Like a Playlist

David Lynch once said;

“I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.”

These words ring incredibly true since since most audiences want their films to be straightforward, accessible, easy enough to understand, simple enough to accompany their hot nachos with cheese sauce dripping all over the floor. Is that really what movies are for? To make things simple? Some, of course, yes. Some movies are meant to be enjoyed with the family, the girlfriend, boyfriend; movies with loud explosions, witty dialogue, packed with action and a smart plot, something along the lines of the Lethal Weapon series, The Nice Guys, RockyThe Wolf of Wall Street, etc. The second category is the one that demands a viewer’s full immersion; a complete dedication to the viewing experience. The director of the film needs you to get sucked into the world of the film he or she are presenting to you. Otherwise it’s pointless. David Lynch is one of them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. But above all, Terrence Malick is one of them. And his latest film, Song to Song, starring Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, is the ultimate piece of evidence to this statement.

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Are you ready for the adventure?

Malick, a wealthy biologist and oilman, as well as one of the most introvert film directors that have ever walked the earth, presented the movie himself at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Yes, a man who has been avoiding cameras, award shows and interviews for the past 40 years finally emerged on the surface of an indie film festival to present his latest movie about love. What this could mean is that Song to Song holds something special, not only for the audience, but for the director himself. What could be the reason for this? As I watched the film a few nights ago, I realized how Malick’s incredibly intricate take on life really is. We know and love him for Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, his most accessible works that proved he had enough skill to go from making indie road movies to making large-scale war epics in a span of 20 years. But then something happened and Malick went from seeing directing movies as a hobby more than anything else to dishing out a film every 2-3 years, (3 in the last year and a half!) and doing this by using a very alienated style of filmmaking that has been perceived by most audiences as a ‘pretentious, slow, plotless bore.’

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You have to be ready, because Malick doesn’t let up.

Song to Song may not be his most accessible film. It isn’t. But it has the same emotional kick that The Tree of Life had, the last film that saw Malick be up for an Academy Award in 2011, and that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups lacked.  What makes it stand out from the rest of his improvised, slow, meandering epics, is that it manages to portray life, and people dealing with it, in an extremely honest and heartbreaking manner. While The Tree of Life focused on the concept of family, and successfully so, and while To the Wonder  and Knight of Cups dealt with very little, in fact remaining an unfocused artsy mess, Song to Song talks about the concept of love using all the tools Malick’s collected over the years of experience. Love is not easy to capture on camera. Most love stories don’t succeed in delivering the right message. Aside from La La Land, there’s not a love story that I can think of worth considering in the last couple of years. Then along comes Malick and his bold vision of love makes you realize how great the cinematic medium can be at times.

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Malick and Lubezki at their finest.

Here, Malick delivers the oldest, most well known story in the book: a love triangle, two good friends, a musician (Ryan Gosling) and a music producer (Michael Fassbender) falling in love with the same girl (Rooney Mara). What at first seems like the usual snooze-fest of falsified emotions for the screen, soon turns into a compelling character study that uses time, as per Malick’s tradition, to tell the story the right way – the only way. Malick, similarly to what Lynch said, does not want the viewer to understand what happens on the silver screen. He wants the viewer to imagine what happens, and he does this by telling what could have been the most linear story out there in a way most filmmakers would not dare to. Song to Song works like a music playlist turned on ‘shuffle mode’.  It jumps from song to song, from album to album, changing melodies, moods and tones. It plays with different emotions at different times, and all of this is never meant to reach an end, just like a playlist set on ‘repeat’. At first, we meet the characters, who introduce themselves by looking devastated, shell shocked, victims of something that has happened not so long ago. Again, we are not meant to understand, we are meant imagine what song has just finished playing and what song is about to come on next. We cannot predict it. We can only imagine. And that is how this film develops from that point on.

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Who are we, really?

Soon, the two friends get into an argument and two different women appear alongside Rooney Mara’s character. One is broken and self-destructive (Natalie Portman’s character), the other one is mature and experienced enough to know when it’s time to go away (Cate Blanchett’s character). Malick shapes these relationships like Polaroid snapshots; quick, unfocused snapshots that serve as a temporary time capsule. As viewers, we witness specific moments in each relationship; the first kiss, the first argument, the first disconnection and the first realization of how things really are. All of these moments mean nothing on their own, just like snapshots. But once Malick puts them together, creates a photo album out of them, that’s when it all comes around like a strong tide rushing in to blow over the sand. It is only then that we start seeing the bigger picture, and that is, Malick’s incredibly unique take on life.

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A simple love story.

With the help of one of the greatest living cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick uses his camera like a spy. We get the chance to go through empty hallways, enter concert stages and observe our protagonists from a safe distance. Every now and then, the camera pushes in close, almost in a threatening manner, in order for us to get a better look at what our characters really think and feel, which leads me to my next point about Malick’s take on life. Most people act as if his characters (especially Ben Affleck’s from To the Wonder and Christian Bale’s from Knight of Cups) are nothing but empty, shallow cartoon characters with paper-thin background and paper-thin everything. In some cases it may seem so. But in Song to Song we get the complete opposite. Only a fool could not read the facial expressions of our protagonists. The voice-over, a vital element of every single Malick film, does not mean a thing in this case – it is useless. Song to Song plays out like a silent movie accompanied by two elements – music (ranging from hard rock to classical, hip-hop to religious chants) and character’s close-ups. In the rare instances we get to be close to each character, we get a slice of honest, clear emotions. Malick does, in fact, bring the best out of his cast. Mara plays her usual innocent-looking self but this time, cuts deeper than usual. Same goes for the rest of the players. They are like songs. They hit different notes at different times their interpretation varies based on time and their presentation. Take Fassbender’s character, for example. He’s the greedy producer, the wealthy jackass who got rich thanks to other people’s talent. At times we interpret his greed as mean-spirited, evil and crooked, as he snorts lines of coke, goes from party to party and mistreats people around him. And yet, at times his character’s greed is presented as a method of self-defense against loneliness, alienation and disappointment. His only weapon. His only way of being. Like life, Fassbender’s character is a messy, off-beat song that never quite reaches a stable melody. It never sounds the same way.

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A hand – threatening and gentle at the same time.

Going from location to location, moving across time and space, across desert landscapes, city streets and beautiful sunsets, Song to Song injects life into a simple love story that could have been the biggest misfire in Malick’s career. We get to observe characters that are intricate and real. Some are too broken to be repaired, like Natalie Portman’s character, who cannot cope with the weight of life and a newly-found love. Others wish they could turn back the clock, like Rooney Mara’s character, who acts like a little girl, afraid of what can possibly await her on the next turn. The two friends never clash with their emotions. Like in life, there is a certain understanding right below the surface that never allows them to express themselves explicitly face-to-face. They are trapped. And that’s partly the beauty of how this story is told. Don’t let IMDb’s 5.8 rating fool you. This is a movie that has the ability to speak by being silent. Whereas other directors would have inserted unnecessary dialogue, Malick remains silent, letting the camerawork, the music and the actors do the work. It is not a masterpiece but it is an experience. It treats life head-on and does not let up for a second. Most importantly, it never tries to understand itself. It simply is. Like life. Like the next song on a playlist.

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Let it sweep you off your feet.

 

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Forever Gazing

What is that one thing we can’t put our finger on ? That one feeling, that sense of burning right in our guts that we can’t put out? That tremendous force that gives us strength in our weakest moments?
Love has been the subject of many, many, many, many movies. Some bad, some horrible, some good, some very good, and then there is John Cassavetes and Krzysztof Kieślowski. I’ll write about Cassavetes some other time. Today I’ll focus solely on the man himself, the angel of cinema; quite simply –  Kieślowski. His films were always stripped naked, torn apart and put back together. They were and still are to this day, in my opinion, the essence of cinema. They embody the power a film can carry, be it political, emotional or physical. Krzysztof Kieślowski was in my eyes both a student and a professor. By creating his movies, doing what he loved, he learned a lot and he taught a lot. His films weren’t just celluloid moving pictures – they were tales, parables, poems and reports. After having spent most of his early career making documentaries, he had the natural eye of a hawk. He wanted to know more about why we are here and why we act a certain way. He studied violence (A Short Film About Killing), he studied the concept of a soul (The Double Life of Veronique), he studied betrayal and spirituality (Decalogue: Two, Decalogue: One), he studied grief and anger (Three Colors: Blue), he studied chance and fate (Blind Chance), and after all of this, he also studied one of the most complex themes in movie history: love in A Short Film About Love (the extended version of Decalogue: Six).

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Tomek.

What made it so special? What was so accurate and poignant about  Kieślowski’s take on love? Well, for starters it presented love in a difficult situation. Tomek, the young protagonist, is lonely and misunderstood. His only way of approaching the woman he is so in love with is by spying on her through a stolen telescope. The woman he spies on is much older than him. She is also lonely, just like him, but manifests it differently; by inviting each night a different lover to her apartment. Tomek’s love is a hardship. He witnesses as Magda makes love with countless nobodies, men who do not appreciate her the way Tomek does. And it’s nothing physical. Kieślowski is not vulgar at all. Love is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy that can be crushed by anything at anytime. It is incredibly fragile. If someone sees him spying on Magda, it’s over. If Magda turns her back to him, it’s over. If the telescope malfunctions, it’s over.

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When the observed becomes the observer.

Kieślowski’s camera is again, an object meant for spying. We are spying someone who’s spying someone else at the same time. It is as if the director wanted us to feel Tomek’s pain, angst and fear of being discovered. Like all of Kieślowski’s films, this one is very personal and I think it doesn’t only apply to me or Kieślowski himself but to all of you too. Magda begins to watch Tomek. Everything all of a sudden turns upside down. She wants to observe her observer. She wants to feel what he feels. She wants to taste something she hasn’t tasted in a long time. Is love only a game of who watches who?
Piesiewicz, long time screenwriting partner of Kieślowski, and Kieślowski manage to add a flavor of simplicity, youth and uncertainty to this unique study. Their version of love is not sexual. Their version of love is beautiful but also dangerous and cruel. It can be both fatal and life saving. It’s a feeling that can keep you trapped for the rest of your life. And in a way, as we watch the story unfold (and all of the Decalogue, really) we get a feeling we’re trapped with the characters  living in an austere apartment block in communist Warsaw (the series was filmed in 1987, but released world wide only ten – fifteen years later). We find ourselves stuck the whole time between two windows opposite each other; Magda’s and Tomek’s. What is the point Kieślowski’s trying to make? Is love’s strength limited? Is it painful and monotonous? Can it be cut in half? That’s the thing with Kieślowski. He doesn’t give you answers. He formulates ideas, he paints heartbreaking and honest pictures, he suggests to you, his audience, to pay attention to a certain theme or emotion, and then he lets it flow.

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Love is life. Without love there is no hope. Without hope there is no future, and how can there be no future? Yes, no matter how sad, melancholic, brutal and honest Kieślowski’s films are, especially A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, there is always hope. There is always something we look forward to. The taste in your mouth at the end of his movies can be bitter. The feeling in your stomach can be prickly. But whatever happens, there is always something. Here, Tomek looks up at Magda, and there is a vibration, and intensity between them. In Kieślowski’s movies the simplest of all things can become significant – a look, a blink of an eye, a gesture, a hint of a smile, a bit of love.

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The simplest of all things…

Mad Gena

I want to talk about a woman today. There are many women in film. Probably the first name that comes to mind is Meryl Streep. Or maybe Glenn Close. Grace Kelly. Lauren Bacall. Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Rita Hayworth. Ingrid Bergman. Audrey Hepburn. Katherine Hepburn. And many, many more. However the one woman I cannot stop thinking about since having watched John Cassavetes’ magical Love Streams from 1984, is John’s wife, the great, fearless, ballsy Gena Rowlands.

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Gena is an actress  whose career in the entertainment industry has spanned over six decades. She is still rolling strong. A woman that always went all out in her roles and maybe that’s why she is so interesting to me. During a time when classic Hollywood always had the same prepared formulas, ways of writing, ways of directing and ways of acting, such a formidable force of nature like Gena emerged at the end of the 1950s and shook the world of film with her incredible attitude. Women at the time were mostly paid to play devoted wives, widows who’d fall for the gardener, objects of obsession and trophy girlfriends. Even the great actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall played these stereotypical parts at one point in their lives. Then something happened to cinema. The beat generation appeared out of nowhere. The hippies joined in. European cinema and the idea of Cinéma vérité (‘the cinema of truth’, a style of documentary filmmaking) started taking over the once magic film industry in the West. Suddenly all the rules were being broken all at once, and one of the people responsible for this was Gena and her natural approach to acting. Gena was married to the great late John Cassavetes,  master of improvisation and an inspiration to all the New Wave filmmakers and other young explorers like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. Gena, on the other hand, is still to this day an inspiration to all modern actresses. You’ll see glimpses of her in Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton and Jennifer Lawrence. The question is, why is that? What was so unique about Gena Rowlands?

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Gena was special. She still is. She is 86 years old now and still going strong. Her years of multiple collaborations with her husband in movies like Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening NightGloria, and Love Streams made of her a legend of realism in the acting field of cinema. There was something very weird about her. Perhaps the word ‘weird’ doesn’t do her justice. Mad. yes, there was something absolutely mad about her. She rocked the screen. Her characters were always hurt, squeezed into a pulp, used, abused, damaged, and yet she always managed to stand up and face whatever challenge awaited her. She played women with problems because she understood the situations her characters found themselves in. She knew what she was doing and yet we, as viewers, seem to be completely blown away by her spontaneity, sometimes unsure if what she is doing on screen doesn’t reflect her actions off screen. Take A Woman Under the Influence for example; the main character is a loving wife, a dear mother, but most of all a sick, trapped person. Trapped inside her own mind, tormented by her painful condition, crowded by her corrupt thoughts. It’s one the most harrowing experiences to watch her character stumble on the floor, yell at herself, run out on the street wearing nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, wait for a bus that never comes. We cringe, we want to turn it off and yet Gena’s presence keeps us glued. Every character of hers is like a well oiled machine, it just keeps on moving forward, speeding up, never taking a break. In Minnie and Moskowitz, Gena, who plays Minnie, cannot find true love. How do you play a character like that? How to you show to the audience the fact that you can’t find love? Love is not material. We don’t know what love is. So how does she do it? Gena becomes the character. That’s her secret. She puts all the rules, all the laws of golden Hollywood acting behind her and pours her soul into every scene. She understands the character and she understands life. She understands the difficulties a woman faces on a daily basis. Maybe she even understood the importance of her roles. After all, nobody up to that point was interested in seeing a film solely focused on a female protagonist. Every audience member awaited a Rock Hudson, or a James Dean or a Cary Grant to appear on screen and dominate the story. Maybe that was her secret. With each character she brought something new. Usually it was something heavy, difficult to digest and yet, there she was carrying that incredibly heavy burden on her back. Gena felt compelled to do justice to her characters. She never went overboard. There was always a certain limit to what her character could do. As viewers we try to root for her, but that craziness, that madness of Gena sometimes prevents us from doing so. When I watch her, I want to cheer, I want to say ”You go, Gena. Show them how it’s done”. But her characters aren’t Superman. They can’t save the world and they were never intended to do so. They make mistakes, they’re goofy, they’re naive and too honest. They stood out. They were outsiders, and usually we don’t cheer for outsiders, do we?

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In most of her roles you get the sense that Gena is crazy, that there is something very unsettling about the way she acts. But that’s what makes her this great, avant-garde actress. It’s the raw truth that she represents, the sad moments and heart breaking finales. It’s the pain, the happiness, the embarrassment, the courage, all fighting one another inside of her mind, her gestures, her voice. It’s her relationship with Cassavetes. A relationship that was built on real love and devotion and understanding. John is one of the reasons Gena was so real. He knew her, he studied her and wrote the finest, most difficult roles just for his wife. And it worked. Gena had and still has that incredible spark of life in her eyes. That’s the sign of a unique, brilliant, fearless actress. A woman that changed the role of women in cinema forever. A woman under a very special kind of influence.

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This is Gena. Remember her.

Just Like Honey

Today’s topic: cinematic poetry. What’s so special about Sofia Coppola’s Oscar winning drama Lost In Translation? For those of you who have heard something about it, it’s the story of two people who find themselves forced to stay in Tokyo for a week. The movie studies their growing relationship. It’s a delicate love story, not the one you’d expect. There is no raw sex scenes, no sweaty buttocks, no passionate kissing. It’s a story that vibrates and resonates inside each one of us and if it’s your first viewing of it, well… it’ll stick with you.

Sofia Coppola, daughter of world famous director Francis Ford Coppola, creator of The Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now, writes from the bottom of her heart and with each passing minute we feel it more and more. Perhaps it’s her personal experience of a failed relationship (with director Spike Jonze) that makes this movie what it is or perhaps it’s the choice of shooting location (Tokyo, at its finest and scariest) that lets the film take us on a magical trip, inviting us to look deeper, beyond what’s on screen, deep down the characters’ flaws and personal struggles. The characters, you ask? Two lost souls, lost in a sea of misunderstanding and loneliness; Charlotte, played by a  superb 18 year old Scarlett Johansson, is the wife of an independent photographer who shoots local rock bands and punk singers. Bob Harris (Bill Murray, just watch) is on the other hand an aging Hollywood movie star tied by a contract to a whiskey commercial shoot.

Strangers in Tokyo.
Strangers in Tokyo.

Bob meets Charlotte at the hotel they’re both staying at. He’s smoking a cigar and emptying his second glass of Scotch on the rocks while she’s finishing off her fifth cigarette. She said she’d quit, but what’s the point? He said he wouldn’t get old, but what’s the purpose? They look for hidden beauty: she keeps looking out the window, he wanders through the halls of the luxurious hotel. He calls his wife from time to time, but quickly realizes that he’s only doing it because the etiquette says so. Both, Charlotte and Bob, are tired of being who they are or maybe, just maybe, they both don’t know for certain who they really should be. She’s a child and he’s moving on in years, yet they’re both at the same moment in life. Who am I? Why am I walking this way and not the other way? Why am I in Tokyo? Why can’t I smile? Why do I have to pretend to be someone I’m not just to make other people happy? These are questions that sound awfully familiar. We’re forced to obey rules, laws, respect the person next to us, behave this way, that way, talk in a certain manner, walk in a certain manner. That’s when Tokyo ties the two protagonists.

Will there be a tomorrow?
Will there be a tomorrow?

They hit it off, and no. It’s much more than a sexual short term relationship. It’s much more than friendship. It’s something each one of us would like to experience one time before leaving planet earth. The feeling you get when you meet someone who fulfills you. Understands you. Holds your hand and smiles. And you know it will all end soon. It’s a bond for the ages. A bond you’ll keep in your heart until the very last moment of your existence. Bob and Charlotte have that bond. They can be themselves only with each other. Bob can only show Charlotte his hidden melancholy, his fear of slowly vanishing into nothing, and Charlotte can share her insecurity and sense of regret only with the aging actor who won’t just kiss her and tell her “it’s going to be all right”. No. He will look her in the eyes, and let a delicate smile appear on his face. Or he will just caress her hair as if she was a newborn and give her a light kiss on the forehead as if it was her first day of school. It’s the mutual understanding that makes a true relationship possible and exclusive. It’s the mutual respect that counts whenever we look into each other’s eyes. It’s when we stop counting the passing of time, when we stop checking our answering machines and our electronic mail. It’s when we can walk in the street and shout at the top of our lungs and not feel embarrassed. They run through the narrow market streets of the Japanese capital, they crash parties and let their off-beat voices flow through the party’s karaoke. They go to bed together, like father and daughter, and watch each other slowly fall asleep. They talk about their ambitions, their unreachable dreams, their lost hope. They hold hands and make it look like there will be a tomorrow. It’s never gone. It’s there.

It's not about sex, it's about connection.
It’s not about sex, it’s about connection.

And when it’s time to go separate ways – Bob back home to his wife and job, Charlotte with her husband to another country – they know what it means. They won’t forget. And like that, Sofia Coppola writes and directs the love story of the century, a simple account of two people finding each other in the midst of chaos and desperation. Visual poetry at its finest, and when the two look at each other for the very last time, magic happens.

Bob whispers something into Charlotte’s ear. What? We don’t know. We can’t hear. That’s magic.

The final whisper.
The final whisper.