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 his 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 and Vitascope 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

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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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Every Year In Film #20 - Maple Leaf Viewing

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18/08/2017

Annabelle: Creation - Structure & Pacing: The Real Tension

Thoughts On: Annabelle: Creation (2017)

We just covered this film, essentially delving into its subtext, or hidden meaning, with spoilers. For that, click here. What we will be concluding now is the critical analysis of this film's formal cinematic design.


Annabelle: Creation is a film that I grew to appreciate quite a bit thanks to the intelligent storytelling that comes out of the script. However, this is a film that is incredibly rife with bad horror tropes. To the film's favour, I wouldn't say that this is any more of an assault on the idea of originality than most average horror films. Moreover, there was a clear attempt in this narrative to embrace the tropes whilst dishing out some genuinely horrific imagery doused in some well-earned atmosphere and tension. There was one thing that really got on my nerves with this narrative, however, and that concerned the atmospheric crescendos that come to a dead stand-still at their peak. To better explain, something strange will happen: a door will open off its own accord. The camera then has us stare straight at it, the character in the scene wary and confused as they close the door and then walk away... it happens again... the door creeeeeeks open... the music starts to swell... the person edges towards the door... the camera has us stare for an age more... the music grows louder and louder... their fingers come to the door handle... small pieces of sound design are emphasised... the character starts to doubt their actions... the music's coming to its peak... something is gonna happen--BANG. Another door slams shut, all tension and horror are gone as the person pushes the door and runs off. Whilst this exact scene doesn't exist in Annabelle, you see this paradigm repeat itself again and again and again and again throughout this narrative. Even when supernatural beings actually start chasing characters, the tension will continue to build, only for--BANG--a door to shut and the problem be done with.

This is so incredibly frustrating as this movie's slow pacing never goes anywhere and all the built potential of atmosphere and tone add up to nothing. This is actually something that I began thinking about when sitting through the trailer for the up-and-coming It before this movie started. (Trailer watching is a practice I try to avoid). The trailer for the King adaptation seems to imply prolonged scenes in which children interact with clowns, meaning highly tense scenes that don't end abruptly with false scares or loud noises. Whilst I have no faith in trailers at all, I began to think of a movie that had us stay in a horrifying situation that played out to its full extreme. The perfect movie in this regard would then start with a door opening and then, without jumping through time or having any unnecessary breaks, horror just flowing from the screen in a constant crescendo until the final climax in which everyone's nails are bitten clean to the bone as they lie several feet from the edges of their seats.

With this unrealistic ideal movie in mind, I began to search my memory for examples of already-existing films that do force their characters to stay in a moment, letting the horror play through to its very extreme. After finding a few sparse and loose examples, like REC, The Exorcist and The Shining, I suddenly realised something: there is a whole genre in which this is the goal. This genre is commonly referred to as exploitation. We've talked about exploitation and video nasties (the British-named counterpart) before. In case you don't know what these films are though, we'll define them quickly. You can skip this next paragraph if you already know...

Exploitation films emerged from New Hollywood in the late 1950s and evolved across the 60s and 70s, coming to a dead end around the early 80s. These movies are the product of filmmakers that took advantage of the new cencorship infrastructure in Hollywood as well as the changing economic environment - which was far more accepting of independent films that came from outside of the big studios. Many exploitation films are horrors that focus on one idea to the point that it is ridiculous - and this is a kind of game that the audience and filmmakers play. However, whilst almost all exploitation films are highly sexual, violent, torturous and grotesque (seemingly with the goal of the filmmakers being arrested for obscenity, animal cruelty or after being accused of murder) some are also heavily racial (Blaxploitation for example), and so they can all be characterised by a focus on the lewd and the socially unacceptable. Video nasties serve as a cousin to this genre of film as they are a breed of exploitation films that reached markets through the new VHS technology that emerged from the 70s.

Exploitation films such as Cannibal Holocaust, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House On The Left and Pink Flamingos all have a sadistic fixation with prolonging scenes, or ensuring we see the most extremely gratuitous and tortuous things occur as quick as possible. Are these the height of my ideal horror cinema? I don't think so. Whilst exploitation films often take things to their extreme, milking a concept for all it has, they lack technical prowess in regards to the writing; they lack tension and atmosphere.

What then seems to be the solution here is a meeting of the exploitation film and the high-end modern horror film; the combination of atmosphere and tone with an exploitative fixation on horror. But, this solution, whilst it's a nice idea and piece of motivation, comes with many of its own problems. Where is the line between prolonging tense scenes and exploiting concepts, reducing them to absurdist gore-porn?

This is a very difficult question to answer as there's one lesson that Spielberg seems to have taught most modern filmmakers: don't show the shark until you absolutely have to. Jaws works because the imagination can often be stronger than reality; a horrific thing not seen can be far more terrifying than something horrific played out right before your eyes. This is because potential, the unexpected and possibility are harder topics to grasp and comes to terms with than what is before you. Knowing this, filmmakers imply horror instead of striving to think up the most horrific images like those apart of the exploitation movement did. Thus, when we consider the pacing and structural issues of dud and anti-climatic horror scenes in movies such as Annabelle: Creation, there develops a tension in these scenes beyond the anxiety we may be imbued with as we wait for a jump scare. This tension is between the sophisticated soft-core horror and the hardcore, balls-to-the-wall, all-on-show exploitation horror. As a result, the line between these two contrary approaches to is called absurdity. Some filmmakers know how to embrace absurdity, Wes Craven and Sam Raimi are pretty brilliant at this, whilst some are better at keeping away from it, James Wan and David Sandberg seem to be quite good at this. There doesn't seem to be anyone, at least, no one who comes to mind, who can negate absurdity and push their horror scenes to their utmost extreme, drawing every ounce of terror out of them. This leaves us in a place that's not too better to that which we started at.

I'll then have to leave with a few open questions to you. Can you think of any horror movies that take their scenes to their utmost extreme without becoming ridiculous and before having to cut things short with a door slamming or a false scare? Do you think the line between exploitation and atmospheric, jump-scare horrors is insurmountable? How do you think this element of filmmaking could be improved upon?






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17/08/2017

Annabelle: Creation - The Horrifying Toy Doll

Thoughts On: Annabelle: Creation (2017)

A group of displaced orphans move into a household haunted by tragedy.


Quite inadvertently, I've seen every single one of the Conjuring Universe films. Whilst I don't think this series is particularly good or bad, much like the Paranormal Activity films, they just seem to find themselves in front of me. The weakest Conjuring film, in my view, was certainly Annabelle as it was so forgettable. So, going into this movie, I wasn't expecting much at all. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by a well-constructed and intelligent picture. There are major downfalls in this film's design however. We will not get into the most significant of these, but, I will say that what initially brings this movie down is its bland characters - not one of them are particularly interesting or emotionally engaging. This is something that I believe most people will pick up on, and so will be the biggest hurdle to enjoying this narrative. That said, the scares, whilst predictable and heavily reliant on the sound design alone, mostly work to a satisfactory degree it seems - my girlfriend jumped quite a bit. What's more, the direction is pretty flawless. Sandberg, quite like Wan with the first Conjuring, uses his camera in the way that seemingly all horror movie directors would love to if they had a big enough budget; he often has us float through, above and across the sets, a ghost like Kubrick's camera in The Shining, but with a distinguished modern aesthetic. However, this can draw too much attention to itself at times as the camera movement is often unmotivated, yet not impressive enough to really justify itself. But, this isn't overwhelmingly distracting and, especially by the mid-point, this film ultimately finds its footing and works pretty well.

The other strengths of Annabelle concern its subtext - and this is the element that really made this movie worthwhile for me. To delve into this, be warned, because we will be using...

**SPOILERS**

With this second Annabelle film, Dauberman (writer) constructs a pretty expressive narrative about sisterhood, femininity and the dynamics of a female social group. He does this with the use of the Annabelle doll and the generationally diverse cast of women. A question we must ask to understand how this group functions is: why are toy dolls anything from lovable to pleasant to weird to creepy to horrifying?

As many people may already know, there is a theory that places particularly creepy human representatives (like dolls and robots) into an "uncanny valley".


This is a very interesting tool with which you can understand horror movies, but sticking with Annabelle, it's clear that the doll, because it is constructed so well, but not well enough, fits quite snugly into the uncanny valley. However, realism isn't the only determining factor of its creepiness in my view - and this film attempts to emphasise this. There is an emotional connection that people, girls especially, can develop with their dolls (baby dolls in particularly). This is because, once they hit a certain age of maturity, girls' biological functions as well as surrounding social mechanisms motivate them towards empathy, care and compassion for young humans. When this emotional symbol of emotional attachment - the toy doll - is pushed down the uncanny valley, the after-effects are pretty poignant - hence a plethora of Chucky-like movies that have been made over time. Dauberman seems to be somewhat conscious of this concept and so uses the symbol of Annabelle to test his group of females with age-old tropes of horror.

As has been made fun of time and time again with spoof movies that make use of virgin teens alone surviving the killer/monster of a given movie, horror is classically pretty puritanical in its often unforgiving application of religious themes. There are then heavy motifs throughout the horror genre of women being punished, tested and used as cautionary tales of sin. Whilst many will find this distasteful, I believe that this can have a significant place in a horror film if used well. Relating this to the film at hand, not only does Dauberman punish his corrupted female characters in Annabelle: Creation, but he does so for the sake of building his story.

So, to begin the dissection, there are three females in this story that are really put on trial. They are the mother, who lost her daughter and, with her husband, used satanic forces to bring her spirit to life again; one of the oldest orphans, Nancy, who pushes around and bullies (passive-aggressively) her younger house mates; and, finally, one of our main protagonists, Janice, who has broken her leg and fears being treated differently by her friends because of the injury. It is the devil that resides within Annabelle's (the dead daughter's) doll that is used to punish all of these women. Because they express no faith - as is made clear by Sister Charlotte - these three figures are then susceptible to the whims, and in turn the punishment, of the devil. To provide a secular explanation, because these figures hold no concept of a higher, transcendent (of basic understanding) and archetypal good that they remain loyal to, they leave in themselves a sympathy towards the bad - which is a slippery path towards self-destruction. Further contextualising this, however, is the use of a feminine symbol: the Annabelle doll. This uncannily horrifying doll is then representative of these women coming into conflict with, or neglecting, their female values.

We see this paradigm quite clearly with the parents of the dead Annabelle. They chose not to accept the death of their little girl and instead fixate on the impossible. By neglecting a trust in a higher ideal of goodness, they, with vanity, turn away from a positive perspective to wallow in their sorrows by bringing their daughter 'back to life'. The mistake that this is, is made clear by the fact that the devil (ultimate darkness) inhabits their daughter and later takes the mother's eye - her perspective - a wound she masks with a portion of a doll's face (which is not too different from what she does by remembering her daughter through her doll). When the parents attempt to provide penance - which is reversing their previous negative actions by trying to move past their daughter's death and by opening their home to a group of orphans - they come into conflict with themselves. We see this through the sinister and uninviting atmosphere captured by the 'welcome' the girls receive; the parents are struggling to move on - the evil, possessed doll still lingers in their home - and this eventually kills them.

It is Janice who exploits this weakness in the couple by going into Annabelle's room. She knows that this is socially wrong (a sin) and so she is possessed - possibly by the parent's own negative attachment to their dead daughter. However, this is something that is never expressed too clearly, which could have easily been done through the parents being put in a trance of sorts by the possessed Janice, which in turn indicates that Dauberman doesn't have a full grip on his subtext. Nonetheless, Janice's punishment through the doll seems to be two-fold. Not only is she punished for committing a sin, but she also seems to act with too much pride; like the parents, she doesn't want to accept help in her weakened state, so instead isolates herself. Again, this idea isn't expressed very well as Janice's actions around this element of story are portrayed as rational, not irrational. But, despite this weak element of writing, it is clear that Janice's conflict concerns obeying authority and establishing/maintaining sisterhood. By failing in both of these regards (ignoring her elders and losing her friend) she is eventually consumed by the doll.

Concerning the hostile atmosphere in the house that the orphaned girls move into, we come to the bully, Nancy. She, much like the scarecrow from which the devil that kills her rises from, puts up a malevolent facade as a form of defence. Nancy is not scaring birds away from crops, however. She is, probably out of self-defence, attacking the younger girls - and often as to project her own 'maturity'. An example of this would be her mistreating Janice's friend, sending her off to play a game of hide-and-seek which she never engages in, only so that she could 'talk about boys'. This minor act of obnoxiousness becomes ever more pertinent when she constantly scares the other girls into mistrusting the new house in which they live. As mentioned, this contributes to the already tense atmosphere and so puts further pressure on the still-mourning parents.

As could be expected, this explodes with all of these characters being seriously hurt or killed, but the most compassionate, naive and innocent surviving the coming of the devil. What this transforms this narrative into is a tragic parable about a predominantly female social group failing to unite under an symbolic idea of creation. Creation is an attribute linked heavily to women, after all, we all have mothers without which we couldn't exist. This idea is expressed through these female figures, which have almost all lost either mothers or children, all coming into conflict through the loss of a child as well as biological maturity. This may stem from the fact that they've all forgotten how to properly play with dolls. Considering this idea metaphorically, what I mean to suggest here is that the social mechanisms (like a toy doll) that motivate women to be highly sociable, compassionate and caring - something that would be referred to as archetypal femininity - have been put under much pressure with seemingly irreconcilable after-effects. Again, this idea could have been better expressed with other dolls playing larger parts in this narrative - maybe the older girls bully the younger ones by stealing and throwing away their dolls whilst calling them weird or childish. However, the fact that so much of this clear subtextual conflict revolves around the doll already speaks volumes about each of these characters and their function in this narrative.

To come towards a conclusion, what Annabelle: Creation is quite clearly about puts emphasis on Creation. This is a movie about girls and women coming into conflict with their own femininity and in turn an idea of sisterhood. What this will then make clear is the abstract ending. Why does Janice grow up calling herself Annabelle? It seems that the girls throwing away the doll in the end was not a good thing; they never truly embraced their inner conflicts despite confronting them. What that would suggest is that maybe Janice was exiled from this group and was sent to another orphanage where she grew up with inner demons and insurmountable psychological torment. This was around the important age of 12 - which is about the point at which puberty will start for most young people. For the fact that all of these conflicts arise in the house following a 12 year period after Annabelle dies further implies that this movie is heavily focused on creation, loss and growth as attached to females coming under much duress. Interestingly, 12 years after Janice-turned-Annabelle is adopted, she has a nightmare about killing her parents as her boyfriend sleeps next to her. Again, the mid-20s are another tuning point in people's lives as this is where they may begin to think about starting a family - a significant point of maturation at which conflict can, again, arise, leaving the final scene of this narrative the last beat if a parabolic tragedy concerning women who can create life and must learn how to sustain it (a child; a doll) through their social practices. All of these conflicts, as said, concern sisterhood and an idea of these women's sense of feminine self. The fact that "creation" is then the abstract focus of this narrative through the doll then adds a very strong layer of intelligence to this story. The girls in this story all suffer because they do not come together and also show little understanding of, and sympathy for, the highest feminine virtues. This is done through disrespecting Annabelle's mother and one another which, all too soon, devolves into chaos.

With all of that said, it should be recognised that, whilst this is a very intelligent script, Dauberman doesn't demonstrate a full control of this subtext and so leaves this story lacking in certain respects. Ultimately, I would then say that Annabelle: Creation is an above-average horror film with quite a few faults. But, as said at the top of this post, the most significant of these issues haven't been brought into the light. We will then do this in another post on pacing and structure. But, for now I'll leave you with this question: What do you think of Annabelle: Creation and all we've covered today?






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Tangled - Classical Essence?

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16/08/2017

Tangled - Classical Essence?

Quick Thoughts: Tangled (2010)


A stolen princess with magical hair dreams of leaving her tower.


Tangled is Disney's fast and loose retelling of the classical tale of Rapunzel. For the fact that this is so far removed from the original tale, much of the archetypal subtext has been lost and replaced by a rather basic adventure full of tropes and predictability, and not much depth. If we were to delve into the subtext of this film we would only be re-tracing ground, though with a fair degree of futility, we've covered in much detail recently when exploring parent-children relationships and dreams. (For more on this, click here). In fact, when we compare Tangled to films such as Coraline, or even Disney's 1991 Beauty And The Beast, both of which this is quite similar to, Tangled is, story-wise, quite mundane. This is something that I didn't really foresee when initially planning this series well over a year ago.

I have always enjoyed Tangled, and still do, even after seeing this film dozens and dozens of times - I have young sisters, so this is nothing close to an exaggeration, believe me. I've always liked Tangled for its intricate animation and projection of characters, in particularly, Mother Gothel during the first act and in the 'Mother Knows Best" sequence (which is undoubtedly the best part of the entire film in my opinion). But, because, much like the majority of the best Disney films, Tangled holds up under a ridiculous amount of re-watches, I assumed that, when the time came, I'd have quite a bit to say about it. This is not really a position I find myself in. Whilst this is a truly gorgeous movie with great characters bursting with personality, the intention with Tangled, as said by the filmmakers, was to transpose the feel and aesthetics of the old Disney films - such as Cinderella and Pinocchio - into a CG world. Put straight, despite clear inspiration and a return to the princess figure, the essence of these films, both stylistically and atmospherically, is lost on Tangled. Whilst I speak from a bias towards the classics, Tangled doesn't feel like a true Disney film like even the recent Treasure Planet and Lilo & Stitch did. At best, this feels like a rather fantastical CG blend of a 50s Hollywood musical and a romance such as Roman Holiday. This has a lot to do with the direction; the 'camera' here functions nothing like it does in classical animated films, instead resembles that of a live action movie. Again, I really appreciate this and think it works for this narrative - though this doesn't have it contend with the best that Disney has offered.

What Tangled represents, to me, is something that, in 2010, was a long-time-coming. Whilst Disney made major strides away from their classical style in the 1960s with 101 Dalmatians and continued this through the 80s and 90s with the gradual implementation of CGI, it was after a run of CGI films that eventually lead up to Tangled that Disney, maybe inadvertently, made a resounding statement, saying that the classical style is finally, truly and completely a lost art form. With films such as Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, this idea could be looked past as the old, yet morphed, Disney magic still resides within these narratives. This magic is not present in Tangled; because of the irreconcilable distance aesthetically and tonally put to screen with this film, Disney adopted much of what Pixar does best in terms of style, and so have very clearly stepped into a new era.

This shift, if we consider the films we skipped past for the series, films such as Chicken Little, The Wild, Meet The Robinsons and Bolt, has some rather unattractive and forgettable attributes, but, thinking ahead to Wreck It Ralph, also has much promise. However, this will be something that we will have to explore further in later posts. To bring things towards an end, I'll emphasise that Tangled is a film that I really enjoy, but don't see much substance in thanks to a very basic narrative that is solely reliant on characters. These are just my thoughts though. What do you think of Tangled, especially considering its place in the wider catalogue of Disney films?

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Abouna - Irresponsibility

Quick Thoughts: Abouna (Our Father, 2002)


Made by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, this is the Chadian film of the series.


I'm not sure why - I think it's just because I saw this film at the right time - but, Abouna had a strong impact on me. From the very start, themes of responsibility jumped off of the screen and mixed perfectly with motifs of abandonment, isolation and confusion. In such, we follow our two forsaken main characters, whose father walks out on them and mother sends them to a Koranic school to be disciplined, as they trudge through events that seem far beyond their experience, age and depth. They then have to confront the meaninglessness that life can present when childhood structures are suddenly ripped from underneath them - simple structures like daily routines, but also more complex events like moving schools and watching your family dissolve around you. Without drowning in the structureless landscape that I could only imagine a young teenager would perceive when they look out into the world having endured much of the events depicted in this film, our main characters become the epicentre of a narrative based on strife as a force that would pressure many people into a foetal position in which they would forever remain--but also a force that many manage to stare in the face and simultaneously engage life as it seems we all must do.

The warm cinematography and use of colour throughout this film overlay this narrative with a sense of instantaneous nostalgia and melancholy, making visceral the pertinent themes of childhood. And the technicalities of this film are made all the more impressive knowing the strange shooting schedule: the footage from the end of every day of shooting would have to be sent over 2500 miles to France from Chad. After the film was processed and the crew was told that the footage was good, several days after they had sent it, they could begin shooting another day.

Somehow managing this schedule, somehow putting to screen a well-directed and good-looking movie with a highly affecting and poignant story at its heart, Haroun has clearly done something lasting and spectacular with Abouna. I would highly recommend anyone even slightly intrigued find and watch this film.

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The City Of Lost Children - Creation In Vain

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15/08/2017

The City Of Lost Children - Creation In Vain

Thoughts On: The City Of Lost Children (La Cité des Enfants Perdus, 1995)

A strong-man circus performer's adopted brother is stolen by an organisation who give children to an evil scientist that steals their dreams.


The City Of Lost Children is a film we recently, and briefly, covered without spoilers. To see this, click here. Today we will be exploring the narrative of The City Of Lost Children with spoilers, so, if you've not seen it, you've been warned.

Jeunet and Caro's 1995 film is a fairy that is essentially about vanity and its effects on children. The vanity that is referenced in this narrative isn't, however, a narcissistic obsession with one's own image. Instead, an indulgence in one's own existential and material being. Picking up on this, but not focusing on it, some theorists have seen The City Of Lost Children as a critique and exploration of capitalism; both its positive and negative sides. Whilst I see this as a layer and a valid interpretation of this narrative, I think the heart of The City Of Lost Children is certainly the theme of family, or rather, a lack of positive familial groups. And in focusing on this element of the narrative, it becomes increasingly evident that father figures in particular are being assessed and critiqued throughout this story.

There are two primary father figures in The City Of Lost Children: One and The Scientist. Whilst One is a compassionate father, The Scientist is a vain one. We come to understand this through the fact that One is one of the clear sacrificial heroes of this narrative (alongside Miette) whilst The Scientist is the figure that has sparked the sinister network that sprawls across the nearby city. This web of selfish malevolence was then ignited by The Scientist's four life-creating experiments. First was a beautiful princess, who he constructed to be his wife. Something went wrong with the genetic building of Martha, however, and she emerged from the experiment disfigured - a dwarf. Next, The Scientist cloned himself, creating his identical sons - but they too weren't perfect; they all fall asleep without a moment's notice. After this, The Scientist wanted someone to talk to and so he created a brain in a jar. He strikes out again though; the brain constantly suffers from migraines. Focusing on his masterpiece, not so much his shortcomings, he finally creates a scientist more brilliant than himself, Krank, who cannot dream and so ages unnaturally, then eventually becomes corrupted and evil. After destroying his father, The Scientist, with his mother (or at least, this is what they aimed to do), Krank then attempts to steal his youth back by extracting the dreams from innocent children in the nearby city.

What this summary would begin to imply is an archetypal story of a 'perfect' creation being corrupted - something that is seen in differing lights within narratives such as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Terminator and Tron. These narratives seem so archetypal as human beings understand that, with science, we have great potential and limitless power, but simultaneously recognise that some people can't even keep a simple house plant alive for more than a month. So, should people, all of us in general, who can prove themselves to be so naive and incapable be granted such power? This is the question that many of these narratives begin asking, but, the most complex actually bypass this kind of questioning as, upon consideration, it is actually a terrible thing to ask. This is because the question proposes a problem with one of two polar options that prove to solve nothing. The dialogue surrounding such a question would then be:

Should we be granted such power?
Yes.
Well, let us continue on our current path just as we are.

Or:

Should be be granted such power?
No.
Well, let us sit here and never change and just rot.

Simple answers provide simple solutions; if the answer is too simple, the solution will fail. Understanding this, better writers will not ask these questions, instead, they will ask something along the lines of: how do we change so that we align ourselves on the path towards being able to handle such power, such as the A.I in Terminator or Tron, or the biological and chemical advances in films such as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man? This is, self-evidently, a far more useful question and one that is asked just as such, or with an opposing inflection: what will happen if we don't change and still take this power? And such is the common approach seen in films such as Terminator. The City Of Lost Children explores both sides of this coin, asking what happens if people do not change as well as depicting a manner in which people can change.

We then come back to the father figure dichotomy drawn up between The Scientist and One. Whilst One shows no real self-obsession at any point in this narrative, only a dedication to his 'little brother and sister', The Scientist is implied to have fallen in love with his own potential and, instead of using his life-creating abilities to aid other people, he served himself. One thing I find interesting about how he is depicted to have made the wrong decision here is the implication of genetics. Just like nature seemingly has controls in place so that we cannot successfully reproduce ourselves or with family, there seems to be a wall put in place when The Scientist attempts to clone himself and, using unknown material, create Martha his wife, Ivan the brain and Krank. And there is an appeal to a natural order throughout this movie; most clearly, through the theme of coincidence. Jeunet playfully uses this in many of his films, often as a romantic means of implying fate or a way things were supposed to be. This is true of The City of Lost Children. There are many ludicrous plot-points throughout this narrative that are emphasised to be seen precisely as such, and the clearest examples of this would be the scene in which Miette is saved from drowning by The Scientist, the sequence in which the twins attempt to assassinate One and Miette as well as the very end with the bird perching on the detonator. Whilst these are playful means of building a unique story, they also serve the purpose of implying a natural or guided fate that exists in the this story's world - which has heavy links to the existential themes of this narrative. In such, what is revealed both through elements like the coincidental opening and the many beats of this narrative that are manufactured to bring it towards a clearly predestined end, is the manner in which The Scientist is initially corrupt; he blindly and disrespectfully (disrespectful of consequence) assumes he is right and good enough, in himself, to follow a path towards great power.

It's at this point that we could extrapolate The Scientist as either a basic father figure or an archetype of something greater. In such, we could choose to see The Scientist as a figure tantamount to a world-leading force, and so in turn see the use of him as a critique of people in power; those who run countries and the economy. And it's through this line of thought that you arrive at the conclusion that this is a film about the good and the bad of capitalism, or even people in high places of power and influence. Again, I think this is a valid interpretation of this narrative, but I can't help but recognise the appeal to the average person confronting and then walking away from The Scientist, or this archetype of power. If Miette and One took over The Scientist's lab in the end, then this film would follow the archetypal structure of something such as Mad Max: Fury Road, in which minorities, or representatives of the downtrodden masses, reclaim power. With the pair escaping The Scientist there seems to be an appeal to the re-establishment of something resembling a basic family structure; an idea that doesn't have so much to do with grander themes of capitalism and governmental power even though they may be partially featured in this narrative. With the ending, it then seems to be confirmed that this is a film about family and father figures' impact on children.

Whilst we have discussed much about the father figures, we haven't yet touched on the children. These would be the many creations of The Scientist and then One's little brother and sister, Miette and Denree. It is quite clear why The Scientist's creations are corrupt and, to varying degrees, broken. However, what is it that One represents that is so good for Miette and Denree? My favourite implication of this narrative answers this question: you have to, to a certain degree, be a child to raise an adult. This is a very profound notion that not only suggests that an adult, a parental figure, needs to be understanding of a child (and so must see themself as one), but that they must assume that they are just as naive as their children are at times and that they, one day, will be cared for (hopefully) by their children. This in turn implies that, whilst adults should not act like children - and such is suggested with One's strength and his mature sense of loyalty and compassion as he searches for and protects his siblings - they should be able to see eye-to-eye with a child as a means of giving them the tools to outgrow themselves. This is a topic that we delved into when looking at Coraline. Both parents and children have the potential to descend into an Oedipal relationship where the child and parent are too attached to one another for their own good and to a degree that inhibits their growth as people. If parents do not allow their children to outgrow them, their maturation will then be stunted - and quite possibly chronically. Similarly, an adult too will become a monster of sorts; something like the Other Mother from Coraline, or The Scientist in this narrative who welcomes his own destruction by loving himself (by proxy, his creations) too much.

The connection between children and father figures in this narrative is all predicated on the idea of compassion. Compassion itself is a difficult idea as it doesn't just mean caring for someone, nor does it mean giving yourself to another person out of charity. If compassion is to be an action, not just a feeling of pity that someone does nothing but sit in, then compassion should not be thought of as a selfless ideal. In fact, selflessness is, in my opinion, a terrible idea on two major fronts. Firstly, to be selfless, you must entirely sacrifice yourself to someone else. This, in a way, is not a terrible idea as sacrifice and compromise are major tenants of a functional society. However, if you completely give yourself to someone else, you put yourself in a dangerous position. You not only rely on them to give themself to you entirely too, but you run the risk of developing an over-dependent relationship that, like the parent-child Oedipal relationship, is detrimental for all involved - thus a little spark of independence is necessary for all relationships (which, funnily, the Octopus twins in this narrative do not have). Second to these issues, however, selflessness is, like perfection, an impossible thing to achieve. Beyond dying for someone, people know that, even if it is unlikely that they will get something in return, that they are doing something for something - immaterial, emotional or internally self-fulfilling - in return. To get slightly abstract and to solidify this proposal, people may even die for another person, or, knowing full-well that an action is bad for their health and will go completely unrecognised, will still sacrifice something, because they have higher ideals or hopes such as, or tantamount to, heaven; in death, they assume they will be rewarded. So, on top of selflessness being a terrible idea if considered too seriously (as said, sacrifice is still immeasurably important), it is technically impossible for a healthy human commit to, let alone sustain under. After all, the subtext is built into the word, "selfless": it is impossible to, or even if it is, I doubt we want to, lose our individual sense of self.

To reconcile ideas of compassion, selflessness and sacrifice, people have to come to terms with a set of social exchanges. And what this again expands upon is the Oedipal relationship. But, without returning to this idea yet, understanding the function of compassion as a tool with which you engage the world and people in an exchange of good deeds, we can see why vanity is foundationally wrong. This idea, vanity as an ultimate form of corruption, seems to be a very old. We see this through the phrase "all in vain". This means that something was pointless, but "vain" itself means having an (excessively) high opinion of yourself. Why do we as a society that use this phrase - even without thinking deeply into it - attribute narcissism with pointlessness? The answer to this question rests in the figure of The Scientist. He creates his 'family' from himself; he does not find a woman to love and begin a family with. He concocts these things alone in his lab. This is an ultimate form of vanity as he attempts to create a perpetual cycle of social exchange within himself; his perfect creations serve him only without him having to serve them; he is asking them to be selfless. But, if they are human, they cannot be selfless and existentially bound to their creator as an emotional slave built for one purpose. This is why the mother and eldest son kill their father/husband. This is why creations turn on their corrupt and imperfect creators; they refuse the slave-like or Oedipal relationship that is predicated on poisonous selflessness.

With that established, however, we could falsely deduce the idea that anyone who creates something did so in vain and must be destroyed by their son/daughter. To a certain extent, this phenomena is metaphorically true; children do not want to be their parents and so their most crucial stages of maturity are defined by rebellion. Children then must transcend and kill off all that they do not like, or, rather, all that is not good, about their parents whilst absorbing all that is good into their own self. With that said, the literal killing of one's parents shouldn't happen - and this is usually because, to put it starkly, parents don't often deserve to be murdered - good parents especially. One is an example of this: he is a good parental figure that doesn't deserve to be murdered (unlike The Scientist who is allowed to die - there is a notable difference between letting someone die and killing them, however). As alluded to, what makes One a good father figure is compassion, is his ability to both look after and appear as a child to Miette and Dunree. He then, unlike The Scientist, engages in a positive social exchange with his adopted siblings instead of setting up a vain positive feedback loop which inevitably will blow a fuse. And that is the last crucial detail of the cautionary tale that The Scientist represents: setting up that positive feedback loop is so wrong because it is vain; because it yields no positive product (emotional and material) that is distributed into society - The Scientist is serving himself alone and in vain.

Because The Scientist demonstrates no sense of compassion, self-sacrifice and responsibility, his creations then not only turn on him, but start to destroy the world as an extension of his own selfishness. This is exactly why Krank steals children's dreams which fuels the Octopus' thief-turned-slave orphanage organisation. What's more, Krank's corruption fuels the religious turmoil in the city - the organisation that want to steal everyone's sight and sacrifice themselves to God. These people are all corrupt and, by working selfishly - sometimes pretending to be selfless - and in vain, enact numerous positive feedback loops of devastation and malevolence throughout society. Thus, the whole city slowly descends into chaos. This is a phenomena - innocuous individual actions contributing to the downfall of a nation - that historians and theorists use to describe how Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were established and became so murderously corrupt; all it takes is the lightest tip of the first individual domino. A figure that is then particularly divisive, yet seemingly practical and purposefully placed into this narrative, is the flea circus ringmaster who's fleas injected people with a serum that has them turn on one another. He seems to play a pivotal role in letting the corrupt destroy themselves so that the righteous may prevail.

The final message of this film, having established these ideas of corruption, compassion and the significance of father figures, then sees Krank get exactly what he wants and Miette grow up during their final confrontation in the dream machine. Krank, who, like Coraline, over indulges in dreams and childhood, is made a child whose evil and vain positive feedback loop keeps him perpetually immature. Added to this, Miette, who not only finds and establishes a loving relationship with One, but is willing to sacrifice herself for it, then out-grows Krank and, despite his intellect, outsmarts him. What this then suggests is that good parents, good parental figures, give birth not only to good children, but children who will transcend their being, whilst corrupt, vain parental figures lay the tracks for the possible destruction of everything. This is why, in the end, seeing all of his papers raining aflame around him, that The Scientist suddenly doesn't want to die; he is reminded of who he was and seemingly falls in love with his own creations again; he cannot, and does not, change himself, only hides away from society and the past. A natural order then finalises his movement towards destruction with the bird perching on the detonator. What can be said of his children after this, who escape the explosion in the boat, is unknown. Maybe this is a positive caveat; maybe they will be good men despite their father's corruption. What is not ambiguous, however, is the journey that One, Miette and Dunree have established; it is one, thanks to its basis in rational compassion, that will mature along a path towards a higher place - a place that is hopefully not one of lost children searching for good parental figures to guide them.

It's this profound and intricate subtext - which has more elements to it than what we've covered - that really seals The City Of Lost Children as a great film in my view. However, these are just my thoughts. Have you seen The City Of Lost Children? What do you think about all we've covered, and maybe skipped over, today?







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