A Way of Life (2004)

One of the trickiest things to manage in cinema is making unlikable characters sympathetic. A Way of Life, the debut film from Belle director Amma Asante, is centered on Leigh (Stephanie James), a young mother reliant on government support and her brother’s gang of petty criminals. She is very abrasive (it was hard for me to avoid thinking of Andrea Arnold and the prickly Mia from Fish Tank, though as a young mother she is more like the lead from Wasp), and it is especially hard to watch the racism spewed by her and those around her. Yet, even if she isn’t a superstar mother, her love for her daughter ultimately does connect you to the character. All these other things, her lashing out, opens up as kind of a primal maternal reaction to both real and perceived threats to her ability to be mother.

There is a pointed comment here. Even in a more robust welfare state in the UK, we see how society is kind of failing Leigh as a mother, never really giving her enough to thrive. Instead, it gives just enough that society feels it can blame her for not being good enough. There are obviously situations where society needs to step in on the behalf of a child, but this cautions us against rush to judgment. While I think it is a bit less successful overall, the film’s handling of racism does at least remind us of the way that economic uncertainty, rather than uniting the underclasses, can often cause tensions, especially surrounding race (or, especially in the US, matters of religiosity). There is a gut punch moment in the film that kind of speaks to similarities in experience, blinded by racial animus.

As a piece of filmmaking, this is rougher, and more inconsistent than the precision Asante would demonstrate with Belle (or that Arnold has done with gritty realism) but it is ultimately a strong, compelling work. With two such films under her belt, Asante is definitely a director to watch going forward.


Olympia (1938)

First, apologies for my disappearance. I’ve been reviewing films but just not getting them posted…I’ll try to get caught up.

Part 1:

I’m pretty sure the internet has ruined the Olympics. Watching this two hour summary broadcast of the 1936 Olympics it is kind of surprising how much is packed in, but yet with how much detail. Yes, theoretically a lot of non-competitors are cut out and yes, sometimes the events are sliced up enough that you don’t retain a great handle on what is going on (though part of the blame for this is the lack of fancy graphic technology). But the thing that has ruined the Olympics is how accessible results are. Even though this particular Olympiad is almost 80 years old, I didn’t know the outcomes so often the events were actually pretty gripping in how they were presented. Admittedly this production only captures the classical track and field events, not the mass of additional sports that have been added to the tally, but there is something nice about having everything in a tight package. Modern Olympiads are scattered to the wind of a dozen cable channels at all hours of the day. Even if you try to watch the more cultivated tape-delayed prime-time displays it is a painful slog of commercials and puff pieces. Riefenstahl cuts to the heart of the matter and it is surprisingly satisfactory…if you combined that efficiency with modern graphics and a touch more space for context or coherence and it would be a much more satisfactory way to get back to that natural element of sport, especially national competition, that makes the Olympics such an alluring concept every two years (until the aforementioned spoiling, commercials and excess ruins it).

But this is a film, not a sports broadcast. In this respect it has two primary attributes, both tied to its placement within Nazi Germany. For example, the opening ceremony’s entry of countries, typically so dreadful starts to feel pretty creepy, not just when the overtly fascist countries walk by with full Nazi salute, but even the other countries. There’s just something about a military-style parade that gives me an odd feeling. Probably my favorite thing in this part is watching Hitler watch, and react, to the Games. The behavior is common enough, excitement at victory for his country, disappointment with defeat, but everything is different when you’re Hitler.

Ultimately more substantial is the place of race. Certain overt, and frankly unnecessary to anyone with eyes, callouts of race in the commentary definitely place it in a different time or culture, but the film itself is quite honest in showing how much Jesse Owens and the other black athletes kicked butt. Released two years after the Olympics, I suppose Germans had gotten over the performance at that part, but there is a surprising honesty about it. Instead of showcasing a master race, it perhaps unintentionally helps mark a symbolic turning point, a loss of dominance coming from a breaking of the controls that allowed white people to paint themselves as superior. Still, moving back into the film’s unintentional humor, perhaps the best moment on race is after Owens sets a World Record in the 100 meter dash only for it to be discounted because he had a wind at his back. Typical of the white man to come up with a bullshit excuse to deny recognizing the achievements of a minority (though Owens did get the gold if not the record).

Part II:

If any part of this film (or films, if one insists) that could perhaps be claimed as tilting toward propaganda in promotion of the aryan race, it is the opening of this film and its female gaze appreciation of a pristine assemblage of sporting men, having completed running, in a state of undress. This also is one of only a few places in this part that really feels like it justifies separation and a title indicating a focus on beauty. For the bulk of this second part, it feels like more of the same, though now with those sports that mostly fall outside the track and field context. A few of them, like gymnastics and diving are perhaps more aesthetic competitions but ultimately I feel like the divide is minimal. There does seem to be a more abstract approach to the coverage of many of the events so as sports broadcast it is less effective.

The tricky thing about the artistry of Olympia is that it is hard to appreciate revolutionary technique decades later when the revolutionary has been adopted as the mundane. With a lot of research I could get an exact sense of what is revolutionary about it, but I wouldn’t really feel it. There were more moments in this part that were bold enough to break through this and stand out and ultimately I can see why someone with a more scholarly and technical approach to cinema would value this film particularly highly. But in terms of the narratives of the games that stood out in the first part, this one seemed a lot less interesting and it started feeling a bit long in the tooth. I certainly don’t see much in the film (in this version, apparently early versions in Germany did cut a lot of the Owens stuff) to feel the need to write it off as technical craft in service of something terrible, like Birth of a Nation or, apparently, Triumph of the Will. On the whole I’d say a decent time was had, even though I wouldn’t see myself revisiting it or claiming it as a favorite.

Viridiana (1961)

This is a challenging film, and I can’t claim a partiality for being challenged, preferring to feel inspired by articulate clarity. Still, whereas Under The Skin is a film that provoked too little (I do think that is a film I’ll have to go back to), Viridiana provoked quite a bit, but the pieces don’t go together snugly.

The first half, where Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) visits her uncle and benefactor Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), seems like a pretty clear condemnation of the Catholic Church and probably Franco Spain’s patriarchy. When Viridiana subsequently takes up the mission of direct service to those in need, it seems to be an act castigating organized Christianity for its failure to remain committed to the true purpose. This is all very interesting but the turn taken in the second half leaves me unsettled, both in interpretation and in part because the second half gets a bit anarchic and disrupts my desire for order. Is this chaos a warning of what would happen if Franco were to lose power? This kind of pro-authoritarian statement hardly seems the kind that Bunuel would make. Alternatively, maybe it is casting further doubt on the entire notion of self-sacrifice or even charity. An ending that hints at the sexual revolution of the late 60s and perhaps a rise of hedonistic approaches may well confirm this. It makes for a coherent through-line, though a somewhat depressing one that makes me feel less engaged.

As a film to spark discussion (and I hope we get a couple people watching this month such that we might get a spoiler thread going) it is quite well enough. It does feel a bit like a film where the discussion is more rewarding than the actual film. Even as I was intrigued by the ideas I wasn’t actually that invested in the story or the characters and didn’t feel in awe of the filmmaking in any notable way. This fits into a type of viewing of which I’m certainly appreciative, but not something that would lodge the film among those I champion myself.


It Felt Like Love (2013)

There is nothing more lonely than being the third wheel (or relevant odd number to a group of couples). Even if you aren’t otherwise love hungry, just being surrounded by their little romantic gestures is enough to throw one’s mood out of whack. Add to that the pressure of adolescence, with its keen need to fit into an identity, and the feeling that others are going places you aren’t makes it that much more isolating. Let’s just say that this isn’t the most rational state of mind and for LIla (Gina Piersanti), it leads to pursuits that aren’t exactly the most healthy or nurturing.

This is a decidedly small film but it is well measured. I liked one set of scenes involving Lila and her friend Chiara’s dance practice. Even here Lila seems slightly out of place amid three other girls who seem older and just have a more sensuous movement. It matches a bit with her attempts at sexuality…her approach is based on imitation rather than any passion (even the naive, idealistic passion of youth). This is just one of many nice moments and Piersanti is strong here in the kind of performance Carey Mulligan (to whom I feel she bears a bit of a resemblance) might give…bordering on too understated, though in a way that didn’t irk me as Mulligan has from time to time..


Big Night (1996)

This movie is a real bastard. All this time building up this grand multi-course meal, and you don’t even get to try it. This stuff isn’t even on the menu at Olive Garden. Instead, it tempts you with something you have no real possibility of attaining. It is anti-Buddhism. I have a pretty successful history with food-centric film, from Babette’s Feast to Supermarket Woman. Narrative that makes my mouth water seems to appeal, even if Still Walking’s sweet corn tempura is served at no Japanese restaurants I’ve been to, and my own version falls impossibly short of what I imagine the dish’s potential to be.

The strength of Big Night is in its beginning and end, with the middle largely serving the purpose of bridging the two. The opening, of which I could have taken so much more, takes a shot at American tastes, intellectually craving foreign or exotic, but not prepared for deviations from a fairly basic standard. This is all great fun, except the restaurant run by Secondo (Stanley Tucci) and Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is on its last legs because they haven’t been willing to pander to the market. It suggests the great debate over arthouse versus blockbuster cinema or any other cultural concern about crass market forces against aesthetic rigor.

Through a bunch of plot that isn’t that important, they get set for a all or nothing night and they pull out all the stops. The final act is another I could have spent more time with, luxuriating on each and every course. As it is, the film engages in a couple but then turns to montage in order to get to a resolution, a final scene that is pretty much perfect following any big night…shared silence over some nice, quick grub; a mutual exhaustion.

Pity that middle bit.


Blue Ruin (2013)

Context is king. Most filmmakers inherently understand that what we know of characters and events will influence our interaction with a film. A piece of knowledge might change a thematic interpretation or it might influence our empathy for a given choice. Many find withholding context until the very end is a good tactic to force dramatic reevaluation. The under-appreciated risk here is that without that context, sometimes decisions seem poorly founded or take on more problematic ethical tones that shape one’s sentiments toward a film that late reversals cannot change.

In Blue Ruin, we learn early on that Dwight (Macon Blair) has lost people and the one responsible is being released from jail, though it is over 20 minutes before it is made clear exactly who was killed, and a full hour before the circumstances of that act are revealed. The curious thing about the way the film withholds this information is it doesn’t use it as startling revelation (though there is a different piece of information that qualifies). And so it does occasionally strain one’s patience, seeing certain responses and wanting to know why extralegal approaches are seen as necessary on both sides of this feud.

I feel like some of this trend for withholding context is an artistic response to the critical concept that exposition is bad. To directly explain any knowledge is inartful and it isn’t enough to simply find natural ways to say things, but to hold that stuff back until later. It is kind of a tragic sense because one of the film’s most powerful scenes is the reunion between Dwight and his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), one of the few scenes in the film that truly reveals some of the facts of the matter. It is this scene that overcame my initial concerns and largely bought me into the action.

I have to confess to being a hard sell on revenge tales. Especially in Korea, where they predominate, there tends to be a strong cynicism involved, a single mindedness about the task. Blue Ruin succeeds in this genre by making those involved fallible, and at least somewhat hindered by doubt. This makes the tragedy of the genre have more impact than mindless obsession. As either pure revenge film, or twist on the family feud, the ending proves potent, pulling down some of the artifice we use to divide ourselves. Ultimately these moments of craft overcame any annoyance about withheld information.


The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

On my first viewing of The Day The Earth Stood Still, it seemed pretty straight forward as a pacifist parable. A benevolent visitor arrives to scold humanity for its violent ways. There is definitely still a lot of enjoyment to be had watching Klaatu observe and interact with humans, pretending to be one. And with recent events, it certainly begs the question whether humanity deserves to exist (though one should note that warfare has decreased strongly globally).

In this rewatch, I actually saw a more peculiar interpretation, that of Klaatu’s people not simply as aliens with a lesson to humans, but as Westerners to the rest of the world. This interpretation gains some strength in that ultimately Klaatu threatens extinction if peace fails, exerting great power. While from a realist perspective, it makes sense for other civilizations in the universe to set a policy that prevents warring peoples from developing space travel to go along with it. On the other hand, extermination as a cure for violence doesn’t make a lot of sense from a moral standpoint, much like executing murderers. It seems a bit excessive, like using an improvised flame-thrower to kill a spider.

Given the tone of the film, if you do buy that the film is talking about Western powers vis a vis rising powers, it is a film that favors these Western powers. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It strikes me as the kind of two-tiered international law that lets the likes of the US have nuclear weapons, but considers it possible grounds for war if another country tries to develop such weapons. It strikes me as extremely hypocritical, and rather problematic, to approach developing countries in this way, no matter how unstable they are. The downside of this new interpretation is that it is one I don’t agree with like the more basic original one.


Bonus content based on questions asked in response to this review:

Also what do you think of the religious interpretation? That Klaatu is a Christ figure and that the alien powers he threatens with is judgment day?

A lot of atheists I know would find the idea of Christ coming to Earth and saying “I want to talk to your scientists” in order to save the world from apocalypse fairly humorous and ironic. That scientist was apparently a highly regarded profession in the 50s, that would have massive social sway, makes me a bit sad for the present that this feels super far from the case. Expert is a dirty word now. But I’m perfectly comfortable with that interpretation, it just isn’t one that I tend to as a non-theist.

Morally, however, isn’t it the same, whether it is a pacifist alien race who threatens extinction or a Western power? Isn’t the problem inherent in the film?

You are right though, there is no moral difference whether one views it in its textual sci-fi context or convert it to a purely earthly metaphor. The only real difference is as aliens it is easier to imply a sense of omnipotence (which flows into the religious interpretation), especially as they outsource the actual destruction to impartial robots (though that is a laugh, a robot is only as impartial as the programmer). If you think of it as Western powers versus the developing world, it becomes a purely human affair, with all the corruptions of humanity and one sees it as a much less benevolent power.


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