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Sculpting In Time- Tarkovsky’s Ritual Of Cinema

“Some sort of pressure must exist; the artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.”

The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, like that of various classic “auteur” film directors, is the type that does not necessarily filter through into the world of mainstream commercial success. Nor is it the type of thrill-based, expectational cinema that one excepts from an audience that needs to constantly be “wooed”.

If you are a first time viewer of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), and running on the excitement that would define a generic viewer of the Star Wars or Aliens franchise, then there is always the chance you may feel disappointed or misled by the drawn out, immersive aura of Tarkovsky’s cinema.

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As a response to the Soviet State Committee of Cinematographer telling him that the film was too slow and dull, the director amusingly responded that “the film needs to be slower and duller”.  In spite of how idealistic and lofty his aspirations were, we are still speaking of a director who had the following to say about James Cameron’s The Terminator;

“The brutality and low acting skills are unfortunate, but as a vision of the future and the relation between man and his destiny, the film is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art.”

Though he held a lofty and idealistic view of what he believed made his cinema, and that of those he admired (Bergman, Ozu, Bresson, Bunuel), it was clear that he could still grasp the depths of cinema that was more geared primarily towards entertainment that art. Yet for his own craft, he called it “sculpting in time”.

Whether this concerned the bleak, science-fiction otherworlds of Solaris and Stalker, the icons and epiphanies of Andrei Rublev and Nostalghia, or the non-linear, “autobiographical” Zerkalo (1975), Tarkovsky’s films are meticulously crafted pieces of work that demand a total yet singular attention to be appreciated fully.

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Japanese promotional poster for Andrei Rublev (1966)

If you’re born, raised and inculcated into a culture that encourages the “expectational” mindset that I have referred to, one of increasing technological immersion and addiction, and overt emphasis on extroversion, then Tarkovsky’s “advice” for the young certainly gives a good insight into his own inner world and thoughts. It also suggests how you also might best approach his films, as a solitary, ambient ritual;

“I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”

This type of value is one that largely lost on many within contemporary Western society, where introspection, contemplation a sense of looking inwardly is looked down on within a heavily mechanized zeitgeist. Tarkovsky said this at a time before digital technology had truly penetrated cinema, and the internet and social media were yet to even be commodified.

Solaris (1972)
Russian language promotional poster for Solaris, 1972

The statement that the Russian director made about Terminator was essentially a foreknowledge of these intense new developments that are now taken for granted. In an environment where restrictions bought about by the medical crisis of COVID-19 force people out of work and into greater social isolation, it is these very sentiments that Tarkovsky critiques which have been put to the test.

People who will forced out of work, or out of the “grind” of their daily routine will be left with more free time, and with a greater vacuum in their usual bustle of production and consumption, be forced to comprehend what life truly means to them. For many this may leave a void, a profoundly spiritually empty void.

On first viewing the movies of Tarkovsky some years ago, I felt that the best of my attention was spent primarily on the aesthetics of his films, particularly the mood and ambiance that was conveyed by his classic “long take” motifs. The use of classical music and ambient electronic scores by long term collaborator Eduard Artemiev also empowered this initial attraction to his work.

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Domiziana Giordano in 1983’s Nostalghia

Though I had found myself neglecting other and more fine details, this was more greatly refined by reading his seminal book on directing, “Sculpting In Time”. Whilst the lush, dreamy cinematography, choices of shots, choices of music and sound design most certainly give an “essence” to his filmography, these aspects don’t necessarily make them personable. Which brings us to how and for what purposes actors are used in his films, and how they might serve to further fulfill a sense of the “divination” in his work.

This is made quite explicit in his use of acting leads, particularly Anatoly Solonitsyn, who plays leading roles in Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker, and a smaller part in the director’s “biographical” Zerkalo. Were it not for his untimely death, Solonitsyn was also written in mind for the lead roles in Tarkovsky’s final two works, Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986). The placement of Solonitsyn by the director in his movies is a crystallization of the authors ideas, or the placement of his abstract ideas into a material, living form, whether the actor plays a medieval icon painter or a scientist.

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Andrei Tarkovsky on the set of 1979’s Stalker

For those new to Tarkovsky’s work, or vague on what his cinematic world is meant to highlight, then a more specific way to understand this relation is to use films you already know as a point of reference. For the writer of this article, David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), and the entire Twin Peaks franchise appear to use Kyle McLachlan as a more “youthful” embodiment of how the director wishes to see himself in his own cinematic universe.

It may be convenient to say that Tarkovsky worked with Solonitsyn similarly, though rather as a representation of an idea, rather than the projection of the artist as they wish to represent themselves on a screen. The director-actor partnership is nothing new to cinema, and to Tarkovsky and the seasoned viewer of his movies, then some of the partnerships of his favourite directors may act as more solid references.

The stoic, Nordic heroism that Max Von Sydow portrayed in movies such as The Seventh Seal (1957) or The Virgin Spring (1960) may seem the most conspicuous if we see this merely from the perspective of the Tarkovsky-Solonitsyn partnership. The use of actresses such as Setsuko Hara by Yazujiro Ozu, or actresses such Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman in the films of Ingmar Bergman also indicate how the female role in the cinema may be expressed.

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One of the most powerful scenes from Zerkalo (1975)

In doing this delicacies, sensualities and various psychological underpinnings associated with their manifestation can be expressed. This can all be tied back to how Tarkovsky works with female leads in his work. This can be said for Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari in Solaris and Margarita Terekhova as Maria, playing the “mother” role in Zerkalo (1975), where these characteristics are embodied and then played out.

Concluding, for those unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s work but with a deep interest and passion for cinema, purchasing a copy and reading the directors excellent book Sculpting In Time would be highly advised. It is here in which the artist states his intent for film as a means of composition and form, as well as the nature of his films and the objectives of how he wishes to create a new form of poetic language through the cinematic medium.

For those familiar who are still yearning to make sense of the dreamy, abstract narratives of his work, then it is this book that will ultimately help you make more rigid, structural sense of them. In addition to some wonderful personal insights and thoughts of his, as well as some beautiful illustration and the inclusion of the poems of his father Arseny, it can be used as an essential “footnotes” section to the vast wealth of his essential cinematic legacy.

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Andrei Tarkovsky with a miniature on the set of 1986’s Offret (The Sacrifice)

 

Film: Zardoz (1974)

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John Boorman filmed Zardoz on the back of the highly successfully Deliverance. On the back of great commercial and critical acclaim, the English director would film the movie on location within the mountains of County Wicklow in his country of residence, Ireland. Zardoz also stars Sean Connery in the lead role, who was keen to throw off the typecasting he’d acquired as the lead in the James Bond franchise. In spite of this high profile combination, no collaboration could be more odd, bizarre, and downright bewildering as what was committed to celluloid.

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The closest comparison to another film of this era would be Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. Both clearly have aesthetic nods to the post-hippie counterculture reflecting the zeitgeist of the time and deal with the concept of a journey as a greater metaphor. Where Jodorowsky’s work explores spiritual ascendancy and transcendence through alchemy among its main actors, then Boorman’s piece explores a Nietzschean noble savage foregoing the moral order, overcoming and smashing an effete, decadent and nihilistic elite that has been become aimless and corrupted in its physical immortality.

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Whereas both films are certainly abstract, Zardoz is altogether more confusing and difficult to make sense of. It is at times, hard to follow the plot due to a humour which permeates every scene, let alone Connery’s costume and personal affects, which are a steampunk twist on a medieval kitsch. Wielding a revolver pistol as opposed to a sword, red underpants and a pair of what look like cowboy boots, his character is befitting of a proto-Mad Max villain, but harking more to the camp of Flash Gordon than to the Australian Outback.

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The year is 2293. Humanity is stratified into extremes. The Brutals are a mortal caste, who make up the bulk of the population, subservient, fertilizing the barren wastelands. Zed (Sean Connery) is an ‘Exterminator’ among the Brutals. The Exterminators occasionally kill and massacre more passive, peasant-like Brutals. They do so in subservience to a giant floating godhead called Zardoz which gives the Brutals guns in exchange for the food they harvest.  The Eternals are the ruling caste. They are a secretive, bourgeoisie and cult-like elite that rules what is known of the world. They are also immortal, and hence they have lapsed into a vegetative, unproductive, sterile existence.

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As explained in the introduction, Zardoz is in reality overseen by an Eternal by Arthur Frayne, not so much a god, but a magician whose purpose on earth is to find a eugenic experiment among the Brutals who may bring about the decline of humanity’s stagnation, and restore death and rebirth to the Eternal realm. It is here where the role of Zed is of importance. His place in Boorman’s Zardoz is like that of Frank Herbert’s Paul Mua’dib in Dune, someone who is procured and prophesied by the Eternals, who act as a religious and political force comparable to the Bene Gesserit. Not too dissimilar to the psychic, eugenic all female caste of Dune, the Eternals maintain a exclusively top-down relationship with the Brutals that is a form of feudalism. The Brutal Exterminators are commanded by Zardoz to kill members of the general population to curb breeding and ensure that the mortal human population does not ascend into a way of life that is not barbaric.

In a scene where he boards the godhead, Zed slays it’s creator and navigator, Eternal Arthur Frayne (Niall Buggy), voyaging to The Vortex and is taken into captivity by two female Eternals Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and May (Sara Kestellman). Zed is made to work as a servant in their deathless dystopia, a matriarchal society akin to a hippie commune. It is one of leisurely indulgence as imagined in the works of Aldous Huxley, but devoid of sexuality and procreation. In an environment where immortality has been achieved on a material plane, impotence and catatonia are commonplace, and mortal outsider Zed becomes a strange curiosity to his captors. Whilst the Eternals are deathless, their society is not without stratification nor punishment for those who transgress within it. One caste, the Apathetics are those who have descended into a catatonic state, whilst another, the Renegades having broken codes and rules within the Vortex are condemned to artificial aging.

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We gradually learn that the relation between the the Brutals and the Eternals, through Zed’s quest is not as it seems. We find that on journeying into the Vortex and on discovering its secrets, that the immortality of the Eternals is protected by an artificial intelligence interface called the Tabernacle. To destroy the Tabernacle is to destroy what keeps the Eternals in their immortal yet stagnant state. In a scene in which Zed implores the Exterminators to overwhelm the Vortex and slay many of the Eternals we see the latter welcoming their annihilation, or for the female Eternals their insemination at the expense of granting the Brutals their knowledge, and hence civilization all of man. A poignant closing scene shows Consuella, Zed’s initial captor giving birth to a baby boy, who grows gradually into manhood through a series of fades as Zed and Consuella age and wither away.

Zardoz is initially hard to take seriously. It has aged immensely and is at times aesthetically juxtaposed. The deep themes that are explored are at times overwhelmed by sheer hilarity. On first impressions hearing the stone head of Zardoz exclaim “the penis is evil…..the penis shoots seeds” may just come across as amusing, even though it is meant to highlight the Malthusian, anti-natalist theocratic creed that forms the power relation between the Eternals and the Brutals. Though it appears that Zardoz was not intended as a comedy, it is very easy to interpret it as such. The ideas explored are indeed clever, but at times feel off balance or lacking a central grip, and make for a genuinely quirky and trippy experience.

John Boorman made this movie when trying to write an aborted take on J.R.R. Tolkiens Lord Of The Rings. At times one could easily imagine that the abstract concepts he developed here were loose takes on characterizations of Middle-Earth, but seen through a stoned, post-apocalyptic lens. As far as John Boorman’s work goes, Zardoz may be compared to his surreal, psychological neo-noir film Point Blank, though as a genre film it straddles between science fiction and a form of high fantasy, the latter genre of which is fully transitioned to by the time director put out 1981’s atmospheric epic Excalibur (1981). For whatever flaws it may have, Zardoz is a cult gem worthy of anyone’s time, and a fascinating take on the themes of death, rebirth, mortality and fate. Or in the word’s of the character Arthur Frayn, full of mystery and intrigue, rich in irony and most satirical.

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David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” As An Examination Of Evil

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David Lynch’s 1986 cult classic Blue Velvet is arguably the first film in his body of work that fully affirms what are now classic Lynchian tropes. These often occur within nostalgic, dreamlike settings which seem idyllic but cover a seedy underbelly, one that entices the intrigue and speculation of the films protagonist. It is one where a state of harmony and perfection is breached when the protagonist crosses a boundary into darkness, uncertainty and danger where evil consistently lurks. Violence and sexuality, as evidenced here, serve as gateways into this portal.

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In the case of Blue Velvet, this idyllic world is represented in the lush, picket fenced suburbs of Lumberton, North Carolina, a world romanticized in the ideals of Ronald Reagan’s America and permeated by the comfortable post-war years experienced by many in the post-World War II baby boomer generation. Amidst the score of Lynch’s long-time collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, this nostalgia is further embellished with the use of the songs “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, and “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison.

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Fitting the genre of neo-noir, the narrative explores the misadventures of young Jeffrey Beaumount (Kyle McLachlan), who on discovering a human ear in a field, proceeds to investigate the case independently with an acquaintance, police detective’s daughter Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). The subsequent investigation, its plot twists and grueling subject matter lead Jeffrey further into the world of disturbed nightclub singer Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rosellini) and psychopathic sex criminal Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

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What begins as eavesdropping on Valens apartment whilst pretending to be a pest control man becomes an entanglement in a twisted son-mother Oedipal sexual relationship between the two. Valens is also involved in an abusive sadomasochistic relationship with Frank Booth, who eerily interchanges between the role of a submissive son and a violent father, his schizoid outbursts accentuated by breathing into an oxygen mask.

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McLachlan’s clean-cut, youthful, investigative character could easily pass for a college student precursor to the more mature Agent Dale Cooper, who McLachlan later portrays in the Lynch directed series Twin Peaks. Hopper’s legendary performance, whilst transgressive and pushing the boundaries of good taste has a twisted deviance that is partly Lynch’s originality, yet has all the classic traces of the villains played by Robert Mitchum in 1955’s Night Of The Hunter and 1962’s Cape Fear. Rosselini gives a stunning performance as tortured, visceral femme fatale Dorothy Valens, her role aestheticizing the perverse beauty and darkness inherent to the themes that are explored.

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As part of a plot in which the heroic protagonist descends further into an abyss, Jeffrey’s soon to be romantic love interest Sandy prophesies a dream in which robins descend from the sky to consume the insects that have overran the earth. Not only does this hierophany suggest an eventual triumph of light over darkness, it compliments a motif that defines the beginning and the end of Blue Velvet, in which a descending zoom shot takes us from the glistening utopia of green grass of a garden lawn to a hellish colony of bugs that nest underneath.

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Even something as implicit as Jeffrey posing as a pest controller can be interpreted as someone who comes to confront evil within the film. A zoom shot into the canal of the discarded ear that Jeffrey finds symbolizes the protagonist’s immersion into Lumberton’s wicked maelstrom, later zooming out in reverse to symbolize his emergence from his dangerous ordeals. A robin devours a bug towards the films conclusion, rekindling Sandy’s dream and affirming the triumph of love over evil.

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Whilst 1977’s Eraserhead introduced us to many of the facades of the Lynchian world; a Kafka inspired nightmare world of blurred realities, layers of consciousness and subconsciousness and the interchanging of psychic realms, his next two feature films, 1980’s The Elephant Man and 1984’s Dune were only Lynchian so far as he directed them. Whilst there are undoubtedly touches of his quirks, oddities and aesthetics, they do not do much to further animate the wider conceptual frameworks that are explored in later work he would direct. This becomes truly foundational in Blue Velvet, and later goes on to taint later works, such as Twin Peaks, Wild At Heart, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

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Blue Velvet is ultimately a movie that carries concepts that Eraserhead left of at, cultivating a more accessible, real yet spiritually dark, violent, voyeuristic and erotic insight into the mythos of the American Dream. This is consistently reexamined and explored in different guises throughout Lynch’s career, and this is a great starting point for anyone wanting to familiarize themselves with his films.

 

 

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Film: The Lighthouse (2019)

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A noticeable aesthetic of Robert Egger’s latest effort, The Lighthouse is the poignant clarity of black and white, and a beautiful use of lighting within a dark, cold and hostile landscape. On first impressions this is quite similar to the films of Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr (Sátántangó, A Turin Horse, Damnation), but rather than being slow and drawn out, there is a more conventional narrative pace comparable to the dramas of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona). One could say that due to its barren maritime setting and general downbeat aura, that Andrey Zyvagintsev’s Leviathan is also a valid reference point, whilst it’s occult factor runs parallel with John Carpenter’s The Fog.

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An atmospheric work that falls within the folk horror genre, The Lighthouse is loosely based on an unfinished Edgar Allen Poe tale of a similar name. Periodically, the film is consistent with the setting of the New England of the 1800’s. The characters speak in dialects closer to colloquial forms of British English, rather than a generic American English. The narrative deals with a young contracted lighthouse keeper Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), his irritable old supervisor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and their adversarial relationship. Amidst this toxic and storm-ridden landscape emerges a foreboding narrative of dark apparitions, grueling labour, alcoholism, paranoid delusions, self-abuse, a sickening synthesis of dead flesh, tentacles and “Promethean” fate.

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The Lighthouse is unique in that it is American, periodic and fabled, but strays from cliches. It hardly portrays the America that actor John Wayne embodied, and Robert Egger’s style of film-making has something in common with the philosophical explorations of fellow countryman Terence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line, The Tree Of Life). There is a display of folkloric, pastoral superstition that owes far more to the townspeople of Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man than it does the malevolent backwoods rednecks of Deliverance and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Whilst it is clearly a work that draws from various literary and mythical influences, it distinctly refrains from any nuances of politicization, and any sort of “morality” that the film might contain draws itself from these more archaic reference points. Amidst the darkness and misery that defines the turbulent relationship of the two protagonists is an interplay of dark humor and ribaldry, with which both Dafoe and Pattinson give strong performances in an excellent film.

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Repo Man- Otto Maddox & The Search For The ‘Transcendent’

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1984’s Repo Man is a great cult film on many levels. An oddball mixture of science fiction, comedy and car chase thriller, it’s set amidst the cultural backdrop of the punk and hardcore music that formed part and parcel of the largely white, suburban youth experience of early 80’s America. Aesthetically it can be seen as a perfect companion to the punk-teen rebellion classic ‘Suburbia’, with a much more ‘out there’ plot and a greater sheen of professionalism.

Otto Maddox, the central character of the film, played by Emilio Estevez gets fired from his shitty shelf stacking job in a supermarket in Los Angeles. At a party, his best friend who has just got released from jail ends up fucking his girlfriend. Betrayed and broke, he strolls out of the venue, singing along to the lyrics of “T.V. Party” by Black Flag before walking home. Enter the eternal old man bit part king that is Harry Dean Stanton, his character Bud, and the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation…repo_man

Initially responding with “fuck you, queer!!!” to an offer of 25 dollars, Otto wrongly assumes that Bud takes him for a rent boy. In fact he wants him to go and drive a car out the neighborhood. On  taking it back to a depot, having being fooled into thinking it was a mere errand, Otto has just repossessed a car. Initially reluctant to the sleazy, cut throat environment of the business, that starts to null when offered a large wad of cash. He’s hired, and what’s more, his pothead hippie parents have blown all of his school leaving money on shipping Bibles to El Salvador…

“The life of a Repo Man is always intense” exclaims Bud, amidst the thrill of car chases, hotwiring cars, driving through shitty neighborhoods, good money, brushes with near death, being beaten to a pulp and snorting lines of speed. Life has acquired a new sense of fire and vigour, new meaning and learning curves, riding the tiger. In the plot of Repo Man, these concepts need a means to an end. Enter the radioactive waste emitting 1964 Chevy Malibu…repo-man-beer-spilling

Said car, otherwise of low value has a bounty of $20,000 attached to it, initially thought to have narcotics in the boot, now assumed to have the bodies of aliens inside, rendered hazardous by the radioactivity. Brought on by his tryst with a girl, Leila, who works for the United Fruitcake Outlet (UFO) the bounty culminates in a pursuit which involves Helping Hand’s repo rivals, the antagonistic Rodriguez Brothers, the UFO scientists, government agents, and even the televangelist Otto’s parents sent his grant money to.

In an iconic concluding scene, the Chevy Malibu, which is now glowing green from the radiation detracts or sets fire to anyone who tries to come close to it, with the exception of the oddball junkyard mechanic Miller, and Otto, who eagerly follows him into the front of the car. Rejecting the pleas of his love interest Leila and her ensuing insults, the car takes to the LA skyline and into the great beyond.

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It’s a culmination to something that Repo Man embodies, and is crystallized in its lead character. Amidst the emptiness that comes from a lack of direction, from the mediocrity of the everyday, the tyranny of being a cog in the wheel, and the risks that come from transgressing its conditions and rules, is something that celebrates the pursuit of the unknown, of reward from danger amidst uncertainty as an alternative to a future of suffocating safety.

It should serve as a model and a metaphor; the will to do something can always end in an action, and in Repo Man’s Otto Maddox these actions become immediate adaptations to new circumstances that occur on a whim, in a classically ‘ride the tiger’ sense. Whilst a plot to a film is certainly not “the story of ones life”, its cues can always serve as valid reference points. Behind a seemingly ‘goofy’ film lies a critical and transcendent masterpiece about overcoming that should be viewed in the way many critics see late 90’s classics such as ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American Beauty’.

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I always think positively of Repo Man, and a past of dead-end self doubt, knowing full well of one’s sense of difference but lacking the sense of confidence to act on that, but forcing it on myself, in the way of physical fitness as merely one example. It’s a poignant tribute to a will to power, to find and hunt down subtleties within you that for all you know, or didn’t know, might be untapped and worthy of exertion.

I don’t want to come across as some sort of cringeworthy positive live goals hashtag guru, far from it, but I think little pushes and tweaks can always help test a select few who’ve been conditioned into browbeating themselves into victimhood, to test these constraints and gradually overcome that ‘state of nature’. I’d challenge anyone to watch Repo Man and then find something that tests their own comfort zone, within the real world, within the area of self-improvement, and act out on it.

 

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Film- Zodiac (2007)

 

David Finchner’s 2007 film takes inspiration from the Robert Graysmith book of the same title. Zodiac explores the phenomena of the anonymous and unknown serial killer who terrorized California through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The case , the documentation, the media blitz and the meticulous intelligence by which the killer operates is not only a matter of cult interest, but retains a significant influence in the wider American popular culture.

Jake Gylenhaal plays Graysmith, who works for the San Fransciso Chronicle as a cartoonist, whilst Robert Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, a more senior colleague and crime reporter at the publication. Their intrigue towards the case is brought on by the delivery of cryptogram letters from the Zodiac killer, whilst Dave Toschi, who leads the SFPD’s manhunt in the case, is played by Mark Ruffalo.

As the killer takes more lives and his elusiveness plays to his advantage, the dismay of the police and the media become more apparent. The narrative portrays the moral panics that the Californian public of the age subjected themselves too, the investigators consistently failing to find a means to an end. Graysmith’s aptitude for puzzle solving leads to the unlocking of obscure cryptograms that detail the killer’s apparent motive and philosophy, whilst Avery is troubled by a personal threat by the Zodiac, amidst his cocaine and alcohol abuse. Toschi’s subsequent investigations gain no hard evidence to suggest the certainty of the killer’s identity. As a full decade passes by, only Graysmith is left to pursue clues and hints against the will of a disinterested SFPD.

In aesthetics the counterculture of the late hippie era lurks within the background but never surfaces within the individual characters. Using popular music of the time as the main bulk of the soundtrack, it provides a distant backdrop which manages to give a dark juxtaposition to the general eeriness and violence with which the Zodiac killer conducts his murders, whilst intentionally hoaxing and misleading both the investigators and the media.

Unlike many films that emerge from Hollywood, there is an excellent balance between the qualities of the film’s direction, production, and the actual performances of ‘big name’ lead actors, which are successfully weighed in with the content, mood and general atmosphere of suspense that Finchner cultivates. Clearly the product of a large budget, it is still easy to distinguish an obvious sense of quality control.

Refreshing here is that Zodiac is also a mainstream film that manages to tackle the subject of the very American ‘serial killer culture’ and make something quite esoteric from it. It is the very anonymity of the actual killer who no one can truly know that embellishes and enriches the narrative of the film. This very sense of mystery, the aura of the unknown, predatory assailant is a theme that Finchner clearly re-uses to his advantage, having explored this with the 1995 neo-noir masterpiece ‘Se7en’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Film: ‘Calvary’ As A Critique Of Irish Society

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Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a likable, down to earth ‘good priest’. The film opens with a scene at a confession booth, where an anonymous parishioner details disturbingly the sexual abuse inflicted on him by a priest as a child. The parishioner tells Father James that he will kill him the next Sunday. His reason being that it would a greater loss for the Church to lose a good clergyman than a bad one.

Working chronologically, day-by-day, ‘Calvary’ focuses primarily on the central character. Throughout, he gives his energy trying to offer counsel and help to his parishioners, whom we find out immediately are quite troubled and conflicted.

The local butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O Dowd) is supposedly beating his adulterous wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), who is in turn having an affair with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), an Ivorian car mechanic. The butcher is seemingly tolerant of this, and his wife is lustful, depraved, insatiable, dysfunctional, selfish, her principles based solely on impulses.  She makes crude attempts to seduce Father James himself, through pseudo-sexualised, sadomasochistic allusions to kneeling, prostration and submission.

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Bishop Garret Montgomery (David MacSavage) answers the concerns of Father Lavelle with oblivion. Clarifying that the position of the Church on confession is not synonymous with that of the greater legal system, he is devoid of genuine advice as to whether James should contact the police. Father Leary (David Wilmot), with whom Father James shares the parochial house is not tyrannically corrupt, but he is quite cowardly, the type that would turn a blind eye to avoid a tense scenario.

Fiona (Kelly Reilly) is the daughter of James. She has a history of self harm and suicide attempts. Her presence in Calvary is one that offers a barrier of warmth amidst the coldness and darkness that surrounds him. Though this facade is only another conduit for the scorn of locals, who use it as an excuse to find loopholes in the decency and honesty of a man whose former life was not one of the cloth.

Micheal Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a wealthy man. He is concerned only for commodities and possessions, and mocking towards Father James. His wife and kids have left him. His condescending vindication of Father James vocation contradicts his own role in modern Ireland’s financial woes. We are given the idea that he is a financier or usurer of some sort. He urinates on a painting whilst drunk in front of the priest, only to later to weep and seek absolution from him. He is the closest of the secondary characters to have any nuance of humility in him.

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Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) is the ‘atheist doctor’. In a climate where there is much angst towards the Catholic Church for abuses under its name, it is here where we’d expect moral justification to arise most vehemently. Instead what we see is a sociopathic, sleazy, passive-aggressive, amoral creature who treats his cadavers as one might treat a scrapheap.

A sociopathic young killer Freddie Joyce (played by Gleeson’s son Domnhall) tries to convince Father Lavelle in quite shallow terms that he is remorseful for his murder of a young woman. This explicates a clear moral threshold in the virtues of the central character, ones which divert from official doctrines, and simply abide to a common gut feeling of ‘what’s right’, when ‘enough is enough’.

Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) offers Father James a gun. He is a homosexual, but his inclinations are restrained, leaving us to question whether his character may or not have been a subject of abuse as a youngster. On the other hand, Leo, a rent boy and drama queen to boot, has all the obvious signs of an abuse victim, yet appears so institutionalized in his very promiscuity, that he seems not to care.

To paraphrase a recent observation, Father James ‘carries the weight of the world’. His institution, as a result of its wrongdoings, has had its name dragged through the dirt, yet the society he tries to work for the greater good of, spits in the face of his sense of virtue. The film also offers a strong insight into his own sense of purpose, and does not shy to examine his own sense of contradiction and character flaws. This is especially significant in regards to where he places his sense of empathy, on both personal terms, and in the greater scheme of things.

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The use of religion is relevant, as this conduit of ridicule was once something that many of the characters would have prostrated to without question. Here were the very people who made them powerful in the first place, now considering themselves utterly blameless. The state of a society can be judged by the people in it, and ‘Calvary’ makes a good, blackly comedic observation of that. From the scheming of ‘gombeen men’ who wish to make quick gains at the expense of communities, there is the degenerative malevolence of the small-town culchies, who attempt to belittle and smear the virtues of lone wolves. It shows a greater picture of a society in decline and denial, as opposed to a widely accepted ‘post-Catholic’ narrative of evil being spawned from one source, and nowhere more than that.

My only critique of ‘Calvary’ lies with the cinematography, which exposes us to the beautiful yet foreboding and windswept landscapes of County Sligo. It never goes far enough to cultivate any greater atmosphere from this, and gives all of its power to the scripting and dialogue, which are the most pertinent strengths of the film. In what is a very bleak piece, with little optimism to offer, and purposefully so, it would have been interesting to imagine bleak, brooding, slow shots in the style of a Béla Tarr film, though this would perhaps detract from the greater focal points.

In order to get a better context of the qualities of this film, it should be made clear that along with its ‘realist’ angle, the writing and scripting is heavily tinged with bitter, dark humour that goes beyond the threshold of ‘laugh out loud’ and becomes inseparable from the dark, cynical subject matter that is dealt with. Many of those critical of ‘Calvary’ suggest that the secondary characters in the narrative are highly generalized and are a ‘straw man’ portrait’ of modern day Irish mentalities. They fail to consider the ‘black comedy’ angle that is in part satirizing, and also genuinely reflecting the crooked spinelessness that is a visible trend in Ireland.

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Film- Threads (1984)

Threads Australian BBC Video VHS

One of the most bleak and accurate ‘what if’ films ever to be brought to a screen, ‘Threads’ was originally made and broadcast for British television in the early 80’s. This was at a time when tensions in the Cold War were still high, and subsequently played onto the fears of the various generations who lived through it, most particularly, the threat of nuclear conflict.

The setting and the premise of the film however is one of alternative fiction. Directed by Mick Jackson, and written/scripted by Barry Hines (who wrote the novel that would become the 1969 film ‘Kes’), the film is set largely within the English city of Sheffield.

The plot and narrative begins rather subtly, as the everyday kitchen sink drama of two local families is chronologically interspersed with news bulletins, radio reports and broadcasts detailing tensions and diplomatic friction between US led NATO and the USSR led Warsaw Pact in the wake of a supposedly American backed coup d’etat in Iran.

As this tension builds up, developments indicate only a further dissolution into armed conflict, all whilst a young Sheffield couple, expecting a child decide to take up a new home. With critical mass still seemingly distant at home, people attend their allotments, drink in the pubs, go to work and buy groceries seemingly oblivious to consequence.

vlcsnap-2014-01-04-18h53m12s195As the news broadcasts continue to report ever escalating crisis, the otherwise passive attitude of the main characters starts to gradually deviate, and when it becomes clear that a greater conflict would have a more worldly effect, people start to eventually pay attention.

While a state of emergency is yet to be declared, people stock up on supplies, food prices escalate, air and rail travel becomes state regulated, potential local decentralized government is proposed, and protestors begin to mobilize in anticipation of the worst.

When the reports finally confirm that both superpowers have locked horns, a state of emergency is confirmed at home. The rioting and looting anticipates a tightening grip in authority. Roads are closed, civilian travel is restricted, civil disobedience is rigorously cracked down on, emergency broadcasts and safety procedures dominate the airwaves.

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Owing to the ‘realist’ emphasis, the use of colloquial dialects in the actors, the relatively normal and down-to earth characters, and the ability to correlate the atmosphere of moral panic with this helps make ‘Threads’ all the more believable, bleak, and within the inevitable collapse it portrays, utterly soul-destroying.

Over the course of the second half of the film, we find services ill-equipped to deal with the fallout, nuclear winter, human loss, food shortages, ecological destruction, and mass epidemics that came with the drop of the bomb. The remaining human world is one devoid of joy, hope or any of the relative comforts of its previous existence, gradually regressing towards a primal state as its sole means to living is simply to exist and to scavenge.

When a ‘recovery’ does begin, it is a painfully slow one. The human population declines to medieval levels, electricity and running water function on a basic minimum, and food has become the sole economy. The generation of youth born since the nuclear winter have stunted literacy, speaking a barely decipherable, Pidgin-like English, reduced to acts of looting, theft and rape.

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The culmination of the apocalyptic in this masterpiece to me at least reminds me of Elem Klimov’s ‘Come And See’ (1985) and George A. Romero’s ‘Day Of The Dead’ (1985). It has the stark and harsh qualities of the former, as well as the cataclysmic  gruesomeness of the latter, sans the saccharine, Americanized plot and character structure.

In its quite harrowing and very genuine portrayal, ‘Threads’ is literally horror in the truest sense. There are no heroes, and the documentary style narrative helps punctuate the despair and helplessness even further. There is a lingering ‘political’ message in this film, but thankfully, it’s not overly preachy.

In its foreboding, it is no surprise that this film gave fright to quite a lot of people when first broadcast. For those with an enthusiasm towards the theme of mass death and annihilation, ‘Threads’ is celluloid quintessence.

Film- Rivers Edge (1986)

Rivers-edge-posterRiver’s Edge was released to the public in 1986, and was directed by Tim Hunter. An insightful work, it is both youthful, yet sharp and graphic.

The plot circulates around a clique of high school metalheads, led by Layne (Crispin Glover) and Matt (Keanu Reeves), who spend much of their time driving around their neighbourhood, drinking beer, smoking pot, spending time in arcades, and being a general nuisance.

This takes an unpleasant twist when one of their friends, John (Daniel Roebuck) murders his girlfriend, bragging about it then showing her corpse to his friends.

The film throughout deals with the conflicting approaches of each character, with Glover’s character protective, emotive and wanting to throw the murder under the carpet. Reeves, in contrast seems to display empathy and concern.

Whilst this plot acts as a functional narrative to ‘River’s Edge’, the film should be seen as a commentary on the apathy, nihilism and destructive tendencies within a lost youth.

This especially conveys itself with the character of John, constantly oblivious to his actions, and the younger brother of Matt, the cold, vindictive Tim (Joshua John Miller), whose broken home gives him a desire to emulate his older peers, and even be driven towards homicidal impulses. Feck (Dennis Hopper) appears as a crazed, reclusive, blow-up doll attached drug dealer to whom many of the cast are clients, acting as a gel that holds the films integral plot together.

Very much a product of the 1980’s, in terms of its aesthetic and its countercultural depiction, it depicts a ‘coming of age’ backdrop that fits a context similar to the 1980’s high school films of John Hughes, such as ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and ‘The Breakfast Club’. On the surface however is a bleakness and a dysfunctional cynicism that predetermines the likes of ‘Kids’ by Larry Clark and ‘Gummo’ by Harmony Korine.rivers-edge-1986

This sense of hopelessness, and all morality deserted comes in many scenes, one of which at the beginning, sees the character of Tim throw a doll off a bridge into the river, after which he sees John in the distance, and the dead corpse of his girlfriend. It sets the tone of a film that is both engaging, yet dismal in what it portrays.

Another prominent scene set within a classroom shows a teacher, the liberal Mr. Burkewaite (Jim Metzler) speaking of the anti-war demonstrations and the student protests in the 60’s he was a part of fall on deaf, uncaring ears.

This hints at and symbolizes what might have sown the seeds of ruin, as if to say that for all the effort, the flower power movement, or the strife of ‘the previous generation’ only served to alienate and further the dissonance of youth, as is portrayed throughout the movie.

The soundtrack consists of songs by metal bands such as Slayer, Fate’s Warning and Hallows Eve, and gives River’s Edge a raw, free-spirited feel that does for the film what punk and hardcore did for Alex Cox’s ‘Repo Man’.feck

This film, whilst it has maybe dated a little, and would be deemed ‘imperfect’ by the standards of Hollywood, remains endearing, and is a cult classic, critical and darkly realistic.