Tag Archives: IB

The Way We Are

While Song of the Exile is probably Ann Hui’s best known film, there is a growing consensus that her more recent work is her best. The Way We Are, made in 2008, is set in Hong Kong’s ‘City of Sorrow’, Tin Shui Wai, a public housing estate known for its high levels of unemployment and associated problems (see here for an SCMP report on the area’s high suicide rates as an example.) As we’d expect from someone who emerged from Hong Kong’s New Wave, Hui’s social conscience and concern for the dispossessed strongly inform her film; but her stories tend to eschew outright despair, and in this case we see a wholly charming evocation of the strength of a family’s love and unity despite less than ideal living circumstances. More, we see how that love extends out into a whole community. It’s a totally successful , satisfying film; when Huang Yaoshi, reviewing this film, calls Hui ‘the most gifted storyteller in Hong Kong’, it’s hard to disagree. Certainly, in her refusal to churn out genre pieces or to compromise the pace or subject matter she prefers, she’s one of the most independently-minded filmmakers currently working in Hong Kong.

The story centres around Mrs Cheung and her teenage son, On, who live together in a tiny, and very typically Hong Kong, apartment. Mrs Cheung cuts and packs durian at the local supermarket; On is spending the summer lounging at home while he waits for the results of his school exams to see whether he will be continuing with his education or not. The opening shots put us inside this apartment, looking out at Tin Shui Wai. The image is polysemic; the buildings look grim, partly because of the apparent lack of deliberate composition. However, the light and colour (typically of Hui) is beautiful. This ambiguity continues throughout the film and, eventually, becomes the point of the film. While we may pity these people for their poverty and their apparently tedious lives, they are not feeling sorry for themselves; they are just living their lives. To them, Tin Shui Wai is not ‘the city of sorrow’, but simply the place where they live.

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The film is basically in the realist tradition. Perhaps inspired by the Italian neo-realists – certainly, the subject matter and the ideologies are similar – we have real sets, little in the way of artificial light or sound and what looks and sounds like ad-libbed acting. Likewise, the narrative echoes real life in that there is no strong sense of narrative causation. As movie-goers, we’re used to the feeling of watching a story being set up and constructed; we know that nothing happens in a movie’s narrative unless it advances the main plot in some way. When that causation is removed (as it is in life,where stuff happens all the time for no particular reason) it can leave the story feeling unplanned and directionless. The Way We Are needs to be approached in this light, as something that is seeking to shine a light on an aspect of life rather than to entertain an audience with a clever narrative. Yaoshi explains this, showing it as both a strength and a possible weakness, saying, ‘the films of Ann Hui are those who directly go to the core of what Hong Kong is about – but this core is as most of our lives perhaps unspectacular, mundane, and banal.’

The most obvious result of this is that nothing happens as we expect it, because our previous movie-watching experience comes between us and the film. For example, when On finally ventures out of the flat to go and see some ‘friends’, we expect him to be up to no good, especially when we see the long-haired young men he’s going to see.

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And yet all they do is play mahjong (echoing a scene in which the elder characters did the same – the sense of community and continuity between the generations is very strong in this film.) They have a conversation about religion. Mostly, they ignore each other, as teenage boys do. The point is, of course, that the viewer’s expectations of this ‘type’ of person and of film itself, is wrong.

Likewise, we look for the ‘bad guys’ in the story because it feels wrongly weighted without them. Someone must be to blame for the tedium of these people’s lives! When we realise it’s not going to be On or any of his friends, attention turns to Big Uncle, Mrs Cheung’s brother. On’s cousins, returned to visit from America, bring a little colour and glamour into the film.

colourful rich cousins

We immediately start constructing oppositions in our minds; they are rich and On is poor, so they are bad and On is good. Particularly when we find out about how Mrs Cheung worked to put her brothers through University, we seem to have our bad guys. But of course, it doesn’t work out like that. There are no bad guys in this world; everyone is nice, in an undemonstrative everyday sort of way.

Which is not to say there is no narrative. An older lady meets Mrs Cheung but seems determined to refuse any offers of kindness or friendship. The story’s interest comes in part from the way she changes and opens up to others, as well as revealing something about her own past. But really, it’s an observational piece about the absolutely normal lives of these very normal people, and it’s a quietly celebratory film about family and community, as well as a film which subtly changes audience attitudes. While we watch them proceed with their lives, we make judgements about their surroundings or lives; but they are free of self pity and just continue with life. We’re at fault, not them.high angle lady oblivious to her own poverty. Perry Lam wrote that it’s ‘a great film in a small way and, in its tribute to the resilience of life, serves as an apt, shining metaphor for the filmmaking career of Hui herself.’ It is perhaps Ann Hui’s best film, which is saying a lot.

Hong Kong #3: Song of the Exile

The advent of the French New Wave directors in the late 1950s marked the beginning of a huge shift in global cinema. They shook the traditions of French cinema to their foundations; either by re-imagining and revising existing genres (the gangster film reborn in Godard’s Breathless, for example) or by ignoring the established rules of editing and composition (again, see the opening of Breathless to see just about every narrative, compositional and editing convention blown to bits.) As filmmakers in other countries saw how film could be as flexible as any other art form, how it could be recreated by and for a new generation, other ‘New Waves’ erupted over the globe; British Naturalism, German New Wave, New Hollywood are among the best known. Asia was affected too; it took longer, but Hong Kong’s new wave kicked off in the late 70s with a determination to change existing genres to address contemporary problems and to use more realist techniques.

One director strongly associated with the New Wave is Ann Hui. Her most famous early film is probably Boat People (1982), a study of the plight of refugees from Vietnam in Hong Kong. More recently she has been making films about poverty and disenfranchisement in the TIn Shui Wai area of Hong Kong(commonly called the ‘City of Sadness.’ Obviously, Hui has a consistent desire to explore Hong Kong’s social issues; in this regard, she has remained true to the political ethos of the New Wave (crudely put, a broadly socialist commitment to social equality.)

There are other elements to New Wave, though. The original crop of French directors, particularly Francois Truffaut, were strongly associated with auteur theory (Truffaut was the first to articulate it, in his essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’) and as such they only recognised ‘real’ artists as those who treated film as an opportunity to explore and express individuality. Their films were often very personal and idiosyncratic as they sought to develop a personal style and subject matter.

Hui’s 1990 film, Song of the Exile, certainly manages this in one way since it is, at least in part, autobiographical. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of Hueyin, studying (and having fun) in London when her mother calls her back to Hong Kong for her sister’s wedding.  Arguments ensue as her mother, Aiko,  takes control of her hair and dress and refuses to allow her any independence. The relationship looks irrevocably broken as we see where all this tension came from; Hueyin was raised in Macau, primarily by her grandparents and has always felt resentment towards her apparently distant mother for taking her away from her beloved grandfather to live in Hong Kong. We find out that Aiko is originally Japanese and the relationship between mother and daughter takes on new dimensions when they travel together to Japan and unearth some aspects of Aiko’s past. We come to realise that the ‘exile’ of the title is not primarily Hueyin, but Aiko.

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The primary focus of the film is on the family; it is a very recognisable tale of a younger generation seeking to escape the influence of their parents (a theme which could stand as a metaphor for the entire New Wave.) Most obviously, the familial tensions are between Hueyin and Aiko.  Aiko desperately wants her daughter to be ‘good’; we can see this in the way she dresses her for the wedding as a ‘good’ Hong Kong daughter, in a red dress and a perm, exactly the same as her own. She is trying to fit her daughter into a tradition, perhaps, to allow her a sense of belonging, the opposite of ‘exile’ , which she herself was denied. The wedding itself is shown to be noisy and familial; people are packed into the frame and there is a lot of movement, but Hueyin is pictured alone, off by herself; a product, perhaps, of Western individualism.

Wedding

So, the first part of the film shows Aiko destroying what remains of her relationship with her daughter. However, as we learn Aiko’s story through flashback, we see that she had the same sort of dysfunctional experience. She lived with her husband’s parents, and it becomes clear that they habitually dismissed her authority and demeaned her in front of her daughter. She is shot in chiaroscuro in these sections, semiotically indicating her despair, a despair which she seems destined to had on to her daughter (we see her beating her child.) Even the grandfather mentions that he wanted to study Western medicine but was forced to focus on Chinese medicine by his father. The theme is clear, and depressing; familial dysfunction is hereditary.

Mum chiaroscuro in Macau

There is also a more general theme about the effect of political and historical processes and events on individuals. Hueyin’s grandparents are in Macau because they are fleeing from the Cultural revolution. Aiko is living in Manchukuo when it is reclaimed by China after japan’s fall, and there she meets Hueyin’s father; that is how she ends up an ‘exile’, first in Macau, then in Hong Kong. Even Hueyin is strongly associated with liberal and progressive ideas in the opening section of the film, and she is shown to be as much a product of her environment as any of the other characters. Chinese history is told through the lens of this one family’s story, and thus large social processes are made personal and relatable. Given that the film was made one year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, it is hardly surprising that Hui’s attention is on politics, at least in part. The end of the film is more generally optimistic than the audience might expect, but it is typical of realist modes of storytelling in that it is open-ended; we do not know what decisions Hueyin might make as the film ends with her crying in close-up.

Crying at end

The film, typically of Hui, is beautiful; generally quite dark, there are lovely blue and green-tinted scenes throughout. Generally, there is a powerful sense of melancholy and nostalgia which reflects the theme of missed opportunities and broken relationships.

Loely blue

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.

watchmen

 

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.

Rors chiaroscuro

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.

rors unmasked

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.

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 Act of Killing

Anyone interested in film has probably been spending some time recently looking at the end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. The same films crop up, of course – aggregation sites like Metacritic show that big-budget films like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are topping the polls. Number six on that list, though – and in first place in ‘serious’ publications like Sight and Sound and The Guardian-  is something of an anomaly; a documentary, and an experimental one at that, about the persecution and killing of supposed Communists in Indonesia when the army suppressed an attempted coup in 1965. It’s called The Act of Killing and it was made by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director. (That anonymity is the first sign that we are not in conventional film-making territory here; the Indonesian crew stayed anonymous for fear of violent reprisal.) It is a wonderful, strange film – one of those which stays with the viewer long after watching -and though many reviewers say it is ‘difficult’ to watch, it really isn’t. The shocking thing, in fact, is how easily we are drawn into a world of utter amorality and chaos.

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When a story is told, the teller has decisions to make. ‘Where to stand?’ is the first one; that is, whose story are we telling? What angle are we approaching from? This film deals with a series of atrocities and massacres which claimed the lives of anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people. The obvious approach is to let the victims, or their loved ones, speak, to give them the voice they were so brutally denied. Much more difficult, and controversial, is to stand on the other side and to explore the lives and minds of the men who did the killing. But this is what Oppenheimer does in his film. It is basically the story of Anwar Congo, a small time gangster who ‘rose’ to become the leader of one of the more notorious death squads. The film claims that Congo was personally responsible for killing around 1000 people. This choice to tell the story of the killers has earned Oppenheimer some furious condemnation; Peter Rainer, for example, refused to give the film a grading, writing that ‘Oppenheimer allows murderous thugs free rein to preen their atrocities, and then fobs it all off as some kind of exalted art thing. This is more than an aesthetic crime; it’s a moral crime.’ As we’ve seen, other reviewers considered this the finest film of the year; it obviously evokes powerful emotions and responses, which is surely appropriate for a film about a conflict which still shapes Indonesia today.

old men dressed up

Another question which storytellers need to answer is ‘How to speak?’ How do we tell the story, or, in documentary, how do we get the subjects to tell their own story? Conventional documentarians stick a camera in front of the subject and let them speak or follow them around and let them show themselves. Oppenheimer does this also; we follow Congo and various associates, mostly other gangsters, as they go about their business – extorting money from their neighbours, largely – and to that degree it’s a conventional observational documentary. But clearly Oppenheimer wanted to go beyond the surface of how these men continue to justify what they did and ask more profound questions – how, for example, does a man live with himself after committing mass murder on an unimaginable scale? To this end, he uses more creative methods, more associated with performative documentary; he invites the killers, all huge fans of film, primarily American film, to re-create events and emotions from their past by making a film about them. This is a strange, indirect way of getting at ‘the truth’, and predictably it only succeeds in getting at one version of the truth; but it certainly produces a powerful, affecting film, one that both awakens awareness of the events under discussion and provokes questions about the nature of murder and evil.

Watching these men produce their film with almost childlike enthusiasm produces absolutely bizarre imagery, mostly involving the thuggish Herman Koto, an overweight gangster who plays all the female roles and provides comic relief.

fat bloke in pink dress

At the start, we watch Koto encourage local children to act out the burning of their homes and the slaughter of their parents, laughing and joking as they perform for him. He is a big, humorous bear of a man, warm and affable, and it is easy to forget tat these children are reenacting things which happened, probably to their grandparents, and that Herman and his friends really were those who were burning homes and slaughtering the inhabitants.

Anwar Congo himself first appears as a dapper, frail gentleman with an amusing vanity (he favours bright, old-fashioned suits and we often see him fussing with his false teeth.) He loves the camera, and is more than willing to discuss his past; this quickly becomesa  discussion of chosen methods of murder as he explains how he hit upon his favoured method -strangulation with wire – as a way of avoiding the need to clear up afterwards. (‘We used to beat them to death,’ he says, ‘but there was too much blood.’) Several times, we see him re-enacting the strangulation of victims as he and his friends, usually dressed as noirish gangsters, for that is how they choose to see themselves, make the film about their actions. The film gains some depth when Congo confesses that he has nightmares about what he has done, and this then becomes the narrative focus of the film; we watch as he approaches an (rather underwhelming) understanding of his actions. At the end of the film, he himself is filmed being ‘strangled’; he weeps as he watches it, then retches when he returns to the scene of many of his murders. This is narrative in the classic Western style; one man forced to change, to perhaps start to move towards some sort of understanding or redemption. (And any suggestion of understanding or redemption, of course, might be completely fabricated by the filmmaker or by Congo himself; it is easy to see why so many people were offended by this film.)

dancers

Oppenheimer guides Congo towards this epiphinaic understanding by making, or allowing, him to confront his past. One of the most powerful scenes is when the stepson of a real-life victim nervously tells the story of how his father was abducted and killed and how he, as a child, had to bury the body. He then acts in the film, playing his father as the gangsters strangle and kill him. At this point, and later during the reenactment of a village massacre, we start to see more thoughtful reaction shots as Congo reflects on what he is doing and has done.

anwar reflective

The massacre scene is perhaps the most powerful part of the film. It is a masterpiece of juxtapositon, as is the whole film; we see men gently encouraging women and children to act more realistically, then cut to one of those men bragging about how he would ‘rape the shit out of’ fourteen-year old girls. An Indonesian MP turns up to help with direction, showing us that the people who massacred all these supposed ‘Communists’ (in reality, simply people who attracted the wrong sort of attention) are, in large part, the people running Indonesia today. The re-enactment itself is blurry, filmed with hand-held cameras, the sound muted, and it is devastatingly effective, both for the viewer and those who act in it, many of whom are in tears at the end.

reenactment massacre

There is too much to say about this film; Dana Stevens summarises it well by calling it ‘a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.’ I hope my students will watch it, not only for the lessons it teaches about life (evil is boring, everyday, everywhere) but also for the example it sets for film-makers; how fearless, creative, unconventional thinking and approaches can lead us to ask uncomfortable questions and communicate powerful truths.

Paul Greengrass #1: Bloody Sunday

We’ve got to teach these people a lesson…

Paul Greengrass gained global fame for his direction of two of the original Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon. Those films showed how sure a hand he has when it comes to creating and managing tension and thrills. More recently, he directed Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, just as exciting but with a more obvious political theme, largely because it is based on true events (review to follow.) That film – based on reality and overtly political – seems to be a fairly obvious return to his roots; Greengrass was well-known as an investigative journalist and television producer before he was a film director. Most famous was  his co-authoring of the book Spycatcher, which revealed secrets about Britain’s spy services and was the subject of an unsuccessful banning attempt by the government.

So, clearly he’s serious about the political content of his work, and perhaps his finest film, though not his best known, is Bloody Sunday. Made in almost-documentary style, it recreates the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland when British soldiers fired on unarmed Civil Rights marchers, killing 13 of them. Bloody Sunday, as the massacre came to be known, has since been the subject of enormous controversy and two government enquiries. (The first found the British Army blameless; the second, thirty years later, found the exact opposite.) Combining violence, oppression, politics and authentic controversy, it is hard to imagine subject matter more suited to Greengrass’ style.

Typically of Greengrass, the film is presented in a sort-of cinema verite style. (This is very typical of him. Even his Bourne thrillers, as The Guardian points out, were made in this style.) More generally, we can see the influence of the Italian Neorealists. First, many of those appearing in the film are not actors; many of the soldiers are played by actual ex-paratroopers, for example, and one of the victims of the massacre is played by the nephew of a real-life victim. Don Nesbitt, author of the book on which the film is based, appears as a priest. So, we’re watching people with direct connection to and involvement in the events documented in the film. With the soldiers in particular, this adds hugely to the verisimilitude and realism; they sound and look and behave like soldiers, not like actors. When they talk, it sounds ad-libbed and believable; they interrupt and talk over each other just as people do in real life. As Edward Guthmann writes, ‘Nothing looks rehearsed, and each of the dozens of actors seems to respond to the action while it unfolds.’

The camera is handheld (this might actually be the fundament of Greengrass’ aesthetic) and, particularly in the shooting scenes, this is supposed to put the viewer right in the middle of the action (although arguably, it’s such an overused technique now that it no longer has that effect.) Real sets, ambient lighting and so on are used, and editing is kept to a minimum, in keeping with the neorealist ethos; the diegesis in this film looks and feels very much like the real world. The idea is to create a sense that what we are watching is real; the filmmaker has removed himself as far as possible from the relationship between the viewer and the subject matter. It works; this is one of those films which leaves the viewer exhausted and outraged at the end.

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However, Greengrass is not making a documentary; this is a narrative film and as such the narrative is artificially imposed onto events. We follow one character, basically, the organiser of the march, played by James Nesbitt. We are focused on the march itself and how much he has invested in it, but we also see him with his parents, his troubled relationship with his girlfriend and so on, and the audience can hardly help but empathise with him. The fact that he is played by James Nesbitt, one of the most automatically likeable actors working today, already starts sugest where Greengrass’ sympathies lie. We are being manipulated throughout the film. At the start, for example, we see the crosscutting between the (chaotic, civilian) preparations for the march and the (efficient, military) organisation for the army response. Crosscutting continues throughout, always constructing the binary opposition between the ruthlessness of the army with the well-meaning naiveté of the marchers. Cinematography contributes to this; before the march for example, we see one shot wherein Nesbitt’s character is trapped in the mid ground between the British paratroopers in the foreground and the Nationalist paramilitaries, the IRA, in the background. The shot, and the whole scene, not only shows how trapped our main character is, but seems to suggest that these two groups – the British army and a terrorist organisation – are alike in terms of their intractability and cynicism. Greengrass, clearly, is not one to shy away from controversy.

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Representations in this film are most definitely not those we would expect from mainstream cinema. Soldiers – those on ‘our’ side at least – are dominantly represented as heroic and generally predisposed to do the ‘right’ thing. Here, we see absolute cynicism in the military. The army sets out not to control the march but to provoke trouble and arrest as many people as possible. Commanding officers are shown to be removed from the actual trouble, secure in their knowledge that nothing they do will be questioned or challenged. It is significant that the accents of the commanders are most definitely upper-class; the soldiers, like those they are shooting at, are working-class. This is not particularly developed, but there is certainly an idea about class warfare and solidarity being expressed. Perhaps the most shocking representation of the army comes at the end when those soldiers who have just killed 13 civilians are called before their superiors to account for their actions. Greengrass frames them in almost full-frontal close up, having them talk, and lie, directly to the camera. Juxtaposed with the shocking, chaotic violence we have just seen, the calmness of this scene and the blatant dishonesty of their testimony is shocking and sickening. Lighting is subtly chiaroscuro to connote the wickedness of what is being done.

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The representations of the army finalise in the scenes where they are shown to chase, then murder, fleeing citizens. The shots of uniformed British soldiers shooting unarmed civilians in the back, situated in ordinary working-class housing estates,  are designed to be shocking and brutal. The always-present emphasis on the reality of these events makes it massively more powerful and effective.

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Although made in a cinema-verite style, then, it soon becomes clear that Greengrass is very much pushing an agenda, that he is not wholly objective about these events. There is subtle artistry at work here; note, for example, that the palette is appropriately desaturated throughout the film until after the massacre when we start to see shocking, garish splashes of blood. Greengrass is appropriating the realist style in order to give weight and credibility to his own take on historical events.

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The film is extremely powerful, largely because of the weight of realism that it brings to bear. It utilises the two aspects of Greengrass’ style – thrills and reality, excitement and intelligence – to superb effect and it is, I think, his finest work to date.

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.

Battleship Potemkin

In the last post, I talked about Sight and Sound’s top ten films lists. The whole idea of ‘top tens’ and ‘best films’ and so on is obviously problematic; if we COULD compile a ‘top ten’ with any sort of reliability, then we could compile a top five, two, one. And the idea of a ‘Best Film Of All Time’  is ridiculous. Right? Right.

However…

If there WAS a ‘Best Film Of All Time, then there’s a fairly good chance that Battleship Potemkin might be in the running. Made by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925, it’s a (very inaccurate) recreation of the 1905 rebellion by sailors of the real-life Potemkin against their officers. Made 8 years after the Communist revolution in Russia, obviously it is a heavily propagandist piece, designed to show the nobility of the workers (the sailors) rising up against Tsarist oppression (the officers) and seizing control of Russia (the battleship.) Like Vertov’s Man with a  Movie Camera, it is revolution on a screen, the filmic or artistic counterpart to the actual revolution which had reshaped Russia and the world.

The story is very simple. The crew of a ship, already unhappy at the quality of the food they are being fed, finally snap and rise up against their cruel and violent officers. As the now-liberated ship steams into the port of Odessa, the population of the city stream into the streets to support the sailors. This new uprising is brutally repressed by the tsar’s imperial guard, and other ships are sent to chase the Potemkin but at the end, it appears that the crews of those ships have decided to support the rebellion and they allow the Potemkin to escape.

So, why does it have the reputation it does? The same reason any film with that kind of reputation does; the story is delivered with power and conviction, particularly considering the technical limitations of the time. There is some wonderful cinematography in the film; the montage close to the start of the sailors sleeping below decks, obviously symbolic of the sleeping proletariat, is beautifully shot, a tangle of diagonal lines which recalls a lot of the expressionist work of directors like Fritz Lang.

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Likewise, the shots when the Potemkin steams towards Odessa whilst dawn breaks are lovely; the fragility and elegance of the ships’s masts seem to evoke some sense of the fragility of the state itself. Whatever, these are lovely shots, stunning in the way film can be, particularly when there is no dialogue to steal power from the visuals.

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It’s real power, however, comes from the editing; that same montage editing which would be used in much more experimental a fashion by Vertov in Man with a Movie Camera a few years later. Montage is all about juxtaposition, putting two or more things together to create a new, more powerful, meaning. This happens throughout Battleship Potemkin; one example is when the men are about to be shot on deck. We see the ship’s priest descending to watch, fingering his crucifix; then we cut to the sadistic officer fingering his sword.

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The implication is clear; the crucifix, representative of religion, is as much a tool of oppression against the working class as the sword is. Such examples occur frequently, but the most famous examples are in the Odessa steps sequence, when the civilians who turn out to support the rebellion are massacred by the troops. This may well be the most studied piece of film in history, and that is entirely due to the manner in which Eisenstein handles his montage. The shot themselves are so famous they barely need mentioning; soldiers murdering civilians, surrounded by the trappings of a useless religion; a fleeing adult stepping on a dead child; a baby’s carriage hurtling down steps after the mother has been shot; an old woman, blood flowing from her broken glasses, screaming directly into the camera.

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The images are powerful, and still amazingly graphic now. But it’s the editing, the montage, which creates the sense of chaos and terror, and the way Eisenstein handles the pace of the piece – slowing down, for example, when the woman approaches the soldiers to ask for mercy, making us think she has a hope of success – is masterful. Objective time becomes meaningless – it takes the army seven minutes to complete their descent down the steps – as Eisenstein creates a dark, expressionist hell in which unimaginable things happen with terrifying rapidity. He manages to make a stone cherub appear to throw a punch and stone lions seem to rise up. It is justly viewed as one of the greatest pieces of editing ever; watch it!

Typically of Soviet film of the era, there are no main characters and thus no character arc for us to identify with. The hero is socialism, collectivism, unity, Russia, humanity. If ever a film captured the socialist ideal that groups are stronger than individuals, this is it; perhaps it conveys that most revolutionary of messages too well, given how it was banned in so many countries – including Russia itself – for so long.

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.

The Hunger Games

Teen film and fiction gets a bad press. A sort of reverse ageism means that audiences often assume that anything aimed at teenagers must necessarily be stupid. They’re often right, of course, but then that’s pretty much true of all things aimed at anyone (Sturgeon’s Law famously opines that ‘Ninety percent of everything is crap.’ I’ve always found that to be a  reasonable estimate, whether applied to film or anything else.) So, it’s not unusual to see a lot of teen-interest film being dismissed without much of a fair viewing. Twilight suffered a little from this – the books are truly awful, but the first film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, did enormously well at the box office (it remains the biggest opening ever for a female director) but garnered some pretty horrible reviews. And yet, it wasn’t bad; it was darker, slower, than we might have expected and the performance from Kristen Stewart in particular was a million miles away from the usual toothily upbeat pap we often get from American film aimed at teens. The whole thing felt like a pretty good, slightly depressive teen romance to me (with some nonsense about vampires chucked in.) Not a great movie, but certainly not a terrible one. But, it’s aimed at teenagers – teenage girls, particularly, which often makes it even more likely that it’ll be dismissed as mindless garbage – and so it perhaps did not get even the limited praise it was due. (It did, however, make somewhere in the region of infinity billion dollars, so I assume that nobody involved in the making was too devastated.)

The Hunger Games, the franchise which is presumably supposed to fill the hole left by the end of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, seems to be enjoying a more positive reception than Twilight, and rightly so, because it’s a vastly superior film. Directed by Gary Ross, it’s a good piece of dystopian sci-fi which deals with themes of friendship, love and loyalty in a way that isn’t patronising and which doesn’t shy away from the nastier elements of its subject matter.

Set after North America has been wholly transformed by civil war, the plot centres on 16 year old Katniss Everdeen. She ends up being entered for the Hunger Games, a battle to the death televised for the entertainment of the population. Each district in the country has to send one boy and one girl to the Games, and the victor is promised fame and wealth. The Games are held as a punishment and reminder of an uprising by the now-extinct 13th district. Katniss’ fellow representative from her district (the dirt-poor coal mining district 12 – they are very much the underdogs) is Peeta, a baker’s son who, perhaps unsurprisingly, quickly falls in love with Katniss. It is quickly clear to everyone that, while Peeta has little chance of winning (particularly against the ‘Careers’, a particularly ruthless group of contestants who are highly trained and expected to win), Katniss’ skills as an archer mean she is in with a strong chance.

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There’s a lot to like about the film. In terms of characterisation, we are very much focused on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. James Berardinelli notices ‘a role reversal… he’s a capable damsel in distress to Lawrence’s heroic knight errant.’ That is, it’s Katniss who does all the stereotypically male things; she fixes the problems, protects weak people and is the most competent and active member of the group. We can perhaps see the influence of Alien in this privileging of the female characters; it’s good to see that after Ripley and Buffy (and not Bella) it seems pretty normal to have a female take the lead in an action movie. And she does a very good job; Jennifer Lawrence got particular praise for her performance in the film.

But there is some depth to these characters, which is not always the case in films made for teens. Part of the nature of the Games is that competitors need to attract the support of sponsors who can help them in various ways; in order to attract such support, they need to make themselves likeable, and Peeta realises that one way to do this is to pretend that he and Katniss are a couple. Throughout the film, its unclear how sincerely they feel affection for each other; this is a love story too, but there is a little twist, a little darkness and ambiguity to it, which adds some depth and weight to the relationship.

Generically, the film is a hybrid – on one level it’s a teen drama with all the conventions in place. We view events from the point of view of a teenager with a troubled family background who is forced to move to a new place and an unfamiliar and difficult situation. (Both Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, probably the two best known teen dramas of recent years, work the same way.) We see Katniss struggle with issues of loyalty, family, love and responsibility. We see her grow up and learn to make difficult decisions more easily, to ‘play the game’, literally and metaphorically.

More interestingly, though, is the film’s status as a piece of dystopian sci-fi; a film which constructs a pessimistic view of the future. America as shown here is deeply divided, antagonistic and subject to the fascistic rule of a population by a privileged minority. Dystopian sci-fi is, arguably, not about fears for the future so much as it is a reflection of the present. Suzanne COllins, the author of the original books, said that she was inspired to write the stories by the experience of flicking between reality television shows and coverage of the war in Iraq. The confusion of reality and media fiction (perhaps related to Baudrillard’s ideas about simulacra), and the increasing wealth gap between the top and bottom levels of society, are all recognised as causes for some concern in contemporary society; it’s refreshing to see that the film does not shy away from the slightly more difficult aspects of its chosen genre, and that it doesn’t simply borrow the dystopian diegesis in order to communicate the very cliched platitudes about friendship and self-empowerment which so many films, particularly those for younger people, seem to be limited to.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, indeed, is the representation of class struggle and tension. The games are very much for the entertainment of an effete and pampered urban upper class who live in the Capitol and who are complicit in representing the chance to die for their entertainment as some sort of privilege. The rulers, as Roger Ebert points out, are ‘… painted in broad satire and bright colours. Katniss and the other tributes are seen in earth-toned realism’; it is clear that we are supposed to be contemptuous of these ridiculous, spoiled people, who often appear to be more like children than adults (a representation strongly influenced by HG Wells’  The Time Machine, a vision of the future wherein humanity has evolved into the childlike, useless Eloi and the brutal but effective Morlocks; that is, the upper and the lower classes.)

rulers

Powerful binary opposition is created between the rulers and the hardy, independent people of the other, rural, districts (this opposition between urban and rural lifestyles goes back to Shakespeare and further); yet, despite their silly fashions and seemingly superficial, effete ways, we see how ruthlessly they hold on to and exploit the means of production throughout the land. Ruling them is the sinister, misanthropic President Coriolanus Snow, and when we listen to his utter contempt for the participants in the Games and, by extension, for everyone in the country, we see how such divided societies are founded upon real contempt and inhumanity, and how working-class people are manipulated into actively working against their own best interests (a facet of class inequality and hegemony identified by Antonio Gramsci.)

President_Snow3

Katniss, perhaps, has the personal fortitude and magnetism to correct this; the most powerful moment in the film is when, having seen another of her peers die a bloody death, she makes a three-fingered salute, a mark of affection, strength and fellowship with those of her own class, at the camera, and in so doing starts a riot among those in her district who are watching her on television.

salute

This puts her in direct opposition to President Snow; the same powerful low-angle shots, the same militaristic behaviours and iconography, the same ability to command crowds. We are being set up for a huge struggle for dominance between these two people and all that they represent – old, male hegemony versus youthful, female rebellion. THis is absolutely the stuff for dystopian sci-fi; a genre which shows us visions of our possible futures and raises the idea of resistance to those futures.

So, a film which does about all you can ask for – one on level, a thrilling action film, and on another, a powerful example of dystopian sci-fi, complete with political subtext. By any standard, this is a good film, and it shows that fiction intended for young people can be sophisticated, layered and satisfying on a number of levels.