Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Alright alright, a little behind the times I admit, but I saw it as soon as I could. The plus side being there are far less people I’m being a spoiler for here. First things first I have to say, I was a little disappointed. Not at all that the film was bad, but when you’ve got a director like Christopher Nolan and it’s following on from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight the bar gets set pretty high. Anything less than the outright best film of the year would have disappointed me. However, the film certainly deserves some closer analysis, for while it might not have the blockbuster power of The Dark Knight the film deals with a lot of interesting themes and issues that arguably give it a greater emotional depth than its predecessor.

While watching the film I found one of the most interesting moments to be Jim Gordon’s recitation of the final passage of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities at the funeral of Bruce Wayne. Though initially the choice of such a passage highlighted for me Batman’s self-sacrifice, the more I thought about the two stories the more in common I could find between them. Ideas of class struggle and revolution are rife throughout the film as are other references to the French Revolution. The people’s court in which guilt has already been assumed is reminiscent of the Reign of Terror in the later phase of the revolution where the word of one witness was enough for conviction. This too is crucial to the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, where Charles Darnay is reported on by Madame Defarge for being an aristocrat guilty of the crimes ascribed to his family name. Also familiar, one of Bane’s first acts once in charge of Gotham is to liberate the prison filled with criminals placed there by illegitimate laws based upon corruption (The Dent Act/Lettres de cachet). Storming of the Bastille anyone? There were less obvious visual motifs too. A minute on the internet too was enough to confirm my suspicions that French revolutionary jackets were the inspiration for Bane’s costume.

The theme of class conflict can most clearly be seen by comparing the philosophies of the terrorists in this film to Batman Begins. Though the plots in many ways mirror each other, in Batman Begins Ra’s Al Gul’s belief was that Gotham was beyond redemption and all were deserving of death. Bane and Tahlia instead appeal to the common citizen, placing blame solely upon the ruling elite and bureaucracy.  Interesting too is the way that the idea of citizenship, forged in the French Revolution through The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, is utilised in the film. Tahlia’s claim that she is not ordinary, but she is a citizen is used to legitimate the power she wields over Gotham and serves as a further point of departure from her father’s campaign on the city.

The theme of resurrection too is central to both texts. A Tale of Two Cities focuses on the physical resurrection of Dr. Manette following his incarceration in the Bastille as well as the spiritual resurrection of Sidney Carton at the point of his sacrifice. This is highlighted by Carton’s final thoughts regarding both a Paris reborn from the ashes of revolution and the great rest confronting him. The repetition of the phrase ‘recalled to life’ throughout the book emphasises this theme of resurrection. In Batman, the title itself, The Dark Knight Rises highlights the importance of the resurrection theme. Most obviously in the film we see Batman resurrect himself from self-imposed exile when he is recalled by Gotham. But more than this the film’s conclusion shows the resurrection of Bruce Wayne. At the film’s commencement a recluse unable to live his life due to the restriction of his guilt and unfinished business as Batman, the film’s final scene shows his resurrection (whether spiritually or literally) once he has destroyed the Batman.

The thematic similarities continue in the way that both stories deal with the morality of their aristocratic protagonists. Two Cities examines the level of guilt that can be ascribed to Charles Darnay for the crimes of his uncle against the peasantry. With The Dark Knight Rises we can discuss the extent to which the failure of the Wayne Corporation has influenced the financial situation facing Gotham, and in turn the responsibility that Bruce Wayne himself can be ascribed for the corruption that is oppressing Gotham’s poor. This is not to mention Batman’s role in Commissioner Gordon’s deceit of the people of Gotham. Despite their sympathy for the common person, both men too are forced to fake their own deaths (depending on your interpretation of Batman’s ending) and relinquish their names, and associated power and money, in order to be redeemed of the crimes done in their family names against the people.

While I’m sure the similarities don’t end there, for the purpose of a blog perhaps I’ve gone far enough. Enough at least to prove to myself (if not others) that The Dark Knight Rises really has no need to disappoint beyond the fact that it carries forward the name of its landmark predecessor.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Cinematic Adventures Around the World - Part 3: Berlin

Before I started my travels Germany generally wasn't a country I was looking forward to. Even Berlin, which has been one of my favourite cities to date, I only started getting excited for in the week leading up to my time there, and wasn't expecting to write a blog on it. The thing that struck me about Berlin initially was how the city's history was so visible. In Berlin I was staying right across from Alexanderplatz where the symbol of communist Berlin, the TV tower, stands. Chunks of the Berlin Wall too can be found all over the city. Berlin's achitecture blends classic, modern, communist and even the occasional Nazi-style building. My tour guide highlighted throughout the day that more so than almost any other city, Berlin hasn't shirked from its history, but has taken responsibility for it. The city abounds in memorials to victims of Nazicism, or those who died scaling the Berlin Wall. When thinking about this I realised it was present too in German filmmaking. Some of the most internationally successful German movies of the last decade are films such as Downfall, Goodbye Lenin!, and The Lives of Others; all of which explore difficult periods of Germany's past. As I took a visit to Berlin's Museum of Film and Television I realised that German film can always be seen to have reflected its history, more so than the film culture of other nations.

The early '20s saw the success of films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (incidentally, my favourite silent film) and FW Murnau's Nosferatu. Both significant films for the horror genre, the museum highlighted it was hardly surprising that such a genre should flourish in the years following the loss of WWI. As Germany moved into the modern age, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a cautionary tale about modernity, gained international success and remains one of the most well-known films from that era. The early '30s were the era of Marlene Dietrich, both in German and American film. Dietrich herself was the symbol of Weimar Germany; liberal, confident and sexually ambiguous. Her defection to the US signalled the end of liberalism in German cinema, while the rise of directors such as Leni Riefenstahl ushered in a new era of cinema as propaganda. Riefenstahl's documentary style in particular, seen in films such as Triumph of the Will and Olympia, indicated a new seriousness in the German psyche. But beyond here unfortunately there is a yawning gap in my knowledge of German cinema. As far as I can tell, following WWII the German film industry remained quiet for about 30 years (I'm very happy to be corrected on this by someone who knows more than I do). But even if this is so, we can read a lack of prominent cinema as a reflection of German society too. It shows us a society consumed with its rebuilding and paralysed by its fracturing. Given the importance of cinematic propaganda to the Nazis we could also see the apparent abandonment of the film industry as a distancing of the country from this past.

Unfortunately, the Museum of Film did little to educate me on this topic. Organised chronologically, the museums exhibition of German cinema between the wars (including 3 whole rooms dedicated to Marlene Dietrich) was spectacular, but German cinema post-WWII is confined to only 2 rooms. Disappointing too was that the temporary exhibition (which seemed like a pretty cool exhibition on the figure of the hero) was only in German. There wasn't even much on the difference between East and West cinema - if much of one existed at all. I found this particularly strange given how much the division features in other areas of Berlin's culture. The only other real success of the museum was the architecture of the building itself, which seemed to reflect German history. Some parts with exposed and damaged brick walls; a reminder of the heavy bombing suffered in WWII, other parts floor to ceiling mirrors; representing the East/West division, others still modern steel and glass showcasing Germany's emergence as a European superpower. That such attention could be payed to the interior design, rather than on the exhibition post-1945 only reinforces my view that it's only recently that German cinema has regained international prominence, and that, still mindful of its damaging use in Nazicism, the content of German cinema today seeks to apologise and make sense of past atrocities.

To end with something a little more light-hearted, a clip from one of my favourite German films of the last decade. Enjoy

Friday, 11 May 2012

Cinematic Adventures Around the World - Part 2: New York

Oh New York. A city altogether more sophisticated with its relationship to cinema than Los Angeles. Not that the cities aren't without their similarities in their depictions on film. Most notably in the way they are both shown to be cities of extremes. LA with its glamorous movie stars and underlying racism, NYC as the world of Marty Scorsese's gangsters and loners against Woody Allen's neurotic, intellectual flanerie. Manhattan certainly seems to be divided along extreme lines, but in reality seemed to be full of more hipsters and homeless than the works of those two filmmakers would suggest.

The differences between LA and NY I found more in the cities' relationships to the film industry. While LA seems to focus more on the high concept side of cinema; blockbusters and stars, New York is more well-rounded in its acceptance of varying types of film. I was able to catch a couple of films at the TriBeCa Film Festival and at both screenings directors and writers showed up for Q&A sessions after. This seems to be pretty common for New York, but something I know to be a rare and special treat at film festivals in Australia. It seems to perpetuate the idea that New Yorkers are more intellectual than their West Coast counterparts. While people in the film industry block out commoners in LA with their high walls, CCTV cameras and security guards, in New York they will happily mingle with them. But perhaps this acceptance by the film industry of New Yorkers is the cause and not just the effect of their supposed filmic sophistication.

The Museum of the Moving Image in NY too seems to support their elitist film attitudes. I found no such museums in LA, instead only studio tours implicitly indication the city's preference for celebrating the producers rather than the artists. The studio tours seemed to place their focus on the major advancements in special effects of the last 20 years which, while spectacular, didn't really leave me feeling that I'd learned that much about cinema's history or future direction. The Museum of the Moving Image however focused on no aspect of cinema specifically; instead it featured a chronology of film, from its birth out of the vaudevillian entertainment scene to today. It showed advances in technology, like a display of movie cameras and projectors from the late 1800s to the middle of the 20th century, and sections on each stage of the filmmaking process, from sound editing to make-up to merchandising, highlighting the collaborative aspect of filmmaking. It also had temporary exhibits of installation and performance art utilising new media and showing the evolution of film as art. Overall it depicted a view of the moving image that was equal parts art and entertainment, unlike LAs studio tours which focus on the cinema of attractions; special effects and stars.

Yet despite this I can't say that I have an entirely positive view of film and New York. Though I really appreciated the filmmaker Q&As at TriBeCa, the majority of the questions asked of the makers were pretentious and featured long-winded explanations of the viewers personal interpretation of the film. The most pretentious receiving a round of applause from the other viewers. While it's true New York has a much better and broader film culture than LA, my gosh, don't they just know it?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Cinematic Adventures Around the World - Part 1: LA

Firstly a warning; though my title says "Part 1: LA" I have no intention of writing an entry for every city and in all liklihood this will be the only one I bother to write while travelling.

When talking about my trip before I left home a lot of people warned me to get out of LA as soon as I could. No one outside of LA seems to like it. But being interested in film history I figured I at least needed to spend a few days there. Although I didn't hate my time in LA, and was never bored, there's no denying that the city's seeming lack of personality and soul meant it didn't endear itself to me. It took me days to figure out what LA was all about, what its thing was, and even now I'm not sure I've got it right. As far as personality and culture goes, LA is Hollywood and nothing more. The film industry which fuelled the city's development seemingly robbed it of the chance to be anything more than that.

You can't do a sight-seeing tour without being dragged through the hills at a crawl to glimpse celebrities' houses and cars. Every landmark visited is accompanied by the phrase "you might remember this from movies such as..." Walking through Chinatown I found this:

The pole is in the way. Guess which Jackie Chan "Best Seller Movie" it is!
 Venice Beach, famous for its murals features one of what the area would have looked like in the late 19th century. This mural includes Charlie Chaplin, who wouldn't have been famous until decades later. This choronological inaccuracy reflects the city's inability to remember its own existence before the movies.

Yes the villain from Kindergarten Cop

 My cynicism towards the city's celebrity worship was the reason behind my ironic excitement about meeting Richard Tyson =>
and my reason for only taking a photo of Boyz II Men on Hollywood Boulevard. But perhaps even this parody justifies the culture.

I think the thing that bothered me most about LA was its people's lack of respect for the privacy of its celebrities failures. My tour guide cheerfully pointed out the intersection where Halle Berry did a hit and run, and the Saks Fifth Ave. where Winona Ryder was caught shoplifting. Souvenir stores too boast "maps to movies stars homes and crime scenes". With the city's inhabitants so willing to air its dirty laundry and flog its misfortune for profit it's no wonder LA comes across as soulless. But if the film industry has destroyed LA's chance of a real history and culture, perhaps its inhabitants are justified in milking it for all its worth.

For those who are intersted in the relationship between LA and Hollywood I would highly recommend a documentary called Los Angeles Plays Itself. The entire thing is on Youtube.
It's hard to read, but yes, they have a star. Yes it is the only one I photographed.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Hunger Games: Battle Royale for the whole family

Right now as I post this cinemas Australia over are about to play their first screenings of the latest novel-turned-big-film franchise to hit us: The Hunger Games. This film seemed to come out of nowhere for me. I’d never even heard of the books until the first film posters arrived at my work a few months back, but since then I’ve done a little research (though admittedly, really couldn’t be bothered reading the books) and gotten a little outraged (as I am prone to do). Now, if the phrase “it’s the new Twilight” hasn’t been enough to put you off yet, here’s some other reasons why you should not give The Hunger Games your monies.

  1. It’s Kinda a Rip-Off

I read an article on The Hunger Games a week or so ago that suggested the film had “a touch” of the Japanese classic novel/graphic novel/film Battle Royale about it. I had to read that sentence twice. If by “a touch” the journalist meant “the entire freaking plot was ripped off” I think he’d hit a little closer to the mark. If the two stories had nothing more in common than ‘people forced to kill each other’ I wouldn’t have such an issue, but once you include the young age of the contestants in the competition, the fictional dystopian and militarised future portrayed, the competition as punishment for rebellion against an all-powerful system, and the broadcast of the events, the worlds depicted start to seem alarmingly similar. What’s more, in both cases the protagonists desire to win is motivated both by developing romantic feelings for another contestant, and care of and sacrifice for a sibling after the loss of their father. I’m not a spoiler, but the endings too have far much more in common than they do different.

  1. It’s Battle Royale for Nannas
A lot of what I’ve read about The Hunger Games alludes to the films high level of violence compared with other tween fare such as Twilight. But the thing I find most concerning is how a film featuring such confronting and violent subject matter has only achieved an M rating (and even only a PG13 in the US). The extent to which The Hunger Games has been watered down and romanticized is its primary point of difference from Battle Royale. The deaths onscreen in The Hunger Games are all clean and neat, not to mention unrealistic for such a situation. While the set up of Battle Royale is every bit as extreme and unrealistic, commendably the film displays realistic character actions in such a scenario and doesn’t shy away from the situation’s necessary brutality. Teen sexuality too is far more interestingly examined in Battle Royale. While the manipulation of sexuality for gain is touched on in The Hunger Games, where Katniss stages feelings for Peeta to garner audience sympathy, in Battle Royale sex itself becomes both a weapon and a weakness for the contestants. This is all the more surprising when you consider the fact that Battle Royale intentionally used actors of the correct ages, limiting the amount of sexuality the film could include, while The Hunger Games uses 21yos. The use of older actors in The Hunger Games could once again be seen as an attempt by the filmmakers to limit the confronting nature of the story. Though I’m not exactly sure I want to advocate high violence movies for tweens, arguably romanticizing violence for a youth audience is far more dangerous than letting them see the explicit and realistic stuff up front.

  1. It’s Kinda Shallow
Aside from the realistic and confronting world portrayed, the main reason for my respect of Battle Royale, compared to something like The Hunger Games, is the extent to which the film is such a perfect allegory of the social climate in which it was produced. The book was written in Japan in 1999, in the aftermath of the bursting of the bubble economy. Though the book is set in a dystopian future, many of the social problems depicted were those facing Japanese youth at the time of the book’s release. High levels of unemployment impacted on depression and suicide rates, leaving Japanese teenagers with few adult role models and a negative outlook for their futures. Rising distrust in education led to teenage behavioural issues in schools, like those depicted in the film. School leavers found it almost impossible to gain employment, with the competition for jobs reflecting the competition for life in Battle Royale. Comparatively, The Hunger Games does not fare well for broader underlying themes. The most interesting point the books seem to make concerns contemporary society’s obsession with voyeurism and publicly humiliating competition. But this too is prevalent in Battle Royale, written almost a decade before The Hunger Games. It took the place of foreshadowed warning in the late ‘90s, but by 2012 such a metaphor seems both obvious and shallow. Beyond this, even from interviews with Suzanne Collins herself, the only other themes I can gather from the story are along the lines of “war is bad” and “poverty is bad”. Even the film’s intended audience of teens is surely a little beyond this.

  1. Complete Lack of Beat Takeshi
So your film has Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and hell, even Lenny Kravitz? Still doesn’t have the cool power of this guy:
So Badass

Ok. So I’ve done a whole lotta ragging on The Hunger Games here, now its time to give a little back. I accept that this film is going to top the box office, and I’m glad because I genuinely would rather teenage girls watch this than Twilight. But chances are if you’re reading this blog you’re probably a little over the target age-range for this film. So if you’re over 18, please ditch the kid’s version of this story :)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Hugo: A Scorsese Film Through and Through

In the lead up to Hugo I’ve read a number of articles and reviews posing the question; can Martin Scorsese do a kids film? I never really viewed that particular question as one worth asking, and having now seen Hugo my suspicions have been confirmed. Though perhaps best known by some for his gangster pictures and his thrillers, Scorsese has never been a director to shy away from certain genres. A film aimed at a younger audience is one of the very few types he was yet to tackle in his long career.

Instead the central element to Scorsese’s entire body of work, in my opinion, is the presence of a male, socially-isolated protagonist. One who either lives outside of society or is trapped within one that doesn’t understand him and that he can never fit in with. Across all Scorsese’s genres we can see this character from Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, to Henry Hill in Goodfellas, from Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, to Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence. These characters allow Scorsese to explore his central themes of masculinity and its implicit melancholia.

Hugo Cabret in Hugo is the natural progression of Scorsese’s work, exploring the birth of this melancholia as a boy comes of age. For Hugo it begins with the loss of his father and the resentment of his uncle as an unsatisfactory replacement. All Hugo’s failures of masculinity serve as reminders to him of his grief. His impotence becomes intricately linked with his pathos. His search for a replacement father leads him to idolise George Melies, though he too is another example of Scorsese’s flawed and isolated males, denying his past work as an artist since becoming less successful than he used to be. He also befriends Isabelle, a girl who despite her cheery demeanour has clearly lived a childhood as isolated as his own, and prefers the company of books to other people. Additionally, despite the friends he makes throughout the film he continues to be forever in public and rarely noticed.

Even the film’s happy ending masks the continuation of Hugo’s sense of isolation and loss. His success is in facilitating George’s acceptance of his past and the re-emerging of his films, but Hugo himself stagnates. Though by the end he has discovered the mystery of the automaton and delved into the idealised past of Melies’ films, he does this with the continued aim of reconnecting with his father, an aim that can never be realised. Hugo finds companionship but never accepts a replacement father-figure or moves on from his grief, ensuring his continued melancholia and sense of impotence.

This lack of conclusion for his suffering males is another recurring element in Scorsese’s work. Henry Hill hates suburban life after selling out his friends, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island refuses to accept reality, Newland Archer ultimately refuses to break with social convention despite a life-long opposition. Though overall Hugo is an uplifting film, its protagonist carries a masculine melancholia that makes it Scorsese through and through.