Tag Archives: National Cinemas

National Cinemas: L’Avventura

Edited June 2016

With Fellini long lost down the surrealist tube and intentionally distancing himself from his earlier realist days, someone in the early ’60s had to fill the neo-realist hole left by the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. Of course, it wasn’t going to be Michelangelo Antonioni, the chilly director of physical space and undersexed human boredom, but he would do in a pinch. Yet, if Antonioni studied the neo-realists well, he was his own beast altogether. Neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves attained a certain warmth in their intentional focus on human activity elevated to the realms of mythic quest, but Antonioni was very much fascinated by human inactivity.

Furthermore, he didn’t follow the neo-realist mantra of letting his people do the talking while his camera shakes and rattles about. Instead, Antonioni took a hands-on approach, positioning his characters delicately, defining them in wide compositions that sequester those characters into personal hells. He calculated every frame with a spatial dogmatism akin to Bresson or Hitchcock, but his mantra was more geographic, more geometric than those individual-centric directors. Antonioni, more than any director before, acclimatized his audience to the physical space around his characters. While the typically open-oyster cinematic world usually carves space out for individuals to thrive as the focus, Antonioni curdles space into a malevolent force that fights back. Antonioni’s genius is in how he exposes his characters’ world through methods his characters might approve of; his filmmaking is detached and rigid because his film is about the detached and the rigid. He was making a film for his characters, but a film that deeply laments those characters as they eschew a world of connection and turn the human-world relationship into a war of attrition.
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National Cinemas: The Battle of Algiers

algiers2_bigUpdate 2018:

With Italian cinema, one tends to think of Antonioni as the extension of neo-realism’s elusive, analytical, slippery, and intangible qualities, its modernism and post-modernism, and Pontecorvo as expanding the style’s more incendiary, ground-level spontaneity, its immediate “realism”. But although The Battle of Algiers is a punchy, vicious shiv of a movie, it isn’t merely surface-bound. Or rather, it sometimes uses its surfaces as cryptically and mysteriously as Antonioni, not simply exposing a conflict to us with an incendiary call for action but teasing out the various intangibles and uncertainties in its ability to call for this action, to participate in this conflict, to even see it without mediation. As swift and instant as the film confronts us, it also confounds any so direct a reading by intimating the limits of its ability to “experience” the reality that its verite aesthetic purports to glimpse first-hand.

Which is to say, Pontecorvo’s work reveals mysteries of its own as well, and it exhibits a vision of existence as brutally existential as L’Avventura and as protective of its secrets as Blow-up. And although it’s certainly a white-hot cinematic firebrand, open-hearted and unafraid of its convictions, it also exposes more subterranean depths the more I see it. For instance, the distinctly modernist (even post-modern) composition of the infamous scene where the veiled women expose the bombs hidden within their outfits. The three veiled women are viewed through a mediating, veiling mirror in the film’s most famous shot, the mirror projecting a cinematic self-consciousness about the mediating cinematic process. It suggests that what we experience in cinema is a mirror of ourselves, not a reflection but a warped and thus incomplete refraction, or a reflection which hovers between a direct reality and a displaced representation of that reality. Or, as Homi Bhabha says in the intro to Frantz Fanon’s famous Black Skin, White Masks on images more generally: the “image—as point of identification—marks the site of an ambivalence. Its representation is always spatially split—it makes present something that is absent—and temporally deferred—it is the representation of a time that is always elsewhere, a repetition. The image is only ever an appurtenance to authority and identity; it must never be read mimetically as the “appearance” of a “reality.”  (XXX). The women veil themselves, cinema veils them, and post-modern cinema thrives on its skillful manipulation of its own self-awareness about the way it veils reality.

Pontecorvo’s film plays with this gap, this veil between past and present, this sense in which we can witness a mediated past through film, where film is a ghost which touches the past but is not the past. Particularly set against the historical containment of black and African bodies within film scenes, their objectification and imprisonment within frames which tend to view them head-on as curated objects lacking any curiosity or internality or resistance to being viewed, the veiling gestures in Algiers – the characters registering an opacity of their own, not fully acquiescing to our desire to “understand” them – are provocative.  In other words, the film comments on its own veiled language, questioning its and our ability to truly know them via its and our gaze, to look at them head-on as the Westerner in Fanon’s frame might want. As gritty and “realistic” as the film appears on the surface, it also veils and unveils itself in various ways, debating truth and fiction in its faux-verite aesthetic rather than merely reminding us of a reality we didn’t know beforehand.

Original Review:

A stark, harrowing portrayal of the Algerian war, The Battle of Algiers is a message movie, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s brutal, unflinchingly human, and confrontational to the core. It depicts people engaging in horrible acts and forces us to try to make sense of it as best we can, for it knows it cannot. This film never lets up, using a gritty, clear eye-on-the-wall camera to depict the harsh day-to-day realities of colonial and revolutionary violence to force us to confront that which we’re afraid to.  Rather than emphasizing philosophy or discussion, it focuses on action and reaction, conveying how this environment, in its perpetual dehumanization, allowed no room for anything else. Colonialism, as depicted here, was a violent regime that dehumanized its victims and gave them no recourse for action excepting the very violence perpetuated onto them. And the film doesn’t suggest it – it burrows it into our soul. It emphasizes gritty, hard-earned hyper-realism and puts us in the trenches of an urban jungle marred by guerrilla warfare. It allows us no comfort.  Unlike many Italian masterworks of the 1960s, it is not rooted in impressionist professionalism, carefully modulated for impact and respectability; instead it unleashes itself upon the audience as a primal, implacable fact that doesn’t end when the frames cut it off. It cries out, refusing to be left unheard.
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National Cinemas: My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies

When today’s youth approaches the world of Japanese filmmaking, the most ubiquitous name is not Kurosawa, nor Ozu, nor Mizoguchi, but Miyazaki, the marvelous maestro guiding his Stuido Ghibli toward the clouds lifting up human imagination, and particularly childhood emotion, rendered sublime. It’s perhaps fitting that Miyazaki has taken up the mantel, for he combines the best of the past into a whole equal parts grandiose and sweeping (Kurosawa), spiritually elegiac (Ozu), and mournfully mythic (Mizoguchi).  It seems inappropriate to discuss Japanese cinema without him, and it seemed inappropriate to not take the opportunity to review his two most achingly personal, most emotionally pure movies. That the two were released simultaneously in a theatrical double-bill, and that they are linked by so many diegetic features only to be as tonally opposite as any two films ever were, is an all the more fascinating testament to Miyazaki’s exploration of humanity at its most unrestrained and least affected.

My Neighbor Totoro

Jake and DefneMy Neighbor Totoro is at its best when it is at its simplest, which thankfully is every single frame of every single scene in the whole film. It is a deeply streamlined work, lacking superfluous event to the point where it is almost non-narrative in its impression of childhood amazement. The narrative mostly boils down to eight year old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and her, for lack of a better term, adventures in the forest next to her new rural home. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Gojira (1954)

Update late 2018:

With all the claims about the 2014 American update inaugurating the “post-human” blockbuster, I was reminded on a re-watch of the original how salient Ishiro Honda’s crisis-ridden cinematic creature is. Charged with atomic energy, Honda conjures not only a hundred-foot paleolithic behemoth but a reckoning with a past come to haunt us, a vision of pre-modernity wreaking havoc with our pretensions toward teleological progress into the future.  In its vastly more noirish, pugnacious way, Gojira plays like the B-side to the prior year’s Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s take on the crisis of modernity and the dialectics of the private-public divide. Although punchier and not as meditative, Gojira, perhaps no less than Ozu’s film itself, is fully aware of its own paradoxes, and, especially in its final anti-cathartic gesture – science immolating itself to correct its own mistakes – fully aware of the paradoxes which construct modernity itself.

Original review:

Watching the original 1954 Japanese version of Gojira (or Godzilla, its American title) brings haunting, caustic visual poetry to the collective suffering of a post-war nation still reeling from World War II and the H-Bomb Drop. The film is an exposed wound, a lesion on a collective consciousness. It has the big man, of course, in the titular character, but it has much more: humans fending for their lives, running around in total chaos not only from an attack but the impression of an attack leftover from a previous life. Godzilla bestows its titular figure with a looming presence – he towers over the film even when he’s not on screen that often, going beyond the physical object and into the doom lying down on the hearts and souls of Japan. He is an idea more than a physical presence. The film is draped in a malaise of human inactivity on the eve of assured destruction, and a realization, after all, that there is little to be done against a force so impenetrably inhuman. And yet so penetratingly human he is.  Continue reading

National Cinemas: Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa came to Seven Samurai at a flux, but the ripples of his magnificent cultural clash are still felt today. Birthed on a long line of films seeking a sort of safety in cultural traditionalism, he’d by 1950 established a certain formal rigidity in his films to befit this traditionalism that he extended into the stratosphere and elevated to high art. But Seven Samurai was him flexing his muscles, and his attitude toward the world, in a bid to implicitly challenge the culture he’d grown with, even as he naturally upheld that culture all the same. In its own way, Seven Samurai saw him growing, bending, and testing the limits of the Japanese samurai film. It also saw him feeling the ensuing pain and cognitive dissonance of his actions, not unlike Western films like The Searchers and High Noon for American cinema around this time. But while those films saw America grappling with its fundamental lie, that of individual freedom and fluid class boundaries, Seven Samurai saw Kurosawa tackle the mid-century Japanese focus on static class boundaries by adding a dose of new-found fluidity and freedom to his formally composed camerawork, and to his strong, silent characters. Like those films, Seven Samurai is caught in its own dissonance, radicalizing even as it remains resolutely traditional to the point of fable– but here it’s a fable of a nation coming to terms with itself.

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National Cinemas: 13 Assassins

Edited because sometimes I can be a lame white critic who doesn’t know as much about Japanese culture as I should. 

With 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike, long-renowned for his excessively violent explorations into grisly, highly presentational Jackson Pollock blood splattering by way of horror, approximates growing up. But he isn’t above a little gleeful violence while he’s at it. To this extent, he absolutely has his cake and devours it too, combining two filmmaking styles into one, sometimes uneasily, but knowingly so: the stately, moody, quiet feeling of mid-century Japanese samurai-Shakespeare and the modern stylistic kitsch of kinetic energy-above-logic action pictures. That we will not expect the two together, Miike bets his top dollar. In fact, he intentionally distances the two styles, all-but formally announcing the film as a work of two parts, one subdued and one that hits with the force of a tornado. It’s an exercise in formal style and genre more than it is a narrative, but when a film is this well made sometimes a pesky narrative getting in the way is just one more obstacle to be avoided. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

This being the first review for the month of September during the “National Cinemas” project, and thus the first review in a month-long exploration of German cinema. It seemed only appropriate to go with the best film by Germany’s greatest living filmmaker.  

Edited early 2016

When someone coined the term “Location, location, location”, I don’t think they had Herzog’s films in mind. Yet it’s an apt description for his filmmaking sensibility.  As depicted by Herzog, location is a mindscape of pure emotional resonance. He spoke vividly, and still does, about the “ecstatic truth” of the movies, the idea that reality or logic matter not when a film speaks to the rawest emotions of human-kind. And in the Amazon, a place of wonder and desperation where civilization ends and the essences of humanity and the world play out with little mercy, Herzog found his ultimate test-case. Fascinated by it, he decided to do what any great madman would: make a film about it. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Goldfinger

In my month-long look at British cinema, the one figure I could not even dream of avoiding wasn’t David Lean or Michael Powell (the nation’s two greatest filmmakers), but a big man known around the world in the smug, terse way he cannot help but introduce himself to everyone he meets: Bond, James Bond. In many ways, he is the modern pop-culture symbol of Britain, and he’s far more popular today, 52 years after his first cinematic outing, than his humble beginnings in 1962’s Dr. No would suggest. He, in a sense, personifies many things commonly associated with Britain, both the good (intellect, wit, sure-faced chill, dogged tenacity), the bad (misogyny, macho-post-colonialism,  distant militaristic sense of a dehumanized and mechanized order hidden under aristocratic airs, dogged tenacity) and the both (smarminess, standoffish cool, dogged tenacity). Above all, he captures that sense of unending existence, that notion of always being there and recovering from whatever ails him, which Britain loves to see in itself. And plenty has gone wrong with the Bond series over the years, but as his films are wont to declare, Bond will always return. You just can’t keep a (maybe not so) good man down.

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National Cinemas: A Hard Day’s Night

After uploading two of the most depressing British films I can imagine, I decided a nice counter-balance would be in order: a couple of bonus reviews of just about two of the damn cheeriest films in existence. It’s been my pleasure.
beatlesUpdate 2018: As is the case with so many of these roughly college-written reviews, I don’t exactly agree with this anymore, especially in my expression of my ideas, and often in terms of my ability to perceive the film’s ideas in the first place. I’ll let this review stand as is, but at this point in my life, I’d be inclined to argue that the film isn’t really taking pop to task as artificial, proposing a leaden pop and reality dichotomy,  but rather using pop dialectically, to discover other avenues to truth – the truths of experimentation, adventure, silliness, spontaneity, artifice – that lie not necessarily outside but at least beyond observational documentary reality as it is conventionally understood. 

Original Review:

It’s a rare and beautiful thing that something that should in any sane universe be nothing more than a phoned-in cash-grab is in fact one of the great pieces of pop-anarchism ever essayed on film. A Hard Day’s Night, the film accompanying the album of the same name (the Beatles’ first all-time classic album) in 1964, played a big part in asserting the band’s dominance in the Western world. And, intentionally (wonderfully) it has no real narrative. There’s something in here about the boys and how they get caught up in protecting an old man from his own tomfoolery while they are dealing with preparations for a TV show they are to appear on. But this is merely a clothesline for not only a series of great jokes and gags and the film’s central tension between its technique and its content, but for one of the most thoroughly deconstructive pop manifestos ever committed to celluloid. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Yellow Submarine

After uploading two of the most depressing British films I can imagine, I decided a nice counter-balance would be in order: a couple of bonus reviews of just about two of the damn cheeriest films in existence. It’s been my pleasure.


Edited mid-2015

Yellow Submarine is a Beatles film, and this carries certain baggage. Above all, we must have the Beatles – this is the Beatles psychedelia express vaguely hiding as a children’s film after all, and insofar as they are the star of the show, they must be in the film. We must ask of any Beatles film then: what does it reflect about the Beatles as an entity? What is most surprising about 1969’s candy-coated art film, then, is how little a presence they have in the film, and how little import they play even as the narrative (insofar as it can be called one) is wholly about them. I don’t mean this as a negative – their aloof, detached standoffishness, their inability to take any problem seriously, and their seeming lack of interest in really doing much of anything seems wholly intentional. And it is subversive as all hell.
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