Generation Masturbation

There is a scene in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead from 2005, where a helicopter flies over a group of US Marines busy digging into the hard, oil-covered desert earth, blasting through a set of speakers Break On Through (to the Other Side) by The Doors. Our protagonist, Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks up and says, irritated: ”That’s Vietnam music, man. Can’t we get our own fucking music?” 

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Meet Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal)

In that very scene we get to the core of the issue that Jarhead, a movie that upon its initial release in 2005 was deemed pointless and boring, wants us to think about. Jarhead in fact reinvented the cinematic depiction of war as we know it. Few people realized this, with Roger Ebert being one of the few critics who liked the movie and got its message. ”Jarhead sees the big picture entirely in terms of small details,” he wrote. And he was right. Indeed, Jarhead, in my opinion, did to the war genre what Goodfellas did to the gangster genre. It changed the formula for years to come, and by doing so, it made other filmmakers steer away from the genre.
Think about it, how many war movies about modern day conflict can you think of that have been made in the last fifteen years? I can only think of a few, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper and The Lone Surviver. The quality of these is arguable, sure, their agenda and the message they send even more so. Jarhead, however, was different. It talked about a new generation of soldiers. A new generation of men. It questioned and put a lot of themes into perspective.

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”Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!”

The core of the issue, as mentioned above, is Jarhead’s persisting question of why can’t we have our own war? Its protagonists, being the sons and nephews of Vietnam veterans, arrive in Kuwait in the summer of 1990 to prove everyone that they too can write their own history. They too can make their families proud by fighting their own little war. But, to their surprise, and the viewers’ surprise as well, the war they will be part of is going to be different. It is going to be a new type of war, one we hadn’t seen up to that point.
After 9/11, Hollywood engaged in the production of extremely patriotic movies. It had to, after all, an entire nation was in mourning, and people wanted to see bravery and sacrifice. Thus, movies like Black Hawk Down, which looked at the failed US military intervention in Somalia by showing young, brave Americans fighting against a whole town of faceless Somali demons, came out, made a lot of money and went back into hiding, after having satisfied the audience’s needs.
It would take another four years for Jarhead to be released. By that time America was already engaged in its second Gulf War, having invaded Iraq two years prior. One might say that Jarhead was more relevant than ever, as questions regarding the nature of the first Gulf War in Kuwait resurfaced and awaited necessary answers. Answers that men like George Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney did not deliver.

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Jarhead’s landscapes resembling Dante’s Inferno.

First, let’s talk about the most important aspect of Jarhead, and namely the soldiers that are depicted in it. In the movie, a new breed of soldiers is introduced. Unlike the boys in Full Metal Jacket, who had no idea what they were getting into once they entered boot camp, the boys in Jarhead, are more than ready to go. They cannot wait to be part of a war that might just happen to define an entire generation of people. Their generation. After having had to sit through endless stories told by their grandparents about D-Day, the Pacific theater, Korea, and their fathers’ stories about Vietnam, Jarhead‘s boys want to fight their own battles and tell their sons and daughters how they went to some shithole country and fought a war to protect and serve the nation. Well, did they?
In Sam Mendes’ film, oddly enough, the Marines quite frankly don’t give a fuck about ideals. That’s the surprising aspect of it. Because, as awful, robotic and soulless as they were, Full Metal Jacket’s Marines had signed up because something deep down had spurred them to do so. After all, Joker (played by Matthew Modine), Kubrick’s protagonist, was a politically engaged pacifist.

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There are no ideals.

In Jarhead, however, the ideals are gone; this is a generation that witnessed first-hand the effects of Vietnam and Watergate, and thus saw where ideals get you (answer: in a worse place than before). No, the soldiers in Jarhead, although nicknamed jarheads because of their supposedly bald skulls resembling empty jars, are pretty smart boys, aware of the circumstances and of the war America had gotten itself into this time. In fact, one of the Marines, a young Texas kid named Kruger is the first one to question their motives going into Kuwait: ”You think we’re here for what? They got their fat hands in Arab oil. That’s why we’re here, to protect their profits.” Everyone around him stays silent, but the looks are of men who know the reality of the situation; they’ve seen it before, on TV, in newspapers, hell, their own president, Bush Sr., addressed these concerns when he publicly stated ”In our country, I know that there are fears of another Vietnam. This will not be another Vietnam.”
But words don’t matter to these kids. These kids want to fight. They’ve seen death before unlike any other generation before them. Death in video-games, movies, shows. Death is everywhere. Their reference points are The Terminator and Rambo, for crying out loud. Their idols are Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris. During training camp, they spend entire afternoons rewatching Apocalypse Now and the Ride of the Valkyries sequence, cheering ”Get some! Fuck yeah!” and pumping their fists in excitement as the choppers riddle the Vietnamese village with missiles and machine-gun fire. They, too, want to experience that rush, that adrenaline everyone’s been talking about; they want  to experience it first-hand by squeezing the trigger themselves.

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Get some!

And so off they go. After months of excruciating training, after, similarly to Full Metal Jacket, having been turned into machines and experts in the art of taking someone’s life be it from long range, like our protagonist Swofford who’s an elite sniper, or from up close with a knife or even a fucking helmet, the boys are off to fight their war. However, unlike in Full Metal Jacket, where as soon as Marines hit the ground in ‘Nam they find themselves engaged with the enemy, the skills they’ve learned being put to an immediate test, in Jarhead training continues even on the front lines.
They dig, they go on patrol, they throw hang grenades and learn to detect mines beneath the rocky surface of the Kuwaiti desert. They clean their weapons, learn about the effects of nerve gas and train some more. And as they do so, the testosterone builds up, their thirst for blood increases. Some will be so desperate for some sort of conflict that they will go off to shoot some poor farmer’s camel. Just for the pleasure of it. Just because this war is unlike anything they imagined it to be and they need that rush. They need to feel accomplished.

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Any strange encounter becomes an excuse to open fire.

And yes, it would have been tempting for Mendes, the director, to steer away from the source material that is Swofford’s book of the same title. It would have been a perfect example of Hollywood messing with reality, had Mendes included some sort of action sequence in this movie. And yet he doesn’t. Jarhead sticks to the tyranny of a soldier’s routine. Jarhead‘s war, as described best by Swofford himself in a voice-over narration, is one long masturbating session. You follow the motions in the hope that eventually, something will happen. But that something is a long way away. The soldiers keep masturbating. They masturbate, play football, go on patrol, masturbate, sleep, dig, go on patrol, and yes, masturbate some more. Meanwhile, their war is coming to a slow, predictable end, slipping through their fingers like the sand they have to wade through day in and day out.

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Masturbation, a vital element of any war.

Finally, let’s talk about war itself. Kubrick’s war in Paths of Glory was the first instance of realization in the cinematic world, unlike its predecessors such as John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima and Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York that glamorized a soldier’s sacrifice, that perhaps governments act in their own interest, often inflicting pain and suffering on the people that serve the country’s cause. Coppola followed suit by making Apocalypse Now, where for the first time soldiers were portrayed as confused lunatics sent on suicide missions by their superiors just to come back with a couple of medals and an enemy death ratio that would satisfy the officials in Washington and give the country something to cheer about.
And then there is Jarhead and a war that, despite being known for having introduced live news coverage from CNN, went on to become the epitome of a faceless war against a faceless enemy. Swofford’s breakdown at the sound of the Doors’ song is a testament to a war that passed by somewhat unnoticed by the public. Nobody was there to give it an identity, a sound, a visual cue, anything. It was just a war in a nameless desert, in a nameless country, in a nameless region of the world.

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Killing time.

One could say that Mendes’ film is focused on man’s inherent quest for meaning.  Stripped of ideals and values, these titular jarheads go off into the desert to find out, more than anything else, if they have what it takes to make their families proud. Having been raised by fathers with PTSD, they march across no man’s land just so that they can come back home and break that silence, and say ”Yeah, I felt it, too. Now, I understand.” And that’s where the tragedy of Jarhead lies. These boys left everything behind, including their girlfriends, new-born sons and daughters, pregnant wives,  just to experience war, because for them, war, the most primitive act of all along with fucking, is what makes a man. But unfortunately, their war is different. Like Swofford narrates in his voice-over: ”Every war is different. Every war is the same.”
Sure, at the core of it the idea is the same; to kill and come out alive. Fight to defeat the enemy and prevail. But Swofford’s war is unlike any other war. The Gulf War is nowadays otherwise known for Operation Desert Storm, a military operation entirely based on air raids and aerial bombing. Ground soldiers meant nothing in this war. Covering the same territory that in World War I took three months to cover and in Vietnam three weeks, here took less than ten seconds. That’s the tragedy of Jarhead. This war was not meant to be fought the way these boys had imagined.

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Witnessing man’s impotence in the face of technology.

Mendes, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins paint a vivid, nightmarish desert setting; oil fields covered in molasses-like substance, rocky dust patches and dry, hallucination-induced flat landscapes. As our protagonists go out on patrol, we are reminded of the final scene in Full Metal Jacket, when the platoon marches down the burning ruins of Hue City, cheerfully singing the Mickey Mouse song. Out here, however, instead of the Mickey Mouse song, there is a deafening silence. There is no reference cue. There is no trademark sound. It’s all so colorless, bland. These Jarheads have suffered mental breakdowns, have been physically tested in an arid environment where, on a lucky day, you can fry an egg out in the open, have been betrayed and left hanging by their loved ones back home, and what do they have to show for it?
This is the futility of war, one can argue. It doesn’t matter if you fight to the death or you sit at the rear, gripping the barrel of your rifle with all your strength, you will still return a different person, a shattered soul. A has been, more than anything else.

Because every war is different, every war is the same.

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”Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

One Shot

Recently I’ve had the immense pleasure of experiencing a movie all over again. Sometimes you watch a movie and you’re not fully capable of grasping its essence, so you move on, you categorize it, you label it or worse yet, you rate it on a scale from 1 to 5 or from 1 to 10 and that’s it, you’re done. Case closed. This is what almost happened to me after the first viewing of Michael Cimino’s best picture winner of 1978, The Deer Hunter. This was a movie,  which after my first time watching it I categorized under ”Good but not that great – Far too long – Overrated – Uneventful.” Well, here I am writing this down on my computer: seeing The Deer Hunter‘s beautiful restoration in 4K on the big screen at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute might just be the single most impactful cinematic experience I’ve had so far, in all these years of movie watching. What the big screen helped me to see was the richness of the detail, the resounding echo of certain themes presented across all three acts and the emotional kick certain scenes hold, an aspect that is hard to notice once your point of view is limited to the box-like dimensions of most home screens. What The Deer Hunter shows is that when you are allowed to fully exploit the power of cinema across all sections (sound, visuals, storytelling, music, acting) you can indeed paint a canvas not only of a time and place, but of a general mindset as well, the mindset of a tribe, a village, a city and even a nation across a large fraction of time.

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”Give this man a drink!” says Michael, pointing at a war veteran.

Numerous reviews and discussions have been written and raised regarding the best picture winner that sparked a lot of controversy with its brutal scenes displaying the use of Russian roulette in the Vietnam War for the first time since the war had ended a few years prior to the making of this movie. What I want to dedicate this post to is the development of character arc in this three-hour epic, something very few films nowadays are able to achieve due to numerous reasons, but above all 1) bad writing 2) constant constraints on the studio’s part. Because in order to do something similar to what The Deer Hunter does so brilliantly, you need good writing and artistic freedom; you need to be able to push through rules and regulations and exploit the cinematic form to its fullest potential to be able to tell a story that is fleshed out, emotional and important.

First of all, a lot has been said about The Deer Hunter and a lot of times it has been labeled as a war movie. But it’s not. The Deer Hunter, similarly to  Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), another personal favorite of mine, is a film about men in war, about what happens when you place human beings (NOT KILLING MACHINES) in a war-torn environment. In order to do this, The Deer Hunter uses the three-act approach that has been used for centuries in novels, short stories and plays. The three-act structure in The Deer Hunter is as follows: The Wedding – Vietnam – The Return. This allows the film to present key characters in their own world, then shake this very same world to its core, and place the characters back into it to see what this change brought to their lives, what their next step is, what their reality has turned into. The opening wedding chapter, although disliked by many due to its length (over 55 minutes!), is the key component to this three-hour puzzle. Through it not only do we realize that most of the story will take place in rural America, where steel mining is the only career path a man can take, but that this story will concern a particular community of people, namely Russian Orthodox immigrants, a community where characters are familiar with each other, where friends are like brothers and where marriage is for life. In this community people are born, live and die together, and the relationships that are made are made because there is no escaping this harsh difficult reality; in order to survive you need your neighbor, your local pastor and your local gym teacher. Our protagonists are tied to this small world for the rest of their lives as this is the only world they know, and the only world where they truly feel like they belong. The wedding sequence, aside from the wedding itself, concerns the departure of the three friends (Michael, Nick and Stevie) to Vietnam, and how the entire community experiences this proud moment together. The possibility of death is never mentioned by the members of this community. The only instance where we are faced with the alienated reality of Vietnam and a foreshadowing of what is about to come is when the three friends encounter a veteran who just returned from service and happened to stumble into the first bar on the street. When Michael (Robert De Niro) asks the veteran; ”Well, what’s it like over there?” the only response he gets from the veteran is ”Fuck it.” ”Fuck it” without a doubt is the phrase that encapsulates the fate of the three friends and more importantly, their experience of having to point of a loaded gun to their heads for the simple amusement of their captors.

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Love it while you have it.

After having established the friendships, love interests and their aspirations in the wedding chapter, The Deer Hunter places its characters straight into hell. There is no rise and fall scenario in this film. There is simply the introduction of a traumatic event and its aftermath.  The prelude to this chapter, however, takes place high in the mountains, where the group of friends go on a deer hunting escapade. In this brief sequence, De Niro’s character, the most experienced hunter, takes pleasure in squeezing the trigger and firing the deadly weapon. The act of shooting still holds a sacred meaning to him; to shoot a deer not only does it mean you’re a good shot – it also means you’re a man, capable of respecting the beauty of the animal before you with what he describes as ”One shot. That’s it,” and continues, ”A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” Killing a deer is an act that must be swift, clean and professional. Yet the death that Michael and his friends will experience from up close in Vietnam is anything but all these things; it’s dirty, pointless, lacking honor or respect. It’s what it is. Fuck it.

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Squeezing the trigger soon turns into…

Here is the most surprising aspect of The Deer Hunter – the actual war is shown for the briefest of moments (actual gunfire and combat take up only 15-20 minutes of runtime) as the film is completely aware of what the focus of the story should be on – the emotional state of the characters, not their physical actions. The return is in a sense the lowest of points for each character involved – it is the culmination of trauma, the clash with the old, familiar world and the inability to shake this trauma off and embrace the old, familiar world again. Christopher Walken’s character of Nick is the one protagonist whose trauma is so strong he does not dare look back – soon enough the only reality he can embrace is the reality where his life is worth a few hundred grand, depending on whether he gets lucky enough and the chamber in the gun turns out to be empty. As in most PTSD cases, Nick is simply unfit to live a normal life. There is no balance in Russian roulette, there’s only two extremes – either you live another day, or you blow your brains out and someone makes a lot of money on your death – this is the only line Nick is able to walk. Meanwhile, De Niro’s Michael, the toughest of the bunch, is, on the other hand, the only character fit enough to be able to face his old world. Unfortunately, this world, as loud and colorful as it was during the wedding celebration, upon Michael’s return has turned silent. The friends are there, Linda (Meryl Streep) is also there, just as emotionally broken as Michael, the city and the steel mill are there, and yet it’s quiet. It is a world that has lost connection with Michael, whose traumatic encounter with the war has set him apart from the rest of the society he once was a proud member of. Michael, a young man who once enjoyed himself working hard in the mill, drinking at the bar with friends and fellow workers, dancing with girls at local ceremonies and hunting deer like a professional, is now unable to squeeze the trigger decisively – with the deer staring right at him, the action of killing this majestic animal has lost all sense; it’s barbaric, it’s empty and meaningless. Thus, The Deer Hunter becomes a three-act film about being hopeful and proud, and having this hope and pride violently taken away, and being left on your own, with an alien world as your home.

Fuck it.

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…madness.

Satan’s Dance

Trauma: what’s the best way of capturing it  without the use of words? Shaky cameras, a shell shock ringing and black and white flashbacks don’t work anymore. What Saving Private Ryan achieved for the very first time is now being rehashed in almost every single Hollywood blockbuster that is out there not to make a point but to cash in the revenues. That is why I was left feeling extremely overwhelmed once the credits to Waltz with Bashir started to roll over a black screen.
Waltz with Bashir, an Oscar nominated animated movie directed by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, is without a doubt one of the most innovative and interesting visual displays of trauma I’ve ever seen. It plays on so many different, unseen, original notes and touches upon some crucial cinematic themes that aren’t brought up enough in today’s world of cinema, that it creates a surreal aura around itself and enters perhaps my top 10 of the 2000s. Let’s have a look at why its approach to such a difficult phenomenon such as human trauma is so unique.

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Ali Folman, the aging protagonist, desperate for answers.

We’re talking about an animated film that tackles the filmmaker’s personal experience as a 19-year-old infantry soldier in the 1982 war with Lebanon who witnesses a ruthless massacre (Sabra and Shatila massacre – the killing of almost 3500 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians) unfold right before his eyes. As an adult he has a hard time remembering what he saw and can’t bring himself to find the right answers so he decides to seek out others who were in Beirut at the time to discuss their memories, including a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders and the first journalist to cover the massacre.
The film follows the filmmaker as he interviews his old friends and strangers, and shifts from the present to the past using the power of animation. This is where the secret lies – the animation. 

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Landscape of death and destruction.


Waltz with Bashir uses traditional hand-drawn animation that translates incredibly well onto the screen due to the fact that most of the original interviews were used as a template by artist Yoni Goodman. The film as a whole was first shot on a sound studio and then transferred to a storyboard. This allowed the illustrations to gain a certain feeling of movement and energy. The dark hues enabled the filmmaker to present his vision of an almost surreal, dream-like (as well as nightmarish) world where very little is certain and where people don’t act according to any set of rules. Don’t let this fool you.
Waltz with Bashir is very realistic. Some of its scenes reminded me of the great war movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket especially with its juxtaposed use of upbeat 80s Israeli pop music playing over images of explosions and destruction. But this isn’t the point. The point is that this film manages to create something refreshing out of something so nostalgic and “outdated” as classic animation in order to bring up the issue of trauma.

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Recalling the past.

The loss of memory and especially the loss of a memory as harsh as the witnessing of a massacre can be easily interpreted as an example of trauma. One does not forget the sight of dead bodies nor the sound of shots being fired at a mass of women and children. However, that is what happens to the protagonist. His personal trauma is the pain that comes from the realization that his mind has completely canceled out such a brutal memory, as if he was responsible for it, as if he was the man who pulled the trigger. Perhaps it is the weight of guilt and desperation brought on him by trauma that make him seek out the truth.
Perhaps it’s only for personal reasons. In fact, the filmmaker never raises his voice, he never manages to get as emotional as we would wish him to be. Ari Folman’s voice is monotonous, predictable and yet it transmits the feeling that this man has been through a lot. The same goes for the people he interviews. Six out of eight interviews present in the movie are authentic interviews conducted by the filmmaker himself prior to the making of this movie.
Some of the interviewees talk about war the way they talk about going for a beer in the evening. Their voices are flat and their descriptions become repetitive and oversimplified but it’s precisely that, that makes these interviews and the way they are displayed visually so powerful and gut-wrenching. The unscripted voices of these interviewees deepen the film’s message and turn simple animation into a document, a film essay where an invisible thesis is made and arguments are brought up by the people at the microphone.

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Animation has no limits.

The film opens like some kind of thunderous nightmare. A pack of dogs with shining teeth takes an entire city by surprise and creates chaos. The camera tracks the dogs as these strong, growling beasts make their way across streets, parks and squares, spreading panic and fear in the eyes of bystanders. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why these dogs are relevant, but we know one thing: it’s disturbing and unsettling.
This opening sequence turns out to be a nightmare dreamt by one of Folman’s old pals from the war and succeeds in transmitting to the audience the overall feel of the movie in a matter of two minutes. Dogs from hell and soldiers with machine guns – there is no palpable difference, says Folman. The soldiers with machine guns have no motivation to do what they do best but they still do it, just like those blood thirsty dogs that storm the city for no reason other than to cause chaos and destruction.

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Humanity unleashed.

In terms of visuals the movie is capable of conveying to the viewer where the present is and where the past takes over. Contemporary action unfolds with a much darker color palette, mainly using a contrast of black and orange  in order to create this neon-light effect that pulsates with a sense of nostalgia and regret. Most frames are occupied by one or two characters, reminiscent of documentary style filmmaking. Sometimes it’s just desolate landscapes, a silent night, filled with Max Richter’s moving classical score.

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When reality ends and dreams take over.

It is only when the movie shifts back to the past that the film assumes a different kind of spirit – a much more conventional one. The colors become  brighter and easier on the eye. There is a prominent use of light green and yellow; shadows are also used to present a very realistic depth of field. The storytelling is visual, helped by an omnipresent voice-over narration that shift from various perspectives depending on the interviewee.
If carefully analyzed, one can  come to the conclusion that this method of storytelling is the epitome of experiencing a traumatic event. In a sense, these shifting perspectives represent the human mind playing tricks on us. The story spins around on it itself but it never manages to find a firm safe point; every account that is being told is doubtful, ambiguous and unreliable. As I sat down and watched this movie I never felt sure of the next step – it always felt as if I was watching a number of different unrelated stories put together as a whole in order to fool me, in order to feed me something that at the end turns out to be something else. Folman’s trauma is unraveled step by step like a play constructed of different acts. His memory loss reflects an attitude of a man who fears himself, fears what he is capable of and what the people around him are capable of.

The world of Waltz with Bashir is populated by normal, everyday people who at times, depending on the situation, can turn into blood thirsty hounds, willing to kill an entire city just for the simple taste of blood. And I think that that is one of the most accurate depictions of trauma you’ll ever find on the silver screen.

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Nothing comes easy.

Brother and Sister

Some of the greatest heartbreakers and tearjerkers in film history belong to the animation genre. Animation, a genre that was always meant to be targeted at younger audiences, has now become another way of delivering very emotional and thematically powerful subject matters to the big screen. Once upon a time, Walt Disney developed the idea of telling certain stories such as fairy tales by drawing them on paper and editing them out in order for them to be more accessible to children. Soon enough, animation turned into this massive genre that is now one of the most successful ones at the box office. Movies like UpFinding NemoInside Out were all major hits critically acclaimed by audiences, critics and award shows. However, these movies wouldn’t have the same character and body if not for a genre like anime, the Japanese animation. And one of the best examples to demonstrate this is Grave of Fireflies.

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Believe me, I’ve never been a fan of anime. I appreciate the imagination, the effort and true professionalism that go with it but usually its themes are way too distant for me. Hayao Miyazaki, for example, is in my opinion one of the very best directors and artists of the late 20th century, early 21st. His movies, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are grand accomplishments but I’ve never been fond of the supernatural and the way it is used to tell a certain story. It just doesn’t hit me where it should. However, I found Isao Tahakata’s Grave of Fireflies (1988) to be exactly what I wanted to see in order to become a fan of the genre. Don’t think it’s kids’ stuff. It’s not, and it was never meant to be made for children. It is the story of a fourteen year old Japanese boy and his younger baby sister who try to survive on their own in the war torn Japan of 1945. In the very first scene Seita, the brother, speaks to us in a sombre tone: “I died on September 21st, 1945.” That’s not the way to start off a kids’ movie, huh? It’s a warning. It’s a warning for the viewer not to dismiss the movie’s emotional quality just because of the way it is depicted. It is more of a challenge. And indeed, this film is just as powerful as any live action feature, be it Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice or even Platoon. It is extremely relentless in the way it keeps sending punches towards us and showing no mercy for its characters. Seita and Setsuko are on their own. And they have to fight to get through each day.

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There is something in anime that you can’t find in other animation features such as those that are nowadays produced by Pixar or Disney. Anime lives and breathes because of symbolism, imagery and texture. An object like a glass bottle or a cough drops tin can aren’t just simple objects. There is always something standing right behind them, offering a much more emotional message than most of those typical Hollywood ending speeches where all the characters find inner peace, harmony and comfort. In anime everything is meaningful. A simple gust of wind can symbolize loneliness, yearning or sadness. A house on fire can express a character’s anger, frustration or troubled past (similarly to most Kurosawa movies). Tahakata, the director, wanted to make his characters look and feel miserable in order for audiences to understand them better. This objective could only be achieved  with the use of animation and animation had to posses soft colors and a delicate palette so  that the contrast between childhood and war would be more visible. Fire is soft red, almost orange. Water is light blue, almost transparent. Every storyboard is so expertly crafted that there is a contrast in almost every frame, be it a contrast of perspective, of size or character. It’s always there and it proves exactly my point: that this kind of animation has the ability of expressing itself much better than most movies nowadays. Today we go watch a movie in the theater and most of the time we have no idea what is going on until the very end of it and not because of its complex message or twist ending but because of how it is presented to us. Most directors nowadays cut their movies up in such fashion that a frame lasts a maximum of 2-3 seconds whether as Alfred Hitchcock’s frames lasted  a good 6-9 seconds. In Grave of Fireflies the message is chaotic, wrapped in a cloud of fire and riddled with bullets by the omnipresent war but there is still something very calm and peaceful about it. About the way it feels when we look at it and the way it expresses its warmth in a terrifying manner. There is no rush. No alarm bell ringing in the distance. It’s quiet. A relationship between a loving older brother and a younger sister never felt more real.

By the end of it, you’ll be drowning in tears asking yourself how is it possible to make something this tough with the simple use of a pen and paper.

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Everything is a matter of…
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… perspective

The Sad Story

After World War II, cinema changed forever. Audiences developed a different kind of sensibility, and suddenly the stories that were being told, usually touched upon very depressive themes rather than  melodramatic ones. European cinema, particularly Italian cinema, managed to completely change the way we react and perceive film as an art form. Italian Neorealism was meant to tell stories that no one dared to tell before. It followed characters who came from poverty and struggle. The camera acted as a reporter, it zoomed in and shined a light on the unseen and the unwanted. There was Roberto Rossellini with his War Trilogy (Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then there was Luchino Visconti with Obsession and La Terra Trema. These were movies that came straight up from the ground, from the dirt, the ashes. The protagonists of these movies were the common folk, the poor and lonely. And yet, for me Vittorio De Sica was the one who did it best. Bicycle Thieves, his most famous work and one that is often considered to be the best movie of all time, because of its influence and incredibly audacious vision, opened up a world of post war depression. A world of ruined buildings and unemployed workers. It was honest. His other masterpiece, perhaps his most depressive and heartbreaking one, Umberto D. manages to explore what De Sica left out of Bicycle Thieves.

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An entire nation protesting.

Umberto D. is a hard watch. We witness as the ground crumbles under an old man’s feet. The world, the city of Rome, the universe, are all quickly changing, and not for the better. Umberto is struggling to survive, eating off the rests of food, sleeping in a tiny room, selling anything of value that he possesses, begging his so called friends for just a dime. His only companion? A sweet, intelligent dog. As we witness a few days in Umberto’s life we start to realize that Umberto’s story is the story of a whole nation, a whole underground world that is still there. We don’t see it. But it’s there. Poverty, starvation, loneliness and death. Umberto wanders around the crowded streets of post war Rome, in search of something, someone.

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Honest men are hard to find.

De Sica, like a true reporter with the eye of an eagle, shines a light on the Italian nation. A nation of poor men and women, of rich and privileged selfish people, of homeless dogs and pregnant young girls. Who would have dared to make a movie like this at that time? Umberto is not just an individual. He’s only used as an example by the filmmaker to paint a tragic, depressive, grim image. The camera tortures us with the old man’s presence. It squeezes him, it works him over and doesn’t let go. Sometimes it almost feels like we’re supposed to be on the side of those who take advantage of Umberto and his beloved dog. We’re forced to watch. We’re forced to breathe and struggle alongside the poor old man. You don’t have to like it, says De Sica, but you must think about it. Because yes, the cinematic screen can be a prison sometimes. You feel compelled to watch the moving image, and yet you also want to get away, go for it and run. De Sica’s movie is like a prison cell. You can’t find the keys to unlock it. You become his prisoner.

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The dog, a vagabond creature, is Umberto’s only love. A dying breed.

Umberto, played as usual (in De Sica’s movies) by a non professional actor, is our unwanted hero. Carlo Battisti, the actor and protagonist, brings the raw credibility, the touch of dirt a movies like this desperately needs to deliver its heavy message. We get a taste of a real poor sob walking the streets of Rome in the late 1940s. He’s our hero. He’s our leader. Battisti with his looks, his powerlessness, his innocence and desperation in his eyes, delivers one of the great performances in the history of motion picture. When he begs for money, we sense the humiliation in his gestures. A man, who maybe once upon a time was some kind of an important figure, a hard worker and bread winner, now stands on the street with his hand stretched out and begs for money. He becomes one of the many bricks in a huge brick wall.

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Humiliation.

 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you deliver a punch to the gut. By directing and staging what people struggle to see on a daily basis. By delivering what most of us refuse to believe.

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Light and its Enemy

Today’s topic: Tarkovsky and his representation of life. We often watch movies and TV shows for the heck of it. We do it because we like to, we like action, we like plot, we like to have fun. It’s obvious. But rarely do we watch something just to really “watch it”. Analyzing films can be difficult, analyzing TV shows can be even more difficult, but sometimes it hits us. We find something in a certain image, a particular allegory that to some of us is unmissable. I mean to write about Andrei Tarkovsky’s influence on modern cinema, and when I’m finished I’d wish someone would watch an episode of True Detective, or any movie by Alejandro G. Iñárritu or Lars Von Trier and find out what I’m talking about because some discoveries can be quite illuminating.

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Innocent curiosity.

Tarkovsky, for those who don’t quite know who he was, is regarded as per Ingmar Bergman “the most important director of all time”. He was a man with a revolutionary mind and an eagle’s eye for detail. For every movie he wanted to do, he battled with USSR’s authorities over the production and distribution costs, often coming out on the losing side. His movies would often be released three to four years after the filming was completed, sometimes that would never happen. He was a man who found light in darkness. His first feature debut, Ivan’s Childhood, from 1962, will be subject of today’s post. The story of a young Russian boy going behind enemy lines during the Nazi invasion of Russia, is still considered as one of the best if not the best directing debut anyone has ever put out. But what’s so special about it? The use of light. That’s it. In his later films Tarkovsky would use light as a symbol for religion (Andrei Rublev), courage ( The Sacrifice) and art (Nostalghia), but here, Tarkovsky uses light as a symbol for life and the danger that comes with it. The setting? Snowy Russia, a bunker, a deep marsh, wilderness. Ivan has lost his whole family and he’s come a long way to fight for his motherland. He makes his way to a small bunker where he finds a warm bed and a hot bath. The bunker is dark except for where Ivan’s sitting. He’s a boy and a boy means life. Youth is life and in times of war, youth is the only reminder of a better past and maybe, just maybe, a better future.

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The light of a child.

Tarkovsky’s way of blocking his actors and staging a scene is a form of art itself – in the middle of the main room is a wooden table, on the table is a lit candle that gives light and warmth to anybody who comes close to it. In fact if we look close enough, the few soldiers who stand distant from the table, in the dark corners of the dark bunker are those who later on lose their life with a bullet to the heart. Ivan is hope. And so is the candle that burns. The scalding wax dripping down to the floor. Ivan’s blond hair shines, the only part of his body that is never dirty, a reminder of a child’s innocence. When Ivan turns around to find some comfort in a long needed sleep, the bunker goes dark. Silence. We open up on a forest made out of birch trees. It’s daytime. An officer roams around, putting together his thoughts and ideas. Suddenly a girl appears out of nowhere. She’s an officer as well. They circle around, trying to catch one another’s look. They find it. And in one of the greatest kiss scenes of all time, they, well– they kiss. But what does Tarkovsky do to make this scene stand out? He puts light up against its enemy. He pans the camera down to a trench hole, achieving a low angle, and showing us this way two different realities, that of blind love in a peaceful world, and that of blind love in a world shaken by war. It’s powerful imagery and the more one thinks about it, the more it becomes revolutionary in its approach to the subject matter.

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Tarkovsky’s artistry.

When bombs are dropped, everything goes silent. Everything dies. No one walks away. The only thing that stays is a cross. A cross that is penetrated by a ray of sunlight, that blows life into this quiet scene. It lifts our morale, it feeds us with hope. Is everyone dead? That could be our first question. But Tarkovsky aims higher. Is it worth being alive? That’s his question. We are constantly reminded that life is beautiful but living it comes always with a price. Only a small boy like Ivan could smile at times of war and bloodshed, and yet he doesn’t. That’s Tarkovsky’s reality. That’s his poetry and message. Whenever in doubt, look for a source of light, but watch out, you don’t want to burn yourself.

 

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Look closer.

 

 

Stanley’s Bastards

Today’s topic: the controversial Kubrick. Whenever you wonder about the great figures of cinema, there is always one name that keeps coming up in many different departments; from directing and writing credits, to sound and visual effects, to cinematography and camera work. The name is always the same: Stanley Kubrick. His contribution to film is immaculate, and as Scorsese himself has said it: ” One of his films… is equivalent to ten of somebody else’s. Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountain top. You look up and wonder, “How could anyone have climbed that high?”. He’s the mountain everyone aims for but no one can achieve. Is it the perfect structure and shot composition? Is it his great vision? Is it the movement on screen? Is it the pulsating cinematography and production design? Many have asked themselves these questions, and the answer will remain forever unknown. However, for me there’s always been something else that stood out in Kubrick’s pictures: the courage. It takes a lot of it to direct movies like Lolita, A Clockwork Orange or The Shining. In my opinion, every movie of his was too ahead of its time and most of them still are to this day. He often spoke out against our common beliefs, traditions, laws, and still managed to let this protest be beautiful and impactful. No matter what was on screen it was always somehow fascinating to watch like the violent rape scene in The Clockwork Orange or the obscene cult sequences in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s frames always speak to the viewer and most importantly; they make him feel. That’s why I think Kubrick has made an impact on how we view cinema: he introduced controversy.

It's no glory,glory, hallelujah.
It’s no glory, glory, hallelujah.

While analyzing this particular topic, I decided to pick one of the director’s most controversial and yet, lesser known films; Full Metal Jacket. Sure, it’s probably quoted in many  best war movies’ lists, but most people today don’t know what’s so special about it other than the perfectly depicted gore and violence. Kubrick introduced a new way of approaching documentary-like filmmaking by tackling the subject of the Vietnam War when the wound was still fresh. 1987, the Cold War is slowly coming to an end, and people can definitely feel it, not only in the US but all across the world. Change is coming, and hopefully for the better. However, Kubrick doesn’t like the idea of people getting on a high horse. Full Metal Jacket is a painful reminder of what happened when the world started to believe in fairy tales. It’s a warning. That’s why it looks so real, like a documentary, because Kubrick wants us to experience the useless pain and suffering of every soldier that goes fighting a no man’s war. There is no idealization, no glory in this film. There are no medals, no speeches. There is no honor. It comes to the point where a US Marine plays with the corpse of a dead Vietcong operative. He plays with the dead man’s hands, laughing. Laugh at the horror, says Kubrick. Cry later.

No man's land.
No man’s land.

It’s all about the way the director presents the material, that’s when the movie acquires a voice. Here, Kubrick chooses to use the television-box-like aspect ratio instead of the typical widescreen because this way he creates an atmosphere that creeps into every home, emphasizing the role of television in transmitting the images of the Vietnam War to the American public. It’s called portraying the truth rather than fiction. We don’t have main characters in this movie. Yes, we have some that stay with us until the very end, but we never focus on any of them. We focus on the whole concept of a military squad. We can’t tell who dies and who doesn’t. When a character is too “visible” for us, Kubrick eliminates him. From boot camp to the destroyed cement jungle of Hue City, we follow these guys until the very end, until the moment when even we, the viewers, can’t tell the difference between what’s right and wrong anymore. With Kubrick not even boot camp is a safe place. Like many documentaries filmed in the 1980s (Anybody’s Son Will Do), Kubrick’s opening scenes are first of all meant to show us the tough environment and the cold welcoming recruits usually get. But Kubrick takes it to a whole other level when he depicts the real damage boot camp can inflict on a recruit’s mental state; that of getting to the point where one of the many jarheads shoots the drill Sergeant and then proceeds to shoot himself right in front of his only friend (or enemy?). That scene was something out of the ordinary when first shown to audiences: aren’t boot caps supposed to make men out of hippie crazed teenagers? No, you’re all blind and deaf, says Kubrick. See evil. Hear evil.

You thought you could make a change? Forget about change.
You thought you could make a change? Forget about change.

Are there friendly faces among the Marines we follow? Kubrick writes the way he directs: straightforward, harsh but all wrapped up in a blanket of beauty. He says, stop believing in characters that don’t exist. The soldiers who came down with an objective, lost sight of it after a few days. Joker, who was supposed to be the squad’s reporter doesn’t care anymore if he takes the right photograph of a mass grave and the right description or not. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Violence creates violent people. Marines and other fellow soldiers become animals with no compassion, no empathy, no dreams, no feelings. They shoot for the fun of it. They fight ghosts in a ghost town, that of a post-bombing Hue City. They chase what can’t be chased. And ultimately they play out a battle against one single enemy – an entire squad of Marines against one sniper, hidden in one of the many abandoned buildings. What’s the twist? The sniper is a little girl. Now, the controversy (if not yet visible) is this: in movies like Sands of Iwo Jima  or Lawrence of Arabia we witnessed epic battles that always showed two equally strong sides fighting over a piece of land, usually a mountain, a forest, a hill, or even the desert. Here, an entire squad is shooting up a set of ruined buildings just to smoke out one small mouse: in this case, a twelve year old  holding a sniper rifle. And when finally, after many unnecessary casualties, the Marines manage to kill the girl, they walk over to her and stand, gazing at the child’s blood. They can’t feel anything. They’re animals gazing at their prey.

Lions scouting a rabbit.
Lions scouting a rabbit.

Maybe now, that we live in an era filled with extravaganza, obscenities and everything “going viral”, this may not seem like anything exceptionally controversial. But Kubrick was a master at defining each decade with one single film. And I’m sure that if he was still alive, he would sum up our present reality with a major eye-popper.

When Kubrick does it, it hurts. Beautifully.

By the end, it's all flames.
By the end, it’s all flames.