the freshness of being

The doggo at the end of the world.

I couldn’t stop watching it. Again.

Like, the film is two hours and forty fucking minutes long.

It’s also been a solid two years or so since the first time I saw it. And it’s not the same.

I thought it would feel slower. That I would be made to feel each agonising camera movement again and again.

But honestly: it felt speedy. It felt measured. It felt right.

Yesterday I watched Dave Grohl’s Sound City, and in that they get a bunch of musos to define ‘feel’.

Essentially ‘feel’ is that moment where everything else fades away, where it’s just you and the music, where everyone is just on the same wavelength.

I was feeling this film today. It was just me and the film. I was on its wavelength (I promise I’m not high, though can you imagine).

This time I thought about the doggo. This time I thought a lot about Annihilation (and I’m not the first).

I came in thinking eco-cinema, and once again that narrowness of vision was devastated.

What. A. Film.

Stoker (2013)

I’ve frequently maintained that the best films stay with you. I don’t mean ‘best’ in terms of quality, necessarily — though that helps — but the best films in terms of those that actually meaningfully contribute to what we call cinema. The best films keep projecting into our temporal lobes long after the credits have rolled; they haunt us, they taunt us, they call to us to watch again, to peel back the layers of their meaning, to look beneath their skin just as they have weaved their way under ours.

A few years ago I taught a course at the University of Sydney that examined the transition from celluloid to digital. It was a wonderful course, and inspired me in many ways for the studio teaching and research I’m currently undertaking. One of the films we watched was Park Chan-wook’s Night Fishing. What a weird little film. Shot entirely on an iPhone 4, the film combines night-vision, fishing, camping, mythology, ghost stories, grief — it’s a masterful little thing. It was perfect for that course, too, because it reiterated that it doesn’t matter what tool you use to create cinema; cinema can be created with anything.

I’d been meaning to catch more of Park’s work, particularly Oldboy and the Vengeance trilogy, but they remain on the Shelf of Shame. After seeing a screengrab from Stoker in a talk on Friday though, I was immediately inspired to get the bluray. This film deserves the highest quality, as it is stunningly beautiful. Also, with this kind of movie, you need your blacks to be really black.

Briefly, and trying not to spoil anything, Stoker is a bottled drama starring Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn, and Matthew Goode as India’s Uncle Charlie. India and Evelyn are recovering from the death of India’s father, Richard, as Uncle Charlie moves back into their lives after a long absence. Long story short, some stuff happens.

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The Hitchcockian overtones and influences are readily apparent — the Uncle Charlie/India relationship is pilfered from Shadow of a Doubt, and the tension that slowly builds throughout the film is reminiscent of [insert name of any Hitchcock film here]. But what’s neat about this film is how that tension is woven in with the beautiful imagery. Further, their are even hints of the mobile image (as in mobile phone) that I remember from Night Fishing. In one scene, India and Charlie are playing a duet on the piano. This is a weird moment for a lot of reasons, but the weirdness is reinforced by this tracking shot, about shin-height, that snakes its way between the furniture right up behind them. The tracking shot recalls The Shining, but the movement isn’t entirely smooth. Much like the visual composition of the rest of the film, this shot is not entirely stable. You wouldn’t say its unstable, but there’s definitely something not right. Take any shot of Uncle Charlie, for example. We’re never given the full picture, something is always in the way. It doesn’t hurt, too, that Goode’s performance oozes Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

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Stoker is one of those perfect examples of a film where everything congeals into one single vision. Camera, editing, music, performance, narrative all just happen; there’s really no separating them. There is no distinction to be made here between the analogue and the digital (for what it’s worth, it was shot on 35mm). This is a stream of information, a torrent of meaning, that brings the audience wholly into the narrative in an effortless way. This may not be a quality film (it is), but it certainly is one of the best.

Whiplash (2014)

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job'."
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job’.”

Richard Brody didn’t like Whiplash (2014).

That’s fine. Critics, of all people, are certainly entitled to their opinion. And Richard Brody is by no means an unqualified critic. What Brody’s done here, though, is fundamentally misunderstand the thrust of the film he’s critiquing. It’s a trap that a great many critics fall into: thinking the film is about one thing, when it’s actually about something else, or a bunch of other things.

‘The movie’s very idea of jazz,’ writes Brody, ‘is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.’ It certainly would be, if this was a film about jazz, rather than a jazz film.

What on earth is a jazz film? Damn fine question. The notion came to me in one of the earlier scenes in Damien Chazelle’s film. Miles Teller’s Andrew leaves the Conservatory, heading home after thinking he’s failed to make the cut for the concert band. Amid the standard cutting of Andrew walking the streets between his school and his home, random shots show street lamps, illuminated windows, signage, traffic. This isn’t a standard contextualising montage between scenes – these are random shots interspersed with the character-centric frames.

This random approach to cinematography and editing persists throughout the film – take the phenomenal final shots which obscure the subjects’ faces, and not the parts a cinematographer would normally mask.

So while perhaps Chazelle is not glorifying jazz, the learning of music, or education more broadly, he is certainly contributing a jazz sensibility to the craft of cinema.

Billy Crystal is quoted as saying ‘That’s the thing about jazz; it’s free-flowing, it comes from your soul.’ This idea works for Whiplash: not only is the flow of images free, but they all feel as though they came from some deep place.

This is particularly appropriate given that this is not a film about music, or education, or history, or culture. This is a film about the systematic manipulation and mangled reconstruction of one soul by another.

Whiplash is a staggering film, that I’ll struggle to get over. It’s a stellar character piece, and I feel that the claustrophobic intimacy of its dark story will haunt cinema for some years to come.

Michel Chion on film analysis

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“The right way to work on a film – to avoid too closed an interpretation – seems to me to be to watch it several times with no precise intentions… As in a police enquiry, one should not set up any hierarchies or look in any particular direction. One should not banish emotions and projections, but rather bring them to light, formulate and be aware of them, let them float.

“A film is a system, not of meanings, but of signifiers. We must go in search of these signifiers … and we can do this only by means of a non-intentional method; for in cinema, that art that fixes rhythms, substances, forms, figures and all kinds of other things onto a single support, the signifier can sit anywhere.”

Chion, M. (2013). Eyes Wide Shut. London: British Film Institute, pp. 37-8.