Category: Film

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A screenshot from Andrew Kotting's "This Filthy Earth" (2001)

Des Morts, Des Semences: On Andrew Kotting’s “This Filthy Earth” (2001)

British cinema has had an unsatisfactory history – in its battles with censorship, and public morality, and the untenable economics of it all. You only need to look across the Channel to see what can happen when free of even a few of those constraints – you get a French new wave, or later, cinema of the extreme. That’s why films like Andrew Kotting’s This Filthy Earth aren’t made – because to be frank, nobody will watch them.

Derek Jarman struggled with similar problems, because for all of his technical expertise, his films never sated British appetites. His explorations of the texture of cinema might be a bit too continental. Andrew Kotting, an adherent to Jarman’s rampant style, has found something similar, because This Filthy Earth is an example of a movie going largely ignored by the country it concerns.

Maybe Kotting knew this, and that’s why he loosely adapted this story from a seminal French novel – La Terre, by Émile Zola. Loosely is operative, as the film attempts to translocate the themes Zola put forward through the characteristics only cinema can embody. Texture, montage, diaphanous images that fade into each other, all while stripping away the characteristics of its literary counterpart. This is to the film’s strength until its troubled third act, when it listlessly melts into weightless resolutions. […]

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A still shot from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Mirror" (Zerkalo) (1975)

Contained In Captivity: On Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” (Zerkalo)

I open this essay unsure how to approach it—I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror about a dozen times, and each viewing is different. Each is a separate experience and yields something new. I find myself mentally revisiting certain scenes over others, but then in rewatching, my mind will rearrange into whatever I am feeling at the time. Perhaps, then, this is the best way to interpret this memorable film about memory, where it captures just how the mind drifts between past and present and often interchanges people’s faces with that of one’s dream. Reality and dream—is there a difference? To Tarkovsky, they are one and the same, as the director admitted that he often utilized his own dreams as an inspirational source for his films. And his films really are the closest one could get into being inside another’s dream. Decades pass in moments and then the past returns and then some occurrence in present day alters the viewers—we come to remember another’s memory and so on.

The film begins with a television screen—this gateway into fantasy—where the viewer, presumably the speaker (named Alexei), is witnessing on film a young man with a stutter—he is undergoing treatment at the hand of a nurse, and the film, which involves so much of the mind, begins with the body. ‘Your hands are tense,’ she says. ‘Lean back,’ she instructs, continually coaching his physical form. Then, in some hypnotic attempt, the young man is cured of his stutter, wherein we are then transported to another form of ‘hypnosis’— that is, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s dream. All this occurs before the title credits roll.

Margarita Terekhova is the actress who plays both Alexei’s mother as well as his ex-wife, Natalia. ‘I always thought you resembled my mother,’ he tells her. ‘When I imagine my mother, she always has your face.’ This is an insightful move on Tarkovsky’s part, as how often have we thought of someone only to imbue another’s face from memory onto them? That the scenes move back and forth between Alexei as a boy in 1935 pre-war to that of present day, only adds to this element of passage. Life and time are interchangeable. Our minds are just the onlookers, the photographers left to interpret what we’ve witnessed. […]

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A screenshot of the protagonist from Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven"

The Grace of Spectacle: On Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)

Straight out of the gate: Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven is not a great film. It’s not near-great. It’s not even that good. It is seriously flawed and oftentimes disappointing. However, I argue that despite its flaws, Kingdom of Heaven is not garbage, nor even very bad. My judgment: Kingdom of Heaven is a so-so film with a weak screenplay, subpar acting from its male lead, and some glimmers of what could have been a great film. I also argue that although many rightfully skewer the film for its historical inaccuracies, historical in/accuracy is not the end-all-be-all criteria for evaluating historical films. In addition, I argue that the film’s saving grace is its look, and Ridley offers the viewer enough of a spectacle that Kingdom of Heaven rises just above the murk, however stained.

THE NARRATIVE

It is 1184. The film opens in a gloomy, miserable France, where we are introduced to Balian (Orlando Bloom), the protagonist. He is the resident blacksmith, ex-soldier, as well as a widower (his wife having committed suicide after the death of their infant) and wears an “expression” of bleak, handsome indifference which may or may not alter in minute degrees during this three-hour-long epic. He has a half-brother (Michael Sheen), a sniveling, greedy priest, who wants Balian’s property for himself. He half-asses the burial of Balian’s wife, which will later prove his undoing.

The events of Kingdom of Heaven are kicked off by the arrival of a crusader named Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) with a cohort of other warriors, including a Hospitaler (David Thewlis). Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father, and asks him to join their journey back to the Holy Land. Balian refuses, and the crusaders leave. Miffed by Balian’s stolidity, his brother admits to beheading the corpse of his wife, the “true” punishment for a suicide, in an effort to enrage Balian into leaving. Of course, it backfires, and Balian murders him via impalement and burning. […]

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A still from Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman

On Shohei Imamura’s “The Insect Woman” (1963): Cycles, Transitions, Ellipses

The first time I watched Shohei Imamura’s 1963 classic The Insect Woman, it took me a few seconds to understand why its strange ending works. As there were only two or three minutes of the film left, I kept looking at its runtime, thinking “How the hell will this movie end?”, and then it did.

It ends in an ellipsis, but not the sort of cliffhanger one would normally think. It is not like the one closing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which immediately makes sense, as there is a hovering hint of disaster that would be missed were that film “resolved”. Instead, The Insect Woman ends where one would least expect it; in the middle of a long walk the main character is taking. Not only does there not seem to be a logical conclusion to the events in the narrative, but there is no closure at an emotional level, neither.

The reason such an ending works is that Shohei Imamura’s film is about cycles, found between generations, without origin or completion. Were the film to conclude more traditionally, its themes would not be as hard-hitting as they are. Life does not have beginnings or endings as much as it has “transitions”, and although Imamura’s film is, like all art, artifice, it commits to framing this reality. It may be because of this commitment that, although the film sometimes seems like a stream of tragedies in the life of its main character, it never overwhelms nor devolves into melodrama. […]

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Jeanne in handcuffs from Robert Bresson's "The Trial of Joan of Arc"

Crossed Examination: On Robert Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc” (1962)

Few historical figures have occupied as many works as that of Jeanne d’Arc. For someone having only lived 19 years, her death in 1431 is considered both iconic and cruel—that this young, illiterate peasant girl from a small French town could somehow be summoned by angelic voices to lead the French Army in the One Hundred Years War. Even as I write this, the events within such a deeply misogynistic society seem implausible—the story of legends.

And yet, there really was a Jeanne d’Arc and the events as we’ve been told really did happen. Perhaps this is why so many have attempted to relay her tale—each imbuing themselves into whatever image one imagines. Just as there are no known images of her—no paintings, no pictures—we are faced with the dilemma of constructing our own idea of Jeanne. Just who was she?

Robert Bresson admitted in a 1962 interview with Page Cinema that he’d always been drawn to do a film about her. “An attempt to make her present,” he said. “We are kidding ourselves if we see Jeanne as the little peasant girl of the legends. I think she was very elegant. Witnesses, people around at that time said this. I see her as a modern young girl,” he added. […]

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A soldier on the beach from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017): Style, Not Substance

Is there a better example this year of a film carried along by pure technique than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

Let’s get the goings-on out of the way, first. Luckily, there’s not that much to explain:

It is World War II. Allied forces have been effectively ousted from France by the Germans. The last of the French hold the Germans at bay, while the British await evacuation off the port town of Dunkirk in Northern France. Home is a Channel away, but as falling pamphlets early in the narrative indicate, the Germans surround them with Luftwaffe, U-boats, and infantry. The film is divided in three parts: Land (“The Mole”), Sea (“The Sea’) and Air (“The Air”), interconnected by event, but not necessarily by time. Typical of Christopher Nolan, the film’s conclusion contains a dovetailing of each section, tying the plot, and diegetic time, neatly together. We mainly follow a few officers, infantrymen, citizens on volunteer vessels, and RAF pilots, each in their respective section. Essentially, the officers fret over time and attack, the infantrymen die in hordes and attempt to escape, and the RAF pilots pick off attacking Luftwaffe until the citizen volunteers arrive, and the British ferry around 300,000 to safety across the Channel. The film ends with the surviving ground forces back in a celebratory Great Britain, one of the officers overseeing the evacuation of French troops, and one of the RAF aces captured by Nazis after his plane is downed.

And that’s the plot, really, save for that we follow select individuals along the way…and yet, do they matter all that much? […]

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Character pointing gun in John Sayles's Lone Star

John Sayles’s “Lone Star” (1996): Racial Drama, Greek Tragedy, Western

At its core, John Sayles’s Lone Star is about such demarcations, and who, ultimately, gets to do the demarcating. It’s also about the oftentimes tense relations between the multi-ethnic populations of a small town on the US-Mexico border, as well as the corruption that stems from evil; and, as if those weren’t enough to handle, there’s enough time for a tender tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s a testament to Sayles’s skills as an artist that Lone Star manages to juggle all these narratives (and more) while still coming across as a coherent whole, its themes bold enough for most audiences to detect their presence but deployed with such subtlety to reward repeated viewings. It’s the above quotation, however, that reveals John Sayles as not only the great American independent filmmaker but one of the medium’s keenest observers of societal conflict, whether it be in urban cityscapes (City of Hope), the colonial tropics (Amigo) or more fantastical, rustic settings (The Secret of Roan Inish). That he puts these words in the mouth of a mildly bigoted bartender, in a moment of seemingly throwaway comedy, shows his attention to detail, as even tertiary characters are given more than one dimension and are treated not as window dressing but as ordinary people with their own wants, aims, and philosophies, despite their brevity. It’s ordinary people, after all, who live among such demarcations, and it’s ordinary people who suffer men like Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds to administer, encourage and/or expunge them. […]

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A shot of two actors from Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light

Classic? Re-evaluating Lino Brocka’s “Manila in the Claws of Light” (1975)

A dirty corner of the street. Late evening. Julio Madiaga’s face in the lamplight. The vibrancy of his eyes is caught in desperation: a silhouette in the window above him. A woman arranges her hair. A memory from a past paradise flashes into frame. Madiaga had a girlfriend, once upon a time. Their paths diverged after a cruel woman took her away on a boat to the capital. She vanished shortly thereafter. He can only guess at her fate, but the city provides him with many educated guesses. (The pimps who cajole him on the curb with their wares – prostitutes, often blank faced, or simply faceless – suggest some sinister end.) Already the city has battered him into destitution, and on the intersection of Misericordia and Ongpin, what he’s come from the provincial town of his birth to find is barred behind a rectangle of light, which immobilizes him, brightens every twitch on his face, and discloses the answer to his question within a shadow – the claws of light, indeed. Illumination, in this story, is no comfort, and often is representative of some misery of either Madiaga or, more cogently, the city which consumes him. […]