Kotoko (2011) – Track the Emotions, Not the World

Back in 1986, Shinya Tsukamoto began producing short experimental films with science fictional themes. One of these films entitled “A Phantom of Regular Size” featured a man living in a dystopian Tokyo being pursued, infected and ultimately transformed by a cybernetic spirit of the age, a woman in dark glasses and immaculate tailoring who could have stepped right out of The Matrix almost a generation later.

Phantom went on to form the backbone to a series of feature films that brought Tsukamoto to the attention of a global audience. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer, and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man are all attempts to communicate what it felt like to be a member of the Japanese middle-classes at the end of a period of unprecedented economic growth that had completely transformed Japanese society in the space of a generation. These films portray the Japanese as a people worn down by the technologically sophisticated society that they themselves constructed. The opening scenes of Phantom are of a man in a subway convulsing with anguish as trains roar past like the blades on an enormous mincing machine. Every passage shaves away another ounce of humanity until there is nothing left but a host for technological infrastructure, as though the machine that had robbed the Japanese of their humanity was now putting them to work debasing and infecting the people around them. The early Tetsuo films not only diagnosed the sickness that was the late-20th Century Japanese experience, they also articulated what that sickness felt like by using imagery inspired by science fiction and horror.

Tsukamoto’s Kotoko feels a lot like a companion piece to the early Tetsuo films but rather than grappling with feelings of rage and alienation brought on by the experience of living under capitalism, Kotoko is all about articulating what it feels like to be a mentally ill single mother.

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Melancholia (2011) – The Misery of Coherence vs. The Mania of Incoherence

Once upon a time, happiness was something to be avoided at all costs. The reason for this bizarre rule of thumb was that true happiness was said to be the sole preserve of the afterlife, a gift given by a loving God in return for our trust and obedience. Life was a vale of tears where our Faith and resolve were tested and tested again. If we were happy then chances were that we had taken our eye off the ball and given in to Satan as happiness-now almost invariably lead to misery-later, an eternity of misery in fact. As a result, happiness was something that happened to other folks once they died. With the Renaissance came a two-fold rejection of God’s feudalism: Not only was life driven by the pursuit of happiness, people were opting for happiness-now over Grace and Salvation-later.

When happiness became the end point of human existence, pain and suffering took on an altogether different character. Under Christianity, pain and suffering had been tangible proof of God’s promise that the meek would inherit the Earth and that worldly happiness is only fleeting when compared to the infinite joy of union with the Godhead. Under the grand ideologies of the Enlightenment’s children, pain and suffering were things to be extinguished either by revolution (surgery) or by reform (chemotherapy). Now our culture no longer sees misery as divine, it sees it as something to be eradicated and avoided at all costs. Every advert screams promises of material and sensory happiness while bookshops explode with self-help guides designed to help you kick the sadness habit. Films, food, books and even sex are commodified, packaged and sold to us as means to greater and more intense forms of happiness. Even the miseries of work become vehicles for happiness as we are encouraged to work harder for bigger rewards and grander promotions. You must have a career. You must be successful. You must be happy. And if you can’t be happy by your own means then the multi billion-dollar neuropharmacology industry stands poised to offer you deliverance. You have no choice… you must comply.

The first half of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a meditation on the expectation of happiness and how the insistence of others that you be happy can be a source of true and unrelenting misery. The second half of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is about the Earth being destroyed in a collision with a rogue planet. Beautifully shot and filled with wonderful ideas and moments of real human insight, Melancholia is possibly Lars von Trier’s best film to date, but that does not mean that the film makes sense. In fact, much of the film’s greatness lies in its perverse refusal to abide by the rules of its two very different halves.

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The Crazies – Past and Present

The Zone have just put up my twin reviews of The Crazies :

It is interesting to note that both films deal, on a thematic level, with the way in which America wages its wars :  Romero’s version is a tightly focused critique of the idea that one can wage war in an ordered and rational manner.  The film paints a viciously satirical portrait of an American military weighed down by petty bureaucracy and staffed by incompetent boobs.  Meanwhile, Eisner’s version is a much vaguer indictment of the savagery stirred up by America’s decision to topple the Iraqi and Afghan governments.

Cinematic Vocabulary – The Psychotic Break from Repulsion (1965)

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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