Apocalypse Now – Vicarious Revelation

Thoughts On: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Another Vietnam war film masterpiece – this time from Francis Ford Coppola.

Apocalypse Now 3

A true pleasure to re-watch and re-watch and re-watch, Apocalypse Now is, as absolutely anyone could tell you, a pure masterpiece. Like Full Metal Jacket, it isn’t what many would think of as a ‘true’ or ‘traditional’ war film as bombs, guns and explosions aren’t the focus. This is a highly thematic and, in parts, experimental film that uses impressionistic cinematic language and sound design as well as a deeply subtextual narrative to explore ideas of ultimate human power and control. Because of this, Apocalypse Now is a movie you appreciate more and more given time, repeated re-visits and consideration.

However, as with the recent post on Full Metal Jacket, I won’t be delving into this subtext because we’ve done this already. What we’ll be talking about today is the futile, almost nihilistic, structure of this film that sees Willard unknowingly trawl up a river to discover his true conflict and goal – that being to confront Kurtz as a man that has rebelled against the U.S army and positioned himself as a God amongst the natives in the Cambodian jungle.

This kind of structure is very common in movies and is tantamount to an anti-climax or twist ending. In short, the ending in Apocalypse Now is very much like that in Fight Club, 500 Days Of Summer and Citizen Kane. A quick warning, if you’ve not seen these films, firstly, what’s wrong with you? Secondly, spoilers…

In Fight Club, there’s the plot’s ending, the end of The Narrator’s character arc and the true ending. The plot’s end is simply the realisation that Tyler and The Narrator are the same person. This is fun and makes for a nice twist that you may gasp at if you’ve never seen the film. But, the more complex end of The Narrator’s character arc is his confrontation of Tyler and so sees his developed will to overcome his hatred for the world. This will lead you to think that this is a film that serves as commentary on consumerism, the modern day man, such and so on. These are definitely elements of Fight Club, but if this is all you see, I think you miss the point of the movie. The true, subtextual ending of Fight Club is The Narrator holding Marla’s hand. This is a film about fear and a lack of a place in the world, and the ending solidifies this.

What you’ll be picking up on if you’ve read a lot of posts on the blog is that we’re appealing to the idea of 3 plot lines. This idea sees movies in three lights: in accordance to its plot, character arc and subtext. It’s the last subtextual plot line that I see as the true material of movies as it uncovers the intention of the writer, director and narrative. Subtext is meaning, is the intention for telling a story, and if a writer/director doesn’t simply mean to entertain, then subtext is, in essence, truth. This is what we’ll continue to delve into with 500 Days Of Summer…

The ending of this film is Tom meeting Autumn. This signifies the end of the plot as Tom’s search for a partner. This also represents the end of his character arc as a person who is unsatisfied with his job and afraid or unwilling to pursue what he thinks will make him happy. The true subtextual ending of this movie, however, is the implication that Tom is likely to repeat some of (a lot of?) the things that he did wrong throughout the narrative with Summer. Instead of simply making a definitive turn-around, Tom is shown as a slowly growing human that is moving into a new, but possibly repetitive, chapter of his life. The ending of this film is then a question of Tom’s romanticism.

Citizen Kane. Plot ending: the journalists’ failed endeavour to uncover what Rosebud means. Character ending: the revelation of Kane as a man that never got over a simple past. True ending: a solipsistic perspective is taken on who Kane really is; with his death comes the loss of all real answers as to who he is as a man; he no longer exists and so his story no longer does either, we can only infer what that is and who he was with our own personal inferences.

What we see in these three examples is a type of story that essentially sees best friends, two polar characters, realise that they actually loved each other all along. A good example of this is Clueless…

Cher and Josh start as ironic friends/step-siblings that put up with, rip on and playfully insult each other. But, of course, they end up realising that opposites sometimes attract and that they bounce off each other pretty well (despite the brother-sister thing). This revelatory structure is then, as said, very common, but has many differing applications – which brings us back to…

The plot of Apocalypse Now is simply getting up the river, infiltrating Kurtz’s camp and killing him. On this journey, Willard realises that he doesn’t fit into the world of war, nor the civilised structure of society. This character arc contributes to the ultimate message of the film which is on the utter chaos of human structuring, organisation and control. In seeing this, Willard is given perspective on what humanity really means in a wider sense; that we are a mere spec in a chaotic universe. As cliched as this is, it is poignant because ‘we are a mere spec’ or ‘we are insignificant’ are words we’ve all listened to, an idea we’ve all heard, but a concept that very few of us truly fathom or have realised through experience. And we do get to vicariously perceive something close to this by taking Willard’s journey with him.

And this idea of vicarious realisation that is the crux of this essay. The point of this kind of structure, whether it be in Clueless, Citizen Kane or Apocalypse Now, is by and for and audience. It is so easy to say something like ‘we are insignificant’, but how do you make someone feel this without sending them to war and up a river, into hell, to kill their distorted reflection in a broken mirror?

This is a question all writers or artists ask when they look at their story because it’s far too easy to say that ‘this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens’.

We all tell and hear stories like this when we’re asked how our day went when we get home – things as banal as, ‘I went up a river on a boat’. The thing about these stories though is that… they’re not always very captivating. If it wasn’t a friend or loved one telling us them, I’m sure we’d refuse to hear them. But, this kind of story telling can be raised into viable entertainment with more fantastical events – like, ‘I went up a river in a boat… in a warzone’. More effectively, however, character can inject so much quality into a story.

Even if you’re telling the most banal of stories, by inserting vibrant and interesting characters into this – putting a compelling, captivating person on that boat – your story will evolve incredibly. This is because you are essentially putting the listener into the story; your great character becomes a vessel for them. What this says about story telling is that it is tantamount to learning. After all, why do we watch what we watch? Why do people need to keep up with the Kardashians?

The easy answer is that it’s entertaining, that it’s dumb, that we get to turn our brains off and relax. (Self-defensive side note: I don’t watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians). However, what I see to be a better answer is that, when you watch this show, you are engaging in an ape-like ceremony where we judge and gawk at the alpha and the elite. The same can be said for sports.

The alpha and the elite perform for us to marvel at; they put on a show for us to compare ourselves to and ‘learn’ from. And this seems to be the evolutionary need for entertainment of this kind: to vicariously learn. We can look at powerful women with millions, huge asses and great make-up and we can wish to imitate them or fantasise that we are like them. In the same sense, we can watch warriors go to war for town, state and country, lost in awe as we tell ourselves that they’re on our side and that ‘we are winning’. Simultaneously however, you may look to the powerful women and see sluts that live vapid lives with fake asses and someone else’s millions or dumbass jocks, roided to the gills, throwing themselves against other morons just to put a ball at one end of a pitch for millions of undeserved dollars that they’ll waste away before paying for their endless inevitable medical bills. In this rather pessimistic, calloused and negative light, you learn (somewhat masochistically) what not to be from these people, shows or games. So, coming back to this…

Characters in stories are the people that we learn from through imitation, reflection and observation. This is entertaining in the same sense that learning about insects, cars, fashion or the stars is interesting; you are gathering knowledge that you find valuable and useful. But, there’s something we’re missing. Who is teaching the lesson and how?

If we do not like the way that the events and characters are conveyed, or if they’re shown to us in a way we simply do not understand, then the entire story beyond them goes out of the window. This is where subtext and meaning then come into the picture.

Within movies, it is primarily the writer and director’s job to frame both character and plot in a manner that we not only understand, but resonate or empathise with. There’s two approaches to this understanding between audience and artist. The first is showing us what the story is like or similar to. For example, Coppola shows us that Willard is like us because he is a soldier in a system, because he gets frustrated, depressed, confused and ultimately tempted. Many storytellers will take this approach as their focus. A good example of this would be Spiderman…

Filmmakers that take on comic book movies almost always appeal to the double identity, specifically, the more human side of a superhero. I’ve moaned about this before with an idea of an overly Human Cinema that sacrifices fantasy for identification, but it is simply there so that all of the cool shit that someone like Spiderman can do is given weight and made to seem like the average teen could be in that situation. As implied, I think there are flaws to this, but, there is a second approach.

To make an audience understand your story, you can attempt to show them what the narrative isn’t or isn’t like. We see these in the movies mentioned in the beginning. Films like Clueless, Fight Club, Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now all indulge an easy reading of a story that conforms to expectation. In Clueless, we see a ditsy broad look for love, in Fight Club, we see a fight club form, in Citizen Kane, we are shown intimate details of Charles Foster Kane, in Apocalypse Now, we are put into hell. However, all of these movies, with their ends, say that ‘this isn’t enough’, that ‘this isn’t all that this story is’. In such, Clueless has us see that Cher isn’t so dumb, Fight Club shows us the romance and humanity in a terrorist, Citizen Kane reveals that the essence of a man can’t be put into a news article, Apocalypse Now demonstrates how hell on Earth manifests and how we may find ourselves there.

There are more intricate means that a story told through differences is constructed throughout Apocalypse Now (like the distance we’re held from Willard and his back story), but it is leaning on this approach that Coppola is able to introduce an idea of nuance. In such, with his structure, he allows us to think we grip his story, only to flip it on its elbow and task us with changing our views as to keep up with him. And it’s this that I believe is the crux of this formal approach to story. With vicarious revelation, there is the opportunity to not only experience a story and world that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, but also gain a nuanced perspective on this new experience that maybe changes the way you see the world when you step out of the cinema.

So, to conclude, a film like Apocalypse Now is so poignant because it has an approach to narrative that, a) has an anti-climax or revelatory ending, b) relies on subtext and meaning, and, c) has the audience immersed in the world of story to the point that they intuitively understand and feel the subtextual meaning. And all of this suggests something about what makes this movie a masterpiece; it transcends simplistic story telling and becomes something so visceral that it almost seems like a tangible experience.

 

 

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Platoon – The Horrors Of War

Thoughts On: Platoon (1986)

A young man drops out of university and into combat in Vietnam.

Platoon

To say the words ‘the horrors of war’ when discussing war movies is a clichéd and rather empty attempt to convey the impact of a film. This is because the term itself is so both banal and ambiguous – and to the point that it is almost meaningless. This isn’t to say that ‘the horrors of war’ should not be said or discussed in relation to war movies, just that the term needs a bit of clarification. So, by taking a look at 4 of the best war movies ever made, we can begin to categorise and distinguish the 4 modes or approaches to ‘the horrors of war’. These movies are, of course…

      

… Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. Before we begin discussing these movies and their characteristics, it has to be clarified that we are looking at these films as anti-war movies. This means we are considering their aspects that mean to show us the chaos, terror and torment war can be to society and individuals. Other movies such as Top Gun, Patriot and 300…

    

… aren’t explicitly pro-war to the extent of being propaganda, but they do not have the same characteristics as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now. So, when we discuss the modes of war films today, we are only talking about the kind of war film that means to demonstrate its ‘horrors’. To keep this obvious, we will refer to these movies as, for a lack of a better term, ‘horror-war’ films.

Starting with Saving Private Ryan, we have the first class of horror-war film: the physical. The visceral impact of Saving Private Ryan is in the gory realism; the limbs blown of, soldiers drowned, friends murdered and bloodshed splayed. The gore is not there to make the movie fun, but, as should be obvious, convey the true danger and calamity inherent to a war zone. Saving Private Ryan then fits into the physical mode of the horror-war film because the horror is tangible and we see it occur to people.

The next mode is the conceptual. Apocalypse Now is a masterful example of this as it is not really about soldiers, guns, enemies and explosions, much rather, it is about the concepts of war; those being imperialism, power, murder, existentialism, solipsism, humanity, morality… etc. This is probably the rarest kind of war movie as capturing the concepts of battle is incredibly difficult. Coppola manages to do this with archetypal figures in Willard and Kurtz. With these individuals, he explores men as Gods and men as humans – a complex subject we’ve previously delved into. So, what makes this a conceptual horror-war film are the archetypal aspects that provide commentary on wider ideas of war.

The third mode of horror-war is psychological. We’ve discussed Full Metal Jacket twice already and so I won’t drone on about it too much, but Kubrick conveys the horrors of war through the effects it has on an individual in this story. He does this with an appeal to Jungian theories of collective and personal unconsciousness and ultimately constructs a narrative around the concept of a mind under the pressure of war.

Before moving onto the final mode of horror-war, it has to be said that these modes rarely appear singularly in movies. For example, if we look to Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, we can see that they both hold conceptual and psychological elements to them with their appeal to wider ideas of war as well as the idea of a soldier. That noted, we can comfortably move onto the final mode…

The fourth mode of horror-war is emotional. We see this in movies like Platoon that don’t just show blood and guts, that don’t just use soldiers as archetypes or minds in heads, but reactionary humans that feel frustration, fear, doubt, melancholy and isolation. The key to this mode is said idea of ‘reaction’. These movies aren’t so much about war and violence, but what it reflects in people and the manner in which they express themselves.

As the title of this post should make obvious, this fourth mode and Platoon are our focus for today. This is because I find Platoon to be the most impactful experience of war on film for the way in which character is so central to the telling of the story. This isn’t to say that it is the best war film in my opinion – in fact, I don’t think I have an opinion on exactly which movie is the best – all I mean to suggest here is that Platoon is much more visceral and resonant than Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket because there is a distance at which we’re held in these movies. And in comparison to Platoon, you even feel this in Saving Private Ryan; whilst there are glimpses of raw, complex emotion, there simply isn’t that same sense of truth in Saving Private Ryan as there is in Platoon. This must be down to the directors because, whilst Spielberg, like Kubrick and Coppola, is an undeniable master of cinema who clearly has a great interest in war, he did not serve in the military like Stone did. And you feel this in their movies. Saving Private Ryan has an observational, recollective and distanced perspective on what it means to fight in war. Platoon has an immediacy and incite into the personal life and perception of a soldier that almost no other narrative war movie does. This, in regard to experiencing a movie, leaves Platoon as one of the most poignant horror-war films because ‘horror’ is an emotion. You can think of horror as a tank hurtling toward you…

… you can think of horror as the confrontation of an immense moral and philosophical structure…

… or you can even think of horror as a tyrant screaming at you…

… but, horror is best thought of as a face:

What lies beneath these features is a multi-faceted feeling of torment, one that we have, by this point, seen beaten into Chris for months on end. There are two primary means by which this has built within him. The first is socially and the second is personally, and we see this represented by the two men that Chris ends up considering his fathers, Elias and Barnes…

Many see these two figures as Jesus and Satan, and this iconic image certainly enforces this idea:

However, this would leave you to consider this movie as a singularly moral look at a soldier’s position in war. There are certainly elements of moral questioning when considering the massacre and constant fight to do the right thing throughout this film, but when considering the emotional horrors of war, seeing these two figures in another light will leave us with a more nuanced view of this film’s themes.

So, starting with Elias, we see a figure that attempts to nurture and care for Chris. It’s from him that camaraderie finds its way into this narrative, but quickly turns poisoned. As is said by Chris, this movie is not so much about a fight between armies, but a ‘civil war’ in a platoon of men. This is what encapsulates the social contortion and pressure Chris is put under throughout the film; he came to Vietnam to become ‘anonymous’ and be like his father and grandfather before him who fought in their own wars. However, sat in the bush, Chris is continually forced to question the purpose of war as a collective endeavour. After all, to him, it seems that no one wants to be helped and no one really wants to help others either…

This of course implies the immense political underbelly of the Cold and Vietnam War, but, more simply, the lack of society, community or togetherness in war. And this is certainly the element of Platoon that has it be so poignant; there are no true sides in this war, there is no escape, there is no anonymity. This simpler idea of war as ‘us and them’ dies with Elias and is never restored for Chris.

With the murder of Elias, Chris is then left, primarily, under the pressure of Barnes – he begins to define war and battle to him. And in such, there is a narrative shift towards an overwhelmingly isolated and individual perspective of battle. Like Barnes, everyone eventually takes an every-man-for-himself stance and this makes war crushingly formidable.

There is no better way to demonstrate this than this look of complete loss that we see on O’Neill’s face in the end of the movie. In fact, this is the single most impactful shot of the movie to me as the hell that O’Neill has only just escaped – cowardly/sensibly so – is seemingly never going to end. What I see in O’Neill’s eyes here is then his perceived future. He knows this war will be the death of him – if not literally then certainly spiritually. O’Neill, like Chris, will never be the same after this war and this is because he’s made to see the blind enormity of the collective human existence and endeavour.

It’s realising that you are alone in a war zone, as each and every man seems to be in the final battle, that you recognise just how weak you are and how overwhelmingly chaotic a body of hundreds, thousands, even millions and billions, of people are. There is very little that groups of hundreds and thousands can do to profoundly effect the world – yet this is what war is. War is small pockets of people trying to change the world, and such explains its devastating and hugely confounding effect on people.

Seeing war in this manner, try to imagine what it means to be an isolated cog in this network. Again, the only way to truly paint this picture would be with a face…

But, what we cannot forget at this point is the catalyst for this situation: the archetypal Sargent Barnes.

The heartlessness and self-centric inhumanity that Barnes represents exposes war as truly terrifying for the fact that you have to rely on the men ‘on your side’ in face of those who oppose you. What we then see, through Chris, is war as a struggle between societal collectivism and personal individuality. Ultimately, the pressure and pain of this battle is concluded with the pseudo-catharsis that Chris feels having destroyed the poison that initially corrupted his platoon.

This is the final thematic note of Platoon; escape and catharsis. From the very beginning men hate their situation and just want out, but, for most, this is granted far too late.

It’s here, in the very end, that Chris realises that there is no real escape from war and that his fight between societal collectivism and personal individuality is never going to be over. He will carry his experience of war and people as isolated cogs in a system they do not understand, only resent, with him for the rest of his life – including when he has to serve in the army again as a commander or Sargent of sorts. This is the emotional horror of war; it is to face this future and question your purpose and position as a person.

 

 

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Full Metal Jacket – The Commanding Voice

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Full Metal Jacket – The Commanding Voice

Thoughts On: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Kubrick’s Vietnam war film masterpiece.

Full Metal Jacket 2

Full Metal Jacket is an undeniable masterpiece. A film in two parts, what has me come back to this picture time and time again is the opening 45 minutes. From the buzz cuts to Pyle’s suicide, this is the shortest 45 minutes you will probably ever experience.

With blistering pace fueled by the subtle clockwork of filmmaking, this sequence refuses to let your breathe and locks you into the world of story and make-believe. This immersive tone is skipped away from for the second hour-long sequence in Vietnam…

… and whilst this jump is jarring, having watched the opening 45 minutes by itself many times, I can confidently say that these two halves certainly need each other as without one another neither holds much substance or a cohesive point. However, we won’t be thinking of this movie as a whole or delving too deep into its narrative and subtext today. This is because we’ve done this already. In the briefest of explanations, Full Metal Jacket is about the duality of a collective unconsciousness and personal unconsciousness in face of self-awareness. Throughout this film, men then battle to not be consumed by a war machine and to remain individuals by sustaining a conscious outlook.

In this regard, many men fail and this leaves them to regress into childish mannerisms – hence the Micky Mouse song ending. And this basically explains ‘the Jungian thing’ mentioned in the movie. But, as said, this isn’t our focus. What we’re going to zoom in on is the opening, first as a formal piece of filmmaking and then through Sgt. Hartman.

It doesn’t need to be said, but this sequence is directed masterfully. Kubrick not only captures an isolated yet somehow confined atmosphere through cinematic language, but imbues the story with incredible continuity. This is of course aided by the editing and works to abstract you from time and force the 9 week training period into a fluid, gruelling and relentless experience. The sound design truly makes this patch-work of transformation seamless, giving the sequence constant rhythm and a dramatic atmosphere which allows us to peer into characters. And in mentioning character, we have to touch on the immense writing and acting. The structuring of this montage meeting the balls-to-the-wall performances and dialogue adds further flavour and texture to the opening. The final touch to all of this is the cinematography which expresses, through colour and light, that exact isolation of characters and their simultaneous pressurisation with a character-centric frame. These many elements come together through one singular force…

… Hartman. It’s Hartman’s voice and presence that act as the glue and fuel of this sequence as it’s his words, threats, curses and rants that we’re always hearing and his control we’re slowly seeing be realised in his platoon. It is then Hartman that hijacks the opening of the narrative and imbues it with liquid gold.

The effect of this is that we, like the soldiers, are truly lost in a cinematic present. The idea of a ‘cinematic present’ has nothing to do with the present in reality as, through cinema, you can, as best described by Tarkovsky, sculpt in time. This means that as a sculptor may make his art by whittling away at rock, a filmmaker whittles away at time. This leaves movies as sculptures of space and time. These sculptures can take many shapes, they can be opaque, jagged, vibrant and rigid, or, they can be like…

… like water; fluid, liquid, shapeless, versatile and so easily sunk into. Films that are more rigid and jagged in their sculpting of space and time have a strong sense of pace and time – you always know the time, what has just happened, what can happen and often where. A great example of this would be High Noon.

The bumps and grooves in this sharply cut sculpture of time is what gives High Noon such a solid structure, defined scenes, distinguished set-pieces and is also what gives the narrative so much tension. Though we are made to feel we see things in real-time, that time is not truly a ‘cinematic present’ as we are always thinking about the hands of the clock and the future. In Full Metal Jacket’s first half, we see the opposite approach taken; an approach that leaves us suspended in the present.

Whilst we see characters change, we never see this in the context of week 1, week 4, or week 7 – not until the end of the sequence where we’re told that graduation is in a few days. Character is the only sense of structure that we’re provided as an audience; we can only guess that time moves because there’s less of this…

… and more or this…

This is so significant as the structure is defined, as alluded to, by Hartman’s control over his men. Because of this, because we are constantly hearing his words, because we are constantly seeing his control realised, we are left stranded in the mind of a soldier oblivious to the weeks hurtling by, barely able to grip change and the slippery slope of evolution he’s forced down by Hartman. And this isn’t the only way that this pacing adds to story; the momentum of this sequence traps us in a cinematic present so we forget the past. We see this materialised through characterisation.

Who are these men? We grow know a few of them as Pyle, Joker and Cowboy, but we never get to know anything beyond these military facades and often struggle to see exactly what bubbles beneath the surface of these soldiers – if anything (especially in the first half). This is the epitome of a cinematic present being controlled Hartman; all experience beyond training and war is irrelevant for these characters as they are being broken down and re-constructed as human beings. All of this allows Hartman to upload his ideals and philosophy into characters, making them into his killing machines – full metal jackets, rifles or guns as we explored previously.

This first half of the Full Metal Jacket is then one of the best fictional showcases of a narrative or commanding voice. The only better examples you can find would be in documentary, and one of my favourite examples of this would be Alex Jones’ Endgame.

Hartman, like Jones, essentially spews a relentless monologue throughout the first 40 minutes of this movie. We may not always hear his words, but we always feel his presence, and in such we are immersed into his philosophy of action, war, God and the solider. You may even argue that this stretches beyond the first part of the movie and into Vietnam allowing us to see a rebuttal to Hartman’s opening ‘monologue’. In seeing Full Metal Jacket in this way, you have a through-route to assessing its subtext, so we’ll leave this point as is to concentrate on the effect this monologue has on us, the audience.

Hartman’s monologue has two effects, the first is authoritative and the second is antagonistic. Starting with the former, the authoritative characteristics of Hartman are blatant…

… at least in respect to the soldiers. But, his authority also extends to us on a conceptual level. That is to say that we are somewhat convinced and swept away by what Hartman preaches. In such, his heartlessness and malcontent hit us in the chest and make us giddy as we laugh and stare in awe at his parade of power. This is a small detail, but a significant one when we consider the means by which character is being felt by an audience. Instead of being defined through backstories, romance and heroism, Hartman is simply defined through behaviour, philosophy and presence. And added to this, his position as an antagonist is bolstered by the intuitive and visceral translation of his character. This note allows us to segue into the second antagonistic effect of Hartman’s monologue.

An antagonist is conflict with a body, mind and a voice. All narrative films have conflict and most movies have antagonists. Conflict is simply things that destabilise and disrupt the protagonist’s world or journey. An antagonist will also do this – but whilst having a sense of personage and character about them. The best conflict is then the kind of conflict that has subtext and so means something in relation to a character. A good example of this would be seen in Wild.

Cheryl’s conflicts throughout the film are the result of her hike; her feet hurting, back aching, tools not working. However, all the pain and suffering she endures is linked to the loss of her mother, the breakdown of her marriage and self-destructive acts of her past. Her hike is then a form of catharsis; a journey which sees her conflicts have purpose, and so be events that allow her to grow. We see this use of conflict in many road movies and I’m sure you could name quite a few.

Considering that this subtextual and character-centric form of conflict is the most effective because of the way it intertwines with all the working parts of a narrative, we can infer that the best use of antagonists will mirror this. A great example of an antagonist is then certainly…

… The Joker. This is not just because he is a great character we enjoy seeing on screen, but because he is a refection and commentary on Batman in the same way the hike in Wild is a reflection of Cheryl. In short, The Joker is chaos and Batman is trying to find a balance between order and justice. This is the power an antagonist can hold in a movie, and this is certainly the case with Hartman.

With his commanding voice and 45 minute long monologue, Hartman imbues Full Metal Jacket with thematic conflict as he tries to re-mould these men and turn them into killers. This provides us, the audience, further subtext and thematic textures to be immersed in.

The mastery displayed in the first half of Full Metal Jacket is then a pretty unique one, one that sees every element of narrative and film convey a powerful commanding voice through Hartman. This has many sides to it, all of which imbue story with rich undertones, emotive power and incredible allure that relentlessly entertains whilst commentating on soldiers and war.

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Enter The Dragon – Fight Focus

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Enter The Dragon – Fight Focus

Thoughts On: Enter The Dragon (1973)

For honour, country and family, Lee must enter a deadly fighting competition.

Enter The Dragon

Terrible sound design. Awful acting. Clunky writing. Mediocre direction. Amazing movie.

Enter The Dragon is little more than an undeniably great movie, and though it is formally dated, it maintains some sense of power as a fun picture. This is a result of its approach to the image – one that is focused on icons, spectacle and ‘the cool’. But, whilst this is the resounding strength of Enter The Dragon, it does come with a lot of down-sides. In searching for visionary imagery, everyone working on this film loses a coherent sense of control. This means that the directors, Bruce Lee and Robert Clouse, do not manage their cinematic space or mise-en-scène with much dexterity. With his camera movement and framing, Clouse doesn’t consistently convey clear continuity or the actual surroundings in which action occurs. This leaves scenes confusing and juddering as there’s often too many close-ups and not enough fluid wide shots. Moreover, the cinematic language used in many scenes is not very impactful as it doesn’t always put across emotion, weight, power or tangibility (which is key in action movies). Lee’s direction and choreography of the fight sequences also lacks continuity, fluidity and a musical sense of rhythm that can be seen in later martial arts pictures. Granted, this is an early martial arts film, however, that famous staccato approach to movie action that Lee has isn’t incredibly convincing, nor is it as awe-inspiring as it must have been 45 years ago. Added to this, Allin, the screenwriter, has written a very bland script that does well in its management of character, but is simply cliched and, at some points, laughable.

But, despite this criticism, Enter The Dragon tips the scales with all it does well. This is because, in the simplest words, this is a cool movie – one of the coolest ever made.

The history of action movies is a pretty thin one that gives away to diverging genres until we reach the 60s. In the silent era and early talky period, action films were primarily swashbuckling pictures like Fairbanks’ Robin Hood and The Mark Of Zorro or Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and Captain Blood.

      

Added to this, there has always been Westerns – from The Great Train Robbery to The Iron Horse to Stagecoach to High Noon to The Searchers.

        

And, of course, there has also always been war movies; Intolerance, Battleship Potempkin, Napoleon, All Quiet On The Western Front, Hell’s Angels… ect.

        

But, as will be clear to anyone, none of these action movies are anything like Bruce Lee’s films – nor martial arts movies in general. This is because Hong Kong martial arts films did what few other action movies ever had; they let the fights become the spectacle. This is what separates films like Enter The Dragon from war movies, westerns and even mob pictures with a focus on guns and violence. Said movies all used fights in broad strokes or as plot points…

… or, as in swashbuckling pictures, other genres would be incorporated into the story, genres such as romance and adventure…

… and in such, we saw spectacle and drama born out of a use of violence, not a focus on it. The reason for this was primarily censorship. Movies would have to use violence ‘sensibly’ otherwise they’d be considered gratuitous and never given a release. This was until the 60s, however, when the studio system in Hollywood dissolved and let loose films without the codes, rules and standards of the classical era. This is what eventually lead to the first major, big budget co-production between America and Hong Kong…

What this film emphasised was the ‘art’ of a fight. I believe this focus is what lies at the core of the success of this movie and the genre of the martial arts film. These movies resonate with people because we all have hands…

… and we all have feet…

Conversely, guns…

… tanks…

… swords…

… and historical contexts…

… are often alien to the average person – especially those with the most imagination: kids. This leaves war/adventure films, gangster/western movies and historical pictures on a back foot in comparison to movies where guys are just punching and kicking. There are no gadgets, there are no armies, there are no weapons, there are no secret organisations, there is no historical ambiguity or disconnect. This all means that it’s easier to dream that you’re Bruce Lee than it is to dream that you’re John Wayne or Errol Flynn because martial arts as a basic concept is so much more accessible.

This must have been what the marketers for Enter The Dragon understood as they offered free karate classes and produced a whole array of products and media surrounding this picture before it was ever released. The fruits of this was the huge martial arts craze of the 70s, and what must have added to this was not only the accessibility of martial arts, but of the story and production showcased in the film. What I mean to reference here are the racial undertones of Enter The Dragon. It not only explores oriental culture, but has elements of blaxploitation with Jim Kelly…

Enter The Dragon is even seen as a film with connections to the Black Power movement – as would be evident in the police scene. All of this gives Enter The Dragon an appeal to any and everyone who has that something in them that draws them to action, fighting and standing up to the man.

All of this is what encompasses the idea that this is a cool movie. Cool can mean suave, smooth and unshakable…

… but, more poignantly, cool can simultaneously mean righteously powerful…

It’s these cuts and Lee’s clenched fists that then represent a new focus on what it is to fight in action movie; it’s all about the individual hero physically overcoming adversity with nothing but his body. This is why there’s beauty and tremendous weight to be found in martial arts movies – we are in awe of the raw struggle.

It’s this new focus in Enter The Dragon that acts as the overwhelming substance of the story and film; a substance and essence that overwhelms formal and aesthetic problems with the narrative and picture. And it’s this that is the cause of the excited buzzing sensation you get when watching a Bruce Lee film. With sheer emotive force, the martial arts film hits deep, it took a while for cinematic language to communicate this, but it has always been there – just watch Enter The Dragon if you don’t believe me.

In the end, what are your thoughts? What are your favourite kind of action films?

 

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Vivre Sa Vie – Flippancy~Empathy

Quick Thoughts: Vivre Sa Vie (My Life To Live 1962)

The 12 part story of Nana, a struggling actress who falls into prostitution.

Vivre Sa Vie

Vivre Sa Vie is an iconic Jean-Luc Godard picture that came from the height of his career in the 60s, following films such as Breathless and A Woman Is A Woman. In this picture you see the same play with form that you see in Godard’s other films of this period – everything from rapid editing to gun fire, to the uncalled for static long shots, sudden drawn-out dialogue scenes and, of course, close-ups on the back of characters’ heads. However, whilst Breathless is pretty much a playful movie that acts as something of an anti-tragedy, Vivre Sa Vie means to be much more dramatic in its depiction of a woman falling into prostitution and eventually into tragedy. In fact, comparing titles, Breathless and My Life To Live, you do get a sense of irony when looking at the narratives beyond them. Throughout Breathless Michel has control (as well as quite a bit of luck), he has things go his way and he truly tries to get a grip on what he wants from the world. Nana in My Life To Live faces futility throughout this narrative, and though she tries to take control, repeating variations of the title to herself and others, she doesn’t do much to prevent her descent into tragedy.

However, despite the ingenuity in the direction, the original and unconventional structuring and pieces of great writing, I didn’t enjoy Vivre Sa Vie much. This comes down to said approach to tragedy that Godard takes – it’s ironic, distant and pretty cold.

Flippancy and empathy are two pretty polar emotions when it comes to cinema, character and narrative – and this shows in Vivre Sa Vie. Godard’s directorial approach isn’t very empathetic, yet the tragic, character-centric focus of the narrative really needs an element of sympathy to work. Without this empathy there’s a rift between form and content which left me disconnected from Nana and unable to sink into the story very well, nor care about her plight. In fact, (SPOILERS) I watched her being gunned down in the end with less sympathy than I do seeing Michel killed in the end of Breathless (SPOILERS OVER). What this all points towards is Godard’s use of inaccessible characters and a rather surface formal approach. This is what makes his movies ‘cool’ to so many people; they have so much flash, vibrancy and play in them. But, I’ve never been too attracted to this and so haven’t ever really got into Godard – seeing Vivre Sa Vie hasn’t changed this.

So, when it comes to The French New Wave, Truffaut is always the auteur for me as he demonstrates and entirely more empathetic approach to character and story through films such as Day For Night, Juels Et Jim and The 400 Blows. What are your thoughts though? How do you feel about Vivre Sa Vie? Do you prefer Godard or Truffaut?

 

 

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Toy Story – Computers Are Just Tools

Thoughts On: Toy Story (1995)

The world’s first full-length computer animated film.

Toy Story

Toy Story is one of the most important films ever made for two reasons; one more obvious, the other almost miraculous. The first, more obvious, reason this is such an important film is that it’s the first full-length movie made entirely in a computer. And in such, this film was about 30 years in the making.

The first sophisticated computer generated imagery started in the early 60s with Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad programme.

Sutherland devised a way of drawing and manipulating 2D and 3D shapes with the aid of this gigantic computer and stylus. There were a few other examples of computer animation of this kind in the 60s, but it wasn’t until 1972 when things began to get truly impressive. It was at this time that Ed Catmull and Fred Park (co-founders of Pixar) created a 3D CG hand alongside a few other figures:

The animated feature ‘A Computer Generated Hand’ then signifies a significant progression in CGI that was experimented with and built upon through the 70s and 80s – as can be seen through films like Star Wars and Tron.

It was in the late 80s, however, that John Lasseter began creating short, entirely CG, animated films like Luxo Jr., Tin Toy and Knick Knack.

It’s these shorts that show the development of Lasseter’s style as well as the technological build towards 1995 and…

… Toy Story. Having touched on a very brief history of CGI, it quickly becomes clear that there was a massive technological jump in just 30 years that saw computer animation go from this…

… to this…

And whilst this is incredibly impressive, this isn’t the most significant achievement of Toy Story in my opinion. This is something that I feel John Lasseter tried to put across when talking about the making of this film:

Everybody’s going to notice and talk about the fact that this is the very first computer animated feature film, but the computers are just tools; they didn’t create this picture, it’s the people that created this picture.

It’s this recognition of ‘the people’ that Lasseter makes that really defines why Toy Story is so good – as well as all the other Pixar films to follow. The technology is a significant part of these movies, but its the creative application of the CGI that makes these movies so historically prominent. And this is the almost miraculous reason as to why this film is so significant that I referenced in the beginning. It’s so easy to take technology, use it as an attraction unto itself and let story, character and narrative fall subservient to form. This is certainly what we see in a movie that could have been equally as historically significant as Toy Story:

Avatar brought 3D back into the cinemas and radically improved upon CGI. However, James Cameron didn’t do well in producing anything but a spectacle, people love to moan about CG nowadays and no one is really that fascinated by 3D. Avatar then seemed to set a president for empty spectacle movies where Toy Story certainly did not. And this is why Avatar will be remembered 50 or 100 years down the line, but not like Toy Story. Avatar will be to film students or film lovers in a century or so what Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation is to us now.

Yes, this is a hugely significant film, but, it’s really hard to watch because there is very little substance to the story told. Whilst you have explosions and action scenes to distract you at points, this is simply a dull movie – the same can be said (to a different degree) with Avatar. Lasseter shows an acute understanding of this in Toy Story which explains why it’s the story and characters that live on…

        

… not just the legacy and title of ‘first animated feature film’. And whilst there are a billion more Avatar movies scheduled to come out, who on Earth is actually excited about that? I’m intrigued to see what Cameron thinks he has to do/say with this franchise, but… I don’t know. Ultimately, what are you looking forward to more, Toy Story 4 or the next Avatar?

That said, let’s zoom in on the character and story-centric approach to CG animation that Lasseter has. Starting with a look at Luxo Jr., we can see that Lasseter and his team takes the inanimate and breaths so much life into it.

In this one frame alone we can see this lamp to be playful, curious, yet somewhat nervous. You don’t really see that here…

… you could if you squinted and let your imagination play for a moment, but there is an inherent mundanity and reality in this image. However, there is character and life in Lasseter’s lamp and it is in every minute movement and detail. And in such, you see the aesthetic approach taken in his films – it’s all about the embellishment of the inherently personifiable. A lamp kind of looks like a spine attached to a head and Lasseter forces you to see it as only that in Luxo Jr. Toys, especially to a kid, look like they have something behind their eyes…

… and that spark is what Lasseter allows to consume his animated figures in Toy Story…

This is not just done in the animating process, but the writing process, too. If you look to each and every character in this movie, you see precisely picked traits and characteristics.

Hamm is a piggy bank and so is something of a know-it-all who sits above and controls everyone.

Rex is an awkwardly designed dinosaur with plastic teeth and so is weird, geeky and clumsy – certainly not a blood thirsty tyrannosaur.

Mr. Potato Head is constantly falling apart or being manipulated and so is grumpy and snide.

You see this represented in every scene; just look at the eyes in this image. Rex’s are open and unknowing, Potato Head’s are scrunched up and questioning, Hamm’s eyebrows are raised as he silently assesses. It’s this succinct control over character that makes this film so special. The only critique of characterisation that you could have in this movie is that characters are a bit meaner and don’t have that sense of community that you see in the later movies. However, I’m sure the animators of this film weren’t planning 2 films ahead of them when constructing this story, so we can give them edge there.

Coming back to aesthetics, it’s this attention to detail that really struck me when re-watching this movie as I had memories of a far simpler style. We picked up on this subject of memory when looking at The Jungle Book…

When re-watching this film I was somewhat disheartened to see a lack of detail that I had otherwise assumed was there. The opposite happened when seeing Toy Story, however. I was expecting jarringly clunky movement and textureless rendering with flat, ugly lighting. There are certainly bad bits of animation…

… you see this in many of the sequences with humans, but, for the vast majority of this film, everything holds up. And I say this in the same respect I said Spiderman 2 holds up. The CG isn’t perfect and you can see its flaws, but it develops a style of its own that you accept as an aesthetic from a certain time-period.

Added to this, the direction and camera movement in this movie also blew me away. I’ve never appreciated it before, but we are always forced to see the world from a toy’s point of view. This gives the narrative such great scope and a unique style/perspective. The best scene that depicts this is the opening soldier sequence:

Throughout this sequence, there’s a play with magnitude and scope. One second, we’re at an intimate distance…

… and then the next, we see how the house looms over the tiny figurines…

This both shows the dexterity of the direction and also shines a light on the true genius of this narrative. Not only does it have great characters, not only is it funny, not only is it technologically astounding, but, the concept alone is flawless. Toys coming to life has been done before…

… but not like this. The form and content of this movie support each other perfectly, allowing the childish fantasy of toys actually having a life of their own to truly immerse, which distinguishes Toy Story from all films like it because of its unique capacity to not be human-centric. This is something I’ve moaned about since the blog started and I looked at Batman V Superman…

Far too many ‘fantasy’ blockbusters take the human side of a story and show everything from a person’s perspective. We see this in Transformers…

… The Dark Knight…

… Godzilla…

… and a whole bunch of other blockbusters. All of these movies daren’t let the monsters, superheroes, villains or robot aliens have their own movie. They anchor their titles and draw to characters that needn’t be there. Pixar films in general do not do this. They have an entirely different approach to cinema, one that would make a Transformers movie about Transformers, a Batman movie about Batman, a Godzilla movie about Godzilla… etc.

It’s for these many reasons and more that Toy Story is a great movie. But, the key take away from this film as a historically significant movie is certainly its approach to innovation. Toy Story is not innovation for innovation’s sake; it is innovation so a great story could be told when it otherwise couldn’t be. On a final note, all I’ll then repeat are Lasseter words, computers are just tools.

 

 

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Out Of England 2 – The Boundaries Of Movie Comedy

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Out Of England 2 – The Boundaries Of Movie Comedy

Thoughts On: Out Of England 2: The Stand Up Special (2010)

Ricky Gervais’ second HBO special.

Out Of England II

Before we start, if you don’t like dark comedy, this post probably isn’t for you. Still here? I’ll reiterate, if you don’t think jokes about rape or abuse can be funny, tap out now.

Ok, what I want to talk about today is my favourite joke in Ricky Gervais’ 2010 stand-up special:

What’s so great about this joke is the manner in which it is crafted in respect to its subject matter. In short, this joke is simple misdirection; you’re horrified at the idea of a daughter being molested, but then thrown in a completely different direction when you find out that the father only inquired out of some sadistic pleasure. The simple misdirection is the source of this joke – the fact that Gervais sucks you into a story with one tone and subtext, but then reveals something of the polar opposite. You begin to laugh because you’ve been tricked. The joke is so great, however, because of the magnitude of that misdirection; you can’t get more of a tonal jump than that between a father’s ultimate nightmare and the sick response played out.

There are a trillion examples of misdirection in stand-up comedy and you will also find plenty in cinema too. However, could this Rick Gervais joke be filmmed and still be funny?

My answer is a definitive, no. This is simply because of the authorial control a filmmaker doesn’t have. Gervais can perform this bit and get a laugh, in large part, because of his body language and set-up. He sets up the joke by telling someone off-stage to start the car, he then takes a swig of beer and reluctantly begins the joke with the smug grin of a naughty child. This says to the audience that something is coming, that they better get ready for misdirection. And in such Gervais uses a performance trick that is especially prevalent with ‘magicians’. Like David Blaine may, he says, with body language and in subtext, that, “I’m about to trick you”. In response, you tighten up and say, “good luck”. Waiting for the card to show up on your back pocket, looking to see a sleight of hand, you watch a magic trick like you hear a joke… but you never see the punch line coming and the card always ends up in your back pocket somehow.

A filmmaker doesn’t have such a dexterous ability to slip cards into back pockets or even warn an audience of misdirection in such an acute way because they frame a story and capture reality (constructed or otherwise), they do not necessarily write the story with the camera and they do not paint the painting of each frame. What I mean to suggest here is that a camera does not narrate a story like a comedian or writer can. There is a silence to which your bound to when your tools of communication are at such distance as they are in cinema. A comedian uses all of his or her biological tools to communicate – voice and body. A writer cannot use their body, nor any real presence, but they can imply this with direct symbols that humans have grown to understand in-parallel to speech – written words. An image doesn’t have that intuitive communicative power that a word does. Paint a picture…

… you’ve got a thousand words. What exactly are those words? Well, maybe you don’t have a thousand words, instead an infinite set of variable and subjective interpretations. Cinema takes this idea much further, however, as there isn’t just one image to decipher, but millions – which build into shots, scenes, set-pieces and sequences.

This is why a filmmaker hasn’t got the same authorial control as a stand-up comic. Furthermore, this is why Gervais can tell this joke, but if you where to just let it play out on screen… I don’t know how you’d pull that off.

However, what do I know? A cinematic version of this joke may be possible. I don’t know how the tonal jump would be communicated with someone acting out the father and daughter. I don’t know how you’d convey the right mood with cinematic language. I don’t know how you’d use sound, how you’d set this up, and how the image won’t take over. This is because, when visualising the girl actually talking to her dad, not just Gervais playing the two out, you are forced to see the reality of the joke. As suggested in the beginning, the art and purpose of this joke is misdirection, it is not to belittle and laugh at a girl that’s just had a stranger whip his dick out in front of her. Even saying “a stranger whip his dick out in front of her” can sound somewhat comedic because they’re just words floating about in your head. But, would you see the comedy in the cinematic depiction of this or if it played out in front of you as you walked through a park?

What all of this says about cinema is that, whilst the filmmaker is held at a distance from the telling of the story and so doesn’t have much authorial power, he/she does work with a form that is so readily real and close to people. In such, the image speaks for itself, quite articulately, which is why a filmmaker doesn’t have so much control. There is no image as Gervais talks, we see him and we hear a very weak description of his story. After all, if Gervais was to describe the green-eyed girl with clean streaks running down her grubby cheeks – tears that washed away dirt; if he was to tell us about her nervous nature, timid spirit and naive intrigue; if he were to make the girl a character, not just a theme or subject, the joke probably wouldn’t work. He would create sympathy for her and, if he described the oafish father reading his paper in nothing but his dressing gown and a three-day-old skin suite of unshowered grime, then we’d have antagonists, bad guys, protagonists… and things are getting way too complicated. I think this is why the most out-there kinds of movie comedy are actually animated cartoons…

An animator has a lot more control over the humanisation of character and so controls exactly what an image may say. Imagine for example a live action South Park episode. How much would you hate Cartman? How terrible would the jokes be? Where would the timing and harmlessness of this style go?

The closest you can get to live action comedy that is this dark, yet this successful, is fail videos and memes. In these formats, real life is reduced to a punchline – there are no characters, the context is simple and BAM… everything is over so quickly. It’s then clearly the empathy that movies project through their complex imagery that truly curbs their comedy. But, could you get rid of this to dissolve boundaries?

I think this question is the one that may open up the door to a filmmaker trying to produce a comedy as dark and as funny as this Ricky Gervais joke. It would take something of an exploitation approach and it’d be incredibly difficult, but, what are your thoughts? Do you think there are insurmountable boundaries to comedic cinema? Or do you think they may be hurdled?

 

 

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