Saturday, December 7, 2013

On Gravity: Transhumanism, Rebirth, & Louis C.K.

There's some "spoilers" here. So if you haven't seen Gravity and you absolutely do not want to know if they make it or not, don't read. 

It's all empowering and humbling at once. Through Alfonso Cuarón's lens we see the human body both as a giant structure eclipsing planets and stars, and as a delicate speck lost in the infinite dark of space. Like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain(2006), Gravity has a similar reverence for human life and everything that entails - happiness, pain, loss, banality, fear, love, etc. In Aronofsky’s underappreciated masterpiece, he is all inclusive when it comes to faiths and ideologies, giving equal footing to science and religion, as he shows man’s struggle with accepting his ultimate fate: death. Cuarón takes this same approach in Gravity, though instead of uniting characters through death, he unites them through the vitality of their humanity. The characters of Matt Kowalski(George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone(Sandra Bullock) are American, but they rely on both the technology of the Russians and Chinese to survive. Dr. Stone only barely struggles to operate the different control panels, despite linguistic barriers the guts are all essentially the same. This story could have just as easily been about a person of any nationality, and the struggles and successes would have had synonymous meaning. When it comes to human bodies the guts are also all the same, as is the will to survive and stand victorious.

Gravity poses as a creation myth that unites science and religion. However this myth is not about the birth of the original man, but of a new postmodern man. Stone and Kowalski fly in the heavens, angels who make sure our satellites give us internet and GPS coordinates and images of possible locations for suspected terrorists. In order for Dr. Stone to return to earth, she must go through a process of rebirth, a transformation in which she let's go of her suffering - specifically the mourning of her daughter, who tragically passed while playing tag. Stone’s journey of reincarnation through release of suffering and her own religious beliefs of an afterlife and heaven combine both western and eastern religions. Under the jovial eyes of a smiling Buddha, she makes her fiery return to earth and is symbolically reborn in the water, mimicking the steps of evolution by swimming, crawling and then triumphantly walking on the land. Stone’s ascension to Earth is where she transcends her character of the grieving mother and scared doctor, and now becomes a symbol - an icon of humanity. The camera frames her in these first steps, perhaps the first steps she’s made the entire film, as a titan - made powerful by the knowledge of her own mortality and her spiritual strength that allowed her to persist against all odds..

However, this messy and at times violent rebirth, is not a pure product of her will power alone - Stone is aided in her journey by the technology around her. Machines give her the power to breath in space and eventually reenter the planet's atmosphere, but all of these contraptions seem more delicate than the human bodies they’re meant to protect. While their importance is noted, they ultimately seem trivial compared to the power of the human spirit. Metal structures are shredded throughout the film and their debris will eventually burn up in the mesosphere, while Stone and Kowalski pingpong off of walls and obstacles mostly unscathed. There are deaths of course, to remind us that human beings are still more than capable of dying. Gravity tries to balance its reverence for the body by both acknowledging the power of humanity and its fragility. We have the ingenuity to explore the cosmos but can just as easily die in ways both spectacular (space debris to the face) and banal (falling down while playing tag).

On first look, Gravity’s philosophy looks like an alternative to transhumanism, which deals with the merging of human biology with technology to enhance our limited capabilities. Ray Kurzweil, who wrote a fascinating book called How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, explains that, with some key scientific breakthroughs, we could use our brain to access the cloud, a universal cache of knowledge and human experience, and download the information we need as we need it by only thinking about it. Google Glass, a smartphone in the form of eye-wear, feels like another step towards this integration of cloud data and our mind. The dream is that these enhancements could push the boundaries of human capabilities, limited only by imagination. However, this possible amalgamation of human and technology seems unnecessary, when the majority of us only use the gadgets we have now for the mundane task of searching IMDB for that actor we saw in that thing that one time.

This use of valuable technology for triviality is brought up when the satellites are being destroyed, with Kowalsky quipping that a portion of America “just lost their Facebook.” The social network site is treated here with irreverence, but its importance in people’s day to day lives is also acknowledged. One wonders how many people would be more worried about Facebook being restored than the handful of people floating in space making sure their lives are comfortable. These platforms of communication are indeed helpful, one can look at the social network’s role in the Arab Spring as a reference, yet one can’t say that Twitter or Facebook are truly hitting their full potential on a consistent basis. Our technology, meant to push the limits of human power, instead serve as a distraction from our own problems. When asked what she does to unwind back home, Dr. Stone tells Kowalsky that she drives and listens to the radio - a ritual of escapism to avoid the pain of losing her child. For her, like many people in the world, our gadgets are used to avoid the difficulties of reality - to cloud our mind and keep us from necessary introspection. If this is what we use technology for now, how excited should we be about integrating it into our biology? Comedian Louis C.K. actually did a bit on Conan O’Brien’s talk show about how we use technology to avoid our deeper feelings, thus keeping us from truly experiencing sorrow and potentially real joy. His story of sitting in a car weeping, and eventually being filled with bliss actually mirrors Dr. Stone’s growth in Gravity. You can watch it here:

Cuarón doesn’t merely want to do away with our technology and gadgets, instead he values the it as a tool for survival: the suits provide safety from space, the stations provide air, the radios provide communication and at one point comfort. But when Stone finally crashes back in the water surrounded by lush green environment, she sheds her mechanical placenta to show us that technology is ultimately disposable. Rather than pushing for the transhumanist fusion of man and machine, Cuarón’s Gravity wants the body to stand alone - an existential marvel to be celebrated for its design, both perfect and imperfect. Whether this body was created by divine hand or evolution, with the aid of technology or not, is irrelevant. All that matters is that it exists and that it endures.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thoughts on Gods of the Plague (Fassbinder, 1970)

In Gods of the Plague,  Fassbinder is aesthetically and structurally working from Godard's noir deconstructions(Band of Outsiders, Breathless) - a copy of a copy but still unique and personal, perhaps a mutation of a mutation would be more apt. The plot isn't particularly important and Fassbinder freely stops the the story dead in its tracks to wallow in melancholy. One break takes place when Franz listen's to a children's record, the rhymes are silly and meaningless, but there's a longing for the naivety of youth - when all you had to worry about was what sound the cows make. These deviations from plot and story accentuate a feeling of meaninglessness - that progression is useless and will only end in suffering or death, which in film noir is always the case.

Here the light draws attention to the door, in which someone will, of course, walk through momentarily.  By using the light in such an obvious way, Fassbinder is reminding you that this is a movie. It's a Brechtian technique to keep you engaged with the message of the story rather than using the film as an escapism.
Film noir lighting is generally high contrast to accentuate the inky black shadows, for Gods of the Plague the lighting is at times more extreme stark and overblown and with its own agenda. It encircles the characters, isolating them further within the frame and from each other. Like a prison spot light searching for escaped convicts, it leaves no place to hide, while also serving as an extension of the camera probing and violating the depths of the characters - what it reveals is the frustrated malaise of the oppressed. This theme of oppression is set up at the start - the first moment of the film is a close up of a sign to a penitentiary. We can hear a gate open and close before Franz walks into the frame, and the camera tracks him as he moves along the prison walls. We never saw Franz go into prison, and we never saw him actually come out. Moments later when asked what it was like on the inside, Franz responds "It's not much different than out here." This remark is the verbal punctuation to the visual statement made in the opening: if we didn't really see the inside of the prison or Franz's exit, then we're left with the feeling that Franz has really been set free and he confirms this feeling with his attitude and dialogue.

American noir from the 40's and 50's is seen as a existential conflict with post-war and post-Depression ideologies. Characters are trying to take a short cut to prosperity promised after sacrifices made abroad, knowing that the old fashioned way of working hard up the ladder is a pipe dream sold to suckers. However they know that their business is high risk and high reward, and this desperate drive in the face of mortality is the dark matter that holds the genre together. Taking this art form of American disenfranchisement and transplanting it in 1970 Germany means one has to take a moment to understand this new context from which the film is created. Based on the film alone, there is a clear ideological conflict in regards to capitalism and sexuality. Character's are open with their bodies and orientation. Franz has both female(Margarethe) and male(Gorilla) lovers, and they would rather do nothing else than just share each other all day, especially if the alternative is working. When Margarethe suggests she prostitute her body to support their lifestyle, Franz reacts violently. The motivation doesn't seem to come from misogyny but disgust at the idea that she would take her body, the only thing a person will always have direct power over, and pervert it with capitalist endeavors. This link between capitalism and sexuality is further defined by the smut peddler, who sells pornographic magazines. In the scene in which the following still is taken from, she sits at a table with Joanna and a corrupt cop, and tells them that her new black market merchandise has exciting "new positions" to stimulate. The shots of the magazine are graphic, depicting fellatio and vaginal intercourse, but the characters regard them with indifference. Selling sex strips it of its passion, making it a sterile transaction, while at the same time the ban on these materials perverts natural human act, not to be enjoyed. Intercourse rarely seems to bring any type of pleasure. Franz is undressed by his lover but his mind is elsewhere - the weight of the future is crushing him. 

For more context to aid in understanding this ideological conflict, one should read this highly informative thesis "Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: A Comparative Study Between West Germany and the United States" by Patricia Sannie Lee. She explains that during the reconstruction the Allied forces utilized the Church to "...reestablish 'normality' and 'decency'". Under this mandate, Christian conservatism won out over Christian progressives, putting an emphasis, much like in the United States, on getting the woman back in the home to focus on being a mother, wife and cook, and restoring the familial unit. Sexual education disappeared or, at the very least, severely limited by parents for fear that instruction would be mistaken as promotion, and pre-marital sex and promiscuity were considered detrimental to the rebuilding process. By the 1960's the post-war generation was fed up. There was a sexual revolution, not only in Germany but across the globe, with women particularly taking more control over their bodies, and with a general acceptance of humanity's sexual nature. In addition to the war over the body, there was also the German student movement of 1968 which protested Western imperialism, and rallied behind socialist ideologies. This movement also called for a more introspective focus on Germany's fascist history, specifically during the Third Reich, which lead the country to be divided by the Allied powers. The recognition of the fascist "sins of the father" hadn't truly been dealt with up until that point - only ignored and repressed. Gods of the Plague is born of this national discontent and and is pessimistic about the struggle.

The commercialism of sex looms over the bedroom.

Who the "Gods of the Plague" are isn't exactly clear, at least not at first. The Greek god Apollo, who presided over truth, healing, poetry and music, among other thing, was also known as the god of the plague. Perhaps Fassbinder looks at the social revolution as a plague, not out of disagreement with the ideas, but because of the difficulty that comes with shouldering the responsibilities of healing a country and being more socially conscious. In Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, Apollo is the one who, via an Oracle, gives Orestes the order to avenge his father's murder by killing his mother and her lover. When Orestes is brought to trial by the Furies, Apollo defends him arguing that marriage is a sacred bond that needed to be preserved, and from this perspective the "gods" in question are perhaps the people who enforced the oppressive conservative values in the first place. Despite the sense of defeat and hopelessness in Fassbinder's characters, this doesn't mean that Gods of the Plague sees the fight against social oppression as a pointless struggle, it clearly recognizes this ideological battle as urgent and necessary - it just doesn't know what to do about it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


In this scene, Sanshiro Sugata, a feared judo-ka who earned his reputation after inadvertently killing his opponent, learns that the young woman he has been visiting, Sayo Murai, is the daughter of his next opponent. Their relationship began after Sanshiro admired her praying for her father.

The following two shots are Sanshiro realizing that Sayo's father is Hansuke Murai, his next opponent. Kurosawa shoots Sanshiro from below, but contrasts his literal higher status with his low feelings. This image itself is contrasted again with Sayo, who is shot at a position lower to Sanshiro, but her feelings are considerably more positive.

Kurosawa then re-frames the characters inside an archway. This creates a box that both characters are trapped in.

Sanshiro, uncomfortable and afraid, attempts to leave this "box" but despite moving further down the stairs is unable to escape it.

After a moment of contemplation, Sanshiro returns up the stairs and informs Sayo that he is the man her father will face at the judo match.

Their positions have not changed, but Kurosawa doesn't film them at as steep an angle as before. The camera seems more level to both. Sayo's joy turns to horror, and Sanshiro begins dealing with his responsibility as a fighter and as a human. They're complicated emotions that can't just be implied by obvious camera angles, Kurosawa lets the actors do the work instead.

We now cut back to a similar shot looking down the stairs, but this time the camera is placed in front of the door frame. Sanshiro is now "free" to move down the path. The camera is also placed in front of Sayo, perhaps it is her point of view, but this also keeps the two characters separated now that Sanshiro has revealed his identity.

This next shot shows Sayo caught in the middle of the stairs, unsure of to go up or down. Above her is the shrine where she prayed, and thus represents her father. Below, of course represents Sanshiro Sugata, the man she is attracted to but also the man who may seriously injure her father.

Kurosawa cuts again to a more distant shot, the stairs seem to extend even further from her on either side. This fully illustrates how lost and alone she feels at this moment. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Thoughts on Maniac(Khalfoun, 2012)

The main gimmick in Maniac (Khalfoun, 2012) is that, with the exception of some fantasies, it’s all filmed from the killer's point of view. Your perspective of the film is shaped purely by the antagonist vision of the events. In this respect, it's like the anti-found-footage movie. The tension in found-footage films like Atrocious (Luna, 2010) or [REC] (Balagueró; Plaza, 2007)  works because of what you don't know and can't see. You only get as much information as the person, usually the protagonist, holding the camera. By isolating your perspective in this way, these films effectively simulate the feeling of being stalked or terrorized, becoming a virtual reality for people who like being scared. With Maniac, Khalfoun switches perspectives to the villain, and the antagonist’s view in horror films is generally more omniscient. Think of Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers, who seem to always know where you are and can be behind whatever corner you’re going to turn. Frank (Elijah Wood), the killer in Maniac, is just like them, able to hide in the shadows and see everything you're doing without you knowing it.  As an audience member, who surely doesn’t want to play the role of the bad guy,  this means you have to fight against the forced perspective and attempt to identify with the victim in the distance, but it’s too difficult - they’re too distant and for the most part you don’t know anything about them other than they’re not going to make it. There is a strange feeling of guilt, having to lurk around with Frank, and stand idly by while he hacks and scalps. It doesn't really make for good tension, but it does make for an interesting, albeit dirty, experience.
The film often displays characteristics of POV Porn, where a character gets to know a girl in a fantastical situation, like picking up a hitchhiker in your bus and she just so happens to be willing to have sex with them. Maniac has this in certain situation, like the dancer on the train station which just so happens to be completely devoid of anyone who can catch them in the act. But in Maniac, sex is rejected for violence, and because of our brain’s inclination to empathically take on the first person perspective as our own, this causes us to experience something we wouldn’t really want to experience. It’s reminiscent of video games, in which you control characters that are expected to kill or destroy in order to progress the story. If you want to see how the movie ends, you have to stick with Frank the whole way. However these games, in which you assume a virtual reality as your own, are generally considered to be enjoyable, while the experience in Maniac is unsettling and uncomfortable. This is most likely because of the very real human beings conveying suffering as opposed to pixelated avatars that no one feels bad for when they bleed out. Unless their name is Aeris.
Additionally there's an aspect of misogyny that can't be avoided, but because it's so intentional it becomes more interesting than your garden variety macho bullshit. Frank desires an idealized version of women, not wanting to take in any particular flaws that would actually make them human beings. Take the girl he meets over the internet for example. She is not virginal or angelic, but a rebel and very forward sexually. This give her power and independence that unsettles Frank, even though she hasn’t exhibited any truly negative behavior. Even though she questions his masculinity when he becomes uncomfortable about the idea of sleeping with her, she also subjugates herself to him by performing oral sex. Her character has a balance of independence and submissiveness, but Frank is upset by her nature and decides to kill her. Since this is the perspective of a villain it's okay, but the film takes it further by adding a cliche backstory involving his mother, who was a bad mom doing drugs and banging dudes in front of her son. The women Frank desires are meant to fill a void left by his mother. They need to be the opposite of her, taking on qualities that he feels best represents a good mother. This backstory attempts to create sympathy for the villain by saying he's a product of nurture and puts blame on the female character for not being a good mother. She created the beast, and he's now wreaking havoc on women everywhere. Thanks mom.
Another cliche is then added: The Shitty Boyfriend. Take The Wedding Singer (Coraci, 1998) as an example. Robbie (Adam Sandler) falls in love with Julia (Drew Barrymore) but Julia is engaged. The good news is that Julia's fiance is a complete dick bag. He's so awful that you can't fathom why someone perfect like Julia, who is funny, smart and cute, would be with a callous, materialistic, douche. The Shitty Boyfriend disposes of any ambiguity regarding the protagonist's quest to obtain his heart's desire, even when she's given herself to another - so we have no other choice than to root for Robbie, or whatever underdog in a similar situation, to succeed. She deserves better! This character somehow finds its way into Maniac. Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is not unlike Julia from The Wedding Singer. She's cute, smart, and appreciative of art. Frank isn't unlike Robbie, socially awkward with anger issues. Jason, Anna's boyfriend is the belligerent alpha male, assuming Frank is gay and marking his territory by wiping his hands on Frank's jacket after using the bathroom. Exposure to countless stories have given us a Pavlovian response to the Shitty Boyfriend, and Maniac uses that, much like The Shitty Mom, to garner more sympathy for someone whose actions should render him completely unsympathetic.
There’s a strange false catharsis at the end of Maniac. Frank seemingly has everything he think he wants, Anna is added as the crown jewel of his collection, but succumbs to the wounds sustained from their earlier confrontation. As he dies he imagines the women he’s killed tearing him apart and eating him alive. This moment, in which we can witness all the victims getting a gruesome revenge on their killer, while visually engaging, doesn’t feel like a denouement meant to purge all those icky feelings we’ve had to deal with the whole film. Maybe we’re supposed to get some solace in knowing that Frank still didn’t get what he wanted, but at what cost? Frank getting ripped apart was merely a fantasy, the victims didn’t really get any revenge - they died horrible and sad deaths. And because we’d developed some kind sympathetic relationship with the character, it comes off more like a release for Frank - who no longer has to suffer and create suffering.

In many films from the “extreme horror” niche, to which this film’s writer/producer Alexandre Aja helped pioneer with Haute Tension(Aja, 2003), there is almost always a lack of catharsis for the audience. It’s a classification of horror films characterized by nihilism, seeing the worst in human nature, while victims are reduced to carved meat.The characters will undoubtedly die in a cruel way, and usually the villains will walk away, leaving little hope to hang on to for the viewer. And what could be scarier than hopelessness? At their worst, these types of films are two dimensional gore fests in which the audience stands by waiting for the villains to just end the pain so we won’t feel bad anymore. The best of these, Martyrs (Laugier, 2008), leaves the audience with questions about the film’s purpose and what the big idea is with watching all this suffering.  Maniac isn’t as interesting as Martyrs but it feels closer to that direction, philosophically, than other films of this ilk. We’re left with conflicting feelings about compassion for horrible people, but because of the cliche and simplistic methods used to create these feelings, it doesn’t explore the themes as effectively as it could. However, the ideas are there and interesting enough to discuss, which is probably more important than any quality issues.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About The Blob (Yeaworth Jr., 1958)

It's kind of sad that Steve McQueen doesn't look nearly as engaged or interested in this film as I am. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe his attitude, in contrast to the fun and earnestness in which the other actor's play their parts, further defines the campy strengths. You can see in his eyes that he'd rather be anywhere else. When he overacts it's fueled by exasperation that these are the lines he's been given in his first starring role in film. You probably wouldn't blame him. Before all this he'd been a Marine, a motorcycle racer, and a student of the Sanford Meisner method of acting. And now at 28 years old the future "King of Cool" was playing a pretty tame teenager who doesn't care to race cars and doesn't make the moves on the girl. He's probably right. He's much too cool for this type of film. No matter. The Blob eats his condescension and only grows stronger.

The Blob feels like it took its cue from other teen exploitation movies of the era. Films like High School Confidential (Arnold, 1958) and Untamed Youth (Koch, 1957), that propagated fears that the nation's youth were out of control and needed the reinforcement of good ol' American Values to set them straight. At the same time these pictures were cashing in on those teens who showed up to the drive-ins to watch rambunctious rabble-rousers raise hell and race hot-rods. But Steve McQueen's character isn't much of a rebel and neither are the other teens, who'd really rather just hang out and watch spooky movies. The teens in The Blob do run into the same problems as the ones in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955), another film originally meant to exploit the fears of juvenile delinquency (though director Nicholas Ray decided he was firmly on the side of the kids, setting it apart from all the others). Just as James Dean fails to communicate with his elders about what's going on in his life as it spins out of control, Steve McQueen and company are unable to convince prejudiced adults that there's a monster on the loose about to ravage the whole town. An adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he feels lost - an adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he's talking about a red mass that grows larger as it absorbs people and cannot be easily stopped. Same difference, you see.

The threat of the red menace is always present in the film. The color palette is mostly blue hues, with some earth tone exceptions inside a couple of homes. But in nearly every shot there's something or someone bright red to reminds us the creature could be anywhere.
In the following shot we see Mooch's red shirt and Nick's red car lurking behind the blues of Steve's car. When Steve races the car backwards it leads to him being reprimanded by Lieutenant Dave. It's this initial mistake by Steve that create seeds of doubt for the police officer of the film. They think he's just another delinquent trying to get a rise out of them for kicks.

Here we have Mrs. Porter, dressed in red. Her character enters the crime scene and explains with certainty that Dr. Hallern is off to a convention. No matter what Steve says, she has an alternate explanation as to where Hallern is and how he's getting there.

Here Nick and his date are trying to explain to a group of adults that there's a monster on the loose, but the party goers are too inebriated to pay him much attention. The red lantern, hanging over the heads of all the party goers, both signifies the threat of the Blob and represents the obstacle keeping the kids from being understood - the party itself.

It's hard not to look at the Blob as a metaphor for the threat of communism, especially given the time and place, and of course the big red creature that's threatening to absorb everyone you know and love. As the threat of the Blob becomes obvious to everyone in town, all characters young and old unite to fight against it. The cure for juvenile delinquency and the age gap is something to fight against, and what better enemy than the communist threat of Russia.

The final battle between the town and the Blob is reminiscent of Godzilla (Honda, 1954). When guns fail the small town police, they shoot down a power line in an attempt to electrocute the red mass, and, much like the electric fence failed to stop Godzilla in Japan, The Blob continued its reign of terror. Only through dumb luck does Steve realize that the only way to combat the extraterrestrial threat is freezing it, thus waging a "cold war" to stop the monster. But you can never kill it, you can only contain it. Before the military drops the creature off in the arctic, far outside our borders, Steve tells us that as long as it stays cold, we'll be safe - a line that Al Gore would surely shake his head at now. The insinuation is that this threat will always be out there and that our fight against it will be indefinite, a philosophy that has fueled our military industrial complex ever since. This is a stark contrast to Godzilla (Honda, 1954). In that film, a Japanese scientist invents the ultimate weapon - the Oxygen Destroyer - that only he knows how to create. When the weapon is detonated the scientist sacrifices himself so that the secrets of the weapon will be forever lost - a gesture meant to convey that wars and arms races will end in tragedy and must cease. It's inconsequential whether these messages were intended by the director or writer of The Blob. Viewing the film within the context of history makes it difficult to avoid such readings.

Despite my, admittedly indulgent, negative interpretation of The Blob's "message", I still enjoy the film. It still feels innocent and unaware of its influences - a film that's just wanting to have a good time, yet still a product of a nation's misguided fear of anything outside its borders. I blame nurture over nature. The joy in The Blob comes from its pride in just being a film. It displays reverence for the art form. When Steve asks his friends to walk out of a scary movie they look at him incredulously "Get up? In the middle of a movie?" And it's not until the Blob attacks the sanctity of the cinema that the townspeople realize how much trouble they're in. The theater is still regarded as a sacred safe zone today. It's within its walls that we can experience anything and everything with complete freedom. The pain of loss in Amour (Haneke, 2012), the thrill of adventure in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), the fear of an unstoppable red mass that absorbs everything in its path. And we can do it, (and this is the sexy part) with a room full of other people doing it at the same time. When those sheltered boundaries are breached, as they were in Aurora, Colorado where a young man fired on an innocent film audience, it is most disturbing.

Maybe what I love the most about The Blob is that, despite the camp and kitsch, it still manages a reaction deeper than it probably intended. The best films are the ones that help us communicate with each other, and while The Blob may not be what many consider "high art", it certainly facilitates a conversation or two. And in the technology age, which sometimes feels like the age of isolation, in which we hide behind smart phones, earbuds, and a host of other borders, a little conversation sounds like a great idea.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

FROM CIFF 2013: BLUEBIRD (Edmands, 2013)

The opening moments of Bluebird let you know everything that’s coming. In the snowy Maine forests, we observe machines methodically cutting down trees, sawing them down to manageable sizes before grinding them down to pulp. The detached, observant camera will work the same way, slowly chiseling down the characters until we get to the guts of them.  But through it we’ll learn, just as they’ll learn, that they’re lonely isolated people, surrounding themselves with glass and metal to protect themselves from the harshness of the environment and, more tragically, each other.

The interconnection between man, nature and industry runs throughout the film. The title Bluebird  could refer to a couple of things. The inciting incident of the film that pushes all the characters awkwardly together happens because Lesley was distracted by a bluebird that flew on to her bus. The presence of the bird is unsettling - it’s the middle of winter in Maine and all the birds should be on vacation down south. Perhaps this bird was left behind by its family connecting it to Owen, who will be left on a bus by himself over night. Or the title could be referring to the Bluebird Corporation who manufacture and sell the buses that our school children ride on everyday. When asked about the title during a Q&A, writer/director Lance Edmands said he had the title before there was even a Bluebird, but didn’t expound on where exactly it came from in the first place. Perhaps he is imitating his own art, unaware of the connections he makes to his own film just as the characters in the film are oblivious to their commonality.

In some ways Bluebird is reminiscent to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films(who’s next film, coincidentally, is called Birdman), with characters playing out their own personal dramas, but in many cases not knowing how they relate to one another, or what part they play in a certain chain of events that ties them together. In Iñárritu’s Babel, you have a Japanese man who gifted a gun that shot the tourists, whose children are being watched by the Mexican nanny, who is also an illegal immigrant and gets deported - and maybe none of the events happen without the first man gifting the gun. An illustration of how much a small action can affect people you may never know. Bluebird’s connections are more trivial, but possibly more personal. For example Lesley’s daughter, Paula, winds up a dozen or so snow globes as she stocks them in the clearance aisle at her work. Later Marla would come and buy one of those same snow globes as a gift for her ailing son. In another moment Marla, high on drugs, falls asleep in her bathtub. She awakes in the freezing water to the news that her son was left in a bus last night and he now suffers from hypothermia. The principle thread that connects Lesley and Marla, forgetting Owen on the bus, is presented not so the film can spend its duration finding someone to blame - they both share responsibility - but in showing the difficulty human beings have dealing with these burdens.

This self-conflict feels like the film’s preoccupation. The dialogue is short and terse and feels like pulling teeth from a jaw wired shut for years. And the few emotional outbursts between characters, though usually out of anger, feel cathartic because they’re finally letting themselves be affected or to affect others. These are people who know something is wrong but don’t even know what it is, clumsily fumbling around obstacles, unable to help each other because they’re busy with their own personal conflict. Lesley’s refrain of “I’m fine” is just as ironic as Marla’s confession “I just want to be like a real human being.” Lesley isn’t fine and Marla is a real human being, it’s just that being a human sucks sometimes.

After the Q&A with Edmands, those of us who stuck around slowly shuffled out of the theater and I overheard a woman ahead of me:  “Well, I still don’t like the ending,” she said to her friend. Still. It sounded as though she were defending her sensibilities despite the director coming off as a nice guy. Before the movie had started Edmands told us we’d have questions and he’d try his best answer them. I think the film answered enough. Most questions people will have when the credits roll will be inconsequential. Does the boy survive? Does the marriage work out? Does Marla drop the lawsuit? Depending on your disposition you could answer these any way you want, there’s no wrong answer here. And while these questions may frustrate viewers, it seemed clear that this film was never about resolution. It’s about acknowledging that you have a problem, not how they get fixed. We’ve seen enough of those films, we know how they end. But by putting the focus on the internal conflict of recognizing your own faults and allowing others to see them too, Edmands is able to mine some interesting, beautiful, human moments that would possibly get lost in other movies trying to fit in all that tedious resolution. So what if they live happily ever after, just as long as they live.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lights and The Color Red in The Lords of Salem (2012)

In The Lords of Salem, Zombie uses practical lighting to create a supernatural feeling in simple shots. Through out the film there are multiple lamps in nearly every shot, and all of them have a blown out effect, contrasting their brightness with the dreariness of the scenery. The lights symbolize a the supernatural, surrounding all the characters through out the film. In this shot of the hallway the furthest light swings from side to side inexplicably, further illustrating the lights as a key component to the supernatural world.

In these two shots, Zombie uses the lights to connect the characters of Lacy Doyle(Judy Geeson) and Heidi(Sherri Moon-Zombie). Their relationship on the surface is that of landlady and tenant. When they go their separate ways, Lacy makes her way up the stairs surrounded by three lights.

Zombie cuts from this shot to the following of  Heidi walking outside, also surrounded by glowing lights. This visual queue shows that these characters will be more connected than their relationship would lead you to believe - which is bad news for Heidi.

Beyond the general practical lighting, Zombie also makes strong use of the color red to signify the fantastical. The first moment in which Heidi experiences something otherworldly is during her night with Whitey(Jeff Daniel Phillips). Here he's dancing to Venus in Furs by The Velvet Underground. Here we can see two practical lights that we perceive as giving off the primary light of the room. But we can see the ceiling lights in the background and a lamp on the far left that are shaded in red.

When they put on The Lords record, the white lights are seemingly overtaken by the red ones. Notice that the camera has now moved further down than in the previous shot and tilted upward - showing more of the red ceiling lights than before.

 The camera tracks from right to left, as Heidi moves further from Whitey. Eventually the red lamp eclipses the white bulb:

We then cut a close up of Heidi as she seemingly experiences a flashback involving the witches persecuted by Jonathan Hawthorne.
This use of red continues through out the film, like when Heidi first enters Apartment #5 the room is lit by a red cross.

After this Zombie becomes more somewhat more subversive with his use of red, as the superantual world bleeds into Heidi's normal life. For example, Megan(Patricia Quinn) , the most abrasive of witches has red hair.  In the scene where she dreams of being raped by the priest, the red returns as a part of the walls in the background and the drapes.

The red is also used when the Lacy, Megan and Sonny(Dee Wallace) reveal their true nature by killing Francis Matthias(Bruce Davison). When we were in Lacy's apartment previously, the color scheme was closer to green.

It's when Heidi eventually succumbs to her addiction she makes her way to her dealer, who has a bright red door. This moment is pivotal to the film because it's Heidi who is comes to the color, and it's after this moment, where she fully succumbs to the will of her tormentors.

The skulls on the door become her mask once she starts smoking heroin again and gives herself to Satan in Apartment #5.

This all leads to Heidi giving birth as the witches rub the blood from her womb all over her body. The color red has washed over her body and she realizes her destiny as the mother of Stan's child. Congratulations Heidi.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


I AM WAITING (Kurahara, 1957)
Joji is a former boxer, who gave up his successful career when he killed a guy in a bar fight. Saeko is lounge singer who thinks she accidentally killed a guy who wanted to turn her to prostitution. You'd think this connection would be ripe for a love story, but in Kurahara's noir, the characters are so over come by their own problems that romantic love seems almost impossible to contemplate.

Kurahara illustrated this personal disconnection through some striking shot compositions. First we see Joji staring off into the water, the water represents new opportunity - Joji later tells his doctor friend there's nothing left for him in Japan his future is across the sea in Brazil.  In this frame Saeko is approaching from Joji's restaurant, unsure if she should intrude on Joji's contemplation.

After a day at the boxing matches, Saeko's past catches up with her but Joji is able to scare the thug off. In the following scene we get a beautifully shot scene by the bay, where Joji and Saeko are silhouetted. They are lost unsure of where they're going and physically and mentally disconnected with each other. The scene ends with both staring off into the water, seemingly waiting for an answer to their prayers that never comes.

In this shot below, the two are divided by a diagonal line, with Saeko surrounded by the water and Joji in the concrete. In this scene Saeko is trying to make a connection but it fails. She has the power to do this because she's come to grips with her new identity. In the same scene we cut to an even more dramatic composition that shows just how far away Joji is from Saeko. Joji has some learning to do.

It's not until Joji reconciles his past that he and Saeko can even exist on the same plane. Often times films and stories use romantic love as a way of saving a troubled character. But in the philosophy of Kurahara's I Am Waiting, love has to wait until we are able regain our own individual identity. How can we love another when we don't even know who we are?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Words and Images: The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

"I want to talk to you as openly as I can, but my heart is empty. The emptiness is a mirror turned towards my own face. I see myself in it, and I am filled with fear and disgust. Through my indifference to my fellow men, I have isolated myself from their company. Now I live in a world of phantoms. I am imprisoned in my dreams and fantasies."
-The Knight 

In this scene the Knight gives his speech to a wall as if looking in a mirror. He sees emptiness because he is looking into nothing but stone, literally. The imprisonment is represented by the following shot with him caged in on the other side of the confessional. Death asks him why he is trying to prolong his life, and the Knight answers that he's trying to know god - to know for sure of his existence. We can see this illustrated in this third shot in which the crucified Jesus hangs over Death's shoulder. This image tells us that the Knight can not know god until he accepts death.

I love this scene in the movie. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013


I noticed this visual cue that unites Jude Law and Rooney Mara's characters in Soderbergh's Side Effects. Both characters are seemingly going though an emotional crises at two separate times of the film. I find that his decision to use this light behind a character's head an interesting one because of it's place in art history. Religious paintings use a light behind a character's head to show that character has been touched by divinity.

But neither of Soderbergh's characters are saints, that's for sure.


Side Effects(Soderbergh, 2013)
I recently watched Side Effects and wanted to explore briefly some of the cool stuff visual cues Soderbergh uses to unite his twisty narrative. Spoilers ahead, so watch it first, coz it's good, and come back and check this out. Then watch it again.

At the start of Side Effects, Soderburgh brings us into an apartment window. First we can see the city itself. The street is to the left and surround the building. Then we slowly pan right and eventually zoom into a window that belongs to Emily and Martin Taylor(Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum). Once we're in the apartment the action of the story beings, telling us a story about how Emily came to killing her husband.

As we come in closer to The Taylor's apartment the complex feels less like a building and more like a spreadsheet. Soderbergh explores these elements though out the film by using objects to create a secondary frame around the characters. Take this shot for example:

 One of the best shots of the film, Soderbergh shows in one frame Emily's isolation from all the people at the party, whom we can see in the window's reflection staring at her. He also frames her with two black bars making her feel even more closed off from society. This shot is also foreshadowing later as Emily is eventually sent to jail for the murder of her husband.

There's also an irony in this still in that even though Emily is technically outside, standing on the deck of a boat, she's more closed off than those in the room. Soderbergh plays with this irony multiple times through out the film. Like here where we see from Emily's point of view, Dr. Banks(Jude Law) and Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones):
The bars both frame the outside characters while also reflecting Emily's own imprisonment.

Soderbergh sets up a somewhat humorous and cruel joke by showing Dr. Jonathan Banks outside, surrounded by boxes on the wall behind him and the squares on the ground. The space feels very open and deserted:

The punchline at the end of this scene is that even though they're outside, Jude Law is actually just in a bigger box:

At film's end zoom out from Emily's place in the psyche ward and pan left ending showing the lack of connection to the rest of civilization. Unlike the first shot, the road now veers at an extreme angle away from the building, illustrating Emily's break from society.