I am currently researching a piece on the films of J. G. Ballard and I came across what appears to be a rather interesting cinematic feedback loop. In 1996, David Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash. Crash was an expansion of the ideas contained in “Crash!”, one of the sections of Ballard’s splendidly disjointed modernist collection of condensed novels The Atrocity Exhibition (1969).
However, the line between “Crash!” (1969) and Crash (1996) is not that typical of most literary adaptations. Traditionally, the progress of forms is from short story to novel and from novel to film. However, in this case, the line is broken by a cinematic interloper. In between the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition and the publication of Crash (1973), Ballard’s ideas found their way into a short film by Harley Cokliss. Not only starring but also written and narrated by Ballard himself, Crash! (1971) is somewhere between a televised essay, a work of audiovisual art and a traditional short film. It is also quite a distinctive work when compared to its literary precursor and successor. Indeed, by looking at the changes between the different Crash pieces, it is possible to gain an insight into Ballard’s methodologies.
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Over the past week, I have been thinking about two particular works. The first, is Armando Iannucci’s spectacular In The Loop (2009) and the most recent of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Trap (2007). Both works examine the social and political fall-out from Tony Blair and New Labour’s decade or so in power. Both present us with a post-modern political landscape in which facts and values are not only seen as open to manipulation by people in power, but where facts and values are seen solely as expressions of personal preference. Far from being a hyperbolic and polemical accusation or a satirical construct, this understanding of human cognition is shared by people on the left and the right and has come to dominate the political and conceptual landscape to the extent that it is almost impossible to think of an alternative to it. However, some films, such as those of Paolo Sorrentino present a radically different vision of human cognition. One in which rational self-interest serves as a mask for much deeper and darker passions.
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In 1927 Bertrand Russell delivered a talk entitled “Why I am not a Christian”. In this talk he rejected the logic of the arguments for the existence of God before moving on to issues such as Jesus’ moral character and whether or not he actually existed in the first place. In the 80 or so years since Russell gave that talk, the question of whether or not to be a Christian has come more and more to resemble the question of whether or not it is rational to believe in God. This focus distracts from the fact, acknowledged by Russell, that even if the proof of God’s existence were overwhelming, there would still be good reason for refusing to consider oneself a Christian. For example, one can question the morality of Jesus’ teachings, the value of his various churches and whether ‘worship’ is really the kind of activity that civilised human beings should be engaged in at the beginning of the twenty first century. One of the reasons why I am not a Christian is that heaven does not sound like the kind of place I would want to spend eternity. Clearly, this is a thought that has also occurred to Jens Lien, the director of Den Brysomme Mannen, (2006) known outside of Norway as The Bothersome Man.
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Polanski week has seen me write at length about the cinematic technique, intellectual pedigree and philosophical themes of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy but for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I would like to take a different approach. Arguably one of Polanski’s best known films, Rosemary’s Baby is wonderfully acted, perfectly paced and so tightly written and shot that not a single frame feels out of place or fails to pull its weight. From the famously ‘Doris Day’ soap operatic opening scenes to the macabre ending, it is close to being a flawless work of cinematic genius. However, where The Tenant (1976) and Repulsion (1965) are quite clearly about the descent into madness via sexual repression, Rosemary’s Baby deals in the more fantastical currency of witches, Satanism and the birth of the anti-Christ. The use of such fantastical imagery invites us to wonder what the film is really about. Rosemary is clearly not mad, nor is she sexually frustrated.
Rosemary’s Baby is a snapshot of social power dynamics in 1970s New York. It is a film not only about the treatment of women at the hands of a powerful Patriarchy, it is also an account of price exacted from the young by the elderly in return for the transferal of power to members of a new generation. Despite being a film about unearthly creatures, Rosemary’s Baby is ultimately a profoundly temporal film about man’s inhumanity to man (and especially woman).
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Seeing as it is Polanski Week, I thought I would also link to an amusing little film that attempts to suggest that Roman Polanski might have some kind of foot fetish thing going on…
The film is called “Un Piede di Roman Polanski” and it was joint winner of the CineKink 2009 award for Best Experimental Short. Hat-tip to Lauren Wissot who, along with Rosanne Kapitoa, is responsible for putting together this little gem.
In my piece on Polanski’s Repulsion (1968), I highlighted the homage paid by Polanski to the generation of Surrealist filmmakers who came before him. In this piece, I want to examine the similarities in tone between another of Polanski’s films and the branch of French Surrealism that provided the source material for one of Polanski’s best known films, The Tenant (1976).
By 1960, the vultures had started to circle the Surrealist movement. What had started out as a desire to destroy and rebuild the iconography of Western Art in the aftermath of the First World War now seemed like a circular and pointless endeavour through which one section of the bourgeoisie tried to shock and outrage another section of the same narrow social institution. While members of the Generation of ‘27 burned with anger at the Franquist government which had exiled and jailed them, the alliances with Marxism that would impact film-makers such as Bunuel were still a way off. Facing such creative stagnation, Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor came together to form Burlesque, a creative clique which would later inspire itself from the god Pan and name themselves the Panic Movement.
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It is a pleasure to return to Cinematic Vocabulary and kick off Polanski Week by looking at what I consider to be one of Polanski’s less appreciated films. While The Tenant (1976) is the darling of cinephiles and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is second only to Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) in terms of mainstream appeal, Repulsion is sometimes overlooked as an early work, sandwiched as it is between Polanski’s break through film Knife in the Water (1962) and his more famous Hollywood projects.
However, it is my contention that Repulsion is a substantial landmark on the the road of Polanski’s artistic development. The low-budget British Horror film allowed him not only to perfect some of the cinematic techniques that would feature prominently in his later works but also to tackle some of the themes dear to the generation of 1930s surrealist film-makers who clearly had quite an influence on Polanski’s thinking.
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While I try to move outside of my comfort zone in the films I choose to watch, sometimes I find myself in a place where only a certain kind of film will satisfy me. At the moment, that type of film is the psychological thriller. One of the masters of this particular genre is the Polish-French director Roman Polanski. Holocaust survivor, husband to Sharon Tate (who was murdered by Charles Manson and his ‘Family’) and fugitive from justice, Polanski has made many powerful and disturbing films though perhaps none as disturbing as his Apartment Trilogy.
- Repulsion (1965)
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
- The Tenant (1976)
In order to pay appropriate hommage to my current obsession, I have decided to turn Ruthless Culture over to the study of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy for a period not exceeding one week.
Videovista also have my review of Yim Pil-sung’s Hansel & Gretel.
Over the past month I have been reading and watching a lot of stuff that consciously plays around with pre-existing forms of imagery. For example, Blindness (2008) seemed to address not just metaphorical blindness but also the idea of blindness as a metaphor. I also sat through not only Stephen Moffat’s direction-less Jekyll (2007) but an equally uninspiring theatrical reworking of the original novella by James MacLaren entitled (somewhat unoriginally) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
One of the main problems with Hansel & Gretel is that while it plays around with the idea of Hansel and Gretel, it really does not have anything to say. It is a film that draws heavily from the del Toro tradition of stories about abandoned children and in bringing together those two traditions, all it really manages to do is make us realise that del Toro’s stories are hardly revolutionary.
However, in thinking about this film and Blindness I could not help but wonder whether there isn’t some kind of bell curve for reinventions. Fail to do enough and your story comes across as hackneyed but do too much and the story gets lost or, as in the case of Blindness, the metaphor effectively becomes so flexible that it becomes effectively meaningless, thereby leaving the writer looking like a pretentious pseud.
On a completely unrelated subject, this month’s Videovista also featured my review of the old TV mini-series Escape from Sobibor (1987), which, if nothing else, shows how films such as Schindler’s List have helped make mainstream media a good deal less squeamish about the Holocaust than it used to be.
This month’s issue of Videovista has recently gone up and it contains my review of Peter Chan’s The Warlords (2007). It is not a bad film at all and it draws attention to two interesting characteristics about contemporary Chinese cinema.
Firstly, that while Chinese films are lagging behind the West in matters of digital jiggery-pokery, they have acess to material resources such as sets and extras that render a lot of these techniques largely moot. For example, I suspect that had The Warlords‘ battle scenes been shot for an American film, the armies would have been mostly digital and, as a result, much much larger. After all, why have a few dozen ships when you can have thousands? I call this the Troy Effect.
You can also see the impressive material infrastructure of Chinese cinema on display in Alexi Tan’s Blood Brothers (2007) ,which I also reviewed for Videovista. The film’s opening scenes are set in the Chinese country-side and instead of a few internal shots and maybe some location work, the film benefits from having been shot on what apears to be the kind of vast back-lot that Hollywood has long since transformed into theme parks.
Secondly, both films are set at times in Chinese history when there was a good deal of foreign involvement in China’s internal affairs. Indeed, Blood Brothers is set in 1930s Shanghai, which hosted a large British ex-pat community including J. G. Ballard. Similarly, The Warlords is set in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the wars between China in Britain that not only netted Britain Hong Kong but which opened China up to foreign trade and cultural influence. However, despite this both films are completely free of British characters and Western faces.
Since the apologetics of Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), it has become tempting to see all Chinese cultural exports as exercises in nationalist propaganda and the degree of cultural re-appropriation going on in both films invite us to consider them in this very light. However, this strikes me as a rather egocentric vision of Chinese cinema. Not every film (or song) is about the West or even for Western consumption. As a result, it seems more reasonable to see this kind of historical airbrushing as being an expression not of ideological projection but of yielding to popular tastes. So just as American audiences prefer to think that their country won the Second World War single-handed, I suspect that most the Chinese audience would react badly to films that remind them of their country’s quasi-colonial status.