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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King Arthur – A Downtrodden Masterpiece

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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

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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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End Of The Week Shorts #27

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

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Shorts #27

Today’s Shorts: Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Cadillac Records (2008), Fever (1921), The Madness Of Dr. Tube (1915), The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928), Pather Panchali (1955), Blacula (1972)

It’d be an understatement to say that I saw this film in undesirable conditions. Slightly tired, I sat in a stiflingly hot theatre to watch this and was almost pushed to the point of hallucination (I was seeing three vibrating screens at one point), before shamelessly falling asleep for 30 minutes. So, suffice to say that my brain wasn’t functioning at optimum capacity. However, from what I gathered (and I think I did relatively ok), I can say that Blade Runner 2049 was a pretty good movie. I won’t put down any solid opinions, but this movie looked great – though I wouldn’t say it was awe-inspiring – and it relied heavily on cinematic storytelling, which is to be expected from Villeneuve. On the negative side, this was a little slow and didn’t have much of a subtextual punch. But, and this is a big but, I missed a 30 minute chunk in the middle.

All in all, not a huge fan of the original Blade Runner, but, I feel a re-watch of both that and this is, in all fairness, due.

Cadillac Records is a pretty good movie that looks back at a few momentous events and characters of music history with a good degree of sentimentality and romance. In such, this is focused on the emergence of black musicians, such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James, from Chicago who gained world-wide success and notoriety in the 50s, and would subsequently go onto influence generations of musicians who, in many respects–sometimes literally–stole their music.

As a film, this is good, but not worth writing home about. The story is solid, though nothing special; a take on the ‘white guy/woman goes into a black neighbourhood to make things better’ story with some degree of self-awareness and social commentary. Whilst this doesn’t amount to much, the music certainly makes this movie recommendable; Beyoncé as Etta James is particularly excellent. All in all, if you’re in the mood for a light story, but some great music, this is a film worth giving a watch.

Fever is a tremendous – even quintessential – impressionist film. Light on story, deep on emotions, this is an invite into the body and minds of a sailor and a past lover that is entirely situated in a bar in which a fight breaks out.

The qualities of this film are decidedly in your hands; you must choose to step into these characters, to keep up with the pure, sometimes abstract, narrative, and to feel their emotions as they may be. In essence, the photogénie – the formal elements of this film that heightened the moral value of its narrative structures – are certainly there to be witness, but are required to be met half way. Stepping into this film with such intentions makes this a beautiful and highly affecting – though not necessarily deeply profound – experience. For that, I urge you to give this a go.

A whimsical early short film from Abel Gance about a mad scientist that discovers a hallucinatory powder that distorts reality.

Very reminiscent of Porter’s 1906 film Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend, this is a highly impressionist trick film with elements of comedy and horror. Whilst Porter achieves his impressionistic effects through editing, Gance’s camera work is all very tactile and in-camera: he uses mirrors to distort reality and give the sensation of hallucinatory inebriation.

This all comes together to produce a mostly comedic, part sinister, absurd comedy that leaves almost more questions that it does raise any points. So, though this film lesser than Porter’s film, which is almost a decade older than this, I’d recommend The Madness of Dr. Tube.

A stunning masterpiece of silent cinema, one that feels very much so like Murnau’s expressionist Nosferatu and Dreyer’s abstract, sometimes surreal, Vampyr thanks to its gothic story structure (adapted from a short story of Edgar Allen Poe’s) and general experimental aesthetics. Added to this, this film seemingly preempts those of Jean Cocteau as you can feel temporal elements of Blood Of The Poet within this. Much more strikingly, however, is the influence that this must have had on his grand masterpiece: Beauty and the Beast. The use of slow-motion, the concentration on emotions and the inner psyches of characters in a highly complex story (that is essentially a tragedy that reverses Sleeping Beauty) constructs a fantastical veil to be entirely lost in, despite this have very little plot in contrast to a film such as Beauty and the Beast.

A masterpiece in regards to experience and aesthetics, The Fall of the House of Usher is plainly awe-inspiring. Not all will be able to immerse themselves into this, but those who can will be blown away.

Considered one of the, if not the, greatest Indian and Bengali films ever made, Pather Panchali (or, Song of the Little Road) is devastatingly brilliant. Moreover, this is a strong candidate for the best directorial debut ever made.

A key film that was apart of the early Parallel Cinema movement – a stream of realist films that are quite antithetical to classical Bollywood movies – this explores poverty, youth and the weight of ancestry and the caste system on a family. Shot, directed and performed masterfully, almost every single frame of this film is picture-perfect. And above this Ray’s capturing of textures, lights, reflections, nature and animals is truly stunning. With this film as a melting pot for so many individually phenomenal elements, Pather Panchali is ultimately awe-inspiring in such a way that your just left speechless.

Blacula, one of the most iconic blaxploitation movies ever made, was nowhere near as bad as I thought is was going to be. Nonetheless, this is not a very good movie at all. The dialogue is clunky, the action isn’t too good and the direction loses focus – but, if a focus was sustained, this would have been the most impressive element of the film. There are, however, many immersive sequences and the film itself is entertaining enough as a ‘black horror’ (a genre of film which this pioneered).

The biggest downfall of this movie is simply that it isn’t very clever. There is an attempted commentary on slavery and racial tension in post-Civil Rights America, but this is predicated on a romanticisation of African kings that is, in all likelihood, historically incorrect. So, a weak advocation of black power and unity amongst black people, Blacula doesn’t work incredibly well on any level, but, is, in many regards, passable.


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Grave Of The Fireflies – Flickering Lights

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Bandit Queen – Rage

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Grave Of The Fireflies – Flickering Lights

Thoughts On: Grave Of The Fireflies (火垂るの墓, 1988)

After losing his mother after a firebombing in WWII, a young boy becomes responsible for his younger sister.

As devastating as it is confounding, Grave Of The Fireflies is a staunch animated masterpiece that refuses to be described in simple terms. In such, this is not necessarily an anti-war film, nor is this a plain tragedy, rather, in many respects this is a complex allegory about responsibility for the modern day audiences.

Grave Of The Fireflies is Isao Takahata’s first Ghibli film (Takahata and Miyazaki would release their films alternately, year after year, until the 2000s) and was adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka’s short story of the same name. Nosaka based his story, in part, on his experience living with his adopted family during WWII – in which his adopted father and one of his two sisters, who was only two-years-old, died of malnutrition. The story was in fact written as a way for Nosaka to reconcile with the loss of his sister, and later became required reading in Japanese schools. In many ways, Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies is a synthesis of what was in Nosaka’s book as well as what wasn’t and Takahata’s own motivations to tell the story. Much of this was articulated in a talk between the writer and director in Animerica Magazine. Here is a very inciteful two-page extract:

The full article can be found here. As Nosaka picks up on, Grave Of The Fireflies combines an ironic idealism with devastation. We see this in the descent from prosperity that Seita and Setsuko make into complete destitution. Moreover, we see this in the collision of naivety and war. From this thematic juxtaposition, Takahata seems to disillusion his audience as well as provide some hopeful shades of reality. In such, he provides a narrative about the humanity of the war-time generations of Japanese people. Earlier in this article, he suggests that those born outside of this era assume a significant distance between themselves and those who lived through the 40s. With the juxtaposition of naivety, war, prosperity and destitution, Takahata proposes an alternate perspective by essentially projecting a “double-suicide”. This, he seems to feel, resonates with his times as it does not emphasise themes of stoicism, honour and responsibility, rather, much more human flaws in emotionally lead characters. He then cites the scene in which Seita chooses to leave his aunt’s home as opposed to endure the infuriating conditions that she imposes upon him and his sister. This act of independence is, arguably, what kills Seita and Setsuko, and thus we can understand the implications of a double-suicide. However, there is a debate that underlies this action; was it for the better or for the worse that Seita left his aunt’s house?

This is an incredibly difficult question to answer, so much so that it leads us to rather see a commentary on the ironic conception of ‘unity’ that is held by Seita’s aunt. This commentary may be in direct reference to the “neighbourhood programme”, which had people report on their neighbours’ unpatriotic behaviours during wartime as well as cooperate, that Takahata mentions. And so, through irony, there flourishes a sense of division in the country. However, there are multiple instances of irony throughout this film. Two of the strongest implications come with the opening.

Here, a passerby gives Seita food so that the Americans, presumably, won’t see poverty in Japan. This would be a patriotic effort to present Japan as a strong country. However, to only care about other Japanese people, in turn Japan, for the sake of facade is unambiguously ironic.

Here, too, we have a very subtle implication of irony. What we see here is a janitor practising his baseball pitch with Seita’s deeply symbolic piece of memorabilia: Setsuka’s tin of candy. This is not just a highly dehumanising moment, but a projection of American culture. This may be a somewhat anachronistic piece of commentary as baseball was introduced to Japan in the 70s, but what we nonetheless see here is, again, the ironic neglect and disrespect of ones own country and people.

Another example of this comes when Seita is robbing homes during air raids and cheers on the bombers as they allow him to scratch his living. And with these multiple instance of irony, we see suggested a deeper rift in Japanese culture that emphasises disconnection. We can understand this to be a device that is possibly used by Takahata to disillusion modern audiences, but also to further construct a confounding narrative. What Grave Of The Fireflies can then be seen to be mining into is the famous saying: Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep and you weep alone. And, of course, this image from Oldboy sums such a saying up better than anything else:

Staying on track, however, this pessimistic sentiment is deeply embedded into this narrative with a caveat. In such, there is focus on the idea that “Laugh and people will laugh with you; Weep and you weep alone”. This is what we see suggested with the multiple instances of ironic discommunity and division. With people as those that neglect, those that laugh with you, but turn their back when tragedy strikes in Grave Of The Fireflies, there is a parallel implication that the world remains there for you. And this certainly can be seen to be true with the symbol of the firefly that is used throughout the narrative. In the article above, Nosaka touches on the fact that lights were beginning to turn back on when his sister died; restrictions were being lifted, which implied peace. Further to this, Nosaka notes his confusion in this time of light, a time that proceeded his rapid maturation in a time of deep darkness. This mirrors the sentiment that civilisation can be neglectful; that people can laugh with you, but leave you weeping. So, with fireflies being a clear light in Seito’s period of darkness, we see nature providing some kind of a safety net or respite where people outside of their shrinking family circle do not.

The nature that is referenced here may, however, be a projection of naivety, or, rather, a childish perspective. To a child’s eyes, a firefly can be like magic. And it’s through our two main characters embracing naivety and having fun that all the levity of this narrative is found (look to the beach scene or the multiple instances in which Seito and Setsuka play and laugh). The nature, the firefly, which serves as the only respite of this narrative then seems to symbolise the independence of the faulted Seito and Setsuka. The firefly – hope and meaning in darkness – for them is difficult to grasp, and if it is squeezed to hard, the light is extinguished and the firefly is squished. This is the perfect allegory for their struggle. However, when we realise that fireflies all die very soon, a tragic end is foreshadowed. Just like fireflies – respite in darkness; hope; meaning – quickly die out, so do Seito and Setsuka. For city lights to flicker back on during this time encapsulates wholly the idea that “Laugh and people will laugh with you; Weep and you weep alone”. And I believe such a concept underlies the devastating tone of this film. Through this, we then have a story about an attempt to survive independently that results in a mortal inability to be self-sufficient. And this resonates with modern anxieties (just as much in the industrially developing Japan of the 80s as in any other highly developed country today) as there seems to be a general fear of independence and failure in young people floating in the zeitgeist. We can understand this to stem from the ever-developing competitiveness of job markets, the growing redundancy of university and higher education and the general weight that can be imposed upon people in technologically developed cultures.

It may then be us who look back to older times and think of greater unity amongst communities, maybe a stronger will within the people of the past who managed to fight for their living, that may then be disillusioned by this film. By seeing failure in the past as Takahata puts it on screen in Grave Of The Fireflies, we see a fear of, and struggle for, independence and self-sufficiency that is universal throughout history. What this then evokes is a profound sense of melancholy and anxiety. However, though this film is a tragedy, the subtle implication that light can be found in darkness, that the firefly exists in nature, seems to inject sweetness into the bitterness of life. So, just as Setsuka became Seito’s source of meaning despite her quite possibly burdening him as Nosaka’s sister did him, our own sense of meaning and drive may become a light for us, too, however burdensome and heavy it may seem to be.

Ultimately, however, all natural lights die out – no matter how long artificial sources burn on. As devastating as this is, there is always respite in the fact that the light may have once shone brightly. And such seems to lie at the heart of this film; there is no real optimism, but there also isn’t pure nihilism or pessimism in this film either; there just seems to be a highly affecting portrayal of life that, somehow, makes being seem incredibly precious.



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Every Year In Film #26 – Dream Of The Moon

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Every Year In Film #26 – Dream Of The Moon

Thoughts On: Dream Of The Moon (Rêve à la Lune, 1905)

Today we explore the films of Ferdinand Zecca in relation to the French film company, Pathé.

Whilst we have tried to cast a wide net so far in the series, looking at a vast variety of topics, filmmakers and even focusing on the emergence of cinema in Japan, we have clearly been centred on three countries: Britain, America and France. This, whilst predictable, is for good reason. Cinema emerged, almost simultaneously, from these three countries (we could include Germany into this, too). Whilst some of the earliest innovations came from Britain and America – most notably through figures such as Muybridge, Le Prince, Greene and, of course, all of those working under Edison – today, we find ourselves back in France to look at Pathé. Moreover, this post will be focused on a critical period of cinema’s expansion which can be largely credited to this company alone.

As we have explored previously, the birth of commercialised cinema can be attributed to Edison’s Manufacturing Company. Edison’s company was the first to mass produce films and spread their invention across the world via the Kinetoscope. However, a mere two years after this begun, it was 1895 and the Lumières presented significant competition to Edison – a competition that was so significant and revolutionary that we now attribute the ‘official’ birth of cinema to the Lumières and not Edison–nor the Skladanowskys, Le Prince, Marey, Muybridge, etc. for that matter. So, after Edison’s company pioneered mass produced cinema, the Lumières and Méliès’ Star Film company pretty much took over. So, initially, the world-leading film industries came from France, and America followed them. This remained true all the way up until the WWI era, which saw the rise of Hollywood, which, we must remember, is still humble homes, fields and orange ranches in 1905.

Around the turn of the century, film was of course becoming ever more increasingly a business. The entire industry was expanding with more and more significant studios and companies emerging. This was putting an end to the ‘cottage industry’, and was shutting out new inventors and entrepreneurs due to the specialising market which was ran by, to a significant degree, patents; you had to own and protect your products – everything from film stock to cameras to studios to employees to your final film. Added to this, you needed a lot of financial backing to begin with and then business ties that could give you access to distribution and exhibition. As a result, when we look to the leading companies at this point – Edison’s, the Lumières’ and Méliès’ – we see three figures who not only got an early start in the industry, but had previous businesses that they could utilise to build their company – and this was true of Pathé, too. With a company such as Biograph in America, which didn’t have a pre-existing infrastructure like, for example, Edison did, they secured strong backing with their new invention – which was, for a period, daunting competition for Edison, who had not yet fully moved into projection, rather, was quite reliant on his Kinetoscopes. So, what we see in the late 1890s are companies emerging thanks to their technology and capabilities of financially supporting its advent.

As the years passed, however, the quality of products became ever more essential. For instance, Edison had to improve upon, and move past, his Kinetoscope and compete with the technology of Biograph, Vitagraph and the Lumières. However, with the emergence of Méliès around 1896, the quality of films themselves began to become ever more important. As a result street scenes and simple vaudeville acts were falling out of favour around the 1900s, which saw the initial rise of narrative films and the evolution of trick films – which itself contributed to the complexification of narratives, leading to parallel editing, superimposition and various other techniques that would start to become ‘cinematic language’.

It was in this period of evolution in which cinema began to resemble an art of its own and not a novel trick (cinema becoming an art is still, arguably, quite some time away, however). And in this era of change, Pathé rose to dominance. After all, though France remained a leading force in the international market until WWI as they competed with Denmark, it was not the Lumières and Méliès that represented France after the turn of the century. Rather, it was Gaumont and the iconic rooster of Pathé. (Let us not forget that Lumières withdrew from the film industry in 1905 as they believed that the invention was a mere novelty with no future).

What Gaumont and Pathé did to dominate the international market was, in essence, know their markets better than any other company. In such, they didn’t just make a variety of high quality films that audiences wanted to see, but they marketed themselves world-wide and spread into various international markets to develop deep roots that, for example, considering British Pathé, still last to this day.

On the note of British Pathé, one of the most influential and important products that Pathé produced were their newsreels. (And these days, British Pathé mostly serve to be a huge archive of this news material containing 85,000 clips stretching between 1910 and 1970). Whilst this is a significant part of Pathé’s history as they did ‘invent’ the newsreel (of course, street scenes and snapshots of life pre-exist the newsreel, which Pathé began to make between 1908 and 1911, but it was Pathé who coined the term and exhibited documentary shorts under such a name) we will not be delving into them today. This is because the newsreels rose after 1910 and so didn’t play a part in Pathé initially becoming the first global film infrastructure. What we will instead be focusing on today is one of the most significant narrative filmmakers who worked for Pathé around the mid-1900s: Ferdinand Zecca.

Zecca was raised in a family with connections to the entertainment world of Paris in the later decades of the 1900s. Different sources will suggest variations on Zecca’s father’s connection to the entertainment industry – some sources suggest he was a concierge, some a stage director and others a mere caretaker, later a stagehand chief, of the Théâtre de l’Ambigu. Nonetheless, following his father into the entertainment business, Zecca would become a café entertainer. It was in this period of his life that he came into contact with Gamount through its founder, Léon.

Pathé, originally Société Pathé Frères (Pathé Brothers Company), was founded in 1896. The brothers of Pathé Frères were Charles, Émile, Théophile and Jacques. However, Jacques is not considered to have played a significant part of the company. Rather, it was Charles and Émile who were central to operations whilst Théophile, the youngest, worked on the periphery and wasn’t really trusted by Charles and Émile. So, unlike the Lumières, who shared all of their patents, married two sisters and even lived in a symmetrical mansion built by their father, the Pathé brothers weren’t so unified. Nonetheless, though the company was founded in 1896, the focus was phonographs for the early years. It was Edison’s phonograph that in fact inspired Charles, who had struggled in various other businesses for many years, to begin Pathé. He would have also seen Edison’s Kinetoscope (which he would, in 1895, sell counterfeit versions of) and, in 1897, the company would be re-structured to begin producing and distributing films. It is around this time (1898) that Zecca would then be entering the film industry through their competitor, Gaumont, which was established in 1895 and would soon see – as we explored before in the series – Alice Guy-Blaché, Léon Gaumont’s secretary, begin making films.

As the Société Pathé Frères was growing, not just producing phonograph material (which Émile managed), but also film and film equipment (which Charles managed), they changed their name to Compagnie Générale des Établissements Pathé Frères Phonographes & Cinématographes (CGPC). The year after this, Zecca would make his first film for Pathé, seemingly leaving Gaumont where he was an actor. This first film is said to have been an experiment in sound. (Little coherent detail of Zecca’s start in the business seems available). However, at this point, Pathé was far from a successful company – especially its cinematic branch. Around the turn of the century, the company was expanding and beginning to produce a flow of titles, which were predominantly imitations of other peoples’ work. Zecca played his hand in this, re-creating British films after having gained the trust of Charles and become a key player in the company.

With Zecca coming aboard the developing company, Charles could turn away from the actual production of film and focus his attention on marketing. Meanwhile, we can imagine that Zecca was taking care of the creative side of production. In such, he would contribute to the development of the various series, or genre films, that the company would begin to produce.

Pathé produced various kinds of films; the basic street scenes, dances and acrobatic acts; the expected comedic scenes, trick films and fairy tales; the hush-hush stag films (soft-porn); added to this were dramatic, religious and historical scenes as well as further experiments with sound and more. Zecca would have made films of all kinds. There seems to be no clear figures, but he is estimated to have made and supervised the production of 100s, if not 1000s, of pictures. Unfortunately, and we should all be more than used to this now, few of his films survive to this day. Of the 100s that he would have made, under 100 are listed in his filmography and only 2 dozen (at best) are readily available online. It is then hard to get a true picture of Zecca’s abilities, but we can nonetheless find many impressive films of his between 1901 and 1909. And before we begin, it should be noted that Zecca would go on to make a few feature-length films after 1910. We won’t stray too far beyond our time bubble, however, and so won’t be getting into these.

One of Zecca’s most iconic films, which we have in fact picked up on before, is one of his most devilish: What Is Seen Through A Keyhole.

As impressive as this film is due to its manipulation of perspective, Zecca stole this film – much like he plagiarised many others in his first few years of production. The original film, which was from 1897, was made by American Mutoscope and was so influential that it lead to the coining of the term “What the Butler Saw”. This described a variety of erotic films that, like this, featured someone spying on a woman getting dressed. However, the original film, Peeping Tom, and the varieties of it that Mutoscope made seem to be lost. What stands in their place is then Zecca’s rip-off, which is often confused for the original film.

Despite the clear ethical issues that we would perceive when watching this film, plagiarism of this sort was, of course, incredibly common around the turn of the century. What this is then a signal of is Zecca learning from his contemporaries – granted, he shouldn’t be profiting from this, but we’re in the industrial wild west in certain respects when we look back to this era.

With Zecca ‘learning’ from his contemporaries, his skill as a filmmaker developed quickly. Moreover, much like Segundo de Chomón – who Zecca worked with on many occasions – he was apart of a community of filmmakers that were developing amongst one another. Added to this, however, Zecca would be developing in respect to market demands. This is what Méliès, especially as he got deeper into his career, neglected. As a result, we will see Zecca commit to creating a variety of films that constantly take new steps forward. An impressive step of this kind would come when Zecca made his most famous film, Histoire d’un crime, History of a Crime:

Whilst this wouldn’t be the first graphic and realistic film depicting violence (we could refer to Méliès’ Dreyfus Affair serial), Zecca certainly comes to define the realist social drama around the early to mid 1900s. After all, there is genuine drama and character in this short. Whilst the characterisation is certainly far from deep, there is complexity given to this narrative with the flash back. And though this is reminiscent of G.A Smith’s Santa Clause from 1898 with its use of superimposition and distant mise en scène which is utilised to create that thought bubble…

… because of the clear motivation given to the bandit, this is one of the earliest examples of a genuinely dramatic film that you can find. So, when we come to the execution – and, apparently, this film would have been stopped so that children could leave the screening at this point when this was released – the verisimilitude and drama that has thus far been built up contribute to an affecting moment. This in turn introduces an implication of artistry that would so far seem ironic to attribute to Zecca. But, nonetheless, the social drama was certainly where Zecca excelled.

We see another example of surprisingly strong drama in an early narrative film with Les Victimes de L’Alcoolisme, Alcohol and Its Victims.

As in History of a Crime, Zecca brings about drama and complex characterisation through his depiction of real social issues treated with some degree of nuance (just as the criminal in History of a Crime is given a positive side, so is the alcoholic of this film). This is, in fact, the most striking film that Zecca made in my view. With the opening we see an uncharacteristically subdued and realist scene. With the alive and moving mise en scène in the kitchen, the static and distant framing works wonders; we get to watch a scene unfold as if Zecca had considered utilising close-ups, but chose not to as to capture a genuine atmosphere in the house. (We can’t, however, assume this to be true). Nonetheless, the opening scene of this film is immersive and a critically true moment that paints the family with empathetic hues which, as we see drama and conflict flourish in the somewhat melodramatic later scenes, gives the film weight and clout to drive home the clear social commentary on the effects alcoholism.

With Alcohol and Its Victims marking a height in his social drama filmography, when we look to a few other dramas of Zecca’s, they do pale in comparison. Look, for example, to Un Horrible Cauchemar, A Horrible Nightmare…

In this film we see a guy smoking opium and then dreaming that he wakes up in prison. At first this seems to be a short in the same vein as Alcohol and Its Victims with Zecca possibly condemning or warning his audience about smoking opium, but, instead, he follows the route of a basic trick film reminiscent of earlier work of his that utilises dreams – such as Dream and Reality. In such, there seems to be comedic relief with the man waking up and continuing to smoke. Maybe there is a message here, one that comments on the fact that the smoker won’t change and will end up in prison. But, with the title of the film and the brevity of the ending, Zecca certainly fails in constructing a cohesive narrative here as he does in his stronger social dramas.

Without wanting to put Zecca into one box, he also made many adaptations that capture the spectacle and grandeur of the early Pathé colour films. We see this with his One Thousand and One Nights adaptation, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, as well as an adaptation of Faust, The Seven Castles of the Devil. However, it is certainly Zecca’s 45 minute religious epic (epic in regards to 1903), that trumps these adaptations.

Though this is over 40 minutes, The Life and Passion of Christ isn’t generally considered a feature-length film as it was sold to exhibitors in sections. Moreover, this isn’t a completely unique endeavour as, in the same year, an American company, Lubin, created a 60 minute biblical epic. And later on, Alice Guy-Blaché, for Gaumont, would also create a very similar film that pushed the 30 minute mark. However, whilst Guy made her film three years after Zecca, this film is, in many ways, a greater technological triumph. Whilst there is a chance that her film was coloured, there are no available prints of Guy’s film that are, the partial colouration plays a significant part in this film. And whilst Guy’s mise en scéne certainly rivals Zecca’s, his camera work and special effects are mightily impressive. If we look to the controlled, smooth pans alone which progress the narrative and open up the environment, we see Zecca making technological improvements on even Porter – whose pans in The Great Train Robbery are, whilst more audacious, clunky. Added to this, Zecca’s expressive close-up that features the phrase “Ecce Homo” (meaning “behold the man”) is particularly striking – maybe as much as the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.

Ultimately, though The Life and Passion of Christ is certainly very antiquated and slow, this remains a hugely impressive example of a grand adaptation.

It is these adapted films that we can imagine Pathé producing for markets sales. Adaptations have always meant big business and the fact that Pathé and Zecca worked together to produce high quality and very lucrative narratives speaks a lot to the company’s growing success. After all, by 1903, Pathé had acquired the Lumières’ patents for the cinematographe, and were improving the designs of their studio cameras. Simultaneous to this, Pathé, from 1902, began expanding into the international market, setting up branches and cinemas in London, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, New York, Moscow and even in Japan and Australia. It was then in this period, especially around the mid 1900s, that Pathé became the world’s first world-wide film industry. And though they didn’t have the largest studios in the world (at this point Gaumont did), they would be producing, after 1905, the most films per year in the whole world – by 1908, Pathé was making almost 4 times as many films as Biograph and twice as many as Selig, who, in the beginning of the decade would be making 100s more films than Pathé. So, whilst we, of course, cannot contribute this only to Zecca, we can understand that his involvement in Pathé’s expansion was significant – especially after 1905 when he would stand as the Managing Director for the company and so oversee the production of, as mentioned, 100s, if not 1000s, of films.

To come back to Zecca’s filmography, over his years, he had been developing his ability to work with special effects. We can see this with what is often referred to as the first ever aviation film, The Conquest of the Air, in which Zecca himself flies over a city on a strange contraption. Added to this, by 1904, Zecca was expanding his cinematic language. As we saw in The Life and Passion Of Christ, he was beginning to insert medium close-ups into his narratives, and this would continue with a comedic film shot fully in a medium shot, Le Mitron. This all leads us up to our subject for today, Rêve à la Lune, Dream of the Moon (a.k.a. L’amant de la Lune, Moon Lover).

Within this short, we see a return to the theme of alcoholism. However, inebriated subjects were often the source of comedy and spectacle in these early shorts, and would set a tradition that figures such as Chaplin would capitalise on in around a decade from now. Zecca doesn’t just find comedy through his drunk protagonist here (which he plays himself), but also fantasy that is, of course, reminiscent of the most famous film of this age, A Trip To The Moon. And its the blending fantasy, comedy and the dream that gives this narrative a memorable edge. (It should be noted that Pathé and Méliès are indeed in competition with one another; Pathé would even make Excursion to the Moon in 1908 before, a few years later, bankrupting and, eventually, taking the studio of the cine-magician).

The most impressive shot of Dream of the Moon, however, (beyond the iconic lamp swinging) has to be the ascending tracking shot that follows Zecca as he climbs up a building. It was not too rare, especially in the later films of Zecca and Chomón, to see a camera placed looking down on subjects to give the illusion that they, for instance, climb up buildings or on one another. However, in this short, it is clear that Zecca is actually climbing the building as the flower pot falls down and there’s an obvious gravitational pull that suggests he’s climbing a vertical face. How exactly this shot was managed, I cannot find any information on, but, it is nonetheless incredibly striking to see this emerge from 1905 as yet another marker of Zecca’s evolution as he works in collaboration with another Pathé auteur, Gaston Velle.

Moving ahead in his career, Zecca would continue to produce impressive and highly influential films. If we look to another later fantasy film of his, The Pearl Fisherman from 1907, we can see more tracking shots incorporated into the landscape of the narrative and used to progress the story and see spectacle unfold. This is a significant piece of cinematic language and a progression in technological ability.

Still working in close collaboration with his contemporaries at Pathé, Zecca teams up with Chomón again to work on a striking trick film:

Capturing the tone and feel of the famous Fantômas serial films with its devious main character, The Invisible Thief manages to outclass the later films in certain respects thanks to its technological innovation. As with many other of Zecca’s films there’s not much information on the production. However, we could imagine that Chomón and Zecca would use a similar process to that which the special effects team of the 30s film, The Invisible Man, would use. In such, they’d likely have had their actor dressed in a black suite and shot against a black background (which was a very well established trick by now). When this shot was superimposed into the scene we see, our main character would, of course, appear to be invisible. To see this combined with stop-motion in a film 20 years older than The Invisible Man says enough in and of itself.

The final film we will touch on represents something somewhat ironic for Zecca. Whilst he would have started his career ripping off other filmmakers, and to a degree that his films would sometimes overshadow the originals, the same thing would be done to him later in his career. To anyone aware of early Hollywood films, The Policemen’s Little Run, should then seem very familiar.

Considered the first slapstick chase film, The Policemen’s Little Run is the film that Mack Sennett would have stolen from to create his incredibly famous and iconic Keystone Cop films. As the documentary series, ‘Hollywood’, narrated by James Mason, suggests, Sennett was supposedly embarrassed by all the acclaim that he gathered from his early comedy films. He would then admit that he stole his first ideas from Pathé, which clearly implies this film by Zecca. But, the Americans stealing from the French around the 1910s is not very surprising. As we have touched upon many times already, Pathé was a leading force in this period. Not only were they able to market and distribute their films world-wide, but their filmmakers were ingenious and, in many respects, far ahead of what other filmmakers were doing.

It is then incredibly important to see how influential the French filmmakers were in this early period. Studios like Pathé would play a clear role in inspiring and shaping pre-WWI Hollywood just like the Lumières and Méliès shaped early French cinema. In understanding aspects of American cinema in this way, you can easily grow to see that, though American cinema remained one of the most influential forces after WWI, they themselves were greatly influenced by, in particular, European cinema. So, not only would they steal from French films (and let us not disregard the fact that French films would also be distributed throughout the country), but, it was highly common to see European filmmakers make their way over to Hollywood. We only have to consider monolithic figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, F.W Murnau, Eric von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch who all worked in silent era Hollywood during their careers, but originated from Europe.

Seeing cinema as this international network that would continually expand as the decades passed is precisely what gives you a greater picture of film history and cinema itself. We cannot forget, however that the initial internationalisation of cinema comes all the way back to this early 1902-1905 era in which Pathé became the first world-wide film company with figures such as Velle, Chomón and Zecca leading the creative charge.

Before I let you go, I’ll note that sections of the book Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking by Al Williams were incredibly helpful in writing this post. Also, the essay by John Silver, “The first global entertainment company: Explaining Pathé’s dominance in the pre-Hollywood film industry“, was the inspiration for this essay. So, for more information, certainly check out those sources if you can.



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