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A shot from Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's film, The Red Shoes (1948)

Lost Within a Maze of Ballet: “The Red Shoes” (1948)

There are some films where the audience remains a witness, where we sit off to the side and marvel at the lives of those we see on screen. And then there are the films that are so overwhelming in their immersion that, to quote Roger Ebert in his review, ‘You don’t watch it, you bathe in it.’ Perhaps ‘bathe’ seems too sensational a word, and it just might be, were it not for the grand use of Technicolor coupled with the marvel of this single dancer, Victoria Page (played by Moira Shearer) flowing in glory. The 1948 film is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale with the same title, wherein a young girl is given a pair of red shoes that goad her to dance. So, she dances and dances until she is forced to amputate her feet, and even after doing so, her feet continue to dance on their own. Like many of Andersen’s tales, the story has a gruesome end, and perhaps this film is not too far off.

On one hand, The Red Shoes is a story of ballet—the desire to succeed and to be seen, and on the other lurks the desire to be happy, loved and fulfilled. For some, artistic success and love go together and for others they are forced to choose. Victoria falls in love with a young composer named Julian Craster, and for a time she seems happy. Yet this would not be a film were it not for the tension of one’s artistic drive over one’s life. Ingmar Bergman once said that he could live in his art but never in his life. For Victoria, it seems she can have one or the other, but not both.

She and Julian are forced to keep their romance secret from the company’s impresario who seethes with apparent jealousy. And yet, he never appears to have romantic feelings for Victoria, or if he does, he is poor at showing it. The character, played by Anton Walbrook, possesses just the charm, and the correct kind of cunning. He is manipulative and underhanded, but only at a distance. One might guess the source of his jealousy stems from his belief that Victoria is his alone, as in, his dancer, his possession. He made her a star, after all. ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never,’ he informs her. Just as within a fairy tale, his so-called gift of stardom has a price. […]

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A snapshot of images from the video, set to Emily Haines's song, Statuette.

How To Use Women: Matthew O’Rourke’s “Statuette” (2021) & Emily Haines

Hello. You don’t know me, but before we proceed you should at least know my film, Statuette. The link is here. It’s 6 minutes long. Watch.

Maybe you know me now. Maybe you don’t. Part of me hopes not. There’s an argument that filmmakers, more than any artists, aren’t represented in their art. I mean: want to write a great poem? Simply write a great poem! A great novel? Easy! What’s stopping you? Sure, you may not get these things published, but you can still make precisely the art you want, about the topics you want, from the comfort of your own home.

But, alas, the poor filmmakers. Orson Welles once bemoaned that we don’t know his films, just the ones that got produced, and I – slyly pushing myself into the same sentence – reckon I understood. You think I dreamt all my life about making a short film about women in porn? Well, I didn’t. But circumstances happen, and the idea didn’t require assembling a cast, finding equipment, and most importantly, was free – at least, depending on your valuation of time. So I did it.

Okay, maybe there’s a bit more to it. Not everyone scours xVideos and PornHub to find fodder for art, after all – though I’m sure some have claimed to. Well, what happened was that I was watching a video game livestream and heard a song that I liked. It was written and performed by Emily Haines and was called “Statuette”. I didn’t know then that I was going to hear it more than anyone who ever lived – but that’s for later. Back then, it was just a song that sounded nice, and so I looked it up on YouTube.

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A shot from Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" (2011)

Debase, Acquire: On Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” (2011)

How do you discuss Bela Tarr’s latest work, The Turin Horse, without spending half of the article discussing the happy Hungarian’s epic Sátántangó? Clocking in at seven and a half hours, the movie has been a staple of over-serious top five film lists since its release, and culturally was far more of a moment.

Sátántangó, based on a novel by Bela Tarr’s ever-collaborator László Krasznahorkai, is deservedly the director’s most recognised work, and his most successful. It uses its enormous runtime to do what a lot of great artistic outings attempt, which is to use the nature of the viewer’s mind to its own ends. The Turin Horse does something similar.

Sátántangó uses the act of recollection, the first scenes feeling an insurmountable and hazy distance by the end, to both the viewer and the characters. Turin Horse uses the nature of boredom, and frustration, and connects you with the protagonists through that mutual experience.

Bela Tarr has been a critical cherub from the start. He first got into filmmaking due to being rejected from philosophy-academia, mostly due to his political activism – a theme which has always seeped into his work, until this most recent picture.

In interviews, Tarr has said that Turin Horse reflects a cynicism he acquired in his later years. Whereas his earlier ventures have been made in the pursuit of systemic change, I infer that his final film is reflecting on the mundanity of daily existence, and how no amount of cataclysm or systemic change will alter it. He uses his twilight years to permeate the film with a sense of finitude. […]

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A shot from Billy Wilder's "The Apartment"

The Risk of Too Much Pleasing: Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960)

‘There are some who are takers, and then there are some who get took,’ says Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment. And so goes Billy Wilder’s 1960 witty classic, where we are given a black and white world of work-life drudgery, typing pools, aloof executives and the onlookers who long for any advancement as a way out. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a guy who memorizes facts—like how many people there are in New York City and how long they would stretch if he were to line them together. ‘They would reach Pakistan,’ he says in his opening narration. Useless would be a word to describe this sort of knowledge. And useless could very well be a word to describe him, were it not for his apartment. In fact, he better make himself useful, lest he never get that raise or windowed office.

It’s not that Baxter hates his job—working amid a slog of desks that evokes Franz Kafka. (Orson Welles directed The Trial two years after The Apartment). That Billy Wilder might have influenced his direction is obvious.) He is too upbeat for that—so to speak. Yes, we know underneath the facade that he is lonely and miserable, but for the sake of promotion, or at least the hopes of one, he must remain positive. See, he has this apartment in NYC that many of the higher-ups know about. Not only do they know about it, they depend on it for their evening trysts. Baxter allows them to frequent his abode in the hopes that they might promote him someday. It gets so bad, in fact, that when he actually needs his own apartment due to feeling ill, he is once again manipulated into loaning it out. […]

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An illustration of dogs fighting from Jack London's "Call of the Wild"

Jack London’s “The Call Of The Wild”: The Power Of Things As They Are

Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild refuses to anthropomorphize its main character, a powerful St. Bernard–Scotch Collie mix named Buck. It has more in common with Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar than it does with something like Bambi. Chronicling the experience of this animal in an unadorned manner, it is partly why the novel has aged so well.

In many instances, Jack London writes how Buck “did not think these things, he merely did them.” In so doing, he highlights how much the creature relies on instinct as opposed to intellect. There are no phony attempts to turn the animals he portrays into cartoons. When considering this, the reader is awed by how interesting and engaging the story still manages to be. If one manages to make a book about a dog this moving, one should be considered, at least, an excellent writer.

That is not to say The Call Of The Wild lacks humanity. Instead, it shows the reader how many things we consider human go far beyond our species. The reader follows Buck as he undergoes his character arc, changing between owners, some good, some bad, adapting to each circumstance until he answers the titular call of the wild. There is pride, jealousness, and love in the members of this cast of dogs, just as there would be in a more civilized cast of characters. Because of this, the narrative serves as a mirror to impulses humans find in themselves. […]

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A bust of Cleopatra, the Queen of Charisma.

Cleopatra: The Queen of Charisma

There are lists for everything, all open to the public view—everything from “The 10 Most Beautiful Left-Handed Women” to “The World’s Tallest Athletes” to “The Most Influential People on TikTok.” There is even one for charismatic people—as if there could be a definitive list for an attribute so elusive, so ethereal, so magical, as to be almost mythical. Sure, there are “influencers” in today’s media-circus world; there are media stars, sexy MMA girls, guys on video making cheese ravioli, and an uncountable number of fifteen-minute “stars” who will be replaced any second now with the next batch. But true charisma is quite ephemeral, quite as slippery as any definition can be, as the Stoics were quick to point out. It does not depend on popularity, number of followers on Twitter, splashy photos on Facebook—it is the “X-Factor” of human attributes—it is in the eye of the beholder, and if that eye is already clouded with the detritus of a throw-away culture, of a culture which knows little of value and values little, then charisma begins to become even more ghostly.

The word derives from the Greek, meaning “grace” or “charm.” It was originally thought to be a divinely conferred attribute—a spiritual gift, which right away eliminates golf ladies in tight sweaters and rappers with enough gold around their necks to subvert a small country’s economy. German sociologist Max Weber introduced the term “personality charisma”:

Charisma is a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. […]

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A scene of the Green Knight from David Lowery's "The Green Knight"

Where David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” (2021) Fails

Despite its canonical status, the long medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a veritable mixed-bag: its structural sophistication (relative, at least, to other chivalric romances of the period) and genuine charm cannot fully subvert the archaic nature of its plot, characters and symbolism; and, like pretty much every work of surviving early world literature, its importance lies mainly in foundational aspects rather than real artistic quality, which would become more available to writers with the advent of modernity. However, it is certainly an odd tale, and underneath its whimsies one senses something grimmer at play. A danger, even: fatal dismembering contests, the body-horror of the headless, talking warrior, the strange, clandestine games officiated by personages hidden from Gawain’s knowledge, his impotent, not-very-knightly raging at the end, and so on. Plus, the homoerotic subtext in the Gawain-Lord Bertilak interactions point to some authorial mischief, I suspect, although this cannot be proven with any strong degree of accuracy. The story’s opacity, due to historical distance and the anonymity of the poet, simultaneously gestures at these mysteries whilst disclosing them from further scrutiny.

Of course, this has not stopped intense interest in its contents after the re-discovery of the poem’s single surviving manuscript in the early nineteenth century, culminating in reams of academic treatises (thus buttressing its position in the Western canon), a famous translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, and several adaptations into other mediums – with its most recent entry in cinema via writer-director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021).

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A scene from Victor Erice's "El Sur"

Revisiting Childhood Memory Within “El Sur” (Victor Erice, 1983)

We often remember our childhood within a series of vignettes. Some might say that it is not what we remember but how we remember that determines not just our childhood, but also our life perspective. Moments enter us and then they flee without even a goodbye. Then, we don’t necessarily recall the narrative, but rather, we remember the emotional impact some moment has had. Victor Erice’s 1983 film El Sur is a masterpiece that involves just this. The film takes place within the mind of a child who, in recalling her father, remembers only select parts of their time together. We see pieces of him, but only through her eyes, and as an audience, we come to realize him as an enigma—that is, only as how she sees him. We do not know much, save for what she—Estrella—has experienced.

The story begins in 1957 when Estrella is a young child. The Spanish Civil War still lingers from two decades earlier, and we see that this young girl longs for her father (Augustin), a doctor who she believes has magical power. Yet Victor Erice’s film is not about magical realism as much as it is about childhood romanticism. Estrella romanticizes her father—this distant man who only reveals himself in piecemeal. He is private and aloof, distant and detached. And while he does not carry coldness, he seems preoccupied within his own mind. […]