Shorts #28

Today’s Shorts: Fire (1996), Queen (2014), Rise And Fall Of Idi Amin (1981), Nude On The Moon (1961), Our Trip To Africa (1966), Arnulf Rainer (1960), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

 

With its release, Fire proved to be a very controversial film, and for obvious reasons: this is about questioning and breaking tradition as guided by ones own personal choices. Moreover, this was one of the first Indian films to explicitly depict homosexuality (though, this isn’t the single stress of the narrative).

Shot with enchanting romantic lighting, an immersive soundtrack and some strong satire, Fire is an affecting story about decisions of desire and will. Whilst the commentary on family structure is a little contrived and the rebuttals to ideas of duty aren’t too convincing, the strengths of this narrative lie in its very clear message concerning freedom (and, in a way, this film became a symbol of free speech in Indian cinema).

Overall, this is a very strong film and, arguably, a significant cultural artefact of Indian cinema.

Tremendous. Phenomenal. A flawless piece of entertainment. It’s not a Tarkovsky picture, but, by God, this a masterpiece of some sort that has left me buzzing with joy.

Queen is, in a way, a comedy-adventure, but more so a film about a new-age or modern pilgrimage where the naive and sheltered enter into a world of chaos, danger and hedonism to emerge a greater, enlightened person. In such, this is a film about freedom and discovering ones own strengths and abilities as an independent person. This is not a new concept and, whilst this does break many of the traditional Bollywood picture conventions, nor is this a non-formulaic film. However, all that it does, it does perfectly. And Kangana Ranaut is certainly the shinning light of this movie.

There’s not much more to say than that this is a new personal favourite and a film I can’t recommend more.

As the title suggests, this recounts the rise and fall of the tyrannical Ugandan dictator who ruled during the 70s, Idi Amin. Though this accurately references many historical facts, Rise and Fall of Idi Amin is best seen as an exploitation film as it does not necessarily take its subject matter seriously, rather, gratuitously depicts murder and violence whilst a caricature of Amin provides something close to comedy. There is no point in discussing ethics when a film is classed as an exploitation picture, but suffice to say that this is more a highly critical piece of absurd, melodramatic political satire than a biopic.

As an exploitation picture, this is quite engaging and is even pretty well designed. The plot flies by and the cinematic language is often precise. However, the performances are weak and this isn’t helped by the bad sound design. Ultimately, however, this is tonally… challenging. Some sequences make you want to laugh, others not and the rest are hard to take seriously. So, though this is engaging, now I have to write about it, I feel a bit lost.

Nude On The Moon is a strange movie that finds itself somewhere between soft-porn and a 60s sci-fi picture. However, this is not necessarily either one of these things, instead, it’s a nudist film. These first emerged in 30s to promote the nudist, liberal, health-centric lifestyle, and because censorship laws changed around the 50s, they were revived and merged with the exploitation and erotic picture.

Nude On The Moon is both a narrative, promotional film that comments on the ‘rat race’ and a bachelor’s life as well as an erotic picture that has you watch two ‘astronauts’ take pictures of a nudist camp on the moon (it is so clearly in Florida) for about 40 minutes straight. In such, this just a very weird look into film history that, though it is bogged down by bad acting, a repetitive soundtrack and mediocre direction, is basically passable as a cult film experience.

Without diegesis, a strict and cohesive space, narrative or atmosphere, Our Trip To Africa seems to bring a discordant vision of an African safari vacation to the screen. In such, without any synced, or particularly sensical, sound this depicts various snippets of hunting scenes spliced into voyeuristic shots of African natives. The lack of harmony and the radically disparate ‘spaces’ (which are implied through montage and sound) in this film seemingly comment on the travelogue and ethnographic film, insinuating that the documentation of such trips has little to do with the land being visited, nor the people and animals that exist upon it. Our Trip To Africa then seems to be a film that is designed to alienate and make you feel uncomfortable in a way that the director may feel that this kind of footage (exploitative hunting videos and travelogues) should be viewed inherently.

If cinema is light and darkness is this, a ‘flicker film’ that alternates between white and black frames, cinema? Moreover, if cinema is sound and silence is this, a slalom between white noise and silence, cinema?

These are two questions that Kubleka means to ask by reducing cinema to its most fundamental components and testing them. In such, the expressive nature of a more full and traditional kind of cinema is stripped away as we’re forced to ask if this can mean something to us. The question this then raises is: Are we, the audience, willing to accept this as cinema by giving it meaning, or maybe seeing meaning within it?

The follow up question to a negative response would then be: Why? And so, in a way, this becomes a less annoying constructivist film that has us question our beliefs on cinema without meaning to put us through dozens of minutes, or many hours, of pain. As a result, this one may be worth the watch.

A Nightmare On Elm Street is a pretty good movie – but, more so, a classic cult horror full of iconic imagery. Looking past this, and the sometimes awkward writing and mediocre acting, there is trouble beneath the surface of this movie.

In essence, we can think of Nightmare On Elm Street to be much like (though, the book and the movies would come out at a later date) Stephen King’s It with dreams being the dark place from which personal horrors reflecting ones of confrontation with evil archetypes (who mirror parents and internal anxieties) emerge. With a lot of potential subtext to play around with, seeing Craven’s on-off direction mainly focus on spectacle and gore is somewhat disappointing as this movie lacks in both the narrative and character departments.

Ultimately, A Nightmare On Elm Street is part fun and, as a consequence of a lack of concentration, part pretentious. Nonetheless, an engaging watch.

 

 

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Every Year In Film #27 – The Story Of The Kelly Gang

Thoughts On: The Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906)

In this post we will be looking at the birth of the feature-length film.

Today we will be talking about a somewhat innocuous subject, but one that is full of open ends and ambiguity: film length. In the modern day, there are, generally speaking, three classes of film. There’s the quick 80-99 minute picture; the simple, sometimes independent or low-budget, romance, thriller, horror, comedy or action movie . These are the movies many people look out for and find on lists such as “Incredible Movies Under 100 Minutes”. This idea of the ‘easy’ film implies a lot about our attention span and the way in which we watch films. However, let us return to this idea later. The second class of film is the average 110-130 minute picture; anything around 2 hours. This is not the shortest kind of film, but it’s easy to accept and sit through with expectations of a higher budget, professional production with a star cast, a bit of CGI and, most importantly, a fleshed out and rounded story (or else it’ll get the common critique of, ‘it could have had 15-20 minutes shaved off of the end). Thirdly, we find ourselves in the ‘a little long’ to the epic or ‘really long’, but ‘it needed the time’ movie that will push past the 2 1/2 hour mark and possibly over the 3 hour one, too. This is a class of film that we expect a lot from and may have to psyche ourselves up to go into; these are huge action, sci-fi blockbusters with destruction, romance, war and some kind of basis in a book, well-known myth or a pre-existing franchise.

These three categories of film imply the kind of tolerance levels and expectations that audiences hold. Let it be said, however, that we are speaking unscientifically here. (I nonetheless assume that the above generalisation will resonate). It is clear with these three types of film that we are talking about Hollywood pictures, genre movies or the kind of films that would pop up on Netflix for general consumption. The 80-180 minute window of an expected run-time is then designed around a decades-old formula derived from market research and audience conditioning. What is not included in this window, say for instance, the short film, says a lot about how cinema has changed over time.

When we think of short films in the modern day and the context in which we see them, though many would see shorts in film festivals, we come straight to sites such as Vimeo and YouTube. There is no real commercial market for short films (outside of music videos and advertisements) any more – especially when we think back to the early silent era and compare the lucrativeness of the short film back then with the short film nowadays. The short film is what amateur filmmakers use to practice or showcase their skills (though, with cheapening technology, the idea of a cheap feature-length movie makes far more sense in such a respect). We then see these movies on Vimeo or YouTube because they are free and easy to access. However, do we think of the 5-20 minute short film as a ‘short film’ or a ‘YouTube video’? (We could also question if we see early silent films as films or YouTube videos as this is where we see them, but, let’s not stray onto such ground).

Such a question demonstrates one of the ways in which film length and audience perception has shifted in the last decade or so. For the average person, the vast majority – maybe ever the totality – of their ‘short film’ watching time is spent on YouTube. Thus, the internet has come to dominate the idea of short films and transformed them into few second clips to videos – and both terms come with clear connotations. Whatever happened to the 20-40 minute short film though?

The answer is seemingly simple: TV. In the 1930s the average Hollywood genre film, for instance, the iconic Universal horrors, were around 70-90 minutes. This spoke true of many feature films of this time. However, from the 1920s onwards, many engineers and technicians were beginning to conduct practical experiments with different forms of television broadcast. And by the late 30s, TV was becoming more and more of a looming inevitability. As a consequence, it is thought that the average movie was extended from around 90 minutes in the early 30s to about 120 minutes by the 1960s as a result of TV (whose programmes, as we all know, are about 20-30 minutes long, dependent on ads). This is a paradigm that remained true for decades.

So, in the modern day, ‘short films’, anything from a few seconds to a few minutes, are adverts, music videos or clips from the internet – we do not really consider this cinema. Moreover, longer short films, 20-60 minute mini-movies, are television – also not cinema. So, ever more increasingly in the modern day, the idea of cinema is confined to this 80-180 minute window – more specifically, a 90-120 minute window. However, why, to the average person, are only the moving pictures that last between and hour and a half to two hours cinema? What has this got to do with the technological innovation that is cinema? What has this got to do with the art that is cinema? What has this got to do with the cultural artefact that is moving images?

Confronting these questions can leave us pretty lost. And to add the the frustration, you can’t just ask Google ‘Why are movies 90-120 minutes?’, and get a satisfying answer. As we have discussed, movies are this length, in part, because of television and movies. However, this also has much to do with the three key components of cinema as a commercialised art: production, exhibition and the audience. Studios making movies for profit would like to spend the least money possible and get the most money back. This is why films such as The Blair Witch Project are significant in film history and we still, to a degree, feel its significance in the cinema to this day. The Blair Witch Project was a low-budget horror that made millions, and what followed it for many years was not just the paranormal horror, but many variations of the cheap found footage movie that could be shot with low production value, but make a lot of money. Thankfully, we seem more and more removed from this kind of filmmaking as we move deeper into the 2010s. However, The Blair Witch Project (along side the slasher before it, the exploitation movies before that and the decades of low-budget sci-fi and horror B-pictures before that) represents the studios wanting to make the shortest, cheapest movies they possibly can whilst still being able to make money. This is one reason why films are between 90 and 120 minutes; cinema, at this length, is differentiated from TV, but only by a small (monetary) margin.

Second to this, we have filmmakers to consider. They know, and have known for over a century, that they can only make certain movies of a certain length. In such, you’re dreaming if you think you can put an epic, experimental and original 300 page script about homosexual martian kings who wage war against the gods of the universe in inter-galactic hyperspace on a producer’s desk and expect a billion dollars to make it. Often working within the confines of a studio, filmmakers then make certain films of specific lengths for obvious reasons. If we take the recent example of A Cure For Wellness, a highly unconventional, 146 minute, R-rated, high-budget, surreal drama, we clearly see Gore Vorbinsky – the guy who made 3 of the most commercially successful movies ever, the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movies – being allowed to make a movie that would almost definitely not make its money back. (It cost 40 million to make and made about 26 million in the box office). This, as we know, is a rarity, which not only implies much about why movies are often between 90 and 120 minutes (this has a lot to do with the studio), but also why certain types movies have predictable run-times; filmmakers and studios know what has a commercial draw and so will not overwhelm their audience, nor expect much from them.

Moving on to exhibitors, we come to another key and definite reason why movies are the average length that they are: screenings. Whilst the importance of screening has waned somewhat with the advent of video, DVD and now the internet, this is still an incredibly key factor. Distributors and exhibitors want to show as many movies as they can in a day. This is because, generally speaking, ticket prices are not set in accordance to how long you spend in a theatre, rather, just your entering – this is called uniform pricing. As a result, a three hour movie costs just as much to see as an 80 minute one – which is actually a kind of miracle. Surely a more sensible business model for the film industry would be to charge audience members $10 for an hour in the theatre. That way, their epic movies would be guaranteed to make more money… or would they?

Uniform pricing is both a tradition and a safety net for the film industry. By making higher quality, longer movies more expensive, lower quality, short movies would be alienated. This would force a monopoly in which 2 or 3 huge studios could produce billion dollar all-day, 12 hour movies. And if cinema was re-defined under such terms, and accepted by audiences, how could lower budget film producers survive? In a way, uniform pricing ensures that all movies are seen as equal by audiences. Moreover, this ensures that cinemas don’t have to be policed and set-up in a fashion that makes sure that people don’t pay for cheap tickets, but sneak into a high-priced movies. And added to this, exhibitors are given a degree of security and an ability to set prices in accordance to their facilities rather than the films they have access to.

So, because uniform pricing is a long-lasting tradition that, certainly by now, is an inescapable reality for the film industry (it’s incredibly unlikely to see non-uniform pricing accepted after decades of uniform pricing), exhibitors are forced to make decisions on what they screen based on how popular a movie is and how many times they can show it in a day. As a result, a long movie has to be incredibly popular so that it satisfies an audience’s expectations of a full, high quality show – and so gets people into cinemas in high numbers – as to balance the potential loss an exhibitor would lose through a lack of screenings. Added to this, cinemas can’t sell tickets for shows only 30 minutes long and expect to draw audiences with the uniform price of $12. After all, not only can an audience spend just as much to see the new epic Hollywood blockbuster, but they assume that longer films are of higher quality and production value. This itself implies that 80-90 minute movies are of lower quality, or at least that you’re taking a risk with shorter features as you’re going in to see a simple genre film (that is hopefully done well) or a more artsy, cheaper film (that may or may not bore you to death). But, in such circumstances you pay less time and so are more accepting of challenging, or stupid, content. And so it is through these many factors that we can see the manner in which film exhibition effects the lengths of movies.

One of the cruxes of everything we have thus far discussed, however, is audience. Audiences have been fed films in a certain format for over a century. In the earliest days, films were, as we have explored through the series, short – anything between 40 seconds and 3 minutes long for the first few years or so. Audiences would pay a few cents to peep inside a kinetoscope or would, again in America, pay a nickle to see a 15 minute programme made up of many shorts. In this early era, technology held filmmakers back; it was difficult and very expensive to make longer films. However, also in this era, distributors would buy films, paying by the foot. This, alongside the fact that audiences wanted more films of greater scope and quality, catalysed the expansion of narratives as technology developed. And thus, around the 1900s, films would be between 3 and 10 minutes long. Over time, this number rose – which is what we will return to as to discuss our subject for today – but when we move into the golden age of the silent film, the 20s, there is a strong paradigm of the feature-length movie being upwards of 60 minutes. And as we have explored, this number increased after the 30s.

There is then a world-wide tradition of cinema that audiences have grown accustomed to. So, not only are we used to movies being of a certain length, but we’re used to uniform prices, we know how long certain genre movies should be and the kind of quality that this implies. As a result, producers and distributors are in constant communication with their audience – their market. So, as much as they define how long movies are, and as a result define what cinema ‘is’, so do we. And one of the greatest examples of this would be the films of Disney and Pixar. Whilst we may regard many of their movies to be masterpieces, they are often mere 80-90 minute narratives. Working within the conventions that audiences implied they’d be comfortable with and sustaining them, keeping animation in the realms of the kids’ or family movie, Disney and Pixar provide audiences with stories that are all audiences want, but simultaneously more than they can imagine.

When we now return to our question, “Why are movies 80-180 minutes long?”, we know that the answer is multi-faceted and includes numerous potential answers – many of which we didn’t even touch on. For example, there is a clear influence of opera, theatre or books on the length of a feature film production. So, why are operas generally 2 1/2 to 3 hours long? Why are plays 90 to 120 minutes? Why do many books take 4-5 hours to read? Again, we can assume that this has much to do with an interaction between an audience’s demands and what producers, artists and exhibitors can offer. Nonetheless, these times are part of a tradition for good reason – an ambiguous, but good reason. After all, the formula seems to work.

So, now we understand why films are generally between 80 and 180 minutes long, we can begin to question the idea of a ‘feature film’. If we think about the term ‘feature film’ a minute, it is a strange one without much inherent sense. Is the ‘feature film’ featured some place? If so, why isn’t it called the featured film? Or, does the ‘feature film’ feature something? If so, what? And what has this got to do with the feature-length film?

If we ask Google for the definition of ‘feature film’, we get this:

With ‘feature’ meaning just ‘full-length’ or ‘devoted to the treatment of a particular topic…at length’, we can see that it means nothing and maybe something. Taking the second definition as our primary one, we can see that a feature film is one that is long enough to deal with a subject in satisfactory depth. The feature film is then ‘however it long it takes to tell your story’. But, as we have already looked into, this decision would be reached by both studios and audiences and so wouldn’t truly be based on just how long it takes to tell a story, but how long it would take to tell a story that satisfies artists, producers, exhibitors and their audience. And so, this is the something and simultaneous nothing that is the term ‘feature film’.

When we look elsewhere to find out what ‘feature film’ may be defined as, we will find various institutes setting a time. Both the BFI and the AFI suggests that the feature-length film is 40 minutes or more. However, the Centre National de la Cinématographie sets the bar at an oddly specific 58 minutes and 29 seconds. And added to this, the the Screen Actors Guild suggest 80 minutes as a feature-length film. Despite my efforts in research I can find little to no reason for these suggested times beyond the implication of these times just feel correct given the tradition of film length over time. And so, maybe one of the best ways to think about film length is actually through reels.

Movie reels contain 1000 ft of film, which translates to about 15 minutes. A one-reel film, is a short movie – a 10-15 comedy short that many of us would be familiar with (even through YouTube videos – which maybe implies how prevalent this format is despite us now being the in digital age). Two-reel films, which take us up to 30 minutes, implies a long-ish film (which television has now taken over). However, when we get into 3 or 4 reel films, we can begin to assume we’re in a different kind of filmmaking. And, un-coincidentally, we are approaching the 40+, or 60+, minute mark with 3 or 4 reel films. So maybe this is/was the most accurate way to define feature-length films as this implies that these films were long enough to be the main feature in a show. By extensionI think this is the best way to actually think about the idea of a ‘feature film’. Not only do we have a sensible way of quantifying things through 15 minute lengths of celluloid, but the idea that the film is becoming of a substantial enough length to tell a fleshed-out, complex story is quite irrefutable. And we see evidence for this in the way that films are structured.

Whilst you may know that we shouldn’t think of structure so simply from previous posts, many people break movie structure down in one basic way: the three act structure. With this, you have the first act, which is about 30 minutes, then the second, 60 minutes, and then the third, 30 minutes. Here, we see the idea of a beginning, middle and end given timings in accordance to their importance: set-up should be brief, conflict is the meat and resolution should let equilibrium be established just as fast as it was disrupted. We can think of this structure as informed by reels: 2 reels for the first act, 4 for the second and 2 for the last; 4 reels for the first half of the movie, 4 for the second. This gives us a neat 120 run-time; the two hour feature film. However, we can divide 8 reels by reasonable numbers and get a new distribution of structure. For example, 4 reels, one for set up, two for conflict, one for resolution. This gives us 60 minutes; a short-ish feature film. We can even modify this into 3 reels, however: one for a set-up, one for conflict, one for resolution (a basic beginning, middle, end). That gives us the 45 minutes; ample time to tell a classically structured movie. Double this and you have 6 reels and 90 minutes: 2 for set-up, 2 for conflict and 2 for resolution. And so maybe this is a more concrete reason why we call 40+ minute films feature-length movies and think about films with the 60, 90, 120 and 180 marks being significant.

So, to conclude the answer to a seemingly simple question, “Why are feature-films as long as they are?”, we could suggests that the length of movies is a time-tested decision made between artists, producers, exhibitors and audiences, quantified using 1000 ft reels of film (which now may be considered metaphors or archetypes of time signaturing) that imply a sufficient length for a movie to tell a complete, classically structured story and not be short (15 minutes like a comprehensive YouTube video or 30 minutes like a TV show), but instead long enough to be the main feature of a show.

It has taken quite a lot of consideration and definition to say this sentence, and it will require further explanation to say it properly, but, The Kelly Gang – our subject for today – is considered the first feature-length film ever made.

Before showing you the film, whilst this was over 60 minutes long, much of the film has been lost. What we are going to watch is the surviving 17 minutes with extra inter-titles and images explaining what is missing:

The most interesting thing about this film is, ultimately, its place in Australian culture and film history. Shot mainly with distant and wide framing, though a rather free and exploratory pan, the mise en scène and visual structure of this film isn’t particularly striking, nor is it expressive. However, the fact that this is considered the first feature-length movie ever made makes it significant for film historians. And the re-counting of the Kelly Gang legend makes it significant for Australian culture, an idea which we will delve into first.

The ‘bushranger’ is somewhat similar to the American cowboy. These were initially a group of convicts who escaped British penal colonies, such as Sydney, in the late 1700s, and managed to survive in the harsh Australian outback. However, the term evolved over time to imply outlaws who would often survive through robbery, taking from the land and its people as they pleased. The Kelly Gang were outlaws of such a definition; they were bushrangers. Over time, The Kelly Gang became icons for rebellion against the persecution of the police (and this is what this film captures, as you saw, glorifying its criminals to a greater degree to those in The Great Train Robbery). One of the most iconic elements of the gang and their fight against the law certainly concerns the bullet-proof armoured suit – which, it is said, the filmmakers of The Story Of The Kelly Gang actually obtained and used in the film. For a little more detail into the suit and for some novel insight into some of the fandom surrounding the gang, you may find this news report interesting.

The Story Of The Kelly Gang was made only 26 years after the gang was killed and Ned hung. So, though it contains some anachronisms (for instance, the police wouldn’t have had uniforms) and maybe some facilities, it was made in close conjuncture to the event itself. This meant that, though bushrangers weren’t as common in the 1900s as plays about them were, this film proved controversial and its topic still politically relevant. As a result this spurred audiences who, as they experienced the film exhibited with live sound effects and narration provided would apparently cheer and interact with the characters. In reaction to this police and detectives at the Office of Public Decency attempted to get this film banned. They managed this in Central Victoria, which is where the gang was situated, and would later ban the production of all bushranger films as not to glorify outlaws and catalyse a resurgence in gangs. Nonetheless, The Story Of The Kelly Gang was a very successful film and so spurred the short lived genre of the bushranger film after spreading across the world.

Whilst some people hold a question mark over the idea that this was the first feature-length film, there doesn’t seem to be much debate to be had. So far in the series, we have covered a collection of abnormally long early silent shorts. One of the earliest examples you can find of an atypically long film is certainly The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight. Recorded by Enoch J. Rector with three cameras, this would have come in at a collective 90 minutes (it is unclear in this film’s description if this combines the three 30 minute recordings or not). Whether or not this was 90 or 30 minutes, this was made in 1897, almost 10 years before The Story Of The Kelly Gang. However, like all films of substantial length before The Kelly Gang, this would have been sold, and likely exhibited, in sections (probably round-by-round). As a result, this is much like a film programme of similar street scenes or travelogues from the same region that exhibitors could stitch together. Whilst, in the modern day, we can imagine them as one feature-length film, they wouldn’t have been treated or viewed as such. So, if we remember the various religious films, those made by Lubin, Pathé and Gaumont, that follow Christ’s life for up to 60 minutes, these too would be shown and considered in the present day to be feature-length movies, but, they were sold and sometimes exhibited as a selection of short scenes.

Beyond these examples of long films that would be sold as a serial or selection of shorts would be numerous examples of 15-20 minute features. Two examples which we have mentioned (despite my efforts) a plethora of times already in the series would be The Great Train Robbery and A Trip To The Moon. These films, whilst they are not feature-length, can be considered feature films to a degree because they would have been the main feature in a screening. However, let us not be bogged down by semantics. The Story Of The Kelly Gang is the first known and partially surviving movie to stretch past the 40 minute mark and be sold as a feature film. So, what this film represents is the coming of the feature film and so is the initial expression of all we have been discussing in the previous few posts with cinematic language becoming more complex, stories themselves becoming rounder and better capable of handling plot and character and audiences, along with filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors and producers, preparing for longer narratives. It is then between 1906 and 1910 that more feature films would begin to sprout out of the world-wide film industry before, in 1911, they became ever more common in cinemas.

Today’s Every Year post is then simple in scope – we took a brief look at the first feature-length film – but is tricky in terms of the depths of the seemingly innocuous term: ‘feature film’. However, as we move through the series, we should have a better understanding of what cinema would begin to form into; cinema, after a few decades, would be the 80-180 minute moving pictures. But, whilst we have this vision of the future of film history, we should keep in mind the uniqueness of the silent era, which, now that the feature-length film has been born, will encapsulate a very broad idea of the moving picture – one as broad as time itself, free from television and the internet.

Before you go, the focus of this post was more on the idea of feature-length films, but, if you want to read more into the film and its makers, I found this article by Randall Berger quite informative.

 

 

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The Night Of Counting The Years – Lineage

Quick Thoughts: The Night Of Counting The Years (a.k.a The Mummy, Al-Mummia, 1969)

Made by Shadi Abdel Salam, this is the Egyptian film of the series.

The Night of Counting The Years is, I have to admit, a film I didn’t fully grip, and so will have to re-watch. But, I certainly look forward to this. With a thick, highly immersive atmosphere dripping from every scene, The Night of Counting The Years, based on a true story, follows a young man amidst a controversy surrounding the tomb raiding of mummified bodies. This raises a rather confined familial and inter-communal drama over the possession of artefacts that is subtexually superseded by greater questions concerning the roots of ones own culture and identity. This manifests itself in beautiful, gliding tracking shots that see characters wander through the ruins of an ancient culture so far removed from themselves in time, but nonetheless connected to them, in some intangible way, through spirit. And intangibility is a key idea with this film as the mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and camera movement all work together to create this sometimes surreal cinematic space where figures and shapes wander into the screen and occupy space in a non-lucid manner.

All in all, The Night of Counting The Years is a movie that had my imagination run off on many tangents of thought concerning history (that know very little of) and ethics, but left me without much to say. This is nonetheless a movie that gripped me experientially and so would have to recommend.

 

 

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King Arthur – A Downtrodden Masterpiece

Thoughts On: King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017)

This will be a long post, but I believe it is one that needs to be written and read.

King Arthur is a pretty troublesome movie. If you saw my previous short review, you’ll know that I absolutely love the movie and even think that it is a modern masterpiece waiting to be tested by time. However, this movie has received ratings and scores that range between bad to mediocre to ok. On the more positive end, I’ve mainly come across non-professional critic reviews that suggests that the film is very entertaining – and some professional critics seem to suggest the same, too, but don’t hold this of much regard. Alas, the biggest draw of interest that this movie has managed to muster revolves a question of “Why was this such a huge box office flop that lost 10s, if not 100s, of millions?”.

What we’ll do today is look past much of this noise and attempt to make a case for this not just being entertaining (though it’d be hard to convince someone of this as this is deeply subjective), but – and this is something that is not as subjective – but a smart movie that, with its combination of entertainment and art, is almost flawless. Before we begin, however, I want to share with you the only ‘marketing’ for this movie that I came into contact with: Guy Ritchie discussing narrative with Joe Rogan and, loosely, the impact of his thoughts on this in regards to his movie. (The whole clip is inciteful, but he begins directly discussing narrative at 4:23).

The first thing that I’m sure this signals is that Ritchie takes story seriously. As a consequence of this, it makes sense to go into King Arthur with an open mind for subtext. After all, whilst he says that watching his movie for basic entertainment is fine, there is a strong suggestion that he has constructed much more below the surface. And further to this, he actually explains some of what is below the surface of this movie: it is about not just confronting the world and finding your true self, but materialising this true self by reconciling with exterior realities that impose a separate ‘self’ upon you. The story of a great king like King Arthur is then a story about a man who transcends the basic pathway of life and manages to master this game of balancing the pressures of the outside world with those of the inside world. And with these ideas alone, you could go into King Arthur and maybe see a different movie, confident that your storyteller, Ritchie, is not just throwing huge CGI elephants and explosions at you for the sake of it; all the flashing lights and explosions are there to provide a dazzling formal experience – what we may call entertainment – but I believe everything in this movie serves a duel purpose; everything is both entertaining and affecting as well as symbolic and sometimes profound. So, what we’re now going to do is take a closer look at what Ritchie suggests story is before going deep into his film.

Anyone who has read a screenwriting book that mentions inner conflict and exterior conflict will be quite familiar with all that Ritchie talks about. The heart of all movies is conflict. Moreover, the heart of all happenings is stress or tension of some sort. As most philosophies of life, derived from religion or otherwise, suggest: life is suffering; life is hard; life is a test; life is a struggle against chaos, destruction, evil, death and worry. This is because conscious life is the synthesis of two opposing elements: entropy and being. It is hard to rationalise such an idea by discussing the abstract universe which we haven’t even come close in fully understanding, but, if you put a seed in the ground, what happens? It grows into a plant, right? No. If the seed is in nutritious soil and is allowed sunlight and water, it will hopefully grow into the plant; if it is provided life-giving sustenance, it is given the chance to live. If the seed doesn’t get these things, it whithers, dies and becomes nutrition for something else. Herein we see the universal flow of entropy and its metamorphosis (through re-contextualisation) into a life force. This describes the material world as we know it. However, conscious life is a little more complex.

Whilst we have bodies that will whither and die without entropy being converted into life force within us, our subjective perception is heavily reliant on an abstract kind of life force that we may call motivation. Some of the greatest motivators in life are death, suffering and pain themselves. We live in close relationship to these sensations, trying to escape getting too close to death and suffering too much, but, simultaneously, experiencing enough pain, and coming close enough to death, so that we know that we are alive. As a result, we are all seeds and adventurers; we are made up of bodies and minds that interact with entropy and life moment-to-moment in an all-encompasing manner.

When we look to narratives we see life and entropy manifested with conflict. Conflict simultaneously motivates characters whilst trying to kill them: it is entropy and a life force. The ingenious creation that is ‘made-up narratives’ are so brilliant because they not only allow us to tweak the mechanics of this conflict that exists in real life, but they allow us to use conflict to say something far more specific than: life is fighting entropy and finding motivation in suffering. As a result, conflict breaks off into inner-conflict and outer-conflict. And this is exactly what Ritchie explains. Not only do we have to face entropy and find motivation within ourselves, but we have to balance this with the forces of the outside world. And because who we are is far more tangible than what the exterior word is, because the inner world is a domain which we have some degree of control and influence over, the inner world is more important than the outer world; the inner world is true and the outer one is, to a degree, false. So, as characters realise and fight this, a narrative progresses. However Ritchie makes a slight mistake, I think, in not stressing the particularities of this idea. In such, whilst he says that this is what all narratives are about, he doesn’t suggests that not all narratives are about successfully waking this path; tragedies are the opposite of finding a balance and so they provide commentary by showing how not to do things, or where you can fall into a hole. Moreover, Ritchie also doesn’t stress that the management of, and the reason given to, inner and outer conflicts is what defines a good story and a bad story and dictates whether a narrative will affect us or not. And even further, there is no implication that there are micro-structures within this macro-structure of storytelling. However, let us not critique Ritchie here as he wasn’t writing an essay or book on the subject. Instead, let us begin to look at the micro-structures and specific ideas of King Arthur knowing that this film is essentially about mastering both the inner and the outer world by finding balance between the two.

One of the main thematic drives in this movie is magic. We are told with the opening that mages and humans lived alongside one another in peace, and then we get the first sequence in which an evil mage attempts to storm Camelot with gigantic elephants before being destroyed by the King Uther – Arthur’s father. The complexity of this opening can only be realised when we question the significance of a mage.

If we re-call any version of mages that we are familiar with, say for instance Merlin in Disney’s adaptation of the Arthurian Sword In The Stone story, we find that magicians are almost always highly intelligent figures, or are at least in the pursuit of wisdom and greater knowledge. And mages themselves are in fact defined to be exactly this: they are a magician or learned person. So, to take the mage out of its medieval context and to put them into a modern one, those who design and create phones, computers, cars, rockets, medicines and a plethora of other highly technological and scientific materials are mages. Further to this, incredibly intelligent managers, scholars and organisers are also mages. Not only do they all do something that we do not understand – that we may as well call magic sometimes – but they have extreme wisdom at their finger tips. In essence, taken out of any context, a mage seems to be the counsellor and assistant that guides society, but does not necessarily lead it. In such, the mage is the king’s right hand man who, though they can’t or won’t assume the throne, counsel the king as he leads. And whilst you could critique modern day governmental systems as they don’t seem to have the incredibly smart people, mages, at the top of systems, we still understand the importance of such figures.

When we return to King Arthur’s opening sequence we are then being told that the system of Camelot is failing because the mages have been put into hiding. As a result, the crown seems to be in jeopardy.

This is, of course, because ancient beasts have been awakened by the evil mage, Mordred (which ironically means ‘moderation’). However, as is implied – and as we later find out – the king’s brother is a traitor, which is why he seems to be psychologically linked to the evil mage.

So, what this story is ultimately about is the kingdom being corrupted from the inside out by a figure consumed by vanity and desire; Vortigern (again, ironically, this sometimes means ‘Great King’) is the archetypal evil, jealous brother akin to, for example, Scar from The Lion King. Vortigern as this symbol of corruption is linked to the evil mage as a symbol of failed diplomacy; he was supposed to study under Mordred, but, along the way, turned against his family. What we then see here is entropy in the form of jealousy arising from within a bubble of conjoined selves: a family. This is the conflict that King Uther, inadvertently or not, attempts to quash in this symbolic gesture:

By having his brother hold the crown after he suggests surrender, Uther clearly means to include Vortigern in the fight against the evil mage, which can now be seen to symbolise a kingdom losing guidance and its power being used to corrupt. Further to this, Uther draws his sword, Excalibur:

This sword, as Ritchie expresses with his discussion with Rogan, is a symbol of ones own power and unified self. However, as we are reminded, Uther only has this sword because of Merlin, a good mage. So, here, the mage, a symbol of technological and intellectual power in a system, is being reconciled with; Uther is using a symbol of a mage – which is intrinsically bound to his own self – to bring peace and, as he later suggests at his table talk, to bring the good mages back into the kingdom. Let us stop here of a moment, however, and analyse what is often used an example of this film’s ludicrousy:

Mages, like great engineers, scientists and thinkers, look at nature, understand it and control it. The elephant itself is one of the grandest manifestations of nature; it is the world’s largest land mammal. As a result, the elephant appears in many mythological tales. Two examples of adaptations/re-tellings would be 300…

… and The Lord Of The Rings…

In all of these films, the elephant is wielded by huge, formidable armies as a symbol of their control over the land and nature. So, like the 300 Spartans fighting off the Persians or the minimal Rohirrim battling the orcs and Haradim, Uther’s knights deflect the evil mage’s giant elephant-lead army as a symbol of the righteous few confronting the corrupt many who abuse their dominion over animals and the land. The elephant is then both awesome to look at, but also captures the idea that the evil mage is abusing nature (and we see nature further attributed to the evil mage with his crown). Added to this, the elephants in fact turn against mage’s army, just like the elephants in 300 and The Lord Of The Rings are the cause of their army’s demise. This implies that the structure and control that king represents is good and so will prevail (as lead by the power of a good mage: Excalibur) whilst the corrupt structure of the evil mage, no matter how monolithic it appears, is fated for demise.

So, coming back on track, despite the destruction of Mordred, the anti-king, the evil right hand of the pinnacle of power, peace isn’t established. This is because the corruption of the evil mage has infected the lineage of the king.

From here, Vortigern then becomes the evil mage and he, of course, kills his brother to assume power. However, he becomes this figure by also killing his wife…

… and feeding her to, what we later find out to be, a snake woman…

The snake is a symbol we have encountered and discussed many times before. The importance of the snake in human history is generally seen to concern the development of human sight: we may have developed greater eyesight through natural selection to see snake eyes and avoid, or escape, them. The snake then rests at the top of a category of beasts, such as bears, giant predacious felines and predatory birds, which humans have often come into mortal conflict with. And one of the most famous projections of the snake symbol, of course, comes in the Christian creation myth of Adam and Eve, or, the Original Sin.

As we know, the snake lead Eve to the, not the Tree of Life, but the Tree of Knowledge: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Because of this, I think Eve becomes a rebellious hero as she follows treachery to awaken the human mind and grant us power to walk out into the real world; to continually fight the snake that exists in nature. So, as we talked about when discussing an idea of a “Saviour Witch”, the snake is a double-entendre. Whilst, yes, it means treachery, deception of this kind is also pivotal for human beings as, without rebellion, how can we ever challenge the state of ‘normal’ (which may be a veil for corruption and inadequacy), whether it be ordained by a parent, by a king or by a god.

Vortigern feeding his wife to the snake lady is not an act of a rebellious hero, however. This is the act of a human snake who, lead by treachery, destroys a collective self: family. And not only does Vortigern destroy his own personal family – his wife – but he does this to kill off his wider family: his brother. What Vortigern then embodies at multiple levels of analysis is the destruction of structure; he destroys his wife, he aligns himself with the corrupt right hand men of the king (mages of wisdom and technological evolution), and then attempts to destroy the height of societal structure itself: the king, his brother. Because he is manifested on so many levels, some of quite a lot of depth, this is what makes Vortigern a brilliantly realised archetype. And so, when we come to find out that he wants to build a new tower to greater his power, but that this tower is at stake of breaking down, we see that he is attempting to build a new structure through corruption; he is trying to raise a corrupt state upon once good, but now dead, lands.

With this set-up, we can now begin to see the depths of Ritchie’s story and his merging of classical symbols and archetypes with elements of the Arthurian legend. And so what this would rebut is even an example of a somewhat positive critique by Josephine Livingstone in her article “What King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Gets Right About the Middle Ages“. In her article, Livingstone suggests that there are silly elements of this film, but that Ritchie does manage to incorporate some medieval mythology into this story well. However, whilst she commends this, she also suggests that this is done with much of an awareness of a greater Western meta-narrative. But, with our brief look at the snake woman and the elephants, which she dismisses, we can begin to see this Western meta-narrative begin to be referenced with more depth and understanding than she would suggest.

However, Livingstone also makes mention of other more peripheral and ‘silly’ elements of the film: the battles, martial arts and cockney gangster vibe. I certainly disagree with a critique of these elements as the fights scenes in this film are pretty awesome, not just in respect to things getting thrown around, but the choreography of movement with slow motion and CGI assisted shots that add an impressionistic edge to the violence is truly stunning and, in itself, artful in my view. I understand if this doesn’t mean much to some people, but I find this pretty undeniable. Nonetheless, the anachronistic reference to martial arts can be understood to fuel the action scenes and give them greater verisimilitude (also they most probably stem from Ritchie’s own interest in actual combat in the form of martial arts). Moreover, concerning the style of comedy and the characterisation of the cockney crew of this film, this is Ritchie telling this story with his own voice – and he does this incredibly well (you would almost certainly agree if you like films such as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). And so, across all of these apparently ‘silly’ elements, we are seeing a genuine story voiced by a unique and individual filmmaker. Ritchie then integrates spectacle and deep subtext into his own style, and to great effect. This means that the only critique of this film that would come from someone who understands its depths would concern more subjective ideas of the movie not being profound enough, or the idiosyncratic styles and approaches simply not appealing to their taste. And so, if you don’t like the movie on these fronts, I can completely respect your opinion. But, if you still think this is dumb, let us go further with the story.

Arthur, after seeing his father die, is raised in a brothel and on the rough streets of Londinium. This marks our hero’s descent into the ‘wilderness’. And this idea, of course, stretches across many cultures; from Rama and Sita being sent into the jungle to Abraham being sent into the desert, heroes are often displaced from their divine or aristocratic origins. Further examples come through Greek mythological narratives that see, for example, Hercules being stolen out of Olympus, Odysseus sailing all over the world, or, in an alternative tragic form, Oedipus making his fatal return to his kingdom. This motif constantly manifest itself in stories about kings – just look to the Lion King and Simba being chased out of the Pride Lands. In all of these stories and a plethora more, this journey into the wilderness eventually sparks adventure and tests our hero to see if the blood within him is true; to see if he will naturally claim the sword and the lands of his father. This idea builds upon the idea that good structures headed by righteous kings prevail. Why is this, however?

The sense underlying this rather arbitrary assumption that the king’s son will be good is actually explored in films such as The Lion King, but more so in King Arthur, through the questioning of the father figure. In short, the son isn’t inherently good, he’s forced and moulded to be just that. This is explored throughout King Arthur with Excalibur and Arthur being unable to see the truth of his past and learn from this. We will come back to this idea, but it is all set-up in the initial casting of the innocent into the wilderness; just like Hercules is stolen from Olympus or Moses is sent down the Nile, Arthur finds his way to the brothel and navigates the streets of Londinium like Rama and Sita navigate the jungle or Abraham the desert to become a king of the realm. It’s here that we then see the king’s son become a king of the streets; he becomes a king of his own domain independent of his father. However, this roughly brings us to the point of the movie in which the ocean levels drop to reveal the the sword in the stone that Arthur eventually pulls free.

Arthur is partly a product of the wilderness and became a king of this domain because of this, but the sea dropping implies a natural force governing his growth. This reference to nature calls us back to the mage and the wisdom of those that understand the ways of nature. And in such, the constant reference to nature implies a stable order that nature (or fate) is inclined to towards; which is why the mage’s (Merlin, who understood nature) gift, Excalbur, calls Arthur. What Arthur represents, what he who was cast into a land of chaos and debauchery, but fought to bring a degree of peace and structure to this place and, in turn, the prostitutes’ – his adopted mothers’ – lives represents, is righteousness. The righteous Arthur is the positive and stable structure that nature yearns, and so this is why the oceans drop and Excalibur calls; Arthur is ready to now become a greater king. And so, it’s here that the idea that the king’s son is the only one who could restore order makes sense. Not only has he fought through the wilderness and become a king in this domain, but he is now going to be confronted with the legacy of a true king – which he will have to live up to.

What we can understand this to be a commentary on is the initial instance of corruption and Uther’s inability to stop his brother. As we have talked about, life is entropy and suffering and to live a great life is to find balance amongst these elements and improve ones own environment as a great king does. However, what if entropy takes over and the king’s brother is infected by power and jealously? It seems that the ill-equipped king – the old king who was not good enough to fight this battle and so sacrificed himself to preserve what little of his power he could…

… must die so that the a new king can not just rise out of those ashes, but fight to free himself of those smouldering chains. This is what the water then symbolises; Arthur has fought in the wilderness and now is ready to confront his naturally revealed destiny – which means he’s going to have to do a lot more fighting.

So, having pulled the sword from the stone, having realised that his king, his uncle, is corrupt and having escaped him with the help of his father’s old ‘crew’ and his own, Arthur is burdened with this responsibility: the knowledge that his destiny is to not just be a king of the streets, but a great king of the land. A key figure here, however, is the new mage…

She represents wisdom and an understanding of nature, and so she brings with her the symbol of the eagle…

The eagle is much like the snake (and the bear and lion for that matter). Like snakes, predatory birds would have played a significant role in human evolution as they may have posed a serious threat to our species many thousands of years ago. However, the predatory bird, the eagle, is not just a threat from above, it is sight (notice how the bird’s eye is put in centre-frame). The eagle’s eye – or an eye resembling a bird’s – then finds its way into key symbols of many cultures, the most famous being Horus’ eye. The eagle as sight represents perspective, which is an incredible power that the mage will provide the king. And the way in which the mage does this is send Arthur into the “Darklands”.

We find the Darklands manifest themselves in a plethora of stories; it is a new depth of wilderness that kings must venture into and so it is often seen as hell or a land of monsters. The Darklands are then the underworld that Hercules must venture into or the dense forests that Rama must travel through, fighting many demons, to recover Sita from Ravana. The Darklands are also where Simba goes after meeting Rafiki and where Maui and Moana go to recover his magic hook. It is then from the Darklands that a young king emerges. To reference Livingstone and her article again, she implies that this sequence falls into the class of ‘silly’ material by referencing the giant bat. However, it is understanding how important animals as symbols are in this story that the selection of animals makes profound sense.

Of course, Arthur encounters the snake, we have touched on what this means already.

Arthur also encounters giant rats like those in The Princess Bride. The rat is a rodent, a bottom feeder and a thief. However, the rat knows how to survive and so are, thought of positively, like Bilbo from The Hobbit or Remi in Ratatouille; a small thief that uses his ability for the greater good.

Arthur also encounters a predatory bird of sorts: the bat. The bat, as we all know from our contact with vampires, is like a dark version of the great bird (for example, an eagle). This is because they are nocturnal, but can (some species) suck your blood or just give you rabies. By encountering this dark predatory bird, much like the snake and rat, Arthur is getting the stuffing knocked out of him; parts of him are dying. And these parts are what the animals, in their dark form, represent. Arthur is then symbolically confronting the parts of his personality that resemble a treacherous snake, thieving rodent and predatory bat.

And we can also add into this the dark wolves; the gang who use their co-ordination for bad. When we think about all that Arthur confronts, there seems to be one mythological creature missing: the dragon. However, the dragon has always been in this narrative. Arthur’s true name, given to him by his father is, Arthur Pendragon, meaning “Chief-Dragon”. And the dragon itself is a creature that manifests itself across numerous cultures, all the way from the classical Chinese dragon to the British dragon. The reason why the dragon is assumed to pop up so universally in mythology is because it is an amalgamation of our many predatory rivals: snakes, birds and mammals like wolves and lions. Not only have we seen many of these animals mentioned in the “Darklands” sequence, but Arthur must confront them all to become a dragon himself. And we cannot forget that Arthur has to become this great dragon to defeat Vortigern Pendragon, the evil dragon – who, in fact, is the dark and corrupt wolf pack leader, the dirty rodent, the predacious bat of the night and the slithering snake. And it’s through realising that he can be the ‘good dragon’ by destroying the dark dragon within him that Arthur can begin to wield the sword and look into his past to find out the truth that Vortigern is the true evil dragon that killed his father.

And so it’s this pilgrimage into the “Darklands” that is, subtextually, one of the most impressive elements of this film that delves deep into human history as well as Western meta-narratives to show Arthur that the animal spirits within him can become pivotal parts of his persona as a king.

After this, we get another pivotal incite into the beginnings of this film. We are told the tale of how Mordred killed the mage king and arose the elephants…

… before Merlin, like Prometheus who stole fire from Mount Olympus for humans, forged Excalibur…

… and used it to destroy the mage king’s tower (a symbol of structure and society)….

… before giving the sword to The Lady Of The Lake, who passed it to Arthur’s father.

Here we have the solidification of our previous ideas on nature, mages and structure. And there is an expressive attribution of nature to femininity that is paralleled by the new mage being female. This provides an animus to the subconscious of this narrative and so seems to draw a line from Arthur’s mother to the prostitutes that raised him, the wilderness that nurtured him and the mage that now guides him. This is all in contrast to Vortigern who not only feeds his wife to the snake woman (an evil animus), but also ends up feeding his daughter to it, too. And this strong feminine presence throughout the film seems to suggests, without much of a romance or love interest, that the female archetype is pivotal in the building of a great king.

However, moving into the meat of the latter half of the second act, we see the first half of the second act mirrored with Arthur being, again, tested. So, whilst he was tested in an abstract world and on his own when he ventured into the Darklands, he is now tested as part of a group when they attempt (and fail) to assassinate the king and escape the city. This sequence is focused on Arthur encountering and building his own crew whilst suffering significant losses. However, one of the major staples of this sequence is, of course, when Arthur realises he has the ability to lead and to protect his crew (which was all founded in his protection of the prostitutes, we may note).

It is this scene that fully sold this film as a masterpiece to me. Whilst we have so far had so much rich storytelling, Ritchie puts to screen some of the greatest action spectacle scenes I’ve ever seen, utilising modern technology like a true and ingenious auteur. If you can’t appreciate this, and all the money that was ultimately sacrificed to create sequences like this, on some level, I honestly think you’re a fool. Whilst the CGI is imperfect and will probably date relatively quickly, the fact that Ritchie put this to screen astounds me. Moreover, the fact that this scene exists in a movie as smart as this leaves no more words needing to be said.

Getting back on track, having suffered the loss of his friends, Arthur wants to reject his sword and neglect his destiny.

But, having giving himself up to the earth, to the wilderness, the animus – the female archetype – rises.

And so it is here that The Lady of The Lake reassures Arthur that he is rightful king by showing him how evil his uncle is and that it is time that he assumes this position with trust in the mage.

So, interestingly, here, the narrative of King Arthur touches on ground that The Lion King, which we should all refer to as a masterpiece, does, but not with much concentration. Emphasising the role of the feminine, King Arthur balances an idea of the kingdom among the genders and creates a unified idea of hierarchy. And it is this that leads us into the final sequence in which Arthur must embrace the snake within him so he can infiltrate the king’s castle…

And it must be noted that it is sight – the mage’s eagle – that makes this possible, delivers the snake to the castle and allows it to grow. This implies that Arthur is only the dragon when he, the snake, is conjoined with the mage, the eagle, and maybe also his crew, the rodents and wolves. But, with Vortigern having killed his daughter and sold her to the dark snake animus, he becomes a dragon of sorts…

And so it is here that we have the final battle between the dragons, which Arthur, of course, wins. This sees Vortigern’s power crumble and his corrupt state fall…

It is now, then, that the round table can be uncovered and a new unified structure can be established…

… which marks the end of this epic masterpiece.

To brings things towards a conclusion, what we see with King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is masterful storytelling colliding with the modern blockbuster in the hands of a unique auteur. I find it hard to see why those that have seen this movie have dismissed it so readily. Maybe, as many suggest, this is a story that no one really wanted, and as an extension of this, the relatively few people that did see this refused to take seriously and so saw to be trash. But, I hope that the few people that end up reading this maybe see the movie slightly differently and would be among the those who really appreciate this for what it is. But, though this was a long post that may have exhausted most, there’s much more to be said about this film. So, what are your thoughts on King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword?

 

 

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Ratas, Ratones, Rateros – Realism Without Punch

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The Night Of Counting The Years – Lineage

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Ratas, Ratones, Rateros – Realism Without Punch

Quick Thoughts: Rodents (Ratas, Ratones, Rateros, 1999)

Made by Sebastián Cordero, this is the Ecuadorian film of the series.

Filled to the brim with plot, Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (Rats, Mice, Robbers, a.k.a Rodents) is a crime thriller of sorts that sees a petty thief follow his cousin into a life of crime of intensifying severity. Its positives concern its aesthetic and direction. Cordero puts you onto the streets of Quito, Ecuador quite efficiently with a combination of gritty camera movement, sharp editing, grimy cinematography and sharp mise en scène. Added to this the script projects both immaturity and maliciousness with sometimes striking verisimilitude. For this, Ratas, Ratones, Rateros often feels coarse, gnarled and genuine all at once.

The downfalls of this film come from its set-up: our main character isn’t very engaging. He is not complicated enough to take a distinctive, emotionally engaging arc and is written to be too naive to sell the arc he does take. This leaves the internal and external conflicts that he faces rather flat. Added to this, the antagonists of this film do not contain dimension and depth, and so fail in testing our main character and, thus, creating an intense, affecting narrative. As a result, there feels like there is too much plot in this film; a lot of things happen, and though they fill the 100+ min run-time, it doesn’t feel like much of a journey is really taken over the course of this narrative. By the end of this film, it then seems like Cordero captures a shade of social realism, but doesn’t really impress this onto the audience too well.

So, as well designed as this is, there simply isn’t enough to the script to make this a fully engaging and worthwhile experience (it really begins to drag after the 50 minutes). And though Ratas, Ratones, Rateros is seen to have played a part in re-igniting Ecuadorian filmmaking, it just doesn’t manage to capture the imagination very well. In the  end, not a terrible movie, but, simultaneously, not very memorable.

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Henry Rollins: Talking From The Box – Spoken Word & Cinema: Subjective Impressionism

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Henry Rollins: Talking From The Box – Spoken Word & Cinema: Subjective Impressionism

Thoughts On: Henry Rollins: Talking From The Box (1992)

Henry Rollins recounts a selection of stories from his life on stage.

I have almost no knowledge of, and have had almost no contact with, spoken word performances. Beyond one or two live shows, Henry Rollins’ performances are the only ones I’ve seen. And whilst I don’t have too much of an interest in this storytelling form, having spent quite a bit of time consuming Rollins’ content, a relationship between spoken word and film seems to have opened up an avenue or two concerning the way we may think about cinema. Before jumping into this, however, let’s take a brief look at this show itself.

By 1992  and Talking From The Box, Rollins (most famous as the lead singer of Black Flag and Rollins Band) had made more than 5 spoken word albums. However, this would be the first ‘album’ that he would have recorded video for. The performances themselves lie in some strange space between poetry (“poet” being a title which he refuses and despises) and stand-up comedy. It is best to let the idea of ‘spoken word’ define Talking From The Box, however, as Rollins is, in essence, just expressing–a mere euphemism for ‘talking shit’ as he says–himself through verbal storytelling. Understanding this performance as such turns this into a very stark amalgamation of biography and constructed art or entertainment; Rollins is telling us, in part at least, who he is, what he thinks, what he’s been through and where he is now in a way that has clearly been constructed for an audience’s consumption and reflection.

To take a step back, the concept of this show being an amalgam of biography and art is a pithy one that could be applied to anything within, or approaching, the realms of ‘art’. After all, if it is best to think of art as a term to define modes of communication that require some kind of router (router in the sense of a WiFi router) that facilitates a flow of thought and emotion between the ‘artist’ and their audience, then it becomes inevitable that what the artist projects will have significant – or just notable – touches of their personality, life and general biographical information on it. In regards to the art of cinema, we conceptualise this with the auteur theory, or, more commonly and less precisely, with a tendency to attribute a collectively manifested piece of work to one person; usually the director.

There is rhyme, reason, yet also discordance, surrounding this thought process. To take a slight tangent, to a thinker such as Marx, history may be comprised of collective ventures and events. Conversely, to someone such as Hegel, there are individual historic figures that lead masses. So, to Marx, there would be a French Revolution lead by the people, not necessarily just Napoleon. To Hegel, Napoleon is the historic leader to which we attribute many of the events of the French Revolution to. Without going into too much depth on these thinkers and such an idea, what we see emerge here is a problem of how to look at historic events and artefacts. Is there one individual force that leads something? Or, is there one abstract collective force?

Coming back to film, the rational summation would be that, this depends, and so the answer will vary between film productions. However, with an idea of the director being a significant one (added to this, the idea of a writer being a significant, though overlooked, one), there is a strong implication in traditional filmmaking that someone leads a creative force in an individually ordained direction. In such, the work itself is collectively sourced, but, without the individual, without a Napoleon, the work couldn’t be; it wouldn’t have direction and a voice. With such an idea making most sense to me, I am sympathetic towards the auteur theory and so embrace the attribution of a piece of work to one person, or a few select individuals, despite knowing that they themselves didn’t work alone.

So, when we look at films, we are seeing the expression of an individual. Cinema then becomes a form of communication that is part biographical and part entertainment. (And entertainment is there to ensure that the communication doesn’t fall into completely masturbatory paradigms of vanity and the audience isn’t forgotten; this ‘entertainment’ doesn’t just need to be flashing lights and explosions, but something that an audience desires). With cinema conceptualised in such a way, the way in which the individual – a writer through their script, a performer through their screen presence, an editor through their assembly or a director through the organisation of the ‘cinematics’ of a story – becomes a focal point of the medium. It’s now then that we can return to Rollins’ Talking From The Box.

With Rollins as the auteur of this film, the performer and writer, there exudes an incredible amount of personality and character from the screen. This is, of course, the consequence of the nature of spoken word. Spoken word, as Rollins presents it, is the rawest and, arguably, truest form of self expression. This is because the auteur’s body becomes the ‘router’ of the communication between artist and audience; their natural facial expressions, body language, thoughts and voice are all laid bare. Actual, staged spoken word performances then differ from cinema as there is a natural presence of the audience sitting before the speaker. With cinema, there is, of course, a huge technological mediation (a camera, editing, screens, such and so on) in between audience and artist. Nonetheless, with Rollins exuding such an eminent and overwhelming sense of character through his auteurship, he comes to separate the kind of biographical and entertainment-based communication that is occurring through the medium of film from your average narrative movie. With ‘strong characters’ being a very abstract idea in screenwriting, we can then use Rollins to better understand how great characters (Amélie Poulain being one perfect example in my view) may function.

With Rollins as auteur and performer, we see the ‘voice’ of his ‘movie’ concentrated in one specific entity. Because Rollins has information of, what I and many others would consider, great value that can be funnelled into this entity, he begins to become a strong character. And because Rollins knows how to present himself, to sell his inner-self with a genuine and effective persona, he becomes a ‘great character’. Great character, like great art, is then an amalgam of intriguing content and dazzling form; again, we come to the idea that art needs quality biographical information and entertainment. With these two essential components concentrated in one entity – Rollins as writer and performer – we can come to understand his kind of cinema as one predicated on ‘subjective impressionism’.

‘Subjective impressionism’ (an unofficial term that we shall be using in this essay), re-defines ‘impressionism’. With impressionism as an approach to art that is concerned with the projection of the experience or perception of an individual, subjectivity is deeply embedded into the term. However, whilst filmmakers such as Epstein mean to evoke the inner feelings of characters through impressionism, art – cinema – can only communicate with entities, what you could also refer to as, to reference Saussure, ‘signifiers’. Characters can be these symbols, these signifiers, routers or entities, but they are a particular variety of signifier. Characters are alive and, if they are believable, they have a certain quality that allows us to pretend they are real people. As a result, we believe that they have a subjective view-point. And so, to conduct an impressionist approach through an individual with their own subjective perspective is ‘subjective impressionism’. A brilliant example of exactly this comes with Rollins (but also other great characters such as Amélie Poulain – I’m sure you have your own examples of a great character, too).

Rollins, as we have discussed, uses his own body as the medium through which he expresses and tells a story. However, when he is filmed, more routers, symbols and signifiers come to be involved in the process of his storytelling. Thus there is an influence from the editing and camerawork that would become very obvious with shots like this:

With Rollins shown in a close-up and a wide shot simultaneously, and almost as if he is an angel or devil on his own shoulder, we see cinematics introduced to his storytelling, and they allow us to see him as two people; one defined by his body language, and one defined by his facial movements. Here we then see cinema use impressionistically to bring out new personality and character in the already cultivated screen persona that Rollins creates; a subjective entity is further brought to life through cinematic language.

What we then see with this shot is a kind of impressionism that sees form and content interact. So, to come back to the idea that Rollins is a great character, we see his own form (his persona) and his own content (his internal biographical information) fuelling this idea. However, the cinematic elements of this film also have their own form and content – as we see with the above shot. This introduces an idea of subjective impressionism whilst also implying that cinema has many different signifiers that it can capitalise on to create engaging form and content and, in turn, be a worthwhile piece of art.

If we take a step back from this subject and now question the relationship between spoken word and cinema, we can see that spoken word has a lot to say about how cinema works in relation to its characters and subjective impressionism. For information on how to create strong characters, we can then look to Rollins to see how, through dialogue and presence, he manifests a strong persona. It is clear that Rollins does this himself by exuding worthwhile information about his existential being and its relationship with the world (see how he often talks about individuality, relationships, travelling, strength, facade and emotion – core social themes of great interest and, potentially, controversy). Simultaneous to this, Rollins himself is a formidable character; one word seems to define his stature: intensity. Because his outer facade resonates so well with his inner being and he is self-aware – he practices what he preaches, and well – we see a great harmony exude from the symbol or signifier that he becomes when on stage: he becomes a great character. What this implies to screenwriters, directors and performers is that the form of characters must interact with their content to create harmony; a general rule for creating strong screen presences.

Added to this, however, it is key to understand that cinema does not function like spoken word performances. Rollins gets to use himself as the medium through which to tell a story whilst those who work in cinema must use their respective tools to construct and manipulate such an entity. And this is where subjective impressionism comes into the frame. A, for instance, character, is created and given form by an auteur’s own biographical information (maybe biographical information that they collect from others and integrate into their subconscious which they use to write with). This is creating a subject. To manipulate this subject, impressionism needs to be employed; a writer or director need to use their given language (that of words and/or images) to project the inner workings of their pre-constructed subject. And, in such, we have subjective impressionism.

To conclude, the spoken word, as presented by Rollins’ film, can lead us to think of character and cinematic storytelling from new angles. And from these angles, we may learn lessons on how to construct and then manipulate characters in a script, on a set, or on film.

Before we end, I should note that this post says much about stand-up comedy, too. And, as you may know, I have a strong interest in stand-up comedy and use it as inspiration in some of my dialogue-centric writings. It is then through that screenplay that you may see ‘subjective impressionism’ tested. (Though, I believe that this is the kind of theory that can be applied to many films as it is more an observation and less a technique – even though it could be used to inform an approach). Added to all of this, however, with ‘subjective impressionism’, there is an implied antithesis. And this is what we’ll have to explore another time.

 

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Bandit Queen – Rage

Quick Thoughts: Bandit Queen (1994)

The story of Phoolan Devi.

Less a historical bio-pic, more a vessel of rage, Bandit Queen brings the story of Phoolan Devi, a low-caste woman-turned-bandit who lead a vengeful battle against an upper-caste family, to screen. Because of her fight against oppression, violence and injustice, Devi came to be an almost mythological figure in India around the 80s and 90s, and she even served in parliament in the late 90s, before later being assassinated in the early 2000s.

This film pre-dates her death and election to parliament, and casts her as a staunch hero figure without giving much complication to her character. For this, Devi comes to be a symbol, less a character, which can leave you somewhat detached from her. However, this narrative nonetheless captures a voice of pure anger without many holds barred.

There are a few weights on this narrative. One concerns elements of plotting which see the story jump rather jarringly from one setting or event to another. It seems that this was done because the details of Devi’s ventures are not fully available. So, instead of making up scenes that explain how certain things happen (such as escapes or emotional character decisions), this narrative seems to leave a few blank or ambiguous spots. Whilst this is certainly overlookable, there are elements of action that are not very convincing. Moreover, whilst Devi becoming a symbol works for the effect of the narrative, the mentioned detachment that this constructs doesn’t just lessen the affect of this story, but it has you question the degree of romanticisation that has gone into it. After all, this narrative mentions the role of the press in the selling of Devi’s name to the public, but it doesn’t address the divide that may exist between the real Phoolaan and the Bandit Queen.

With that said, even if this narrative is highly romanticised, it does incredibly well at capturing the rage of the downtrodden and the rise of a vengeful hero. And this is done with shocking depictions of rape and abuse combined with brilliant camera work – especially in regards to framing people against the land and the sky. All of this comes together to produce a highly unconventional ‘Bollywood movie’ (it may be more correct to frame this as a Parallel Cinema film), one well worth the watch.

But, to end, have you seen this movie? What are your thoughts?

 

 

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