23/08/2017

Cinema 1: The Movement-Image - Why Write About The Cinema?

Thoughts On: Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Cinéma 1. L'Image-Mouvement, 1983)

This is a post is confined primarily to the title above. We will then be exploring fragmented elements of Gilles Deleuze's Cinema 1 with reflection on the creative act of writing.


I have recently been revisiting and attempting to understand the work of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, specifically, his writing on cinema through his book Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. I have read (and re-read) chapters from this book before and have tried to find explanations of his work, but never really grasped what it is that Deleuze means by movement-image. In my recent efforts to try and understand his ideas, I've decided not to just jump into his books, but to slowly work my way in by researching the man himself and parts of his wider work.

One thing that must be noted for anyone who hasn't heard of Deleuze before is that he had very little to do with cinema. Whilst there are film theorists like Eisenstein who put their ideas into practice, whilst there are film theorist like Bazin who only worked in essay format and whilst there are 'film theorist' (or rather, critics) like Ebert, Deleuze does not, though we could squeeze him to, fit into this spectrum. Moreover, nor, does it seem, that he wanted to exist in the realm of cinema like someone like Bazin did. Deleuze was a philosopher, and this is what he called himself, whose work was tied to a concept of immanence. Immanence has its basis in theology and metaphysics, and, for Deleuze, immanence meant "existing or remaining within" in quite a complex way. As an extension of often asking himself what it is that he is doing, a question of "What Is Philosophy?" (which is what one of his last books was called), Deleuze assumed that what he was doing in his field was confined to it. In such, what he did with philosophy was not for the purpose of science, nor art, nor the world (though it eventually finds itself in such a predicament of serving these entities in a contributory way). Philosophy, to Deleuze, existed for its own sake, and this is his conception of immanence in practice. Deleuze nonetheless recognised that, a), there is an act to be defined in each individual field of thought, and, b) that all endeavours, fields or concepts exist in space-time (reality) and so do come to effect one another. Thus, from a stance of immanence, when Deleuze questioned what it was that cinema is, he not only devised the theory of the movement-image, but also formulated it as a philosophical tool through which the world could be understood - not so much just film itself.

From what I have grown to understand - and I wouldn't say I completely comprehend this theory - it seems that "movement-image" was Deleuze's re-definition of the idea of a "motion picture". Whilst cinema has always been thought of as pictures that move, Deleuze was against the idea that cinema is simply still photographs played at 24fps. Cinema could not be defined by a single frame in this respect, instead, the movement defined the frame. This in turn implies the importance of movement in cinema as not just a trick, but an abstract, perceivable and cohesive block of being and meaning. Again, movement defines the image, the images do not merely not conjure movement. Whilst this may be technically wrong, the technical aspect of cinema has little to do with how it is perceived. After all, we do not think of vibrating molecules bearing an abundance of energy when we put our hand in hot water, we think of pain and danger. In fact, we do not think this. Pain and danger are conscious after thoughts of an automatic response in the body. Nonetheless, it is clear that the automatic nervous system functions like the movie projector or camera: they receive and process stimuli on a practical level whilst it takes a conscious, thinking audience to bring what is received to life through concepts in relation to our own being - and this is, again, the crux of immanence. Thus, to understand water as hot is the same as understanding that cinema is made up of movement-images; it is to conceptualise moving pictures as stories made up of cohesive spaces, not necessarily individual parts, or, to refer to Soviet Theorists Proop and Shklovsky, a syuzhet (more on this here) of the audience's own making. We 'watch' movies just like we 'feel' hot water.

There comes to be further complexity in the work of Deleuze when he further defines the movement-image to be made up of the action-image, the perception-image and the affection-image. These labels, which I do not yet fully understand, allow Deleuze to better define and discuss cinema through its various spaces as caught by a frame. Without wanting to get much further into this, as the movement-image itself is not really the topic of this essay, we should return to Deleuze's idea of immanence and separate fields of thought.

Through defining cinema and attempting to provide vocabulary with which to discuss it philosophically, Deleuze confronts the 'creative act'. The creative act is connected to thought, and thought itself is a concept that people have struggled over for millennia. What does it mean to think? In turn, what does it mean to create something from thought? What is the creative act?

There are two fundamental stances or approaches you can take to this question, and they are very much so linked to concepts of determinism and free will. Determinism itself implies that the human mind is guided by other forces (such as biology, society or even some spirit or God). Free will implies that a certain power comes from within ourselves, which allows us to think as independent, self-sovereign entities. These are two very broad camps of thinking, but, in relation to thought, we can simplify these two approaches to mean: thoughts come from within us, or we exist in thoughts. These abstract ideas can be best conceptualised by imagining thought as a physical object: a box. If this box was embedded in your head and wired up to your brain like something such as a power cell, then you could imagine that that box, whilst the source of thought, is under your control. However, if that box was bigger than yourself - say it was a building that you were stuck in - then the opposite would be true. Instead of controlling the box, which you can't because you don't even fully comprehend it, nor can you look at it from the outside, you can only work within it and maybe clean up and maintain it. With his philosophy of immanence, Deleuze seems to think that people work within the box of imagination; we do not have control and a free will to just command thoughts and conceptualise what we desire - after all, we often rarely know what we desire, much less what we're even ignorant of. What this suggests is that the creative act is the management of, the study of and the being in, the thought box and sometimes emerging with a creation, a concept, of 'your own'. In relation to cinema, inside the concept of the movement-image, inside the manner in which human beings perceive films as movement, filmmakers then work to create blocks of their art.

What Deleuze does with this assertion is make a case for cinema as a unique and individual art separate from science and other art forms. Because he was a philosopher who aimed to understand the world through the act of thinking - that which you may call philosophy - cinema was then important to him in this respect. To understand people and to understand the concepts upon which this world functions, Deleuze seemingly wanted to understand cinema.

Having felt that I've absorbed and understood much of this introductory material to Deleuze, I had to stop a while and think of why this matters. In fact, many people have already questioned the purpose of a book like Cinema 1 to a filmmaker. In a certain sense, the idea of the movement-image has no relation to filmmakers - it is for philosophers to think about and use in their own field. However, there is a clear element to Deleuze's work that engages a conversation with those who make cinema. Hearing Deleuze's ideas, and hopefully understanding them, then essentially allows a filmmaker to articulate exactly what it is that they're doing. Whilst someone such as Tarkovsky would suggest that he is creating a sculpture out of time and a piece of poetry to appeal the emotions and subconscious of his viewers, and whilst someone such as Eisenstein would suggest that he is formalising cinema through montage as to create meaning which would in turn be able to project political ideals, Deleuze suggests that the cinema is a medium through which continuity and movement produces its own form of meaning and communication. These ideas guide and coach filmmakers to varying degrees, so there is a capacity of Deleuze's work, which I think is most abstract, that is very much so useless to filmmakers. But, if engaged correctly, Deleuze's work would have a filmmaker approach cinema with an articulated sense of what it is, and how it is, that they are trying to communicate their thoughts and ideas to an audience.

Again, here I reach an impasse in which I have to stop and think. Cinema has its own immanent function, so what has writing got to do with the cinema? As Deleuze suggests, whilst all fields of creative thought and action are separate and, to a degree, self-concerned, they all exist in this world (in space-time). There is then a connection that everything shares through a vast network that sprawls throughout our known reality. So, there must be a connection between writing and cinema, and the fact that most movies are made from written screenplays and publicised and marketed (to a great degree) through written reviews seems to confirm this. There are then practical connections that cinema and writing share, which means it is quite easy to understand what it is that screenwriters such as Aaron Sorkin, Charlie Kaufman and Efthymis Filippou (who works with Yorgos Lanthimos) are doing. Furthermore, it is easy to comprehend what reviewers/critics such as Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert or Mark Kermode do, also, what theorist such as Dulac, Kuleshov, Grierson and Truffaut do through their writing. But, whilst screenwriters provide blueprints for films through their writing, critics attempt act as a quality filter for what comes out of the cinematic process and theorist such as Dulac, Kuleshov, Grierson and Truffaut use their concepts to make and reflect upon movies, there are figures such as Bazin, Bordwell and Deleuze who do not have such direct links to cinema. This is why, unless you study film, names such as André Bazin, David Bordwell and Gilles Deleuze are probably ones you've never heard of whilst Ebert and Sorkin likely are if you have a keen interest in film.

In an attempt to produce work in the same genre of cinema writing as Bazin, Bordwell and maybe Deleuze, I, myself, am not demonstrating a practical approach to the cinema. Whilst I use my writing to fuel and reflect upon my screenplays, my attachment to the creation of actual moving pictures, outside of a few personal short films, is non-existent. This is quite true of our mentioned figures also, and so to understand what it is that we are doing is quite a bit more difficult than understanding what screenwriters and critics do. However, if we consider that all separate fields of creative output exist in reality and are connected, it is quite clear that there is a quanta, or a fuel that circulates this system. As has been implied, this is consciousness and thought; through perceiving reality, or by creating something from and in it, we somehow think. Thought means nothing, however, until it is recognised by another thinking entity, and thus there is communication: the veins and arteries through which thought flows.

I believe someone like Deleuze, especially through his ventures into the field of cinema, is not so much, or is not just, defining fields of thought and creating vocabulary to describe them. What Deleuze is doing is demonstrating how these fields outsource their creations; he is outlining the manner in which thoughts birthed in one field can be communicated to the world. Simultaneous to this, Deleuze is apart of this process as he too attempts to communicate what exists in one field (philosophy or cinema for example) into the more general realm of space-time (society or the zeitgeist). Seemingly conscious of this, Deleuze spent a large portion of his career re-articulating to the world the ideas of those in his own field: philosophers such as Nietzsche, Hume and Foucault. Deleuze, much like Bazin and Bordwell, is then an educator of sorts as he is taking the thoughts and products of one form (philosophy for example) and projecting them through another (like writing as social commentary or education), presumably, in the hope that a greater understanding of the world-in-general and the topic-at-hand could emerge from this re-articulation.

This answers a question such as "Why Write About Cinema?". Whilst you can do this as a screenwriter, a reviewer or a self-serving theorist, there is also the wider, more general, purpose of developing human understanding by forcing separate fields of creation to communicate with one another. We can see this through Thoughts On if we chose to; not only are we finding more films and discovering more about cinema here, but a portion of this blog is dedicated to the re-telling of films in new lights. For instance, we may discuss the subtext of, for example, Cinderella, The Planet Of The Apes or The City Of Lost Children. In discussing these films, revealing what some would refer to as a "hidden meaning", we are only taking the medium of cinema, stripping it down to its basic parts, and re-articulating it through a very specific kind of writing. There is a nuance that exists in all forms of expression, through which the innate substance of a story is projected, that varies - and often, the essence of one form, say cinema, is lost on another; say for instance: writing. However, by consuming these different forms of communication that are themselves communicating, there emerges a meta-narrative: an entity that transcends all individual forms through which a story is told. This meta-narrative is what writers such as Bazin, Bordwell and Deleuze in particular (though, all involved in each field play their part) aid in creating.

So, to conclude, why write about cinema? We, in a direct sense, write about cinema to create it (screenplays and practical theories) and to process it (reviews and pure theoretics). However, there is a more complex effort underlying this, and this is the creation of cinematic meta-narratives - ultimate expressions of human thought derived from various fields of thinking and creation - which can last through time and maybe have a great impact on society.

To end, as always, I'll turn to you. What are your thoughts on Deleuze, Cinema 1 and all we've covered today?


P.S. If you want to delve further in Deleuze, I'd of course recommend his books, but I also found these videos very helpful: Gilles Deleuze by Philip Goodchild and Gilles Deleuze on Cinema: What is the Creative Act 1987.






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22/08/2017

The Maid - Dynamics

Quick Thoughts: The Maid (La Nana, 2009)


Made by Sebastián Silva, this is the Chilean film of the series


The Maid is a simple, yet very poignant film that, with touches of drama and comedy, explores the social dynamics surrounding a maid who has served a family for over 20 years, but is now not only getting old, but also is falling ill. As her family (the family that she serves and is incredibly attached to) start to bring in new maids to help her, there are many conflicts, much deceit and a lot of passive-aggression introduced into the household that threaten to come to a destructive climax for all. The maid, Raquel, is then forced over the course of this narrative to come to terms with her place in the household; whilst she is not just a servant, she also isn't a true family member. Trying to figure out what this means and where exactly her place in the household is, is then seemingly a parable that resonates with a lot beyond what this narrative, on a surface level, depicts. In such, not knowing where you stand and how to then engage the social mechanics around you is a pretty daunting position found in many contexts, but is best represented through a servant or maid as this position often leaves them highly dependent on those who the maid know are above them, but also somewhat wary of those that they assume are below them in the hierarchy of the house. Unsettling all of this, however, is the fact that, without the maid, the house doesn't function very well. So, whilst Raquel, an archetypal servant, is one of the most integral parts of this household, she is also one of the lowest functioning bodies in the hierarchy of the home. From this comes a tension that tautens into a tight-rope that, as skillfully as it may be walked by a maid, still puts them under a lot of pressure that is both complex and multi-faceted in nature.

This is a concept and kind of story that has been told for decades upon decades, if not centuries, with a plethora of films (everything from My Man Godfrey to Cries & Whispers to The Handmaiden) and books (everything from Jane Eyre to Below The Stairs to The Help) covering such a topic. The Maid fits into this topical genre of film quite subtly, allowing us to observe the crux of these stories - which is the complex social dynamics - with silence, without too much drama, romance or a distraction from the mundanity that underlies these stories (which is what makes them so personal and so affecting). Without wanting to spoil too much of this film, I then have to recommend you give this a go if you haven't already seen it. If you have, however, what are your thoughts?

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Brave - Fairy Tales: Judgement & Pain

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21/08/2017

Brave - Fairy Tales: Judgement & Pain

Thoughts On: Brave (2012)

Before we start, I'll just note that we are now coming near to the 'end' of The Disney Series with 5 more films to follow this one. The end of this series, as you may guess, will not mean we will never return to another Disney film ever again; this is just the end of my planned schedule. We will come back to this topic at a later date though, so let us get on with things....


A princess about to be betrothed attempts to change her fate.


Brave is another example of a Disney or Pixar film that I really enjoy, but can't help but recognise the faults, or just the lack of substance, in. This has so many rich and lively characters - more than any other Disney or Pixar film that comes to mind. The comedy in this narrative is pin-point-hilarious. The animation looks spectacular. The script is pretty clever. The cast all do a great job. The story is captivating. So... what is it that is at fault in this movie?

With this not only being Pixar's first princess movie, but their first movie to feature a female protagonist, they seem to have felt that they had to make a pretty specific point or statement with this narrative. This then has the tone of the recent Disney princess films, Tangled and Frozen, which both seem to be revising their approach to a certain kind of narrative. In fact, this has been going on for quite some time; you can feel hints of this in Beauty And The Beast from 1991, but I think this is a very strong film as the revisionist elements work. However, from Tangled to Brave to Frozen, Disney and Pixar have been making a few huge mistakes. Maybe it is because the topic of female archetypes and representatives in film has been questioned more and more so in the past few years, but all of these films refuse to put their protagonists in real pain or - and this is worse - they refuse to judge them.

We hear this idea of "don't judge me" an awful lot in life, and whilst this can be a valid request in certain contexts, stories and fairy tales should not embed this sentiment into their narrative designs. The reason for this is simple: fairy tales are judgement and they are pain. Furthermore, fairy tales find their meaning, their substance and their worth through exactly this.

This sounds like a pretty dark claim to make, but if we think of everything from Snow White to Alice In Wonderland to Pinocchio, Cinderella, Dumbo all the way up to the likes of Tarzan, The Lion King, and Lilo & Stitch, it is very easy to recognise a pattern in Disney films: the pain and conflict that protagonists face is arbitrary, it is maybe ridiculous, but they nonetheless have to suffer through it. All of the mentioned films have heavy, directly or not, elements of fairy tales within them because of this. What all of these films have in common in then the idea of fate. Why do Cinderella and Snow White live torturous lives? Why are Dumbo, Pinocchio, Tarzan and Lilo born into broken families? Why are Simba and Stitch born with such power and such responsibility? None of these characters ask for their lot in life, but, you can be sure that a select few things happen to them. Not only do all of these characters accept the cards they're handed in life - they live the life of a scullery maid, they assimilate into a family of gorillas, they deal with their broken families, they attempt to live up to their responsibilities - but, in doing this, they are all slapped down by life for making even the most minor of mistakes. Maybe these characters dream too much, maybe they take an easy route, maybe they indulge themselves, but there are always repercussions.

One of the clearest examples of this is certainly Pinocchio. Pinocchio was brought to life and asked to become a real boy through struggle, through learning what lies are, what evil is as well as how to avoid that malevolence and tell the truth. He learns this after being betrayed by his own nativity - and this eventually lands him on Pleasure Island. This is an archetypal place and seemingly a commentary on story structure. Despite the arbitrary nature of his existence and his conflicts as provided by this narrative, Pinocchio is punished for making understandable mistakes that we have all made; he is not perfect, and the world seems to punish him far too harshly for this. Pleasure Island is this exactly: he's given all he asked for in its most pure, chaotic and unbridled form. Pinocchio doesn't want this however; he's transforming into an ass. And so he must fight against his mistakes - all of which were bestowed upon him by an unsympathetic world. This gets him off of Pleasure Island, but... he's still got to save his father from the belly of the whale. Life just keeps throwing conflict at him. But, Pinocchio, naive as he is, rises to this challenge, confronting all the imperfection in himself, his father and the world. And only after all of this has he actually learnt his lesson; he has truly stepped into his conflicts - literally with the whale - and he has emerged a different person.

All great fairy tales feature three essential things. Firstly, there is the unfair conflict: it is Cinderella wishing of a better life, Dumbo born with ears that are too big, Simba born as prince. Secondly, there is Pleasure Island. This follows all of the building conflict in a story reaching a point at which the protagonist cracks: it is Cinderella having her new dressed destroyed or losing her glass slipper, Dumbo tripping on his ears after his mother has been taken away, it is Simba being torn away from Timon and Pumbaa's paradise. An incomplete equilibrium is found by all of these characters at this point, and so they have settled for something easy, or, often, their initial attempts towards good are just slapped down for no good reason. This leads us to our final beat: stepping into the belly of the beast. This is Cinderella, having gone to the ball, putting herself in the position where she can claim the glass slipper, this is Dumbo jumping off of the incredibly high tower, this is Simba confronting Scar. It is only after these incredibly difficult tasks are confronted and successfully navigated that there is a happy ending.

What then defines fairy tales, and their structure, is pain and judgement being used a tools so that the ultimate test can be given to one of the most unlikely candidates. This is an extension of our deepest fears, yet brightest hopes as human beings: we are afraid of being inadequate, of never being able to evolve, of the world throwing too much our way, but, we nonetheless recognise that this struggle, if confronted correctly, is the most rewarding thing about life as meaning is found in this darkness.

Let us now turn back to Tangled, Brave and Frozen. All of these films start with unfair conflict: Rapunzel has magical hair and is stolen as a baby, Merida is a princess that has to conform to tradition, Ana and Elsa are princesses who have their own internal conflicts and lose their parents. After the opening acts that establish this, there should be a Pleasure Island sequence. Whilst you could argue that we do get these, they are very weak. With Tangled, Rapunzel runs into trouble as she journeys to see the lanterns, but she never comes into true conflict or reaches a point in which she is broken down. She initially questions herself when she leaves the tower and ends up almost drowning, but these problems are solved with no real links to her own pleasure seeking; she isn't judged very well by this narrative for leaving the tower. But, let us stop and ask: why is this so important? No one should be trapped in a tower, they should be allowed to escape and be free to find love and live the fairy tale happy ending. Well... maybe this would be just. But, the fact is, we all know that life doesn't give us what we deserve - much less, what we want. To see this projected in stories gives them depth as, from struggle and pain, comes meaning in life. Without these dark sequences, or a Pleasure Island scene, Tangled is still a pretty brilliant film - just like Brave and Frozen - but, nonetheless lacks this human touch, reducing it to pretty basic entertainment.

As implied, the same thing happens in Frozen - we will return to Brave after this. Ana, after being neglected for most of her life, is--let's put it straight--she's obnoxious and annoying. Never at any point in this narrative is this really challenged. Yes, she has to go on an adventure and faces danger, but none of her conflicts, physical or emotional, actually confront her obnoxious nature and force her to question herself. Maybe this is because the writers think that she is a perfect archetype from the beginning of this narrative, but, I don't know how they could see that. We could understand a writer not wanting to punish someone like Dumbo, Cinderella or Simba, because they don't have particularly damning character attributes. Ana does though, so why on earth will the writers not judge her for this? We cannot know, but the fact remains: Ana is never really challenged in a substantial manner in Frozen. The same can be said for Elsa. She has the most conflict in this narrative, but falls into the background; she is clearly in pain, but she plays no real active part beyond singing a rousing song - which should have been a Pleasure Island moment; letting something go must be done with great caution. So, again, just like Tangled, there is no Pleasure Island in these fairy tales. But, I will repeat with emphasis: I don't think that this is a terrible film because of this, nor do I think that all films should be dark and contain judgement. What I am instead recognising is the power that Disney films in particular muster when they recognise their classical fairy tale structure - which has been sullied and abandoned in these three recent princess films.

Let us now come to Brave and, as you may have inferred, find the same fault. This film starts with some great ideas, showcasing Merida as understandably annoyed at the fate that has been given to her by life; she doesn't want to be married off, as I'm sure the vast majority of people wouldn't. We see the idea that she has some idea of fate lingering over her from the very beginning with the will-o-wisps. These are supposed to be guiding lights that, in various folklore, often lead people to their own damnation - or at least, lead them astray. There is an implication with this after Mor'du emerges from the forest, but it is quite clear that the wisps actually lead her away from him. This is acceptable as wisps sometimes do help people, but the story moves on.

We soon find out that Merida doesn't like responsibility and wants to be free - a classic teenager inner conflict/motivation. She eventually confronts this by trying to take her fate into her own hands with the arrow competition in which she breaks tradition - this doesn't go well though. From here, things seem to be building into a substantial story about how to break tradition carefully, cautiously and productively. This continues to build as Merida is lead to the witch and turns her mother into a bear; her selfish act of trying to manipulate her mother and lazily change both her fate and traditional values is revealed as corrupt. However, from here Merida and queen Elinor go into a forest where the queen learns to, basically, accept Merida with the fishing sequence. After this, we have further references to the idea of breaking tradition being a dangerous endeavour with Mor'du attacking Merida. However, this is pretty insubstantial and we have missed the point at which Merida goes to Pleasure Island. She is never really judged for turning her mother into a bear. This in itself is a form of judgement as Merida recognises (very intermittently and quite lightly) that she has made a serious mistake by trying to change her mother, but, there are no real repercussions to this; she is never shown to be the ass that she is.

From here, we emerge into a pretty brilliant final act in which Merida must step into the belly of the beast; she demonstrates that she has learnt a lesson when she reconciles with all the four clans, but nonetheless has to confront them again when they try to kill her mother. This is Pinocchio going into the belly of the wale and emerging victorious. The ending then works so well because Merida proved herself to be the hero who learnt from her mistakes and figures out how to break tradition with her mother and by keeping unity within the clans. However, this is all cheapened by the fact that Merida was never forced to go to Pleasure Island; her conflicts and character arc were pretty shallow and she was never judged or truly confronted in this narrative. Thus, the ending isn't well-deserved.

We see this paradigm in Tangled and Frozen too. Rapunzel never really confronts her own naivety; there are a lot of songs and a lot of dances and joy - which is perfectly fine - but, there is nothing to take seriously in the second act; it's all fun and games. When Rapunzel then steps back into the tower and confronts her 'mother', everything feels flat and contrived. The same must be said for Frozen. Ana and Elsa run into conflicts, are never really judged, and are given their happy ending. All of these characters, Merida included, learn the lessons that they should learn. However, the way in which they learn them is faulted.

The ultimate expression of this lack of judgement and pain in a fairy tale would then be captured by a story centred around a man who has a lot of psychological issues. For example, imagine we have Pinocchio as a grown up man tortured by his past. We could see him go on an adventure to confront this, or, we could see him to go therapy sessions and sit through three hours of him talking until his problems are all figured out. Whilst it may be somewhat realistic and plausible to suggest that problems can be confronted without much conflict and drama, are these stories really worth telling? Maybe... but not really. No one wants to watch something like a Woody Allen movie in which he just sits in his therapist's office and moans; we want the comedy, the romance and the mistakes alongside this. Without them, Allen would be unbearable in the therapist chair.

The overwhelming fault that exists in these most recent princess films is then that they put their main characters in a therapist chair for the second act of their stories whilst distracting us with fun, jokes, songs and adventure. There is no Pleasure Island, and thus these films fail to to judge and punish their characters like great fairy tales all do. This leaves the subtext beneath the fun narratives that are Tangled, Brave and Frozen, to be a mulch of half-baked ideas about patriarchy, tradition and freedom. These films then have very little to say that is cohesive and worth listening to - which is just plain unfortunate.

To end, I'll turn to you. What do you think about the movies and topics we've covered today?


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Interior. Leather Bar. - Why Are You Doing This?

Thoughts On: Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)

A contrived documentary by James Franco and Travis Mathews.


No pun intended, this movie blew me away. Simply put, Interior. Leather Bar. is a masterpiece, a new personal favourite and probably one of the greatest films to have come out recently that is actually about current societal ideas floating about in the zeitgeist. That said, how on earth do I begin?

This is a documentary about James Franco and Travis Mathews' endeavours to make a short film: a re-imagining of the 40 minutes that were cut out of Friedkin's 1980 film, Cruising, because they were, presumably, too sexually explicit. Cruising itself is about a detective, as played by Al Pacino, who has to go undercover as a homosexual to capture a serial killer that is slaying gay men. Before we go ahead, I'll say that I have not seen this film, but I don't think it's very relevant to this short.

Describing Interior. Leather Bar. is a trap. Seeing this film is a trap. Talking about this film is a trap - unless you're very careful about how you go about things. Interior. Leather Bar. is not what you think it is... yet... whatever you think it is about... it's about that. It is a documentary. It is a mediocre amateur film. It is an LGBT movie. It is an exploitation movie. It's pornography. It is a mokumentary. It is a docufictional film. It's a self-reflective piece of experimental art. It is nonsense.

Without fully pressing into the postmodern bubble, I believe, this is a film about the contrivance of cinema, yet also the facade that hides the inner and outer realities of the world. Thus, this film is a question of the truth that people can perceive. And because of this, there is great profundity to be found in the narrative; whilst I think its subtext its inexhaustible, there is meaning to be found in this film - it certainly is not abstract to the point of arbitrariness. However, I have fallen into its trap: I'm writing abstract nonsense.

To articulate, as directly as possible, why this film is so brilliant I suppose we have to accept the fact that this movie is masterfully constructed - seemingly from genuine thoughts and emotions - to appear to be a fictional documentary. In such, this narrative recognises that there is a topic that is pretty ominous in society: homosexuality. This topic of course sprawls out into other regions of sexual orientation and identity politics, but in keeping focus on homosexuality, what this narrative does is confront its protagonist with an alien idea. And this is something that the majority of people in current society have to do as homosexuality is not a hush-hush topic like it has been in recent history; it is on our T.Vs, it is in the news, it is on the internet, it is in movies. In recognising this and attempting to confront the alternate lifestyle, our heterosexual protagonist is and isn't directly confronting gay people. He is, in the most objective way, confronting a recent and developing societal custom to question ourselves in the most private of places. As this film seems to suggest, to ask ourselves, "what do I think of gay people?", is then an incredibly strange act. Is it vain to ask this? Why should we concern ourselves with gay people? Then again, why should we force them into the dark? Then again, is it vain to even ask that question? What about that one? And thus we find ourselves trapped in perpetuity.

The reality seems to be that much to do with confronting, accepting or rejecting alternate lifestyles is a near-existential means of putting ourselves in a cycle that is perpetually hypothetical. If you're not gay - or even if you are gay - you cannot control other people. Whilst you can manipulate others and society, it takes a real mastermind to do this consciously and exactly as you planned - you nonetheless cannot truly control society, however. To bring this idea to life, if you are for gay people (which, in itself is a strange notion), it is impossible to change everyone in the world to align exactly with your views. If you are neither here not there, it is also impossible to change everyone else. Simultaneously, if you are against gay people, you cannot magically flip a button to have reality fit your wishes. All forms of activism or physical action (positive, negative, passive or violent) will always be met with a reaction - and thus there seems to be constant conflict. This leaves us with the conundrum of this movie. Why are we being asked to face these deeply, yet simultaneously vapidly, existential questions when we can't control the world?

This is then what is brought to life perfectly by the fact that this is a 'documentary' that heavily leans on gay themes. Whatever you think this film is about as you go into it will shape how you see it to varying degrees. And when you begin to question yourself and the movie as you watch it, you will be engaging in material that is openly, yet sneakily, contrived. This movie dares you to change your opinion, dares you to form an opinion, dares you to say it is even about something. And when you do, which you eventually must, this movie still remains a question as to why you are even thinking that way. This confusing idea is perfectly exemplified by the fact that our main character seems to change over this narrative by confronting this alien idea of homosexuality, but wonders why James Franco has set this whole thing up. However, whilst he is questioning the motivation for everything that is happening, he is also reading from a pre-determined script. Thus, there is a statement about nothing constructed; a statement about being confused and lost, about being manipulated by the world, yet nonetheless wanting to engage what is presented to you feeling that you are an autonomous individual; you do not want to be fed an agenda, but maybe you don't want to paste your own ideas onto the world; what are you supposed to think; why is this movie even asking you to think?

These are perfectly profound questions that have seemingly pushed us into the postmodern bubble, yet are about to bring us back out. Whilst this movie is about nothing and everything, whilst it is a cliche, yet true, genuine and profound, it is also very simple: it asks you to think. What's more, this movie asks you to think about something difficult and strange: homosexuality. This is a strange and very contemporary topic because it concerns lifestyles alien to yourself, yet also, it is heavily stigmatised by those who think they have this topic nailed - which I don't believe anyone in the world does as you're not supposed to. Being gay is, in my opinion, no different than being Tom. Tom can be defined by a plethora of key factors. Would we all like to be Tom? Would we all like to be friends with Tom? Would we all want  Tom to stop existing? The answer is: it depends. These are questions that cannot be answered without knowing Tom. However, these are also questions that cannot be so simply asked, nor answered, once we know Tom. If we truly know Tom, then he will transcend a basic notion of the words that you can use to define him. To then react to Tom is a silent and inarticulate act and an answer to all of the questions that we have asked. To actually react to Tom you will see him as an individual - and such is an idea so complex and ever-changing that it can only be understood, not articulated. Individuals can be put into categories, this is true. And these categories can be very accurate descriptions of people, but there is nonetheless a quality to those that we recognise as individuals that transcends quantifiable sense; people define this quality as a soul, a spirit, maybe a persona.

What this all brings us back to is the fact that people are all facades; we can never truly know their inner reality, nor the outward reality of the world. Things do not, and should not, be left at this observation though as we have to act in this world. The fact is that our most profound actions have to be done without words as they are only profound because they are so complex that they transcend articulation, but are still very much so comprehensible on some level. No matter how confusing, silent and arbitrary the world seems, we still must act - life goes on and things change - and thus there is such a thing as evolution, both on the individual and societal level. So, for example, if the world is to continue changing in respect to homosexuality, it will. We all must act out what we believe is best - and silently. After all, articulating and providing live commentary on evolution as it happens is near-impossible. At the least it is very rare. So, before we try to see the world change and see it as a place made up of individuals, we should attempt to come to terms with our ever-changing selves - which is a life-long endeavour in itself. We live in a world of smoke and mirrors, nothing more, and so the best thing to do is most probably to look down at your feet as you start walking and keep an eye on where you're going if you can.

This is the phenomena and theory that this film depicts through it's story, formally, this is also the phenomena and theory that this film embodies, but, if watched correctly, this is the phenomena and theory that this film will trap you in. By asking a very silly, yet very profound and complex question in the way it does, Interior. Leather Bar. says so much via pantomime. The only way to react to this is, in itself, also pantomime. And this is the inescapable reality of this narrative. All I can then say is that I hope this makes sense to you, but also: have you see this movie? What are your thoughts on all we've covered here?





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Capricorn One - Debate Yourself

Quick Thoughts: Capricorn One (1977)

A trio of astronauts are pulled from their Mars mission at the very last moment.


I knew nothing about this movie as I went in. It starts so well. Three astronauts have trained for a missions to Mars. There are politicians, engineers and scientists, all with something to prove and redeem in themselves; they desperately need this mission to be a success not just for themselves, but for their nation and possibly the wider world. The mission is set, the countdown is about to begin and the astronauts are in their seats. The shuttle door is opened. An official urgently ushers the astronauts out with talk of an emergency and gets them on a plane. The plane takes off as the world, the astronauts' wives included, watch the space shuttle successfully launch into space. It's at this point that the astronauts are told that something went wrong: NASA paid for cheap parts and it turns out they don't work; if they go into space with them, the astronauts will surely die. Without wanting to disappoint the nation, to kill the dreams of thousands, if not millions, yet, without wanting to see the astronauts die, the decision is made to fake everything. But, the truth can't be kept; it will find a way of escaping.

This, I imagine, would be a relatively easy movie to pitch and sell. With focus and charisma, the high concept would basically sell itself. And this isn't a cheap idea; it has numerous implications of pressing societal questions: can the general public handle the barefaced truth? How do you interact with a cynical and unforgiving society? Can a lie ever do good in the world? Is it possible to stop a white lie from snowballing into murderous conspiracy?

All of these questions are raised in the first forty-five minutes or so of this movie, but, the gears shift. Moving into the second half of the narrative we suddenly find ourselves in an action-thriller that, admittedly, builds up to a pretty awesome climax centred on a plane chase - so much of which seems like the stunt men involved had some major balls. However, this U-turn away from a concentrated, even philosophical, sci-fi picture, into a more basic action-thriller just doesn't work very well. The two halves fail to speak to each other, in fact, they undermine the best each has to offer. If the entirety of the movie built from the first half it would be something near a masterpiece; if it built from the second half (and had a better cast), it would probably be considered a classic - a mixture of North By Northwest and All The President's Men.

This then seems to be one of those movies that have been pretty much lost in film history for good reason. It's neither entertaining enough, nor clever enough - nor is it really made to a high enough level - to last the test of time. The core problem with this movie is that it chooses to be made up of two conflicting halves, instead of one cohesive whole that, formally and conceptually, productively debates itself. In such, a balance should have been found between the action elements and the social commentary which would've allow this movie to provide nuanced answers to the initial questions it raises. Furthermore, it should have added greater complexity to its antagonists instead of reducing them to a plain, evil force; the debate between who is right and who is wrong should have lasted far longer.

There is then very little reason to see Capricorn One - it's good, but not good enough to be of note. You may be able to have a good time with it, especially if you have a weak-spot for some 70s filmmaking, but, if you do see this movie, I think the lesson to be drawn out from it is that a debate within a script - within a screenwriter's head - can provide a narrative with balance, nuance and complexity. That said, have you seen this movie? What are your thoughts?






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20/08/2017

Every Year In Film #20 - Maple Leaf Viewing

Thoughts On: Maple Leaf Viewing (Momijigari, 1899)


One of the oldest surviving Japanese films documenting a scene from a kabuki theatre play.


Today we will be briefly looking at the beginnings of Japanese cinema - which is just about as old as Western cinemas represented by countries such as France, America, Britain and Germany. We will then be seeking a refreshing perspective on an idea of early cinema--after all, the Japanese silent era was, aesthetically and experientially, quite different from the cinematic experience you would find in a Western nickelodeon or theatre. But, whilst we will attempt to delve into a Japanese cinema that predates Kurosawa and Ozu - the two great and famous masters from the Japanese Golden Age - we will run into problems.

As we have discussed previously, it is thought that anywhere between 70-90% of all silent films are lost, either due to neglect, fires or mistakes like one-and-only prints being thrown away. This is a statistic that varies across different studios and countries, and, unfortunately, Japan has one of the worst batting percentages in all of the world. It is estimated that around 7000 Japanese films were made in the 1920s alone. Only somewhere around 100 Japanese silent films have survived to this day - and an even smaller percentage are readily available to watch. This is not only because of neglect and mistakes, but also because of natural disasters such as earthquakes as well as wars that would wipe out archives. So, considering that the Japanese silent era lasted until the mid-30s despite the first talkies coming out in 1930 - the country was, technologically, a little behind so it had one of the longest silent eras in the world - we can imagine that 1000s more films (than the 7000 from the 20s) were made in the 30-40 year period. That would suggest that around 99% of all Japanese silent films have been lost forever. When film historians then attempt to construct histories and commentaries upon early Japanese cinema, they are left primarily with sources such as business records, newspapers and interactions, directly or not, with those involved somehow or another in this early period. We are lucky in this day and age as a practice of film preservation, film theory and film history is now decades old, meaning that there is an abundance of readily available material we can study and reflect upon. It is nonetheless difficult to study early Japanese cinema in particular, however; this is not only due to the scarcity of material, but also because of the perception of world cinema histories.

As is easily recognised and well-known, all of film history is largely overshadowed by the West - France and America (furthermore, a little place called Hollywood) especially. This is no coincidence as these two cinemas are, almost inarguably, the most important--and have been since the late 1800s. There is nonetheless an irrevocable importance in widening the lens through which film history is seen because, if we do not, it is quite impossible to understand modern cinema. This is of course because modern cinema is made up of countless figures belonging to France and America - many of whom where emigrants - who were influenced by other national cinemas. This is true in the pre-cinema era in which the development of camera technology was pretty much world-wide (though, heavily Western), just as it is true in the silent and sound era. After all, one of the most significant and often-cited silent films, The Birth Of A Nation, was a product of D.W Griffith wanting to out-do Italian epics such as Cabiria. And when we move into the 60s and 70s, we find ourselves drowning in the vast network of inspiration that sprawled outwardly from Hollywood alone. After all, who are Scorsese, Coppola and Lucas without both American film history and world cinema--with Japanese cinema as a significant example? So, whilst the cinema of Japan may not be considered as important or influential - at least not until the 1950s - as that of the West, it would be foolish to assume that such a cinema could just be overlooked.

To begin our brief overview of early Japanese cinema, we will explore how Western inventions spread to Japan and flourished into an individual and unique form of exhibition. These inventions were the Kinetoscope, Cinématographe and the Vitascope. Whilst we have explored two of these inventions so far in the Every Year series (follow the links for those posts), we have not yet touched on the Vitascope...


... and so this is something we will return to. Staying on track, however, the first contact Japan had with moving pictures of this kind would have been through Edison's Kinetoscope.


When attending the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Takahashi Shinji, an owner of a gunpowder shop, came into contact with Edison's pre-filmic device. He would want to buy this device here, but would have to wait until two years later when he could purchase two from businessmen who dealt in watches in Yokohama (south of Tokyo) in 1896. Before his first public unveiling of the device later that year in Kobe (central Japan), Takahashi held a private showing that the then prince, Taishō, attended. This allowed for an impressive claim to higher society in his marketing campaign - "Graced By His Imperial Highness The Crown Prince" - when he later opened up his parlour to the public with high attendance costs. However, prices were relatively high (they were similar to attendance fees for stage theatre) for all forms of cinema in this early period as the cost of accessing, importing, exhibiting and maintaining films and their attached equipment was, in itself, expensive.

The second cinematic device that was brought to Japan was imported by Inahata Katsutard, also in 1896. Inahata came into contact with this when running into an old classmate: Auguste Lumière. The two had attended the same technical school in Lyon in 1877, but Inahata would go onto work in textiles. It was on a business trip that he then ran into Auguste, heard of his recently successful invention and would purchase the rights to distribute the Cinématographe, bringing back home with him a few (somewhere between 2 and 5) machines that he would distribute to friends and across the country. The Lumières sent an operator with their distributed equipment in the form of François-Constant Girel, whose job it was to make films, help project them, distribute them, keep books and help set up projection stations in major cities. Girel was in Japan for just under a year during 1897 and would shoot films across the country whilst helping set up Japanese stations, sending his footage back to France. Inahata wasn't too happy with Girel's work, however, as he didn't seem interested in helping the Japanese with equipment, nor was he very good at fixing projectors, hence, it is said that Inahata called him an "incompetent fool".

The video we are about to watch, which is an example of Girel's work, suggests that one of the first Japanese films was made by Gabriel Veyre - another Lumière camera operator who replaced Girel at the end of his post. His replacement, in itself, implies that he had to have been in Japan from 1898 onwards. This film is then attributed to the wrong operator - which is seemingly confirmed by The Lumière catalogue here.


For stills of other films that Girel shot, as most of his films are either lost or not available online, follow this link. That said, though Edison's Kinetoscope would have been introduced to Japan a year before this film was made, the Kinetoscope shorts that were shown would have been made in America by Edison's company. This could change when actual camera-projectors, Cinématographes, were brought to Japan. Escrime au Sabre Japonais, or, Japanese Sword Fencing, is then one of the earliest surviving films made in Japan shot with the Lumière device. However, because it was made by the Frenchman Constant Girel, and was likely never shown domestically, instead, in France as one of the hundreds of exotic films that would be made by the Lumières' company, this cannot really be considered one of the first Japanese films. What this short instead represents is the initial introduction of cinema to Japan. Before we come to the topic of the first 'Japanese film' made by a Japanese filmmaker, it is probably best we return to our exploration of the first filmic devices that made their way to the country

Devices like the Kinetoscope and Cinématographe weren't entirely new to Japan, much like they weren't entirely new to the world, as devices like the magic lantern and various traditional projection devices were popular and wide-spread forms of entertainment. When these two devices were first introduced their reception was similar to that in other parts of the world - especially concerning the Kinetoscope. As famed and iconic as this device was, it didn't last all too long. Two years after its release in 1893 in America, the Kinetoscope was under threat from devices such as the mutoscope, which was a mechanised flip book viewed through a peep-hole. And then, of course, came the invention of the Cinématographe - which, for the Japanese especially, proved a better device as it shot and projected films to wide audiences. In America, despite the Kinetoscope being incredibly profitable early on, profits were plummeting hugely around 1895 and projection to large audiences was proving far more lucrative. So, in 1896, Edison bought the rights to a phantoscope and re-names it the Vitascope.


As we should be familiar with by now, Edison had almost nothing to do with the invention and production of his filmic devices - he primarily managed his business. It was then Charles Francis Jenkins that created a projection device in the early 1890s, calling it a phantoscope and putting on one of the first (free) shows to an audience in 1894. Jenkins required financial backing and so turned to Thomas Armat before the pair unveiled the device and later modified it together to be one of the first projectors that would intermittently stop film, producing a crisp, non-blurred image unlike that you were likely to have seen when looking into a Kinetoscope peep-hole. However, Armat soon stole the only working model from Jenkins to sell for his own profits. After a legal battle, Jenkins received a settlement of $2,500 as full payment for his work on the modified device (he kept the patents for the original) and later won awards recognising his efforts in initially creating the landmark projector. In 1896, Armat, having won the rights to the second modified and more advanced device, would sell the patent to Thomas Edison who would have the means to mass produce it. This was under the agreement that Edison could rename the device and market it as an invention of his own. And thus was born the Vitascope, which saw Jenkins and Armat fall from historical mention - though, without Edison, it is highly unlikely that the Phantoscope would have amounted to much, nor would Armat have made much money.

The Vitascope was then a significant step for American cinema and was the device that spread across the nation around 1896/97. Whilst Edison would soon turn to Projectoscopes, Projecting Kinetocopes, Home Projecting Kinetoscopes and even Super Kinetoscopes in his ventures to remain relevant in the rapidly expanding movie business around the turn of the century, it was the Vitascope that found its way to Japan in the same year that the Cinématograph did: 1896. It was Araki Waichi who initially saw a Kinetoscope in America during 1894, and planned to buy one on a return trip in 1896. Plans changed, however, when he came into contact with the Vitascope, which he quickly imported to Japan and used to put on the first show to a paying audience in 1897 in Osaka (central Japan). The device spread across the country a month later when Arai Saburō imported another device and put on the first Vitascope shows in Tokyo.

By 1897, the Kinetoscope, Cinématographe and Vitascope were then in Japan, entertaining audiences, often in temporary theatre spaces (the first permanent cinema was established in 1903, but it would take time for the practice to spread) for periods of around 2 weeks at a time. The Kinetoscopes quickly fell out of favour due to the Cinématographe's and Vitascope's virtues in regards to projecting. And so, similar to America, by mid-1897, there are no records of anymore kinetoscope showings. However, whilst the Cinématographe and Vitascope were in favour with audiences and the first companies were beginning to invest in film around 1902, providing an opportunity for a more stable practice of film viewing, exhibitors ran into much technical difficulty, which slowed down the development of Japanese cinema. This was because electricity, or direct current, which the Vitascope projector solely relied on, was only recently introduced to the country in 1878, and so the infrastructure was still developing across the nation. Added to this, exhibitors had to learn how to use these devises. Without helpful, skilled operators - which Constant Girel proved himself not to be - learning was then difficult and technical problems were hard to overcome. Thus, in early theatres as many as 10 people were said to have been needed to run all of the individual elements of the projecting process: cranking film, focusing the lens, threading the film, rewounding it, etc. Then there were supervisors, cleaners and even boys to fan the workers. But, as time went on and workers became more skilled, this task could be done by only 2 workers.

Around 1900 and the period in which cinema was still spreading across Japan, there still remained a challenge in the marketing of the Western invention - which couldn't have been helped too much by anti-Western sentiment and the censorship of Western ideas at the time (which was the Meiji period [1868-1912] ruled over by Emperor Meiji). Also, competition from other newly imported devices such as phonographs and x-rays always threatened the young film industry. Interestingly, x-rays, which were discovered in 1895 in Germany - though, more basic incarnations were being studied since 1875 - probably found their way to Japan around 1896, and they proved to be popular attractions at which attendees could see through their bodies as a novel experience. This couldn't have lasted too long, however, as demonstrators and showmen working at these exhibitions were, of course, in danger. For example, one of these showmen named Taniuchi Matsunosuke performed so many demonstrations that he developed cancer in his arm - which he then had to get amputated. After this, he moved into the moving picture business, implying a macabre anecdote demonstrating the sustainable nature of cinema as entertainment over the x-ray exhibitions of the time.

Despite these numerous difficulties and hindrances that exhibitors would face around the turn of the century, the industry would still develop - and, in large part, thanks to one of the defining aspects of silent Japanese cinema: benshi. Sometimes also referred to as katsuben, benshi were the narrators of silent films. Narration was an uncommon practice throughout the world with there being a few examples of Westerners who would explain and add to a film through an aural performance. However, within Japan, narration was one of the - if not the - most integral elements of film exhibition throughout the entirety of the Japanese silent era. This all began for multiple reasons. Not only were exhibitors asking for high prices for their film showings, but they were primarily screening foreign films. To provide a show worth paying for and one that audiences would understand, exhibitors hired people to explain a film beforehand, stating the locations of street scenes and providing details of the culture and history of an area. They would even delve into the technological process of filmmaking and projection as well as the inventors who brought moving pictures to life and then to Japan. Moreover, because the films were initially so short, they would be looped as to extend the show. So, whilst the reels played over, the benshi would also explain what was occurring on screen, bringing action to life all the better.

As the benshi's role developed, they would become ever more important in the marketing and exhibition of films. For example, some American films from Edison's manufacturing company would be subject to censorship. One of the first films to ever experience this in Japan was Annabelle's Butterfly Dance.


Featured in this short was Annabelle Moore, who at the time, would have only been around 17. She danced in Edison's Black Maria studio numerous times, featuring in many short films around the late 1800s and early 1900s. When this film was screened in Japan in 1897 it soon became the first example of film censorship because Moore was said to have lifted her leg up too high. In the same year, Edison's controversial film, The Kiss, came to Japan.


Whilst you can find examples of kissing - even between two completely naked women - in Eadweard Muybridge's 'films', this is generally accepted to be the first kiss ever caught on film. When it was first released in America it proved scandalous with numerous entities, such as the Roman Catholic Church, and media outlets calling for censorship and a ban. In Japan, this film also had the potential to come under criticism from authorities, but, understanding this, certain benshi would explain as part of the film's exhibition that kissing was a common practice and means of greeting one another in the West. This saved the film from being banned as it was seen as an insight into a foreign culture - which is not only humorous, but an example of the growing power that the benhsi could wield.

Whilst benshis would often provide accurate and insightful content that greatly enhanced the screening of films, they could sometimes relay inaccurate or lacking information and so prove more comical than insightful. However, the benshi practice quickly developed as the narrators soon became one of the main draws to screenings. It was then the most insightful and powerful performers who could put on the best show that would then motivate the growth and spread of cinema as not just a basic novelty tantamount to an x-ray exhibition, but a show closer to a theatrical performance. A key element of this was then the influence of, and the love for, traditional theatres in Japan. An example of a significant influence on Japanese cinema that lasted beyond the silent era was then kabuki theatre, which featured songs, dance and highly stylised drama and dates as far back as to the 15th century. Benshis would then not only approach their performances as theatrical recitals of poetry and plays in the dark, but would also be feeding a cultural affinity for spoken performance into cinema - which is what made it so unique.

It was then the need for information, explanation, translation and - most importantly - performance that catalysed the growth of early Japanese cinema. This saw the most famous benshis become the crux of marketing, overshadowing on posters the titles of films and even actors as a result of the importance and the connection that audiences would have felt with regards to the performers. When we then look to our subject for today, Momijigari, or, Maple Leaf Viewing (a.k.a Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves or Maple Viewing), we should remember the context in which it would be presented.


Made by Tsunekich Shibata, this is the oldest surviving Japanese film in existence today. It is not so much a piece of narrative film, however, more so a record of two famous kabuki actors performing an extract of the play, Momijigari, in which a Taira clan commander from the Genpei War (1180–1185), Taira no Koremori, defeats an ogress disguised as a princess. Shooting this using a camera from Gaumount, Tsunekich was one of the first Japanese filmmakers to have his film domestically distributed. Figures such as Shirō Asano had made ghost films in the years before him, but none of his films, whilst on record, have survived to this day.

Many films resembling Momijigari would have been made in the first decade or so of Japanese cinema - though, at the request of the performers, this wasn't actually screened until 1907. Japanese filmmakers would then often shoot or re-create kabuki plays much like Westerners would adapt or shoot plays, books and well-known parables from their own cultures. It was during the first decade of cinema in Japan that many films would then not differentiate themselves from theatre, which seemingly solidified the role of the benshi in the screening spaces. Added to play re-creations, however, would be comedies and other novel attractions as well as animated shorts on legendary figures such as Miyamoto Musashi, who was a swordsman and rōnin who wielded two blades and was never defeated in his duels. This indicates that, especially in regards to their own films, Japanese audiences would already know the stories that they were being told, meaning the film itself was secondary to the manner in which the benshi brought characters to life as well as injected humour and drama into the stories. A note we must touch on now we are moving up to 1910 in Japan is the birth of Japanese animation.

Not much is known about the first animated Japanese films; the earliest was discovered in 2005, and is dated to 1907. Katsudō Shashin, or Active Photo (a.k.a Moving Picture) is this film:


Only a few seconds long and quite clearly not a fragment of a longer narrative, it is quite clear that this was an experiment of sorts - funnily, it bears much resemblance to the Dickson Greeting, which was one of the first successful experiments put to film by Edison's company. So, whilst this can only be confirmed to be the oldest surviving Japanese animated film, it presents itself, quite clearly, as an early effort - if not one of the first animated films of the country, then probably the one of the first of its unknown creator. This short is atypical of later animated Japanese films, however, as the frames were stencilled directly onto the film. Many other animated films from the era were hand-drawn and photographed or, later in the 20s, you can find examples of cut-out animation.

As it goes without saying, animation or anime would later become one of the biggest cultural exports of Japan. It was then around the 20s that animation, as inspired by Western forms, would begin to grow. After WWII the practice would evolve until the 1970s when it began to become very distinct from all forms of Western animation, becoming what it is known as today through television series such as Dragon Ball Z, Cowboy Bebop and Naruto as well as the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

Without wanting to stray too far into Japan's silent era, nor beyond it, as this is a subject that we can return to, we should conclude with a final reflection upon the crux of what makes the early Japanese silent cinema so unique. It was the benhsi, those who defined Japanese cinema (as well as the cinema of the Japanese diaspora - emigrants - in countries such as the Philippines and the Americas) to be a tradition of performance and image joined together that replaced the honky-tonk piano or the orchestra found in Western cinemas. Even when music was played during screenings it was often reminiscent of classical the kabuki theatre style and would be coordinated with the performers to change pitch and volume when they had to speak. The benshi were then the stars of silent cinema, those that audiences would go to specific theatres for, those that served to be educators as well as entertainers. They rose to particular prominence after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 urged people to the theatres to see newsreels and re-constructions of fighting where the benshi would spur up patriotic courage and belief. Their popularity following 1905 shaped the way that Japanese films were constructed and the manner in which foreign film was consumed, catalysing further growth in the industry as films began to get longer and groups of benshi would be required to work in cycles. Even when the first Japanese film critics and theorist that arose around 1915 began calling for a "pure film" (a term later given to the movement) - a cinema that wasn't so steeped in tradition and had a concentration on the image alone - the benshis remained. Whilst the styles were varied and evolved over time, and, quite sparsely, are still practised to this day, their impact on Japanese cinema was quite resolute: they established a unique kind of filmic experience from which would evolve a great cinematic industry in the 40s and 50s following the extinction of the benshi when the silent era ended in the mid-30s.

There is much that we couldn't touch on today, and so I'll urge you to explore my two main sources: the Chronology of Japanese Cinema and Jeffery A. Dym's essay, Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Pictures to Japan. I also found this interview with a modern Benshi on MidnightEye very interesting. With that said, that's all from the Every Year series today and also the end of the 1800s as next time we will be in the year 1900.

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End Of The Week Shorts #19



Today's Shorts: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Mother (1926), Enthusiasm (1931), Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), Within Our Gates (1920), Mean Machine (2001), Miss Congeniality (2000), 28 Days Later (2002), Dazed And Confused (1993), The Secret of Magic Island (1957)



Not a very good movie. Whilst the world-design and the scope are highly captivating, the main problems with this movie are the characters and the cast. Almost every single character is bland and played awfully - the main three protagonists especially (McAvoy is ok as he projects some semblance of personality). This drains all tension and drama that is almost built up, which leaves many scenes and shots inadvertently funny, and the rest just plain mediocre at best. 
Really nothing more than a throw-away movie with a source that will draw in young audiences, the only positives of this movie are the balls all involved had to put to screen a film of such scale. And, credit where credit is due, the CGI, whilst it isn't amazing, isn't too bad at all - and after 12 years.



Just like every Soviet Montage film I've ever seen, Pudovkin's Mother blew me away. The understanding of the cut and the use of mise en scène throughout this narrative is profoundly spectacular; never does Pudovkin relax his artistic rigour and let through even a slight implication of a style that does not belong his culture and age. For this, Mother is, formally, a film like few others and a masterful representative of a lost, yet overwhelmingly powerful, approach to cinema. 
If there's anything that the Soviet Montage films lack, it is an intricacy and emotional depth in their stories. Whilst there is always an outcry of injustice and inhumanity, these films always feel slightly detached from their characters - and this is quite true of Pudovkin's Mother. So, whilst this is one of the most captivating Soviet Montage films I have seen in regards to story, it is nonetheless lacking. 
Despite any faults, however, I have to recommend this film to anyone even slightly interested in editing and the formal construction of films. Pudovkin's Mother is a truly great film.



An immensely inventive documentary by Dziga Vertov, one that 'documents' the Five Year Plan in action and the intense labour that fuelled it. The first Five Year Plan was an economic scheme set up by the Soviet government in 1928 to increase their heavy industries for fear of war and conflict from the West (which was made up of far more industrialised countries). This plan was entirely reliant on the work of the people and was responsible for vast economic growth, an establishment of the working class as well as an industry that would make Russia's incredibly important contributions to the Allied forces of WWII possible. 
Despite the immensity of Vertov's formal design, this is only a shade of a documentary - and largely propaganda. This is because, despite showing the intense labour and the successes of the Five Year Plan, the devastating famine, forced labour and other tragic effects of the poorly conceived collectivisation of agriculture and expansion of industry are not acknowledged. 
So, whilst this is nowhere near as brilliant as Man With A Movie Camera as well as heavily biased towards concealing the true state of Russia in this period, Enthusiasm is an intriguing insight into history and an impressive example of how Vertov confronted the advent of sound with his montage.



Whilst it is not flawless, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was immense fun. 
To get the negatives out of the way; many jokes don't hit, there are quite a few moments of bad CGI and awkward physics, some bad shots that try to call back to the 70s/80s style of genre filmmaking and the writing around the first act especially is pretty bumpy. More minor issues concern the look of this film - sometimes wondrous, some times questionable - and the same can be said for some of the song choices (a few just didn't seem to work). 
Negating much of this are numerous surprisingly hilarious scenes, brilliant characterisation and a perfect tone that puts the majority of the serious superhero films to shame. Most of this is motivated by the pleasant exploration of family as a theme which, whilst it isn't overwhelmingly profound, gives this film a good dose of intelligence. There's then little more to say other than this is an awesome blockbuster and almost impossible to dislike. 
P.S. End/post-credit scenes seem to be getting out of control. Not only are they endless, but many seem pretty important, and so are awkward bookends to a narrative. It's quite strange to see how their use has evolved.



This is a film by Oscar Micheaux, not the very first, but the first significant African-American filmmaker who had a decades-long career contributing hugely to the cultural expansion of American cinema. With Our Gates is then an early example of the "race film". This was considered a genre of film that lasted from the late nineteen-teens until post-WW2 (around the 50s) that would be made with minorities (the small studios and crews would often be all-white - though, this isn't the case with Micheaux) and for minorities in the unambiguously segregated South and the de facto segregated North as a prevalent and successful form of independent or alternative cinema in the America's studio era. 
Most valuable as a historical and a cultural document, Within Our Gates gives insight into this kind of filmmaking and the purpose of independent forms of cinema over the ages. A must-watch for anyone interested in such topics.



Partially fun, partially boring, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein mediates between dud jokes of various kinds and genuinely amusing madcap moments. The direction and edit throughout has many hiccups, like basic continuity errors, but nonetheless, the cinematography and set-design are pretty excellent - and the integration of animation; probably the best part of this movie. The comedic performances are highly repetitive and predictable and there’s not much to say about the more serious roles. But, if this film does anything well, it exposes the ridiculous nature of the classic monster movies - though this is the element of spoof and satire movies that just gets under my skin; instead of bringing something else down, why not say and do something of worth yourself? 
All in all, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein is not a terrible movie, but it’s also not a great one. Some may enjoy it, some won’t.




This is just one of those movies that I can't see the faults in as I'm too busy having a good time and laughing like a moron. Whilst I don't like the intro much, as soon as we're in the prison, this movie is golden. What makes this so is that it's bursting at the seams with so many brilliant caricatures - I say 'caricatures' because it's easy to argue that the characters within aren't very well-rounded or provided with much depth, but this works so well. The simplicity of the emotional drive, the simplicity of the plot, the simplicity of the characters all imbue this story with unrelenting energy that explodes with the brilliant final act. I don't think there is anything more basic in logic and in heart than a good, heated football match - and Mean Machine captures this with class (of a very idiosyncratic kind). 
I can see why people would hate this movie, but I don't. It's dumb, but it's good fun. If you would like a more senseless and silly film in the same vein as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, maybe give this a go.



I should probably be calling this a guilty pleasure, but I won't. Miss Congeniality is a cheap-at-heart, high-concept movie that knows what it's doing and pulls it off brilliantly. There is nothing special about this movie apart from the fact that it does what you know it will do flawlessly and without letting you down. Miss Congeniality is then like an athlete, or, to make a better comparison, a beauty pageant contestant, who works really hard and it's incredibly technical, but was never born with talent, perfect genetics and originality. It's got good personality and spirit though, which makes up for the second or third place that it rightly earns. 
All of this means that the script it tight, the performances are strong and the direction is competent, leaving this movie a really pleasant 2 hours or so sat quite mindlessly in front of the T.V.



Despite Boyle's highly inventive direction, this is an incredibly ugly movie. And, unfortunately, the digital camera work doesn't provide the aesthetic grit and realism that everyone involved were probably going for. Instead of making things feel more visceral and real, the cinematography in this movie is actually detrimental to verisimilitude; everything feels incredibly contrived. So, it goes without saying, but this movie hasn't, stylistically speaking, aged very well at all. 
Whilst I really appreciate the spin that 28 Days Later presents on the zombie movie, the writing, acting and general design of this movie leave a really bad taste in my mouth. This is because it just feels like terrible, low-end, early 00s British T.V - something that I'm too familiar with and really despise. 
All in all, this is just a movie that has never worked for me.



There are a plethora of rebellious teen, end of high school, coming-of-age movies. Everything from Rebel Without A Cause to American Graffiti to Grease to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, American Pie to Mean Girls follows the same basic paradigm with the same fundamental themes. Dazed And Confused is no exception to this rule, though, it is one of the most unique and individual of these archetypal teen movies. This all comes down to Linklater's building of his 70s Austin hippie world, and his population of it with reams of memorable and instantaneously likeable characters. 
Whilst, like basically all of Linklater's films, some will say this is a little pretentious and talkative at times, there's nothing I can wholeheartedly fault with this movie. Maybe I could point out a few bits of bad ADR, but this is entirely overshadowed by Linklater's ability to embed innumerable subtle emotional layers into every one of his scenes. For example, whilst the hazing sequences are horrifying, tense and confusing, they too are thrilling, joyous and eventually heartwarming. Much like high school this film is then a jungle of torment and maybe also the encapsulation of some of the best times a person can have, rife with absurdity and discombobulation. 
A film I could watch endlessly Dazed And Confused is pure brilliance.



I came across this strange film when reading an André Bazin essay that attempts to explore "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage". Bazin uses this film as an example of montage in the children's film genre, noting it as a movie that, though it is impressively and meticulously designed, is faulted for its contrivance stemmed form the use of montage (editing). To understand what Bazin was talking about, I decided to watch this movie - the only version being in French. 
This is strangely amusing and a very surreal kind of fantasy through which Tourane creates the illusion of dogs, mice, birds and foxes living and interacting on a magical island. This is done through a very clear trick of cinema that, as Bazin suggests, does act as a wall which holds off believability. Nonetheless, despite not understanding what on earth was going on, this film intermittently captivated me. 
So, I wouldn't recommend (or maybe I should) you watch this on drugs as it is quite trippy. Soberly watched, however, The Secret of Magic Island is maybe worth it in accompaniment to the Bazin essay.





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