The Future So Dim: The Evolution Of Blade Runner

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“When less than everything has been said about a subject, you can still think on further. The alternative is for the audience to be presented with a final deduction (…) no effort on their part.
What can it mean to them when they have not shared with the author the misery and joy of bringing an image into being?” 
― Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

“In my experience there are billions of dollars available for pieces of shit. As soon as the material distinguishes itself by something interesting, financing becomes a problem.” 
― Rutger Hauer

Our perception of modern cinema is a varied and fickle animal with today’s audiences.  There is no more greater argument for this statement than the disappointing results of the recent release of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049.  Hollywood took a gamble on fronting the big budget cost on a philosophical science fiction sequel to Ridley Scott’s original film, released over 30 years ago, also considered a disappointment that later became a cult sensation.  Villeneuve, the French Canadian writer/director, chose to expand upon the original film’s themes and incorporate a languid pace which makes the viewer reflect much more upon what is being presented on screen.  The running time of 2 hours and 44 minutes challenged the American audience attention deficiet and stamina, but was necessary to tell the story as envisioned.  Sadly, Villeneuve’s film came and went from theaters before having a chance to gain any sort of footing.  What went wrong?  When audiences clamor for something original, instead of disposable action entertainments , they chose to stay away in great numbers from this film as if confused or fearful of its daring to be something else.

To fairly judge the situation, this dismal outlook of Hollywood’s risk taking cinema ventures, one must look at some key points that appear to have caused the failure of Blade Runner 2049 to catch on with the public as a whole.

It is apparent that imagination is still loved by the general movie going audience (look to the Star Wars universe as a prime example), but it needs to be light and very easy to digest in registering as a success.  The great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky (quoted above), is correct in his argument that it is supremely more interesting to have audiences challenged and not spoon feed all the answers.  In fact, director Villeneuve pays tribute to Tarkovsky throughout much of Blade Runner 2049 in the look and feel of the story.  You need to go no further than Tarkovsky’s mesmerizing film Stalker, from 1979, and Villeneuve’s images are readily recognizable from that past film and take on a whole new meaning.  This was not by chance.  This was deliberate in order to give weight and depth to Villeneuve’s film.  The story telling techniques do not have all the answers.  It never purports to uncover its mysteries all at once.  That is what makes one return to it again and again to search for ourselves; not to marvel at the special effects, but to engage with the story on another level with clues you may have missed the first time around.  It is perhaps the sad fate of story telling today that audiences, in this increasingly fast paced society, feel they are wasting their time (and money) if all of these mysteries are not displayed in a cold hard light immediately.  Blade Runner 2049 did not subscribe to that philosophy and therefore, the public never took a chance to discover its riches.

Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner was released in 1982 to dismal box office and poor reviews.  Steven Spielberg’s much more easily digestible film, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, was king of the box office that same year.  Furthermore, audiences were confused at star Harrison Ford’s protagonist, in Blade Runner, that was a universe away from his iconic roles of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.  It was a dark foreboding world which the public was not ready for yet.  It was not until many years later, with a growing number of admirers and fans of the original film, that Scott’s film became a sensation which prompted him (much to the dismay of many) to alter many different versions of his film.  Now, fast forward to 2017.  The sequel to Scott’s film hits the theaters and the majority of the movie going public, young people ages 15 to 25, do not remember or care to know about Scott’s seminal cyberpunk film all those years ago.  So, why would they understand the significance of this sequel?  Villeneuve’s film was a critic’s darling, but the studio failed to market his film properly to a broader audience.  The public that grew up on Scott’s film as fans, was too narrow of a marketing niche to become a hit at the box office.  In the years to come, perhaps the film will find its broader audience as perceptions and tastes change.

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In the age of instant gratification and a spoon fed mentality, asking people to sit through 2 hour and 44 minute film, with previews adding another 15 minutes, is like pulling teeth with a rusty pair of pliers.  Technology is partly to blame where one can laugh, cry, and be amazed within a 2 minute time span with YouTube and then move on to the next entertainment.  It is actually asking a lot for some people to sit quietly and contemplate a story being told, which also does not give all the answers (gasp)!  Our endurance for such tasks is at an all time low.  The blame can go to a lot of areas, but ultimately, it is us.  We simply cannot abide anything wasting our time when we could be enjoying the next new trend.  Is this the dismal future of cinema for general audiences?  An endless array of short takes, loud music, blatantly absurd plots with endings all wrapped up in a nice neat bow?  The awe and mystery is absent in those films.  This is not accounting for the excellent independent film culture where risk and technique is ever expanding.  This is the state of Hollywood big budget film-making today.  The bottom line has always been money and if we cannot fill the seats in the theater, why take any chances?  We will make sure they have a good time with an easily forgettable experience until the next new hot film comes out.  This is a very negative take on things, but the evidence is there for all to see.

What makes Blade Runner 2049 a unique big budget film that warrants such sadness over its suggested failure to win audiences?  Why is this any cause for concern?  The answer lies with director Denis Villeneuve’s aspirations to treat his viewers as educated individuals and not shoot the film as some big action epic, but an epic of the heart and mind.  Too often big budgets are by-the-numbers films with little or no mystery to them.  David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia is an excellent example of a film that combines the epic with the intimate on a huge budget.  Audiences at that time appreciated the time it took to tell the story in such rich detail.  It was daring for the makers of Blade Runner 2049 to adhere to the original themes and then take them one step further.  What if technological advances acceded beyond mere convenience to produce these self aware replicants that are “more human than human”, as the old Tyrell Corporation tagline went.  Where is the line drawn between souls in humans and souls in these replicants?  What if man himself becomes God and manually produces the next step in the human evolutionary chain?  What is love, and can it be experienced by artificial beings as well?  Are memories false, if they seem real to us?  What cause is worthy enough to give our lives for?  These and many other questions are asked and we are expected to pull ourselves, from our own personal perceptions, all those answers or, perhaps, no answers.

Technically, Blade Runner 2049 is a superb achievement in image and sound.  Roger Deakins’ miraculous photography gives this world a grounded reality, but with an alien-like mystery.  Much like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Deakins manages to etch a beauty in details amidst such grim surroundings.  The sound is at times thunderous, the percussive score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch echoes Vangelis’ original score, and can also be so utterly quiet at other times which makes one pay attention to the image on the screen.  The whole experience is lush and overwhelming at times, which may detract from recognizing essential details when first viewing the film.  It requires a second or third viewing to appreciate everything the film-makers placed within the story.  Not catching everything the first time around has the markings of a potentially great film.

The question of memories and their validity is at the heart of this quest for humankind.  The protagonist K, the latest genetic replicant Blade Runner, begins to question his own memories and the truth of who he is in a relevant scene that explodes in anger.  While talking to a doctor specializing in memories, K gives her one of his most prized memories to view and validate it as something real.

Dr. Ana Stelline: [crying] Someone lived this, yeah. It happened.

[pause]

K: I know what’s real.

[pause]

K: I know what’s real.

[pause]

K: GOD! COME ON!

[hurls the chair against the wall in anger]

It is an astonishing scene filled with a powerful remorse for K, as he bitterly clings to the realness of his own memories, although he knows deep inside they are not his to cherish.  We, as human beings, cling to our own memories even though we change, or enhance them to fit our emotional needs as time moves on.  It is these kinds of themes that distinguish a film like Blade Runner 2049 from those disposable entertainments churned out by Hollywood; the “pieces of shit’ as actor Rutger Hauer succinctly voices it.  The film aims for the stars, which cannot be said for many other big budget epics.

In time, like Ridley Scott’s effort before it, Blade Runner 2049 will hopefully find its audience that it so richly deserves.  It is a failure in the eyes of the bottom line seeking executives in Hollywood, but a soaring success in the eyes of cinema loving individuals.  A film made for adults with intelligence, daring, and passion for its subject.  Let us hope the future is not dimmer because of this effort’s failure to score five hundred million in ticket sales the first week in release.  Let us hope that we recognize soon that cinema for the general audience has the potential for so much more.  We have a smartly written and directed film that will last beyond those revolving door decision makers in Hollywood, and we are all the better for it.

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Blade Runner 2049 / 2017 release / directed by Denis Villeneuve / written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green / photography by Roger Deakins

 I always told you. You’re special. Your history isn’t over yet. There’s still a page left.

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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

The Cinematic Dilemma Of Stephen King

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” ‘They float,’ it growled, ‘they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too–’ “

The words and stories of Stephen King have become a pop culture phenomenon since his first publishing success with Carrie, in 1974.  King’s innate ability for description is uncanny when focusing on the macabre and horrific.  There is detail in his words, but just enough for you to fill in the rest yourself as the reader.  This makes his stories come alive much more so than if he coldly described the monsters inhabiting his novels in minute detail.  Some of his best stories trick you into imagining your own worst nightmares, along with certain painful memories.

Stephen King understands how powerful the tool of imagination is, which therein lies the wasteland of the many failed cinematic attempts on his stories.  It is one thing to imagine some dark horror King describes in a couple sentences.  It is quite another thing to envision it on the screen.  To this day, some of his best novels have yet to see a successful take on film.  It is because of the ignorance of King’s powerful tool of letting the readership imagine the worst.  That is quite a task to summon in a script for a big budget film, where the first thought is to spend all the money to bring King’s horrible monsters to life for all to see.  The misconception is that one can literally translate a novel into a film.  Film is an entirely different medium than a novel, and requires just as much subtlety and imagination on the other end of the spectrum, for with film you are dealing with not only words, but images and sound.  You are in a sense, filling in the gaps those words in the novel skipped over.  The trick is to figure out how to fill in the gap.

Not all of Stephen King’s cinematic endeavors ended in the wasteland.  Brian De Palma’s stylish and scary “Carrie”, from 1976, was the first big hit for King.  In 1980, the cinematic giant Stanley Kubrick took on “The Shining”.  In 1986, audiences were treated to a wonderful adaption of the short story The Body with Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me”.  Even David Cronenberg realized ‘The Dead Zone” with intelligence and care.  Reiner later followed his hit with another King story “Misery”, from 1990.  Some other successes were “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Mist”, and the creepy “Pet Sematary”.  What all of these films have in common, besides the same original writer, is that the filmmakers chose to interpret the novels outside of King’s words, sometimes doing away with whole sections that cannot be translated into film.  Stanley Kubrick was notorious for throwing out most of the original source for “The Shining” (a fact that still rankles King to this day), but produced a film that has grown in stature and greatness over the years.  All other treatments of King’s novels are bland, dry, and sorely lacking in imagination for they tried to literally pull the pages from those sources and plaster them onto the screen, with little or no success.

Which leads us to the recent release of one of Stephen King’s longest novels at 1,138 pages long (his novel The Stand beats it at 1,168 pages in the uncut version), which concerns the evil lurking beneath Derry, Maine in IT.  “IT” has broken box office records at this writing, which is astounding for an R rated horror movie.  The name Stephen King has become such a brand name these days with a seemingly hungry audience waiting to experience again one of his bizarre worlds. “IT” is an ambitious undertaking for it covers a lot of years and a multitude of characters.  There was a mildly successful television venture in 1990 that is only quite memorable for actor Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise, The Clown.  Beyond that, the miniseries was a “by-the-numbers” adaption that never rose to Curry’s demented brilliance.

The 2017 revision of “IT” is ably directed by Andrés Muschietti with a cast of mainly newcomers that shine in their roles.  Tim Curry’s shadow looms across this project, but actor Bill Skarsgård takes it to the extreme and leaves that shadow behind.  His performance is the stuff of nightmares.  Muschietti’s work with the actors is nuanced and has an air of authenticity, especially with the children.  When it comes to the horror action, this is where Muschietti stumbles…but let’s go over the stand outs in this production first.  The production design by Claude Paré perfectly captures the early eighties tinge and feels very realistic.  The images by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung paints with deep shadows and bright light.  The actors, under Muschietti’s direction, are authentic and emotionally right on cue.  There does not seem to be a false moment with any of them.

“IT” is not without its missteps, and they are glaring.  The music, by Benjamin Wallfisch, is overbearing at times that  telegraphs certain scares before they happen.  The film would have been better off with less music.  For any horror film, sound is integral to ratcheting up tension.  “IT’ has the sound design of a gleeful kid ready to make you jump out of your seat at a moment’s notice, regardless whether the story calls for it.  It cheapens the scares that the film works hard to build up to.  Through all of this, it is ultimately the director, Muschietti himself, that is accountable for the lack of tension in this film.  To rely on jump scare tactics is juvenile, when he could have been slowly building up tension within the frame for those payoffs.  The film seems to jump to the next showcase without lingering on the horror that was presented to us moments ago.  To add insult to injury, while the film has an emotional integrity to it (a coming of age story which is key to its success), there is no underlying subtext present to make the viewer return for another look.  It appears to be a wonderful story about kids growing up, that happens to have a lot of sudden loud scares thrown in the mix.  Apart from the beautifully shot beginning sequence of Georgie floating his paper boat in the rain, only to meet Pennywise in the storm drain, the rest of the film looks wonderful, but shockingly empty of real tension.  It is sadly not a film to revisit.

In the end, King will continue to reside on top because of his words, not the films based on his words.  The novels breathe because we, the reader, push the air into its lungs with our imagination.  “IT” is a worthy attempt, and much better than most, which is saying a lot for the multitudes already strewn across the author’s cinematic wasteland.

Stephen King said it himself, and filmmakers attempting to adapt his work should take heed;

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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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

Barry Lyndon Under The Microscope With Eric Peeper

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I have been wary of writing about my number one American cinema idol, Stanley Kubrick, for fear of not doing justice to his accomplishments and inspiration he continues to bring to filmmakers and audiences alike.

Eric Peeper has written a lovely treatise on one of Kubrick’s most difficult, but now considered masterpieces of cinema that highlights the technical and story advancements on screen.  Barry Lyndon was, for a long time, a film I was not sure if I liked or disliked due to the pacing, the lead performance of Ryan O’Neal, and the overall coldness of direction by Kubrick.  Over the years, it has become one of my favorites for precisely these past perceived inadequacies, funny enough.  Peeper delves into the history of Kubrick’s process and technological advances with entertaining skill.

This is a piece worth sharing for it presents why Kubrick is important in cinema and the need to revisit his films with great relish.  Ingmar Bergman remains my Everest of filmmakers, but Kubrick is right alongside in terms of being able to revisit his worlds and still learn something new with each viewing.  That is a mark of brilliant craftsman and an enduring filmmaker.

Please click on the link and discover why it is time to possibly revisit Barry Lyndon.

https://ericpeeper.wordpress.com/2017/07/22/cut-glass-cruelty/

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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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]