Ivan’s Childhood (1962) – Adolescent Dreamscapes

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film began life as a respectful adaptation of an autobiographical story about a child’s experiences working as a military scout during World War II. The story had already been translated into over twenty languages as well as critically acclaimed both at home and abroad but the studio’s first choice to direct the film had somehow managed to bungle the project resulting in nothing but thousands of feet of wasted film and a sizeable number of debts. After firing the director, the studio reached out to his classmate and offered him the project on the understanding that we would need to deliver a completed film as quickly and as cheaply as possible on the grounds that another man had already burned through the reserves of patience and good will that were usually accorded to novice filmmakers.

As with a number of Tarkovsky’s films, the production of Ivan’s Childhood resonates with many of the same issues as the film itself. For example, just as Tarkovsky had been denied a professional adolescence by the mistakes of his classmate, the film’s protagonist finds himself plucked from childhood and forced into premature adulthood where the world offers no protection from the consequences of his actions. Equally spooky is the way that the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood is forced to run across minefields for the sake of those who follow just as Tarkovsky was forced to fight for the idea that directors should pursue their own artistic visions rather than contenting themselves with adapting the visions of others.

Setting aside the somewhat uncanny details of the production process, Ivan’s Childhood remains an impressive piece of filmmaking. Beautifully acted, astonishing to look at, and thematically rich, the film explores the interlocking boundaries between childhood and adulthood, dreams and reality, as well as between conscious and unconscious thought.

 

Continue reading →

Swimming Pool (2003) – Touched by The Gods of Indecision

One of the enduring concerns of human culture is how to deal with thoughts and feelings that are not recognisably our own.

Much like the ancients, who associated odd feelings and passing moods with particular deities, Saint Augustine viewed unwelcome thoughts as something external to the self. According to Augustine, our urge to transgress God’s laws stems from a wound inflicted by Original Sin and passed down through the generations by sexual contact. Later churchmen would describe the concept of Original Sin as:

“Privation of the righteousness which every man ought to possess”

Inspired by the Augustinian concept of Concupiscence but intent upon creating a materialistic account of human nature, Sigmund Freud divided the self into different parts and invoked the concept of the unconscious as a place where unspeakable thoughts and desires boil and occasionally rise up, hammering at the walls of the conscious self. Though no longer central to scientific accounts of human nature, Freud’s account of the self remains incredibly influential. Artists and mental health professionals conspire to present the mind as a city under constant pressure from a vast and barely manageable neurochemical hinterland where entire streets pass in and out of the surrounding jungle. The question of how we navigate such a city, where we draw the line between town and country, ours and not-ours not only endures to this day but also accounts for many of the most striking literary and philosophical innovations of the 20th Century.

Like many psychological thrillers, Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool follows a character’s attempt to repress, confront and ultimately claim ownership of a series of unwelcome and unrecognisable thoughts, but as sophisticated as the film’s distinctions may be, it is never entirely clear where the film’s main protagonist begins and ends.

Continue reading →

Sous Le Sable (2000) – Everyone Needs a Little Cup of Stars

SLS1There are few situations to which the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are not pressingly germane:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.

One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.

Continue reading →

REVIEW – Wake in Fright (1971)

wake-in-frightFilmJuice have my review of Ted Kotcheff’s sensational Australian film Wake in Fright.

Released this week by Masters of Cinema, Wake in Fright is one of those films that stays with you forever. Set in the middle of the Australian outback, the film is structured around a descent into madness after a middle class school teacher gets stuck in a working class mining town called The Yabba. Initially smug and contemptuous of the working class culture that surrounds him, the teacher is forced to make friends and make do and so finds himself drinking, gambling, hunting and fighting… his life one bender after another without room to think or breathe. However, rather than being a simple critique of working class habits from a middle class perspective, the film broadens its critique to all of Australian society:

Kotcheff uses John’s journey through The Yabba as a means of exposing the violent alcoholic nihilism that lurks beneath the surface of the Australian national image. John’s reactions are obviously quite bourgeois and, presented on their own, might have resulted in a film that spends over 100 minutes sneering at working-class Australians. However, the film’s use of John as an emotional touchstone is intriguingly refracted through the impressions of two other characters, a middle-class drunk (Al Thomas) whose wit and discernment become less and less obvious the drunker be becomes and an educated nihilist (Donald Pleasence) who has chosen to embrace the Yabba-lifestyle because he sees all forms of social, moral or spiritual advancement as a sign of vanity. The result is a film that manages to walk a fine line between demonising elements of working-class Australian culture and expressing real empathy as to why these people have come to think and act the way they do. There’s a wonderful scene late in the film where John hitches a lift with a trucker who invites him in to have a drink, terrified that another drink might send him back into the Yabba’s downward spiral, John refuses the drink only to be insulted and described as mad. How could anyone avoid descending into alcoholism when refusing to have a drink with a complete stranger is treated as a mortal insult?

As I point out in my review, the film functions almost like a non-genre revisionist western in so far as it sets out to debunk and deconstruct the national icon that is the Australian bushman. Interestingly, while the Australian film industry has produced a number of revisionist westerns (including the excellent Red Hill, which I wrote about a couple of years ago) almost all of them are devoted to addressing the various ways in which white Australians mistreated  Indigenous Australians. One of the ways in which white Australians mistreated indigenous Australians is by making them invisible and perpetuating the myth that Australia was an uninhabited landscape before the arrival of the white man. As I point out in my Red Hill piece, this tendency to make indigenous Australians disappear is actually being perpetuated by the fact that all of these films about terrible white people are themselves directed by white people! As a result, Wake in Fright‘s decision to pick a fight with the predominantly white bushman and give his culture both barrels is far less problematic than most of the real Australian revisionist westerns.

There’s also a lovely bit in one of the interviews included on the DVD where someone describes how the first Australian screenings went quite badly with one person standing up and shouting “this ain’t us!” to which a member of the cast responded, gloriously, “Sit down mate, this is us!”.

This film is really something special.

REVIEW – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

hungame2A little while ago, the editor of Videovista approached me to review the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games novel Catching Fire. I had read the first two books in the Hunger Games series and reviewed the first one in a mood of profound ambivalence that carried me through into the first film. In short, I liked the way the book captured Katniss’s reactions to the world but I found both the world itself and everything that happened in said world to be somewhat tedious… hence my decision to interpret the books as a sort of psychological fantasia in which the emotional touchstones of teenaged life are recreated using the language of dystopian science fiction. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really survive the decision to adapt the books but drop the internal monologues. However, rather than simply being honest and describing Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a typically dull and expensive-looking Hollywood epic, I decided to work through some of my feelings about The Hunger Games, Young Adult Fiction and Hollywood Blockbusters in an essay that runs to over 4,000 words.

On psychological fantasias:

This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White’s children’s novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words ‘port’ and ‘Eton’ serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.

On the incompetence of the film’s direction:

As with the opening act, a savvy director might have played up the paranoia underpinning these scenes and turned them into simmering pots of tension that occasionally explode into violence, but Lawrence follows Ross in choosing to focus on the melodrama thereby depriving the film of any sense of lingering danger or tension so that, when the angry baboons and poisonous clouds do turn up, they appear more comical than harrowing. There is one particularly wonderful scene where Katniss’ group meets up with some other tributes and decides to make peace. Noting that they appear to be covered in sticky brown liquid, Katniss asks what happened and one of the female tribute rolls her eyes and talks about blood falling from the sky in the same tone of voice that one might talk about a ruined wedding reception or barbecue; a damp squib indeed.

On adults reading books aimed at children:

The reason that people respond to works like The Hunger Games is the same reason they cower in the shadow of their parents and feel empowered by mass-market therapy sessions written for a teen demographic: we are subject to a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as creatures that are as passive and as powerless as children. Works like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight benefit from this cultural mood as much as they contribute to it.

An interesting corollary to some of the ideas I explore in the essay is something written by Adam “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” Roberts who ponders the question of why Young Adult fiction has become obsessed with Victorian imagery. I think that Adam reaches some of the same conclusions that I do but expresses them in a manner that is both more erudite and sympathetic to the materials in question. Another interesting corollary is Julianne Ross’s piece in the Atlantic which asks “Must Every YA Action Heroine Be Petite?” in which she ambles down objectivisation avenue and stumbles across a far more interesting truth:

But this is the same double standard that we’ve been subjected to again and again; just as women are expected to be sexual but not slutty, pure but not prudish, heroines should be strong but not buff. Powerful, yet still delicate enough to be cradled by their male love interests. Mature enough to lead those around them, yet so small that people confuse them with innocent little girls.

I don’t think this aesthetic has as much to do with sexual objectification as it does with the fact that Young Adult fiction is partly about allowing grown-up readers to escape into worlds dominated by melodramatic treatments of banal coming-of-age stories. Indeed, as I explain in the review, The Hunger Games is all about Katniss gaining access to the rooms in which grown-ups have grown-up conversations. Her rebellion against President Snow has less to do with real-world politics than it does with standing up to Daddy. I am not a fan of escapist fiction but I have a particular contempt for escapist fiction that presents banal teenage rebellion as something worthy of book, film and song. Stories like The Hunger Games shrink the horizons of our minds to the point where the banal seems heroic and the heroic seems impossible. Give it another ten years and adults will be reading books that make them feel empowered about the fact that they are potty trained.

 

REVIEW – White of the Eye (1987)

WhiteoftheEyeFilmJuice have my review of Donald Cammell’s thriller White of the Eye.

Donald Cammell is arguably best known for his first film Performance in which an east end geezer moves in with a jaded rock star and loses his values and identity in a world of sex, drugs and faded Edwardian interiors. Set in small town Arizona, White of the Eye could not be more different in so far as it conceals its artistic intentions beneath a thick genre glaze. The glaze in question is that a serial killer is moving from house to house murdering wealthy attractive women. Hired by the husbands of wealthy attractive women to install expensive sound systems, the film’s protagonist is sucked into the investigation despite his claims of innocent. Rather than following this narrative line in a conventional manner, Cammell slows things down to a crawl and begins to explore the protagonist’s history and relationships in exquisitely stylised detail:

Cammell’s film opens on a montage that feels like a dozen 1980s music videos crammed into a pot and reduced down to an inky sludge. Hints of ZZ Top collide with notes of Duran Duran as red wine splashes across tiles, blood arcs through the air and eyes are drawn to stocking-clad legs, pastel interiors and improbably geometric patterns. If, as Marianne Faithful once said, Performance took 1960s Chelsea and placed it under glass, White of the Eye takes the surface gloss of 1980s MTV and turns it into a living, breathing, bleeding world.

While the film itself is pretty damn fine, I was amused by the fact that the documentary included on the disc about Cammell made him seem like a complete and utter cock as it spends well over an hour talking about how much he enjoyed hanging about with aristocrats having loads of sex and taking loads of drugs. I appreciate that this might well have seemed incredibly transgressive and important to people in the 1960s but nowadays it just sounds like the Bullingdon club on spring break.

The Sight of the Hunted: German Expressionism and Night of the Hunter

night of the hunter poster

FilmJuice have published a lengthy piece written in celebration of the recent re-release of Charles Laughton’s legendary Night of the Hunter.

This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:

Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.

Now I say far more straightforwardly:

The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.

Mother