Saturday, 8 May 2021

The sense of an ending

  
Or in Plato's Cave
 
Apologies for the recent inactivity. I meant to leave a post a couple of months ago, effectively to hand in my resignation here. For a couple of years now I've had a desire to write fiction. Writing for the purposes of the blog is too often a distraction, and it takes away what limited time I might have to write stories, or even a book. With this in mind, I think it's safe to say that Lights in the Dusk has reached its natural conclusion. For now, at least.
 
I have several unfinished pieces that I might some day get around to completing if I can muster the time and energy. And I never rule out the possibility that in a brief moment of inspiration, or bored infuriation, I might write an aside that's worth sharing. Case in point, the post in question.
 
The below was written in response to a recent article published by The Guardian. Popcorn! Screams! Mass sobbing! Why I can’t wait for cinema’s big return. Not to belabor a point, but it's another lament from yours truly against the failure of criticism to break-free from the conservative perception of the cinema as something that exists as public spectacle. That it's a conveyor belt of distributed product to be assigned a category and qualification, and not as something that exists and has continued to exist throughout the pandemic, thriving and surviving wherever a film, old or new, can be seen. A lamentation against the unspoken hierarchy that all critics preserve because it's good for business, but bad for art.
 
Obviously, the cinema, in its reality as a brick-and-mortar space, matters, but in what capacity? Certainly not in its current form. So, I'm afraid I'm cynical about what role the cinema now plays as a kind of nostalgic, post-Covid yearning for the world as it once existed, and as it might exist again. How, in the course of time, a lack of choice, expression, diversity and content has been taken as a kind of totem to the glory days of the medium, when in reality the cinema was already failing, becoming a space where only products of power and affluence were given a screen to be seen. This is a contentious point on my part and one that leaves me open to charges of being against the tide of populism, but so be it. It's a lone voice through the darkness, a whisper in the twilight of Plato's cave, as weak and imperceptible as a mouse's roar.
 
 
Photo credit: igoriss/Getty Images/iStockphoto:
 
The real reason why critics are desperate for the cinemas to re-open has little to do with an actual love of movies. It’s because without cinemas, critics, in their current, journalistic capacity, have no reason to exist. The cinema for them represents a hierarchy. One that benefits their own self-interests over those of the paying audience.
 
Conventionally, critics get to see movies before us, "the plebs" do. They use their privilege to shape the discussions and expectations surrounding the film, convincing an audience whether they should give up their valuable time and hard-earned money to actually see it. If you remove the enforced hierarchy of theatrical distribution and embrace streaming as self-curation, then the stakes of seeing a film are much, much lower. The critic's voice no longer has the power to make or break a movie. You see a title on Netflix or Amazon, you check the trailer, and if it looks good then you watch it.
 
The result of this is a kind of democratizing of the viewing experience. Removing the barriers that separate a film (theatrical) from a TV series, a Netflix feature, or a video produced for social media.
 
The critic can't grapple with the idea that a video produced for YouTube or TikTok is probably getting more views and having more impact on the popular culture than a film like Nomadland (2020). They don't understand the idea that anything can be reviewed, critiqued, discussed or placed within a wider debate as a new kind of image-making, because they only understand the idea that a film is something prestigious (read: expensive) that plays in a cinema. A conservative, outdated view. This is why the cinema has become a place where the same old stories and images get repeated ad infinitum. The cinema is atrophied.
 
Commercials get shown in cinemas, but critics don't review them. Why? Afterall, they're short films. It's because the critic's job is to review the movie the studio want to promote, not the cinema experience.
 
For the majority of us, the cinema experience has become the practice of paying £8.00+ to see the latest billion-dollar Disney product with a crowd of people snacking, chatting and checking their phones. It's the experience of sitting through 30 to 40 minutes of commercials before we get to the actual trailers. It's noisy heating systems or having the lights too bright. It's people arriving late or leaving early, brushing past our knees, and stepping on our feet as they go.
 
And for what? To pick from a small handful of six to ten films (of the 1000s released globally every month) on the basis of what some person designated a "critic", or a wealthy studio, or distributor has decided has merit.
 
Sure, the cinema is spectacle, if you're into seeing the same CGI extravaganza from film to film, but is it really a shared experience? What have we shared exactly? The process of looking at images projected on a screen? Afterwards we just shuffle out into the daylight, head lowered, barely exchanging a glance or a word with these strangers. Whether we enjoyed the film or not has little to do with whether the rest of the crowd enjoyed it. It's not live theatre. It's not a concert. It's sitting in a big room watching a pre-recorded image, no different to what we do at home.
 
If you'd like to keep up with what I'm watching and commenting on, then I'm still active on MUBI. And hopefully I might return a couple of times before the end of the year to post some of the longer essays currently languishing in states of incompletion. Thanks for reading.
 
Further reading at Lights in the Dusk: The Box Office Bomb [27 January 2021], Fin de cinema [08 October 2020]

Joe Baltake

 
In Memoriam
 
I only learned today that Joe Baltake passed away last year. A former film critic for the Philadelphia Daily News, among other publications, Joe was the author of one of my absolute favorite film blogs, The Passionate Moviegoer.
 
Focusing mostly on classical Hollywood cinema, the blog offered a valuable perspective on actors and moviemakers from that "golden era" of film, as well as other, more modern facets of film culture and film appreciation. Throughout his writing, Joe's knowledge and personable style of criticism was always self-evident, and his absence is another great loss for the once thriving blogosphere.
 
 
The Films of Jack Lemmon [Joe Baltake, 1977]:

Saturday, 13 February 2021

The Unseen

 
Self-reflexivity and identity in Lupin (2021)
 

At the time of writing, I'm only three episodes into the new Netflix produced adaptation of Lupin (2021), but I have to admit, I'm quietly invested. While the show is frequently implausible, contrived and utterly unrealistic in its attempts to fold intricate twists and turns into the narrative – one-upping the ingenuity of the character and their efforts to manipulate events to facilitate a preferred outcome; "the sleight of hand", à la Christopher Nolan's movies, such as The Prestige (2006), or a film like Now You See Me (2013) by Louis Leterrier, who directed several episodes of the show in question – I think the series has more interesting elements surrounding the narrative that are worth looking at in further detail.
 
First, the meta role that the text plays on the formation of the character and their pursuit of truth and vengeance for a loved one cruelly wronged.
 
For the uninitiated, Lupin is based on a series of books about the character Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief created by Maurice Leblanc in the early twentieth century. Lupin, as a character, featured in 17 novels and 39 novellas, beginning with the collection, Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar (1907). In this version of the story, the character Assane Diop models his life on that of Lupin after being given a copy of the book as a childhood present by his father. The passing of the book from father to son triggers a significant plot-point, wherein the father, Babakar, is accused by his powerful and wealthy employees of stealing a priceless necklace, is imprisoned, and subsequently commits suicide in jail. Assane grows up, adopting the Lupin persona as his own, and sets out to prove his father's innocence.
 
The book throughout makes an appearance, offering clues to detectives trying to piece together the mystery, and also providing clues to Assane about the exploitation of his father. Sub-plots from the books are also updated and played out as inspirations for Assane's own plans, creating an interesting thread of self-reflexivity.
 
 
Lupin: Chapter One [Louis Leterrier, 2021]:

 
Lupin: Chapter Two [Louis Leterrier, 2021]:
 
In this production, Assane/Lupin is brilliantly played by the actor Omar Sy. Historically, the character of Arsène Lupin has almost always been portrayed as white. A twentieth-century everyman able to move seamlessly between worlds and stratums of society, discreet and chameleon-like in his ability to disappear into a role or guise. In changing the ethnicity of Lupin, the creators of the Netlfix series, George Kay and François Uzan, imbue the project with a more contemporary social commentary, subverting societal expectations, and injecting a greater consciousness into the show and its subtext of class and racial exploitation.
 
In the very first episode, we're introduced to Assane working as part of a team of cleaners at the Louvre. Later, he'll visit a violent loan shark installed within one of the predominantly working-class high-rise developments on the outskirts of Paris, setting up the machinations of a robbery. Without establishing the character and the role he'll subsequently play, the introduction to Assane is meant to assuage conservative expectations and prejudices that unfortunately follow people from non-white, non-European backgrounds, before subverting them with later revelations of the plot. The audience accepts the reality of the character, as presented in these early scenes, because it plays into too many well-worn stereotypes frequently presented in films, music and television.
 
As the scenes unfold, we see that many of Assane's co-workers at the gallery are also from communities marginalized by the middle-classes. They come from African or Middle Eastern backgrounds. They work through the night, hidden away from the tourists and the patrons, invisible and unseen. The foregrounding of this scene and the way Lupin is able to go about setting up the particulars of his heist without drawing any suspicion or distrust, speaks to the way working class people – especially those from marginalized areas of society – exist in the background of things. To the middle and upper-classes, and those made comfortable by privilege, these people are merely there to fulfil a function or a need. They don't exist.
 
 
Lupin: Chapter One [Louis Leterrier, 2021]:

 
Lupin: Chapter Two [Louis Leterrier, 2021]:
 
It's this anonymity that privilege and ignorance breeds that gives Lupin the perfect cover to move seamlessly between worlds; to adopt new personas; to install himself in institutions. It also gives the filmmakers context to explore and critique systemic values and structures that allow prejudice, inequality, and the exploitation of working-class people to proliferate through a society controlled, not by the many, but by the few.
 
When Lupin makes his escape from a rendezvous by using his cover as a delivery cyclist to evade the police, or infiltrates a prison by simply swapping places with a detainee with a similar physicality, it further calls out the lack of attention or concern such people and professions are afforded by those that fail to acknowledge their basic human existence. The show confronts audiences with their own prejudices and preconceptions, becoming in a way like a mirror, reflecting but also challenging the accepted cultural narrative that allows these same prejudices to exist.
 
In this variation of the story, Lupin's ability to be at once a member of high society and at the same time pass unnoticed through the working class, makes him something of an aspirational figure. A kind of folk hero, like Robin Hood. He might rob from the rich, but in doing so, he shows to the audience the inequalities and the poor living conditions that turn many of the characters existing on the margins of the show and its environments towards acts of criminality. In plainer terms, it also shows that a character like Assane can succeed; that he can play the system at its own game and win; that he can move seamlessly and comfortably through a world of wealth and privilege in a way rarely shown in mainstream entertainment.
 
There's a further self-reflexive quality to this relating to the nature of performance. Throughout, Assane as Lupin takes on different roles and guises. He's essaying characters essentially, putting on a costume and adopting a particular persona. Through the early episodes the filmmakers play with this, continually blurring the line between Assane as Lupin, Lupin as Assane, and the fear that one might be lost to the other. It will be interesting to see how these themes and ideas broaden and develop through the subsequent episodes.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Travelling Light

 
Thoughts on a film by Gina Telaroli
 
 
Three quotes preface the presentation of the film on its director's Vimeo profile. One attributed to a fellow filmmaker, one to an author, and one that remains unsigned but is possibly from Telaroli herself.
 
"Ten properties of a subject, according to Leonardo: light and dark, color and substance, form and position, distance and nearness, movement and stillness." - Robert Bresson
 
"They began very promptly—these tender, fluttering sensations; they began with the sight of the beautiful English landscape, whose dark richness was quickened and brightened by the season; with the carpeted fields and flowering hedge-rows, as she looked at them from the window of the train; with the spires of the rural churches, peeping above the rook-haunted tree-tops; with the oak-studded parks, the ancient homes, the cloudy light…" - from Henry James' "Daisy Miller: A Study"
 
An Amtrak train pulls out of Penn Station in New York City on a cold, sunny February morning. The train moves forward as the landscape changes—the East Coast giving way to the Midwest. Passengers fill their roles, the snow begins to fall and the next train station is announced, all while the light continues shifting, bouncing, swelling and slouching into eventual darkness.
 
The third quote functions as an obvious synopsis/description of the work itself, defining, in clear-terms, the practicalities of the film's recorded journey, from station-to-station, and place to place. But on a certain level, so too do the quotes from James and Bresson. These quotations speak of the subconscious layer of the film; of what it's depicting beneath the surface of the recording. The significance of the train, its passage through the landscape, the changing topography, the contrast between light and dark, and the transient nature of public transportation, with its journey, both physical and emotional, as a mirror to the journey of a life itself, is expressed between the passages of these words.
 
The film, in a way, adapts these quotations into images that on one level seem staggeringly mundane and even banal in their presentation of the ordinary, or the everyday, or it applies the quotations to give form to what a first appears formless, but either way, it gets at something inherently mysterious, even monumental, that is felt in the journey (or journeys) depicted in Telaroli's film.
 
 
Travelling Light [Gina Telaroli, 2011]:
 
Whether intentionally or not, Telaroli, in filming the passing landscape from the train's window, creates an iris effect, wherein the edges of the window intrude upon the image, creating a frame within a frame. This, on one level, establishes the subjective relationship between the presence of the filmmaker, recording the journey as it unfolds, but also the notion of the camera as the eye of the audience. It doesn't simply record, it observes, active and attentive, the way a human eye might respond when gazing as a passenger from the window of this moving vehicle.
 
It also has broader connotations, reminding us of the iris effect of old movies, from the silent era to the golden age of Hollywood, and on an even more vague and obscure level, suggesting the perspective of an astronaut gazing through the visor of their space helmet; exaggerating the almost alien sense of the journey as Telaroli records it, and connecting, again, albeit vaguely, the subjective journey of the film through geographical space with the journey of a character like Dr. Dave Bowman as he travels through the stargate in Stanley Kubrick's enduring masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
 
 
Travelling Light [Gina Telaroli, 2011]:

 
Grandma's Reading Glass [George Albert Smith, 1900]:

 
2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968]:
 
This may seem like an odd connection to make – and in many ways it is – however, in both films we have the presentation of a journey that functions on both a literal and subconscious level. There is the actual, physical journey, with its departures and arrivals, and then there is the metaphysical journey, the one that transforms rather than transports.
 
From the very first images, Telaroli's film establishes a connection between the idea of travel, the journey, a train on a track, with the notion of the narrative journey, the progression of a story from beginning to end, from its point of departure to its inevitable arrival.
 
The train is one of the great symbols of the cinema, having played a key role in its formation from the very beginning of its history. It was a train that thrilled audiences in the silent marvel of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1896) by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière – investing the cinema was a sense of the sensational – and it was a train that gave way to the notion of narrative cutting, of the edit between interior and exterior spaces, in George Albert Smith's groundbreaking A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899).
 
Since that time, trains have been a defining narrative and visual presence in cinema, from The Iron Horse (1924) to The General (1926) and beyond, to Shanghai Express (1932), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), Pather Panchali (1955), Night Train (1959), The Train (1964), The Hero (1966), Trans-Europe-Express (1966), La Chionoise (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The American Friend (1977), Runaway Train (1985), Europa (1991), Sleepless (2000), Unstoppable (2010), Snowpiercer (2013) and The Image Book (2018), among others.
 
 
The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station [Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1896]:

 
A Kiss in the Tunnel [George Albert Smith, 1899]:

 
Pather Panchali [Satyajit Ray, 1955]:

 
Trans-Europe-Express [Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966]:

 
The Image Book [Jean-Luc Godard, 2018]:
 
From the beginning of cinema, the train has moved through its narrative, like a leitmotif; the progression of it, as a collective journey, and the experience of that of the passenger, seated, passive, staring through a rectangular window of light at the changing scenes and dramas that pass before our eyes, is like a mirror reflecting back on itself. In many films, the train is a symbol of discovery, suggesting the encroachment of the "modern" world onto that of the "primitive" or outdated, suggesting an escape, a movement, or the journey between worlds (both real or imagined.)
 
Telaroli's film fits into this tradition. It represents a recorded journey, both pictorially and, on some level, psychologically, presenting a movement between worlds, but it's also a narrative, where the beginning of the train journey and its conclusion mirrors the beginning and ending of the film.
 
 
Travelling Light [Gina Telaroli, 2011]:
 
Here, the intricacies of the title work on two separate levels. There's "travelling light", in the sense of moving without baggage. As in taking a short journey without the need for heavy luggage, but also baggage in the figurative sense, as in not being burdened by thoughts, fears, and responsibilities. "Travelling light" also refers to the progression of light itself, both in the movement from dawn to dusk, or light into dark, but also the journey of light as it moves through the frames of the film.
 
Here, sunlight on a passing mountain, or daylight streaking through the windows of the train, or artificial light refracted by rain or frost on the glass, becomes as much of a journey as the one being taken in tandem by the filmmaker and audiences as the train moves along the track. Finally, the connection is made clear, with the closing shot, detailed in the final screenshot above, a train retreating along the platform, slowly disappearing into a bank of fog, with only the light on the front of the locomotive left appearing like a ghostly orb shining in the middle-distance. In this moment, the eye of the camera as surrogate for that of the protagonist/audience, is now liberated from the confines of the train. We're outside, emerged, as if from the womb, and faced with something approaching reality.
 
As a closing shot, it connects back to the beginning of the film, the movement of the train, departing or progressing through the wintry landscape, but also to the notion of the journey, emotional, psychological, or geographical. The notion that we've arrived, marooned upon the platform, rigid and unmoving, but that another journey is already beginning for someone else. Here, in retrospect, the connection to the three quotes highlighted by Telaroli as a preface to her film, make perfect sense.
 
Further reading at Lights in the Dusk: Shanghai Express [29 February 2020], The Phantom Ride [09 September 2011]

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Artificial Intelligence

 
The Current Cinema
 
A recent video posted by Insider, How Marvel Actually Makes Movies Years Before Filming, gets to the broken heart of my problem with the current blockbuster cinema, and helps to explain why the directed-by-committee focus of the modern Hollywood franchise film is so frequently devoid of originality, imagination and risk.
 
Focusing on the work of previsualization company The Third Floor, Inside preface their video with the following description: The Third Floor is one of the world's top visualization studios and has worked on 19 of the 23 installments in Marvel's "Infinity Saga." From previs and stuntvis to techvis and postvis, The Third Floor's work on Marvel movies runs through the entire production process. The first previsualizations of a Marvel film can begin well in advance of its release date, often before the screenplay is fully finished. Find out how Marvel visualizes its movies years before filmmaking and how this practice has helped the MCU rise its position of box-office dominance today.
 
The video goes on to explain that "previs" frequently occurs before directors and cinematographers have even been hired, meaning the job of a filmmaker hired to helm a Marvel movie is less about directing than merely recreating what has already been rendered as 3D, computer generated animation.
 
 
How Marvel Actually Makes Movies Years Before Filming [Insider, 2021]:
 
You could argue that this process is merely the modern, 21st century equivalent of the storyboard, and to an extent you would be correct. Many filmmakers, from Alfred Hitchcock to the Coen Brothers, have been known to rigorously storyboard every shot in their films prior to the production process. But the difference here is that Hitchcock, the Coen Brothers and others would sit down with a storyboard artist and translate their ideas to the page. They'd then work with cinematographers, production designers and members of the art department to turn that storyboard into a facsimile of reality.
 
With previsualization, it's not necessarily the traditional filmmakers that are designing and directing the movie, it's teams like The Third Floor, who are creating demo versions of the film and in the process making many of the creative decisions that inform the finished work. As one of the quoted sources in the film puts it, [the previs team are] "literally an additional director/writer/editor on the movie." With this in mind, why are we still crediting directors with the success of these films?
 
 
How Marvel Actually Makes Movies Years Before Filming [Insider, 2021]:

The uniformity of Marvel's cinema is not really a surprise at this point. That they're produced by committee is self-evident. A film like Black Panther (2018), aesthetically, looks a lot like Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Captain Marvel (also 2019), and very little like director Ryan Coogler's previous films, Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). This is because the actual job of directing these films has already been done prior to the director coming on-board. This is why Marvel's cinema feels rote and homogenous compared to earlier, auteur-driven superhero movies like Batman Returns (1992), Unbreakable (2000) and even The Dark Knight (2008).
 
As one of the contributors to the Insider film puts it, "All a director has to do is be an avid viewer of their own movie," which in other words is a total dismissal or rejection of the role of the director as a creative or artistic individual, reducing it to little more than an arbiter or brand guardian.
 
For those that enjoy Marvel's movies as escapist spectacle, this is hardly concerning. Most audiences don't care about the role of director and aren't going to see these films for their expression of personal art, politics, or ideology. But what does it say about the role of the film critic? Marvel movies are frequently the most critically acclaimed blockbuster films released. When we have a generation of critics not just rejecting but actively ridiculing a work of personal, auteur-driven cinema, like Glass (2019) by M. Night Shymalan, then falling over themselves to praise directors for work they didn't even create, and films that were put together by artificial intelligence, like those by Marvel, then the future of cinema as anything less than a corporate, committee-driven enterprise, is seriously at risk.
 
Further reading at Lights in the Dusk: On contemporary cinema: Superheroes and the denial of humanity [11 October 2020], The Film Director as Superstar [15 August 2020], The Current Cinema [09 January 2020], The Popular Cinema [22 June 2019]

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The Box Office Bomb


The Current Cinema
 
In a recent article for The Guardian, Smash hit or total turkey? In the age of streaming it's impossible to tell, journalist Steve Rose posits: "With the box office closed and only secretive viewing figures to go on, gauging a film’s success is becoming a tricky proposition."
 
Writing with all the conviction and integrity of a man that's been asked by his editor to turn in 500 words on literally anything to get readers clicking and commenting (thus generating that all important advertising revenue), Rose – using the limited cinema release of the recent superhero spectacle Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) as a point of inception – asks: "Here is the question: was Wonder Woman 1984 a hit movie? How did it compare to the first Wonder Woman? Or how about Soul, or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Were they hits? How can we tell?"
 
 
Wonder Woman 1984 [Patty Jenkins, 2020]:

 
Rose continues, his disinterest in his own question(s) palpable in the snark needlessly injected into every sentence. "In ordinary times we wouldn’t have to ask; we would have box-office figures to go by. Now, the pandemic has hobbled cinema-going, and for most of us the only way to access new movies is via streaming services, which tend to guard their numbers as if they’re nuclear launch codes."
 
There is an interesting conundrum at the heart of Rose's article that's worth engaging with. The way audiences engage with cinema, and with media in general, has been changing for some time. But discussing the changing trends of popular culture isn't of interest to writers like Rose, who merely churn out clickbait considerations they don't even agree with. No, the real crux of Rose's writing comes, like a lot of recent Guardian articles about the state of cinema, from a place of deep, professional fear.
 
You see, what Rose and his cronies like Peter Bradshaw and Mark Kermode are really terrified of, is that in an age where audiences get access to a work before journalists and reviewers, where box office figures become meaningless, and where audiences are able to cultivate their own personal and private cinema free of influence or the condemnation of would-be tastemakers, the only way to really write about and promote a particular work is by investing our own subjective thoughts and opinions into the experience of it.
 
Writing about whether or not a film is a "hit" or a "turkey" will be replaced by deeper considerations of what the film means to the viewer on an individual level; how well it engages the personal and political, how well it employs form and aesthetics. The noise of the industry and the corporate concerns and consensus-shaping that hack journalists have made their bread and butter over the past two decades will be entirely irrelevant.
 
Rose exposes himself and many of his similarly minded contemporaries completely when he writes: "one of the great things about box-office figures is that they offer nowhere to hide. There is no disputing a franchise-spawning smash such as The Matrix or Avatar, or disguising a bomb such as Cats. We celebrate those successes and revel in those failures together. It’s Darwinian but democratic. It binds us as a society. With streaming, we might get exactly the same good and bad movies, but served as more of an algorithmically curated mulch of “meh”, which nobody consumes in the same way. That doesn’t bode well for the future of movies as popular culture."
 
 
Avatar [James Cameron, 2009]:

 
Cats [Tom Hooper, 2019]:
 
Of course, Rose doesn't explain why this development doesn't bode well for popular culture. Having fulfilled his word limit, he simply ends his argument on a cliffhanger, his total indifference and disdain for his own readership obvious throughout. But the future he describes is really not that dissimilar to our own recent past.
 
Just over 20 years ago, before the internet became such a pervasive part of both our lives and the way we share and access information, most audiences didn't follow box-office trends. Unless you were an industry insider, had a subscription to Variety or other high-minded film publications, or approached the cinema as an investment opportunity, most audiences had little to no idea how much a film cost or how much it made. Unless it became an infamous failure, like Heaven's Gate (1980) by Michael Cimino, or a box-office phenomenon, like Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), it simply wasn't a part of the conversation.
 
For context, a film like Misery (1990), which cost $20million to produce and made $61million at the box-office, nonetheless became a genuine event movie. It had a massive impact on popular culture and was widely parodied and referenced in a variety of other media. Similarly, a film like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which cost $25million and made $58million, was considered a box-office disappointment, despite finding a more appreciative audience on home video and now being seen as one of the best American films of all time. In the days before sites like Box-Office Mojo, The Numbers and even Wikipedia logging a film's budget and box-office from the off, a work was still able to have a life and find an audience and legacy beyond its opening weekend.
 
 
Misery [Rob Reiner, 1991]:

 
 
French and Saunders: Misery [Bob Spiers, 1993]:
 
 
Family Guy: Three Kings [Dominic Bianchi, 2009]:

 
Similarly, before the introduction of the aptly named Rotten Tomatoes, which Rose himself acknowledges as flawed in his own article, there was no way of knowing for certain whether or not a film had an overwhelming critical consensus. Most people would trust the word of a couple of critics that they read or listened to regularly, or they'd take the word-of-mouth recommendations from video store employees or the endorsements of friends and family.
 
Before Rotten Tomatoes or Meta Critic, films weren't assigned a number or percentage based on the subjective opinions of a small handful of reviewers. Nothing was set in stone. Which is why films like Blade Runner (1982), The Thing (also 1982), Scarface (1983) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) could divide critical opinion, and still go on to become considered genuine modern masterworks by subsequent generations of critics. Stanley Kubrick’s landmark horror film The Shining (1980) received worse reviews than many M. Night Shyamalan films, but as it was never defined for subsequent generations as a 40% or even 20% "rotten" movie, it was able to be discovered by unbiased audiences unfamiliar with its critical legacy. Something that isn't possible for Shyamalan's masterworks, like The Village (2004) and Glass (2019), which have been firmly canonized and recorded as failures.
 
 
The Shining [Stanley Kubrick, 1980]:
 
 
The Village [M. Night Shyamalan, 2004]:
 
So, Rose's summation is complete bullshit. The way we approached movies changed massively in the age of the internet, and it indeed continues to change and evolve as both the technology and generational viewing habits change with it.
 
For my generation and older, there's a clear delineation between cinema and television; between the videos we watch on social media and those produced by professional broadcasters. For younger generations, this isn't the case. The "movies", as a medium, occupy a very narrow window of their interests. They compete with social media, TikTok and YouTube creators, Instagram, video games and facetime with friends. Whether young people see the latest Star Wars or Pixar movie at the cinema, at home on the television, or on laptops and mobile devises, is irrelevant. All that matters is that they're able to see the film as soon as it's available, regardless of the platform or method of delivery.
 
Personally, I find this new development exciting. Removing unnecessary conversations around box-office and critical consensus removes the barriers that previously denied certain works a space for discussion and analysis. Now we can watch the latest film by Marvel, DC, Pixar, or Disney, alongside films and serials made specifically for Amazon or Netflix, or more interesting and experimental works released on MUBI or via Blu-ray by companies like the BFI, Second Run, and others. We don't have to go into a work with our expectations already tainted by some website calling the film a "hit" or a "Turkey", but can go in fresh, deciding for ourselves what is a hit, and cultivating our own network of trusted movie-watchers to point us towards works of real interest.
 
There's no longer a need to draw a line between something accessible and mainstream, like Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul (both 2020), and a film like the Spanish-language Netflix production The Invisible Guardian (2017), the British, refugee-themed horror movie, His House (2020), or the difficult to categorize Bertrand Bonello art-house movie, Nocturama (2016), all of which are currently available to stream. Removed from the necessity to discuss budgets and box-office, awards and critical consensus, all these works are simply films, there to be watched and ranked and discussed, and valued entirely on their content, their stories, and their aesthetics. It's like an act of liberation.
 
Further reading at Lights in the Dusk: Fin de cinema [08 October 2020], The Current Cinema [09 January 2020]

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Behavior and reflection


Thoughts on a film: Creep (2014)
 
Reading through various comments for the film in question, the consensus despite its generally well-thought-of reputation among professional critics seems to be that the film didn't work. Phrases like "implausible", "unconvincing" and "not scary", appear to be circling around the usual comment sections and review sites, reminding us all of the strange double-standards of plausibility that horror cinema is held to and that other genres, such as comic book movies or animation, generally aren't.
 
While some of these commentators may have a point regarding the first two complaints (which I'll circumnavigate back to shortly), the third and less specific criticism of "not scary" is, at the very least, a subjective response. Like "not funny", or "not conventionally beautiful", it's a statement that says more about the individual viewer than it does about the film itself (although this is true of all criticism in general). It speaks of a certain expectation that is often forced upon an audience by ways of marketing (how the film is sold, in terms of its specific genre, title or imagery) and not of what the filmmakers were attempting to achieve on their own terms.
 
While practically speaking, Creep is a kind of horror film - in the sense that it works within the recognizable parameters of the genre, employing many of the same tropes and conventions that are familiar from other works operating along similar means - the intention isn't always to frighten or to scare the audience, but something else.
 
 
Creep [Patrick Brice, 2014]:

 
Instead, what the film appears to be doing is creating a series of situations that work to manipulate and provoke the viewer into reaching a particular emotional response. In this sense, the construction of the film and its relationship to the viewing audience mirrors the relationship between the two central characters; struggling videographer Aaron (played by the film's director, Patrick Brice) and the eccentric middle-aged rich-kid Joseph (played by the film's co-producer, Mark Duplass).
 
Joseph, who claims to have a terminal illness, hires Aaron to produce a 'day in the life' style video-diary to be shown to his as yet-unborn son: citing the plotline from the Bruce Joel Rubin film My Life (1993) as a more wholesome example. But the relationship between the two men quickly turns sour as Joseph's behavior becomes increasingly erratic.
 
 
My Life [Bruce Joel Rubin, 1993]:

 
Creep [Patrick Brice, 2014]:

While I enjoyed the film's back-and-forth between Aaron and Joseph – as well as the often-clever combination of found-footage style mockumentary, psychological horror story and comedy of embarrassment – it was this self-reflexive mirroring of the relationship between the two central characters and the relationship between the audience and the work that gave the film its real impact. More so than providing conventional scares or scenes of generic suspense, the film becomes a kind of deconstruction of the machinations of the horror film; exploring the odd contradiction in how both protagonists and audiences alike will often stick with a situation despite their better judgement.
 
It is within this context that the supposed implausibility or predictability of the relationship between these characters and the eventual outcome of events seems less bothersome.
 
From the outset, Aaron is manipulated and misled into meeting and then spending time with his antagonist, only to then be set a series of personal provocations that should compel him to retreat to the nearest exit. Instead, the erratic behavior of Joseph simply works to further pique the curiosity of Aaron, as well as his inherent (and in this instance misplaced) sensitivity. There may even be a familiar comment about the nature of voyeurism that runs throughout many films operating within the found-footage sub-genre, such as Paranormal Activity (2007) or REC 3: Genesis (2012) – where the post-millennium cultural obsession with documenting all aspects of one's life, including death, prevail above common sense – as Arron finds himself unable to stop documenting a situation that will undoubtedly lead him into harm.
 
 
Paranormal Activity [Oren Peli, 2007]:
 
One of the real innovations of the found-footage sub-genre was the emphasis on observation. Tied into this same aspect of voyeurism, audiences were encouraged to watch footage that had been left recording for several minutes, creating an even greater sense of anticipation and suspense.
 
 
Creep [Patrick Brice, 2014]:
 
When a scene of violence finally does occur, we're no longer expecting it. So, the violence feels all the more shocking and tangible.
 
It's clear from his position within the narrative as the viewer, the voyeur, and even the victim, that Aaron is our surrogate. Like Aaron, we accept this invitation. We go along with this character, Joseph, who from the beginning seems slightly off. When we're given the opportunity to leave, to walk away, to turn off the movie, we don't! We stay with it... but why? The answer is simple: there's an element of the car crash about Joseph and his behavior, which compels us to keep watching. Whether he's inviting Aaron to film him take a bubble bath with an imaginary version of his unborn son ("tubby time") or introducing us to his alter-ego, Peachfuzz - a garish animal mask that plays into a weird though possibly invented sexual fetish - the routine is so outrageous, tragic and unintentionally amusing that we can't help but remain compelled.
 
Like the tradition of comedy characters like Alan Partridge or David Brent, the presentation of Joseph reveals something cruel and mean-spirited (and again, largely voyeuristic) about his audience; it gives him, as a character, a kind of credence to turn that negativity against us, as he does with Aaron. This was significant for me because it actually contextualizes and defends against the popular criticism that the film is unconvincing in its construction and that the characters behave implausibly or in a way that defies all reasonable logic. I mean, they do, without question; but that almost seems like the point.
 
 
Creep [Patrick Brice, 2014]:
 
No matter how implausible Joseph's stories are, how ridiculous the justifications for his uncomfortable behavior, or how many red flags should've been triggered as he turns his invasive and manipulative line of question back against his unsuspecting companion, Aaron remains strangely faithful. By the end of the film this implication becomes clear. Aaron has had his opportunity to run. If he doesn't take it, then surely, he deserves all he gets? The same is true for audience. If we stayed with it through scenes that were totally implausible, through justifications that didn't effectively justify anything and through the moments when things take a turn for the strange and uncomfortable, then does the audience also deserve this particular outcome?
 
Personally, I found Creep to be more unsettling than outright scary, but it certainly worked at creating and sustaining a mood that was both disturbing and charged with a pervasive, underlying tension. The jump scares, which are used frequently, are also quite often delivered in a manner that's self-aware and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The intensity and suspense that we might normally expect from a conventional horror film is similarly neutralized by the distance that the found-footage format brings to the material but is also deconstructed or reinvented by the use of the format, its "meta" elements and self-reflexivity.