Room 237

August 9, 2012

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining carried a tagline: The Wave of Terror That Swept Across America. Interrogating just what that wave of terror might be, Room 237 consists of a series of off-camera interviews offering a number of focused readings of Kubrick’s film. Unfortunately, Room 237 is unkind to its contributors in its clumsy assemblage and presentation of their ideas.

The disembodied voices whose observations are told are never seen, leaving the viewer with no association for the words that spring forth. But worse than that, there is no presentation – not even a quick title onscreen – as to who these voices belong to at all. No names or credentials are ever given which further undermines and betrays their readings by asking the viewer to take a huge leap of faith and trust the opinions given, irregardless of their origins.

There is also little innovation in the visual style with many of the clips from The Shining, and indeed other Kubrick films, shown ad nauseum when one clear example from the text ought to suffice in illustrating the point. Coupled with the fact that the quality of the footage itself is visually poor, makes it difficult to become immersed in the analysis. Interesting and provocative readings aside, Room 237 is like a first year film student attempting to give a third year lecture. Messy.

Room 237 screens as a part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival with further sessions on Friday August 17th at 9pm and on Sunday August 19th at 11am. 

In a time where everything appears to have a price tag, writer/director Tom Dicillo’s statement rings true; “The Doors, they never sold out. It was deeply inspirational to be reminded that not everything is for sale.” More than just a documentary about the formation of an iconic band, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (2009), is about that historical, social and political synthesis that occurs when music engages with and permeates its temporal context.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the music itself stands strong “against time” (so to speak), it is also true that The Doors are a band, and that their music is an output, that captures something significant of its own time. Perhaps the very reason it resonates still today is that what it captured was a transient and hopeful moment never fully realised; its relevancy today, therefore, permeating and immovable.

Refreshingly for a documentary about so famous a group as The Doors, Dicillo doesn’t go down the tired and frankly rather fruitless line of “talking heads” and instead uses fine filmmaking craft to find the most piercing way to start a story: “The sixties began with a shot.” Tracing from here the events and awakenings of the time, Dicillo moves from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the Civil Rights Movement and up to the Vietnam War. Commenting upon whilst chartering these significant events, When You’re Strange is as much about historically significant values and moments of cultural change as it is the band. Dicillo doesn’t just pose history as a backdrop for their advent to fame but rather as the symbiotic, organic relationship that evolved between the two; “The establishment exists but a genuine counter-culture is growing.”

Making full use of remarkable stock footage of the band playing gigs as well of their fans and contemporaries, When You’re Strange is told simultaneously through voice-over narration and musical progression. A surprisingly rare feat for a music documentary, When You’re Strange actually considers the quality and aspects of their music and why that was not only unique but how it engaged and informed their displays of revelry and the carnivalesque in relation to the emerging counter-culture of the time. There is of course a tendency towards focus on Jim Morrison above other members of the band, but at no time does the film ignore the other three members; John Densmore, Robby Krieger,  Ray Manzarek; in preference of the notorious front man, always ensuring the focus is in relation to his effect on the group as a whole.

Contemplating violence as an American tradition and with the advent of Richard Nixon to the presidency, the film culminates in an extraordinarily moving montage set to “Riders on the Storm”. Contrasting war footage and an all-American child on the home front swinging like a monkey set perfectly to the lyric “let your children play”, When You’re Strange highlights how mimicry can lead to devastation. Revealing how political unrest ebbs and flows between counter-culture and conservatism just as artistic expression moves between its own motivating forces, When You’re Strange is never over dramatised or condescending to its audience and allows the incredible imagery and music of its subject to do so much of “the talking”. That said, the film is still scripted and operates as an “informative” documentary in the first instance, the dulcet tones of Johnny Depp narrating and guiding the experience. A fantastic documentary that reveals compelling subject matter, this is certainly one to make time for.

When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors is screening exclusively as part of an ACMI’s long-play season from December 27 2010 to January 3 2011 and is distributed through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

The King’s Speech

December 25, 2010

A film funded by the now no-more UKFC, The King’s Speech (2010) is a carefully crafted, understated telling of a story that brings humanism and empathy to the seemingly impenetrable and socially unconcerned royal elite. Without actually focusing on the problems of a life led from good breeding, The King’s Speech manages, through its key relationship between about to be King George VI (Colin Firth) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to touch upon the inescapable problems that beset those born of divine right.

Grey, cold and misty, the film successfully creates a visual environment that mirrors the isolated, unfulfilled emotions of its lead. Unable to conquer his own subconscious blocks and break free from his debilitating speech impediments, King George is about ready to give up and, with the advent of his elder brother to the throne, hope for a life free from public speaking. Despite his lack of ambition and overcompensating inhibitions, wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), is far from ready to give up and has found an unconventional Australian man who thinks he can cure the future King.

Demonstrating blatant disregard for formal etiquette, calling the future King by his familiar name “Bertie” and refusing to do not only as is advised, but often as he is told, Lionel speaks audaciously but honestly, “I need total equality”, to which Bertie quite frankly replies, “If we were equal, I wouldn’t be here.” Reinforcing the formal structures the monarchy is built upon, we further learn the royals do not even consider themselves a “family” in the traditional sense most of us might understand the term; “we’re not a family, we’re a firm.”

With his brother renouncing the throne due to scandal in his personal life and in accordance with George’s increasing confidence, the film works towards not only the proverbial “King’s speech”, but the events that follow as war breaks out first across Europe and then the world. The tension in this respect builds brilliantly and culminates in an incredibly moving final sequence not because of the difficulty the King has in making the speech but because of the weight of his words and the known atrocity of what will follow.

Brilliantly paced throughout and leaving its viewer with no uncertain understanding of the prescribed order of things, The King’s Speech is an achievement in subtlety and communicable affect. Ironically and wonderfully the film indicates how those in positions of power can’t ever be considered our equals as they must, in the very least, appear stoic and strong for the social classes they appear to deny. When such inhumane horror strikes a nation, there must be someone to look to for strength and guidance, irregardless of their being a construct of ideology and semiotics. Engaging viewing with brilliant performances across the board.

The King’s Speech is released in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day, Sunday December 26 through Paramount Pictures.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Agora

November 17, 2010

Not exactly your standard historical epic, Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora (2009) is about as ambitious as it is messy in its exploration of grand thematics; ethics, science, religion. Examining the interplay between the three philosophical minefields, Agora offers a higher quality of questioning than many of its peers in recent years (Alexander, Troy, 2004) and yet never really comes to any fantastic conclusions either. At best it argues that the philosophy of science is a far worthier pursuit than the philosophy of any “modern” religion and shows how in blindly favouring the latter humans have made for themselves a world full of inequality based on a strangely unshakable blind faith rather than a clear and sound ethical reasoning.

Our protagonist is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale) and a woman who has no interest at all in taking up romantic relations with any potential suitor. Instead, Hypatia is interested only in the natural philosophy of the universe and teaching its endless wonders to the prefects of Alexandria. Refusing the advances of one most forward student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and later her own slave boy Davus (Max Minghella) as he turns against her in a violent uprising against Roman paganism, Hypatia quietly toils away in her quest to answer the true mathematical workings of the solar system.

Heavy on the cyclical motif and with religious uprising operating much like a solar or lunar eclipse, Agora explores Hypatia’s (for the time) radical ideas and arguments with pleasing reflection upon contextual political events. The positing of religious groups against one another weaves in a little contemporary conflict in its characterisation of the “bad” Christians who just so happen to look as though they are of Arabic descent. Further to this, and just in case you weren’t sure who to side with, the groups are conveniently draped in colour-coded robes; Pagans in cream, taupe and beige; Christians in grey and black, Jews in a mixture of colours that sit somewhere in between the two, and often err on the blue side of the colour spectrum. Not quite the black / white binary opposites one might expect from an historical epic, there is certainly a fair shade of grey to show that religion and the philosophy of science aren’t necessarily entirely distinct: both start with sacred literature and (in theory) persist with the pursuit of knowledge. The fundamental difference of course being that where natural philosophy is open to anyone (even Davus is allowed to speculate on its theoretical validity) religion is not (specifically here for women).

Hypatia, whose vast works have been lost to history, was persecuted because of her gender in the greatest display of relational power against an individual who has been quite literally and figuratively stripped of her own. The difference, so perfectly demonstrated right at the beginning of the film, is that Hypatia is only ever concerned with ethical encounters; guided by scientific truth rather than theoretical faith. After Theon whips her slave boy Davus for admitting to being “of the Christian faith”, Hypatia, despite her pagan ways, tends to his wounds much like Mary, sister of Lazarus did Jesus in the bible.

The film’s execution of such broad thematic concerns is relatively simplistic and though it feels somewhat clumsily edited at times (there is a terribly distracting intermittent zoom in and out of planet Earth that is strangely jarring amidst an otherwise seamless visual narrative), the performances, attention to detail and mise-en-scene are all exemplary. Perhaps it is the disjointed focus that affords the film with so undefinable an atmosphere and subsequently lets down what would otherwise be a very engaging work. These points notwithstanding, Agora is an enjoyable enough example of historical mythology and its failing to answer so many of the questions it raises is actually a strength rather than a weakness.

Agora is released in Australian cinemas Thursday November 18 through Transmission Films.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Hahaha

July 28, 2010

Not since Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962) have I seen still images used to so poignantly illustrate a truly Barthean understanding of photography (see Camera Lucida). Hong Sang-Soo’s Hahaha (2010) homages Marker and acknowledges Barthes and, in doing so, states from the outset that the content of the film will reflect a critical comprehension of the persistence of history as it pertains to the individual and the construct of their “memory”.

Mun-Kyeong and Jung-Sik are old friends who meet up after not having seen each other for a considerable period of time. Taking turns to tell “their” stories, they relay tales of women and events that have recently shaped and affected their respective lives; a rich tapestry of an image building, slowly revealing a greater overarching narrative.

Highly self-conscious, the film constantly makes reference to history and historical comprehension; the way in which an image is afforded with qualities according to its viewer’s contextual understanding; how “history is full of fabrications”; how mythology and folklore are born with words that “spread like wildfire”; the impossibility of ever really seeing things “as they truly are”, and so on.

But for all its worthy rhetoric, Hahaha isn’t a strictly cerebral film. In fact, it best suits the generic and entertainment label of “comedy” in the first instance. Well developed characters performed by some very clearly talented comedy actors in accordance with an incredibly witty script make this a genuinely funny, laugh out loud film. As enjoyable as it is intelligent, Hahaha is a sure festival highlight.

Hahaha screens as a part of this year’s MIFF and will be screening again on Saturday August 07 2010, 2.30pm in Greater Union Cinema 3.