February 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
After trying so valiantly (and sillily) to cultivate an air of scholarliness by avoiding the first-person (at least as of late), it now seems only fitting that my being a person with a name and a face and a personality, one who is a prisoner of his own subjectivity and peculiarities, manifest itself once again in prose, that is to say in a manner that is explicit as opposed to implicit. [It is at least my hope that my words thus far have not been taken as any more than an ocean of subjectivity within which random buoys of theory bob]. So henceforth I shall periodically refer to myself not as ‘yours truly’ or ‘this writer’ or ‘one’, but as ‘I’ and ‘me.’ Why though?
The fact is this: there comes a defining moment when one’s interest in something is so well publicised within their social network, however tiny or sprawling this network is, that they become the inadvertent go-to person and default expert in said something. Flattering as this promotion might be, however, unless one (there it is again) is prodigiously knowledgeable about their field of interest or occupies a professional role which formally renders them an expert, the feeling of being a touch fraudulent is not one which retreats easily. While it is probably true that I see a wider range of films than most people I know (‘wider’ by which I mean year of release and countries of production), I do not see a great many, numerically speaking; I certainly did not see the hundreds of new releases that many professional film critics managed to sit through in 2014 alone, nor am I able to find the time and the energy to view two films a day in the way that Martin Scorsese is reputed to do. At the same time, certain beloved family members nonetheless insist that I have seen everything that is worth seeing, a statement which I must sadly decry as false.
Whether or not it is true that I am being held to an inaccurately high standard by others, or whether the actual truth is that my semi-regular perusals of the ‘Recommended Viewing’ lists compiled by the good people who manage the cinephile website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? makes it painfully obvious that I have seen barely any films at all; painful and startling. This pang of self-disappointment has precious little to do with tally-keeping – (I’m looking at you, all those who take great pride in having seen a particular movie fifty times) – and more with the sense that one’s grasp, my grasp, of cinema is far weaker than I would have it. Obviously, as I attempted over the years to broaden my scope, as I familiarised myself with the works of certain filmmakers or particular eras or movements or national cinemas, others fell further and further into what I shall call my cinematic blindspot. Certain aspects of this magical medium that for various reasons strike me me as being worthy of exploration, for reasons even less clear, go ignored and unexplored as the years trudge on.
…hence the Blindspot Series, a personal project during which I will dedicate eight months of the good year of 2015 to viewing and pondering and reviewing films by the likes of Chantal Akerman, who made a bona fide, uncompromising sociological masterpiece at age 24 and is increasingly being acknowledged as a patron saint of the modern European art film, in addition to her place as a defining force in feminist and queer cinema; Hirokazu Koreeda, the seemingly lower key peer of contemporary Japanese auteurs like Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Sion Sono etcetera, but one who – on the basis of his humanist bent – already seems to evoke amongst cinephiles a certain reverence reserved for the likes of Ozu; Charlie Chaplin, an artist whose work I have admittedly shied away from on the basis of an unfounded belief that he is somehow overrated, twee or comfortable, all three being unfair and hopefully/most likely untrue; Kenneth Anger, experimental maverick and queer cinema pioneer who dared to acknowledge the repressed and explore the transgressive and in doing so inspired the American New Wave generation and their affinity for the subconscious; works of Taiwanese Masters from the Second Wave of that national cinema, namely the legendary Hou Hsou-Hsien and Edward Yang, and enfant terrible Tsai Ming-Liang who is apparently hanging his hat after releasing his final works in 2014…plus an Ang Lee picture, made before he became one of Hollywood’s better directors; Silent Cinema, from the era when film was almost entirely about images, when – some would say – film was at its purest. The farther removed one is from this period, the more instructive these works must surely be; the Czech New Wave, the other heralded but somewhat less sexy sixties-era European cinematic free-for-all that saw a young cohort of filmmakers tossing rulebooks to the breeze and embracing cinema as a medium of unfettered expression and political incisiveness; and the handful of African films which managed to find their way onto the world stage and continue to do so despite the continent’s reputation for nothing but poverty and suffering, an illusory feat achieved by the likes of Ousmane Sembène, Henry Barakat, Souleymane Cissé and Djibril Diop Mambéty, amongst many others.
First stop: Tsai Ming-Liang’s “Dong”.
February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s crime procedural, released in 1997, would make for the perfect subject in a debate that seeks to determine how exactly a thriller differs from a horror film and which of these two genres “Cure” fits into. Any adjudicator with a lick of sense would be biased in favour of it being a horror film for whatever the label is worth, but humour both sides for a moment:
Those in favour of “Cure” being a thriller might argue that ‘the horror genre is exactly as it states, a genre; and what is a genre but a compendium of conventions and tropes which one can chose to adhere to or which one can choose to subvert? The point being that these conventions form the core of a genre and must be observed, whichever fork one ultimately decides to go down creatively. Many films contain moments that chill, that frighten, that disgust, that haunt, but does this make them all horror films? Could every film that contains a humorous scene or two be reasonably labelled as a comedy? For this reason, any film that hopes to be considered a genuine entry in the horror genre must adhere to this genre’s chief criteria, one of these being that the primary aim of the film should be to evoke the fear response (which in itself can be tricky to prove), and another being that the premise must involve a classic element of horror. Murder is not a classic element of horror, nor is crime in general, or blood, or fear. Actions and themes are not elements of the horror genre, entities are. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, demons, witches, goblins, gremlins, assorted monsters…all the traditional expressions of humanity’s desire to comes to terms with a malevolent universe. Then there is the modern era of horror where humanity itself can be a representation and extension of said universe, being inexplicably wicked in ways that make it – make us – seem supernatural or abnormal: serial killers, tyrants and sadists, and remnants of the occult. Now, this is not to say that a film like “Schindler’s List” does not depict unspeakable horrors, but the central entity is far too diffuse and pervasive, systemic, despite stemming from one misguided, mustachioed mind belonging to perhaps the one human being closest to attaining the status of supernatural monstrosity. Which is why a film like Dreyer’s “Vampyr” at which and during which many contemporary audiences would probably find themselves yawning and falling asleep is technically a horror picture whereas a film like “Blue Velvet”, while it can cause the heart to race and the mouth to go dry, is probably more of a thriller. Frank Booth may be crazier and more violent than the original on-screen Nosferatu, but he’s ultimately just a scary gangster who’s into rough stuff and kinky shit.
In response to the above, those in favour of “Cure” being a horror film would argue that ‘the aim of a horror film should not be to simply scare but to evoke horror, and that scares can be and often are momentary while horror can and often does linger far longer. Where fear will trigger the sympathetic response of a galloping heart, a peaking blood pressure, dilated pupils and cold sweating, horror works on a more intellectual level, affecting and informing one’s worldview and emotional landscape long after the instance of acute terror has been and gone. There probably was a time when people lived in dread of supernatural entities, but for modern society, horror art only truly came into being when that which presented itself in the pages of books and on screen dragged itself out of the theatre and into people’s homes; when the focus of fear was not on that which most people believed to be hocus pocus but on that which everyone was aware could be very well living around, with, or within them. Is “The Shining” horrific because of the elevator gushing with blood or the vision of the two dead twins in the hallway, or is it a touchstone of modern horror cinema because it hammers home the idea that you could be married to ‘evil’ or fathered by it? In the same way, “Cure”, ostensibly a police procedural that follows Tokyo Detective Takabe and his psychiatrist colleague Sakuma as they endeavour to solve a spate of seemingly ritualistic murders committed by a disparate array of perpetrators, none of whom can remember let alone explain their terrible actions, finds its horror in domesticity, in the drab, the daily and the usual. The investigation eventually leads to an enigmatic and apparently amnesic young man who may or may not be inciting these murders by hypnotic suggestion. Silly as the premise might sound, the approach taken by Kurosawa ensures that any skepticism regarding the plot’s plausability are kept at bay during the film’s runtime, and by the time the end credits roll and one begins picking apart whatever improbabilities and inconsistencies might exist, the creeping horror that the film creates would have already seeped into the subconscious and began working at it. So while it might take the shape of a thriller structurally and visually and adopt the pace of a psychological drama, “Cure” is probably more worthy of being labelled a horror film than the 101 so-calleds that seem to premiere every month, trashy pictures featuring cheap scares and gratuitous gore that will barely trouble the soul once the popcorn tub hits the bottom of the bin at the theatre exit.’
As previously stated, a sensible adjudicator would give the victory to the latter. But why? What is the horror that “Cure” evokes and why is it so potent? The fact is this: while Kurosawa’s movie contains images that may very well belong in a horror film – faces being peeled of skin and a disturbing mummified monkey – most of it is generously paced and photographed in a stately manner and with an autumnal palette. But it is this very gentleness that gives the film its pervasive sense of dread, the sense that violence is not always cognizant of its existence, like a wolf in sheepskin that thinks it’s actually a sheep. If these murders are being incited by a process of hypnotism, and if they are always carried out against individuals that bear some significance to the perpetrator, what deep, untapped reserves of rage exist within even the most benign-seeming individuals? An elementary schoolteacher, a general practitioner, a low level cop…folks who would be generally considered average, by-the-by people are shown here to harbour feelings so deep and so malevolent that even they may not be aware of these until they manifest in the act of killing. But the horror is not so much that any old person could, out of the blue, pick up a knife and carve a giant ‘X’ into their partner’s throat, but that subterranean deposits of resentment exist at all; that they are there regardless of whether or not they ever show themselves. An early moment in the film touches on this: while picking up his dry cleaning, Detective Takabe finds himself standing next to a man who is muttering angrily, violently to himself – totally unaware of Takabe beside him – only to switch on a dime, almost unaware, and politely receive his dry-cleaning with a smile and genuine-seeming word of gratitude. How aware is this man of this rage within him, and if so, how much does he know about it? Does he have the slightest inkling what he may or may not be capable of?
The young man, Mamiya, who is likely at the centre of this strange homicidal ‘movement’ keeps asking people who they are. At first it seems that his amnesia is the cause of this until it becomes clear that the question is partly rhetorical and wholly existential. Most people appear to be thrown by the question, as though it is something they have never ventured to consider. Perhaps herein lies the true horror: the idea that one can live with someone by virtue of being that very person while not knowing even the tiniest bit about them, being completely unaware of that which informs their behaviour and their thoughts and that which slowly eats away at their souls. The way in which “Cure” paints this picture is subtly terrifying. It could be said that the film’s final stretch leans a little too heavily on elliptical storytelling as a way to utterly disconcert viewers emotionally, leaving them to wonder whether or not Mamiya has somehow found a way to plant murder in the minds of Takabe and/or Sakuma. Kurosawa should perhaps have trusted more in the robustness of his film’s psychological pull, but even if “Cure” makes a misstep or two in the last ten or so minutes, the very final shot finds the heart trampolining briefly up into the throat. Where a person could easily watch a zombie movie, yelp a handful of times and walk out into the night completely relaxed and not in the least bit jumpy, it would be kind of surprising for someone to walk away from “Cure” without feeling even vaguely unwell.