REVIEW — Day of Anger (1967)

FilmJuice have my review of Tonino Valerii’s awesome spaghetti western Day of Anger, also known as Gunlaw and I Giorni Dell’Ira.

The film is set in a prosperous frontier town where the ‘fatherless’ child of one of the local sex workers makes a living emptying chamber pots whilst being systematically beaten and demeaned by the men of the town. However, this situation comes to a sudden end when Lee Van Cleef’s ageing desperado rides into town and decides to take the young man under his wing. As the old gunfighter hatches a plot to take over the town, the young man becomes quite an accomplished gunfighter… so accomplished that he eventually becomes the only man who could possibly take down the old gunfighter. However, the young man’s loyalty towards the old man is compromised when another old man steps in and starts filling his head with paranoid thoughts:

For much of the film, Van Cleef plays Talby as something of an antihero; a man whose violent and manipulative actions are somehow humanised not only by the villainy of his victims but also by the praise he lavishes on Scott. Talby winds up being more of a father to Scott than any of the vicious hypocrites who might actually be his father but the more of an adult Scott becomes, the more he starts to question Talby’s apparent viciousness. Why would a man so cold go out of his way to raise a son when he could just as easily hire a bunch of goons to do his bidding? One potential answer surfaces in a fantastic scene in which Murph explains how older gun-slingers sometimes take an apprentice in an attempt to compensate for their slowing reflexes. However, as Murph points out, there comes a time when the reputation of the henchman begins to surpass that of the master and that is when the father inevitably begins to question the loyalty of the son.

As I explain in my review, the film is often thought of as an ‘Oedipal’ text about a son who is forced to kill his father before he can become an adult. However, a less Freudian reading suggests that Day of Anger might actually be more interested in the practicalities of parenting than in the father’s role as a symbol. Indeed, the film’s final act hinges upon the fact that Van Cleef’s character is so distracted by his awesome plotting and scheming that another man was able to sneak in and raise the son to hate the father.

Upon reflection, it now occurs to me that there is something distinctly Christlike about the figure of Scott Mary in so far as he is the fatherless ‘son of man’ who is forced to suffer for the sins of the community he inhabits. Scott Mary does eventually turn against his morally questionable father but only after the father was distracted and Scott Mary was attacked echoing the themes of abandonment found in Psalm 22’s cries of My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? In fact, one could almost imagine Day of Anger as an alternative vision of the crucifixion in which Jesus pulls himself off the cross, kills God and positions himself on the throne of Heaven but that might be pushing this interpretation a little bit too far in the direction of awesome.

Another thing that occurred to me while watching Day of Anger is how influential Eastwood’s Unforgiven has been on the Western genre. Indeed, most of the spaghetti westerns were violent to the point of nihilism but their visuals were invariably sunny and colourful. By contrast virtually all of the most notable American Westerns of recent years have taken their cues from Unforgiven and portrayed the old west as a cold, muddy place that was full of ugly farting men and drug-addled sex-workers. Even Tarantino’s Django Unchained paid lip service to that aesthetic in its early scenes before going on to recreate the carnivalesque melange of blood and sunshine that you find in many of the old Italian Westerns. As someone who really quite likes Westerns, I find the genre’s lack of visual innovation really quite frustrating as the Western seems to have emerged as yet another victim of grimdark’s stanglehold on the American psyche. Day of Anger is actually a really interesting counterpoint to the rise of the grimdark aesthetic as while the film is so bright and colourful that you could film an upbeat Western-themes musical using the same sets and costumes, the themes of the film are actually much darker and messed up than anything that has emerged from the later years of the post-revisionist Western.

 

REVIEW – Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood (2012)

diaz-2012FilmJuice have my review of Daniele Vicari’s topical ensemble drama Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood.

Set during the 2001 G8 protests in the Italian city of Genoa, the film tells the real-life story of one of the most outrageous abuses of police power in European history. The action focuses upon a pair of buildings that served as both a media center and a dormitory for people who happened to be in Genoa during the protests. Believing the buildings to be full of black bloc anarchists, the Italian police stormed in, beat everyone to a pulp and then dragged a number of people away to jail where they were humiliated, assaulted and tortured by not just police but also police doctors.

The structure of this film is faintly reminiscent of such ensemble dramas as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Fernando Meirelles’ 360 (Which I recently reviewed for Videovista). However, while these Hollywood productions are very similar to anthology pictures in so far as they are collections of more-or-less self-contained narratives, Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood departs from this model by using the different strands of the the narrative to explore the same event from different perspectives. Rather than resorting to anything as clunking as a time-stamp, Vicari allows history to unfold up to a single moment — someone throwing a bottle — and signals our return to the past by having the bottle re-assemble itself and return to the hand of the person who threw it. Aside from being incredibly elegant, this narrative technique works brilliantly in context as it allows Vicari to explore the extent to which the shared spaces of the protest mean different things to different people: For an elderly man trapped in Genoa overnight, the buildings are a safe place to sleep. For the journalists covering the protests, they are somewhere to file copy and conduct interviews. For the Black Bloc, they are a place to hide and draw up plans. This plurality of experience and perception is both brilliantly handled and intensely refreshing in a medium that all too often either avoids ambiguity like the plague or confuses it with evasiveness. Diaz Don’t Clean Up This Blood is a wonderfully ambiguous film because it presents you with several incompatible and yet entirely consistent viewpoints on the same series of events. Then the ambiguity goes away:

The final third of the film is spent exploring the mistreatment and torture meted out to the victims of the raid by police and police doctors and it is here that the film ultimately stumbles. The problem is that, while the bulk of the film is intensely humanistic and diverse in its exploration of different perspectives on the same events, Vicari’s coverage of the aftermath of the raid abandons nuance in favour of stark moralism: These are not the over-emotional and ill-informed police officers of the opening scene, these are cold and calculating psychopaths who humiliate and torture people because they know that they can do so with complete impunity. While there is no reason to doubt the brutality of the Italian police or the veracity of their victims’ claims, it is jarring when a film about understanding suddenly transforms into a film about condemnation.

One of the interesting things about Diaz that I did not have space to touch on in my review is the fact that while Vicari feels quite comfortable portraying the police as psychopathic Nazis, he is almost flawlessly even-handed when it comes to portraying the actions of the Black Bloc. In Diaz, the Black Bloc are a bunch of kids from all over Europe who descend on protest areas, stir shit up and then promptly retreat before the inevitable government response. Indeed, while the Black Bloc did indeed use the buildings that the police raid, Vicari goes out of his way to show them hiding in a nearby cafe while innocent by-standers get beaten to a pulp.

Why are we allowed to sympathise with the Black Bloc’s cowardice but not with the anger of the police?

One to this question is that while the Black Bloc’s actions contain enough moral ambiguity for there to be differences of opinion about them, nobody in their right mind would consider it acceptable for a police doctor to sexually assault a left-wing activist while the police singing fascist battle anthems. Indeed, one of the problems with liberalism and tolerance is that it’s very difficult to make any kind of moral judgement once you allow for the fact that all humans are fallible products of their environment and most people do what they do because they think it’s the right thing at the time. Diaz is an intensely humane and liberal film and yet its problematic final act shows that there must be limits to even the most pluralistic and tolerant of personal philosophies. I’m not convinced that Vicari handles the movement between ambiguity and certainty all that well but it is nice to see a film that attempts to address those types of moral problems.

REVIEW – Lisa and the Devil (1974)

LisaandDevilFilmJuice have my review of Arrow Films’ recent re-release of Mario Bava’s post-gothic fantasia Lisa and the Devil (a.k.a. House of Exorcism).

This review probably makes most sense when read in concert with my review of Bava’s earlier film Black Sunday. As I pointed out in my review, Black Sunday‘s Gothic imagery works solely because the film is shot in black and white. Lisa and the Devil deploys a similar set of Gothic tropes (skeletons, ghosts, sinister mansions) but because the film is shot on Eastmancolor (the successor to Technicolor), the film lacks any real atmosphere meaning that the Gothic imagery feels forced and slightly silly. One explanation for Bava’s decision to revisit Gothic tropes on colour film is that the sense of artificiality is intentional and used as a means of drawing our attention to the fantastical and unreal nature of the world the character has inadvertently entered. Indeed, while the film is ostensibly about a young woman who is lured to a sinister mansion by the Devil, one could also read the film as a meditation upon Bava’s career as a director. After all… how many women did the great horror director lure into Gothic mansions as a part of his job?

This feeling of artificiality is fiercely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and both works feel like products of an aging creator reflecting upon the theatricality of their own lives. However, while Shakespeare clearly identified with the aging wizard Prospero, Bava appears to identify with Savalas’ satanic butler, a character forever fussing with cheap special effects and grease paint in an effort to control what people see and how they feel. The melancholic nature of this identification is even more evident when Lisa snaps out of her reverie amidst wax dummies and ruined buildings: when the film ends, the audience picks up their stuff and leaves while the reality of the film decays in their minds and nothing is left but ghosts.

Another reason for picking up this dual format release is that Arrow Films have consulted a collection of critics who really engage with the fact that this film was released in a number of different places and a number of different forms.

One of the most prominent vestiges of auteur theory is the idea that a director’s final cut of a film is somehow more authoritative than alternate versions. Though rooted in the cult of the director-as-auteur, this vision of the creative process owes much of its popularity to Ridley Scott’s very public dissatisfaction with the original cut of Bladerunner. When the director’s cut of Bladerunner was finally released, people noted the improvement and internalised the idea that a ‘director’s cut’ is somehow better than a standard cut. Though certainly romantic, this idea actually has very little basis in reality.

Firstly, many films (including Lisa and the Devil) were cut and re-cut for multiple markets in a bid to extract as much profit as possible from the production process. Rather than shooting a film and putting all of their eggs in a single aesthetic basket, many exploitation film directors would shoot extra scenes that allowed them to produce alternate cuts tailored for particular markets. Thus, while the soft-focus and lack of real violence and sex suggest that this cut of Lisa and the Devil was made for TV, House of Exorcism contains a lot more sex, a lot more violence and an exorcism framing device that allowed producers to target the mid-70s American marketplace. In other words, there is no ‘correct’ version of Lisa and the Devil, there are only variations on a theme.

Secondly, directors have been known to revisit films at different points in their career. Indeed, while the director’s cut of Bladerunner may be closer to Scott’s original vision than the theatrical cut, it seems unlikely that each of the subsequent re-editions of the film are somehow more authentic than the last.Similarly, while Apocalypse Now Redux contains more material than the original theatrical cut, it seems ridiculous to suggest that Apocalypse Now Redux is somehow more authentically ‘Apocalypse Now-y’ than Apocalypse Now. A further example of this type of thing is Ruggero Deodata’s decision to provide an alternate edition of Cannibal Holocaust with all of the animal cruelty taken out of it. On one hand, this is clearly a more authentic rendering of the director’s feelings about his own film but it seems strange to suggest that this new cut is anything more than a publicity-generating afterthought.

Thirdly, more and more films are being produced with home release editions in mind. The most obvious example of this type of thing are the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies but one could also talk about the more sexually explicit home release editions of American Pie and films like Get him to the Greek which included additional scenes and different takes of scenes that appeared in the theatrical version.

The extras on this dual-format release go into considerable detail about the production history and how entirely different films were extracted from a single shooting schedule. Aside from providing a fascinating insight into how European exploitation films were made, these extras also confront head-on the idea that there might be a single, correct version of any particular film. There are no ‘more authentic’ cuts… only better ones.

REVIEW – Black Sunday (1960)

BlackSundayFilmJuice have my review of the Arrow Films re-release of Mario Bava’s wonderful Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) which is out in shops today and well worth picking up.

Very loosely based upon Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy”, Black Sunday is an unabashedly Gothic vampire story about a pair of aristocratic doctors who accidentally re-awaken a long-buried evil. Shot in luxuriant black and white that looks absolutely sensational on Blu-ray, Black Sunday shows how effective Gothic imagery can be when used by a director who knows what he is doing. As I point out in the review, many people have come to associate Gothic horror with campy Hammer Horror films but those films undermined the effectiveness of their own Gothic tropes by shooting on Technicolor film:

Many period horror films such as Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein attempted to improve upon traditional Hollywood gothic by shooting in colour and making use of the Technicolor reds made famous by Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The problem is that while these vibrant reds looked amazing when spilling from someone’s throat, they looked absolutely nothing like the colour of real blood. Combine this cartoonish hyper-realism with the fact that the aggressive lighting required by Technicolor cameras made it almost impossible to shoot a dark film and it is easy to see why the movement into colour collapsed 1930s Hollywood gothic into the camp silliness of Hammer horror.

My point is best illustrated by a scene in which one of the doctors drips blood on the witch’s corpse causing it to knit itself back together. Had Bava shot this scene in colour then the writhing blood would have just looked disgusting. However, because the scene was shot in black and white and blood appears black on black and white film, the writhing flesh looks more like a seething blackness than a bloody rice pudding.

XCOM is NOT a Boss Fight

XCOMIt’s been a while since I’ve written anything about video games but the awesome group blog Arcadian Rhythms were kind enough to host a little something I wrote about the stylistic differences between the original UFO: Enemy Unknown and its recent re-make XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

The main thrust of my argument is that while the original UFO was an emotionally muted and ambiguous affair that conveyed its themes of cataclysmic social change and philosophical crisis using subtle shifts in tone and design, the new XCOMexplores this same set of themes using a stylistic palate that is not so much muted as it is hysterical:

XCOM resembles the Metal Gear Solid series in so far as its approach to narrative is as totalitarian as it is melodramatic. Rather than trusting their material and their audience to find one another in an organic fashion, the writers of XCOM drive home every beat and every emotion as hard as they possibly can. Where the original UFO allowed players to uncover the disconnect between terrifying world and bland corporate office on their own terms, XCOM displays humanity’s precarious position in every colour scheme, every piece of text and every poorly performed and written cut-scene.

Games like XCOM are the product of a creative environment in which there is no room for subtlety or nuance. Like advertisers and political demagogues, AAA game designers are convinced that the only way of making the audience care is by reaching into their heads and forcing them to do so. Once upon a time, game designers used certain top-down narrative techniques to break up the monotony of fighting the same three enemies over and over again. Now, game designers use variations on these same manipulative techniques to wring emotional responses from the same old poorly written stories.

The most worrying thing about this growing tendency towards melodramatic storytelling is that it is a trend that is playing out across pretty much all the major gaming platforms. A fantastic example of this emotional bloat is the difference between the beautifully low-key nihilism of Far Cry 2 and the racist power fantasies of the recently released Far Cry 3. Indeed, while Far Cry 2 had you wandering around killing people and getting progressively closer (both spiritually and geographically) to the nihilistic figure of The Jackal, Far Cry 3 presents this same journey as a sort of spiritual quest in which you become a sort of white Christ figure for a group of noble savages. As with UFO and XCOM, the two Far Cry games demonstrate a growing discomfort around nuance, subtlety and ambiguity. For the modern AAA game designer, a game does not have a message unless the message is spelled out in a reductive and simple-minded fashion.  This unease around ambiguity is beautifully apparent in what must be one of the most extraordinary interviews ever conducted.

John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun interviews Far Cry 3‘s Jeffrey Yohalem and pretty much accuses him of making a game that is a white power fantasy aimed at 20-something White Americans. Yohalem denies this and bizarrely supports his denial by pointing to all of the story beats and tropes that would lead you to think that the game is a power fantasy:

The sex scene [at the midpoint] – first Jason is shooting at that gigantic monster. He kills the monster, and it jump-cuts to him orgasming with Citra! He’s firing sperm at this gigantic monster, and then suddenly he’s on this alter with Citra, having sex with her, and then he thinks he’s the leader of the tribe and makes the big speech, and it’s his power fantasy! That’s the other thing – it’s all from first-person, so it’s completely unreliable. There’s a reason why Jason is a 25 year old white guy from Hollywood – these are all ideas that are in his head. You’re seeing things through his eyes.

Clearly, Yohalem believes that he is being satirical and yet the game he has helped produce is absolutely indistinguishable from a non-satirical white power fantasy. In other words, while Yohalem may have intended to express ambivalence towards traditional video game narratives, the ambivalence simply did not carry across into the final game. The game is so busy trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions that it simply does not allow for the fact that the game might intend you to call these emotions into question. Yohalem points to a number of clues supporting his ironic interpretation of the game but all of these techniques are drowned out by the game’s desperation to make the player feel like a gosh-darned hero.

Melodrama is an entirely acceptable emotional register when the aim of the game is to engender an authentic emotional response to a particular text. Consider, for example, Luca Guadagnino’s majestic I Am Love (2009) starring Tilda Swinton:

The film tells the story of a woman who marries into a large Italian family. While this family provide the woman with a luxurious lifestyle, it also forces her to exist in a repressed emotional universe that requires her to be be the perfect wife at all times. However, this universe is shattered when the women meets a local chef who unlocks her emotional core and drags her into a whole new world. Let me be clear on this: I Am Love is one of my absolute favourite films; I think Guadagnino’s ability to use music, lighting, architecture and colour to create different emotional worlds is absolutely astonishing and when the woman finally breaks free from her old life, I wept openly in the cinema. I did this because Guadagnino is an absolute master at emotional manipulation.

The difference between I Am Love and Far Cry 3 is that while I Am Love is all about the authentic emotional experience of love, transformation and happiness, Far Cry 3 is supposedly about questioning the very emotions that the game evokes. Far Cry 3‘s problem is that while the aim of the game might have been to question white racial privilege, the style of the game celebrates white power fantasies in much the same way as I Am Love celebrates the transformative power of love. Melodrama is a tradition that allows the audience to experience what the characters are experiencing, it is not a tradition that encourages us to deconstruct our own emotional responses. On one level, it is tempting to simply dismiss Yohalem as a simpleton who doesn’t understand the concept of style but games like Far Cry 3 point to a far deeper problem, namely that AAA game designers are now so used to melodrama that they simply do not realise that there are other emotional registers that might better suit the stories they are attempting to tell.

REVIEW – Oedipus Rex (1967)

ORFilmJuice have my review of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s wonderful adaptation of Oedipus Rex.

While I am a huge fan of Pasolini’s work, his films always leave me feeling as though I have had to fight Pasolini tooth and nail in order to extract a coherent message from an enormous pile of idiosyncratically juxtaposed signs and portents. Indeed, if you read my review of Pasolini’s contribution to the short film collection RoGoPaG you will have noticed that I genuinely have no idea what it was that he was trying to say with his weird Christ/Cheese metaphor. As a result, it was somewhat refreshing to encounter an example of what Pasolini could achieve when working with a text that is already quite well understood.

Based on the classical play by Sophocles, Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex offers a moving commentary on the fact that even the most concerted rebels and outcasts are doomed to assume the roles vacated by their parents. Re-issued by Master of Cinema alongside a series of other Pasolini titles, Oedipus Rex is a useful point of entry into one of the 20th Century’s most challenging and unusual filmmakers. Indeed, having now seen Oedipus Rex, Pasolini’s Pigsty makes a good deal more sense.

Oedipus Rex is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Its opening sequences of people running around a field are fiercely reminiscent of the whispered awe that flows throughout the films of Terrence Malick. Pasolini captures the North African landscape with the eye of a painter, the deep red of the sand constantly at war with the brilliant blue of the sky while the film’s outlandish costumes seem to shriek defiance at the heavens themselves. We are here! We are human! We exist! Staggeringly beautiful, the film’s production design is reminiscent of what might have happened had the surrealist master Alejandro Jodorowsky been recruited to direct films like 300 and Immortals.

If you are looking for an intelligent and staggeringly beautiful art house film then please look no further than the BD edition of Oedipus Rex.  This is staggeringly good cinema.

REVIEW – RoGoPaG (1963)

FilmJuice have my review of the really rather wonderful 1960s Italian anthology film RoGoPaG. Comprising three short films directed by Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti, RoGoPaG is funny, satirical, gnomic and misogynistic in equal parts but the satire and humour of Passolini and Goretti more than make up for the pretentiousness and misogyny of Godard and Rossellini.

The film begins poorly with a well made but ultimately insipid morality tale by Roberto Rossellini in which an innocent and matronly airhostess (Rosanna Schiaffino) reinvents herself as a ‘whore’ in order to escape the attentions of a horny businessman. Schiaffino is undoubtedly charismatic but her charms simply cannot make up for the grinding misogyny of the film’s themes and plot.

Much like Pigsty and Hawks and Sparrows, Pasolini’s short film “La Ricotta” is a joyous avalanche of images and symbols that communicate mood far more effectively than they communicate ideas. The film revolves around an attempt to make a film about the Crucifixion that ends with one of the bit players dying on the cross as a result of eating too much cheese. Pasolini was evidently sent to prison for making the film and, to be honest, I can see why as the anger and hostility to organised religion are clear even though the exact nature of that anger is much harder to discern. The best short film in the collection is also the product of the least well-known director. Ugo Gregoretti’s “Il Polo Ruspante” is a well-observed and viciously delivered critique of Italian post-War consumerism in which a small family travel across the country while being fleeced by everyone they enter into contact with.