Families, Fragments and Fetishism: Thoughts on Recent Cinema

Shoplifters (Kore-Eda Hirokazu)

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Shoplifting. In one sense it’s easy to view as a desperate even pathetic act. Yet, for the ignored and the excluded, it is a necessary function of survival. This is true for Osamu and Shota. Scavenging on the crumbs of capitalist exclusion they steal using a choreographed dance of teamwork and timing; a act that is both playful and ritualised, serving as the glue of a filial bond. But Shota, a movie star in a boy’s body, won’t call the wiry, dishevelled Osamu ‘father’? A subtle detail that is one of the many fissures in the clay of a ‘family’ sculpted from economic, social and psychological expediency. Bit by bit, the cracks widen. Within the confines of a makeshift home we view the intricate dynamics playing out. Mother, auntie, grandma, father, son and newly found daughter. Little jokes, touching intimacies, knowing rebukes all offer an innocent opera of love and support to the point of romanticism. Representation of the space itself is part of the theatre. Obtuse angles, give a kind of disoriented intimacy. Echoes Ozu abound in the framing and movement; as does the shot/reverse shot direct to camera. The soundtrack, at times unashamed in its melodramatic sweep, draws us further into the emotional core of these impoverished survivors.

Yet, this is no elegant poverty. The ragged canvas of desperation defines this aesthetic world. External spaces highlight the contrast between private and public, home and work. Laundrette, sex shop, retail park, the home of wealthy relations. In these locations shoplifting takes allegorical forms; and each character negotiates a battle between their interior and exterior drivers. Underlying moralities become more explicit, the interweaving dramas ripple with philosophical dilemmas, but in beautifully contained way, never tipping into didacticism. Secrets that this makeshift family need to protect are buried in conscience, as much as literally in foundations of the house. Such souls exist on the ragged edge of a system that doesn’t see or care about them, until it does. When secrets emerge the film turns, reality smashes the genuinely felt pretences of familial whole. The dark trauma of the narrative comes to settle on con Yuri , the most recently ‘acquired’ daughter. Her childlike sense of ambivalence regarding which is the ‘real’ family, the one sanctioned by biology, society and law, annihilating the one she has found to protect her physically and emotionally, is crystallised for us in a devastating final sequence.

 

Disobedience (Sebastián Leilo)

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“May you live a long life”. The delivery of this phrase, to the estranged daughter of a highlight respected Jewish rabbi, is like a hammer blow of barely disguised contempt. Disobedience, of course, is the crime here and, in what seems to be a running theme in the films I have seen of late, the contortions of how people are defined and define themselves as part of a family, is the context. The monolithic combination of religious doctrine, patriarchal authority and archaic traditionalism provide the totems of oppression; rules, requirements and obligations on those who cannot or will not conform, are the drivers of a austere psycho-drama. How an individual defines freedom from subservience and sacrifice is an interesting theological starting point, but it becomes obvious very swiftly that the autonomy of womanhood presents, surprise surprise, the danger to establish order. From the outset my liberal atheist sensibility was internally judging, mocking and condemning an out-of-time moral system, and, clearly, the lesbian relationship enacts a rebellion that is the key narrative focus. Repressed over many years desire burns its way to surface of the film; the depiction of sex succeeds in being carnal without being salacious. The focus on the sheitel wigs, however, was perhaps a more strangely effective symbol of control, when Ronit (Rachel Weisz) tries on the role of obedient daughter by wearing the wig it seems like the most subtly defiant act. I found the film as rigid as the social structures it represents; maybe this is an unsolvable problem or even the authorial intent? It certainly was a claustrophobic ordeal with Rachel McAdam’s superb in evoking uncertainty and angst . Family antagonisms shifted between emotional nuance to rather cartoonish soap opera and the threads of what were supposedly frayed lives were tied up rather too neatly.

 

Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence)

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As one gets older one’s tastes change. That is obvious. Maybe I’ve reached a point though where my patience for high concept filmmaking that overtly plays on exploitation for superficial pleasure, is in ever shorter supply. Violence, sex, and their many permutations, have always been innate to cinema, as much as they are to life. Some would say the libidinous drive is in the DNA of spectatorial pleasures; at bottom maybe this is why we watch films. Vulgar is a word my grandmother used to use and whereas I don’t consider myself at her level of censorious admonishment of anything slightly off-colour, their was something in the fetishisation of sexual cruelty in Red Sparrow that was disconcerting. Not necessarily the particulars of the aestheticisation, although the sexualised violence possessed a nastiness derived from a leering gaze. It was more unashamed use of such dark fantasies in a by-the-numbers cold war narrative that was troubling. I wondered what was the mindset behind the very idea of this film, why was it made and who is it for? Yes the commercial sell of this film is obvious. Jennifer Lawerence as a Russian ballerina turned Russian agent who turns her abuse at the hands of the State into a hyper-sexualised weapon escape to the (somewhat dubious) freedom of the West. Greenlight. Maybe I would have liked this 20 years ago. Which reminds me that we bring ourselves to any judgement of art; my 24 year old self is unrecognisable from 44 year old self. Depictions of sex and violence, especially when combined in ways that amplify the objectification, require some form on interrogation, at the very least a sense of consequence in the film world. Any viewing pleasures here were accompanied by intellectual, even moral, reservations. I turned it off after an hour.

 

The Image Book (Jean-Lu Godard)

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It’s difficult to contest the notion that the quintessential experience of the contemporary human condition, is fragmentation. Godard’s The Image Book pushes this idea to the limits of aesthetic possibility that a 90 minute theatrical experience will allow. This essayistist collage, sits in a history of films that deliberately point towards and test the limits of cinema, attempting to think beyond not only the confines of continuity storytelling, realist representation, synchronised sound, and even the assumed relationship between spectator, screen and space. For the man who coined the frame “truth 24 frames a second” one might postulate that the the later half of Godard’s career has been acerbic reaction to the onset of the digital, and fuck you to an imaged audience of cultural ingrates. Indeed, The Image Book is ripe for triggering those who think he has, for a long time now, been an cinematic nihilist, going out of his way to obfuscate, alienate and confound. I never once was disengaged here, there is so much imbibe. Yet, the effect is somewhat fleeting. Writing this now, days later, impressions, echoes, and yes, fragments, are what I recall. I want to google the list of cinematic, artistic, literary and musical references Godard draws upon in his Pollock-esqse abstractions; I want to impart a sense of the referential so that I might acquire meaning. But the obliteration of indexicality is surely the point here. Godard is doing what we all do in surfing across image, text ands sound. The link between representation and reality obliterated by endless waves of signification. Because he is Godard his surfing is on the highest breaks of artistic audacity; and because he is Godard we get to watch the result at the BFI (or on MUBI of course). Interwoven into the visual melange is, of course, the politics; we are still a bankrupt society, eaten away by the capitalist monster. Cinema itself is seemingly complicit; the more ubiquitous the digital image, the less we see the truth? Such contradiction is Godard’s métier. But perhaps the ultimate contradiction lies in the cinematic itself? Sitting in the darkened auditorium I can’t help feel that watching someone else’s surfing, someone else’s assemblage of images, no matter how great, can never reflect what it means to be plugged into a infinite network of communication. The fragment is not just the image on screen, it is the being of virtual existence.

There’s Something in the (Shape of) Water

By Neil Fox

Following a recent conversation on Twitter with Dr. Felicity Gee, who listeners may recall from the Female Experimental Film & Surrealism Episode we did a year or so back in association with MUBI, Dario suggested I write something about the ongoing debates around film criticism using the threaded conversation as the basis.

I was reticent at first because the discussion around film criticism is a fast flowing river that it's impossible to place any kind of permanent marker into, as if there ever was such a time of course. I never thought the episode we did on film criticism would be the final word but it has been quite startling to see how debates around what film criticism is, should do, should contain, whether it is needed and how it functions, have spiralled out into so many different areas. What brought me round to the idea was the chance to flag up and comment on some of the recent trends in the discourse and provide links to people talking discussing the subject in different, probably better, ways than me.

The ongoing debate about the relationship between aesthetics and ideology shows no signs of abating just as discussions around theory and practice in film education (my main area of academic research) retain singular and often antithetical positions as militantly as they ever have. Recently, debates have been brought to the fore in more public ways through the increased exposure in the mainstream context through significant works by black, women and black women filmmakers in particular. In the last 18 months Moonlight, Detroit, Get Out, La La Land, Lady Bird, Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time to name a few have led to discussions about film histories and genealogies when discussing films, the cultural position of the audience in the experience, cultural appropriation and historical rewriting, the power and responsibility of the filmmaker in telling stories outside their own cultural position and yes, to what degree ideology matters when discussing aesthetic objects. 

For brilliant discussions around cultural sensitivities, representation in terms of filmmaking and criticism, check out these essays and podcasts - 

Wakanda Forever in Film Quarterly

Damage Control: How Not To Talk About A Wrinkle In Time

Still Processing: We Don’t Love Everything Made By Black People and That’s OK?

None of the questions and matters mentioned above will be resolved anytime soon if at all, but there is something I do want to talk about here, based on recent social media dialogues I have had, and that's the historical responsibility of film critics.

Film Histories in the Film Contemporary

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I responded to Felicity's tweet about Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water being described as magic realism because of the fact that issues mentioned previously had been circulating in my mind for a while. While there's never a true consensus about what good film criticism is (and I'm not proposing there should be) it would seem that one thing many critics agree on is the need for a display of contextual and historical understanding in film writing. Or rather, maybe there used to be agreement. Because, this seems to be a real issue presently. What irked me is that the review in question just claimed that the film was magic realism without ever arguing why or how it could be perceived to be. It took a term from film (and wider art) history and applied it without real thought, muddying the waters of the forms of magic realism and fantasy and thus demonstrating both an ill-conceived appreciation of critical genealogy and a lack of basic research. The argument could be, and frequently is, made that it doesn't matter. But it does. In a 'post-truth' world it matters more than ever. It's not to say that definitions aren't contentious or fluid but that any fluidity should be contended with, not ignored or dismissed. Felicity's position is a defensive one and rightly so. This is her field of expertise, knowledge and labour. She has committed time to its study and exploration and evolution. Flippant criticism undermines the work of those who have provided the basis for good criticism to exist. It shows a lack of respect for the work of scholars and critics, and indeed the filmmakers working within different genres and disciplines, and is part of a wider debate of the responsibility of film critics to know, understand and reckon with film history. So much mainstream criticism has a wikipedia level of depth and is fired off into the ether as quickly as possible to garner hits and views without so much as cursory respect for what has come before and whether the definitions being used are accurate.

The speed is not the issue for me. I understand the demands of the internet age in that respect. One issue is how critics and film writers spend their time when not writing. As an educator I have the same issue with students. Knowledge is like a muscle and muscle memory, in order to be deployed whip-fast, needs to be developed and built. Aside from questions of ideology in critical writing, the genealogical context of a film object is valid and important. Films do not exist in a vacuum, either in the filmmaker's or the wider art form's lineage.  Professor Racquel Gates discusses this expertly in a piece for Film Quarterly (linked above) and also on the Film Comment podcast in an episode titled Cinema of Experience II looking at questions of representation:

Cinema of Experience II - Film Comment Podcast

She superbly deconstructs how conversations round Get Out and Black Panther erased black film history when, on release, they were respectively described as the first black horror film and the first black superhero movie. Ignoring the facts of film history that led to the possibility of Get Out and Black Panther not only existing but being as engaged with black cultural history as they were could be viewed an example of soft racism or unconscious bias, but there's no denying it's symptomatic of wider issues regarding film writing as mentioned above. As Ashley Clark says in our film criticism episode, too many critics don't do the hard work of grappling with a film. Part of this grappling, I would argue, is researching the contexts and being sensitive, smart and introductory for readers about them. Also key is the need to reassess and reclaim forgotten and ignored - for whatever reason - work and artists and reconstitute the elements of film history that are now problematic or have come to be regarded as not as significant as first claimed. Criticism isn't static, it's fluid and is a regularly spiralling conversation. 

A reason that this lack may be so prevalent is potentially down to how the internet has shifted the parameters for what criticism is and also what and who a critic is. My feeling is that a critic can be found in Ashley Clark's assertion, a critic moves beyond fandom and does the 'hard work'. However, a critic doesn't grow in isolation. Being a fan of cinema is surely the soil that a critic grows from. Another twitter interaction I had was with Hannah Woodhead who writes for Little White Lies:

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As you can see, I do find it problematic that critics are not seen as fans. The act of criticism should be detached as much as possible (it's impossible to be completely detached) from the subjective and the fannish. However, the desire to write in depth about film or anything comes often from love and the hope of falling in love again never goes away. I've written about films for 20 years and I'm not jaded. This year alone I have already fallen in love with Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here and that's just new releases. I've also fallen in love with films from last year I missed and films from cinema's past, because I love cinema. I also believe in the role of the film critic and to a certain extent I have a utopian idealism in the role of the film reviewer. Following my initial correspondence with Felicity our colleague Anna Backman Rogers from the MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture journal, who we write and edit for, joined the conversation and it moved on. It covered as you can see, questions around the role of film reviews, separate we would argue from criticism in many respects though there is an element of Venn crossover. 

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This is my final point I guess. The Venn diagram of Critic - Reviewer - Fan is ever more interlinked and tear-stained and ill-defined. There are those of us who read writing about film who want a lot of the same things - good writing, solid and thoughtful context, aesthetic appreciation, ideological awareness, so we can learn or see something new. All of those things are hard if not impossible to define. 

So maybe, for now, until we have more evidence and thought to draw from, we should turn our attention more to the good practice and shed greater light and volume to that. There's so much of it out there. Here are some of my favourite recent examples in audio and written form:

Melissa Anderson on Phantom Thread (4Columns)

Sheila O'Malley and Violet Lucca on Phantom Thread (Film Comment Podcast)

Sean Fennessey (The Ringer) on the Longform Podcast

Sheila O'Malley on Phantom Thread (Film Comment)

Hanif Abdurraqib on Black Panther (4Columns)

 

Dr Neil Fox is a Senior Lecturer and Course Coordinator in Film at Falmouth University’s School of Film & Television. His research interests include film education, music documentaries and concert films. his debut feature film as writer/producer, ‘Wilderness’ played over 15 international festivals, winning 11 awards including for Best Screenplay. He is also the co-founder and co-host of the Cinematologists podcast.

If you want to write a blog for the Cinematologists podcast contact us at cinematologists@gmail.com with your details and idea.

It's not just a "Film Noir"

by Peter Blundell

The last recording of The Cinematologists’ Podcast was at the Electric Palace, Hastings and discussed Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). As usual, it was a stimulating evening. The film was illuminatingly introduced by the guys and the audience discussion was very thought-provoking. So much so that I had a few more thoughts that I am going to share….

 Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

1.  A “classic film noir” but no-one knew that’s what they were making

The film is very often described as “a classic film noir” – including in the Electric Palace’s publicity for the evening. This is fair enough: much of the look and the feel of the film places it under that banner. Generally, of course, we often introduce and discuss films in terms of their genre.

However, film noir is bit of a special case as, unlike many others, it was not a “self-conscious” genre. At least not in 1950. Nicholas Ray didn’t know he was making a “film noir”. He wasn’t working within any awareness of it as a framework.

The very term betrays its origins within French film criticism and its coining is usually credited to Nino Frank around 1946. French critics like Frank started noticing similarities in style and story between a whole range of American films of the period and dubbed them “films noir”. In fact, it has been suggested that French critics only became of aware of these similarities because they watched a huge backlog of US films very quickly – almost back-to-back -  once the Nazi occupation (when Hollywood films had been banned) was over!

Anyway, the point is that the term “film noir” was unknown in the US until the late 1960s when critics, then audiences and then film-makers began embracing it. At the time there was no awareness of its “existence” – nobody had grouped the films together. 

The key thing to realise, therefore, is that if Nicholas Ray had been assigned a “western” or a “horror” to direct in 1950 he would have had a reasonable understanding, by then, of that genre’s store cupboard of possible ingredients - in terms of character-types, incident, iconography etc -that he could deploy, mix, ignore or twist. He could also be confident that his audience also had a set of expectations about each genre that he could rely on and use. We could therefore talk confidently about how the film reflects this conscious awareness.

This wasn’t true of the films we now call “film noir”. When talking about "film noir" it is too easy for any of us to forget this and start saying things like “Ray here is using the tropes of noir film…” as if film-makers of the period were consciously working within a known framework

I am not saying that this type of thing was explicitly said in the recording of the podcast but it does frequently happen in the discussion of "film noirs", including In a Lonely Place. (Maybe I am just over-aware of the dangers of these assumptions because I am conditioned by years of teaching film and trying to encourage students not to be too simplistic about noir.)

Thinking about the preceding points I have realised that maybe I am in danger of over-stating the case. Nicholas Ray in 1950 would no doubt have seen many of the previous films now classified as noir – in fact he made some of them (and Bogart, of course, had starred in quite a few of the others!) So perhaps, not necessarily at a conscious level, he could be seen as working within a possible field of influence, let us call it…

2.    It’s not just a "film noir"

I think in general a focus on genre can sometimes lead to a reductive “checklist” approach to a film like this. We get bogged down in concentrating on the elements that fit the template of expectations and conventions associated with that genre. This can be very illuminating. In a film like In a Lonely Place it leads us back to questions of context – the original noir films are particularly associated with a very historically specific mood of anxiety and dislocation stemming from a complex of post-war factors: the damaged men returning from battlefields; women liberated by war-time employment, the emergent cold war and McCarthyite paranoia and so on. We can certainly detect traces of all these in the film.

However, it does mean that some of the discussion of the film tends to only focus on its “noir”-ness and downplays or ignores features of the film that don’t fit the template.

The case of In a Lonely Place I think there is a lot more to uncover and discover about the film than just its noir status. As with so many (all?) films there is all sorts of hybridity going on – mixing the elements of other genres like romance, romantic comedy (even “screwball comedy”), “suspense” (which is how the film was described in its publicity at the time), procedural crime etc.  There is a signal focus too on the idea of a dangerous man (a “homme fatale”) which is rarely found in the rest of the films usually assigned to the noir label.

This is part of a bigger question of how useful genre is as a way of approaching any film.

2.    A product of not just its time but its industry

In the end, of course, genres don’t make films, film companies do (at least in the commercial sector). A film, even in 1950, is an expensive risk and therefore the films that are made can be usefully understood as attempts to minimise the chances of them making a loss.

We can, therefore, identify the factors about In a Lonely Place that enabled it to be made:  Ray’s track record as a reliable director, Bogart’s huge fan-base and a popular novel as its (distant) source. These are the sorts of elements that enabled the making of many Hollywood films of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. However, I would argue that two factors about the American film industry in 1950 made it possible for this film specifically to exist and to exist in its actual surprising final form (the downbeat ending, the “anti-hero” protagonist etc).

One would be the breakup of the Studio System. Thanks to US Government anti-trust legislation (the 1948 Paramount Decrees) the old majors were withdrawing from the factory-style production they’d practiced for years. Stars, directors and others were being released from their old restrictive studio contracts and some were using their power and money to start their own independent production companies. Which is exactly what Bogart did in forming Santana Productions (named after his yacht).

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One of Santana’s films was, of course, In a Lonely Place. Bogart chose the film, the director (an old friend, apparently) and approved the script. Ray and Bogart were therefore enjoying a degree of creative autonomy (cushioned by Bogart’s bankability and loyal audience) relatively unknown in the studio era. They could try new things such as challenging star and story expectations.

Incidentally, a few small independent film production companies had existed in the studio system era – mostly surviving by providing the low-budget B-pictures that went with the majors’ A-pictures in double bills. Interestingly, these “poverty row” companies are sometimes seen as one of the cradles of what would become known as “film noir”. Also, to give another example to Dario’s (on the podcast) list of links between "film noir" and the French Nouvelle Vague, Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle to one such B-picture company making “proto-noir”-  Monogram Pictures.

Secondly, in parallel there was also the accelerating decline of the cinema audience. In 1946 weekly US attendances had peaked at 83m per week. By 1950 it was down to 60m and dropping. The main reason of course was the effects of TV (by 1950 The Ed Sullivan Show was already 2 years’ old). As is well known the history of Hollywood ever since (or at least until recently) has been the history of attempts to draw people away from their sofas by doing things that TV couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Famous examples from the 1950s include the transition to colour, experiments like 3-D and smell-vision etc and, eventually, the development of teen-pics aimed at the section of the audience who were still turning up to the cinemas (which, of course, Ray would benefit from a few years later with Rebel without a Cause).

In the case of In a Lonely Place it could be an early example of writers, directors and producers realising that one way to try to compete with TV is to provide something more challenging, downbeat and “adult” than the safe and sanitised “family entertainment” TV provided. (I wonder too if there was an awareness that amongst the audience were many men who had returned from the horrors of war who wouldn’t be satisfied with glamour or simple escapism?).

These two industrial factors combine in a freedom and push for something different that results in such an interesting and odd film which in some ways prefigures some of the even more challenging films of the 1960s (starting with Psycho).

3.    The Gaze of Laurel Grey

Academic discussion of gender and film is still very much dominated by Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In it she argued that Hollywood and its cinematography adopted a “male gaze” at their female characters:

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”

This can be seen in countless films up until the present day, including many films falling under the film noir label. For instance, in Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) when our hapless protagonist Walter first encounters femme fatale Phyllis the camera cuts to his point-of-view of her semi-clad body and then her legs coming downstairs.

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Against this background, one of the interesting things about In a Lonely Place is how powerful and independent Laurel’s gaze is, especially in the first half of the film.

There’s the way Laurel returns Dix’s appraising gaze that first night. There’s also the way she turns and stares at him in the police station the next morning – long, hard and with self-possession.  It feels quite unusual to have a female character be so in control and bold in their looking (and, apparently deriving some “visual pleasure” from it).

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4.    A rare example of direct address

There is also a very interesting moment that I hadn’t really appreciated until I saw it again on the big Electric Cinema screen. When Mildred, the doomed hat-check girl,  begins telling Dix the story of Althea Bruce at his apartment the camera cuts to a Point-of View (POV) shot from Dix’s position. The protagonist’s POV is a standard device in Hollywood films, attempting to build audience identification with the “hero” – literally seeing things through their eyes.

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However, in this case the object being viewed is not just being looked at– they are talking directly to the protagonist which means that Mildred is directly addressing the camera and thereby us. This is interesting because it is such a rare example – I was always taught that directors of the “classic period” avoided it (except in comedies) because it breaks the 4th wall, reminds the audience of the camera etc. (This supercut https://vimeo.com/60845952 shows examples and nearly all are from the 1960s on, except – interestingly a moment from Sunset Boulevard). Maybe this is another example of Ray flexing his creative freedoms in a new post-studio era?

5.   An architect’s eye

Profiles of Ray often point out that he studied architecture (with Frank Lloyd Wright) and that the visual design (“mise-en-scene” as those French critics called it) of his films often showed a careful attention to how sets and their décor can be used to create mood and give the audience subtle clues to characters and relationships.

One example is the design of Dix’s apartment and its extraordinary metal grilles – internally and externally.

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More generally, throughout the film are countless shots of gates, grid patterns, plaids and checks – all perhaps communicating a sense of entrapment and the barriers between characters. Which actually brings us back full circle. Grids, bars, barriers are often seen as one of the key visual motifs of “classic film noir”!

Peter Blundell taught Film Studies in Further and Adult Education and recently retired as Curriculum Leader for Media as Sussex Downs College, Lewes.  He tweets as @peterablu and is on Instagram as thirstierwater.

If you are interested in writing for The Cinematologists Blog please email us at cinematologists@gmail.com with your idea.

What is it about donkeys?

By Dario Llinares

 Gorrión, the star of Chico Pereria's Donkeyote (2017)

Gorrión, the star of Chico Pereria's Donkeyote (2017)

There is something enigmatic and appealing about donkeys. This axiom, asserted by Kathy Hubbard, director of Shetland Arts Screenplay Film Festival in Shetland in her introduction to festival hit Donkeyote (2017), was met with murmurs and nods of approval from a packed audience. But why should this be the case? Maybe it’s aesthetic: the floppy ears, the melancholy gait, the toothiness preceding that elemental bray. Or is it something more ineffable? Stoic reliability, unswerving companionship, a kind of existential absurdity, or are donkeys merely a symbol of life's long, hard precarious journey? In case you think I might be overdoing the hyperbole, such allusions are palpable in the form of Gorrión, the equine star of Chico Pereira’s poetic, poignant, amusing and, of course, quixotic film.

The human protagonist of Donkeyote, Manolo (the uncle of the director), is less an embodiment of the knight-errant and more a fusion of Cervantes’ eponymous hero and his ironic sage Sancho Panza. Living simply in southern Spain, Manolo personifies a history of romantic ambulation through nature in harmonious, even mystical accord, with his dog, Zafrana and beloved donkey. His tireless marching onwards is seemingly an existential drive but at 73 and with failing health, Manolo plans a final adventure following the Trail of Tears, an iconic passage forced upon the Native American Cherokee Nation, 2000 miles, East to West across America. But not without Gorrión. Reactions to this hare-brained scheme, incredulity from his daughter Paquita - “America? America? AMERICA? she exclaims in disbelief - and barely veiled derision from travel agents and other bureaucrats, point to a central theme: the boundaries imposed by the modern age.

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Shots of man and beast coming up against all forms of barriers permeate the film. The physical ones - wire fences, roads, train lines, rivers – are negotiated (or not) in various ways. One of the most comedic scenes stems from Gorrión’s reluctance to cross the water on to a ferry; Manolo’s vexed impatience turns to jovial resignation and then empathetic coaxing.  But perhaps the more telling obstacle is that of communication. The trials of learning English, shooting a video appeal for money for the trip, and the conspiratorial rejections of officials whose obstructive mind-set can in no way grasp the romance of this dream, imbue a tragi-comic tone. Manolo embraces the technologies of communication, he is no luddite, but the more channels he explores the further he seems from his ultimate goal. The encroachment of technological development is a recurrent visual metaphor that reflects how the natural freedom of the environment is compromised by modernity's striation of space. A simple trek with one's donkey thus becomes an Odyssian endeavour. 

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Pereira’s intellectually ironic style with neorealist echoes is evident in his debut film Pablo’s Winter (2012), but this latest project is layered with a personal undercurrent which, on the one hand, gives the film its depth, drama and humour, but on the other opens up questions about cinema as document. There is nominally an observational relationship between filmmaker and subject yet the dramatic situations and visual compositions have clear structure and arrangement for us to witness. So, in one sense the director remains at a distance; no voice-over or explicitly questioning interjection seeks explanation (only at one moment, when Manolo wakes up in genuine pain, is the observational illusion explicitly broken). Yet there is a subtle complicity between Pereira and his uncle that emerges though the film's formal approach. A glint of awareness in the eye of Manolo suggests he is very much in on the yarn.

Furthermore, the film is cut in such a way that reaction shots of Gorrión, along with his endearing antics, invite us to project an anthropomorphism. And close-ups using a wide-angle lens evoke a deep connection between man and animal. There could be an accusation that this is not documentary at all, but a kind of fictionalisation of authenticity. Realist rather than reality. Yet, to me, Donkeyote possesses a knowing sensibility which deliberately transcends the porous boundaries between fact and fiction. Pereira's work can therefore be aligned with the post-Oppenheimer tendency in documentary; filmmakers actively challenging the mechanics of documentary form and even puncturing the false dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity.

This is a film that can be easily taken as a low-key, heartwarming tail of an eccentric old adventurer's symbiotic relationship with his donkey. But a slightly deeper look offers meditations on the man's relationship to nature, the boundaries imposed by modernity, and even the essential nature of communication and companionship.       

Dario speaks to the producer of Donkeyote in Episode 51 of The Cinematologists Podcast.

If you are interested in writing for The Cinematologists Blog please email us at cinematologists@gmail.com with your idea.

 

“Just Love Movies”: Cine-literacy in the Culture of Abundance

By Dario Llinares

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An old VHS copy of Pulp Fiction I used to own was prefaced by an interview with Quentin Tarantino in which he introduces the film along with presenting two extended scenes that were cut from the final edit. In the days before DVDs, with extras an integral part of the product, a videotape with bonus material was quite novel. Among a slew of statements, intoned with the signature staccato delivery, one nugget of Tarantino wisdom lodged itself firmly in my consciousness: “There are two kinds of movie lovers. Those who love the movies that they love, and those who just love movies”. Tarantino goes onto suggest that he is undoubtedly the later, loving movies of all kinds and implying that this ethos is the grounding for authentic cinephilia. As an overly serious film undergraduate, imbued with the austere pretentiousness of a mature student, this statement seemed like a rarefied kernel of cinematic sagacity. Indeed, it is a maxim that underpinned my own film education & journey through academia, and has recently come back into my thoughts in the context of contemporary film culture.

Embracing all that cinema offers should not be viewed as some grand gesture, it must be at the core of the film lover's very being. Therefore, the colossal abundance of film watching possibilities in the today’s digital culture, available through myriad delivery platforms, would seemingly offer a cinephilic utopia. Yet, if you are anything like me, it often feels as though this abundance borders on the oppressive, fostering the anxiety that one is perennially behind the curve when it comes to cine-literacy. Paradoxically however, the excess of choice one is confronted with betrays a reductionist, formulaic tendency, as though a nebulous, clandestine authority is pummelling you with infinite varieties of the same product. Could it be that the open-access zeitgeist of immediacy and availability actually produces docile, insular consumers who only love the films they love?

I recently completed an online survey investigating digital platform use. As you might imagine I am an extensive user. I have accounts with Netflix, Amazon Prime and MUBI, and regularly pay for one-off downloads from Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes and Google Play, as well as viewing through BBC iPlayer and YouTube. This round up omits any crossing over into the moral abyss of deliberate piracy (which of course I would never do). Though I like to think that I possess a discerning critical taste and in-depth knowledge of cinema that allows me to navigate the labyrinth of content, such immediacy and choice can imbue strange cocktail of angst, apathy and ambivalence. Scrolling through reams of titles the search itself becomes an existential labour: how will this selection define me? What is my mood? How will this next choice expand my cultural horizons? What can help me escape? I’ll just watch something I know I’ll like. You choose. I often wonder what kind of time gets racked-up just in the very process of trying to make up one's mind.

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Pointedly, the lists of titles on streaming services are increasingly taxonomised less by the classical distinctions of genre and more by algorithmic association: because you watched this, then you might like this. Such digital tailoring of taste might on the surface seem like a benign effort to personalise our experience as viewers, pandering to our sense of unique self-identity. But make no mistake, it is based on the ruthless logic of online consumer retention; the longer we are plugged in, the more economic and informational value can be extracted. The counter-intuitive notion that despite our information-rich environment we exist in an enclosed eco-system, is now a familiar criticism of the effect of the internet, particularly in terms of the ideological viewpoints and political interpretations we are exposed to. This can also be applied to a cultural world in which there is seemingly a constellation of possibilities but where invisible arbiters are nudging us back into a safety zone of manageable, efficient consumption. One might conceive that this algorithmic ring-fencing not only ferments an illusion of choice but dulls the cognitive abilities to engage with a wide range of cultural forms.

The multiplex era certainly hasn’t hastened the diverse exhibition utopia that some had promised and many had hoped for. In recent years, franchise filmmaking has further ingrained a viewing sensibility predicated on familiarity and repetition. Event films are so frequent and so hyped, they dominate screen time sucking up all the oxygen of publicity, yet the balloon of anticipation invariably deflates under the weight of lukewarm reviews and social media anti-climax. Furthermore, the commercialisation of fan culture has created a tick-box viewing mentality and completest fetishism through which the sharpness of critical faculties become blunted against the granite of homogeneity. The more I think about it the more Tarantino’s comparison between “those that love the movies they love" and "those who just love movies” seems to parallel the difference between fans and cinephiles. Of course, one can be both, however, today's culture of abundance, not to mention the majority of online discourse around film, is set up to cater to, and perhaps exploit, the insatiable market of fan specificity.

Teaching film in higher education it is at times dismaying to realise the narrowness of students’ viewing vocabulary. Indeed, over the years introducing students to as many aspects of cinema as possible has become increasingly fundamental to the role. But even more worrying is when you get the sense that there is an unwillingness to venture out of what they know and know they love. In the pre-internet dark ages of three/four terrestrial channels, it was through television that I became aware of different forms of film. Watching late screenings on BBC 2 and Channel 4 I didn't know what independent, art-house, experimental or 'world' cinema was. What I was seeing just seemed strange, visceral, illicit, shocking, beautiful and authentic. Curated seasons like Moviedrome, in-depth critical analysis Scene by Scene, and centrality of the late Barry Norman’s Film [insert year] provided a quasi-film education. Because of the lack of film viewing options, even during the nascent VHS rental era television, in retrospect, now seems like it was a complement to cinema rather than I rival to it.

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The digital transformation is often aligned with a politics of democratisation, where the elite boundaries of high and low culture are dissolved through a rejection of gatekeepers, critics, curators or any elitist who tells you what you should watch and like. Expert induced ennui seems to be a condition of the times, but within many strands of the arts, one can detect a backlash against a kind of cultural flattening in which populism and the logics of the market are assumed to produce an objective superiority to the subjective relativity of critical judgement. A.O. Scott's latest book, for example, Better Living through Criticism, mounts a staunch defence of not only the professional film critic, but criticism itself, as a way of offering contextual and aesthetic anchoring points from which we might negotiate a more complex, layered, even truthful relationship to the cultural world. 

Ruminating on these issues, I am very much aware of fighting an internal contradiction: In no way am I proposing, in some dream of omnipotence, shutting off the internet and imposing what I might deem an appropriate regime of film viewing. Indeed, I feel like a Luddite even suggesting that the brave new world of cultural abundance may be actually curtailing a sense of intellectual curiosity. But it is perhaps accurate to say that we increasingly need to find or construct mechanisms, both instrumental and psychological, that help us to cut through the noise and forge a cultural cognitive map. I am lucky enough to have access to university resources, local independent cinemas, a network of cine-literate friends, colleagues & students, and produce a film podcast, all of which provide structures that furnish and inspire a love of the film in its most eclectic sense. But I still often feel somewhat trapped by the tyranny of limitless content. Whatever strategies one might employ for negotiating the joys and travails of a plentiful cinematic universe, finding ways of looking beyond what is immediately presented to you is the first imperative move. In the digital age, intellectual curiosity is something that actually might need to be worked on a little more than we might realise, particular if one aspires to the simple yet clear aim: just love movies.

If you are interested in writing for the Cinematologists Blog we would love to hear from you. Send a message with your details and ideas to cinematologists@gmail.com

Curiosity and Refusal: Werner Herzog's Late Documentaries

By Dominic O'Key

  Into the Inferno  (Herzog, 2016)

Into the Inferno (Herzog, 2016)

Werner Herzog has always been a curious director. Puzzled by the world and eager to encounter its mysteries, Herzog’s inquisitive eye routinely pits the enigmas and harsh realities of the outside world against the human psyche and material body. From German deaf-blind communities to Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimages, and from the Kuwait oil fires to Alaska’s grizzly bears, Herzog’s documentaries in particular revolve around curious case studies that aim to unsettle our grip on the world. When at their best, these documentaries foreground the question of life itself: if the outside is quite so unlivable and so obscene then how do humans continue to live in it? As Herzog puts it early on in his career, miming Martin Heidegger’s fundamental question of metaphysics, “why is there Being at all, rather than Nothing?” The power of Herzog’s work often derives from the ways in which it intensifies this uncanny experience of human life, an effect that Gilles Deleuze once described as Herzog’s obsession with opposing the small and the large, the human against the sublime.

Werner Herzog is also curious as a director. A routinely self-mythologising figure, his signature brand of dour, Bavarian-inflected English has taken on a bizarre resonance in the internet age. Recent celebrity voice-over turns and cameos in Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons have provoked critics to either become protective of his supposed “genius” or lament his turn towards superficial self-aggrandising. But to chastise Herzog’s memeification is to forget that self-mythologisation has always been part of the director’s modus operandi. From Of Walking in Ice (1978) to his conversations with Paul Cronin – republished in 2015 as A Guide for the Perplexed – Herzog has long cultivated an image of himself as a semi-fictional character. It is odd then, that critics of his recent films have tended to focus quite so sharply on the director’s apparently newfound celebrity, when it has been so much a part of the director’s deliberately constructed mystique.

 Herzog in  The Simpsons

Herzog in The Simpsons

One problem with curiosity, though, is that it often leaves politics behind. For if the world is thought of as merely a curiosity – a thing to be looked at, admired or probed – then it also becomes a static object, a museum artefact rather than something that is constantly being reshaped. This might explain why there is a darkly comic nihilism that pervades Herzog’s documentaries; curiosities do not often demand political or ethical responsibility from their viewers. But just as Herzog treats the world as a curiosity, the same relation holds for Herzog’s critics. It has become something of a commonplace to treat Herzog as a curiosity, as a masculine adventurer expounding comic faux-philosophy, always more important than the films themselves. Reviews of his later work, tinged as they are with sardonic laziness, have become a rather predictable affair: begin by talking about the director’s obsessive cinematic vision, provide a few sentences on the “ecstatic truth” of Herzog’s infamous Minnesota Declaration, and don’t forget to mention he once ate his shoe.

If Herzog’s documentaries tend to leave politics behind then what do they interrogate in its place? This is where Deleuze’s notion of the small and the large enters the frame. What the French philosopher identified some thirty years ago is the way that Herzog’s films capture a sublime natural-historical struggle between the individual human and the overwhelming scale of the world. This is why Herzog’s 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness is quite so controversial: here the aftermath of the Gulf War is abstracted from its particular geopolitical reality into an apocalyptic narrative of the end of the world itself. Herzog thus transforms the specific event into a metaphor: the oil fires are no longer just oil fires, they are also a grand battle between life and death. On the one hand then, Lessons of Darkness depoliticises and indeed forgets the Gulf War entirely; but on the other hand, the film might be saved from itself if we were to say that the Gulf War was quite literally the end of the world for the thousands of Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians who died. Such interplay between the curious and the sublime are in evidence throughout Herzog’s work.

  Lessons of Darkness  (Herzog, 1992)

Lessons of Darkness (Herzog, 1992)

A critique of his late period documentaries might suggest that the sublime scale of the large overwhelms his attention to the detail of the small. However, traces of Herzog’s magnetic, naïve curiosity take on new shape in what I suggest are pointed moments of refusal, specifically, Herzog’s refusal to indulge the audience’s curiosity. This idea animates one of the most famous scenes in Grizzly Man (2005), a film which focuses on the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. In the film Herzog interviews Jewel Palovak, a close friend of Treadwell’s, who owns his VCR and with it the hundreds of hours of audiovisual footage that Treadwell recorded when in Alaska. The recordings culminate in Treadwell’s death itself: with the lens-cap left on, though, all that is captured is the horrifying audio of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amy Huguenard being mauled to death by a grizzly bear.

Herzog makes a crucial decision here not to include this audio in his film. Instead, the director films himself listening to the audio alone, headphones on. But this is not quite an accurate description. To put it more precisely, the scene begins with the director filming himself, but then the camera slowly starts to zoom over Herzog’s shoulder, leaving him behind and focusing instead on Palovak’s body language as she watches Herzog listening. Grizzly Man therefore reaches its crescendo at precisely its quietest moment: silence becomes more powerful than spectacle. What begins as merely another scene in which Herzog indulges his own curiosity transforms into one of the most complicated, enigmatic and perhaps even ethically attuned of Herzog’s oeuvre. Here Herzog’s refusal to feed the audience’s desire for spectacle, in fact, provokes a more intense mode of captivation.

  Grizzly Man  (Herzog, 2005)

Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)

2016 saw the release of two new Herzog documentaries: first, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a film about the birth and development of the Internet; and second, Into the Inferno, a globetrotting study of active volcanoes, co-directed with the University of Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer. Both of these films redeploy a number of typical “Herzogian” motifs – quotable monologues, rehearsed but nevertheless naturalistic interviews, unexpected thematic and geographical detours – as well as a tendency to depoliticise and abstract their subject matter into mere curiosity. In Lo and Behold, for instance, Herzog is not at all interested in the numerous political critiques of Elon Musk’s techno-utopian plans to colonise Mars. Instead he puts himself first in line for the mission: “I would come along. I wouldn’t have a problem. One way ticket. I’ll be your candidate.”

  Lo and Behold  (Herzog, 2016)

Lo and Behold (Herzog, 2016)

A subtle moment of refusal, however, is at the centre of Lo and Behold. One of the film’s numerous case studies features the Catsouras family, whose daughter Nikki died in a car accident in 2006. The family’s grief is riven with anger at the onlookers, dispatchers, and internet trolls who shared horrifying images of their daughter’s disfigured body. Despite the strange rigidity of the scene – filmed with oppressive lighting, and with the family awkwardly positioned like a row of mannequins – Herzog cultivates and then cuts off our curiosity: “Hoping to avoid a new wave of sick curiosity, we are here not even showing a picture of Nikki alive, only a place in the house she liked.” As if to deliberately counteract the dark desire to see, Herzog instead leaves the camera lingering on an empty room.

  Lo and Behold  (Herzog, 2016)

Lo and Behold (Herzog, 2016)

Despite his concerns with an altogether different geographical and conceptual terrain, the Herzog of Into the Inferno also refuses to let his curiosity get the better of him. When asked by his co-director Clive Oppenheimer whether he wants to descend into a volcano, to get as close as possible to the lava below, Herzog replies with an unequivocal no. It would be entirely stupid, he says, to risk his life for an image: “I am the only one in filmmaking who is clinically sane.” The irony is very much intended. It is strange to think of Herzog as a precautionary filmmaker, not least because the aura that has been manufactured over the years – by both Herzog himself and by his critics – always tends to emphasise the danger and risk of his cinematic exploits. But what Herzog’s late documentaries show us is that, despite his longstanding penchant for curiosity, there is an overriding sense in which his films are never quite reducible to their excessive and adventurous motifs. Rather, the most gripping moments of Herzog’s later films are those in which curiosity is obscured, withheld, or completely refused, in a move that uses the sharpness of the small to pierce the depth of the large.

Dominic O'Key is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of Leeds. He wrote his my MA dissertation on Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and has a chapter on Herzog and crocodiles coming out later this year in a book on animals and biography. He can be contacted via email: dominic.okeys@gmail.com. Follow Dominic on Twitter: @oquays.

If you are interested in writing for the Cinematologists we would love to hear from you. Send a message with your details and ideas to cinematologists@gmail.com

Valuing Cinema in Uncertain Times

By Dario Llinares

Lately, I have been experiencing a sense of inhibiting apprehension when attempting to write about cinema. Writer’s block is not an accurate description, more a deeply demotivating ambivalence. This psychological barrier has taken the form of a self-reflexive need to justify the value of writing about film, the art form I love, rather than just getting on a doing it. These struggles emerge from a deleterious sense that film, in these uncertain times, does not warrant the energy, attention or emotional investment that any kind of critical or contextual writing requires. The uncertain climate has, for me, brought into stark view both the realities of the divisive culture in which we live and broached questions about what should our roles be as social actors and citizens. Part of that is the recognition of choices we have in how we devote our time. Therefore to focus one’s critical attention on film has recently felt like indulging the privilege of burying one’s head in the sand. The philistine mantra of “it’s only a film” is one that cinephiles of all persuasions are used to defending against, but the spectre of this maxim has haunted my recent attempts to get thoughts onto the page. 

Efforts to overcome these intellectual boundaries have been further impaired by a self-imposed sense of obligation. That I am somehow duty-bound to produce a far-reaching explanatory opus that restates the value of cinema in the present moment, which, once completed, will free me to make highly articulate and socially relevant interventions. These justificatory knots are also tightened by an awareness of the no so latent narcissism of this entire mindset. There is no escape from the fact that my comfortable life has, compared to most people, barely felt a ripple of disturbance due to the recent political carnage (although I do foresee that changing). I smell the malodorous whiff of pomposity and self-regard even suggesting that my pronouncements warrant such symbolic gnashing of teeth. This nexus of doubts and equivocations have, over several months, undermined many attempts to get back in the writing saddle. This, then, is the result of a more stream of consciousness process, starting with a version forcibly jotted down in a notebook to try overcome the mental blockage. 

Such internal dilemmas have been all the more frustrating for two more material reasons. Firstly, I have been intending to start a new written blog on The Cinematologists website for some time. This aspiration became even more pressing in my mind after a discussion between myself and my co-host Neil about the implications of the current political carnage during our recent Robocop episode. Questions about the point of film criticism and analysis, the status of cinema in the cultural landscape, and how one might attempt to shape one’s own subjectivity to find a sense of value in film as a vocation, have been central to our podcast discourse from its inception. Indeed, starting the podcast was perhaps an implicit reaction to such undercurrents. Secondly, I have seen many films over the last year or so that have been fascinating and inspiring as singular examples of cinematic artistry. This reaffirmed my belief that film, as much as any art form, retains a vitality and significance in interrogating the fundamental relationship between society, culture and human experience.

Two films from last year particularly - Son of Saul (László Nemes) and Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) - have lodged in my mind. They are at opposing ends of the cinematic spectrum in both form and content but they both epitomise the experiential and intellectual value of film in addressing the light and the dark of human condition. There are unique stories unfolding in specific social contexts but they evoke universal themes regarding the interrelationship between social structure and the nature of being. Nemes’ brutally unrelenting holocaust drama, an atrocity that has been extensively depicted in film, forges an uncompromising level of intimacy with evil. The story of an Auschwitz prisoner who is one of the Sonderkommandos (inmates who empty the gas chambers of bodies and salvage valuables), is a harrowing in its immediate depiction, but even worse when you attempt to contemplate it. Saul (Géza Röhrig) thinks he recognises his son among the dead and is determined, despite the ever-present mortal risk, to give him a religious burial. Aesthetically striking is the use of close-up, a rudimentary yet quintessential visual tool, it acts in the film as a forensic lens, counterintuitively pushing the horrors of death to the periphery of the frame and focusing remorselessly on the gaunt face of the protagonist. We see in minute detail how the mask of stoicism betrays a crushing fear fused with resignation. The close-up symbolically traps Saul but also the audience.  The claustrophobic pressure of the framing negates the space to retreat and distance one’s self from Saul's ipseity; the film insists that the viewer confronts the heinousness of humanity. 

 Géza Röhrig in  Son of Saul

Géza Röhrig in Son of Saul

In contrast, Paterson is a film which allows the viewer to escape into a milieu that unapologetically romanticises the everyday. However, this elegant story of a local bus driver who writes deeply personal poetry during the liminal breaks in his routine, touches on the sublime without tipping over into cliché or sentimentality. It conjures up the singular and explicit pleasures to be found in aesthetic beauty, be it poetry or cinema. But even more impressively the direction amalgamates these two forms in a manner that does justice to their visual and textual roots while idealising the innocent process of creation. Indeed, the lesson that the creative journey is not a means to a definitive goal, but a way of making sense of our solitude offers that fleeting, redemptive chance of connection.  A film about the beauty in the everyday, the profundity in the simplest conversation, and the search for acceptance could be painfully saccharine especially but Paterson's wistfulness is more like a cleansing breath of cinematic oxygen. If Son of Saul is the bleakest warning cinema can evoke, where humanity is stripped down to the elemental, existential choice: life or death, Paterson makes the prosaic poetic by reminding us that connection and love are found within our search, not at its end. 

 Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in  Paterson

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in Paterson

Although this article has in no way assuaged all my doubts, it has provided a sounding board that will instigate further questions, and hopefully some answers, in the entries to come. That is my hope and intention. Certainly, just by invoking the effect that two superb films had on me, I have regained a certain clarity as to the vital role the cinema, and art, in reflecting on and challenging the human experience. In the end, it is artistic expression, in whatever form that takes, in its creation, experience, and even criticism, that helps to centre our subjectivity and orient it in relation to others. That is its value, and it cannot be understated. 

 

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