Tag Archives: American

The Watchmen

Zack Snyder is  well known for his film adaptations of comic books – 300Man of Steel, and his upcoming Batman / Superman film all, of course, started as comic books. Perhaps he was the obvious choice to film what is often called the greatest comic of them all -Alan Moore’s 1985 masterpiece The Watchmen. Attempts had been made to film this story before; directors who had been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film. That Snyder finished the film at all, then, is tribute to him; that the film itself is so good is astonishing.

The mid-eighties saw a huge shift in how comic books were created and perceived. Two artists in particular, Moore and Frank Miller (responsible for Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City and more) were responsible for making the form more complex, darker, more adult. If reflection theory suggests that art mirrors to some extent the world from which it comes, then these comic books perhaps imitate a time which was defined by the last violent spasms of the cold war and the  ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. This film, of course, did not appear until 2009, 24 years after the original comic book, so some of that relevance has been lost. Indeed, in the move from page to screen, much has been lost, and the film is less clever and less ambitious than the book; but the stories and characters retain much of their power and even now, we can see how the influence of The Watchmen (and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) has shaped the better superhero narratives of the past decades.

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What are superhero films for? Well, obviously, it depends on the superhero – Superman and Wolverine are two very different beasts –  but there are certain conventions which we can identify. Essentially, in Proppsian terms, superheroes are the narrative ‘good guys’ who save humanity time after time. Even when they have weaknesses, whether it be kryptonite in Superman’s case or a tendency towards gloomy introspection for Batman, the audience are secure in a diegesis where the good guys will always (or usually; superhero narratives were often a little more complex than they were given credit for) do what is right and where they will always triumph in the end. As such, these stories reflect a world where morality is simple; good guys and bad guys. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Comic Books coincided with World War 2; a time when such simple, or simplistic, morality was needed to shore up patriotic belief in one’s own nation and cause.

More modern narratives, often constructed under the influence of film noir, tend to seek to construct a more complex and nuanced sense of morality, perhaps to reflect a world where people are less likely to cleave to the certainties of religion or patriotism. The Watchmen was the narrative which, more than any other, reimagined the superhero for this new world. It represents a complete act of genre revisionism and we can see its influence today in films where the superheroes are somewhat less than heroic – Kick-Ass, for example – or where the world is seen to be more morally complex than a simple binary of good and evil.

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The narrative centres around a group of masked crimefighters. They have no supernatural or extraordinary powers (with one exception) and rely on speed and strength to defeat criminals. We see that this is no normal superhero caper when the story opens with the murder of one of the group, The Comedian. Already, the representation of the ‘hero’ has shifted; these people are only slightly less vulnerable than the rest of us. This shift in representation changes much more, though, when we delve into the Comedian’s backstory. He attempts to rape another of the superheroes; he shoots dead the mother of his own baby in Vietnam; he might be responsible for killing John F Kennedy; he does very shady work for the US government. In general, he enjoys murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. He is most definitely not a clean-cut ‘good guy,’ or any sort of good guy at all, and yet, he is one of our heroes. His iconic smiley face badge is splattered with his blood after he dies; Snyder follows it in (his very characteristic) slow-mo all the way down until it hits the ground alongside the Comedian himself. It gets passed around some of the other heroes until it is finally buried with the Comedian. We see it repeated at the end of the film, now on a news reporter’s t-shirt, the blood replaced by tomato ketchup. Snyder is highlighting this as the symbol of the entire film; the mix of happiness and violence, life and death, good and evil, the shadowy middle ground which is the world of The Watchmen. And, The Comedian would have us believe, the world of modern America – he is semiotically associated with the American flag and describes himself as the personification of the American Dream.

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So, we start with a superhero who is a murderous, cynical, rapist. He’s the least sympathetic (by some way) of the ‘good guys’ in the film but he is by no means the only one who is seriously messed up. The others variously exhibit sociopathy, misogyny, misandry, impotency, narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, solipsism, masochism, psychopathy, promiscuity and sadism. And one of them, Rorschach, smells really bad. Indeed, Rorschach appears to be the heart of the group; the one member who never compromises his moral vision. He is utterly dedicated to the fight against evil, and he sees evil everywhere. He is deeply misanthropic and, in particular, misogynistic – his mother was an abusive prostitute and Rorschach is seriously affected by his memories of her. In his ‘normal’ life he is Walter Kovacks, a near-derelict, borderline-insane bum who reads right-wing propaganda and habitually predicts the end of the world. As ‘Rorschach’ he is basically a hard-boiled noir figure, generally framed in isolation and in chiaroscuro.

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He is in ways a typically hypermasculine, uncompromising figure (as are several of the others – these are all tough guys) but his backstory reveals him as a very damaged character and by the end his inability to compromise his morality appears more like a liability than an aspect of heroism. He needs his superhero identity to give meaning and structure to his life; when he cries ‘Give me back my face’ after being unmasked, we realise that he is in flight from his ‘real’ identity and is in fact quite a pitiful figure. It’s not that he won;t compromise; it’s that he doesn’t know how to.

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He’s not the only one whose life is rather empty without his secret identity. Nite Owl, the Batman-like alter ego of Dan Dreiberg, starts  a relationship with Silk Spectre, another of the heroes. He cannot perform sexually, however, and this impotence is surely representative of the exact opposite of what a male superhero should be. He can only perform once they have reverted to their superhero identities and it becomes clear that, like Rorschach, he is incomplete without his secret identity; he is more comfortable and effective – more potent – in his costume than out of it. (He admits as much himself. ‘I’m tired of being afraid… afraid of war, of the mask killer. Of this damn suit and how much I need it.’)

Clearly, then, the representations of superheroes are being changed in The Watchmen. The heroes are more deeply drawn, the violence is more realistically brutal, actions have more believable consequences. The story does more than this though. Postmodern theorists talk about ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ which tend to apply to our view of life. One such narrative might be that human history is generally moving towards a better state and that what is ‘good’ will eventually triumph over what is ‘bad.’ Superhero films, obviously, support this metanarrative by showing good triumphing over evil and the world as a fundamentally predictable, benevolent place. All of this certainty and predictability is removed in The Watchmen. One character, Doctor Manhattan (a superhuman figure created by a nuclear accident), a man with Godlike powers of transformation and manipulation, says of his girlfriend ‘She tells me I’m like a God now. I tell her I don’t think there is a God’ and this reflects the atheistic, existential uncertainty of the film’s diegesis. By the end of the film, we have no idea who the good guys are or whether there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ There is no guarantee that the heroes live or even die, or that criminals are punished. The criminals and the heroes, in fact, are the same people. And in this regard, in this challenging of conventional generic structures and moral ideologies, the film is very postmodern (though not even nearly to the same extent as the original comic book.)

Zack Snyder makes a very good attempt at the impossible with The Watchmen; a huge amount of what made the original comic book so special has been lost, and yet enough remains to make it one of the best ‘superhero’ films ever.

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Teenagers#1: The Breakfast Club

Probably more than any other director, John Hughes is associated with the representation of teenage high school life and the series of movies he made in an extremely prolific few years between 1984 and 1986 were hugely influential in creating a certain representation of American high school life and American teen life in general.

Generically, Hughes’ films are closest to the teen movie; the characters are teens, they have the stereotypical teen problems (parents, basically) and the action usually takes place in the most typical teen movie location of all, the high school. Perhaps Hughes’ main claim to auteur status, however, comes from the fact that he changed that genre; whatever revisionism it has experienced was started by him. James Berardinelli  points out that Hughes’ run of teen movies ‘…were a cut above the sex and booze-drenched antics of most  teen comedies.’ Such comedies were very popular at the time, and they tended to emphasise crude, sex-based humour, very predictable plots and one-dimensional characters. I’ve mentioned before with regard to The Hunger Games that films aimed at younger audiences are quite often dismissed as being less worthy than those for older people; but sometimes this snobbery is completely justified. It certainly was in the case of a lot of those cheap, predictable, quickly-made teen movies. Now, however, films like The Spectacular Now or Juno  – even The Hunger Games – seem to do a much better job of representing the actual lives of actual teenagers. John Walters, perhaps, started that process of revisionism in terms of teenage representation with film like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

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Berardinelli goes on to say that of all Hughes’ films, ‘…The Breakfast Club was arguably the most insightful and emotionally-true’ and there seems to be a consensus that this is his finest film. The plot is simplicity itself; five kids are in Saturday detention. They are quickly revealed as stereotypes, handily identified in the voiceover at the star of the film as we look at a montage of a typically shabby, vandalised school; criminal, athlete, basket-case, princess, brain. These are the archetypes of the genre, constructed from all the signifiers we use to group teenage characters. They sound like a High School reinvention of Proppsian archetypes. And, like all stereotypes, they are, of course, reductive and simplistic.

At first, they seem confined to their stereotypes, as do their parents. We see each of them arrive outside of the school, ready to serve their Saturday morning detention. The “Princess”‘ father promises that he will make it up to her with gifts if she just does the detention. The “brain”‘s mother is outraged and tells him to make sure he uses the time to study. The “jock”‘s dad cares only about his son’s athletic scholarship, but tells him that it’s normal for guys to ‘screw around.’ Whoever drops the anti-social “basketcase” off squeals off without speaking to her. And the ‘criminal’ arrives after all the others, alone. They all dress appropriately to their roles, easily marked out by their respective clothing signifiers.

Judd Nelson as John Bender

The ‘criminal’ – John Bender, played by Judd Nelson – is the first character to dominate. He pretends to urinate on the floor, threatens to ‘impregnate’ the ‘prom queen’ and generally tries to provoke the others. He is instantly recognisable as the ‘rebel’ – the long hair and grungey leather and plaid clothing functions as Peircian symbols of this character type. He is immediately established as a binary opposite to Emilio Estevez’s clean-cut ‘jock’, who threatens to beat him up. Estevez is seated beside Molly Ringwald’s ‘Princess’ and these proxemics combined with audience foreknowledge and genre expectation make us anticipate that these two – the only two of the five wo are ‘acceptable’ in the social hierarchy of High School – will form a partnership. The nerdy ‘Brain’ (Anthony Michael Hall) and the loner ‘basketcase’ (Ally Sheedy) are situated on right of the screen, and again, we are perhaps invited to start linking these characters together. Bender, the rebel, is by himself, at the back (of course.) And the supervising teacher, played by Paul Gleason, is a bullying, preening idiot. Another obvious and very generic binary opposition, between teens and adults, is well-established in the opening minutes of the film.

We first start to get beyond the stereotypes when ‘Princess’ Claire starts to describe the strained relationship between her parents. She is vulnerable to Bender’s teasing about her weight, her probable virginity and so on – the typical things that boys tease girls about. Clearly, she is more than her stereotype – she appears more thoughtful, vulnerable and reserved than the stereotypical “prom queen”. And this, of course, is the point of the film – to get below these stereotypes and to show how meaningless they are.

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And one by one, all of the characters are revealed. The reaction shots of geeky Brian when Bender (who is the catalyst for change in the film) teases him about his family reveal to the audience that his home life is not as charmingly all-American as we might expect.

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Soon, Bender reveals the nature of his own home life – violently abusive – and we see his own vulnerabilities. His reaction to this revelation is violent – he is verbally abusive to the others and smashes up a  desk -and we start to see how he is made violent by the violence in his own background; but Hughes cuts to a close shot of him, eyes closed, framed tightly and trapped behind bars, and we realise that for all his bravado, he is as much a victim as the others.

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The film is worst when it is most generic – Bender’s ‘escape’ from the storeroom he is confined to, his sexual ‘banter’ (which now would be sexual harassment) with Claire, the dope smoking scene and so on; at these times it is very dated. But when it is focused on delving into the reality of life for these characters, it far surpasses in quality the teen movies which preceded it. The conversation between the two most interesting characters, Andy the jock and Allison the basket-case, in which they both confess the realities of their home lives (‘… they ignore me…’) is beautifully understated given the genre from which it comes. Likewise, the only partially-resolved ending; there doesn’t appear to be any guarantee that these five students will still be friends on Monday. Such details make this film still worth watching even now.

The Godfather Part 2

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made (it’s certainly a popular choice with fans, making second place in the IMDB all-time-greatest list, although critics are a little harsher, only allowing it number 21 in the Sight and Sound list. The sequel, 1974’s The Godfather Part 2, is generally thought of one of the best sequels of all time. It’s certainly one of the most successful, being the only sequel ever to win an Oscar. There is much discussion over which of the two is better. To me, it’s wholly artificial to debate the relative merits of the two films; even compared to most films and their sequels, they feel like two halves of one text and the removal of one part diminishes the power of the other.l

Where does the film’s reputation come from? It’s certainly not originality. The Godfather as a whole is a wholly conventional gangster story. If we look at the earliest crime dramas, we see many of the conventions are still evident decades later in Coppola’s movie. The Public Enemy, for example, made by William Welman in 1931, one of the founding texts of the genre, has several similarities. The focus is on the criminals, not the police (indeed, the forces of law and order are pretty much absent.). The criminal is an anti-hero – somehow sympathetic despite doing generally immoral, and often very terrible, things. The text is very much gendered; it’s a film full of men and it’s about masculinity. It’s also about family – actual families and crime families. Such conventions – and more – are evident in both films, and in other crime movies like Nine Queens or The Town or Rififi. Of course, this isn’t just a crime film, it’s a Mafia movie (or ‘mob film’) and that’s a subtext with a range of conventions all its own. The Mafia, as an Italian organisation which spread to America, gives Coppola the perfect basis for exploration of his themes – old world versus new world, tradition versus modernity, father versus son, past versus present and so on.

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So, is this merely a ‘genre’ film? Is there space to recognise auteurship at work? Certainly; the distinction between genre and auteur theory has always been a dubious one, and if we accept the postmodern view that nothing is particularly original anyway, then auteurship becomes a shaky notion anyway. Coppola’s vision is most definitely recognised in this film, and we can see his favourite themes and motifs appear in many of his other films. We see monomania just like Michael Corleone’s in Apocalypse Now, for example, and paranoia just like Michael’s in The Conversation.  Although the film is not particularly original, it is certainly the most fully realised exploration of many of these common themes and that is how it earned its reputation and what justifies the inclusion of Coppola in any list of great directors. That is, they’re not the first Mafia films, but arguably the best. (Scarface and Goodfellas are in the running, though!)

American (and thus global, pretty much) crime film, of course, is closely intertwined with the noir tradition, and at its heart, The Godfather Part 2 is a noir. Aesthetically, it is one of the darkest films I have ever seen – not for nothing is the cinematographer Gordon Willis known as the ‘prince of darkness.’ The darkness of the cinematography (as well as the exceptionally affecting minor-key score by Nino Rota, noted and praised by Roger Ebert, who says ‘it stirs emotions we shouldn’t really feel for this story’) connotes, as in all noir, the darkness at the heart of the story, at the very heart of the world represented in the film and the people who occupy that world.

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It’s Michael’s story, of course, and the almost Shakespearean wallop that the film packs is a direct result of the focus on his descent from his family’s moral touchstone – the boy his father, Vito, tried to protect from the family business – to what Coppola himself called a ‘monster.’  Pacino turns in a magnificent performance (no small feat in a film which contains just about all of the generation’s greatest American actors) which conveys the deep loneliness and emptiness within Michael; that theme, that we are spiritually dead, is classic noir. Noirs from the classic period, of course, were informed at least in part by spreading secularism and the decline in religious faith caused by World War 2. The resultant crisis of faith and conceptions of the universe as a cold, Godless and chaotic place found expression in the bewildering narratives and moral relativism of films like Kiss Me Deadly. Here, we see it more obviously in the religious iconography and symbolism; Michael marking Fredo for death with a kiss, like Judas with Christ, for example, or the opening Catholic funeral which leads to more violence. These symbols are empty of religious signification and full of violence and deceit, and the implication is clearly that religion has no real part to play in this world, despite the (conventional, of course, of the mob film) many instances of characters praying, blessing themselves or offering thanks to a God they clearly have no time for. This rejection of religion – the rejection of Catolicism, Italy, the Old World –  perhaps reaches its fullest expression in 1990’s (much inferior) The Godfather Part 3 when we see Michael – murderous, treacherous and amoral – receive special commendation from the Pope for his ‘charitable work.’

In terms of context, The Godfather Part 2 is rather difficult to pin down, and that’s a compliment. It is amazingly undated and looks like it could have been made just about any time in the last forty years. Again, this gives it a Shakespearean weight and relevance in that it is not constrained by reference or relevance to one place or time. Bu there are contextual points to be made. It clearly grows out of the New Hollywood movement, most obviously in the way it takes an existing genre and reworks it somewhat (just as, for example, Dennis Hopper would do much more drastically to the Western in Easy Rider.) Likewise, it can be seen to deal (as crime movies often do) with several important contemporary issues – the immigrant experience, for one, or the way women are treated in Italian-American cultures or, indeed, more generally.

Primarily, though, the social importance of the film comes from its examination of the American way of life itself. Michael, like Vito before him, is absolutely in pursuit of the American dream. He wants a better life for his family than he had himself (we are repeatedly reminded of his desire to put the family’s business on a legal footing, even as it becomes clear that this dream of legality and respectability is impossible) and he wants professional success – to be the best at his job, to live up to his father’s memory. He wants financial security and safety; all the things which Americans are told to aspire to. Maryann Johanson writes of the Corleone family that ‘their story is pretty much the story of America in the 20th century.’ The entire Godfather saga is an analysis of what this dream, this ambition, does to Michael, and the obvious answer is that it destroys whatever is good in him. John Hess, writing at the time of the film’s release, casts all this in a Marxist light; he sees the film as detailing the binary opposition between capitalism (The American Dream) and humanity (represented by everything Michael loses.) He sees opposition between Michael’s family and his crime family, his ‘work.’ The two, clearly, are incompatible (Hess writes that ‘the benefits of the family structure and the hope for community have been destroyed by capitalism.’ It’s a fascinating way to look at the film; Michael’s family are taken from him by violence, or they are alienated or, most tellingly of all, he has them killed. Fredo’s death at the end of the film is extremely affecting, marking as it does the final nail in the coffin of Michael’s own humanity. The final shots of Michael show him entirely alone, firstly in flashback at his father’s table, secondly in the present time as an older man.

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Michael has, in some way, always been alone. In the first scene he has just announced his desire to join the army, against his family’s wishes. In the second, he has had Fredo killed, (obviously) against the wishes of what remains of his family. Clearly, he has never understood what family actually is, what it is for; he understands it as something to protect, to make prosperous, but he doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to understand why he is actually doing all this for his family.

In this, he is opposed to his father, Vito. Their stories – Vito’s climb to ascendancy as Godfather in the 19oos and Michael’s descent to monstrousness in the 1950s – are told in parallel, thus creating the binary oppositions – past and present, old world (Europe) and new world (America), father and son – which so profoundly inform the film. Vito is shown to be a man who loves his family – properly, affectionately – and his friends. As he is gathering friends about him, Michael, 50 years later, is alienating them (sometimes, the very people his father befriended all those years before.) At one point, we see Vito with his family, telling his son how much he loves him, being the conventionally happy family man:

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When we cut back to the film’s present day and Michael’s story, he is arriving alone at his home to meet his wife, who has just a had a miscarriage (we later find it was an abortion.) He looks at her, then turns away; he does not have his father’s ability to be open and emotionally natural – to be a good human being – even with people he once loved. It’s not so simple as father/good, son/ bad, of course; immediately before returning to be with his family, Vito had gunned down a local mobster. This is his first killing, and one which does not appear to trouble him in the slightest. Nobody here is a ‘good guy’ (this is noir, at least in spirit, remember) but Michael apparently does not know how to maintain his humanity in the midst of so much evil. In Michael Hess’ terms, already mentioned, he is a business man, not a family man; he can’t be both.

All in all, a truly magnificent movie, one that does what the best narrative art does; shows us real, believable characters being buffeted by life and managing or failing to manage to reain something of themselves. By the end, when Michael is completely without humanity, we still feel for him, because we understand how he came to be like that; the film shows us how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, perhaps, merely constructs, how we are all the product of our environments, how even the best of us- Michael Corleone, the young charmer, the war hero – can be corrupted.

Everything is Illuminated

And then my sister. She was pregnant. They put the gun to her pregnant belly. They said they would kill the baby inside her if my father did not spit. He could not… He did not spit.

Directed by Liev Schreiber, and based on (part of)  Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, this film takes a cheerfully anarchic tour through a few different genres and forms; it’s an autobiography- comedy- road movie- Holocaust movie (or something.) And despite all this (presumably) ironic self-awareness (which is actually much more a feature of the book than the film) the film does manage to make moving, serious points about the Holocaust. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s never less than engaging.

It details Foer’s (played by Elijah Wood) efforts to trace his own Jewish-Russian roots in the Ukraine, and focuses around a journey he makes with his Russian guide Alex and Alex’s grandfather, a mad old anti-Semitic driver who thinks he’s blind, thus necessitating the use of a ‘seeing eye bitch’ called Sammy Davis Jr Jr. Eugene Hutz as Alex just about steals the show, particularly with his mangled English (‘…my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name..’) which is a delight to listen to. There ‘s a lot to like about the film. It has a distinct aesthetic, with some lovely, comic cinematography, and the performances are all strong. The Russian actors get all the best lines, though; Wood, as the nerdish Foer (‘..an anaemic straight-man caricature’, according to Michael Atkinson) is very much in the shade.

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But despite strong cinematography and performances and everything else, this a writer’s film, unsurprisingly given the source material. It is ambitious in its handling of genre; to use comedy to attempt to address themes around the Holocaust is, obviously, fraught with difficulty (not entirely unprecedented though – Robert Benigni’s superb Life is Beautiful did something similar in 1997, although Roger Ebert points out that even that film received criticism for apparently making light of the Holocaust.) The comedy in Schreiber’s film is joyous; Alex’s obsession with and clumsy appropriation of all things American and pop-culture (hip-hop, Michael Jackson, ‘negroes’ – they are ‘premium people’ apparently – and so on) is obviously rooted in a familiar representation of Russian youth, whilst Foer’s nerdish, obsessive, vegetarian, dog-phobic writer is just as rooted in another stereotype, but despite this familiarity, the characters are wonderfully sympathetic and engaging.

The narrative gives the film its backbone, though. It is essentially a road movie – the three main characters are off to find a lady who helped Foer’s grandfather survive the Holocaust. She lives in a village called Trachimbrod, and the hunt for this village – and the ‘finding’ of it – are what ultimately turns the story away from comedy. This is actually not entirely successful; it’s a fiendishly difficult tonal shift to handle (Stella Papamichael writes that ‘Schreiber’s most difficult task comes at this halfway point when he switches gears from comedy to drama’) and although it is handled well, the film’s engagement with Holocaust themes never provokes the reaction that it could, simply because the first half of the film hasn’t been doing the work of building up to such a reaction. As such, we get a smaller, less ambitious pay-off, but that’s fine; it’s moving and effective, albeit somewhat too ‘tidy’ at the end.

Typically of the road movie, the real journey is internal, and this is where the actual surprise of the movie is. The journey at the heart of the road movie is always a metaphor for the change and development of one or more of the characters, and obviously the most obvious example of this is in Foer himself, who learns about his own roots and who seems to open up a little (he is friendlier with Alex at the end and has somehow overcome his fear of dogs, giving Sammy Davis Jr Jr an affectionate kiss at the end.) But he, it turns out, is not the main character. Foer’s extreme uptightness, for all his quirkiness (he collects things as he goes along, sealing things like potatoes and handfuls of soil in plastic bags to add to his ‘collection’), makes him hard to penetrate, and Wood’s performance, strangely reminiscent of his portrayal of Kevin, the psychotic cannibal from Sin City (yes, I know that seems an unlikely comparison) doesn’t help. Likewise, we might expect Alex to be the central character, the one who makes the all-important change reflected by the journey at the heart of the movie. After all, he is the one who delivers the voice-over which controls the delivery of the plot; it is he, it turns out, who writes the book upon which the film is based (there’s some postmodern self-aware jiggery-pokery here, of course.) But he is the character who changes the least, and as such he is more caricature than character; an absolutely delightful caricature, but not developed or rounded beyond that.

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As it turns out, our attention should have been on the grandfather, the supposedly blind driver of the knackered Trabant which takes them to Trachimbrod (based on the real-life Trochenbrod.) As the story progresses, and we start to investigate the grandfather’s character with flashbacks to the scene of an execution of Jewish prisoners by Nazi soldiers, we realise that the story of Everything is Illuminated is actually his story; the journey into the past, a past which Alex is more or less ignorant of, and which Foer is only tangenitally connected to. The grandfather, however, lived it and is directly connected to what happened at Trachimbrod, and the audience is soon wondering about the nature of that connection; bluntly, which end of the gun was he on? His blatant anti-semitism (he is horrified to learn that Sammy Davis Jr, his favourite singer and, obviously, the inspiration for his beloved dog’s name, was Jewish) lead us to conclusions which are, of course, not necessarily correct. As Stella Papamichael goes on to point out, the grandfather ‘… takes the story into more wistful territory and ultimately provides the heart’ and at the end, it is his exit from the story which provides the actual emotional kick of the film.

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A lovely film, then, and thank you to my ever-helpful student Adrian for recommending it (other students: what else should I be watching?) It offers a small-scale look at the effect of the Holocaust on people both directly involved and those born generations later; it is both very moving and extremely funny (it’s certainly the most quotable film I’ve seen in a while) and it provides an interesting comparison to more traditional Holocaust films like Schindler’s List.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The whole universe depends on everything fitting just right. If a piece get bust, even one tiny piece, the whole universe would get busted.

Some films don’t exactly fill me with desire to rush out and see them. This one- first-time director, amateur cast, a somewhat unlikely mix of social realism and fantasy – certainly didn’t and that’s why I’ve only now seen it, a year after it was released. I should have known better; this film made an enormous impact on release (winning at Cannes and Sundance, and being nominated for four Oscars) and after seeing it, I can see what the fuss was about. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close and it’s actually better for the imperfections, born as they are of ambition. Peter Travers calls it ‘a game-changer that gets you excited about movies again’, and though I don’t know about the ‘game changer’ part,  I absolutely agree that it would take a hard heart not to love this film.

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The film tells the story of six-year old Hushpuppy who lives with her father Wink in the Bathtub, a small community separated from New Orleans by a levee. Her mother is gone – she floated away, Hushpuppy is told – and her father is both unwell and prone to drinking and anger. The community teacher tells the children about how the Bathtub is soon to be washed away and how the aurochs, prehistoric creatures, will be released from the ice caps. We follow Hushpuppy throughout the story and watch the development of her relationship with her father as well as the strength and vulnerability of her community; we see their friends die, but they have a ‘funeral the bathtub way; with no crying.’

This is such an a ambitious movie, amazingly so when we consider the director’s inexperience, the amateur cast, the tiny budget. It tells us the story of the New Orleans flood – more, of a way of life associated strongly with New Orleans. We see the poverty and associated problems – drunkenness, illness, broken families  – and the strength and love in these communities. Characters like Miss Bathsheba, the teacher, exude roughness and warmth in equal measure, and they personify this beautifully shot and realised world. At one level, then, it’s a kind of social realism, and the low budget, non-professional actors and focus on the problems of working-class people put it firmly in the tradition of Neo Realism inherited from films like The Bicycle Thieves directors like Vittorio de Sica or even New Wave classics like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Perhaps it’s coincidence that among the final shots of both films are long, hard stares into the camera by the youthful protagonist, but the similarity in intent is clear; these children are tough, resilient, survivors.

(Quvenzhane√? Wallis)

At another level, it’s a coming-of-age film, and this is the aspect that’ll make you cry. Wink’s illness progresses throughout the film, and Hushpuppy has to come to terms with the mortality of her father, herself, and everything. There is an amazing central performance from  Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy – only eight years old when the film was released (six when she started filming it) and yet she perfectly communicates the wrenching pain and anger and bewilderment that Hushpuppy feels at various times. She is an a mazing talent (and she has now appeared in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. That’s not a bad CV for someone who hasn’t left junior school yet.) Director Benh Zeitlin (himself only 29 when the film was made) recreates the child’s point of view in a number of ways – the warm palettes which clash with the cold tones of the holding centre Hushpuppy and her father are sent to; the handheld camera throughout which, while it seriously annoys some reviewers, seems to me a perfect way to capture a child’s slightly wonky view of the world; the beautifully lyrical voiceover. It’s very reminiscent of films like The Fall and even Pan’s Labyrinth in its use of the child’s point-of-view.

Finally, it’s a fantasy movie. It’s a real shock when we start to see ice caps melting and the aurochs emerge – not something you’d actually expect in a film set in New Orleans –  and this is the part of the movie which made some reviewers qualify their praise for the film (James Berardinelli writes that, ‘The movie comes across as a collection of competing themes and ideas that collide more often than complement one another and never fully gel.’) However, I think it’s a wonderful, weird addition to an already powerful film. The aurochs, in their massive, snorting, physicality serve as the perfect binary opposite to the tiny Hushpuppy and their journey to the bathtub both adds (even more) narrative movement and shape to the film and, again, mirrors Hushpuppy’s own journey back home and, of course, her metaphorical journey to independence. The film, particularly the ending, has the weight of allegory about it and it reminded me of Life of Pi as another movie which resisted easy interpretation. What the aurochs represent is open to debate; but we feel they are significant and we want to understand them and in that ambiguity we both experience the same dilemma as Hushpuppy herself – she feels more than she can express – and we feel how the film has the fluidity and depth of lyric poetry.

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It’s incredibly refreshing to see a low-budget movie succeed so much on the strength of creativity, daring and wonderful production and performances. It’s the best, most beautiful,  film I’ve seen in an age, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.