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A stylized shot from Franco Piavoli's "Voices Through Time", depicting a young boy entering a deep and dark forest.

Cease & Concern: on Franco Piavoli’s “Voices Through Time” (1996)

A shared language is almost inessential. Even certain specifics—place-names, surnames, titles and designations—might for the viewer remain indefinite for the entirety of Voices Through Time’s eighty-or-so minutes and still, precious little would be lost.

It’s how I saw it, anyway. I don’t speak Italian but I found that Franco Piavoli’s documentary about the lives (or the flashes of lives) of various inhabitants of the village Castellaro, in the Lombardy region of Italy, doesn’t really require of its viewer to know the language. What is spoken is subordinate to what’s being shown, and although the title of the film is Voices Through Time (Voci nel tempo, in the original) it might also be appropriately titled Volti nel tempo, or Faces Through Time, as Piavoli’s priorities seem focused just as well (if not more so) on the changing physical features of the human body as it matures as he is on the changing of its voice.

This is a gorgeous film, and one whose attractions reach the viewer rather straightforwardly; and certainly not from the same aesthetic distance as come in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. Its pleasures, comparatively, are simple, as they find joy and beauty in the places most people everywhere find them: in beautiful faces and locales and music. […]

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A stylized shot from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac", portraying the king, queen, and standing soldiers.

Craft & Cutting: On Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974)

The violence that opens the film will, of course, be mirrored in the end. It is portrayed in graphic detail, with the distance one might expect from Robert Bresson. It is austere, yes, and almost hilariously so: can a beheading, complete with a great spurt of too-red blood, be shown more matter-of-factly? The sequence is mechanical in its depiction: armored knights in a forest slay each other, and ride their steeds through the same forest. Corpses are strung up on trees, or burned, and churches ransacked. Bresson’s camera drives these faceless warriors again and again through the backdrop of their carnage. The repetitions seem to set up the inevitability dogging the film’s primary characters, who should be familiar to anyone acquainted with Arthurian lore. And the trees, which vertically stake the frame together—their tightness creating a cloistering effect for the figures within—will echo throughout the film in the reappearance of other lines, among which those aforementioned figures continually stare, as if entranced by the narrative they cannot help but dutifully enact. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrej Wajda's 1957 film, "Kanal".

Labyrinth of Hell: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” (1957)

What to say about the passion of human resistance and the desire for survival? How could a film accurately portray this—the passion, albeit not the triumph, of human resistance? I watched Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal once before, but admittedly it hit me more the second time. While an excellent film, I found myself cringing throughout and even had to pause a few times. Kanal tells the story of the Warsaw Uprising where, surrounded by German soldiers, the citizens have been forced to revolt. But unlike most Hollywood films that would instead detail the battle scenes from start to finish, we’re presented with the after-the-fact—a war-torn city with tired insurgents who will be undergoing the last few hours of their lives. How we know this is that the prologue informs us. Already, there can be no happy ending.

What remains of this tattered, Polish city is burned-out buildings, broken rock, and only a small window of time. The Germans are approaching and soon the citizens will be surrounded. So, in a desperate attempt to save his men, Lieutenant Zadra instructs them to take refuge in the sewers. Now, even without the prologue’s words, this already seems like a doomed attempt. Firstly, setting aside the health hazard of wading through filthy water polluted with feces, oxygen will be limited, claustrophobia will take hold, flashlight batteries will likely run out, and it is too easy to get lost. One might think it better to just take their chances above ground, but roughly 30 minutes into the film, the men and women descend underground and this is where the real hell begins. […]

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A stylized shot of Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger", depicting Jack Nicholson's and Maria Schneider's characters looking at each other in a car.

Traveling Ephemera: On Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975)

Michelangelo Antonioni is a director whose characters, more or less, travel within an assorted ephemera. Life unfolds in the moment and they are not left pondering the consequences. Humans are presented as a small species—lost and without a higher purpose. As example, in L’Avventura, a woman goes missing on an island only to then have her friends abandon her search midway through the film. We never see her again, and presumably neither do they, but in those moments of searching, her friends manage to seek a destination beyond their affluent lives. However, upon leaving the island, they ultimately return to their shallow endeavors. Likewise, in La Notte, which takes place over a single night, socialites breeze in and out of rooms while at a party as the evening keeps them contained. Over time, the night consumes, and it becomes the very thing that holds them in—unending and aimless. Once daylight arrives, all has gone.

The Passenger is a film where one’s identity is easily replaced by another. Have you ever wondered what it might be like to travel as someone else, and in that travel become someone else? How the story unfolds is this: David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is a reporter who is stuck in a remote town in Africa, wishing to create a political documentary. In the room across from him is Mr. Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), a man who says he has no close friends or family. The two chat in flashback after Locke uncovers Robertson’s dead body. Yet rather than inform the hotel staff that the man in the next room is dead, Locke drags the corpse across the hall and into his room. Exchanging passport photos, he assumes Robertson’s identity. Why he is willing to assume his life we don’t know, other than perhaps a plane ticket out? By remaining a short-term stranger to everyone around him, Locke can pull it off. […]

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Gerhard Richter – Self Portrait, 1996

On Gerhard Richter: Art’s Sacred Kuh (Sacred Cow)

Gerhard Richter has been an art superstar since the sixties, with a resumé and bank account to prove it. He gets good press. Huge retrospectives. Critics and dealers comfortably refer to him in the same breath as old-timey masters like Vermeer or Titian and no one gets upset or annoyed with this. But why? Why do people go crazy for Richter’s coldly scientific paintings? You could say they were radical, although you’d have a hard job of explaining why. However, since no one is likely to challenge you, the problem won’t arise.

It’s hard to make painting seem radical because really it’s not. Yet people keep making paintings, selling and exhibiting. We might say painting is dead because it seems, in a Hegelian sense, incapable of maintaining its historical themes and social importance. But still, painting hangs around – in an undead state – like a vampire or zombie. […]

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A stylized portrait of Erich Maria Remarque, author of "The Way Back" and "All Quiet on the Western Front", sitting down holding a cane.

What Comes After: Reviewing Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Way Back”

I had never heard of The Way Back until relatively recently. An acquaintance mentioned that Erich Maria Remarque’s more famous wartime work, All Quiet on the Western Front, had a sequel (of sorts). It seems I’m not alone in that little ignorance, as The Way Back has been greatly overshadowed by its predecessor. While that’s a shame, since it’s an excellent novel in its own right, it’s somehow apt. War itself cannot be ignored – it carries a prurient thrill, no matter how pacifist a slant you put on it – but no such satisfaction can be gotten from its aftermath.

So it’s not surprising that this book has been ignored, just as the ex-soldiers it portrays are overlooked by the civilian world they return to. All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a dedication, to “a generation that was destroyed by the war –even those who survived the shelling”, and The Way B ack is a sequel insofar as it continues to unravel that thread. It is narrated by Ernst Birkholz, who is a kind of kindred spirit to the earlier novel’s Paul Baumer. One of the masses, yet a little too sensitive and observant to be really called an Everyman. […]

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Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) confronting his men in Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, Wrath of God". There is bright white text with the film's title against a green background.

Stones & Tears: on Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972)

Of all the scenes most haunting within Werner Herzog’s 1972 drama, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is the scene when a horse is shoved off the wooden raft and left to die alone in the Amazon jungle. Then, as the camera pulls away at the same pace as the river itself, the horse remains still, standing, and solitary. We never see the animal die, but like the doomed men on the raft, we know that death awaits. Perhaps we must tell ourselves that abandonment is a better fate for the helpless creature than continuing on this ill-fated expedition.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a visionary film both in approach and style, as it presents an eye-level realism of what might have transpired among a group of tired, starving explorers in search of the nebulously located ‘gold city’ of El Dorado during each passing day in 1560. Commencing on New Year, they hike down a foggy mountain through the drizzle and toil, and we see their tiredness, their discomfort. They are damp and dirty and running out of patience. In terms of maps, no one knows exactly where they are headed, but their idealism leads them, regardless. The journey treks on without any promise of arrival—do they know they are going in circles? Little do they know that after succumbing to hunger and fatigue, they will grow delusional when nothing presented seems real, be it a poisoned arrow to the body or a boat stuck in a tree. […]

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A stylized portrait of Elon Musk, tinted purple, against an orange backdrop, with the text "Elon Musk & Asbestos Capitalism", after the John Lee Hancock film.

Asbestos Capitalism: “The Founder” and the Future

Poor Elon Musk. However you might opt to label him – from freedom-defending visionary to steadily-radicalizing clown – he is, in the end, one of us. His upbringing was vastly more privileged than most, but in the final reckoning, he’s just another modern human, milked dry of dopamine by cathecting onto the chaotic, ever-escalating hum of a mass media that broadcasts far beyond (and far short of) any individual horizon. He can whinge about unfair coverage, grumble about a Colbert or a Kimmel taking a cheap shot. But there is no reason to take to the stage with Dave Chappelle at your moment of greatest ignominy if you aren’t seeking validation in the broader media ecosystem, aren’t seeking inclusion in the constellation of cultural referents they are tasked with curating.

Just a few measly centuries ago, artists and entertainers were almost wholly reliant on the patronage networks of the wealthy and the powerful. They come to you, cater to your tastes, model for the masses the staggering depth and breadth of your subjectivity. Now, gallingly for such a one as Mr. Musk, Western media industries have risen to the status of equity partners in the power structure, secured a durable fragment of influence over How Things Are To BeTM. And because their most visible public manifestation consists of beautiful humans being cool in public, they have much more influence on the aesthetics of our emerging dystopia than Elon and his hasty-first-draft approach to designing the future. He cannot torture or exile a one of them, but they can absolutely contribute to dictating what it would be cool for him to wear, or who will have the cultural cache he so badly wants to leech off of. Moreover, they can forbid these things to him, mock him, deny him a sniff of even the evaporating spume of the glitz and glamor they’ve monopolized. His Saturday Night Live episode becomes a 12:30 that never was, yet never stops. […]