, Northern American, Asian, African, etc. theologies also. A further example of chaos’ role in creation can be seen in the Taoist religion; The Way (the essential being of the universe; a life force) is said to have gave being to unity, which can be implied to be the beginnings of the physical universe. With light as this perceivable, guiding entity emerging from darkness being the essential crux of many creations myths, the manifestation of leading male and female archetypes that further open humanity’s eyes as we evolve resurrects the dormant chaos that pre-exists us.

Guides and leaders in narratives seem to be like Eve in the Garden of Eden; through sin they break into a greater state of being. And this sin, this deception of a set of rules – even if they are laid down by God – is the fundamental idea of courage. Courageousness is leadership, but, foresight needs to predate this courage as, without learning how to take a step, you cannot even begin to walk. This foresight is enlightenment, is being woken up by a recognition of your power (the snake which leads you to The Tree of Knowledge). Foresight is passed down to others through guidance; through becoming a beacon of light which others can follow. However, as said, taking these steps requires the snake – and the snake can be an overwhelming force of evil that can transcend disobedience and become destruction – and this is why, after being guided to disobey by a snake, humans have been fighting them. Because the snake is involved in guidance, especially if you wish to guide people away from the norms and towards the new, new leaders are met with persecution (chaos). And thus we come to understand why prophets, such as Jesus, are tortured and killed, but eventually resurrected; standing up for new ideas and a new path ahead takes bearing the whip of the old ways (and if those old ways are particularly tyrannical, then the whip – what you can think of as the old snake – will bite unforgivingly hard) before your movement gains true momentum. Thus, the chaos that this new light emerges from within the saviour meta-narrative is man-made just as the new light is.

Transposing these ideas onto Nausicaä, we can see that she is a guide (she is Eve; the witch; the light) who means to confront chaos and lead her people out of the darkness through enlightenment. What is so expressive about Miyazaki’s narrative here, however, is that it combines the human-centric ideas of birth with the non-human entity driven creation stories. In such, The Way, or nature, is manifested in Nausicaä through the insects. So, not only does Nausicaä have to lead humans and bare their snapping whips, but she also has to guide nature and chaos itself whilst, again, facing persecution (and thus manifests the true anti-war and pro-environment concepts of this film).

Nausicaä becomes a great saviour witch through the courageous deception of humanity with its faulted presumptions of nature, and such is defined by her alliance with the fox and the snakes of nature (which are the insects in this story). In Japanese folklore, there are two kinds of witches: those who make companions out of snakes and those who befriend foxes. Classically and cross-culturally, the snake is evil and the fox is deception. We have already seen the snake linked to prophetic guides, and so the attribution of the fox is obvious; by reconciling with the deceptive temperament of nature, Nausicaä seemingly turns against her own people, but is ultimately taming the forces of chaos to transcend into a new state of being with them. So, just like the universe is often said to have come from chaos, in Nausicaä – just as in many other myths – an enlightened humanity comes from great darkness and chaos. The arc of this narrative is then entirely predicated on creation myths, which makes this is a re-creation story. And understanding Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind as a re-creation story synergises our cross-cultural references to multiple mythological narratives because this is (was in the 80s) the contemporary projection of the understanding of the creation meta-narrative in action.

Seeing Nausicaä as a bastard child of so many concepts frames this story in accordance to its deeply archetypal nature. Whilst this is then about war and pollution on the surface, this narrative is so imperative, confounding (consider those who would dismiss this film because of its stance of war and the environment) and immersive because this is ultimately a story about a magical witch who sees as no one else can enlightening people to their own faults and guiding them into a new and better world. Such is the fundamental saviour narrative re-created beautifully in my view, which ultimately leaves Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind a masterpiece in regards to form and content.

 

 

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Nueba Yol – Flapping Fish Out Of Water

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Nueba Yol – Flapping Fish Out Of Water

Quick Thoughts: Nueba Yol (Big Apple, 1995)

Made by Ángel Muñiz, this is the Dominican Republic film of the series.

My incredibly rudimentary understanding of Spanish was taken to its edge with this film as I had to watch it without subtitles. So, suffice to say that my years of high school Spanish helped… but not too much. I could follow Nueba Yol’s (slang for Big Apple) narrative with ease and picked up the major beats, but the details of scenes often went over my head. I was nonetheless immersed into this film for the most part (the final act is a little slow and clunky) thanks to its visual story telling, performances and a somewhat predictable story. And I say predictable in a way that is not fully critical. Whilst this is the common fish-out-of-water, simple foreigner or outsider in a big city, story, it is considerably different from the likes of Crocodile Dundee, Coming To America, Home Alone 2, The Gods Must Be Crazy or Jungle To Jungle. Nueba Yol captures the sense of loss, alienation and confusion that is common in all of these films, but combines this with comedy without cheapening the emotional weight of the picture. In such, this is not like Crocodile Dundee, which, though it is good fun, finds no real conflict in the fish-out-of-water elements of the narrative. Nueba Yol is a film about optimism and hope in face of disaster and continual misfortune. So, though this isn’t gritty and realist, Nueba Yol finds a nice balance between comedy, romance, character and drama.

Whilst this isn’t a masterpiece, more so a competent and memorable piece of entertainment, it is understandable that Nueba Yol would be one of the most popular films from Dominican Republic ever made. If your Spanish is better than mine or you find a copy with subtitles, I’d recommend giving this one a watch.

 

 

 

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Man Of The Soil – Life Is Here

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Man Of The Soil – Life Is Here

Quick Thoughts: Man Of The Soil (Nom Tèw, 2009)

Made by Pierre Deschamps, this is the Domican film of the series.

Man Of The Soil is a short documentary that follows a native Dominican, Jerry Maka West, as he forages through the forest, collecting coconuts, bananas and water for his small home embedded in the dense greenery. With some luscious cinematography and direction, this silently observes man’s interaction with the Nature Isle of the Caribbean, providing a moment of contemplation on the way in which city life on the island differs from the interior life. Concluding the simple piece with reflection, Jerry defines this story with the words:

Children should listen to their mum and dad. Life is the soil. Since I have been a child I have been working the ground with my grandma and grandpa. This is the life within me. So, life is the soil, the river and the sea. Life is here.

With this, a collectivist sentiment is imbued into the film. Though Jerry appears alone, he asserts that he is not just apart of the land, but a product of it just as much as he is a product of his parents and their parents before him. This dual contrast between interior living and city life and collective ideals and individuality may comment on the developing culture and economy of the island which, following a history of British colonial invasion that involved slave trade, has slowly grown, and in more recent decades, this has been due tourism, trade and the island hosting an off-shore banking industry.

Sombre and simple, Man Of The Soil is worth checking out: www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi463471641

 

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming – The Postmodern Conflict

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Spider-Man: Homecoming – The Postmodern Conflict

Thoughts On: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Peter Parker idles away time, waiting to be called by the Avengers again.

Ultimately, this is a pretty good movie, but it has quite a few faults. Starting with the good, this has shades of an expressive tale within. In short, Spider-Man: Homecoming is about confronting and reconciling with father figures. We see this not just with Peter and Tony Stark, but also with Peter and his love interest’s father, too – who, spoilers, is the villain of the movie. As much of a cliche as this is, the use of this trope is understandable considering the clear intentions to tell this ‘good father-bad father’ tale that we see in movies such as The Lion King. However, there is more to this dichotomy in this narrative as the societal father, what you could refer to as capitalism, big business or the economy is also confronted and, in a way, reconciled with in this narrative through through villain, Vulture. Here we get commentary on the conflicts between classes; the average worker and “The Man”. This bounces off of the other incarnations of the father theme quite well, leaving this with enough of an archetypal underpinning to qualify as a somewhat affecting superhero movie.

Added to this, the other major positive of this movie is the character of Spider-Man. I’m still all for Tobey Maguire, but Holland’s Spider-Man is certainly a very different character. And, for what Spider-Man is in this story, the character is successfully put to screen – especially in the context of this specific narrative. However, the best character of this film was certainly Karen, Spider-Man’s suit assistant thing as voiced wonderfully by Jennifer Connelly. Though she’s only in the film momentarily, she was by far my favourite part. But, beyond this, this movie is fairly amusing, the action is ok and the music works.

Let us now delve into the negatives. Starting light, this isn’t an incredible looking movie. The suit looks awful. The CGI felt very obvious throughout, and it wasn’t integrated well with the practical effects. And, as an extension of this, the direction isn’t noteworthy – in fact, none of the aesthetic choices are. This is just another competent, sometimes bland looking, Marvel movie. In regards to the action scenes, whilst they are ok, they are far from astounding. This is somewhat disappointing as there isn’t enough meat on this story for you not to be waiting for a cool action sequence. And nor is this funny enough either. Some jokes hit quite well – though, in a way that has me questioning why I’m laughing at such nonsense – the “I’m watching porn” bit is a perfect example of this. That kind of humour has its charm and I certainly don’t resent it, but, many jokes don’t work at all. Coming back to the “I’m watching porn” bit, this is the one moment in which… I can’t remember his name… is of any worth. All of the sub-characters of this movie were either mediocre or substandard. For instance, Vulture: he works, he’s sometimes menacing, but ultimately forgettable. The love interest: passable. The dopey friend: sometimes annoying, often badly written, generally ignorable. Bad guy henchmen: dumb, throw away caricatures. Flash: terrible – plain terrible. Other people in and around the school: more sloppy, cliched caricatures. I ultimately think this movie has a few too many characters, but those who are given focus just aren’t up to par.

Much of the negatives discussed so far point us straight towards the script, and, whilst it is not the only thing to blame, this is probably the poorest part of this movie. The plotting, especially in the first act, is horrific. Why on earth would average Joes get to work on clearing away alien technology? They weren’t at all regulated and didn’t even have safety equipment. It is understandable that there’d be a lot of mess to clean up after whatever Avenger movie this follows, but these places would certainly have been restricted and highly regulated if the government had any sense at all – and let’s hope they at least have some. Added to plotting issues that reoccur throughout, the dialogue is not very strong. This isn’t helped, however, by the incredibly choppy editing. In such, there are consistent moments in which continuity is broken and you can tell that multiple takes have been forced together. And this is especially obvious in dialogue heavy scenes that involve jokes and, probably, some ad-libbing.

The worst characteristic of Spider-Man’s script is, however, its general tone and approach to narrative. Whilst the approach is playful – and for obvious reasons – it undeniably pales in comparison to the original Spider-Man movies. Raimi, director of Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell, manages to generate far more emotional resonance in his Spider-Man films than Jon Watts, director of… Cop Car(?) does. Having seen Cop Car, I can’t say that Watts is a bad director; the movie wasn’t particularly good, but he’s competent. However, why Marvel choose to go for directors who are young, inexperienced, but apparently good with “character journeys” is a bit lost on me. I understand the ‘good with character journeys’ bit, and it’s a bit difficult to imagine a director coming close to working on a film anywhere near the scale of a Marvel movie, but, why the inexperience? Is there a shortage of long-time directors out there? I have no insider’s information on this, but this doesn’t make sense to me conceptually, and it doesn’t seem to be creating particularly brilliant movies; there is a quality that is expected, but these expectations are rarely exceeded.

That aside, getting back to tone, fighting within this script is something that fights in many blockbusters these days: modernism and postmodernism. These are ambiguous, abstract terms, and I don’t think they’re particularly helpful, but traditional storytelling that is somewhat modified and new is certainly at odds with a post-tradition, above-expectation-and-formula approach. Deadpool is a perfect example of a postmodern movie in respect to its approach to narrative. (It’s somewhat conventional aesthetically and formally; it certainly isn’t radical in these respects). Deadpool’s mouth and the fact that he can’t stop telling you about what you expect breaks the fourth wall and expectation over and over and over – though, you couldn’t get a more obvious observation. Whilst this works quite well in Deadpool – I think this is even one of the best superhero movies to come out recently – it now seems that Deadpool is the expression of a somewhat tired genre.

Revitalising the superhero genre took the X-Men movies and then Nolan’s Batman films. These movies took themselves seriously, but this suited the likes of Wolverine and Batman quite well; these are lost, powerful characters that often wander on the fringes of nihilism whilst confronting some very dark villains. When we turn to Superman, Captain America and Iron Man, filmmakers in the modern day of course were confronted with an issue of tone; they couldn’t go camp and over-the-top, but these characters don’t suit the complete dark, grittiness that a Batman or Wolverine could adapt to. With Iron Man, Marvel found a good balance. Instead of injecting a lot of darkness into Stark’s life, they turned him crass and quite the dick. He has remained this was ever since, and has developed a postmodern tongue not too different from Deadpool’s. I don’t care to think about what DC are doing right now with Superman, but it is somewhat confounding to see every character right down to Captain America and Thor adopt the postmodern grin. It’s this that says that those at Marvel don’t really know what to do with these characters apart from point at what we expect them to be and snicker. Moreover, it’s this that suggests that the superhero genre is getting a little bit tired.

In all honesty, however, this trend of postmodern neglect pervades a lot of blockbusters. This doesn’t bother me so much as you can look to many other places beyond Hollywood for different movies and we’ve got some astounding films such as It, Arrival and those in the Planet of the Apes Trilogy recently. Nevertheless, looking at Spider-Man, this postmodern trope becomes ever more obvious as this movie does try to fight for genuine moments that actually embrace and take its archetypal themes seriously. However, when this does happen, with a moment like the puddle, mask, Mulan’s face spilt in half shot…

… this really doesn’t work. It may have just been me, but you could feel Downey Jr’s disdain for the line he was given in the V.O here. This failed attempt at a moment that we’ve all seen many times before signifies not just this movie’s contrivance, but its inability to be truly genuine and embrace classical modes and approaches to story. For Marvel to lose this ability to some degree is quite concerning. Whilst they’ve never made particularly brilliant movies (outside of the original Spider-Man films), being unable to step away from postmodern obnoxiousness and still work says a lot about the value of the stories being told. The character journeys aren’t there, the subtext isn’t strong enough, these movies don’t look particularly good, they’re not very funny, the spectacle isn’t all too impressive and the various peripheral elements of the story (sub-characters, political hints, references, Stan Lee, etc.) are just annoying. This is nothing new, but it’s almost been a decade since Iron Man, and these movies aren’t going in a particularly interesting, nor better, direction.

With all of that said, Spider-Man is not a terrible movie, but, taking a step back, it gets worse and comes to a rest on the shores of mediocrity. There’s no use pondering where the Marvel movies will go next, if they will change, get better or go away; they just seem to be what they are. However, what are your thoughts on this newest Spider-Man film?

A note I’ll tag on the end here is that I have a gap in my schedule for the Every Year In Film Series that I can’t find a topic to fill (I loaded a bit too much into one or two previous posts and used up key topics too quickly). I may take a break from the series for this week considering we hit 25 last, and will strive to choose a worthwhile topic to cover as soon as possible.

 

 

Thanks.

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Suzhou River – Searching For Pandora

Quick Thoughts: Suzhou River (2000)

A courier entangled in crime falls for a mob boss’ daughter, only to lose her all too soon.

Suzhou River is a tremendous 6th generation Chinese film, one that, formally and narratively, embodies the concept of loneliness and failure perfectly. As we watch a narrator reminisce and exposit stories about romantic deception and a romantic search or quest, we are then immersed in an abstract crime-thriller somewhat akin to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Whilst there is much that could be said about this film, its individual core asks a single question: why am I lost?

In asking this question, this film explores both nihilism and loneliness, leaning heavily on the crutch of the femme fatal. In this narrative, the femme fatal is a mermaid, a siren, that calls a lonely drifter into a shipwreck. However, whilst this is how a love interest is manifested symbolically in this narrative, the fundamental femme fatal that expresses most about this film is certainly Pandora.

Pandora was given, somewhat maliciously, to the Titan Epimetheus (brother to Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods for humanity) by Zeus as a ‘gift’, and with her she brought a box that she was never to open. Epimetheus, meaning hindsight, was given the key to this box and, despite Pandora’s curiosity, he refused to open it. However, one night Pandora steals the key, opens the box and releases chaos into the world; disease, hatred, crime, worry, etc. Failing to put all of this chaos back into the box, Pandora slams the lid shut, but, in doing so, she traps the one respite that Zeus placed into the box: hope.

This story is a brilliant one, though, I really don’t need to say this as its stand against time speaks for itself. Nonetheless, whilst Pandora’s Box implies a Jungian or Freudian idea of confronting the shadow, the unconscious and the darkness within us – after all, if Pandora opens the box from which chaos first came, she will find the tools to confront chaos – this story is a deep tragedy. This is because of the hubris of the male that attracts such trouble; Pandora, a femme fatal not too distant from the dames that mob bosses would send after nihilistic detectives or drifters in film noirs such as Out Of The Past and The Big Sleep. The tragedy embedded into this narrative is then found in this initial hopelessness of the relative fool (relative to his brother, Prometheus) that was Epimetheus. Moreover, greater tragedy is found in Pandora, who is a mere naive tool for a malicious god.

We find all of these ideas represented in Suzhou River with romance being lost, a nihilistic, haphazard protagonists yearning for memory whilst projecting semi-romantic abstractions onto the world and, ultimately, drifting slowly down a river, rather pointlessly; our narrator is Epimetheus, his love interest is Pandora, and Zeus is the abstract concept of industrialised society and fate. And so, unlike the sailors in Homer’s Odyssey who must ignore the sirens to continue their journey, our unknown narrator of this film has no direction; he simply floats down the Suzhou River. And so here lies the lonely man in the industrialised world who fears Pandora and her box.

To find this rich subtext embedded into a complex, unconventionally structured narrative that I don’t want to give away too much of, certainly give Suzhou River a go.

 

 

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