Transcendent Moments Of Change: Falling In Love With Terrence Malick

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“Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother. We, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.”  [The New World]

His films sing the story of our land.  They help us rise from the depths of our pain.  And crystallize the murmurs of our hearts and minds.  He weaves a symphony of inner voices, our own voices, into the music of life itself.   There is not another American filmmaker living today so admired and so reviled based upon his storytelling techniques.  The more you seriously invest in his films, the greater the reward.  The quiet stillness of  a natural landscape with the the mosaic of faces, seemingly brings us closer to a truth.  A truth according to Malick and a burgeoning love for his unique poetry.

Terrence Malick, born 1943 in Ottawa Illinois and a native of Oklahoma and Austin Texas, holds degrees in philosophy and film-making with a thesis that involved a student short film with Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates.  He taught for several years in the subject of philosophy, before turning his interests solely to cinema.  The approach is much like his unfinished thesis on Martin Heidegger, the noted German philosopher.  The metaphysical study of being, or ontology, resides in most, if not all, of Malick’s filmic approach. The nature of being and how principal things are related to each other; namely man and nature for Malick.  His work continually experiments and stretches the medium.  His ambitious executions are sublime and sometimes infuriating, often within the same context for the person viewing.  When one of his films transforms all the elements seamlessly, it is monumentally inspiring.

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“I always thought that being alone was just something that a man had to put up with. It was like I just got used to it.”  [Days Of Heaven]

The painterly sense in images are apparent right from the start in his poetically blazing first features Badlands, from 1973 and Days Of Heaven, from 1978.  Each used first person narration and presented the specter of change for characters, location, dreams, and perspectives.  Badlands concerns the exploits of Kit and Holly on a crime spree fleeing from the murder of her father.  Holly narrates through an apathetic voice, a lost little girl dazzled by the James Dean-like charisma of her partner-in-crime.  The beautiful visuals are in stark contrast to the disturbing behavior and events of these two uncommon lovebirds.  Malick’s treatment of these characters are never cold or distanced, but implores us to listen and be shaken by their dark behavior.  It is a bold first film that put Malick’s name into the forefront of American seventies cinema.  Days Of Heaven paints a poem of the enduring theme of man and nature during the turn of the century America.  On the surface, it is a story of love and murder involving a man, his little sister (who narrates the film), and his girlfriend, but Malick explores the fascination with nature’s fury and beauty and shows its disregard for how man tries to tame or change it.  The languid “magic hour” (evening dusk) shots are spectacular in their small details and in capturing life as it happens.  Days Of Heaven secured Malick as a visionary artist, but an original voice as well.  Both of these films set up unbelievable expectations that would make audiences wait for nearly two decades later, from a self imposed exile from film-making, to make good on that promise.

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“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”  [The Thin Red Line]

In 1998, after rumors and whispers that Malick was indeed making another film, The Thin Red Line was released.  Based upon the James Jones autobiographical novel describing WWII Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line used an ambitious multi character narration in a sweeping epic of men under the duress of war…and with nature, specifically the choking South Pacific jungle.  Nature is cruel, as Colonel Tall describes to Captain Staros, but so is man.  There is cruelty and darkness in all of us.  It is Malick’s brilliance in focusing on the jungle’s indifference to man’s insanity, its eternal connection as in one scene where a corporal mutters how they are all essentially dirt, as he sifts through a handful while crouching in the tall grass during battle.  There are also moments of complete silence, except for the incessant sounds of the jungle, that these men can voice everything within themselves through facial and body movements alone, beautifully captured by John Toll’s camera, that says more than twenty pages of dialogue. War changes men.  It brings out the best and the worst in those men.   It is a mark of a truly great film, that with repeated views, which continues to surprise with new information and touch something deep inside on many levels.  This is a journey into that state of being; into the heart of it all.  It is one of Malick’s very best works in the pantheon of cinematic achievements.

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“I thought it was dream… what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.”  [The New World]

The focus on 17th century America and a land untouched by greed and cruelty seemed a poetically justified choice for Malick’s next film.  The New World expands more on the the multi-character internal narration to a great effect.  Some critics actually coined it the Malick effect (with shots of the sun streaming through the treetops) and has been parodied by some since then.  The story covers a love triangle of sorts with Captain John Smith, John Rolfe, with the mysteriously beautiful princess, known to us as Pocahontas, at the center of it all.  This is a gorgeously photographed (with natural light) film that underscores change that is wonderfully curious and devastatingly tragic.  History has already taught us of the plight of the American Indian and Malick shows the wonder of a lost symbiosis with nature, if one truly listens and respects it.  Respect and reverence for this cathedral of trees and rocks and soil, the Indians look upon this invasion upon their lands with curiosity at first, but then anger when untruths are uncovered.  They know change is inevitable and not necessarily always for the good of their people.  Malick’s inner voices, heard through the several narrations, are actually our own doubts and fears and hopes.  It has grown in stature since its release with its ambitious stream of consciousness storytelling that weaves big themes both personal and worldly.

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 “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”  [Tree Of Life]

Tree Of Life is arguably Terrence Malick’s masterpiece which draws upon all of his obsessions and techniques seamlessly within the narrative of growing up in a small town in Texas.  This is a deeply philosophical film that deals with issues not normally seen in a wide release film.  The existential themes of why we exist and where are we going are front and center.  They lie underneath the proceedings, but are nevertheless key to its strength and power.  The jaw dropping beauty of life is captured in miraculous images that Malick manages (without the help of CGI) to give the audience the logical transition from innocence to corruption.  In the midst of this telling story of youth and change, comes a section in the film that many are critical of, but is actually a statement on where we came from…and more importantly the definition of grace according to Malick.  We are transported to the beginnings of this world (with visual effects by veteran maestro Douglas Trumbull) and the miracle of life created within the shrouded depths of an ancient ocean.  The emphasis of ever changing life takes the path to early dinosaurs where Malick’s act of grace is presented.  A dinosaur injured on a rocky stream bed is approached by a possible predator.  The predator cautiously steps up to the frightened injured reptile and lifts its foot to crush its skull, but something in its eyes catches the attention of the predator and it slowly takes its foot away, thus sparing the creature an ugly demise.  This act alone, whether divine or instinct, makes us pause for what lies in us as the basis for good and evil?  It is a huge risk that turned some audiences off, but upon reflection a very necessary statement to make by Malick.  We, as fellow creatures, are imbued with a sense of right and wrong; which begs the question of where does it come from?  Huge ideas with big statements in a film that wonderfully centers around a possibly autobiographical family of four.  Tree Of Life continues to amaze and project these lofty ideas with each viewing.  It deserves a much bigger audience than the one that intially received it with open arms.

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“Mercy was just a word. I never thought I needed it. Not as much as other people do.” [Song To Song]

Malick continued to explore this stream of consciousness storytelling in his next two films, To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups to a less satisfying degree.  Both films are so free form in structure and editing which now distances us from its central themes Malick is trying to convey.  It is as if Malick were attempting to shoot a Terrence Malick film, as absurd as that sounds.  Not to discount them entirely, each has its merits with stretching film language as an art and exploring relationships to varying degrees.

After Knight Of Cups came and went, Malick released another film right on its heels without little fanfare or advertising that counts as one of his very best efforts entitled Song To Song.  This is one of those films caught under-the-radar which ennobles the notion of how we are all connected in the bigger sense of the word and it is up to us to ignite those flames already burning deep inside each of us.  A change in scenery can bring peace and tranquility, but a change in partners brings a whole slew of questions which are difficult to navigate through peacefully.  Song To Song concerns itself with the music scene in Austin Texas and the ordinary individuals working behind it.  The deceptively simple plot encompasses everything we experience with others in its highs and lows.  It isn’t simply about love relationships, but also the search for ourselves, which is sometimes the greatest journey of them all.  All of Malick’s trademarks are here; the multi-voiced inner voices, the natural lighting cinematography, the beautiful close up images, the jump cut editing…and it all feels like something brand new.  Song To Song has the earmarks of something bigger waiting to be discovered with another view.  There is definitively some major themes going on beneath the surface which may be invisible to the naked eye.  These connections, these changes play a cosmic jigsaw puzzle waiting to be finished to form one big answer about us as humans.  This is a small film that speaks to the mind, as well as the heart.  It is where all the elements certainly pay off and, in time, the potential to be a great film alongside his best work.

We can see ourselves in these stories, some beautiful and some very painful, which connects us together.  Malick asks the big questions, and leaves it up to the viewer to conjure up some of those answers.  It may not always be pleasant to think about these things, but it is important to never forget to question who we are and where are we going.  Change makes us grow.  Change educates us.  Change makes life.

“I film quite a bit of footage, then edit. Changes before your eyes, things you can do and things you can’t. My attitude is always ‘let it keep rolling.'”  [writer/director Terrence Malick]

The Malick Filmography  [all quotes shown above written by Terrence Malick]

Lanton Mills, 1969

Badlands, 1973

Days Of Heaven, 1978

The Thin Red Line, 1998

The New World, 2005

Tree Of Life, 2011

To The Wonder, 2012

Knight Of Cups, 2015

Voyage Of Time, 2016

Song To Song, 2017

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An Event Sociologique: Truffaut in 1977

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François Truffaut (w/ Bob Balaban back right) on location, 1976

7 March 1978
Beverly Hills

Dear François,

We have finally seen Close Encounters. It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France. This type of popular science would be most appropriate for the compatriots of Jules Verne and Méliès. Both men were Montgolfier‘s rightful heirs. You are excellent in it, because you’re not quite real. There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet. In the South of France one would say he is a bit fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies.
These fairies who reside with you have agreed to let themselves be briefly borrowed by the author of the film in question.
Love from Dido and I.

Jean Renoir
[Source: Jean Renoir: Letters, edited by David Thompson & Lorraine LoBianco. London: Faber & Faber, 1994]

François Truffaut was pursued by a young Steven Spielberg to accept the role of a French scientist, Claude Lacombe, in his big budget Columbia Pictures venture, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  His response to Spielberg was one of amusement and a statement that the only person he knew how to play…was himself.  It was in 1976 that one of the founders of French New Wave cinema found himself at the forefront of a complex, effects laden production which both fascinated and horrified him.  It was thanks to Spielberg that Truffaut would cement his decision to never accept a directing offer from Hollywood.

The role of Claude Lacombe is of an especially interesting diversion for Truffaut because of its intelligence mingled with child-like wonder.  Lacombe resembles, in some fashion, the inverse of young Antoine Dionel, the troubled boy in director Truffaut’s stunningly moving debut film Les Quatre Cents Coups, better known as The 400 Blows (a French variation of the term meaning to raise hell).  In that classic film, the young boy Antoine seems older and wiser beyond his years, whereas Truffaut finds himself in 1977 as an older, but child-like man in his pursuit of the truth.  Lacombe does not seem to be jaded by the times, perhaps because of some scientist code of filtering all outside information as possible solutions without prejudice or judgement.  He sees the world through a child’s sense of curiosity and honesty and…with a smile.

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That smile.  Truffaut uses it to such a subtle, but great effect.  It is a knowing smile as he examines an elderly Mexican farmer who was sunburned by a light that sang to him.  It is a gentle smile as Truffaut approaches the main protagonist Roy Neary, played with every-man greatness by Richard Dreyfuss, to ask what he wants.  It is a grateful smile he flashes to the Visitor as they exchange rudimentary hand signals, such a boys would do in a tree-house ritual. He saves his best mischievous smile when he spies from a window the three escaping captives whom he knows have a need and a right to be there just as much as he does.  You cannot help but smile yourself  with Truffaut through all of this.  His presence adds levity and an intelligence to all the fantastical proceedings.  It grants us a peek into that inner child which these celestial visitors seem to bring out.  Lacombe is a scientist you would want to hang out with after work.

The great French director Jean Renior mentions Georges Méliès, in his letter to Truffaut above, which, in a sense,  perfectly highlights that path from the wildly imaginative Méliès films from the silent era to Spielberg’s rumination on contact with extraterrestrials.  Same other-worldly subject matter, but now with a larger budget and bigger special effects.  To witness Truffaut in the midst of this, is to see a man in love with cinema totally and completely.  He may be playing himself, which is charming in itself, but he manages to make us invest emotionally with the scientific aspect, which parallels the Roy Neary emotional investment of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  It makes us want more interaction between these two men; one that is searching for an answer as a man, with the other eternally searching for the truth as a scientist.

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“I saw plenty of differences in degree, but not in kind. I felt the same admiration for Kelly and Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain as for Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.

I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies both ridiculous and despicable.” 
― François Truffaut, The Films in My Life

These are the words of a true cinephile, a person who truly loves all things cinema regardless of subject matter, format, style, or period.  Truffaut was a film critic first before going behind the camera.  He talked about his ambitions to be a novelist, but found filmmaking to be a higher art form.  The absolute genuineness of his art and his life made Truffaut one of the great enduring figures in cinema.  His presence in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, was for many American audiences the first time one had ever heard of the name François Truffaut.  Steven Spielberg was nervous in asking Truffaut to be in the film because of his huge reputation and stature as one of the founders of such a formidable movement in cinema art.  To the unsuspecting American audiences, he was a French scientist with a very thick accent, who was extremely likable.  Who was this guy, they may have asked?  In the days before the internet, one had to search the library in newspapers, magazines, or books to find out more.  It could be by chance that some revival house or college would be showing one of his films that could be discovered.  Thanks to technology, we have a plethora of information and actual films of Truffaut waiting to be enjoyed at the click of a mouse.

It would be remiss to discount Truffaut’s contribution to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as merely a star cameo.  There is something more in his performance.  It has the substance of reality.  He was playing himself, but Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera captured something special.  Something much more.  Within those wonderful smiles, he was having fun with the whole process, and that, ladies and gentleman, is a very difficult measure to capture on film.  In a pivotal scene in the film, his character Lacombe pleads with an army major about this psychic connection, when it almost sounds like Truffaut is talking about the cult of the movie going experience;

Lacombe: I believe that for everyone of these anxious, anguished people who have come here this evening, there must be hundreds of others also touched by the implanted vision who never made it this far. It’s simply because they never watched the television. Or perhaps they watched it, but never made the psychic connection.

Walsh: It’s a coincidence. It’s not scientific.

Lacombe: Listen to me, Major Walsh, it is an event sociologique.

 

François Truffaut [February 6, 1932 – October 21, 1984] Writer, Director, Producer, Critic, Actor

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977, written and directed by Steven Spielberg, photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, music by John Williams

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[left to right] Bob Balaban,  François Truffaut, Lance Henriksen, director Steven Spielberg, producer Julia Phillips on location 1976

Facing The Mirror: Annette Wernblad’s Epic Journey With Martin Scorsese

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“Martin Scorsese is an extremely spiritual man and filmmaker who has been concerned with moral issues since childhood.  The majority of his films concern characters who are forced through an ordeal, a mythical journey, and thereby offered a chance to face and embrace their whole selves.  These characters reflect sides of all of us, and Scorsese’s films touch us in places we may not necessarily like to be touched.  They delve into caves where we have hidden things we do not want to look at.  They hold up a mirror in which we are confronted with our darkest, most unflattering sides.”     – Annette Wernblad, The Passion Of Martin Scorsese [preface]

The numerous books, articles, and treatises examining the work of American film director, Martin Scorsese, attests to his artistry and influence within the cinema world.  Scorsese himself is all too happy to discuss his dedication to his craft and his prolific cinema knowledge, much to the joy of all his fans.  One such outstanding book is the ongoing amended edition of Scorsese On Scorsese, published by faber & faber,  edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie (which my own personal copy only goes up to 1990’s Goodfellas).  It is filled with in-depth interviews with Scorsese on each of his films, so you are hearing it directly from the artist himself.  This is all well and good, but one soon discovers that even the artist will not divulge all of his/her secrets.  And why should they?

A critical view of his films in book form may seem a dime a dozen, but one particular book takes a view of Scorsese’s world by throwing a mirror onto us that is tantalizingly original and reveals themes otherwise not discussed by past writers.  I am referring to the 2011 critical study The Passion Of Martin Scorsese, by Annette Wernblad.  This is a scholarly piece of work on the films and life of Scorsese, but accomplished in such an entertaining way for any fan to relish.  Wernblad executes the seemingly gargantuan task of analyzing all of Scorsese’s films (up to 2010’s Shutter Island before publication) and presents clues, symbols, recurring themes and links within each production.  Swirling within all of this fascinating material is Wernblad’s argument that Scorsese is actually holding up a mirror to us with these stories.

Scorsese never uses the horrifying images to get cheap thrills.  Neither is violence in his films simply literal, physical violence. It belongs, to use Campbell’s (author Joseph Campbell) words, within “the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams.”  Like in the Catholic liturgy, blood-letting in Scorsese’s work is part of a subtle, ritualized process meant to bring forth spiritual enlightenment, catharsis, and redemption.

Scorsese shows us that—like it or not—we all are barbarians somewhere inside.  The sides of us that are hidden in the dungeon do not go away, and unless we acknowledge and own up to them, we ill invariably act like barbarians.   [Wernblad, page 7, Chapter 1 Something Being Done In Front Of The Altar]

Wernblad contends that this mirror is for audiences to recognize our “shadow self” (to use her reference) which houses the dark leanings within us all.  Her book details many such examples from Taxi Driver (a seminal piece of work) to Raging Bull to Casino (which I personally consider one of Scorsese’s masterpieces) and how the films interconnect with each other.  It is surprising to discover clues, uncovered by the author, which gives a new slant, perhaps an all new interpretation to some of his films.  In The King Of Comedy (one of Scorsese’s most underappreciated works), Wernblad cements the protagonist Rupert Pupkin’s (played with gusto by Robert DeNiro) inability to discern his carefully built fantasy with the reality around him by example of his mother.

The mere fact that he still lives with his mother in his mid-thirties suggests a regressive personality.  Throughout the film, Mother yells admonitions to him, but, in fact, we never see her.  The reason for this, I would propose, is that she is dead and the voice from above is only in Rupert’s head.  In his comedy routine he says, “If she were only here today, I’d say, ‘Hey, Mom, what are you doing here, you’ve been dead for nine years.'”  Even after Mother has been gone for almost a decade, Rupert needs her to be present to the point where we can hear her, always criticizing him, the same way we could hear the late Mrs. Bates yelling at Norman.  [Wernblad, page 94, Chapter 4 Through The Looking Glass]

It is not only a clear understanding of Martin Scorsese’s life and work that the reader is given in this book, but a depth of knowledge for the history of cinema that gels seamlessly with the arguments presented.  This is a goldmine for any serious or casual cinema buff.  You are also given the psychological coloring necessary in understanding what Wernblad believes Scorsese is attempting as an artist.  This may sound very dry as some old high school history book, but Wernblad draws you in with a unique voice by starting off with a personal story of a record recording of Little Red Riding Hood that brilliantly casts the reader into the theme at its purest form.  It is entertaining, humorous, and opens the door into the author’s mind and her basis for writing this book.

The mythological journey, which Wernblad states again and again, consumes most, if not all of Scorsese’s main characters in his films.  The chance for redemption, enlightenment, or a catharsis is something we all harbor inside ourselves, though we may not recognize it.  From Travis Bickle, to Jake LaMotta, to Rupert Pupkin, to Charlie, to Paul Hackett, to Lionel Dobie, to Henry Hill, to Sam Rothstein, to Newland Archer, to Amsterdam Vallon, to Howard Hughes, to Teddy Daniels; each of these characters seem to share a connected journey.  It was not clearly seen (by yours truly) how this journey was consistently presented by Scorsese in all of his films until this book opened that door.  It begs a revisit to all of his films, which is a credit to Wernblad’s skill in presenting her ideas.

“The idea of cinema as part of an ancient quest, of Martin Scorsese as a man with a vocation whose films are ritualized stories that take place in front of an altar and affect us on deep spiritual levels, forms the very essence of what this book is all about.”  [Wernblad, page 21, Chapter 1 Something Done In Front Of The Altar]

It is a journey worth taking upon repeated times and a book certainly worth reading for even the casual movie goer, for it may open the eyes to all those layers a filmmaker intentionally places within their stories.  When eyes are opened, a whole new world rises up for discovery.

The Passion Of Martin Scorsese, 2011, Annette Wernblad

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[pictured author Annette Wernblad]

In Nolan We Trust

“Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighbouring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.”

Winston Churchill’s speech delivered to House of Commons  /  June 4 1940 

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In an unusually cold May of 1940, German forces advanced into France and drove the Allied troops into the wall of the English Channel and trapping them in the port town of Dunkirk.  French, Belgium, and Dutch soldiers, alongside the British, desperately were counting the minutes upon the vast beaches of Dunkirk while waiting on a few ships for safety across the Channel.  With the German forces closing in, Dunkirk was hit with a barrage of fire from land, sea, and air putting close to 400,000 lives in constant danger.  With meager support from French/British ground and air forces, nearly all the men were miraculously safely evacuated utilizing every serviceable ship or civilian boat in the area.  Churchill used this event to rally the British people in their continued fight against the growing German empire.

This is the basis of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s newest venture, Dunkirk.  It is a mesmerizing study of time and pressure.  It is abundantly clear, based upon past projects such as Inception, Memento, Interstellar, and even Insomnia (notice all the one word titles in his catalog, including the newly released Dunkirk), Nolan has always been fascinated with effects of time and its relation to human perceptions and behaviors.  Dunkirk is no exception while it tinkers with land, sea, and air stories with each unfolding section several hours behind the other.  It builds tension within one perception, while giving more information from another view.  We get swept up in the experience of a particular story, only to discover we do not have all of the specific information of that event as we delve into another perception.  No exposition is really given to any of the characters.  We are expected to discover for ourselves who these people are within the different facets of time and dimension.  This is an experience film (much like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), but Nolan brings such a ferocious tension throughout the proceedings that leaves one breathless.  War is not pretty and this film certainly sows the cruelty and ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man.  It also shows the valor and the human instinct to help fellow strangers in need.  There is a toughness to Nolan’s images, but they are never just cosmetic for the sake of aesthetic worthiness.  Dunkirk is filled with arresting camera work that rightly puts the viewer into the fear of these men.  The screaming German Junkers throttling towards their prey on the beaches of Dunkirk are nail bitingly tense.  The running squad being picked off by a snipers places you directly in the line of fire as you scramble for safety.  This is war where the only option is to survive.

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“..the politique des auteurs seems to me to hold and defend an essential critical truth that the cinema is in need of more than the other arts, precisely because an act of true artistic creation is more uncertain and vulnerable in the cinema than elsewhere…”

André Bazin / La Politque des auteurs  /  1957

In Nolan we trust is a moniker coined by fanboys during his Batman days when anticipating his next adult take on the dark knight.  It is actually a statement that fits.  Christopher Nolan is a modern cinema auteur who believes in film language as a visual aesthetic with limitless possibilities.  The name is synonymous with craftsmanship which would make any smart person look forward to a new work of his.  He can rightly be compared to another master auteur, Stanley Kubrick (Nolan is British).  Like Kubrick, Nolan is a perfectionist and oversees every aspect of his films.  No detail is too small and every shot contains information to further the story or idea.  This is what makes both Kubrick and Nolan’s films entirely re-watchable.  Dunkirk resembles a Kubrick film in the slightly detached god-like stance in direction and the sparse dialogue which makes the viewer pay more attention to the images on the screen.  His playfulness of relational time and audience expectations is also very Kubrickian in the cinematic sense.  Nolan adheres to the old school of film-making which is refreshing in this day  of CGI overkill.  His dedication to an artistic vision, within the confines of big budget films, is what makes him stand far apart from his contemporaries who sometimes sell out for the sake of success.  One need look no further than the mind bending epic that is Inception, which goes against all what makes a mainstream big budget film successful.  It is filled with dread and the loss of self control with an ending that is as ambiguous as it gets.

Dunkirk is an unexpected surprise (well, maybe not that big of surprise since we are talking about Christopher Nolan after all) because it paints upon a WWII canvas for the audience in a brand new hard light.  We are simply thrust into the proceedings, while Nolan expects us to figure it out.  It is a rarity with a mainstream film that the audience is expected to be smart.  None of his past films pander to the latest trend, for his films become the latest trend with originality and daring.  He may not hit it out of the ballpark every time (Interstellar and its ending), but this is a film-maker that consistently challenges you and dares to ask the questions no one else in big budget films ask; who are we?  What is truth?  What is really our perceived reality?  Where are we going?

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The microsom of society is in the form of a civilian boat christened Moonstone which exemplifies family, sacrifice, and honor.  War affects everyone, not just the brave men/women in battlefield.  Moonstone suffers tragedy in the face of war, as if the unit were back in London during the nightly blitzkrieg attacks.  There is nothing lofty or sentimental in Nolan’s treatment of the Moonstone participants.  It just is.  When tragedy does strike, the boy and his father honor the dead.  Consequences are accepted and some are haunted forever as a result of it.  These people tried to make a difference…and some succeeded.

In Nolan we do indeed trust.  His eye is on the prize at all times with his usual concerted and secretive efforts.  Dunkirk may be his finest film in which everything is honed to its essential properties.  Cinema started out as a visual medium and Nolan pledges his allegiance with his latest release.  Every image tells a story, such as the soldier at Dunkirk beach throwing off his gear and attempting to swim back home in a suicidal act.  There are many such moments which begs a second or third viewing.  This is the kind of big budget movie making we need with far reaching ideas and the understanding of cinema language.  Christopher Nolan is an auteur for the 21st century.  Let’s hope he continues upon his personal artistic path and continues to give us stories that astound and challenge our way of thinking.

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Oedipus Rex Redux

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“Japan never considers time together as time wasted. Rather, it is time invested.” 
― Donald Richie / A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan

 

I have long been an avid fan of Japanese cinema, from the silent films of Ozu to the colorful brashness of Kitano…and everything in between.  The quiet stillness of Naruse goes hand in hand with the measured lunacy of Obayashi, often within the same studio.  The Japanese cinema mixes so many styles, moods, and subjects (mainly about their own socially political culture) and conjures up films with an otherworldly, yet familiar landscape.  There is nothing taboo, nothing too extreme (think Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses) that Japanese directors will present to audiences.  Not all stories are told with a Japanese seriousness, for many of these films have humor (both dark and light) and a sense of experimental fun.  A well known epic is Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which encompasses a multitude of stories brilliantly interwoven with high drama and streetwise humor.  One of my very favorite Japanese films is Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story, which simply concerns an elderly couple facing changing times and indifferent older children with busy lives of their own.  It is filled with such life and love with each measured nuance Ozu adds to his humanist universal story.  I watch it at least once a year.

“…count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.” 
― Sophocles / Oedipus Rex

In 1969, Japan was undergoing a series of university closures due to student uprisings across the country in protest sentiments against the Vietnam War and the Security Treaty with the United States.  The world over had revolutions during this year such as the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protests in the United States, the Cultural Revolution in China, Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia,  and student/worker uprisings in both France and Germany.  The students in Japan wore white hard hats and armed themselves with wooden 2X4’s to fend off the lightly armed police at that time.  This movement was organized into a nationwide group known as the  Zengakuren, which surged in membership in the late sixties due to the rapid economic boon in Japan lending itself more and more to “reform” its ties politically and socially to the United States and the world over.

It is within this societal climate that video artist and filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto (1932 – 2017) envisioned his cinematic shattering of taboo’s with Funeral Parade Of Roses.  Shot in gorgeous black and white, Matsumoto’s experimental rendering of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is turned upside down in modern day Tokyo wherein the story now consists of a boy who instead murders his mother and sleeps with his father. Funeral Parade Of Roses mixes both documentary, avant garde stylistic choices, humor, violence, along with a heavy dose of melodrama (hence the love triangle of two gay men vying for the affections of the club’s male owner) for good measure.  This strange mix yields such an interesting piece of modern Japanese history which displays the rising openly gay culture amidst the political violence on the streets.  There is no other film in recent memory that both attacks and heralds such a wide variety of subcultures and movements, sometimes within the very same shot.

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Funeral Parade Of Roses has been largely unseen in the United States since it’s official release in 1970.  My only knowledge of its existence was an interview I read with director Stanley Kubrick (2001:A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove) who listed this film as highly influential in his conception of A Clockwork Orange.  It is not hard to see how true that statement was with the choice of music, high speed photography, and the depiction of violence (never glorifying, but showing its futility and ugliness) that mirrors what Matsumoto accomplished with his film.  It is both bold and ridiculous at times in those scenes of rampant drug use, violent confrontation, sexual conquest, and the persona (masks) these young men inhabit on a daily basis.  Working at the aptly named hangout Club Genet (named after the famed and openly gay French thief/writer/political activist Jean Genet), the underground transgender love triangle houses two men, the tragically beautiful Eddie and the aging transvestite Leda, who are both heavily invested in Genet’s owner Gonda.  The film consistently breaks the fourth wall with short interviews with these young men about their sexuality and their hopes and fears.  It is experimental, but somehow rings true to what Matsumoto is trying to accomplish with this film.  I was caught off guard at first by this conglomerate of many styles and moods, but soon got caught up with the vision presented.  As with any love triangle (and one based on Oedipus Rex, mind you), it cannot end well.  The violence is shocking and lingers long with you after the film ends.

Matsumoto neither condones nor praises the subjects he raises.  He merely presents a  little seen section of modern Japanese society through an artist’s eye.  Sometimes, it is not the ideas on screen that matter…it is the way it is perceived and presented to an audience that truly matters.  Funeral Parade Of Roses aims for the cosmos with its studied microcosm of Japanese cultural platitudes with some success and a lot of daring.  It is indeed a statement on the times (especially the student movement in the streets complete with those bloodied hard hats and riots) and the ever expanding cinematic boundaries, but at its very center stands Eddie and his truly tragic story.  Without Eddie, this film would struggle to find its heart and soul.  Eddie encompasses every human’s search for identity and acceptance with others.  The wearing of masks soon becomes tiresome and futile in the face of truth.  Eddie and his lover/father Gondo, unknowingly tear off their masks and can no longer play their parts to epic tragic consequences.

“When a boy…discovers that he is more given into introspection and consciousness of self than other boys his age, he easily falls into the error of believing it is because he is more mature than they. This was certainly a mistake in my case. Rather, it was because the other boys had no such need of understanding themselves as I had: they could be their natural selves, whereas I was to play a part, a fact that would require considerable understanding and study.”    Yukio Mishima / Confessions Of A Mask

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The newly restored Funeral Parade Of Roses has been playing at selected art house theaters nationwide and will hopefully be available soon for streaming to a wider and much appreciative cinema loving audience.  This is an interesting time piece of cinema (queer cinema, that is) and it richly deserves some study and attention.  It only adds to the long and rich tapestry of Japanese cinema.

Funeral Parade Of Roses [1969]   Toshio Matsumoto, writer/director  1hr 47min

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Our Most Unwelcome Visitor

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Sensuality without love is a sin; love without sensuality is worse than a sin.    /  Jose Bergamin

The oppressive sound of late afternoon cicadas blanket the emerald hued deep south woods whose very branches seem to hang down in some sort of defeat from the summer sun.  A young girl steps into the space, humming a tune while picking mushrooms from the mossy floor.  She takes her time stepping amidst the wooded area and comes upon unexpectedly to find a wounded Union soldier lying against a tree.

This is how writer and director Sofia Coppola’s newly realized take on The Beguiled begins.  Filmed previously by the underappreciated Don Siegel in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, Coppola ramps up the mood with dripping humidity and creeping sensuality that seems to emanate from the surrounding trees right from the very first frame.  Setting the mood  a couple of years into the American Civil War, an all girl’s school in Virginia finds themselves sheltered and cut off from society with only the distant sounds of cannon fire to remind them of the encroaching brutal war surrounding them.  Daily lessons, gardening, and evening prayers take up the bulk of their lives.  Routine for survival during wartime which brings the household into a protective bubble that is in danger of bursting with the appearance of the wounded Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell).  Head mistress, Miss Martha (played with the usual aplomb by Nicole Kidman) eyes the intrusion with suspicion and an undercurrent of buried sexual desire despite her lofty station within the school.

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The rest of the cast includes Kirsten Dunst (a regular of Coppola’s films) as the repressed, but yearning Edwina and Elle Fanning as Alicia, the budding young woman barely containing her sexuality (notice how her blouse is rebelliously unbuttoned halfway in the beginning sequence).  The rest of the young actors Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard are first rate unknown faces which lend an authenticity to the period.  In all of Coppola’s films, the exploration of female sexuality and gender are forefront in her vision.  The Beguiled affords a chance for Coppola to zero in on these specific themes with a dark foreboding melancholy of hidden desires.  Her insistence on focusing the camera longingly on the beautiful forms of costumes, surrounding nature, architecture, and the human body is unmistakably Coppola’s eye (look no further than her excellent Lost In Translation).  For some, this may be a slow, but slowly burning, film that takes too long to reach its pivotal climax of gender wars.  It seems to be Coppola’s intention for this pace to build up the tension slowly so that the audience has the time to appreciate each of the character’s eccentricities, hopes, and somewhat fatal desires that Corporal McBurney unlocks.  Madness does not arrive in quick editing jump cuts or swirling camera moves.  This madness comes out of necessity and slowly evolving logic.  There seems to be no alternative when faced with the Corporal’s rage and hostility towards the women.

There is one presence that seems to be missing in Coppola’s “gender Civil War” period drama; the African-American presence.  This is a Civil War drama located in the South that has no appearance of slaves, working or freed.  The school has none, perhaps as a result of runaways or some other event.  It is never mentioned (to my knowledge) in the film, although the original source novel does contain characters as such.  Does the exclusion of such characters do a disservice to the story?  Or does it focus ever so much more on the subject at hand; gender and sexuality?  All through Coppola’s work, the same themes are of interest to her and The Beguiled is no different.  By excluding the presence of African-Americans in this Civil War themed drama,  Coppola is only using the artist’s intent to tell the story on her terms because this is what interests her the most.  If she were to introduce a racial theme in the midst of already established points, the story would lose its concentrated focus.  Perhaps there is another story to be told that would not only present gender differences, but racial differences within the same gender.  The Beguiled is not that story and therefore confidently renders its intended vision.

The Beguiled is a rich and darkly atmospheric tale which goes beyond conventional stories pervading today’s mulitplex cinemas.  It requires your patience and richly rewards it with questions of morality and female empowerment.  Coppola’s film does not purport to have any answers, but it does make you think of the differences of perception between men and women; the persona (or mask) we tend to wear that is wrenched away when threatened or emboldened with desire.  As Miss Martha quietly tells her girls,  “…it’s seems the enemy… it’s not what we believed.”  The enemy being their most unwelcome guest and all he symbolizes.

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[Writer/Director Sofia Coppola on set, 2016]

Shining A Cinema Light Upon Women Directors

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I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population – and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.    / Jane Campion, director

“I don’t think you catch people’s attention with normalcy. Seeing the same world through the eyes of a healthy married woman with three kids might be interesting, but it doesn’t catch people’s attention. I think the mechanism of shock triggers a more acute sensitivity. You have to put people in a certain frame of mind. I think a filmmaker has to be shrewd. Not in a bad way, not like, ‘I’m a shrewd businessman. I can get away with anything.’ But in terms of sensitivity, being shrewd means putting people in the right frame of mind. Then you can tell them, ‘Come with me on a journey…'”    / Agnes Varda, director

 

The successful release of Patty Jenkins’ film of Wonder Woman to critical raves upon this weekend has renewed discussion of the future of female cinema directors and their power within the Hollywood system.  Worldwide, there are indeed women directors producing some great pieces of work, but the number is much less financed than the currently male dominated industry.  Many women directors are left waiting to bring their works to light because of the continued biased towards an unrealistic belief that women cannot handle big budget films or bring both male, as well as female, audiences into the theater.  This sad devotion is depriving us of many possible great films with a perspective we need, as Jane Campion is quoted above.  A greater knowledge forms from different perspectives, and from that knowledge we all grow as humans.

Patty Jenkins success with a superhero film may repave this neglected road for women directors to gain much more of a foothold with numerous projects and bigger budgets.  We recently saw Sofia Coppola win the coveted Best Director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for her new film The Beguiled.  This is only the second time a female has won that prize in 71 years.  The first was Russian film director Yuliya Solntseva, who won for her film Chronicle Of The Flaming Years back in 1961.  That statistic alone should illustrate the lack of recognition within this industry.  This is a statistic that needs to change.

We can begin to change this by recognizing and praising the very films written and directed by women.  It should not take the advent of a superhero film directed by a woman to crack open this bigger discussion,   This is a dam about to burst, for on the other side lies the very hardcore evidence that women directors are an important piece of cinema and just waiting to be unlocked.  The list below captures many recent works, so that one can easily find and stream those films, however there are some older works which are just a worthy as pioneers in cinema history.  Use this small list as a starting point to familiarize yourself to new perspectives and hopefully lead to others that I have missed.

Jane Campion [New Zealand writer, producer, director] The Piano, Sweetie, An Angel At My Table, Holy Smoke, Bright Star

Maya Deren [Ukraine/US experimental filmmaker]  Meshes Of The Afternoon, The Witche’s Cradle, At Land, Meditation On Violence

Claire Denis [French writer, producer, director]  White Material, Chocolat, Beau Travail, Let The Sunshine In

Sofia Coppola [US writer, producer, director]  Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled

Agnes Varda [Belgium/French writer, producer, director]  Vagabond, Cleo From 5 to 7, The Gleaners And I

Dorothy Arzner [US director]  The Wild Party, First Comes Courage, Get Your Man, The Red Kimono

Deepa Mehta [Indo-Canadian director] Fire, Midnight’s Children, Water

Lina Wertmüller [Italian writer, director]  Seven Beauties, Love And Anarchy, All Screwed Up, Swept Away

Lois Weber [US actor, writer, director]  The Blot, Suspense, The Hypocrites

Agnieszka Holland [Polish writer, producer, director]  Europa-Europa, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden

Gillian Armstrong [Austrialian writer, director]  My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, High Tide, Oscar & Lucinda, The Last Days Of Chez Nous

Amma Assante [British actor, writer, director]  A United Kingdom, Belle

Susan Seidelman [US writer, producer, director]  Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens

Lynne Ramsay (Scottish writer, producer, director]  Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Morvern Callar

Sally Potter [British writer, director]  Orlando, Ginger & Rosa, Rage, Yes

Chantal Akerman [Belgium writer, director]   Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (one title), No Home Movie, News From Home

Larisa Efimovna Shepitko [Russian actor, writer, director]  The Ascent, Wings

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Begin with these filmmakers and discover a world not governed by the male gaze, but at times a much more honest and cutting look into the female mystique (and humans in general) on screen…by women themselves.  These women behind the camera have a unique importance in cinema and a place in storytelling history.

And, perhaps in time, it will be unnecessary for such a piece devoted exclusively to women directors.  In the eyes of audiences, those filmmakers will indeed be equal without borders, without labels, and judged simply as artists.