You Were Never Really Here: The Cinema of Lynne Ramsay

If there is one director who knows how to tell difficult and heartbreaking stories by simply hinting at the dramatic beats through the use of moving images, it’s Lynne Ramsay. The Scottish filmmaker spent a good portion of the 21st century telling stories of human struggle and existential angst while simultaneously filling the current cinematic landscape with beautifully memorable moments. Most known for her 2011 festival hit, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which dealt with the life of a mother whose son committed a high school massacre, Ramsay is one of the rare examples of an artist whose mantra follows closely the show, don’t tell technique. In an age where most movies are too afraid of letting the viewers figure things out by themselves, where each action or backstory is hammered home until we know each thread of the story by heart, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker who is able to work for major production companies like Amazon Studios while still maintaining a personal, uncompromising artistic vision.

Joaquin Phoenix as the brooding Joe in ‘You Were Never Really Here.’

Ramsay’s 2017 film, You Were Never Really Here perfectly encapsulates the filmmaker’s eye for detail and the tendency to subvert a viewer’s expectations, often changing the way we respond to movies that deal with the kind of themes that You Were Never Really Here deals with. On the surface, it is a straightforward story of a war veteran who, upon his return home, decides to work as a contract killer who saves underage girls from the hands of rich pedophiles. The protagonist, Joe, suffers from PTSD related to not only his experience in the military but also his childhood in an abusive household.
What Ramsay does in first order with this kind of premise is simple: she sees through it and sees how ridiculous and predictable it can turn out to be if handled the wrong way. The wrong way being a conventional action thriller that uses the protagonist’s past suffering as a valid excuse for his brutal means of expression (his preferred weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer).
In Ramsay’s hands, You Were Never Really Here becomes a quiet meditation on trauma, survivor’s guilt and alienation in a misogynistic society.

Joe is consumed by demons from the past.

Joe, played by a never-better Joaquin Phoenix, is a character of many shades. On paper, he’s the classic anti-hero for whom we root for because he’s strong, skilled and in the end, kills with a clear purpose in mind. On screen, Joe is a shell of his former self. He’s what’s left of a once innocent teenager who may have fled home to escape its violence and found himself in even greater danger in some foreign land. That’s where his spirit was ultimately defeated. And although he has a brutal way of carrying himself in broad daylight, he still manifests the traits of a much younger, much different person. Such detailed character aspects are always present in Ramsay’s films as she spends a considerable amount of time before shooting anything, closely working with the actors to develop their backstories, their tics, their kinks and weaknesses in order for them to merge their own personalities with the character they’re playing.
For Joaquin Phoenix this was the perfect opportunity to merge his own demons from the past to Joe’s. Joe, unlike Keanu Reeve’s John Wick, doesn’t fit the bill as the handsome yet scarred hunk with a passion and skill for killing other human beings. He’s a man whose world has been turned upside down from the very beginning and now he’s tired of trying to make sense of it. He’s found his place in society and found a role that fits his abilities. Yet, deep down he’s preserved some of that innocence he once had within him. For one, he still remembers his mother’s lullabies from when he was a child and whenever he’s distressed, consumed by his worst fears and memories, he sings the alphabet song.

Details make a whole lot of difference in Lynne Ramsay’s movies.

As mentioned before, an essential aspect of Ramsay’s cinema is her eye for detail. Details surround her characters constantly (think of the blood-red cans of tomatoes behind Tilda Swinton’s character in We Need to Talk About Kevin when it dawns on her what her own son has done) and are often used to convey the heightened emotional reality these characters are living in.
In You Were Never Really Here, details provide depth to Joe’s traumatizing past without every confronting it head-on. Ramsay uses the camera to pick upon Joe’s inner outbursts of violence by focusing on a candy he slowly squashes with his fingers or the scars covering his body hinting at physical suffering from the past or blood smears on a tissue which he used to clean the hammer he used to fracture someone’s skull. These details are then expanded within Ramsay’s world. For example, as Joe waits for the subway train to arrive, the camera captures a woman standing next to him, her cheek visibly bruised beneath her left eye. It is a moment that is there only to hint at something crucial to the story, without directly addressing it. Joe doesn’t walk up to her, asking if she’s alright. There is no need for us to explore that woman’s story. Ramsay simply encourages us to consider Joe’s surroundings and enrich our viewing experience.

It is up to us to fill in the blanks.

Moreover, violence in Ramsay’s films is rarely directly addressed. Being drawn to other things and wanting to escape the oldest cinematic tropes in the book, Ramsay captures violence mostly by looking at the aftermath of it. Not only the physical aftermath, including gun-shot wounds, broken necks and fractured bones, but also the emotional one; characters left breathing heavily as the adrenaline begins to leave their body, characters breaking down into tears or on the contrary, characters not fully realizing the gravity of the things they’ve just witnessed.
In You Were Never Really Here, the (un)emotional counter-part to Joe is the young girl he sets out to rescue, Nina. Nina sees violence but doesn’t respond to it until the very end. While Joe is consumed with hurt and anguish to the point where he must let it out and either inflict the same kind of pain on others or further inflict on himself, Nina simply watches on as events unravel before her eyes. This doesn’t make her another tired cliché of the little girl who ends up being the sidekick to the movie’s protagonist. Ramsay gives Nina enough emotional depth by hinting at the things this girl may have survived whether it is episodes of sexual abuse or her family’s emotional absence when growing up.

Nina.

In the rare instances when Ramsay doesn’t have a choice and must direct a violent sequence, she re-invents the way we respond to violence on screen. In You Were Never Really Here, when Joe enters a luxurious brothel to find and rescue Nina, Ramsay uses surveillance camera footage to capture the bloody violence. This way we can’t really get the sense of action. We see fuzzy, blurry white and gray images of men struggling in empty hallways, with Joe making his way up to the third floor of the establishment. Ramsay said while presenting the film, “I don’t like the violence. It’s really about the violence in his [Joe’s] head, a psychological violence. Which is most apparent when our expectations of what violence on screen typically looks like are under-cut by Ramsay’s suffocated, distant depictions of people inflicting physical pain on each other. By making such a bold, visual decision, Ramsay aims to put us in a different frame of mind while interpreting the images we’re seeing.

The surveillance camera footage never allows us to get a proper sense of violence.

Rarely do we see such commitment and perseverance in communicating one’s vision to the world as we see with each movie directed by Lynne Ramsay. The Glasgow native often tells stories that most directors would steer clear from. The settings and the characters she chooses to work with are always shaped according to her worldview but with enough pieces missing for us to fill in the blanks ourselves. There are no wrong answers in Ramsay’s cinema. There are only stories and endless possibilities for new ones. Her keen eye for detail is infectious as we grow more and more compelled in deciphering the meaning of a certain moment or object because we’re convinced (by Ramsay herself) that there may be some unique truth even in the most mundane or banal object within the frame. When I’m watching a film by Lynne Ramsay, I feel like I’m rediscovering all over again how to watch movies. Because at the end of the day, movies are about finding personal truths that resonate for each one of us differently. In Ramsay’s cinema, those truths are everywhere.

A Most Wanted Man: Capturing the Hopelessness of Espionage

When we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, we lost a man who knew how to be human in front of a camera. A man who knew exactly how to give a complete and detailed account of the human condition. His characters never dared to fall into the trap of clichés, never felt diminished by a bad script or a mediocre finished product. Hoffman always rose to the occasion and treated each film as if it was his last shot at redemption. This is perhaps most evident in his penultimate screen appearance in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, a film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel about espionage in the 21st century. The film is one of the most pessimistic works to come out in recent years and captures brilliantly what I would call the hopelessness of espionage, a running theme in le Carré’s body of work. The character played by Seymour Hoffman, Günther Bachmann, a spy for the German government, is a tragic reminder of what men become when they’re at sea for too long.

Günther Bachmann and his team of German spies.

The story is simple and like with most le Carré stories it serves the plot only to emphasize the wrong-doings of the system this story is set in. For le Carré there is no such thing as countries. There’s only systems, and more often than not, they’re broken down, corrupt. And the people living in these systems aren’t as much as living as they’re functioning within the boundaries set by these systems. For le Carré, our gravest tendency is we like to get complacent. Complacency, in turn, allows these systems to thrive and grow in power. A Most Wanted Man works under that assumption. It examines the psyche of a man who is convinced he is doing something good, something right. However, he is doing these things for the benefit of a system.
The story begins with a political refugee from Chechenia named Issa Karpov illegally entering the city of Hamburg, Germany, Europe’s biggest harbor and the epicenter of terrorist cells following 9/11. Günther Bachmann’s job following the attacks is to identify and recruit as informants individuals with potential ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus, the game of cat and mouse begins, as Bachmann is set on using Karpov to connect him to Chechen terrorists in order to prevent another 9/11 (the plans for those attacks were conceived in Hamburg without any sort of discovery or interference on the part of intelligence services). As a result, the whole film is fueled by this sense of paranoia, this endless need to uncover a conspiracy, to unmask the boogey-man and come out triumphantly holding the enemy’s severed head.

Bachmann is a master manipulator.

The cold, steely look given by the director, Corbijn (who started out as a photographer), and cinematographer Delhomme helps capture not only Hamburg’s modern architecture but also the tone of Bachmann’s calculated profession. It is a job that entails a cold and indifferent attitude, requiring of you to consider people as nothing but leverage, pawns to be moved around a chess board. Bachmann’s whole shtick is to use people as bait for more dangerous fish. The people he uses often do not realize the situation they’re truly in as Bachmann consoles them, hugs them, even kisses them. He gives them a reason to believe in what they do, he convinces them of things that simply do not exist. Promises them such foolish things as freedom, love, independence. Because the job demands it, because the job is everything. Is it not?
Bachmann is a master manipulator, however this ‘skill’ comes at a price, namely he walks through life without savoring it. The metallic look of the film suggests just that: here we have a man who in principle works for our safety, but this means he cannot look at something and not consider it a possible danger to society. To Bachmann, bars are places where people conspire, a man hugging a woman certainly hints at an exchange of precious information, a man walking his dog down the street is nothing but an actor playing his part, every phone call is dialed with the intent of blowing up a bomb somewhere. This one-dimensional, grim outlook on life makes of Seymour Hoffman’s character a fascinating protagonist as we ultimately don’t know what he truly believes in. In a scene where Bachmann presents his mission to his superiors and members of German security and American diplomats, the American (played by Robin Wright) asks him: “What’s the objective?”, to which Bachmann answers “To make the world a safer place.” He follows this up by giving it a shrug, shaking his head as if to say, Yeah, I know. How crazy is that?

As we learn, espionage for the most part takes place in conference rooms.

Indeed, the film works as an adaptation because at the end of the day it captures the soul and attitude of le Carré’s writing. The writing of a man disillusioned with the world he’s living in, with the job he once carried out as a young man with ambitions to do something great, something truly right. After all, le Carré’s best adaptations were in fact films that knew how to capture the author’s sense of weariness: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton as boozy secret agent Alec Leamas who can’t make any sense of what’s right and wrong in the early stages of the Cold War; The Constant Gardener (2005) with the story of a small-time British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) coming to terms with his country’s role in Africa’s devastation; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) with its universe of endless back-stabbings between people who should be working for the same cause. What makes these film adaptations work is precisely the deep understanding of le Carré’s tired, disillusioned voice.
A Most Wanted Man wrestles back and forth between Bachmann’s professional devotion, his sense of duty, and his complete misunderstanding of basic human emotions. His spy craft turns everything into an image or a soundbite to be studied, played around, manipulated. Everything can be recorded, cut, released. As the movie progresses and one of the central characters, a refugee lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help out Issa Karpov providing him with food and shelter, Bachmann sees this not as an act of humanity but as a way-in for him to intervene and use the lawyer to his advantage. The chase that compels him, that makes him get up in the middle of the night and roam the streets of Hamburg looking for informants is the only thing that prevents him from becoming insane. Bachmann is, in other words, a man destined to live out the rest of his days in a hamster wheel. This constant motion is the only thing keeping him alive.

Those who want to do good, get punished.

Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate A Most Wanted Man. It is by no means an easy watch as it asks the viewer to leave any pre-conceived notions out by the door. Just like the characters in it, the movie operates under guidelines established by the system in charge. No explanations are given. Characters, even those like Bachmann who think they have a say in the matter, must know when to walk away when the situation demands it. For Bachmann, walking away equals defeat. Walking away is the betrayal of his own being. But it is also the name of the game. All of le Carré’s characters must know when to walk away if they want to survive. The question is, survive and do what? Survive for what? For a system? For a world where giving a man food and shelter is seen as an act of conspiracy?
Philip Seymour Hoffman may have walked away from this world, but his ability to be deeply human whenever the director said Action! will, unlike Bachmann’s profession, echo in eternity.

Hoffman’s penultimate screen appearance is one for the ages.

Dirty Harry: The Doomed Protagonist

In 1971 a young Clint Eastwood and veteran director Don Siegel collaborated on three occasions, including Play Misty for Me – Eastwood’s directorial debut (featuring a brief and rare acting cameo by Siegel) – The Beguiled – a Southern gothic thriller set in the American Civil War – and Dirty Harry – the story of detective Harry Callahan and his quest to stop the notorious serial killer Scorpio. All three titles are worth mentioning in their own right. Play Misty for Me launched the directing career of Eastwood, who would go on to direct forty more projects, including Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River and Gran Torino. The Beguiled, on the other hand, helped the young star in adding a new element to his on-screen persona – a sense of imminent threat and perversion. Finally, and most importantly, Dirty Harry was Eastwood’s first encounter with fame, after years and years of odd jobs on American TV (most notably, Rawhide) and Italian Spaghetti Westerns (the Dollars trilogy), and Siegel’s biggest box office hit in a career that spanned over three decades with little to no recognition. After that, the two would reunite almost a decade later on the set of Escape from Alcatraz, a sentimental, old-fashioned prison film. However, today I want to specifically look at the first entry in the Dirty Harry franchise, and what made the film gain an iconic status despite its controversial nature and how it fits into the context of 70s New Hollywood.

A new kind of evil threatens San Francisco.

New Hollywood was, in a way, all about fresh faces. Faces that communicated the willingness to start from scratch. Faces untouched by studios, contracts and reputations. These faces included the likes of Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie, among many others. Following the collapse of the studio system, American cinema was finally on its way to break taboos and throw conventions out the window. Critics and fans like to pinpoint the exact time this happened. Some argue that Bonnie and Clyde was the first movie to do so. Others like to mention Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection.
Personally, I think the definite breaking point is marked by Harry Callahan’s entrance on the crime scene of one of Scorpio’s victims on a poolside roof terrace in San Francisco. Eastwood’s pretty boy features here are hard, lean and mean. His blonde hair rough and uncombed. The dark sun-glasses the only recognizable item protecting him from the world he so passionately hates. He scans the site where the murder took place just hours ago and we immediately notice his cold, impassive attitude. Just another day on the job. Just another victim of a system that specializes in protecting the murderer.
Bruce Surtees’ luscious cinematography makes all the more evident the clash between the spectacularly rich and colorful city of San Francisco used a backdrop for all the violence and terror and our grounded, mean protagonist who is as much of an alien to his environment as the criminal he’s supposed to chase.

Harry is not your typical clean-cut hero.

What stands out about this seemingly run-off-mill cop thriller is in fact how straightforward and predictable it may seem at first glance. Like a lot of noir films from the 40s and 50s, we watch a handsome vigilante do anything he can in order to stop the evil that is threatening innocent by-standers. Hell, one of the first scenes involves Harry taking matters into his own hands as a robbery is underway across the street from his favorite burger joint. He lazily picks up his Magnum .44 and walks out to meet the gun-toting robbers. He shoots the driver and the guy in the passenger seat. He then proceeds to blow the arm off the man wielding a shotgun. So far, so good. But once he approaches the wounded criminal who is visibly trying to reach for his gun, Harry engages in the by-now famous monologue about the power of his Magnum .44 (”the most powerful handgun in the world”) and the consequences of a close-distance shot in the face. He concludes his monologue by looking straight into the camera and saying, ”You’ve gotta ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya… punk?”
At the time of its release, this was a line that had never been suggested and articulated in such a brutally honest manner. Our movie’s hero, instead of making a regular arrest or having an open conversation with the wounded perp – something a Humphrey Bogart or a Henry Fonda would have typically done – directly threatens the man in front of him and, more importantly, the audience watching the movie.
Siegel stages this confrontation without pulling any punches: one camera focuses on the robber’s arm, slowly reaching for his weapon, and another camera is set on Eastwood’s face as he looks directly at us. Simple, but effective. This initial stand-off acts as a checkpoint for whatever is to come in the movie’s remaining runtime. As an audience, we must nod our heads and admit that this is indeed the kind of movie we signed up for. This new Hollywood violence can be the stuff of nightmares. To make the point even clearer, the initial draft of the movie had the scene end with Harry placing his gun to his own temple and laughing at the perp. Talk about making a statement.

Violence, in Harry’s mind, is an inevitable remedy to evil.

This kind of straightforward, graphic violence was nothing new in other regions of the world and in other dimensions of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) being the prime example. However, nothing had really been done on such a massive commercial scale. Dirty Harry was supposed to be the new hero we could all get behind and cheer for, and yet, both Siegel and Eastwood were determined to keep fans at a distance. This guy was hateful, violent and broken inside. His only purpose was to play dirty on the behalf of the police department and the mayor’s office. A gun-for-hire, so to speak. How could he be the face of a franchise?
The commercial up-to-date stylization of characters and plot points we had already seen before (the strict, by-the-numbers police captain, Harry not getting along with his new partner, a failed attempt at catching the villain, etc) served as a reflection of the needs of modern day audiences. It’s not surprising that Roger Ebert, the famous movie critic, was shocked when confronted with the movie’s direct, vicious and as Ebert himself said it, ”fascist attitude,” but accepted it as an inevitable consequence of the pent up anger boiling inside our protagonist. Because on the one hand, Harry is angry and hateful – most of the time he is indifferent to the daily horror show surrounding him, similarly to Taxi Drivers Travis Bickle, he roams around the streets to his beloved city shaken by crime and waits for judgement day to come. On the other hand, he still believes that despite the odds being against him, he can still try and do the right thing.
What we get is not a black or white character, but a grey one. A character riddled with doubts and frustrations but motivated to act on his own terms out of a sense of duty. Dirty Harry ends as a mirror to a society responsible for creating and enabling men like Harry Callahan, men who feel like they’re above the law just because they can toss their badge away from time to time. Men who walk with a gun in their hand like it’s the Old Wild West.

Harry brutally interrogates Scorpio in an empty football stadium.

New Hollywood was all about characters like Callahan, just as it was about characters like Scorpio: ruthless villains (in this case, based on the real-life Zodiac killer) troubled by a traumatic past (it is hinted that Scorpio served in the military), bound to their twisted obsessions. Movies were not meant to please, satisfy and calm audiences. Quite the contrary. You had to be shocked. Movies like Dirty Harry refused to entertain for the sake of critical success. Both Siegel and Eastwood had a picture in mind and went about doing it the way they had envisioned it.
The hopeless task that Harry performs as he runs from telephone booth to telephone booth in search of the place where presumably Scorpio left a girl to die of suffocation is a perfect depiction of the unapologetically harsh way New Hollywood went about telling stories. You know the girl is dead. Hell, even Harry knows. But it’s the only thing he can do. Run around in circles in the name of the law. The futility of the violence he carries with him is what is bound to torment him for the rest of his days.
It does not matter whether the badge will still be strapped to his jacket or not. It’s something he simply cannot get rid of.

Was it really worth it?

Humphrey Bogart: Act Like Yourself

Acting without acting sounds like something out of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm  and yet, if we look back upon some Hollywood’s greatest hits from the 40s and early 50s, a period that is often labelled as the industry’s golden era, we will see that the prevalent norm of the time was to blur the lines between acting and not acting. Before the likes of Brando, Clift and Dean revolutionized the art form by guiding it into a whole new dimension, Hollywood’s greatest actors were those who knew how to successfully blend their true personality with the personality of the character they played. Think of Gregory Peck’s calm and sensitive protagonist in court room dramas and war movies, Katharine Hepburn’s erratic and quirky characters in her numerous outings in slapstick comedy, or James Stewart’s wise and tender family man, most notably in It’s a Wonderful Life. These actors made a living out of blurring those lines and eventually got awarded with Oscars galore. We love them because of it and their influence on the generations that followed is undeniable. Along the way, however, I feel like the contribution of one particular star of that time has gone under the radar, a man who could effortlessly skip from movie to movie and never miss a beat in the way he went about being himself on set.

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Bogart and cigarettes: a match made in heaven.

Humphrey Bogart, also known as Bogie, is nowadays most famous for his timeless appearance in what many consider the greatest cinematic love story of all time in 1942’s Casablanca, where, as Rick, the nightclub owner, he got to pronounce the essential ending words to a movie, ”Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,”  after waving goodbye to the love of his life. Casablanca proved to be Bogart’s biggest hit, and he went on to star in more iconic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and The Big Sleep, where he would share the screen with his wife, Lauren Bacall, for the second time in a row. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart would for the first time sink his teeth into a more demanding role, that of a greedy gold prospector whose greed would ultimately result in his downfall. But it would take Bogart another two long years before he would find the role of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. This was one of Bogart’s arguably best and most daring performances before his health began to deteriorate due to his chain smoking and heavy drinking, and one that, in my opinion, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

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Dixon meeting Laurel for the first time.

In this psychological thriller from 1950, Bogart plays a boozy screenwriter whose reputation around Hollywood is that of a cynical loner and one that doesn’t take shit from anybody, not even the hottest producer or actor on the block. He’s weary of the world he’s living in, but ironically, he can’t get away from it. He’s become a part of this cruel reality called show business. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Dix finds himself in the middle of a murder accusation. A girl he was last seen with was found murdered and he’s the primary suspect. What follows is a hardboiled, grim love affair between Dix and Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the woman who happens to be the sole witness to prove his innocence.  I say grim, because soon enough Dix begins to show signs of unease, and his initial charisma turns into strange, borderline sociopathic behavior. All of a sudden, the thing that drew Dix to Laurel, and Bogart to his fans, namely his charisma and, as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, his ”what-the-hell” attitude, is seen through a completely different lens. Suddenly, we begin to question the true reason behind this attitude, what is Dix, or rather, Bogart, hiding? Is he not who we thought he is?

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Dixon’s violent eruptions give Bogart’s acting a new dimension.

Jazz Age icon and close friend of Bogart’s, Louise Brooks, argued that Dixon Steele was the role that came closest to who Bogie really was in his private life. In the film, Bogart channels his dark side as if it was a matter of life and death. In almost every scene he manages to go from charming and romantic to weary and frustrated. Was all of this an act? Often described as destructive and with a particular disdain for pretension and phoniness, Bogart embraced the part of Dixon Steele as if it was his only meaningful opportunity to openly articulate his feelings toward the world that he had spent most of his life in. Steele in fact insults his life-long manager/agent, gets into a fistfight with a cocky actor and pushes off the advances of countless Hollywood starlets. He does all of this for the sake of his art, that of writing. It is only while writing that Steele is truly able to find clarity and distance himself from his demons. Initially, his affair with Laurel gets him back to the typing machine, but eventually, it is this very same affair that exposes Steele’s deepest hidden secrets and obsessions, as he violently beats a stranger within an inch of his life right in front of Laurel and then pretends to have feelings of remorse and guilt just like the characters in his screenplays. He’s his own worst enemy, and we, just like Laurel, are terrified by this revelation.

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How well does Laurel actually know him?

In a paper-thin world like the movie industry, Dixon Steele is a reminder of what bubbles beneath the surface. Was this Bogart’s grim farewell to a world he once loved and helped build? Was the character of Steele his long-awaited chance to critique his fiercest enemies and phony allies? We will never know the answer to these questions, but it is worth noting that after In a Lonely Place came out, Bogart spent his remaining years playing more conventional roles in Sabrina and The Cain Mutiny, and winning an Oscar for The African Queen before his premature death in 1957. By blending into the crowd of similar characters he used to play in the early 40s, he was able to hide Dixon Steele so that for many years few people were actually aware of this brilliant, unorthodox performance. Thanks to a number of restorations the film underwent quite recently, we are now finally able to get a glimpse of who Bogart really was, and how well he masked his true self by, ironically enough, acting like himself. Because, at the end of the day, Bogie will always be Bogie, but it is important to remember that, whether we like it or not, there was more to him than charm and cigarettes.

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”I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Real Lonely: Michael Mann’s relationships

Last time around I talked about Michael Mann (here) I focused on the Chicago native’s ability to entertain audiences with the sheer brilliance of his visual style. What I didn’t do, and what I plan on doing now, upon concluding a marathon of his entire filmography (starting from his 1981 directorial debut, Thief, and ending with his recent misfire about the hacking underworld, Blackhat), is to have a look at what really lies at the core of the director’s body of work. We all know and love him for his memorable camerawork, his hyper realistic shootouts resulting in some of the best sound design to ever grace the silver screen, his ability to capture the beauty of big cities at night, be it Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago, and his overall rediscovery of the crime genre. Yet, oddly enough, when asked about this idea of his films belonging to the crime genre, Mann answered coldly ”I don’t make genre films, I make dramas,” which is a valid response considering his films, if studied closely, are all about relationships and love. That’s it.

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A filmmaker who is definitely not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Relationships are hard to define, and most of the time cinema, especially Hollywood productions, have a hard time creating convincing, realistic portrayals of two people interacting with each other in an intimate way. How many times do we hear an audience member walk out of a film saying ”Yeah, I just didn’t buy that whole love story” or ”That was okay, I just wish there was more to A and B’s relationship, you know?” Better yet, how many times have we seen in the last decade or so, films that made us truly care about characters’ relationships? Very few, I’d say. And that’s why Mann is a fascinating director to watch; most of his films are considered macho features, male-oriented with male protagonists that are either on the good or the bad side of the law, cops and robbers, vigilantes and crooks, honest workers and corrupt yes-men. At first sight, female characters are few and their screen time is considerably limited compared to their male counterparts. However, their importance is priceless. One could even go as far as to say Mann’s male characters depend on women. Without these women, Mann’s protagonists have nothing going for them.
Let’s start with Thief, the story about a jewel thief who gets into trouble with a mob boss, where Frank (a post Godfather Jimmy Caan) is desperately trying to make sense of his own life. Amidst all the violence, all the robbing, all the swearing and drinking, there is a very tender story about a man who, raised as an orphan, uneducated, an ex-convict, wants to have something to show for his own existence. When he’s not stealing diamonds, he’s busy chasing Jessie, a young, timid restaurant clerk. Soon, Frank builds his whole life around his wife and child and they become the focal point of the movie itself. In other words, what initially set out to be a stone-cold crime flick about a man who finds himself in a tight spot slowly turns into a story about a man and his family, his everything, who must escape the violent reality they live in. Jessie is Frank’s ticket to safety, proof that there is something truly worth fighting for.

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Frank desperately fighting the system for the sake of his family.

Skip to Manhunter, 1986, where the protagonist is a straight arrow, a former FBI man, Will Graham, whose life has been a mess ever since he caught the most dangerous criminal in recent history – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Here, Mann places his protagonist in a spot where he is forced to walk a fine line between being the antagonist, as his method of investigation is based on getting inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers (which eventually resulted in him ending up in the psych ward for some time), and that of a hero, hailed by newspapers as the man who stopped Lecktor and looked upon by his son as this imposing, admirable father figure. Manhunter is thriller 101, the precursor to every other major bloody Hollywood flick (think Silence of the LambsSe7en or even Gone Girl), mainly due to the fact it is very much aware of what makes tragedy worth caring about; Will’s job is likely to put his family at risk, as his wife keeps telling him to back off and to not get involved with another serial killer case; he eventually soon becomes responsible for the fate of his loved ones. In other words, his family and his relationship with his wife is the only link that separates the investigator from total insanity, resulting in the following tagline ”Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.”  It is not a coincidence that at the start of the film we see Graham, along with his son, build a wire fence around a spot on the beach where turtle eggs have been laid; the film is more about the constant anxiety of protecting our dear ones than it is about catching some psycho killer as one would deduce by reading the movie’s premise.

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At the end of the day, it is all about coming back home.

In 1995 Mann made arguably his greatest film to date, his magnum opus, Heat, where the lives of a bank robber and a cop chasing him get intertwined.  What follows is a legendary game of cat and mouse, of shootouts, action and violence, but at the core of it there’s the element of relationships all over again. Love as the ultimate downfall and salvation. It is difficult to talk about this movie as every time I rewatch it I notice something different, things seem to align in a new, fresh way each time I press play. The premise to Heat is the famous quote ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” with most of the characters ultimately fighting off this strict mantra, their feelings clashing with their profession, be it that of the criminal whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the cops start chasing you, or the policeman whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the chase is on.  After all, when I think of love in Michael Mann’s Heat, I think of two relationships; Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s and Al Pacino’s and Diane Venora’s. Both relationships are troubled for different reasons. Val Kilmer’s character is a bank robber who ends up losing all the money he makes gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, while Ashley Judd’s character is an ex-call girl turned housewife who wants some stability in her young, newly wed life. There is a tragic disconnect between the two, with Kilmer admitting to De Niro’s character ”The sun rises and sets with her, man,” when asked if he’d be able to cut off ties with her if the situation required it. The two want to make things work, at all costs, but they don’t have the right ingredients. They want to be better, but they can’t. Or simply don’t know how.

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Two young lovers trying to make it work…

On the other side of the spectrum, there is an entirely different level of disconnect. Al Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, is at his third marriage, and this one is going bad too because again, he cannot seem to get through to his wife. His work absorbs him, sucks him dry, and his wife does not accept this. The two of them, unlike Kilmer and Judd’s young couple, are both starting to face the fact that things will most likely never work out; both are moving on in years, both are unable to function like normal human beings (she’s high on prescription drugs all the time, while he’s addicted to the sound of his work beeper) and both seem reluctant to face this problem together, as a couple. Incompetent when it comes to family matters, Al Pacino’s Hanna is convinced that relationships are nothing more but a burden in a man’s life and yet, at the same time, he keeps coming back to them. In the celebrated diner scene where Hanna and Neil (De Niro) meet for the first time, Pacino admits ”My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” Once again, like in Mann’s previous works, what is at stake is not money, fame, success or anything of the sort; it’s the relationship. Each character seems to do everything for the sake of saving/maintaining a relationship. if you get killed running out of a bank, you won’t see your wife again. Same thing happens if a bad guy puts one in your brain. Love, once again, is a man’s downfall and simultaneously, his only salvation.

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…two older lovers failing to make it work.

The final two movies I want to mention are Mann’s ode to machismo and action cinema, namely his remake of the original television series, Miami Vice and his quite recent venture into gangster territory, Public Enemies. In the formal we witness as Crockett, an undercover police detective, flirts with a woman from the other side of the fence, an accountant for the number one drug kingpin of Miami that Crockett happens to be investigating. In the latter film, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious bank robber of the 30s, afraid of getting killed with nothing to show for his own life (just like Frank in Thief) gets involved with a young desk clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Both films, although dealing with opposite sides of the law, show two desperate men trying to find comfort in love. One objective. Whether it is because the world has gotten too violent (as Crockett witnesses one killing too many)…

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Toying with the enemy.

…or too modern (as Dillinger is faced with a new reality where robbing banks is a thing from the past), love, and relationships yet again come into play and slowly but surely become the focal points and the dramatic anchors of both films. Both relationships are daring,  life and death situations but somehow, our protagonists, one being a smart, perhaps the smartest undercover cop in all of Florida, and the other being the smartest bank robber at the time, are willing to take a huge risk by potentially compromising their ‘business’ with something as fragile as a relationship with someone they barely know anything about. And yet… and yet somehow it all makes sense, because Mann knows how to sell it; love becomes an indispensable element of each protagonist’s arch, as it can lead to many things; failure, exposure, damaged reputation or even, as in Dillinger’s case, death. It all comes to full circle, and at the end of the day, the sun rises and sets with her.

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Bye, bye, blackbird.

Untouchable

Movies have different ways of communicating with the audience, some prefer to stick to heavy loaded dialogue, others rely mostly on poetry and metaphors, others use music and physical gags, others are founded on story and plot, and finally, there are those that target the audience with only one single element: visuals. Movies are motion pictures, they are an art form that specializes in capturing movement on camera, they are known for manipulating reality and cramming it into a digital screen that projects the image to the audience, be it in a theater or someone’s living room. However, if one were to look back at most mainstream films that have come out in the last decade or so, one will start to notice a pattern: most films focus on what is being said rather than what is being done. Directors and producers feel a lot safer when the script is the focal point of the project rather than a story, or even worse, an abstract idea because what’s written on paper will always guide in some way, some direction, be it a description of an object, tone of voice, a look, a character’s line or even a setting, as in INTERIOR – JOE’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Today’s major studios want safe options, blockbusters  that are easy to make and follow a set narrative formula which means there is an entire generation of directors who spend their time jumping from one franchise to another, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Jurassic World and The Avengers,  without ever being able to clearly reveal their true identities as artists, storytellers. That is now, but what about forty, thirty, even twenty years ago? Back then  studio influence was just as powerful in some cases if not more (re: Apocalypse NowHeaven’s Gate), but there were certain filmmakers who were allowed to do whatever they felt like doing, and who were always able to make the most out of any source material. One of these talented dudes was a man named Brian De Palma, a director who based his entire career on chasing the ghost of Alfred Hitchock, and by doing so, he learned how to seduce his audiences with the simple help of visuals and nothing else.

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You will not dare to look away.

When it comes to watching a De Palma movie forget plot, forget dialogue and character, simply focus on what is on screen. The first thing one will notice is De Palma’s immediate need to drag you into his world. He often does this by opening his movies with a 5-10 minute long tracking shot, like in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, during which the main characters are introduced and set within one specific world. In Snake Eyes, for example, we follow Nicholas Cage as Detective Rick Santoro walking around a boxing arena, waiting for a big fight to take place. Through De Palma’s eyes we’re quickly thrown into the world that Santoro is immersed in, a world of scumbags, dealers, call girls and gangsters, who all happen to know him. Considering the traditional structure of a screenplay I doubt such an opening was written specifically for De Palma to follow. The director, instead of introducing his protagonist through various conversations and interactions, decided simply to use the camera to track the protagonist’s movements, way of walking, capturing the energy around him, the excitement in the arena building and slowly but surely building tension within the viewer’s mind, preparing him for something significant to happen in the following minutes.

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The opening to Bonfire of the Vanities sweeps you for 5 entire minutes with the sizzling energy of upper class New York.

Another example of De Palma using mostly camera movements and angles to grab the viewer’s attention can be found in his systematic use of long tracking shots (6-12 minutes) at the movie’s midpoint in order to build the stage on which the climatic midpoint event (a fight, a chase scene, a murder) will eventually take place. This is mostly used to full effect in Dressed to Kill (the museum scene) and Body Double (the shopping mall). In both scenes a character is spying on another character and the single take is used for two purposes: 1) to build an elaborate map of the setting, be it a museum or a shopping mall, so that the viewer can easily follow the character’s movements and predict certain scenarios (for example, a dead end that prevents the character from escaping, or a wrong turn that will lead the character into the other character’s path); 2) to force the viewer into assuming a character’s point of view, be it the one being spied on/chased (Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed to Kill) or the one spying/chasing (Craig Wasson’s character in Body Double). This way, De Palma has the artistic freedom to exploit one single location to its fullest potential instead of shooting multiple scenes, switching settings and time of day, distorting the viewer’s attention and awareness, following a formulaic development. In The Untouchables this method is even clearer in the scene where a gangster is trying to break into Malone’s (Sean Connery’s) home and follows him from the street, onto the window into the apartment. Had it been filmed any other way, this scene would have lost its energy and the quality of a ticking bomb, yet De Palma perfectly uses the limited space of a cop’s apartment to turn this scene into a real nail-biter.

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De Palma’s art lies in making something ordinary stand out.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, De Palma is well known for his fixation with Hitchcock. Some might even call him a cheap copy of Hitchcock, but that would absolutely be a false claim. De Palma’s style is unique precisely because he follows certain patterns and uses certain elements that were previously introduced by none other than the man behind PsychoVertigoNorth by Northwest and Birds. Most De Palma movies use Hitchcock’s teachings to make the most out of nothing, for example, by foreshadowing a dramatic, bloody resolution like in Dressed to Kill to make the actual finale even more shocking. In Dressed to Kill the audience is bombarded with violent images showing the gruesome slaying of a middle-aged woman (Angie Dickinson) at different moments of the movie, finally culminating within the one hour mark with the full depiction of the murder as witnessed by the prostitute played by Melanie Griffith. Certain lighting patterns, like in the first minutes of Carlito’s Way, will foreshadow the character’s end but also give a sense of what is about to follow. By using different shades of purple, gray and blue, De Palma paints Carlito’s Way‘s introduction with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of accomplishment even though the movie has just started. We realize the character is dying not because Carlito says it in his voice over narration but because of the way he is introduced on screen, eyes wide open, staring upwards, right into the camera, his body being slowly pushed in a stretcher by a group of nurses, the world around him fading out, leaving him alone with his story that he’s about to tell the audience.

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A dying man staring right at us, this is Carlito’s story.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to De Palma’s visual seduction of the viewer lies in his untamed love for genre. You will often find yourself wondering what you’ve just watched when the credits to a De Palma film start to roll, was that a thriller (Blow Out) ? A horror (Body Double)? A black comedy (Scarface)? Or a Western (The Untouchables)? These questions are extremely valid since the director is always trying to mask his films with multiple layers of genres in order to make the most accurate representation of his own intricate vision. The scene in The Untouchables where the group of policemen lead by Elliot Ness and Malone (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, respectively) charge a column of vehicles driven by mafia members on horseback wielding shotguns and pistols is something one would expect to see in a Western by John Ford, not a gangster movie written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, and yet that’s what makes the entire scene, and not a minute of it feels silly or unnecessary, it simply is a De Palma moment, something so unique, original and full of life that you, as an audience member, cannot help but appreciate the sheer passion that went into the production of that particular scene.

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And what about The Untouchables railway station sequence? A mix of Eisenstein and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

De Palma will keep making many people shake their heads in dissatisfaction, be it with his ‘male gaze’ (re: Femme Fatale from 2002 where the character played by Antonio Banderas is literally taking pictures of women from his balcony) or simply with his fixation of turning every moment into a big, loud celebration (the fireworks in Blow Out ‘s ending). This, however, should not be held against him as De Palma is one of the very few directors who is capable of making movies by using a ton of style and a grain of substance, something other fellow filmmakers (yes, I’m looking at you, Nicolas Winding Refn) are simply not up to, or at least, not on De Palma’s level. Having watched a lot of his movies lately, some with repeated viewings, it is safe to say that sometimes studying a cheap copy of Hitchcock might even be more beneficial and worthwhile than studying the real thing. Bet on it.

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Sometimes too much is exactly what a film needs.

One Man’s Sins

As the news reports keep popping up on our phones, tablets and TV screens, we can’t help but wonder: “What if something really bad happens? What then? What will the world look like? Will we be the same as now?”
Most of the time the answer is ‘NO’, and film has been known as a medium used to search for answers that we cannot seem to find in the present world. Think about the Mad Max Trilogy and the latest installment by George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a wild, twisted ride into pure hellfire madness. It’s a vision of a world that has crumbled under the weight of mankind and unleashed creatures similar to beasts and demons. It is a comic book vision that represented the mindset of the late 1970s early 1980s; death, injustice and filth. However, the thing that always seemed to bother me about that series of movies is how fictional it is. Its focus is clearly pointed at the action setpieces shot in the Australian desert. We don’t treat it as a film; we treat it as a piece of entertainment.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was soon adapted into a movie back in 2009 and that to me was a game-changer. It brought up real, authentic, current day issues and spat them right into our faces. And as much as I’d like to write about The Road, I’m not going to, because I think there is a little Australian movie that did it even better and went by unnoticed by the general public. The movie I want to talk about is David Michod’s 2014 sleeper, The Rover. It’s an important one, trust me.

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Eric.

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Rey.

I’ve been trying to get people to watch The Rover because I strongly believe it’s a landmark in present day independent cinema. When it first came out in Cannes in 2014 it received terribly mixed reviews: there was the side that hated it and the side that loved it. Personally, it took me four sittings to really be able to grasp the genius of this movie. This is by no means an easy watch. It’s an engrossing slow-burner that features a maximum of two pages of dialogue. Let me get to the point. The Rover is a tale of morality and humanity that takes place as the title cards in the opening scene read: AUSTRALIA. TEN YEARS AFTER THE COLLAPSE. Like most post-apocalyptic films it doesn’t quite reveal what happened, what triggered the situation we find ourselves in. The film opens with a wide shot of the Australian wasteland. Silence. We’re in someone’s car and we’re looking at the owner of it, sitting in the driver’s seat, thinking, waiting. This is Eric (a phenomenal Guy Pearce), and he’s our leading man; a wiry, bearded, dirty middle-aged man who’s dressed in khaki shorts and a stained shirt. The world around him is a world of misery and desperation. The only people he meets are male prostitutes and old men sitting in empty bar rooms, hoping for a customer to come in and buy something.

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Loneliness.

As playwright David Mamet said: “The secret to any play or film is to have a character that wants something at all costs”, and that is exactly who Eric is. As he sits at the bar counter, three armed men steal his car. We can see in Eric’s eyes that nothing means more to him than that car of his. That’s all he wants. That’s all he cares about. He gets into a rusty truck and starts chasing the three men into the deep Australian wilderness. As the chase progresses, Eric encounters the younger brother of one of the three men. His name is Rey (Robert Pattinson at his finest, yes you heard me) and he’s “an idiot halfwit.” Eric uses Rey in order to find out where Rey’s brother is headed to. Don’t get your hopes up. This isn’t a movie about friendship and enemies who become comrades. There is none of that in the desolate world of The Rover.

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It is all about who will draw first.

As the film progresses, the viewer witnesses a moral tale about the fragility of humanity. The world Eric and Rey live in is realistic, unlike the comic book world of Mad Max and the dystopian, horror-like world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The secret of this movie lies in the way it unfolds like a religious parable. The rare spurts of violence are extremely brutal and bloody but at the same time quick and unfocused. The absence of long, deep and meaningful conversations helps build the heavy tone this movie carries throughout its entire runtime.
There is no reason in this world. Random strangers attack our two protagonists without any purpose. The only thing that rules this world is money. US dollars. Worthless paper. Its false value looms over the lives of the scattered survivors of the collapse. It seems as if Eric and Rey are the only individuals untouched by money. What does this tell us about them? They look like everybody else. They behave like everybody else, and yet they seem to be indifferent to any kind of material distraction. Their whole mission is to chase someone who stole Eric’s car. But the mission is not about the car. It’s about what is IN the car. It is something that drives Eric forward, that keeps him from falling into the pit everyone else has already fallen into a long time ago.

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Nothing is more terrifying than an empty world.

What makes The Rover such a compelling film is its complete indifference toward the viewer. The film unfolds without the participation of the viewer, almost as if David Michod, the director, didn’t want us to feel forced to watch it. To me, The Rover is a warning. Eric’s past can be interpreted as the past of a number of people. His incoming personal downfall would mean the downfall of the entire world. Because believe it or not, Eric still believes in something.
There is a scene, when Eric brings wounded Rey to a doctor’s clinic, where Eric enters a neon-lit room situated in the back of the clinic and finds a pyramid of cages containing stray dogs. He sits down, with tears in his eyes, and gazes at the poor animals. There is an understanding between man and beast here, and it shows a side to Eric which he tries to suppress as often as possible because he knows; once you let the world know you got a heart, everyone’s going to jump you and try to tear it out of your chest.

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Man’s best friend… trapped.

As they sit around a campfire, waiting to fall asleep, Rey recalls a little girl he killed by accident, and says: “I can’t stop thinking about her.” Now, think about it. In most Hollywood movies this scene would have ended up with Eric telling Rey not to worry about it, try to forget it, move on. The two would grow closer to one another and the movie would suddenly switch tones. But writer-director Michod plays his cards much more realistically, without the blink of an eye he lets Eric spit out the truth: “You shouldn’t. You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. That’s the price you pay for taking it.” After saying this, Eric walks off into the darkness to find a good place to sleep. The irony of this scene lies in the fact that we see Eric kill over half a dozen people without even acknowledging it. He shoots to kill. His act of killing is cold, ruthless and lacking any kind of second thought. His hand is rock steady unlike the hand of young Rey, the hand of an insecure boy who’s yet to see what the world is all about.

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Emptiness.

Michod’s camera captures the ruin of both the physical world as well as the psychological one. The slow tracking shots that follow Eric and Rey on their journey are there to shine a light on the scope of the destruction humans are capable of bringing on themselves. It is a slow dive into pure insanity where no laws are met and respected. To me, that’s much scarier than any horror movie out there; the sense of helplessness, despair and decay. The unnerving study of the dark side of humanity is something cinema has contemplated for a long time now. However, filmmakers tend to forget that in order to convey a message you need to show both sides of the conflict. In this case, The Rover deepens the cut by depicting glimpses of hope in Eric’s tired eyes. That’s the key to the lock. Once we learn to understand Eric, we learn to understand how The Rover works. One man’s sins are everybody’s.

That is why I think The Rover can be interpreted as a modern day parable about human vulnerability. It’s a simple story that lacks glamor and fantasy. It rides on grit, toughness… and weakness. The apocalypse of moral values. Emotions are all we’ve got, so what will happen when we lose those too?

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Even the hardest man will fall.

The Gaze

Today I want to talk about the act of looking in film. Looking is perhaps the simplest activity one can do. You just open your eyes, and that’s it – you’re looking. When we see a movie we look at the screen, we look at the characters, we look at the story unfold.
One thing about looking in film is that we often confuse the act of looking with the act of witnessing something. A lot of movies nowadays feel extremely distant, and not because of their plots or the narrative they use, but because they aim to tell a story without needing the participation of the viewer. Witnessing a movie means trying to figure out what’s going on. Usually when people get into an argument on screen we feel detached from their reality. We feel like a bunch of intruders walking into the lives of those strange people. We’re clearly unwanted.
Then there is looking, and looking, if done right, can be the epitome of a true cinematic experience. When we look at a film, at a story, at a moving frame, we’re not viewers anymore. We’re more than that. We’re participants. That is why today I chose Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime film from 1970, Le Cercle Rouge, to try and make an argument about the importance of the act of looking.

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Looking as a key to everything you could ever wish for.

Le Cercle Rouge could be considered by the average viewer a typical crime film with the policeman chasing the bad guys, but trust me. It is more than what’s on the surface. The film’s cast is pure French acting royalty: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonte and Andre Bourvil. And the remarkable thing about this cast of actors is that their chemistry does not get in the way of the story. It is not underwhelming and at the same time it is far from overwhelming. They are just there. Doing what they’re paid to do.
However, what stands out the most about these actors is their capability of looking at each other and conveying a thought just with the use of the simple act of looking. When Delon looks at the camera we get reassurance and inner peace.  When Montand looks at a mirror we get insecurity and error. When it is Volonte’s turn we get wit and perseverance. And at last, when Bourvil confronts us with his eyes we get compassion and arrogance.
This film (much like the rest of Melville’s filmography) is mostly based on the physicality of the action that takes place in the unfolding of the story. Le Cercle Rouge has in fact a simple plot, very little dialogue and whenever a character says something, the sentences are very robotic, characterized by quick rhythm and low intonation. Most secondary characters that appear in this movie have very little to say but an awful lot to do: they engage in gunfights, beatings, car chases and manhunts. Melville does not care about character development or inspirational speeches made during the last five minutes. No. What he does care about is telling a story through the use of movement captured on camera. His attention to detail is perhaps only matched by the likes of Bresson and Hitchcock.

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Is there any difference between the power of a cold look and a pointed gun?

In order to present the following scene I’ll just set it up nicely for those of you have yet to watch the film. The three robbers are planning to steal huge amounts of jewelry and diamonds and sell them on the black market to a trusted buyer.  The heist is to take place in a security covered building where every inch of the area is being monitored by cameras, wires and motion detectors. The jewels are hidden inside bulletproof glass vaults. The heist sequence is in theory very basic, but the way Melville manages to sell it to us is remarkable. There is no dialogue for the entire 25 minutes.
Clearly inspired by its French noir predecessor, Rififi, and its earlier Hollywood take, The Asphalt Jungle, Melville’s crime thriller observes the heist taking place not from the perspective of a random bystander or witness (something usually found in the Bourne Trilogy or even in a movie like Captain Phillips) but rather with the eyes of the camera hidden in the far corner of the room.
The lack of any major sound or music during this sequence not only helps in making the action seem smoother and more realistic but it also serves to heighten the tension of each step one of the three robbers take in order to get to the jewels. Each movement comes at a price and as you wait for something bad to happen, Melville drags you into his world by making you observe what most of us would usually consider to be boring, uneventful and uninteresting. It is the simplicity of what you see that makes this entire watch incredibly special and unlike anything you’ll encounter in most crime thrillers of Hollywood production.

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The three robbers in their own little worlds.

Another topic I want to cover is the way the characters interact with one another. Most scenes include only one or two of the main characters together, separating each storyline and creating a sense of alienation within the criminal underworld these characters belong to. Alain Delon’s Corey is the one character we get to observe the most. Delon’s on-screen presence is very demanding and the attention he brings to himself even in scenes where he meets other characters, such as fellow gangsters or mob bosses, is the trademark of this movie. It seems as if he’s always capable of transmitting a certain sense of hostility with little to no effort. When he teams up with Volonte and Montand’s characters, he behaves just as he did when he acted on his own. His dead-pan expression turns the observer into the observed. While the remaining characters often face mirrors and reflections of themselves, and usually they reflect upon the sight of it, Delon is the one who faces the camera more frequently than anybody else without even blinking an eye. As much as we get to look at him we really don’t know if he’s good or bad, or if we should even be rooting for him at all. His gaze is a challenge to the viewer, a pit-stop on the 2h20 long journey this movie has to offer.
Each character we meet on this journey is unaffected by the people around him. What I mean is, the environment does not offer any kind of change. The environment, similarly to the characters, is just there, because it has to be there. There is no sense of palpable change, the atmosphere is the same all the way through and that is perhaps due to the fact that Melville insists on making his viewers pay attention to the physical, material details, rather than the abstract, the spiritual.
It is safe to say that this movie is one of the ‘manliest’ movies ever made because of how well structured it is and simultaneously stripped of any useless (in Melville’s opinion) cinematic layers such as plot, character development and a conclusion.

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The challenge.

The act of looking is a deadly weapon. You see the right things and you immediately have the upper hand. Melville says, ‘Trust me.’

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Who’s got the upper hand now?

 

Bond Flop

There is something that I cannot stop thinking about and that is:

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH SPECTRE?

The anticipation for this one was huge.  At first, it was announced as the last Bond film of the epic saga that started all the way back in the 60s with Sean Connery.  After having revolutionized the franchise with a more serious approach to the series in 2006’s Casino Royale, Bond was supposedly reborn.  Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and finally Spectre are the films that all gave a new feeling to the name, Bond.  Big time directors like Sam Mendes stepped up to the task and delivered. But not this time. Something about Spectre is incredibly off. It feels cartoonish, tired, pointless and utterly uninspired.

Some main points from my part;

  1. NO CHARACTER ARCH
    – what made Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (in its mediocrity) and Skyfall special is that with the ‘reinvention’ of James Bond as a meaty, grown character was his development. Casino Royale made Bond lose everything he had, everything he loved. Quantum of Solace made him gain his strengths, while Skyfall made him come back to life, fight for what’s his and yes, lose something too.  People became fans of these ‘serious’ Bond films precisely because Bond developed and wasn’t the usual handsome ladies man that cracks a joke and kills the bad guys.  He was vulnerable, he experienced pain and loss. He was one of us.  In Spectre, yes, Bond loves, has memories, has a past, but you don’t feel it pulsating in every frame. In Casino Royale you could feel the threat of losing Vesper at all times.  In Skyfall you could sense the slow passing of M. Here, you have nothing. It’s just Bond solving what should be considered as ‘the ultimate case’, the last riddle, the last piece of the puzzle. It’s what we’ve seen a thousand times before. Same formula, over and over and over.
  2. WOODEN ACTING
    – when James Bond was getting his balls crushed with a rope in Casino Royale we suffered. When M was bleeding to death, we suffered. When Silva was aiming a flintlock pistol at an innocent woman in Skyfall, we felt the tension. What about Spectre? You can feel the actors just not giving a single crap about the movie.  It feels like a side project. You have Craig who publicly announced that he wanted to stop playing Bond after Skyfall was wrapped up, you have Monica Bellucci who probably had nothing better to do, since she is in the movie for what, 6-7 minutes? There is also Ralph Fiennes, who plays the new M this time around. After giving some great, great performances in Grand Budapest Hotel, Hail, Casesar! and A Bigger Splash I don’t blame the man for taking some time off and playing this over-used role of the boss who at first doesn’t trust his agent and then discovers that he should have trusted him from the very beginning. Then you have Christoph Waltz, who as of late has me feeling very unimpressed. It’s always the same sarcastic, sneaky character just with a different name. The only bright spot is the always reliable Léa Seydoux, who is a gem of an actress, who unfortunately is forced to play the cliché character of a Bond chick.  At least she tries to give it some depth, which leads me to….
  3. THE ATROCIOUS SCREENPLAY
    – do I really need to go over this? Look, even the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies had better screen-writing than this movie. At least they had some really funny, sarcastic lines that worked whenever they were given a try, but here… you have FOUR screenwriters working on this project. FOUR. There is no sense of time, there is no link between certain key characters, questions are left unanswered, ending is predictable and uneventful, the whole story is quite simply forced out in order to presumably end this series. It feels like it all leads up to what the writers probably considered the apex of their writing capabilities and that is: “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.”
  4. NO ARTISTIC FREEDOM
      – I give a big thumbs up to Sam Mendes and Hoyte van Hoytema (the cinematographer) for making that first opening sequence in Mexico City work like it does. It looks absolutely brilliant; a tracking shot that pans across a mass of people, follows characters around into elevators, passes through doorways, exits through balconies and finally reveals to us what Bond is up to.  It’s great. It’s ambitious and I wish it set the tone for the rest of the movie. It shows who is in charge of the movie. Unfortunately the directorial and cinematographic brilliance doesn’t last very long and you can almost feel the studio’s influence crawling into every frame of it.  No wonder that Mendes announced he won’t be coming back to direct Bond25, if there will ever be one. Mendes’ experimental direction and van Hoytema’s clean, neat images seem too big of a gamble for such a massive Hollywood project that cost around $250 mln. The viewer can easily see when the director is in charge and when the producers are.  Mendes directs from various interesting angles. He moves the camera step by step, he likes silences instead of cheesy soundtracks, he prefers panning rather than cutting. But then again, it’s not his movie. And we know it. The way the story is visually told is the same procedural crap we see on a daily basis.
  5. THE MOST UNUSED BOND VILLAIN
      – Okay, you cast Christoph Waltz as a Bond villain, who is supposed to incarnate the ultimate evil of the franchise. He is the man who’s taken everything from Bond. He’s the one responsible for every tragedy in Bond’s life; M, Vesper, his childhood. He is the devil in a man’s skin. He is the reason for Bond’s thirst to kill. HE IS EVIL. And what do we get? We get this guy who has no real reason for doing all the things he’s done. He had a bad childhood, that’s it. That’s his big motif. The screenwriters think that’s what they can offer us to wrap up this series. Waltz, as I said before, doesn’t do anything special. He is just Waltz playing Waltz, but come on, give this villain something to hang on. We see him for a couple of minutes at the beginning and for another few minutes at the very end. He is supposed to be this ghost who has always loomed over Bond’s life but his presence is incredibly shallow and all in all, he’s extremely uninteresting. Not that Silva in Skyfall was great, or Greene in Quantum of Solace had a haunting presence, but a guy like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale had indeed some backbone. Here, the big antagonist is nothing special. It’s just another guy who wishes to blow everything to hell. Wow.

    After finally having seen Spectre, I can honestly say: this franchise should end right now. There is nothing more to offer other than an assured box office hit. But again, you people want this, right? You’ll pay for whatever has loud explosions and characters getting their heads split wide open. Okay, then. have it your way.

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    Cuckoo.

The Creator’s Hands

Today’s topic: the world of The Revenant. When I think about it, I come to the conclusion that cinema is divided into two categories: movies and films. Movies can be manipulated, changed, edited, cut and re-shot. Films, on the other hand, are made out of stone; once they’re done, they’re done, they’re rock solid and they stay forever. Nothing can change them, nothing can touch them. They are confessions, tales of truth, parables that will guide future generations in hopefully the right direction. The Revenant is a film. You look at it and you are fully aware that you’re not reading a comic book, you’re not playing a video game, you are watching a film. Why is that? What makes it so colossal and epic? Its immense, cruel, beautiful world.

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Looking for answers.

Man vs Nature has been the topic of many directors’ filmographies such as Werner Herzog’s (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God), Andrei Tarkovsky’s (Andrei Rublev), and Akira Kurosawa’s (Dersu Uzala). Their works were epic in form yet intimate in scope. Their protagonists fought fear, greed and most of all they tried to prevail against nature. Same thing goes for The Revenant? Not quite. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the master behind such revolutionary works like Amores Perros, Babel and Birdman, has crafted an epic tale of survival based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass who in 1823, in the Rocky Mountains territory, was brutally attacked by a Grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions. This stubborn son of a bitch battled his way through waterfalls, frozen lakes, forests and mountains, crawling for 300 miles in order to find and kill the men who betrayed him. As many viewers noted, in most cases sounding rather disappointed, the film has a very simple plot. Sometimes, we tend to forget that our world is not that complicated. We’re not masters of the universe. We’re just tiny creatures who happen to live in a big world. Everything we do is rather simple; what we call ambition is usually nothing but instinct. We set ourselves a goal, and slowly, slowly we go for it. The Revenant is about that.

THE REVENANT
Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, murderer, thief and a man with a broken heart.

The setting: Rocky Mountains (although shot in Alberta, Canada, and Argentina), near the Missouri River, Indian Territory, 1823. The protagonists: fur trappers working for a fur trading company, Arikara tribesmen, Pawnee tribesmen, French renegades… and nature. We’re presented with a very primitive world; a world where everything comes at a price, be it a scalp or a buffalo skin.  Every man works for himself. No one sees the bigger picture. Everything is driven by hatred, anger, and yes, revenge. Why shouldn’t it be so simple? All of this still applies to this day and age. We haven’t made such incredible progress; wars are still fought over who has more money, more oil, more power. Kidnappings still happen in the name of ransom and revenge. Corruption still exists because of our primitive instincts. So why complain? The world of Hugh Glass at least doesn’t have skyscrapers, tanks, war missiles and drug cartels. It’s a world where you can still smell the morning grass, where you can hear the wolves howl, where you can walk through the wildest of all places and not be disturbed by poachers and tourists.  Iñárritu and cinematographer  Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman) make this world seem closer to us. The viewer can almost touch it. And that’s the beauty of it.

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Everything we do is driven by eternal questions.

Hugh Glass was abandoned, buried alive,  his personal items stolen and his favorite rifle taken. That is what the book (by Michael Punke) recounts and what the true story says, but  Iñárritu found it to be missing something. He said; yes, sure, he probably did it to get back his rifle and fight for his honor, but I want to add something to it. That’s how Hugh Glass becomes a father. A father of a Pawnee boy, his half-breed son, named Hawk. Because fatherly love is also a basic human instinct. A mother and a father are willing to sacrifice themselves, to walk through hellfire, to fight the devil if that’s what it takes to save their child. Hugh Glass’ son is killed by a man called Fitzgerald (played by a superb Tom Hardy who creates one of the most human and vulnerable villains of all time). And that’s when Glass loses everything he had, everything he lived for. Everything he ever wanted. It’s a wake-up call that whispers into his ear “keep breathing, crawl out of your grave and fight”. That’s what he does. His heart painted black with hatred and thirst for revenge pushes him to face the brutality of nature, the mercilessness of a world where man has no say over who gets to live and who gets to die.

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You’re my son…

The world of Glass is simple, yes but it’s also emotional. There is love, friendship, sacrifice. The flashbacks that recall his Pawnee wife, a better life, a peaceful tepee, times when everything seemed so magical, tell us that there is more to this character than what we see. In these dream sequences we see Glass contemplate the unexpected. He studies the beautiful, majestic nature. Nature that makes it possible for him to breathe and walk, love, desire. He understands that in nature, there is no enemy, only an ally, a mother that watches over him at all times. Perhaps we don’t see a God, but we sense that out there, in the blue sky, there is something that makes the rain so wet, that makes the snow so cold, that makes the rays of sunlight so warm. There is a force that rules this brutal jungle of animals, this world that we find so savage and inhuman. This world that we try to tame. Why tame it if we can respect it? Why cut off a branch when we can water it? Why trap a butterfly when we can watch it fly in our garden? Why kill a forest when we can admire its magnificence? The Revenant, with its beautiful use of natural lighting and on-location production, is a reminder that everything we have we owe it to something much bigger than money. Much larger than our own ambitions. Something invisible that we can only feel once we submerge ourselves like Hugh Glass. Once we start to crawl in the dirt. Only then.

Only then we will find that ‘something’ we’ve all been looking for.

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Once you start breathing, you just can’t stop.