Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978)

A poetic, slice of life portrait of an African American family in ’70s Watts, Los Angeles. The film goes nowhere in particular, and lacks any semblance of a linear or structured narrative. Instead, we watch a loosely strung series of episodes, depicting the mundane, everyday existence of the family, interspersed with largely random events. A flat tyre. A stolen TV. Children playing war in a wasteland strewn with rubbish. There is a peaceful sort of stoicism, of resignation, to the poverty in front of us: this is, quite simply, the way things are.

Stan, the family’s patriarch, works in a slaughterhouse. His wife waits for him at home, refining her make-up. Does he notice? We don’t know. If he does, he doesn’t say. He suffers from sleep-deprivation, exhaustion, irritability. But he is good, he is honest, and, despite being prone to anger, he loves his children. He presses a warm mug to his face, telling his friend it reminds him of a feeling just after making love. He dances in the dark with his wife, to a Dinah Washington song.

Nothing much happens in the life of Stan, yet these moments amount to everything. This is all there is, and for Stan and his family, it must be enough.

 

Featured in Issue 5 of the Debtford Cinema Zine

 

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Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Solaris was the first film that introduced me to cinema as a true art form. The late Roger Ebert, in his December 2014 review of the film, said:

The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments.

Environments, not entertainments. This apt statement helped me realise what it was that I found so compelling about the two Tarkovsky films I’ve seen to date, the other being Stalker.

It lies in the atmosphere Tarkovsky forges – an atmosphere which lingers for long after the rolling credits end. Solaris left me feeling utterly perplexed, and yet, without sounding hyperbolic, after a few viewings and sufficient musing, it has become part of my psychological makeup, forming a piece of that complex, layered lens through which each of us, individually, see the world. 

What does it mean to really know another, to really love another? Is such a feat even possible?

These are some of the questions Solaris grapples with, despite its categorisation as a work of science fiction (a categorisation imposed solely by media outlets, and one that Tarkovsky himself vehemently opposed).

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, which concerns humanity’s attempts at uncovering the mysteries of the distant planet Solaris, the study of which has long eluded scholars and scientists. This field of study has come to be known as Solaristics. The planet is covered by an enormous, ‘conscious’ ocean, that keeps forming its surface into bizarre shapes. On the space station orbiting Solaris, the astronauts are exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour. Dr. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, is sent up to the space station to investigate the goings-on and report on the astronauts’ mental states, in order for a decision to be made on whether the mission should be aborted or not.

Kris arrives on the space station to find one crew member dead, and the remaining two deeply disturbed by the events on the station. It transpires that when X-ray probes were used to investigate Solaris’ ocean, the planet replied with probes of its own, entering the minds of the astronauts and bringing to life some of their memories, in the form of ‘Guests’. It is the manifestation of Kris’ dead ex-wife, Hari, and their ensuing relationship on the space station, that is the central subject of Tarkovsky’s film.

The duplicate of Hari that appears is exact in every way, save for one thing – she lacks all of her memories. Her being also seems to be limited to what Kris remembers of her, a theme that plays out through the whole film. She wants to know more of herself – she questions Kris about her past, and upon learning that the real Hari committed suicide, attempts to also do so (only to regenerate immediately – it turns out that this duplicate Hari cannot be killed). Her presence begs the question – is she any less real than the original Hari? Or, to an extent, is she just as real? Sure, we know that her presence is only made possible through the ocean’s eerie capabilities, but the very nature of our relationships with others, particularly romantic partners, is examined here.

For aren’t our ideas about those we claim to know and love precisely those – ideas? And, more than ideas about them, are they not, in actual fact, ideas about ourselves? The new Hari is but a collection of the notions and memories Kris has of her. She is, essentially, a projection of his desire, a point made clear through her confusion and total lack of knowledge of who she is. 

Romantic love, for good or for bad, has long been regarded (in Western traditions, in any case) as something of a spiritual force, something in which there lies immense power for change, growth, and the realisation of goodness. But in this potential, there is also room for great failure. To a certain degree, the relationship between Kris and Hari can be interpreted as a series of recurrences on the failings of love. At one point, Kris dwells on whether he loves the new Hari more than the original Hari. Kris creates her as something he can love, as lovers often do, and as something that can love him. He also creates her as something through which he can absolve himself of his guilt at his role in the original Hari’s suicide on Earth. Though their ‘reunion’ on Solaris might initially seem magical, mystical, romantic, their love on the space station fails, over and over, with Hari eventually convincing the other astronauts to destroy her for good.

The irony being performed becomes apparent here. Humanity seeks other worlds to explore, to enhance its knowledge of the unknown and the unfamiliar, as in the case of the scientists studying Solaris. But Solaris hides its face, and instead projects back to the scientists their own memories and struggles, forcing them to look inward, as opposed to outward. Kris goes on the mission with the aim of investigating the effects of Solaris, but ends up spending his time on the space station introspectively confronting his past.

We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,

Gibarian, one of the astronauts, says at one point.

Solaris is no easy film to comprehend; indeed, certain scenes are doubtlessly bewildering and make us wonder what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to get across. Early on, we’re shown a continuous scene of a car driving over a highway. This scene lasts for eight minutes, and there’s zero dialogue. What are we being told? Tarkovsky actually addressed this in an interview, and whether or not it was said in jest, his explanation was certainly comical: he was using this scene to see which viewers would stick around, and which ones would leave the cinema theatre. It was included as a sort of test of patience, of commitment. Despite the cheekiness of this statement, if it’s true, it’s a testament to Tarkovsky’s utter devotion to his art, similar to his assertion of his view that in true cinematic art, music shouldn’t be necessary to convey feeling or emotion. Visual experience alone should dominate, and this conviction can be felt through the painstaking visual detail in the film, with everything right down to the paintings in the space station chosen to evoke the particular sensations of nostalgia, of reminiscence, of a bittersweet earthly yearning that is, rather than space or technology, the ultimate theme of the film.

Solaris is a film I’m certain I’ll watch for years to come, and hopefully uncover something new each time. Here’s a clip from the film, showing Kris and Hari levitating through the room in a brief period of zero gravity on the space station. For me, it’s one of the most hypnotic, enchanting scenes in all of cinema, and brilliantly sums up the phenomenal beauty and artistry of the film.

 

Adelheid (František Vláčil, 1969)

 

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Yesterday, a friend and I happened upon a tiny little Czech café in Hackney which, besides the excellent coffee, displayed a small collection of Czech films for sale. I picked up a copy of a film called Adelheid. The DVD was released by a company called Second Run, who restore eclectic and award-winning films from around the world. The cover looked vaguely intriguing; it was made by a director who, although well-known for the artistry of his films, has been largely overlooked. I’d never seen any Czech cinema before, and the DVD came with a little pamphlet with an essay by a Czech cinema expert talking about director František Vláčil’s emphasis on ‘film poetry’.

In a 1998 survey of Czech film critics, Vláčil’s film Marketa Lazarová was voted the best Czech film ever made. Vláčil even received a lifetime achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival the same year. But the reason for Vláčil’s lack of presence in general histories of cinema is, according to Hames, because he was not a member of the famous Czech 1960s New Wave, nor a product of the Prague Film School. He was rather more concerned with making films focussed on visual imagery, and Adelheid is no doubt exemplary of this aim.

With Adelheid, it seems Vláčil broke away from his previous works in two different ways: firstly, the film is in colour, and secondly, it’s not a historical epic. Watching the film as someone in completely new territory, it seemed to me to be much more of a meditation on human nature – and all the complexities, dangers, and distortions that comprise it.

But the film has undeniable historical value, too. It caused quite a stir upon release, apparently, for being the first film to address the Czech treatment of Sudeten Germans during the expulsions of the mid-1940s. It’s set in the aftermath of World War II, and tells the story of Viktor, a Czech airman returned from service in the RAF, who is given the responsibility of managing a large estate on the Czech-German border, formerly owned by a Nazi. The daughter of the Nazi, the eponymous Adelheid, is assigned to him as a servant. Her grasp of Czech is limited (or perhaps she is pretending – we never truly know), as is Viktor’s command of German. Thus, the majority of the storytelling is done through the camera alone – through following the characters in their movements, and observing them in their stillness.

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The slowness ceases to be tedious, and soon becomes poetic. Shut away from the outside world and confined to the dark, vast house (whose vastness we never really get a sense of, as the shots tend to be close-up, almost claustrophobic in their framing), we too are trapped with Viktor and Adelheid. I found the cinematography compelling. The lack of verbal communication means that the growing (and mostly wordless) attraction and romance between the two characters is expressed through seeing, and through looking. The film is obsessed with observation. At first, it’s mostly Viktor who observes. He watches Adelheid as she washes the floor, her waist slightly exposed. He spies on her through binoculars, chopping wood. But she too, returns his gaze. It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking – is it defiance, or desire? She seems to enjoy cooking and caring for him, but at other times she recoils from him. When a German woman brings the news that her father, the Nazi to whom the estate belonged to, has died, she breaks down and rebuffs Viktor’s attempts to comfort her.

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It is these instances that remind us that outside of the internal, closed world of the huge estate, there are social and ideological forces at play. The faint hope that is conveyed through Viktor and Adelheid’s strange – yet somehow comforting – relationship, is shattered in these moments. Even the warm, languid scene where the two sit by the fire and Viktor talks of his childhood, seems comically simple now. We want for them to find solace in each other, but know that any affection that may subsist is doomed from the outset.

Indeed, when Adelheid’s brother returns, Viktor just about escapes death. But – despite Adelheid’s ‘betrayal’ (she was, undoubtedly, waiting for him), Viktor refuses to testify against her. “You’re all I have”, he tells her. Aided by a translator, he begs to know whether she ever truly cared for him or not. He asks: “Did you hate me all of the time?” She tells him no. She too, it turns out, was enamoured by little details she’d observed in him. He tells her she has no reason to worry, and that he’ll take care of her. This last display of hope, of vulnerability that Viktor exudes, makes the final act all the more heartbreaking. The darkness, remoteness, and relative safety of the mansion could not, ultimately, keep the wider context at bay.

It’s a complex film, no doubt. I’m not sure I’d quite use the term ‘love story’ to describe it. The romance aspect is never fully realised; it is quiet desperation, as opposed to burning desire, that for me, defined the relationship between the characters. They are both symbolic of the internal conflict between loyalty and the need for intimacy, and though the subtleties of their everyday interactions hint at the possibility for more, the characters are ultimately unable to move past their own walls and barriers. The score – music by Bach and Strauss – lends pathos to the caged, gloomy world of the mansion. The imagery, graceful and gentle, evokes a sense of longing, of silent despair; it is reflective of the minute, carefully observed instances that draw Viktor to Adelheid, the impulse to believe that amongst all the anguish and desolation of the war, there do, perhaps, exist small, modest moments of beauty and peace.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m alive, I’m beautiful.

This was my introduction to French New Wave cinema. Though it may, initially, appear to be a film about largely trivial events, Cléo from 5 to 7 is, to my mind, an exploration of the awareness of mortality, a complex, real-time portrait (though it’s actually only 90 minutes long, so Cléo from 5 to 6:30 would be more fitting) of a woman who has come to believe she is dying. Cléo wanders through the streets of ’60s Paris with her maid as she awaits the results of her biopsy, ambling from café to hat shop to movie theatre, biding her time with the piercing sense that all is soon to end.

The camera often cuts between Cléo’s perspective, and snippets of casual conversations between other Parisians sipping coffees in cafés, revealing trivial tidbits of their lives – lovers breaking up, friends discussing politics – deepening the theme of the film, and lending a sense of tragedy to Cléo’s fear of leaving no lasting impact on the world. There is an artfully executed long-take of Cleo singing one of her songs, ‘Sans Tois’, with lyrics depicting the conflict and anxiety she feels over death. The extreme, almost uncomfortably intimate close-up of her face forces us as the audience to confront her (and our own?) undeniable inner turmoil.

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It’s no surprise that director Agnès Varda was trained as a serious photographer – the composition of every frame is a treat for photography lovers, being perfect in its placement of characters in a scene. The unique artistic devices carry the film; indeed, rather than the dialogue or story arc, it’s these clever uses of the camera that form its very essence.

Contemporary Color (David Byrne, 2017)

I saw this at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as part of the Open City Documentary Festival. At the end of the screening, there was a Q&A with Bill and Turner Ross (the directors), during which one of the audience members described the experience of watching the film as feeling like she’d eaten a rainbow’. This is precisely what it was! The film is spectacular in the way that through its visual energy alone, it captivates viewers entirely.

 

 

The story behind the idea of the film – told by the Ross brothers during the Q&A – is really quite lovely. Many years ago, a high school color guard contacted David Byrne (composer, artist, performer, etc.) to ask for permission to use one of his songs for a routine that the group was working on. Byrne wasn’t completely sure of what a color guard actually was, and set out to investigate. Turns out, he became enchanted.

Color guards can be found in most American colleges, high schools, and universities. They use various equipment, including flags, rifles, and sabres, along with dance, to enhance the music of the marching band show. Yet, they’ve since evolved into a separate activity known as winter guard, which is an indoor sport usually performed during the winter or spring, where the guard performs unaccompanied by the band, to a piece of pre-recorded music.

Byrne saw this as a kind of American folk art, a regional portrait, and thought up a concert event in which many different musical artists (including himself, Nelly Furtado, Ira Glass and Ad-Rock) would accompany color guard routines. The concerts took place on two evenings in Brooklyn, New York, in June 2015. The resulting film, Contemporary Color, records not only the concerts, but also the backstage buzz of the teenage performers working on a scale much larger and grander than ever before. The film is just as much an exploration of these kids’ emotional journies, and it’s clear that these color guards are a way for those who don’t fit into the traditional athletic and sporting scene of their school to be able to participate in something in their own right.

There were a few moments where I wondered if the film could perhaps do with a little more structure and narrative, but ultimately the visual experience was so dazzling that that ceased to matter. I thought it was spectacular.

 

 

 

The Unbelievers (Gus Holwerda, 2013)

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In this documentary film, we follow two world-renowned scientists – evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss – on their quest to spread scientific understanding and awareness, and encourage people to abandon blind belief in the supernatural.

I generally enjoy most things Richard Dawkins does, and I definitely didn’t expect this film to be an exception. There was so much potential in its premise – to promote science, reason and critical thinking throughout the world, and to convince people that a scientific, evidence-based world view is, above all things, interesting and rewarding.

But director Gus Holwerda didn’t seem particularly interested in this – the film is surprisingly lacking in substance. In its 77-minute running time, I think there were probably only about 20 or so minutes spent on showing actual intellectual discussion and debate. The rest of it: bizarre time lapses, scenes of Dawkins or Krauss gazing dreamily into the distance (there’s also one scene in which we’re shown Dawkins flicking through TV channels in his hotel room), car journey chit-chat, and thundering applause as the scientists walk onto huge stages with eager audiences (mostly all of whom already hold a scientific worldview). All of this is fine, of course, and makes the film more appealing to mass audiences, but to somebody who may be new to scepticism, science, and perhaps comes from a religious background and has recently started to rethink their position, this film does a terrible job in terms of persuasion. If I hadn’t already seen an abundance of material on the topic, including other talks and documentaries by Dawkins, I would think these scientists are really quite irritating – and perhaps not very nice people!

The whole thing was just very lazily done. It felt to me as though Dawkins and Krauss were simply on a mission to have a laugh (I’m sure this isn’t true, rather just bad direction), after growing tired and weary of the whole persuading-people-to-believe-in-science thing. The rigorous, exciting quality of enquiry isn’t present in this film. It seemed more just a celebration of how wonderful these men are, as opposed to trying to convince, educate and enlighten. Two guys, both brilliant in their fields, killing time. This was a shame.

None of the rich, illuminating arguments and debates for the non-existence of God are presented to us. None of the astonishing evidence (which is many times referred to) for evolution, for a universe from nothing, is properly explained, whether in a lecture or in the context of a debate. In the parts of debates that are shown, we are simply not given enough for anything to resonate, or for it to have any real lasting impact. There’s one particularly bizarre scene, where Dawkins is shown being on the phone with someone in his hotel room, and we can’t hear anything that the person on the other side of the phone is saying – we can only hear Dawkins’ side. What was the point of this?! Sure, we can see that it’s clearly a debate, but the laziness is striking. Perhaps it was simply supposed to demonstrate the looseness and frailty of arguments defending supernatural conviction. But still, a little more context would have been valuable. On the level of engagement, it’s a bad film. After a while, I just kept it on in the background.

I’d be interested to know what someone new to these sorts of debates, and watching the film as a sort of introductory activity thought, because maybe I’m wrong. But ultimately, my feelings: too rockstar-ish, not enough science, not enough substance.

Before the Flood (Fisher Stevens, 2016)

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I saw this at London’s Debtford Cinema, where it was programmed by a friend of mine. It doesn’t really feel possible to review a documentary film made to raise awareness of climate change in the same way as one would another film. The attempt to educate on the issue is commendable, so all that can really be said is that this is a genuine and heartfelt film, and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to Leonardo DiCaprio’s commitment to the cause.

DiCaprio travels the world to investigate the causes and impact of the global addiction to burning fossil fuels. He speaks to politicians, scientists, and other important figures (including the Pope), and tries to achieve the knowledge and understanding relevant to reducing our own carbon footprints. We get a sense of our moral culpability – but also our power to drive change – through the stats and figures presented throughout the film.

There is one particularly powerful scene near the end, where former astronaut Dr. Piers Sellers sits down with DiCaprio in a dark room that’s illuminated by a graphic of the Earth. He talks about how his experiences in space allowed him to appreciate the world’s beauty. After getting a stage-four cancer diagnosis upon returning to Earth, he became inspired to create satellite images that put the world’s big problems onto one image. We can see how different currents and rising temperatures will soon affect different parts of the world, leading to water and food shortages, thereby leading to more conflicts between humankind. But Dr. Sellers is an optimist— he believes that if we can all see our presence in the world on a much larger scale than simply what’s in front of us, we might be able to change our way of life, before it’s too late.