19/11/2017

Dangal - It's Who You Fight For

Thoughts On: Dangal (Wrestling Competition, 2016)

Unable to fulfil his own dreams of winning a gold medal for his country, a father attempts to turn his daughters into world-class wrestlers.


Dangal is a sensational sports epic grounded in emotional enormity. Following an ex-wrestlter, Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trains his two daughters, Geeta and Babita, to be wrestling champions, this is a loose biopic of the Phogat family. The Phogat sisters, of which there are six, are famous throughout India as wrestling champions at various levels of achievement. However, following the oldest sister, Dangal is less a biopic of the whole family and more of a sports drama about a rather confined father-daughter relationship.

Whilst this film is almost completely faultless, critique can be made on the way in which this 'biopic' is framed. Instead of depicting the whole family, or even just the two eldest as is intermittently implied throughout, Dangal has some peripheral discord about it. In such, anyone who has siblings or children will instantly sense a strong sentiment of favouritism both in the characterisation of the main figures and in the framing of the narrative. Unfortunately, this leaves you with a subtle sense of disappointment when you realised that the second oldest sister is just as accomplished as her older sibling. And, whilst this only manifests itself throughout the narrative in the form of curiosity - in wanting to know more about the younger sister - with the end, it certainly feels like we are cheated out of a fuller, fairer story.

Looking past these ethical issues of structure and framing, it is, however, very hard to critique Dangal from a technical and experiential perspective. Whilst it is possible to point to the obviously Disney-fied and clearly constructed story, I struggle to see that kind of critique as particularly relevant or pertinent.

Formula is certainly the sport-drama's friend. If we look the most iconic examples of the genre - the Rocky and Karate Kid films - we see that they work very comfortably within the realms of predictability. We do find sports-dramas that operate outside of these bounds, Million Dollar Baby and The Wrestler for example, but they're structured as straight dramas with sports as a side-note. This begins to imply the fact that sport-dramas are very much so like adventures; we all know how they must go, and thus predictability is a key convention, leaving the art of the adventure to be its framing, world building a character population. When films attempt to subvert traditional structures of sport-dramas, they then cease to signify the genre - and such is true of adventure films; just sending a character out into the world isn't really enough to qualify an 'adventure film'. In fact, we can understand the sport-drama to be a microcosm of the adventure. Classical adventures follow the hero's journey structure of the departure, the initiation and the return. There are further substructures of this narrative form, and their specification will lead us down a rabbit hole of debate, so we won't go into them. However, when adventure films, much like sport-dramas, function and feel as if they fit into these genres - not others - then this is what they follow; a birth, death and then a re-birth of the classical hero.

Dangal, much like Rocky, much like The Karate Kid, follows this structure, but with a specific emphasis. Better than any of the Karate Kid films, Dangal embodies an idea of reason. And thus the student-mentor relationship in this narrative is so much stronger than that between Miyagi and any of his students. Completely understanding both the structure of a sport-drama and the reason why they work, director Tiwari focuses his narrative on the theme of greater purpose. In such, watching Dangal, it is understood that this is not about a series of wrestling matches. Instead, this is about one woman representing herself, her father, her family, her town, her country and young girls across India and South-East Asia. All sport-dramas capitalise on this to different degrees. So, whilst Dangal is only a few notches below showing one person fight for the whole of humanity, a film such as Rocky is centred on a much tighter family circle. However, almost as evocative and power as the best of the Rocky films, Dangal uses this relationship between the individual and the greater collective to project, without falter, an idea of "It's who you fight for". Some shy away from, or dislike, this kind of narrative as it brings with it a heavy sense of national and personal pride, but there is no real malice or contempt that finds its way into this narrative, just emphatic rejoice.

To conclude, Dangal is such a powerful movie thanks to Aamir Khan's phenomenal embodiment of the anti-hero father and coach, glistening comedy, strong verisimilitude, perfect structuring, a focused script and some text-book direction. Whilst there was a controversy surrounding this movie concerning Khan and his sense of nationhood when it first came out, Dangal is an incredible film whose virtues are deeply embedded in national and familial pride. This is not a movie that anyone should be missing. To end, have you seen Dangal? What are your thoughts?






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End Of The Week Shorts #32

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End Of The Week Shorts #32



Today's shorts: Dimensions Of Dialogue (1983), My Life As A Zucchini (2016), This Is Not A Film (2011), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), Xala (1975), A Prophet (2009), The Waterboy (1998), Cars 3 (207), Kahaani (2012), The Happening (2008)



Dimensions of Dialogue is a thoroughly ingenious, incredibly impressive stop-motion short. 
Beyond being a mesmerising spectacle of stop-motion, this is an abstract depiction of devolution in communication. Part one, eternal conversation, seems to show the conquering of an opinion; part two, passionate discourse, shows the problematic fruits of interaction which can lead to conflict; part three, exhaustive discussion, seems to be a debate that compares apples to oranges. There then seems a clear allegory drawn by Czech director, Jan Švankmajer, concerning his own socialist state - which would have been somewhat common during and following the Czech New Wave (which includes films such as Daisies and The Firemen's Ball). 
At whatever level of complexity you choose to see this film at, I highly recommend it.



My Life as a Zucchini is a solid piece of stop-motion animation. With an array of pleasant characters, smooth pacing and some sublime moments of cinematography and craft, this is very easy to sink into and enjoy. The only downfalls of this film are a few cheesy or slightly contrived moments. Whilst it has to be noted on this point that I watched the English dubbed version, the structure of this film is very clearly meant to evoke many emotions. 
Unfortunately, I can't say that My Life as a Zucchini, for all its attempts at emotional engagement, achieves much in this regard; having seen Mary and Max, it's hard to taken aback by the serious sides of this picture. Nonetheless, this is a warm film executed very well. If you're into stop-motion animation, this is worth the watch.



This Is Not A Film is a day-in-the-life documentary that follows Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who is under house arrest and is awaiting a verdict on his court case that could potentially have him imprisoned for 6 years and banned from making films for 20 years. Unable to shoot his scripts, Panahi hangs out with his pet Iguana, attempts to recreate scenes from his most recent screenplay and pesters his friend and a passerby into being apart of his "non-film". Everything that he shot was smuggled into the Cannes film festival and got Panahi international recognition that lead to filmmakers across the world protesting his persecution.
This Is Not A Film, whilst it is, on one level, just a whimsical and pleasant video diary, is a subdued, yet powerful statement on art and freedom that, without any direct words, says much about the Iranian political climate. Highly recommended.



Romantic comedies do not get much better than this. The Prince and the Showgirl is a film that is as much abut love and sentimentality as it is the preciousness of a well-structured romance. Building upon archetypes and tropes, this film then hits all the beats you'd expect, but with expression and grace that cannot be expressed in words. And thus this is a pure film, one that can only really be seen. 
Though Olivier directs and performs brilliantly, this is a Monroe movie. Like few the actors/actresses that have ever been, and better than almost all who have ever managed to become, Monroe is the voice, crux and de facto auteur of her best films - and this couldn't be more true with The Prince and the Showgirl. For all the cinematic magic you could hope for, this one is well worth the watch and a personal favourite.



As with Black Girl, Sembène explores European influence as a catalyst for corruption and conflict in post-colonial Africa with Xala. Following a corrupt business man who, under the ruse of sparking independence, sides with Europeans and exploits impoverished and disabled African citizens, Xala is a satirical film about being a real man. Using impotence as a euphemism for personal short comings and greed, there is then a strong sense of fate and justice present throughout this narrative - as, of course, impose by Sembène and his politics. 
Unfortunately, whilst this is a well-constructed film, I found it dry and very boring. In essence, Xala failed to captivate me in any way and so I had to struggle through, and don't feel much the better for it.



A Prophet is a truly tremendous gangster film that follows the rise of a French-Arab man of Algerian descent in a Parisian prison system. Clearly intended to be reflective of French cultural and historical tensions - much like De Palma's Scarface was for America - with allusions to ethnic conflict and an immigrant's struggle, A Prophet is packed with constant questions of place and loyalty. It is the perfect management of this subtextual conflict that gives so much power to the narrative and provides such a complex, yet compelling, anti-hero. The only short-comings of this narrative are its loose references to religion. In places they make sense, but this motif doesn't build to anything particularly substantial - at least, it didn't strike me as such on this first watch. 
Nonetheless, A Prophet is an incredible film that is technically faultless and imbued with subtle, unapologetic beauty.



Waterboy is about as stupid as a movie can get whilst still being watchable. 
I can't deny that that this makes me laugh. The jokes shouldn't work, the acting is horrific, the writing is ridiculous and without any sense of wit or brains - and in regards to the technical aspects... nothing really needs to be said here. Following a time-tested narrative formula without any risk, what Waterboy manages to achieve - as many of Sandler's best movies do - is to pull you into a world of silliness. It's then through the transparently stupid writing that all standards are dropped and you feel yourself inebriated by Sandler's approach to comedy. In one sense, watching Waterboy makes you feel like you've dropped a few I.Q points, in another, it just makes you feel human. Good, dumb fun.



It's impressive to see how shameless Disney (and Pixar more increasingly) can be. Whilst we all know them for their best work, it's probably for the best we remember the huge pile of dog shit that they've built up over time (especially on T.V and sent direct to video/DVD in regards to Disney). 
Alas, Cars 3 isn't on the dog shit pile. Structurally and aesthetically, this is a solid movie; there are even moments and shots sprinkled throughout that struck me as genuinely brilliant. However, in terms of character and dialogue, this is a very shaky movie. Imbued with just a bit too much sentimentality, this narrative provides very direct and unambiguous commentary on what it means to pass on a baton. And whilst this is done pretty well, the means through which this is done is very contrived and often too derivative to take to heart. So, seen as a family movie and with low expectations, there's ultimately not too much to complain about here.



Kahaani (or Story) has got to be one of the greatest crime thrillers I've ever seen. Following a pregnant woman in search of her lost husband, this film explores motherhood as almost a force of nature whilst putting to the screen one of the most genuine "role reversals" (I would suggest that this narrative is far above that) ever conceived of. With numerous perfectly constructed characters and some truly gorgeous cinematography, Kahaani brings you into this narrative construction masterfully, engaging you in the plot and character conflicts to levels that continually deepen. 
The only elements holding this film back are small moments in which the soundtrack becomes too invasive, the editing too audacious and the action too contrived. Beyond this, I have to say it again: one of the greatest, semi-unconventional crime thrillers I've ever seen. Everyone needs to see this.



I loosely remember seeing this near to when it came out and it didn't seem awful. In fact, I remembering being told--and more so than I remember the film--that this was a good movie. A few years later, I heard other people talking about The Happening, suggesting that this is 'one of those movies that are so bad that they're kind of brilliant'. I never knew what to think, and I couldn't remember the film at all, so, today of all days, my curiosity peaked; I had to see how good or bad the movie was. 
30 seconds in, I was bored by the elongated opening credits, so I hit fast forward. 2 minutes later... yeah, this is a truly awful movie. I don't need to say why, it is just ridiculously bad. I couldn't get through.





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Every Year In Film #30 - A Corner In Wheat

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Dangal - It's Who You Fight For

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18/11/2017

Every Year In Film #30 - A Corner In Wheat

Thoughts On: A Corner In Wheat (1909) & Other D.W Griffith Biograph Shorts


Today, we explore the start of "The Father of Film's" career.

  

There are many essential elements of film history that anyone wanting to confront the topic cannot avoid having to explore. The French New Wave, Italian Neorealism and German Expressionism are just a few of the essential movements. Hithcock, Kubrick, Welles, Bergman, Chaplin, Eisenstein and Kurosawa are just a few of the essential figures. But, the name, D.W Griffith, certainly looms over each of these figures and movements - over all of cinematic history. There is then no doubt that any regular reader of the Every Year Series (or anyone even slightly interested in film history) would have heard something--if not, a lot--about this man. If you've ever attended a film history class you may have even had to endured through one of his epics, Intolerance, or, more likely, The Birth of a Nation. A difficulty that we will have to confront today, as we already have numerous times in the series, is that of perspective. How does Griffith fit into film history?

From the initial emergence of moving pictures, there have been multiple epicentres from which film history has promulgated. As a result, to even begin talking about cinema, you have to juggle information that emerges from all over Europe and America. This situation only intensifies as film spreads across the world, and so, within a few years of cinema's emergence, you inevitably loose grip of even the most important happenings as there are simply far too many things going on that have been twisted by, and lost in, the annals of time. There is then an understandable polarisation of film history towards the most popular and best marketed figures and movies. So, when many think of film history, they think in terms of contemporary Hollywood, New Hollywood, Old Hollywood and the American silent era. At certain points, European art cinema will force its way into the picture as well as the epics of Japanese masters. In the same respect, the silent era is seen to be ruled by a few big actors, a few clowns, a cine-magician and Griffith. However, whilst many of these figures and infrastructures operate and are often presented as singular forces in an empty world, we are obliged to respect individual topics and times as we do modern film culture. After all, whilst the 2010s may be looked back upon as the age of the superhero blockbuster that advanced technology and commented on our progression deeper into the digital era, stuck in the fray, we probably don't see things in such a way. Whilst, yes, it is obvious that superhero movies loom over all of cinema today, we walk in their shadow quite comfortably and quite obliviously, looking for the next interesting horror, complex drama, brilliant comedy or genuine example of art. Griffith probably was, in a way, the Marvel of the 1910s.

It should be noted that audiences back then thought of film very differently to how we do in the present day, but it is nonetheless essential to remember that, whilst avid cinema-goers of the late nineteen-teens may have seen a tonne of Griffith's films, they would be aware of a much more nuanced network of the then-contemporary film culture - just like everyone that was apart of the world-wide film industry would have been. As a result, it must be emphasised that film history is about rules and exceptions. Sometimes we will talk about font-runners and unique artist who were an exception to current film culture, but came to be very influential later on. Other times, we will talk of the general rule of film culture that is only so nuanced. Whilst this implies that there is no film history - at least not a total one - this is not a mindset we can move forward with. It is true that there is always more to be said about, and found in, film history, and we should always respect this. However, cinema and film history can exist whilst continually developing. Cinema is then an individual's journey. Film history is a map. Maps are tools that will get you paces, but it is the individual's job to experience and reflect upon what is going on in the places that a map sends you to.

Let us then continue down this path today with an introduction to Griffith. We will not be diving into The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, etc, however. This will be saved for a second part on Griffith. Today we will touching on Griffith's entry into the American film industry and his years at Biograph. In such, today we will be looking at Griffith in a light somewhat similar to that which Lilian Gish shines:

"He was the father of film. He didn't do everything the first time, like a close-up, but, he developed--he gave us the grammar of filmmaking: the cutting, the handling of humanity before a camera, and understood the psychic strength of the lens."

By our current point in time, 1909, films would have their own internal logic that was often very idiosyncratic. In such, the novel cinema of attraction, the world of Méliès for example, was quite illogical - and such is the consequence of spectacle being the focus of early cinema, not necessarily articulation. Cinema wasn't then born under conditions that the book was; writing comes from practicality and a very strict and systematised mode of communication. Like painting, cinema could just show as it didn't need rules to be understood like writing did. However, if cinema was to tell stories, not just show things, it would have to develop some kind of formal language - even if this language was never going to be taught in schools like the written and spoken word are.

It was the development of narrative that then forced filmmakers, such as Guy-Blaché, Porter, Chomón, Zecca, McCutcheon, Tait, etc, to make sense of the techniques that their contemporaries and predecessors would have discovered and to turn them into a basic language. It was Griffith's generation of filmmakers who took this one step further and set the bedrock of cinematic language by the late 1910s. As a result, we will see films such as Porter's The Great Train Robbery, Zecca's Alcohol and its Victims, McCutcheon's The Moonshiners, Guy-Blaché's The Hierarchies Of Love and Tait's The Story Of The Kelly Gang be greatly improved upon by the language that was developed by figures such as Griffith. It is exactly this that Gish picks up on above and so to understand Griffith, we will have to keep in mind the previous posts of the series throughout.

One post in particular that we must remember alluded to the end of one story that saw Griffith's begin. Born in Kentucky in 1875 and raised by a Methodist family, Griffith's decision to become a stage actor and play-write as a young man wouldn't have been too well accepted by his family. Griffith nonetheless toiled with touring companies and would attempt to get his plays put to stage in the mid-1900s. He would manage to do this once with a play called A Fool and a Girl, but the production was a failure, which saw Griffith turn to the film industry.

Generally seen as burlesque and undignified, early cinema, a little like vaudeville (which it had a significant relationship with), was somewhat scorned in America and Europe. Partially due to figures such as Chaplin, old vaudeville halls are often looked back upon with a greater sense of gritty drama and romanticism than they probably deserve. In such, vaudeville halls in Britain, both to then-contemporary social critics and later retrospective commentators, were described as places of debauchery, prostitution, sex, drunkenness, drugs and disease - but also to those who liked it, places of energy, life, vitality and expression. Whilst much of the negative probably went on some of the time and whilst the stuffy halls wouldn't have been the most pleasant of places to be stuffed into with dozens of potentially grubby people for long periods of time, they - much like early nickelodeons - probably weren't as bad as they're sometimes painted out to be. Nonetheless, this reputation had been bound to these exhibition halls and rooms and it always reflected badly on early filmmakers and actors who appeared on the screen. With Griffith putting his dreams of being a play-write to the side, we can then understand what it would have looked like to his friends and family as they saw him unsuccessfully try to sell as script to Edison's studio before being employed as an actor in 1907/1908.

One of the first known and surviving films that Griffith appeared in (under the name, Lawrence Griffith) after having his script rejected was Porter's Rescued From An Eagle's Nest where he played the father alongside another actor, Henry B. Walthall, who would hold significant roles in Griffith's later films.


It is at this point that we see our story of today intersecting with the post on inter-titles and Wallace McCutcheon's The Moonshiner. Working on Biograph films after quickly transitioning away from Edison's studio, Griffith would develop a deep interest in cinema whilst coming into contact with numerous filmmakers - one of the most significant meetings being with Billy Bitzer (who is, arguably, as much of an important figure as Griffith). McCutcheon would have been one of the key Biograph directors in the mid-1900s. However, he was an old man, and so, in 1908, would pass the reigns to his son - who couldn't live up to his father's legacy. As the legend goes, one day young McCutcheon doesn't show up, which leaves the crew and cast sitting around, twiddling their thumbs. Soon Griffith stands and claims he can direct and, considering how inconsequential a production The Adventures of Dollie seemed to be, he was granted the opportunity by those in charge.


The Adventures of Dollie doesn't signify Griffith exploding into filmmaking like Méliès did. However, whilst this lacks character and detail, his directorial debut demonstrates some of the key elements of Griffith's filmmaking: a coherent narrative, dramatic expression and emotional engagement. Unlike most narrative films of the early 1900s, the cause and effect present in this story is clear, albeit a little muddled by the distant framing and long shots. By understanding the plot of The Adventures of Dollie, drama can emerge from the antagonist conflicting with the protagonist and his innocent family. Moreover, themes of family bolster the narrative, allowing it to pull you into the story and care about what the barrel rolling down a stream really represents.

These three elements of cinema are the keys to it becoming a viable medium of storytelling and an art form. Understanding this, Griffith would then develop as a filmmaker in the 5 years he worked at Biograph, making around two one-reel films a week and creating more than 400 movies in total between 1908 and 1913. What we will do for the remainder of this post is pick up on a few of these films to track Griffith's evolution that would make him Biograph's most important filmmaker, and Biograph themselves one of the most significant studios in America.


Starting with our subject today, we come to A Corner In Wheat. After a year of directing, Griffith wouldn't yet be utilising close-ups and camera movement too often (if at all). It is then clear that his work was still influenced by the theatre - and would always remain so to some degree - as Griffith had no real interest in exploring comedies, the trick film or special effects (during his years at Biograph, he left this to other filmmakers such as Mack Sennett). So, though he would make films such as Those Awful Hats, Griffith remained focused on dramas and melodramas. A Corner In Wheat is a strong example of this, one that emphasised Griffith's growing capabilities to frame a coherent narrative.

As a young man Griffith would read many books, most notably, those of Charles Dickens. Considering the significance of Griffith and the narrative techniques he adapted from Dickens' novels, film purists are obliged to tip their hat to the novel as they watch films with parallel plots. But, whilst Griffith's later films, Intolerance most famously, would utilise a collage of plots, this all began with films such as A Corner In Wheat. Juxtaposition was then the technique that Griffith pushed forward like few others did.

Unlike earlier narrative films that feature parallel editing, films such as A Daring Daylight Robbery and A Great Train Robbery, A Corner In Wheat has a succinct focus on not just showing multiple spaces effecting one another, but multiple ideas or themes interacting. As a result, it is not always directly important that the rich corporate owners cause prices of bread to rise for their own gain in this short. Instead, the fact that this profoundly impacts the average person is the purpose and point. Thus, from juxtaposition doesn't just come an understanding of a plot, but of themes of greed and exploitation. Thus, the scene in which the corporate leader falls into the vat of corn bears strong subtext of retribution whilst the pathos of the average farmers and people is simultaneously alleviated and extended - after all, death doesn't mean the end of their problems; which is what the final shot of the film suggests.

This complex narrative says much about the power of a cinema that doesn't even have dialogue yet, and it certainly had its impact in its day with Griffith's position in Biograph becoming much more significant as his films hit their mark with audiences. However, Griffith's use of the cut wan't limited to this thematic juxtaposition, as we will find with the Lonedale Operator.


The Lonedale Operate, made in 1911, holds an early example of the iconic Griffith chase sequence. Following a formula of thematic juxtaposition topped by emotional catharsis, Griffith utilised cross-cutting to inject excitement back into cinema. After all, by 1911, we are many years away from a time when moving images alone were enough to generate awe. As can be understood through the manner in which audiences, distributors and studios together welcomed longer narratives, more was being demanded of cinema around the 1910s.

The reasoning for the success of Griffith in this period is implied with the idea that he was the first great American filmmaker. What this suggests is a subtle difference between a great French, Indian, Brazilian or Japanese filmmaker. American cinema is defined by entertainment. We cannot deny that great art comes out of Hollywood, but we can all easily gather why American cinema is considered the first cinema that was followed by the second European art cinema. With Griffith being considered the first great American filmmaker, we can infer that he was the first director to entertain like no other.

This is then where we come back to his structure, inter-cutting and The Lonedale Operator. It was Griffith's ability to use cinema as a sensory tool to engage audiences that made his films so popular and his techniques so innovative. What a film like The Lonedale Operator represents is then cinema forming a world of sensation within story. In the realm of Méliès, the world within a screen is detached from narrative and so the spectacle is singular; as discussed, this also means that its rules are very specific, illogical and lacking of real meaning. In the realm of Griffith, the world is bound to subtext and emotion, and thus we have the possibility of verisimilitude - there can be no such thing in a Méliès trick film; they are all about fantasy in the face of reality and verisimilitude, and such is there attraction.

In The Lonedale Operator, we see a few close-ups and mid-shots, but it is clear that Griffith focus is not on the framing of his story, rather its editing. In The Musketeers Of Pig Alley, however, we will see him utilise the frame in more creative ways...


The Musketeers Of Pig Alley is sometimes considered the first gangster film, but, it obviously isn't. It is certainly an early gangster film that deals with American organised crime outside of the Western, cowboy context, but, films such as The Kelly Gang and The Great Train Robbery are clear predecessors; we cannot fully discount them as gangster films after all.

Nonetheless, with this film it is very clear that Griffith is constantly questioning what it is that a scene visually articulates. With the opening shot alone, we see this demonstrated.



With the reveal of the mother here, Griffith integrates meaning into the frame by providing characterisation and further context around the emotional state of Gish in the opening medium shot. Without the cut, merely with his blocking, Griffith then provides emotional subtext whilst progressing the story: textbook filmmaking. Moving forward with a densely cross-cut and elliptical narrative, Griffith continues to utilise his deep focus to bring greater verisimilitude, emotion and meaning out of his frame. His abundant use of extras is particularly expressive here as it builds a strong sensation of a complete and real world:


However, the most iconic part of this film is, of course, this close-up...


If you can find a good, crisp copy of a Griffith picture, you will see some of the greatest close-ups ever put to screen, close-ups that have such rich texture and light that is all too rare. This doesn't say too much about Griffith. He would claim that he 'invented' the close-up as to show the face of a beautiful actress all the better - but, to cut him slack, he used them with great expression and reason. However, what this close-up speaks to is Bitzer's (Griffith's cinematographer's) mastery of the camera and light. We will save Bitzer's story for another time, but his images both here and in films such as Broken Blossoms speak for themselves.

Moving forwards, we will touch on The Mothering Heart...


Griffith himself would become one of the most famous men alive in the 1910s - just about as famous as his United Artist co-founders: Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks. And this says an awful lot as, whilst he started out as an actor, audiences would not know him for his presence on the screen, rather, his omnipresence over it. So, in a way, Griffith would become one of the first true auteurs who made films that people would see because of him whilst consciously knowing he made it. After all, figures such Porter and Méliès, as famous as their films where, did not have their names written in lights.

Alas, whilst Griffith was an icon, the iconography of his imagery should be much attributed to actresses such as the Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet, who were just two of the stars that he would have created. With Gish in particular, Griffith would be able to capture a powerful sense of innocence and sympathy in a plethora of films (The Mothering Heart, True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, etc.). Whilst he is infamous for his racism, Griffith's films are in fact very romantic and highly sentimental. To further the complication, his racism actually quite obviously stems from a place of misguided nostalgia. Less a rampant supremacist and more a fool, Griffith's racism is clearly a consequence of his upbringing - which explains how he could make a film that romanticises the KKK one year and one that paints a 'yellow man' as a tragic hero a few years after. Griffith was all about heroism and so his films are imbued with this sense of patriarchal and matriarchal honour and integrity. This is - rather ridiculously, especially by modern standards - how he saw the KKK, just as it was how he saw his less controversial heroes. However, we bring all of this up because the foundations of Griffith's thematic approach and his relationship with his actresses is incredibly crucial in The Mothering Heart.

Just as much a Lilian Gish picture as it is a Griffith picture, this is about as melodramatic as films can get: a baby's tragic death instantly brings a married couple torn apart by infidelity back together. However, as absurd as this sounds, Griffith somehow manages to make this ending viable with a mixture of extreme emotion all put upon the capable shoulders of Gish. The base of all of this is his thematic sensibilities that he would consistently utilise to inform his developing catalogue of film grammar and make films that exude woe, trauma and melancholy, yet also, strength, stoicism and integrity, and all through his powerful leads.

The last film we will touch on from Griffith's Biograph era is The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.


The Battle at Elderbush Gulch signifies Griffith becoming Griffith... master of the epics. From 1906 onward, feature films were becoming more common. Growing ever more aware of cinema's ability to assume grander scales, Griffith was itching to make longer movies at Biograph. However, the studio, of course, was not as enthusiastic as Griffith. And thus the end of their relationship was nigh. From the very start of his time at Biograph Griffith objected to making films "like sausages", and around 1912, he would be pushing to make films that exceeded 1 reel - which meant more money and red flags for Biograph.

Widely considered Griffith's best Western and greatest short film, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, above all else, feels grammatically modern. And this is something that becomes more and more evident as Griffith moves further away from his second year of filmmaking: his cutting is economic, his shots are precisely framed, his structure is powerful, his characters are distinct and somewhat round and his narratives are defined. Far more than earlier attempts at epics, or even basic narrative storytelling, films such as The Battle at Elderbush Gulch then feel watchable. And in such, you don't have to put on your researcher's hat to get through them as much as you would with more primitive silent films. Whilst this isn't as true for his more demanding, far longer, features, when we look to at the best of Griffith's Biograph films, it really feels as if cinema as an art is being born.

However, knowing that he could do so much more and that Biograph wasn't going to allow this, Griffith, in 1913, left to journey into the most infamous, significant and rocky part of his career. But, as implied at the top of the essay, this is where we end our look at Griffith today.

To conclude, exploring Griffith's development as we have today has allowed us to see a radical shift in the silent era. Keep in mind, however, that Griffith was not working in a vacuum; he was not the the be all and end all of silent cinema around the 1910s. And so such, I'm sure, will be the subtextual point of the following posts in the series.

Before I let you go, to see a more biographical exploration of Griffith that far exceeds the scope of this more analytical post, I'd recommend the three-part documentary D.W Griffith: Father Of Film.

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End Of The Week Shorts #32

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17/11/2017

Ety Hitsan - Eritrean Cinema?

Thoughts On: Ety Hitsan (The Child, 2016)


Made by Nahom Abraham, this is the Eritrean film of the series.


Whilst African cinema is often completely overlooked by self-proclaiming cinefiles, film lovers, etc, there are numerous prolific industries and significant filmmakers that come from the continent. The complication that comes with African cinema is, of course, Africa's history as a continent divided and shaped by colonialism. Without taking a deep dive into this huge subject, it has taken quite a long time for cinemas to begin flourishing throughout Africa. In Northern, Arab countries, national film history is often quite long and dense. Across the rest of the continent, there are a plethora of examples of filmmaking dating back to the 30s and earlier. However, to suggest this kind of filmmaking was apart of an industry of production would be very naive. Not until Africa began to gain its independence around the mid-20th century did films made by Africans begin to emerge in greater, more consistent numbers and did industries start to form.

One of he most famous national African cinemas would be that of Nigeria: Nollywood. Expanding upon this, one of the most prolific and prestigious regions of film production would be West Africa in general. It is then countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, etc that come to represent African cinema to many people with North African filmmaking sometimes being clumped in with Middle Eastern filmmaking and the rest of Africa being overshadowed by the West. This is most true with East Africa as Southern and Central African cinemas have gained much notoriety over the past few decades.

East African cinema is largely represented by Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda - which we will no doubt come across in the world cinema series. But, when we come to our country for today, Eritrea, one of the Eastern-most countries on the coast, there is almost no formal representation of its film production. If you then Google "Eritrean cinema", "Eritrean film", "Eritrean movie", etc, you will find - outside of an empty Wikipedia page - absolutely no articles, papers, blog posts, question pages about filmmaking or an industry. The paradox of this, however, is that you will find countless pages of Eritrean films on YouTube or sites such as erivideo.com. What's more, many of these films have hundreds-of-thousands of views. So, not only is there a strong production of Eritrean cinema, but it is widely consumed.

Nonetheless, the most I could find out about Eritrean cinema is where a few of the country's cinemas actually are. There seems to be about 4 cinemas, three in Asmara and one in Keren. These are, uncoincidentally, the country's two largest cities with Asmara being the capital. Considering Eritrea's history and its colonial possession by Italy, we can infer that these cinemas were founded by and for Italian settlers. And this is, in fact, certainly true of at least one of the cinemas: Impero, founded in 1937 by the colonial authorities. What this suggests about filmmaking in Eritrea is minimal, however, it does imply that the many movies constantly being produced go straight to T.V, home video/DVD or the internet. This would mimic the manner in which the Nigerian film industry functions with movies being produced as quickly as possible, often with shoe string budgets, and then thrown onto local markets as soon as can be managed before the pirating system sweeps away all film profits.

However, without being able to collect any substantial information about Eritrean filmmaking, we'll have to stop this inference short and conclude by just consuming Eritean cinema as it presents itself with our selection today and a short review.

Ety Hitsan, or The Child, is a movie with a clear amateur aesthetic, but a surprisingly affecting story. This is a melodrama of sorts that has elements of the crime thriller that, to a degree, ground its narrative in more realist emotions and conflicts. In such, this follows a man whose family life is shaken to its core when his maid falls pregnant and claims that the child is his. His wife, son and friends are all pulled into his personal maelstrom as he not only faces the possibility of losing all he has, but also coming to harm at the hands of a man who stalks him.

The structure of Ety Hitsan masks answers and incites questions at a brisk pace whilst the cinematic language remains distantly elusive or intimately contemplative so that there is a strong relationship between plot and character. This then builds a narrative around, presumably, local social topics concerning adultery - which is illegal, and punishable with a fine or a 1-6 month prison sentence in Eritrea - and fertility.

Competently constructed and quite articulate, Ety Hitsan, if you have come this far in the post, is certainly worth giving a go. But, before I provide links to see this film, what are our thoughts on today's subject matter? And do you know anything about Eritrean cinema? Here are links to part 1 and part 2, or you can watch the film here...



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Sidewalls - Romantic Tension

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16/11/2017

Sidewalls - Romantic Tension

Thoughts On: Sidewalls (Medianeras, 2011)

Two lost romantics wander though their lives and city in seeming search of one another.


Sidewalls is a slightly cheesy and very predictable romance, but, I have to say I loved it. He is a recluse and a geek confined to his apartment. She is a quirky aspiring architect who can't be in elevators. They are both single, in search of love and lost in a haphazardly developed city and in an overwhelming digital age.

These are very common romantic tropes that we would have all come into contact with many times before. For example, this bears a tone and aesthetic very reminiscent 500 Days Of Summer. However, the key spark of near-originality that Sidewalls has going for it is its context - this is set in Buenos Aires - and its structure - this is less a romance and more a clumsy adventure that preempts a romance.

It is the manner in which the setting of this narrative interacts with this structure that then makes this so endearing - even ingenious at points. Like many romances, Sidewalls is a study of chance and destiny. However, this is consciously recognised throughout, and so there forms a game between audience and filmmaker under a question of: When will they meet? This is key to all romances; the audience is allowed to know or recognise something that the characters can't or won't. In It Happened One Night, for example, we all know that Peter and Ellie are perfect for one another in spite of their antagonistic relationship. It is this reflexivity and the embrace of contrivance that makes romances work; we know how things are going to end, we just want to enjoy the journey to that point.

To make this journey towards a predictable end interesting, many filmmakers have him and her meet, but then break up before, in the finale, coming back together at a train station or an airport. Bridging towards the melodrama, this finale may even occur at a wedding in which a love triangle is broken down as we would like it to be.

We are all very aware of these paradigms of the traditional romance, and I have to admit that I struggle to complain about a romance done well. What makes Sidewalls so interesting, however, is that it takes away romantic frustration and instead builds romantic tension. In such, there is no break up in this film. What this emphasises - much like Amélie does - is the relationship between hope, despair and fate in romances.

Fate hangs over all traditional romances: we know how things are going to end. However, within the narrative, there often isn't a sense of fate, instead a hope for a happy ending that is projected through the characters who want to find Mr. or Mrs. Right. A tension is drawn out of this as the characters also project despair. And so the joy of watching traditional romances like Sidewalls is being able to indulge giddy feelings of hope, melancholic sensations of despair, and all whilst knowing that everything will come to a satisfying end.

The traditional romance, seen in such a light, is then a form of cinema that most purely captivates the idea that cinema is a form of simulation. The space we step into with movies like Sidewalls is an inconsequential one in which existentially crushing themes are raised, only so they can be put to rest within an hour or so. We may then ask: What is the point of this kind of romance? Why pose questions and conflicts that are only going to be solved for an audience member?

In asking this question, we can stumble upon the more sinister side of romances that many pick up on as capitalist, normative propaganda. Romances, whilst they don't always provide open ends, do hold up a mirror to our lives and, in a way, project anxiety through us and have us question: Why haven't I found Mr. or Mrs. Right; why aren't I living happily ever after?

As mentioned, many look upon this a problematic and damaging as romances project false expectations of love. I personally could agree with this - but only if every single romance ever made followed a predictable structure towards a happy ending. However, there are, of course, films such as Blue Valentine that show the darker side of romance; films such as Roman Holiday that don't provide true catharsis despite their romanticism; or films such as Don Jon that provide reality checks and comment on the contrivance of the traditional romance. What we see all of these films doing is challenging the form of romantic films as to challenge their audience. And, in more general terms, this is what a vast majority of realist or art house cinema attempts to do: not provide the sensational.

However, seeing these two forms of cinema - the realist, art house and the blockbuster/genre film - as being in a relationship, reveals the virtues of the 'problematic' romance. By showing life in a romantic light and emphasising the ideal, traditional romances challenge their audience by showing them their dreams. To suggest that this contrived cinema is problematic because of this suggests that having dreams is, in a way, a problem. Of course, critics of such an idea would suggest that it is not the presence of the dream, but the construction and propagation of specific drams that make the traditional romance problematic. But, being the average Joe that studios make these movies for, I fail to find malice in this. Maybe this is because I'm a zombie and cog in the capitalist system. To whatever degree this is true, I'd also emphasise the idea that there is a relationship in the romantic genre between the likes of Sidewalls and Blue Valentine. Because of this, we can accept the challenge that the traditional, indirectly demoralising romance poses as well as that which the realist, directly demoralising romance does.

There is a larger paradigm at play in which we see contrived cinema battle against realist cinema; the genre film do battle against alternative cinema. And whilst it seems that more contrived cinema exists than realist cinema, if we consider the entirety of film history and the scope of world cinema, it is hard to complain about the composition of our cinematic diet; if you feel like you're lacking some dark drama, go find some - there's more out there than you could see in a life time. In contrast to this, if you feel like you want to see a good traditional romance, here's one at your finger tips. Go see Sidewalls.







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Ety Hitsan - Eritrean Cinema?

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