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Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
As Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times begins, we see crowds of men making their way through the bustling crowd in order to check in on time at their respective jobs. Then we are shown a factory manager working on a jigsaw puzzle at his leisure, observing his staff, occasionally dictating their activity through large screens spread through the workplace – even in the washroom. Yes, even when the little tramp tries to have a moment of privacy in the men’s room, he is interrupted and forced to get back to work. The manager’s voice will be one of the only we hear in this film; a “talkie” in the spirit of the silent film, which is appropriate as this is a film about industrialization in the spirit of humanity.
Of course, we can take utter delight in the film’s breathtaking hilarity. As the little tramp is used as a guinea pig for an innovative device designed to feed employees while they work, complete with a bowl of soup with an automated blower to cool it down, a mouth wiper and a food pusher that shoves more food in his mouth than he can chew. Also, there aren’t many things funnier than Chaplin chasing a big-bosomed bourgeois lady down the street with a wrench because her top has buttons that resemble the screws he has to turn on the never-ending assembly line at the factory. The scenes in the factory are some of the most memorable in cinema. One instance has the tramp getting caught on a conveyor belt and getting pulled into the hidden machinery below, an array of over-sized clogs in which he becomes entangled. Literally, this image shows a worker as just a cog in a larger machine. Welcome to modern times.
Later, as the tramp is being released from a brief stay in prison (which operated in a similar way to the factory), he is placed on a bench in a waiting room. Next to him is a bourgeois woman. They sit there, drinking tea, with their stomachs gurgling in an otherwise silent room, the woman’s dog barking at the noise emitting from their bodies; the divide between classes demonstrated wonderfully by Chaplin. They communicate only through their digestive systems, marking a commonality (natural) and emphasizing their difference (unnatural). The capitalist system has people sitting together on a bench rendered worlds apart.
Once out of jail, the tramp is determined to get back in. Through some ensuing exploits he encounters a woman, recently widowed, who has been arrested for stealing food, a necessary act, as she is poor. They escape a police car and decide to make a life together. The tramp lands a job at a department store, and after closing time they explore the floors – including the toy section, where Chaplin gracefully dances about in roller-skates, blind-folded, unaware of a dramatic drop he teeters by in his movement: pantomimic poetry. He is a man in the pit of consumerism, close to the edge, about to fall.
Modern Times was made during the depression, and it articulates the anxieties of a nation divided and falling (and of course a house must be united in order to stand). Chaplin depicts a system servicing only those at the top at the expense at those at the bottom, a pyramid scheme if there ever was one. To Chaplin, the American dream was a joke; he merely applied the punch lines.
The tramp remains unemployed until he gets work, once again at a factory. Men flock by the thousands to get the job and the little tramp is one of lucky few to get hired. Working with a partner on an unholy apparatus, the tramp gets his co-worker stuck in the machine. He frantically attempts to free him – that is until the whistle signals break time. At this juncture, being so conditioned by his environment, he grabs a stool and enjoys his lunch. At least he tries to feed his trapped co-worker. They are reduced, essentially, to robots, with a break only as a necessity in order to quickly refuel themselves.
Later on, the tramp is hired at an entertainment restaurant thanks to the glowing recommendation of his girlfriend. There is, however, a catch: he will have to sing in front of the patrons. In nervous preparation for his debut, he attempts to memorize the lyrics, but this brave endeavor is futile. His girlfriend writes the lyrics on his cuffs. Chaplin takes center stage and begins but with his luck the cuffs go flying off almost immediately. The girl tells him to “never mind the words”. Forced to continue in spite of this unfortunate mishap, he fakes the song in a nonsensical blend of Spanish and French while acting out its story in pantomime. The scene works as Chaplin’s argument for the power of silent storytelling. As previously mentioned, Modern Times is a “talkie” but Chaplin opts to use as little spoken dialogue as possible and the restaurant scene has the tramp making a similar decision. As the lady said, “never mind the words”.
At the film’s closing, the tramp and the girl find themselves unemployed in a world that just doesn’t have enough room to accommodate them. He tells her to smile – they’ll make it through. They join hands and walk down a road that will lead to more strife, as the world moves down a road ever colder; a machine that can’t be stopped.
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Vivre sa Vie is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s best films and stands out from his 60s period as a more focused and consistent work. Taking his inspiration from Brecht, Sartre and Bresson, Godard was able to examine an existential struggle with a simultaneous distance and intimacy. He displays an uncanny ability to simply observe the protagonist, Nana, played by Anna Karina, his wife at the time, while also subtly penetrating her character and imposing Godard’s own presence in a manner considerably less abrasive then in Breathless or A Woman is a Woman. Indeed, no camera is more familiar with it’s subject than that of Godard’s and Anna Karina. However, in spite of this familiarity, bewilderment is also expressed; an inability to come to terms with another human being with a different range of thought. In Breathless, this frustration with not understanding a woman is explored through the point of view of a male protagonist but in Vivre sa Vie, Godard keeps this male presence behind the camera, tackling this dilemma with a delicacy new to his craft, an earnest desire of curious compassion.
As mentioned, Vivre sa Vie represents a large difference in filmmaking from what Godard had done with his three prior films. The film plays like the complete opposite of A Woman is a Woman; Vivre sa Vie is less indulgent and playful and uses an entrancing minimalism to potent affect. The film also predates the overt political content that Godard would become known for. What we are left with then, is a unique work of a master auteur, made at a point when he neither lamented about the strain between he and Karina nor infused his films with political ideals. Vivre sa Vie, then, is a film lacking the messy urgency of Godard’s typical 60s work, instead possessing a remarkable patience.
Separated into twelve “tableaux” with Brecthian intertitles, Godard uses the story of Nana to investigate an essential human problem: In a society where we exchange flesh and money, do we maintain our humanity and freedom? Early in the film, we observe Nana working at a record shop. Later, she will become a prostitute. It is important to note that that her conduct is the same at both of these jobs. At both the record store and the hotel used by the prostitutes, Nana performs her duties with reluctant submission. Even her relationship with her co-workers is similar. In the record shop we see her navigate around asking her female co-workers for help in the same, casual, matter-of-fact manner she will eventually navigate the hotel seeking help from her fellow prostitutes. While Godard purposefully chose prostitution as the premise for his film, it is clear he is not interested in the ins and outs of the lifestyle but in the human struggle it can represent. After all, working in a record shop is also a form of lending oneself in order to make money and indeed all participants in the capitalist system are, in a sense, whores. At the end of the day, is one’s individuality, one’s soul, retained? As the Montaigne quote at the beginning of the film says “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” Vivre sa Vie is a film sets out to find if this is possible.
Vivre sa Vie also stands out from Godard’s 60s work, as, perhaps, do Contempt and Pierrot le Fou, for being considerably moving. For the most part the intentional stiltedness of Godard from that period makes it difficult to get emotionally involved with his films, which, is an aspect partly responsible for causing critics to wrongly categorize Godard as being exclusively cerebral. With Vivre sa Vie, as in all of Godard’s films, when it begins to get emotional, he immediately puts a stop to it, using an alienation effect with Bresson-like control. In some of Godard’s work, and certainly in this film, this technique often heightens the effect of the given scene because we are made hyperconscious of these moments. Best of all, in Vivre sa Vie, occasionally these efforts to restrain emotion beautifully fail, revealing a filmmaker at his most human. Of course, one of his most profound touches is allowing Karina to emote while watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, finding consolation in the cinema, connecting with Joan of Arc’s martyrdom.
In one of Godard’s most moving scenes, the film breaks any remnants of realism by abruptly switching over to silent filmmaking, with the dialogue between Nana and a newfound lover being conveyed through subtitles. Then, without warning, Godard’s own voice begins to narrate from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Oval Portrait (which the male lover was reading). No longer are we observing Nana, but instead Anna Karina herself. Godard asks her if he may continue and she answers as we realize Godard is reading this off camera in direct conversation with his wife. The passage describes a painter, who becomes so awestruck with a portrait he is creating of his wife that he begins to ignore the real woman. It is here that Godard commits his proclamation of love to celluloid, the one indulgence he allows himself. It is also here where he makes note of the dangers of filming his wife, and tragically predicts the inevitable end of their relationship. As mentioned, the film is, in part, an attempt to understand Karina. The camera intimately observes her, but often views the back of her head, never fully discovering her. Vivre sa Vie doubles as a husband’s portrait of his wife, a work of extraordinary co-operation.
The film is of considerable precision, yet Godard claims the opposite. Often the script would only be prepared by Godard minutes before filming, something he is know for doing, allowing Karina little time to memorize her lines. Perhaps the film’s precision comes not from organization or preparation but from Godard’s intense focus on both Karina and the film’s existential themes. In one scene, Nana vocalizes her beliefs in conversation with a friend at a café. She remarks how she realizes she is responsible for all of her actions, no matter how small. She is even responsible for her own happiness, which is perfectly demonstrated in the sequence where she dances at the pool hall in spite of a rather somber mood in the room. The dialogue of this scene is key as we realize Nana takes responsibility for her actions. and by default for her decision to turn to prostitution. Yet, we must also consider that it may not be Nana’s fault that she finds herself in a difficult financial situation that has rendered her unable to pay the rent. Perhaps it is simply where she was placed in society, by chance, which determined such surrounding factors.
The question ultimately becomes of Nana’s freedom. Is she a prisoner of society, or does she determine her own destiny? The answer may rest in something Godard said about his relationship with cinema. When someone suggested to Godard that he was able to do whatever he had wanted when making his films, Godard replied “No, I always did what I wanted within the limits of what I could do.” Perhaps, in her given situation, she did act with freedom when she could. Then, of course, out of her control, she is shot and killed. So we whore, dance, and then die. Do we even exist? Nana did, for a little while, if only in the dark of the cinema.
Vivre sa Vie is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.
This was originally published in conjunction with The Cineastes
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Those acquainted with the work of Hayao Miyazaki have witnessed the splendor of a boundless imagination. Stanely Kubrick once claimed that “if it can be written or thought, it can be filmed”, but Miyazaki’s animation seems to portray that which never could be filmed. The plethora of wondrous characters; be they insect, plant or animal (or in some cases a mix of all three) could not be anywhere but in the world of animated filmmaking. As a lover of the cinema I believe most strongly in the filmed image; creating one’s art through a lens, a third eye, casting a unique gaze on our world. However, I am also a champion of animation. Certain ideas can only reach fruition with pencils, ink and a paintbrush. While some animated films simply serve the purpose of being a cartoon so as to be digestible by children, Miyazaki ennobles the art form. The purpose of animation, from his perspective, seems to be to articulate the furthest reaches of mankind’s ability to dream and create. Why make an animated film if you’re not going to take advantage of the simple fact that it is limitless?
Princess Mononoke is the pinnacle of Miyazaki’s canon, as it represents not just the largest accomplishment in terms of animation, but also the culmination of the themes he had been exploring his entire career. The story is of Ashitaka, a cursed prince who seeks his cure and in the process comes across an ever-escalating war between a town of people (known as Iron Town) and the creatures of the forest. Once he is caught in the middle of this conflict, he attempts to work with both sides in order to instill some sort of balance. At first, it may seem that Ashitaka is the standard hero, but his journey deserves a more critical eye.
The film begins in a nondescript village on the edge of a forest. Prince Ashitaka rides on Yakul, an elk, towards a watchtower. Something is in the forest, and it isn’t human. A beast covered in disgusting writhing tentacles emerges; the tentacles separate, revealing what was once a giant boar god. This is a once majestic creature now infected with an evil madness. Ashitaka defends the village and kills the animal, but not before being infected by the tentacle-like substance. A village elder determines that Ashitaka will not survive his infection and that it will spread from his arm and take him over like it did with the boar. An iron ball was found in the fallen creature. It must have been the cause. Ashitaka leaves the village in order to find the source of the iron.
Ashitaka does prove to be heroic, but not until he is forced to be by this infectious disease. The conflict he encounters between the town and the forest is one he would otherwise be ignorant to if he had not been directly affected by it. He is a demonstration of a tragic human shortcoming. We don’t strive to make a difference until the difference is something we personally require. One of the first people Ashitaka encounters on his journey tells him that the whole world is cursed. Miyazaki suggests that Ashitaka’s curse is a metaphor for our turbulent relationship with nature; that it is something we should each be confronting on our own; otherwise we are in a constant state of complicity.
Ashitaka’s journey is intercut with calm shots of landscape, with birds, or some butterflies in frame. Miyazaki makes sure to make these observations of beauty no matter which stage his story is in. He never forgets that nature operates at all times, according to it’s own struggle, not just ours.
Miyazaki is famous for the creatures he creates. The title character and the cat-bus from My Neighbour Totoro, the fox-squirrels of Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky etc. In Mononoke, most dazzling are the tree spirits known as kodama, found by the hundreds in the forest. Nearly indescribable, they are small white figures that make a rattling noise when they shake their heads. Their presence is a sign that the forest is healthy. Later in the film, they will begin to disappear.
Ashitaka finds the town that created the iron ball that sealed his fate. It is a town led by Lady Eboshi, a character who in a simpler film would be a cardboard villain. Here her malicious attacks of the forest and its habitants are counter-acted by her compassionate treatment of her people, including many with leprosy. Miyazaki shows us a leader who is harming another world in order to help her own. Her intent can even be seen as noble, but the consequences of her actions are too large, and even end up harming human beings as demonstrated by Ashitaka.
The people see the forest as nothing more than a resource, and wasted space. Ape-like creatures continuously attempt to plant trees on a mountain that was cleared of its life by Lady Eboshi who continuously has to stop them. This cycle is a simple demonstration of two opposing worlds constantly working towards their own betterment, which is a key part of one of Princess Mononoke’s central themes: the impossibility of harmony.
The main figure on the side of the forest is San, a human girl raised by wolves to be an animal. She and Eboshi are enemies that desperately want to kill each other. Ashitaka wants to meet San and see her side of things. In one breathtaking scene, San attacks the town and Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka ends up between them holding them back from fighting. The infectious tentacles manifest on his infected arm, becoming a symbol of hatred between the two women, the demon inside both of them.
One of the grandest visuals of the film is that of the forest spirit, a giant god, translucent and sparkling, walking through the woods at night. In the daytime it takes the form of a majestic animal, a cross between a deer and a dinosaur with the face of a baboon and graced with many antlers. As it walks, the plant life it steps on grows and dies. This not a being that is simply life but life and death simultaneously. Miyazaki embraces the natural order of things, and rejects only what is unnatural. Lady Eboshi wants to kill the forest spirit. Apparently the only way to do so is to cut off its head. Eboshi will succeed, but at what cost?
The conflict between man and nature is a central preoccupation in Miyazaki’s films, but not until Mononoke did he fully explore it. In an earlier film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the conflict was somewhat simplified. That film was extraordinary for it’s endearing heroine, one of my favourite of all characters, and its overwhelming compassion, but it didn’t truly investigate its own ideology. In Mononoke, Miyazaki realizes that in this conflict, both sides are simply doing what seems right for them. This parable begins to expand beyond just man vs. nature, to man vs. man. All those fighting for the forest want is what is best for the forest, all those fighting for the town want what is best for the town. We observe that there is no possibility of harmony between these two opposing forces, because they will always be opposing.
The film is far more violent than Miyazaki’s other films, and indeed it is not designed for young children. Unlike what we are used to in mainstream animation, Miyazaki never panders to a young audience. Even Pixar, a studio I highly respect, is sometimes guilty of considering their demographic before their stories. Unlike in Disney films, characters in Miyazaki ‘s work are complex and well rounded. Often he portrays women as strong-willed and self-sufficient, as exemplified by Iron Town, where females seem to be the dominant sex.
Miyazaki rejects the technological advancements of modern animation, instead using that which he considers pure. CGI is minimally used only as a touch-up element in some of his films and he has publicly vowed never to make a computer-animated feature. Almost as a sort of protest, his latest film, Ponyo, has no computer-generated content, and is entirely hand-drawn and painted, largely by Miyazaki himself who is always hands on with his films. In a genre littered with musical numbers, fairly tales and simple morals, Miyazaki gives us compelling and complex stories with unique characters that beg the viewer to explore a world and themselves. Filled with stunning sights such as gorgeous watercolour backgrounds, his films possess the magic once promised by animation.
Comparing Miyazaki’s films to Disney is not all that fair. While Princess Mononoke is what I consider to be the pinnacle of animation, it is also one of the crowning achievements of the 1990s, and cinema in general. In fact, when I conducted an online poll asking nearly 100 voters to submit a list of what they considered to be the ten best films of all time, I included Princess Mononoke on mine. Indeed, Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese auteur to be ranked among the masters Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu.
In Princess Mononoke, every frame is filled to the brim with creativity so large; that its realization is indeed a miracle. The examination of perspective and the conflict of industry and nature is illustrated in a wholly original and thought provoking manner. It contains Miyazaki’s most complete investigation of his themes, as well as the most realistic outlook. At the end of the film, Ashitaka returns the head of the forest spirit that Lady Eboshi had shot off, and the final image is of a kodama appearing, rattling its little head. There is, at least, some hope.
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Physical; spiritual; supernatural; all encompassing. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 masterpiece, Zerkalo (or, The Mirror in english) is one of the most powerful testaments to cinema’s ability to alter time and therefore our perception of the world. It highlights the beauty we mostly live ignorant of, and transcends all conventional notions of what a film can be. To pick it apart, in order to derive a specific meaning from it, would be to reduce it; simplify it; belittle it. An injustice of the highest order. I believe it is more appropriate to share my personal experience with the film instead of critically analyzing it. Let it be known that to attempt to even describe the film would be a failure and an affront. The English language is not adequate for explaining neither the profundity nor the inexplicable magic of cinema within The Mirror. So, yes, to a certain extent, this article I am writing is moot. I persist, nevertheless, for to share my enthusiasm for the cinema is one of my strongest inclinations.
To this day, The Mirror stands as one of the boldest entries in the medium. Tarkovsky is known for his poetic qualities, something inherited in part from his father, a celebrated Russian poet by the name of Arseniy Tarkovsky. In the film, some of his poems are read aloud by the author himself. To a certain extent, Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmmaking is way of translating the stark beauty of his father’s language to the screen. To leave it so simply, however, is foolish. Rather, his filmmaking takes the essence of this poetry and uses it to entirely different means and ends, expanding on the potential of artistry in ways only the cinema is capable of. Tarkovsky is able to take time and change its speed to allow us to experience life as if it were a painting on the wall, poetry on the page, the writing in a novel, and a livid dream unfolding with unparalleled clarity. In one shot, Tarkovsky holds on a painting. How it relates to the film is mysterious, but also intense and clear.
Portrait of a Young Woman with a Juniper Twig (Ginevra Benci, probably by Leonardo)
A person has one body,
Singleton, all on its own,
The soul has had more than enough
Of being cooped up inside
A casing with ears and eyes
The size of a five-penny piece
And skin - just scar after scar -
Covering a structure of bone.
Out through the cornea it flies
Into the bow of the sky,
On to an icy spoke,
To a wheeling flight of birds,
And hears through the barred window
Of this living prison-cell
The crackle of forests and corn-fields
The trumpet of seven seas.
A bodyless soul is sinful
Like a body without a shirt -
No intention, nothing gets done,
No inspiration, never a line.
A riddle with no solution:
Who is going to come back
After dancing on the dance- floor
Where there's nobody to dance?
And I dream of a different world
Dressed in other clothes:
Burning as it runs
From timidity to hope,
Spirituous and shadowless
Like fire it travels the earth,
Leaves lilac behind on the table
To be remebered by.
Run along then, child, don't fret
Over poor Eurydice,
Bowl your copper hoop along
Whip it through the world,
So long as even quarter pitch
With cheerful tone and cold
In answer to each step you take
The earth rings in your ears.
The contrast between the painting and the poems and the film that contains them is sharper than it would be in any other movie. This may seem odd, considering how The Mirror could aptly be described as both painterly and poetic, but the film does not use these other art forms as crutches, like most films use literature. Tarkovsky’s work relies not on any other medium and The Mirror defines cinema as an autonomous art form. The Mirror is cinema. And cinema is everything.
Tarkovsky is not at all interested in narrative, something he progressively moved toward throughout his career. His films became less and less bound to storytelling, and more focused on that which is unique in film. He focuses on the cinema’s ability to control, be it “sculpting in time” or transporting the viewer into another realm altogether. When watching The Mirror, I find myself on a plain of existence previously unvisited. A plain where I find myself finally beginning to understand life and the world around me. The universe and that which lies even beyond it. Of course, I am speaking of that which is intangible and impossible to express neither through writing nor speech. Perhaps the tears I shed and the hairs that stood on end while watching the film speak louder than words.
From early on, I found myself moved and elevated. What unfolded on screen was not necessarily dramatic or even comprehensible in typical fashion. In other words, The Mirror relates not to one’s mind, but to their very soul. The Mirror is the visual of being. The characters are not dealt with in any traditional way. They aren’t developed through plot, but through setting and feeling. I found myself understanding the people in the film better than any other characters in any other movie. Yet, I couldn’t tell you their names, describe their personalities, or even begin to describe any of them as well-rounded characters. But in the moment the characters exist on the screen, blinding light shining through moving film, I understand them completely. I feel as if I have always known them; that I am them. I feel as they feel and am overcome with the consolation I secretly seek each evening I spend in the cinema. And to spend an evening in the cinema with The Mirror, having it take advantage of one’s persistence of vision, is nothing short of a privilege. If you are presented with the opportunity, I insist that one should do all that is within their power to do so.
The film changes several times from full colour to black & white. When these changes occur, it feels as though we are switching from one form of consciousness to another, and back again. One does not need to make sense of the film in a convenient way. To be lost in The Mirror is a wonderful thing.
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time, he describes what a masterpiece is, and in the process, accurately describes my experience with his film:
"Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When a link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime purging trauma. Within that aura unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential and the furthest reaches of our emotions."
Earlier in this article, I mentioned how attempting to analyze or even describe the film would be to belittle it by simplifying it. I can, however, simplify my description of my personal experience with Zerkalo:
I walked into the cinema. I looked into the mirror. I saw everything.
Directed by Carl Thedor Dreyer
“This is the tale of the strange adventures of young Allan Gray, who immersed himself in the study of devil worship and vampires. Preoccupied with superstitions of centuries past, he became a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred. His aimless wanderings led him late one evening to a secluded inn by the river in a village called Courtempierre”.
So begins Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a film possessing much mystery and intrigue. For Dreyer, it was his first sound film, but it still harbours a silent aesthetic, only enhanced further by ingenious use of noises and sparse dialogue. In fact, this is a film that seems wholly concerned with its images above all else. The narrative is subdued and somewhat convoluted, and mostly held together by several instances of text on screen (such as the quote above). Later in the film a book on vampire lore, which we are shown several passages of, replaces this text. Of course this doesn’t help tell the story within the film. But does give us significant information that relates to the goings on of Vampyr.
The opening text, which explains the odd preoccupations our protagonist has with the abnormal and supernatural, is of high importance. As strange events occur, we are challenged by the idea that perhaps Allan Gray is imagining things. The first hint of this divide between perception and reality occurs early on, when Gray reaches the inn. As he approaches the establishment, he sees a man, with his back turned, holding a scythe, preparing to sail away from the shore. Once Gray has settled in his room, he looks out the window to see this very same man, now immobile, and positioned in a manner where Gray and the viewer can now make out his face. Logic would suggest that the man would already be off in the distance; however, Vampyr is a film that will challenge such notions.
As Allan Gray ventures through the inn and the surrounding area, we become aware of the very odd layout of the building. Logically, things don’t seem to quite add up, and one wonders whether or not simply going from point A to B in the inn would actually be possible. The environment is a large contributor the off-kilter mood of the film. The unorthodox editing that Dreyer employs creates an unsettling dislocation of space.
Gray’s perception of what is around him seems unreal, and we begin to question the consciousness of the film. Is what we are being shown subjective or objective? This is one of the dominant themes of the film. Gray seems to be a man who invites the fantastic, so when we watch him witness the death of Derr Scholssherr, the Lord of the manor, we don’t necessarily trust his interpretation of the event. From Gray’s viewpoint it appears as if a shadow was wielding a firearm and killed the man. Perhaps what happened in actuality was a natural death; considering that the way the man dies looks similar to how someone would react to a heart attack. It is difficult to surmise what is truly happening in Vampyr, as the supernatural and the natural are indeed difficult to separate. One point that suggests what we are seeing is objective would be that Allan Gray is commonly seen within the frame. We are not simply seeing things from his point of view, but seeing him see. Also, in one scene we observe Marguerite Chopin, the film’s vampire villainess, and her pawn, the village doctor without Allan Gray being present.
Within Vampyr are several glimpses into some sort of shadow world. Often we are shown images of shadows of people moving about the walls and corridors. This creative invention of the visuals is the film’s strongest quality. One of the most striking images of the film, which is recycled throughout, is the shadow of a grave digger which is played in reverse so as to look like he is un-digging a grave. In one of the most memorable scenes, Allan Gray watches as a peg-legged shadow moves around independently, and eventually rejoins the physical body to which it is, at least spiritually, bound. The actual peg-legged man is sitting on a bench, and the shadow adjusts and forms to match his position. It seems that some sort of out-of-body experience is possible.
Dreyer seems to be interested in working within a genre and rejecting all of its clichés. Ultimately, Vampyr is the antithesis of the common horror film, and focuses neither on melodrama nor violence, but on creating a disquieting mood through unusual camera movement and innovative lighting effects. Also we are not treated to typical scenes one would expect as automatic. For example, early on in the film when Allan Gray first arrives at the inn, there is no scene in which he acquires his room. We skip that part over, and immediately see Gray in his room as observes the man with the scythe. The usual scenes required of a narrative are not present. This is effective as it makes the qualities of the film stand out. Vampyr is challenging but rewarding; it coheres not dramatically but aesthetically and thematically.
In the strangest sequence of the film, Allan Gray rests on a bench, and seemingly some sort of dream-self separates from his physical body. His dream-self continues on only to discover Gisele, a girl the village doctor had kidnapped and chained up, and a third version of himself lying in a coffin. It is difficult to determine if this is actually happening or if Gray is simply dreaming it, but once he awakes at the bench, he frees Gisele from where his dream-self saw her imprisoned.
Vampirism within the film seems to represent sin. Those who were sinful during their lives are not granted with the privilege of death, but must continue on, as vampires. Rather than exploit the mythos in obvious ways, he depicts Chopin in minimal fashion, allowing us to witness only one instance of a vampire “attack”. The only time we truly regard her as a vampire in the traditional sense, is near the end when she is defeated with a stake through the heart.
The film’s closing is both perplexing and chilling, as the doctor is locked in a cage inside a mill, by whom remains unclear, although we see one of his underlings refuse to release him. We then see the machinery of the mill start up, and the doctor is slowly drowned in flour. Meanwhile, Allan Gray and Gisele have fled by way of boat and after journeying through fog, find a bright clearing. The last image of the film is that of the mill’s machinery coming to a stop.
It is refreshing to go back and watch a film like this at a time when pop culture is fixated with vampires. Although, there are current, or recent, works of fiction that are using vampires effectively, for the most part people seem preoccupied with drivel such as Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries. Books, film, and TV are banking on the convenience of the vampire mythos with no effort to neither expand it nor utilize its potential. Unlike Dreyer, they take the easy way out.
Vampyr, based on elements from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, but not considered an authentic adaptation, is anything but typical and stands out as one of the most unique and inventive horror films ever made. The usage of sound acts as a key supplement to the intense, foreboding atmosphere which is made evermore potent by Dreyer’s masterful mise-en-scene. Vampyr suggests a world where reality and fantasy are inseparable. It is one of the great nightmares of the cinema.
posted by adam cook
Written & Directed by Kevin Smith
Chasing Amy is a modest and deeply personal comedy that is both emotionally resonant and genuinely funny. The story follows the relationships between three comic book creators, whose lives all change by the end of the film. It opens in the fascinating world of a low-rent comic book convention where geeks and artists roam. We see the usual suspects one would expect. As a comic book fan, I can tell you that most of us are intelligent and just enjoy the art form, but yes the numbskull fans who cling on to their funny books which provide them with their pathetic vicarious lives do exist as well, as we see in the opening scene. Also on the exhibit hall floor are those donned in costume, such as a lone woman as some sort of alien robot.
Writer/director Kevin Smith began his career with the indie classic, Clerks, a film he made by maxing out his credit cards and hiring his friends. The main appeal of Clerks was its authenticity. Smith, who worked at the convenience store that just about the entire film takes place at, successfully translated his feelings of disenfranchisement on screen. What he lacked in visual style and versatility, he made up for with a hell of a script. The dialogue between all of his characters was fresh, funny and edgy. Now armed with a legion of like-minded fans, Kevin Smith set out to make his sophomore film, Mallrats. While a solid comedy from a just-for-laughs point of view, it lacked the resonance and honesty of his debut and featured more contrived comedy and situations. One of its saving graces was pro-skateboarder turned actor Jason Lee’s first performance, which was full of comic force. It was clear that Lee had a knack for properly conveying Smith’s token dialogue better than anyone. Mallrats was a complete failure commercially, and Smith set out to make a low budget film that would focus more on drama and in particular his personal issues with insecurity.
Chasing Amy would prove to be Smith’s best film at that point of his career, and even up to today. He was able to harness his ear for dialogue and create fully formed characters that essentially all represented a part of himself, none more closely than the protagonist, Holden McNeil. His comedy was sharper, the drama was poignant, and his insights were relevant. Basically he was able to take the authentic feel of Clerks and expand it into a legitimate work of art. Nothing contributed more to this authenticity than Smith’s real life relationship with the lead actress, Joey Lauren Adams.
Smith and Adams had been dating for some time, and when they became close enough to reveal each other’s personal backgrounds, Smith was appalled. The sexual past of his significant other was far bolder and experienced, so much so that he became overwhelmed. Feeling inadequate in comparison, Smith requested that Adams should apologize for her promiscuous choices. Of course, Adams wouldn’t budge, explaining that what matters are her choices in the present. In order to deal with his insecurity and closet conservatism, Smith wrote the script for Chasing Amy, casting Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa Jones, a lesbian, with an impressive sexual history, and casting Ben Affleck as his surrogate self. Jason Lee was cast as Holden’s homophobic best friend, Banky.
All three of the lead actors give the best performances of their respective careers. Before Affleck became famous and miscast as a typical Hollywood lead, he was the perfect everyman. In Chasing Amy, Affleck brings a believable naiveté and normalness severely lacking in American film. Adams is very convincing as a woman struggling between filling her chosen role and following her heart. Jason Lee is once again the biggest surprise, as he is able to be alternately hilarious, offensive, and heartbreaking. Each performance, while filled with necessary humour, is subtle and perfectly suited to the film.
Smith is notorious for being a less than capable director, and while it is true to a certain extent, his human qualities and level of openness are refreshing and rare. Also, it is hard to fault a man who is the first to admit his flaws. When director David Gordon Green said that Kevin Smith turned indie filmmaking into a kind of Special Olympics, Smith found the comment too clever to be offensive. As is always the case, Kevin Smith accepts all criticism, and reminds us of his strengths as a gifted writer.
After making Chasing Amy, Smith claimed the experience to have been cathartic, and that he was rid of his insecurity. He and Adams would break up, but because of that relationship and the film it inspired, Smith would be the man he needed to be when he soon met Jennifer Schawlbach, his future wife. I believe the catharsis of Chasing Amy to be very powerful. The effect it had on Smith himself can be had on its audience. Understandably, the film tends to be more effective for males. Essentially it is a story about a guy learning to be a man.
Now much further in his career, Smith has yet to recapture some of the magic of Chasing Amy. The scene between Holden and Banky, where each reveals their feelings about Alyssa’s presence in their lives, is masterful. It begins with a lot of tension, when Holden tells Banky to stop gay bashing in casual conversation. Banky retaliates by putting Holden through an interesting exercise. He draws a four-way road with a hundred dollar bill in the middle. Equidistant from the bill are Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, a friendly lesbian, and a “man-hating dyke”. The question is who gets to the bill first; the answer is the man-hating dyke as she, according to Banky, is the only real person out of the options. Banky is suppressing his own homosexual fantasies and warring against himself through his friendship. Both infuriated, the best friends argue at the top of their lungs, until eventually Holden admits he is in love with Alyssa. This is the best-directed scene of Smith’s career. We see a friendship begin to crumble and it feels inevitable and devastating.
In another strong scene later in the film, Holden has lunch with Jay and Silent Bob (played by Smith, himself). Bob breaks his token silence in order to give Holden advice in a wonderful monologue that gives the film its title. He tells the story of a past girlfriend, Amy, whom he had discovered engaged in several threesomes. Bob felt angry and upset and like Holden, and like Kevin Smith, he failed to understand that if someone is choosing to love you now, what they did before is of little importance. As Bob puts it, he since has been spending his time “chasing Amy”. Comically, and tragically Holden misinterprets this sage-like advice and makes a ridiculous proposition.
One night, Holden gets Alyssa and Banky to both be present for a meeting. At this meeting, he asks Alyssa and Banky to have sex with him at the same time. This way, Holden will have done something on Alyssa’s “level” and Banky can comfortably transition into homosexuality. Banky agrees to do it, but Alyssa rightfully refuses. She explains that what she did before was a result of confusion over her sexual origin and a necessary step in her life, but that promiscuity was behind her. Above all, she is hurt that Holden would want to share her. This scene is comically genius, but ends with each relationship obliterated.
We next see Holden a year later at a comic book convention. He locks eyes with Banky from across the room. It is clear that they have not spoken for a long time. They share a beautiful, silent conversation through smiles and hand gestures. We sense each guy has become a man, that while they may no longer be friends, they have gained perspective and still love each other. It is a beautiful way of showing how the most important relationships we share are still significant after they have ceased. Next, Holden approaches Alyssa at her signing booth. He gives her a comic book he wrote, titled Chasing Amy, which tells the story of their relationship, not unlike how Smith “gave” the film Chasing Amy to Joey Lauren Adams. Holden leaves, having finally moved on. The camera pulls out in the exhibit hall, and we see the woman in the costume from the beginning meet a man in the same costume. They hold hands, and the film ends.
Of late, Kevin Smith has become more commercial with films like Zack & Miri Make A Porno and the up coming A Couple of Dicks. Clerks II was successful as a sweet comedy but it failed to capture anything as vital as what was explored in Chasing Amy and Smith’s second best film, Dogma. Smith is not a true artist, but simply a true human being who cannot make each of his films meaningful. Rather he needs something personal that is worth sharing to emerge in his life, just as with Holden in Chasing Amy, who earlier in the movie says that he wants to tell more personal stories but as of yet has nothing personal to say. Hopefully Kevin Smith can find the inspiration he needs to make another great film, but until then I’ll have no problem with frequently returning to Chasing Amy.
The film succeeds because Smith doesn’t aim to look at other people or the world at large. Instead, he just picks apart himself, meticulously and bravely, dividing his feelings into multiple characters. This way, the film gains its accuracy and authenticity, and holds no pretensions. Chasing Amy is a masterpiece because of its rare and invaluable honesty, which turns something remarkably personal into something profoundly universal.
posted by adam cook
This article was originally published as part The Cineastes series of essays.
Written & Directed by Louis Malle
Au Revoir Les Enfants is a personal story of immense power about a young boy’s experience in a Catholic boarding school during World War II. At the age of 11, Louis Malle attended the school, located near Fontainebleau. It is there that he would become friends with another young boy. His new friend, it would turn out, was actually Jewish and was hiding under an alias. Eventually, along with 2 other students, he would be found out, and taken by the Nazis. Roughly forty years later, Louis Malles made Au Revoir Les Enfants, recounting this traumatizing event.
The film is so open and honest, that it becomes deeply emotional. Malle is successful at making us feel his lingering pain. I imagine that making the movie must have been very difficult but also cathartic. It was a story that he clearly needed to tell. After the film initially premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, Malle sobbed and proclaimed “this is my story, now it is told”. It is because the film takes such a personal approach to how the Holocaust impacted people, that it is so effective. We become so attached to the characters in the film, that their tragedy is our tragedy. Then, to think of how many more people were hurt at that time becomes overwhelming.
Au Revoir Les Enfants does an excellent job of establishing the everyday workings of the boarding school. Children play, and fight, and play some more. The cook’s assistant deals cigarettes in exchange for food. On some lucky nights, they even get to watch films. In one masterful scene, everyone gathers to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant. In a time of war and fear, it provides everyone with a sense of escapism. The scene plays as a nice love letter to cinema. All together, in the dark, everyone watches and laughs. Julien Quentin, the main character, representing Malle, constantly reads and shares this interest with Jean Bonnet, actually Jean Kippelstein.
At first, like with most young male friendships, the two boys fight. This is really just a way of getting to know each other, and eventually they have a very special bond. One of the more interesting artistic choices of the film is the use of piano in the musical score. Jean excels in nearly every area of school. During a piano lesson, Julien struggles to play a piece properly. When Jean takes his place, he plays it effortlessly. Throughout the remainder of the film we hear Julien’s misplaced keys, which brilliantly underline some very interesting moments. Specifically, when Julian is alone in a bathtub, and thinking about the piano lesson. During the last moments of the film, the piano is heard again, but instead played as Jean did, with no mistakes.
Louis Malle simply recounts his memories, avoiding any comments on the Germans, or the politics of the war. He paints a grey area in one scene, in a restaurant that does not allow Jews. A couple French policemen enter, and begin to ask several patrons for their papers. One elderly man is Jewish, and is hastily asked to leave by the police. At a table across the room, several German soldiers are seated. One of the Germans yells at the police and ask them to leave the Jewish man alone. In another key scene, two German soldiers find Jean and Julien lost in the woods, and deliver them safely back to the school.
I admire the bravery and kindness of the Catholic priest who took Jewish children in and helped protect them. Lucien Bunuel, the name of the actual priest who Malle went to school with, would eventually lose his life for this risk. I read that many priests did the same. This is seen as one of the major reasons that helped about 75 percent of French Jews survive the holocaust. My heart swells now as it did when I watched the film.
My love for the film is very simple. I haven’t much to say about it. It belongs in the top tier of World War II films along with Grave of the Fireflies and Night & Fog. It is one of the most devastating experiences I have had with cinema. Au Revoir Les Enfants is quietly powerful and beautiful. By the third act, I find myself moved to tears. Once Louis Malle’s own voice comes in to end the film, I am overcome with empathy. He says “More than 40 years have passed, but I'll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die." A masterpiece, the film is so remarkable because of its portrayal of extinguished childhood. On that morning, the lives of some children we’re stolen, and other lives, such as Malle’s, we’re tampered with and forever changed. Goodbye children.
posted by adam cook
Tokyo Story is a simple, beautiful film, of quiet devastation. It is a rare story, devoid of contrivance, and full of humanity. The plot is seemingly mundane, but with the storytelling of the revered Japanese auteur, Yasujiro Ozu, it is dramatic and engrossing.
An elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, travel to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren. Upon arrival, they are neglected; as the children would much rather go without upsetting their routines. They stay with their eldest son, Koichi, who has a wife and two boys of his own. He is a doctor, and due to his busy schedule does not spend much time with his parents while they visit. Shukichi and Tomi then stay with their daughter, Shige, a hairdresser, who is also married, and much too busy to entertain the guests. Only one person goes out of their way to pay attention to the old couple, and that is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko. Becoming annoyed by the burden of having to care for their parents, Koichi and Shige send them to a hot spring spa. Realizing that they are only a nuisance, the couple returns home. On the journey back, however, Tomi takes ill.
We reach a remarkable level of intimacy with these characters, which is attributable to Ozu’s style. He sets up the camera, which is almost always still, at the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat (known as the “tatami-mat shot”). Most of the time, the shots, with the exception of close-ups, allow us to view an entire room and all of the characters occupying it, so we can observe both speakers and listeners at once. This achieves the feeling that we are in these places with them. Whenever someone speaks, Ozu never cuts away, as if to say that all people, or at least his characters, are worth hearing out.
Each person in Tokyo Story is guarded and formal, always abiding to the accepted standards in manners. In fact, I observed it took over two hours for anyone to truly say what was on his or her mind. Before that, each character hides what they truly mean, and instead put up a front so as to please everyone. Often, one’s criticism is masked by a coded comment and a smile. When Shukichi and Tomi want to express their disappointment in their grandchildren, they agree that they prefer their children. To my mind, I find this to be a great sadness. Expressing our hopes, fears, and true feelings with our families brings us closer together. Here the characters will never truly understand each other, as their society will not allow it. In Japanese culture we can see the gaps between generations, between parents and children, more prominently than in western society. The lifestyles of those in their prime are far too busy to accommodate the people that raised them. This insight is tragic but understated, and never exploited. Ozu avoids sentimentality and never takes advantage of the emotional subject matter. He lets the story achieve its own effect with poetic realism.
Later, after Tomi passes on, Shukichi presents a gift to Noriko, as a token of gratefulness for the kindness she showed when they visited Tokyo. The gift is Tomi’s old watch. It is ironic that a tool used to measure time now connects two generations together.
Ozu’s pillow shots, which consist of still images of things such as steamboats, railroad tracks and marching children, enhance the film’s quiet beauty. Some may argue the pacing is slow, but rather it is calm, and appropriately so. While some moments carry more emotional power, they are not given emphasis. The entire film operates on a single wavelength that always contains feeling. The performances are invaluable and it is hard to choose one over the other. Chishu Ryu, as Shukichi, contributes some of the most memorable moments, as he continues to smile and remain polite in the wake of his lover’s demise. In an exchange with his nieghbour at the end of Tokyo Story, they agree he will now be very lonely. Of course, their conversation appears to be somewhat cheerful, as they both maintain their mannered demeanor. The closest Shukichi comes to expressing his grief is when he says “…If I knew things would come to this, I’d have been kinder to her…Living alone like this, the days will get very long”. While he withholds his tears, it is very difficult to withhold our own. Tokyo Story is a profound masterwork of the cinema, as enriching as any I’ve discovered. Its themes are at once very Japanese, but ultimately universal.
The film is the third of a loosely connected trilogy (Late Spring and Early Summer being the predecessors), that all feature the wonderful character, Noriko. Close to the film’s end, she is in conversation with Kyoko, the youngest daughter in the family. Kyoko speaks her mind, complaining about how inconsiderate everyone in the family has been. Noriko, the only other character who was always caring, defends them. She explains that everyone has their reasons and their own lives to lead. The drift between parents and children is inevitable. Noriko even admits that as time passes she may become the same way. Kyoko, clearly displeased by this wisdom, asks “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko smiles and responds, “Yes, it is.”
posted by adam cook