Frequent visitors to this site will know that I value Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker above all other films. The reasons for this are really two-fold:
Firstly, I think that Tarkovsky’s films set the bar for a cinematic golden age known as the European art house movement. Tarkovsky was one of the first Soviet filmmakers to reach maturity having seen early works of European art house film and I think his films took those methods, combined them with approaches developed by Soviet filmmakers, and produced a series of works that have — in retrospect — come to define that particular sensibility. Stalker is special as it is not only devastatingly beautiful and enormously rich, it is also one of those rare films where everything seems to work both individually and collectively.
Secondly, Stalker is one of my critical compass points. It is not just that I tend to judge other films in terms of how well or poorly they compare to Stalker, it’s that my critical methods have been (consciously or unconsciously) been shaped by how well adapted they are to the task of writing about films like Stalker. Our culture teach us how to respond to the culture we consume and I have definitely found myself drifting closer and closer towards the task of writing about these kinds of beautiful but complex films.
I have actually written about the film before a couple of times before but I think I am most satisfied with this latest nihilistic take. FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray:
Tarkovsky may have been a genius but he was also the product of a very specific cultural moment. His films are littered with religious symbolism and articulate a profound yearning after spiritual truth but his stories inevitably seem to deposit their characters in states of complete existential crisis. The tension between the content of Tarkovsky’s stories and the style in which he chose to tell them speaks not only to the absence of religion in Soviet lives but also to the brutal materialism implied by Soviet Montage Theory. Indeed, if people can extract meaning from the juxtaposition of two completely unrelated images, how can we imbue this meaning with any form of value? If ‘meaning’ is just a product of the way human brains process information, what are we to make of our desire to find meaning in the chaos of our lives.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker is about man’s search for meaning and how all searches for meaning are doomed to failure. The world is a beautiful place, filled with bliss and horror but the meaning we place on these experiences are ours and ours alone.
Before they are made flesh and born into this world, works of art exist as clouds of pure possibility. Every work is born of ideas and the creative process requires artists to make those ideas material through a combination of different elements including plot, character, style, and theme. While certain ideas bond more naturally with certain elements and certain combinations of elements prove more or less popular at certain times, it is the artist who sits at the creative mixing desk and shapes how their idea will move from possibility to actuality.
Humans may be flawed and finite creatures but commerce assumes us to be more broken than we are. One side effect of this great conspiracy of under-estimation is that the marketplace tends to interpret our natural desire for different stories as a desire for different sets of mixes. Thus, mainstream realist literature encourages us to yearn for stories that can only be told with the character slider all the way up while Hollywood encourages us to watch films that require a focus on plot and a narrow explosive-laden visual style. Even art house film falls into this trap by emphasising a certain set of stylistic tics and then giving us more or less character and theme. There may be sound economic and historical reasons for this elemental fetishism but it does tend to encourage the assumption that trade-offs between the different elements represent some sort of zero-sum game. Why else remain wedded to such absurd superstitions as the belief that style can be severed from content or that thematically complex works cannot be stylish, exciting and full of humanity?
The truth is that the basic elements of artistic composition relate to each other in ways that are almost completely unpredictable. Some films – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – feature no characters, follow no plot, manifest no interest in the world and yet somehow manage to work on every conceivable level. Other works – like The Force Awakens –feature lots of plot, lots of character, a limitless budget for the provision of visual spectacle, a real desire to use mythological tropes to say something profound about human relationships, and yet somehow manage to be boring, empty, and utterly disposable. One film that demonstrates how emphasising certain elements can have unexpected consequences is the (recently re-mastered and re-issued) cult documentary Grey Gardens.
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I have long suspected that there is a great book to be written about the spread of existentialism throughout European film and literature. Born of middle-class alienation from 19th Century spirituality, existentialism was a requiem for lost faith and a roar of disgust at the less-than-flattering lighting conditions left by the departure of the divine light. God is Dead, O God… This Sucks.
As time passed, the post-religiosity of existentialism was shuffled into the background as the movement came to focus upon the psychological hardships of a life without meaning. Existentialism’s obsession with the grim futility of everyday life caught the imagination of people returning from war and so Raskolnikov trying to make sense of his own actions in Crime and Punishment and Meursault refusing to defend himself at trial in The Stranger came to seem like beautiful expressions of what it meant to be human.
Having long enjoyed a close relationship with mainstream literature, existentialism spread to film and when critics from the Cahiers du Cinema transitioned from seeing existential themes in the work of others to replicating those themes in their own work, they went straight to feelings of anger and despair at a world that refused to abide by human expectations.
Cruelty and nihilism are everywhere in the films of the French New Wave and when art house cinema began to become its own thing, the canon was formed of films like Au Hazard Balthazar, Mouchette and Le Beau Serge… films in which women suffer while men brood.
Looking back at the post-War years, I cannot help but wonder whether existentialism’s appeal might not have had something to do with either its flight from responsibility or its lack of psychological precision. Think about it… existentialism is a philosophy that takes in the cruelty, pointlessness and arbitrariness of life and proscribes only directionless and unresolvable angst. Do not examine your role in making the world a worse place or consider why you feel the way you do, just shrug your shoulders and light up another cigarette as your actions count for nothing in a world that was born plain bad. Existentialism is a philosophy designed by emotionally stunted men and its popular success owes a lot to the fact that an entire generation of men came home from World War II and pointedly refused to deal with the trauma of what they had seen and done. Existentialism legitimises the refusal to deal with your own shit and that dead-eyed passivity was decanted into countless noir thrillers and stories in which lovely young women are destroyed by the world while men stand around looking glum.
Very much a part of the European art house tradition, Daniel Wolfe’s debut film Catch Me Daddy is a beautifully shot and relentlessly nihilistic film in which yet another young woman is destroyed by the cruelty of the world. Filled with dead-eyed tough guys muttering into mobile phones whilst staring into the middle-distance, it trots through every post-existential cliché in the European art house canon before arriving at a climax that shows just enough self-awareness to highlight the thoughtlessness of the preceding 90 minutes.
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FilmJuice have my review of Michael Mann’s cinematic debut Thief. Despite having seen Mann’s first feature-length film (a TV movie called Jericho Mile), I had somehow evaded seeing his first cinematic feature. This means that I have just had one of my best cinematic experiences in years as Michael Mann’s Thief is a stone cold classic!
The film revolves around a highly organised and professional thief played by James Caan in full 70s tough guy mode. Despite having his life completely squared away and stripped of all unwelcome and unnecessary emotional entanglements, the character feels a yearning for normality when a face-to-face meeting with an old mentor gives him a Ghost-of-Future-Present moment in which he imagines himself dying alone in jail. However, despite wanting to live a normal middle-class life, the character approaches his desire for normality with the same level of aggression and control-freakery that he approaches his job as a cat burglar resulting in an absolutely amazing sequence in which Caan’s character almost pulls a gun on a woman as a means of declaring his love and desire to start a family. Unfortunately, the character soon realises that his chequered past and lack of social skills mean that a proper middle-class existence is out of bounds (he cannot adopt or secure a mortgage to buy a house) and so he enters into a relationship with a crime boss who is looking to start a family.
The conventional reading of this film emphasises the humanity of Caan’s character and see a desire for emotional openness in his pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle. However, I don’t believe that Thief is a film about someone who has a middle-class life stripped away from him, this is a film about a man who was never suited to middle-class life to begin with!
Hardboiled crime thrillers love the idea of emotionally isolated men discovering reasons to live: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Ryan Gosling’s highly-professional simpleton goes on a couple of nice dates with the woman next door and sacrifices himself for the sake of her family. In Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Mel Gibson’s highly-professional blank slate murders his way through an entire criminal syndicate for the sake of a few thousand dollars until he spends time with an old flame whose presence transforms the money from a stupid reason to risk your life into a chance for a new beginning. Directors and writers love these transformative moments as it softens one male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case) into a slightly different male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case who turns out to be a sensitive soul after all). Part of what makes Thief so fascinating is that while Mann literally walks Caan’s Frank up the garden path to an ordinary life, Frank abandons that life at the very first set-back. In fact, Frank doesn’t just walk away from his life… he abandons his family and burns his house to the ground because he cannot cope with the emotional entanglements that characterise a normal life.
Michael Mann’s Thief can be read as a hardboiled version of Jean Renoir’s classic Boudu Saved From Drowning except rather than being about an eccentric homeless person who is taken under the wing of a nice middle-class man only to walk away from middle-class bliss, Thief reskins Boudu as an emotionally isolated cat burglar and the lovely middle-class book salesman as a patriarchal crime boss. Both films critique the idea that everyone is suited to a normal middle-class existence and both films suggest that there is something faintly intimidating about the middle-class urge to uplift and civilise the lower orders.
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It is impossible to overstate the enduring influence of existentialism on art house film. Since disentangling themselves from the mainstream of popular cinema back in the 1960s, art house filmmakers have worked hard to create a set of narrative techniques that perfectly capture what it’s like to feel lost and a little bit sad in a world rippling with beauty and potential. This tension between the world’s extraordinary potential and our own failure to make the most of it is what lies at the heart of all existential thought and most art house film. Indeed, these techniques and the moods associated with them are now so common in European and World cinema that their deployment has started to feel more like a professional rite-of-passage than an expression of manifest truth.
Winner of the Best International Film award at the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival, Chinese director Mao Mao’s first film Here, Then (Ci Chu Yu Bi Chu) is an excellent example of how to launch a directorial career: As technically brilliant and thematically rich as any conventional art house film produced in the last five years, Mao Mao’s debut proves that he can use conventional art house techniques to tell a conventional art house story about alienation, isolation and the yawning chasm at the heart of middle-class life.
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Frequent visitors to this blog will by now have realised that both the form and frequency of my posting is subject to a good deal of fluctuation. Sometimes I crank out sizeable pieces on a regular basis, sometimes I provide only links and other times I post links to short reviews and publish larger essays. The reason for these variations is that my motivations sometimes change and when my motivations change, so to does the nature of my output. These changes in motivation were particularly obvious when, earlier this year, I ceased to write very much at all.
At the time, I found this sudden lack of motivation rather distressing as I have always been able to re-motivate myself by shaking things up and writing about different things in different ways. In fact, this lack of motivation was so traumatic that I soon came to believe that my time as a critic might have come to an end. Needless to say, this did not actually happen but the reasons for this creative impasse strike me as interesting enough to warrant a proper post, if only for the sake of other people who may be experiencing similar motivational problems.
The problem was that I was going through the process of selling my childhood home and moving to an entirely new town. On a purely practical level, this made sitting down to write rather difficult. On a psychological level, this made it almost impossible to think about anything that was not directly related to the move. Unclear as to why I was finding it so difficult to sit down and write, I managed to convince myself that my motivation for writing has been completely destroyed by the realisation that there was really no point in sharing my views with anyone about anything. The reason I reached this particular creative impasse was that I encountered a number of works that encouraged me to think of myself purely as an introverted outsider and introverted outsiders tend not to be all that interested in sharing their opinions with other people. This is a post about the dangers of labelling oneself and then coming to believe that those labels exhaust your entire identity.
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I’d like to open with a kind of history. This history takes many forms and surfaces in many different places with the names of the actors sometimes replaced. Occasionally, the role of the nation-state is assumed by religion and at other times it is the gods of classical antiquity who take the lead. Regardless of which iteration of this history you have heard, its narrative will be familiar to you for it is a narrative of loss.
Once upon a time, people lived in tribes. These tribes were small social entities made up of a number of different family groups that pooled their resources. Members of tribes lived together, worked together and died together and this permanent state of communion with others made their lives meaningful. Of course, human nature being what it is, tribes could not peacefully co-exist and the tribes soon began conquering each other until their dominion extended over millions of people and thousands of miles of territory. Because these abstract tribal groupings were a lot harder to manage than a couple of families that had been living and working together for generations, tribal elders began reinventing themselves as governments who began to rule over abstract political entities known as kingdoms and principalities then as nations and states. Of course, nation states were never anything more than a way of referring to the territory under the control of one particular government but they stuck around for long enough that people began to forget their tribal loyalties and began to see their nationality as a fundamental fact about themselves, a fact no different to their sex, their gender, their sexuality or their race, a fact that took the form of a noun.
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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus that allowed me to voice some ideas about the role of escapist media in contemporary spiritual life. Evidently this post struck a chord with a good deal of people as I have been receiving a lot of traffic from people kind enough to link to me. While I cannot address all of the points raised by people, I can address a few of the comments that caught my eye. Thank you all for your attention and I am delighted that you enjoyed the read!
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0. We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories
Humanity has always told and listened to stories. Given that these stories sometimes provide the backbone for an entire culture or mode of being, it is only natural that stories should evolve to suit the needs of the cultures that tell them. Western culture has changed a lot over the last fifty years and one of the ways in which our culture has changed is that we have acquired a taste for longer and longer stories. Once upon a time, we watched films, read novels and enjoyed TV shows that could be watched in almost any order. Now, we read series of novels, watch trilogies of films and feel cheated if our TV series do not end by paying off storylines that span multiple seasons and dozens of episodes. As a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies.
While explanations for this trend towards narrative expansiveness may lie beyond the scope of a single blog post, I would suggest that we crave fictional mythologies because the religious mythologies we inherited have lost all credibility and the market has stepped in to fill the gap. Though we may not believe in the mythologies of Marvel comics in the same way that our parents believed in God, the experience of engaging with escapist literature is very similar to that of engaging with religious text. As J.R.R. Tolkien once put it:
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having peculiar quality.
This ‘turn’ comes in the form of the moment when we suddenly lose ourselves in a fictional world and cheer inwardly when the narrative logic of that world asserts itself upon the events of the plot. When a hero finally wins the day or the tragic queen finally dies, we feel a sense of consolation that is entirely lacking from the ‘real world’ we inhabit for much of our waking lives. This desire to feel that the world abides by the rules of a story and that everything in the world happens for a reason is central to the religious impulse. Even a staunch Catholic like Tolkien recognised that the sense of fulfilment we gain from a good piece of escapist literature offers a faint echo of the sense of fulfilment that can be gained from having Faith in the Christian story.
As Westerners have come to demand more and more from their escapist media, creators have responded by not only satisfying those desires but by encouraging them whenever possible. These days, one cannot have a successful film without a franchise and one cannot have a franchise without a suite of media tie-ins including novels, games, TV series and comics. Each of these spin-offs adds complexity to the franchise and allows for the creation of yet more products whose worlds intersect that of the core franchise. The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality.
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Videovista have my review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s critically acclaimed California Noir action movie Drive.
As someone whose first instinct is invariably to distrust received opinions and critical consensuses, I was somewhat disappointed to find myself in the position of absolutely adoring Drive. I adore the way it looks, I adore the way it is paced, I adore the characters and I adore the film’s wider themes. While there are a number of different ways of approaching the film, I see it as effectively a retelling of Pinocchio… the story of how a puppet became a real boy:
The reason the driver operates by a very simple set of rules is because he is effectively a simpleton who possesses no desires or dreams of his own. As the driver’s shambling employer and best friend Shannon explains, he suddenly appeared out of nowhere and does whatever is asked of him without complaining or asking questions. The driver’s lack of interior life is also reflected in his general demeanour as most questions asked of him result in little response beyond an impassive smile and an evasive answer. As blissful as it may seem, this state of perfect psychological simplicity is interrupted when the driver offers to help his next-door neighbour with her shopping.
Another question I explore in my review is the issue of narratives that effectively use female characters as catalysts for the emotional transformation of their male protagonists. Indeed, one of the strangest things about Drive is our willingness to accept on faith that a character such as the Driver might exist. The reason we accept the idea of an emotionally stunted driving-machine is because we are already familiar with the idea that all men are stunted children who only ever grow up (i.e. stop chronically masturbating, doing bong hits and getting into fights at sporting events) once the calming hand of a female presence is laid on their arm. In the second half of my review I explore the issue of whether this view is actually sexist:
Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness tells the story of a white man who goes mad in the jungle while the Africans quietly get on with their lives. In other words, it is the supposedly superior white man who loses his mind in the jungle and not the supposedly inferior Africans. Similarly, while it seems fair to observe that Irene is a simplistic character, her two character traits easily outdistance the subhuman imbecility of the white man at the centre of the film. Drive is the story of a character becoming human while the woman who prompts this transition remains noble, human and complete throughout. In fact, Drive could almost be read as the story of an innocent woman who becomes embroiled in a tug-of-love between the criminal she married and the handsome weirdo who lives next door.
Regardless of how you interpret it, I consider Drive to be one of the best films of 2011 and one of my ten favourite films of all time.