Some thoughts on Eminem and Revival

It’s hard to explain Eminem’s appeal to someone who didn’t witness or experience the Detroit rapper’s golden days, that famed run between 1996 and 2000 that landed him in the pantheon of hip-hop and made him a contender for the title of greatest emcee to ever grace the mic. To the outside observer, Eminem has always represented one thing and one thing only – shockingly offensive music. This impression only solidified itself further as his capability to produce meaningful (or at least funny) songs deteriorated and gave way to even more desperate attempts at forcing the listener to pause the song in a fit of pearl-clutching horror. As the memory of Slim Shady’s glory days began to fade, his discography became more ridiculous by the album, all of a sudden songs like Fack and Superman began popping up at an alarming rate, to the point where they became the rule rather than the exception in 2009’s Relapse. It was at that point that even the most dedicated Stans began questioning the value of Eminem’s work. Marshall Mathers was becoming the butt of the joke, and by the time he realized he was in the midst of a rather violent fall from grace, he was already back at the foot of the mountain he’d climbed just years prior.

Skipping a few other middling releases, we find ourselves in the current year. Revival is Eminem’s newest project, coming on the tail end of a 4-year long hiatus. The response has been, well, not exactly encouraging, to say the least. Instead of finally listening to his fans and going back to the earlier style of hip-hop that made him popular, Eminem doubled down on the glossy, pop-inspired rap music that sounds painfully pedestrian and is all too familiar for anyone who’s ever found themselves within the vicinity of a radio station at least once over the past few years. The man who once prided himself on sticking out like a sore thumb and regularly went after the hottest pop stars of his time for being vapid and boring released an album featuring the likes of Ed Sheeran and Beyonce, with a lone rapper feature floating in the sea of generic, wishy-washy female singers like Kehlani and Skylar Grey. Eminem’s own delivery sounds as robotic as ever, the choppy flow that he’s come to be known for is on display in 15 of the 19 tracks, and to their detriment, I might add. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the majority of this album, it’s Eminem at his most inoffensive and uninteresting. He continues to backtrack and disown the words and actions of his previous self, while becoming ever more stale and blandly centrist with each pathetic attempt at attacking Trump or his supporters. But I digress – the intent of this essay isn’t to review Revival and pick it apart lyrically or sonically. I’m more concerned with the metamorphosis of Marshall Mathers and how it has affected his music.

There is, in my mind, something very profound about the anger and aggression of Eminem’s most significant and noteworthy alter ego, Slim Shady. As an angsty teenager, I always found it refreshing to hear what felt like my own thoughts blasting through the speakers, to in a way experience my most perverted, hormone-fueled fantasies in a safe environment. There was something liberating about hearing Shady going off, to see him waving his middle finger up at the sky and laugh at the ridiculousness of the world we inhabit. See, it never felt like Slim was doing what he was doing because he was mad at anyone in particular or even because he was pissed off by this event or that one; it seemed like whatever he felt, he felt towards the world at large. His seething rage was directed at existence itself, almost like a form of coping with an all-encompassing sense of nihilism that never truly let him enjoy himself. There never were any moral boundaries or rules that could stop him or make him censor his thoughts, not even his mother was safe from his bitingly cynical sense of humor. Slim Shady was a force of human nature, the voice of resentment and lower-class desperation but with an incredibly aggressive twist. It was liberating to see someone who grew up as poor and disadvantaged as Marshall break free of the oppressive reality of poverty and speak to his listeners in a very personal and intimate way without even being particularly serious about it most of the time. Sure, tracks like Rock Bottom were incredibly emotional because they showed the depressing inner workings of the man behind the mask and captured the reality that we all know in a very gritty and grimy way, but most of the time the feeling of ‘getting’ Eminem was just that, a feeling that didn’t need to be stated explicitly; it was this subconscious process of connecting not with the man but with the experience.

But Shady is very much dead now, as is the spirit that he captured. The world has moved on, and the weird transitional period of the late 90s and early 00s cannot be replicated today. The rage and frustration are still there, possibly more so than ever, but the desire for them to be manifested and acted upon is not. Eminem’s reach could never be compared to that of the internet, today websites like 4chan and reddit allow for every angsty-ridden individual to vent without having to experience the repercussions of their diatribes and actions, filling that very same niche of a ‘safe space’ for passive aggression that Shady once did. Slim Shady is dead and we have killed him might be an apt way of putting it.

And finally, what of Marshall Mathers, the shell of a once-great artist? Sadly, he himself seems unsure as to the direction he wishes to go in. His music and persona are an oddly melancholic remnant of a bygone era. The closest I can get to describing the feeling I get when thinking about Em’s career in context is through a personal anecdote; after finishing The Witcher 3, a game that is very close to my heart and is one of the greatest fictional experiences that I have ever had the pleasure to go through, I decided to take one last tour of the game world, to visit my favorite spots and possibly relive some of the moments that excited me the most throughout my playthrough. But nothing I saw felt the same as it did while I was going through the quests, the world felt hollow, stuck in time. My companions, the characters that I’d met and had come to know and appreciate, were gone, and so was the sense of purpose and urgency that had driven me during my adventure. For all intents and purpose, everything was mostly as it had been before the end of the game, but something felt off. It was as if I was out of place in a world that had seen all that could be seen, a world that had reached its prime and was now forever stationary and unchanging, a painting of the calm after the storm.

On alienation.

What is freedom in the context of modern life? Is it the ability to switch jobs at will? To sell your house and move to a new area at the drop of a hat, consequences and implications be damned? Are we free because we get to stay at home for a few hours before and after work every day, because we’ve got a couple of days at the end of the week to go out with friends and get drunk at the local bar? Is freedom that feeling you get while listening to your favorite song on an off day, completely aware of the fact that you’ve got all the time in the world, at least for the time being, at least for this insignificant blip in your otherwise busy work life? It could be any of those, at least at a glance. After all, the overwhelming opinion on the matter in the mainstream seems to be that happiness (bear in mind that this is a state of being that I do, and henceforth will, associate directly with the concept of individual liberty or freedom) is finding the good in life, no matter what is going on on the macroscopic scale because, well hell, there’s just too much bad in this world for each and every one of us to concern ourselves with it all the time. This line of thinking, as well as other, rather similar ones that all boil down to “close your eyes and try to think happy thoughts”, is indicative of a sentiment that is becoming increasingly predominant throughout the West, the idea of every man for himself in the existential sense. It’s as if, due to the blurring of the lines between the good life and the boring, predictable life, we’ve collectively chosen to begin retreating into a land of fairy tales and empty platitudes that hide us from the truth.

That truth is that our existence is a vapid and unfulfilling one. That we’ve surrendered our place in the world, our obligation to bear responsibility for every step we take and every decision we make, in the name of relative material and physical comfort in the short term. Man has succumbed to social alienation and freed himself from the condemnation of freedom.

We’ve become divorced from our surroundings, from the world that we were brought into. The individual now wanders the limits of a personal walled garden that separates him from the outside. What influence can you and I have on the place we live in? We inhabit sterile cities, monolithic anthills that might as well have been planned and designed by an alien civilization with no direct means of contacting our own race. Rows of different-yet-familiar condos line the horizon, inhabited by strangers that come and go as they see fit, some of them just aware enough of each other’s presence to drop a “Hi!” or “Have a great day!” in passing – a momentary crack in the wall that separates us from anything resembling a true community, a thin ray of sunlight that breaks through the thick grey clouds before being blocked once more.

Each passing day brings more of the same yet each passing minute in the office brings us no closer to the prophesied sense of fulfillment and maturity that we hear about all through our formative years. Charlie Chaplin, during his fiery speech in The Great Dictator, claimed that we are not “machine men, with machine lives”, yet isn’t that, in essence, what our lives boil down to? Divorced from the product of our labor (if indeed such a product even exists, considering the pointless, cyclic nature of the majority of jobs today), divorced from the effects said product has on the consumer, on the human being that is putting the creation to use, divorced from the decision-making process at every level in our professional lives, perpetually beholden to sycophantic underlings of higher-ups that are, in turn, slaves to the whims of even more important bosses, of owners and share-holders that demand the utmost efficiency and automaton-like obedience. It’s this insane march of profit-driven progress that has left us, the ordinary people, the Joes that work 9-5 with little ambition and even less objective reason to hope for a way out of this stale and monotonous state of being, lagging behind and wondering if playing catch up is even worth it at all. But none of us are willing to make an effort to change any of this because none of us are capable of doing it on our own and the isolation has gone on too long for us to be aware of how to meaningfully organize and form a mass movement aimed at bringing about a paradigm shift in the way that society views itself, the meaning of its very existence and the point of the entire equation.

Because that’s what it’s all about in the end, isn’t it? The rat race, the alienated, consumerist-fuelled cycle that we go through gives us something to do, respite from the inevitable question – why? Why are we here, what are we doing, why should we go on doing it? Today we can hide from these questions, we can bury our noses in the internet and pretend they never even existed, we can dive into our jobs and dedicate all our free time to making the higher-ups happy and the putting a smile on the kids’ faces on Christmas Day. But they never truly go away. And each new generation is slowly coming to realize that nothing will ever get better until we come to terms with ourselves and reconcile our current reality with whatever it is we want out of our collective existence. This issue is becoming ever more pressing, as capitalism is exposing itself to be an unstable fundament for a society that exists within a finite world with finite resources and an unpredictable ecosystem that is stretching itself thin in an effort to protect itself from our short-sighted pursuits. It’s time to ask ourselves what we want to be and how we want to achieve it. Or maybe we could go where humans have never gone before and ask a question that seems unthinkable at a larger scale – do we even want to be?

Some thoughts on Mr. Robot and TV.

It is my firm belief that Mr. Robot is one of the greatest shows to have ever graced the TV screen. What separates it from the endless stream of mediocre police procedurals and contrived post-apoc dystopias is the fact that it is made with a clear respect for the conventions of film making in mind. Whereas most TV has shunned the aesthetic aspect of what is, at its core, a visual medium and taken to filming every scene as if it were part of a documentary or news report, Sam Esmail and his crew have consistently delivered crisp, detailed imagery that provides insight into the characters’ predicament, the course of the story, and the state of the world, both in-universe and outside of it. Mr. Robot takes full advantage of both its format and its medium in order to tell a tale of mental illness and socio-economic alienation and is a breath of fresh air for every cinephile who has grown disillusioned by the state of long form storytelling on TV.

Perhaps the most apt illustration of Mr. Robot‘s brilliance is the opening of this season’s second episode. It’s a long pre-opening credits fake-out that shows the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, trying to reintegrate himself into the corporate lifestyle and to right the wrongs that he commit during his drug-fulled schizophrenic episodes that harken back to the duality of the narrator in Fight Club. This part of the episode is comprised of a fast-paced montage set over cheery music, interrupted only by Elliot’s periodic internal ramblings. He seemingly condemns his prior ideas and positions and turns his back on his old cause because he has “grown up” and entered the real world. We see him wholly consumed by his work at E-Corp, once a mortal enemy of his. He blends in with the crowd and does his best to appear normal, to fit in. In contrast to the rest of the show, the camera during these scenes shows Elliot as part of the group, he’s framed alongside other people, moving through the street like anyone else would, whereas the usual shtick of the show is to illustrate loneliness and isolation through the clearest cinematic barrier of them all – putting the character in a frame of his own, off-center at that. There’s also more movement than usual, the editing is quick and snappy while the average shot length throughout the show is relatively large.

And then the title screen comes in and Elliot realizes that his efforts at being a regular, happy person are completely futile. The camera pans out, the depth of field is compressed to the point of only clearly focusing on Elliot and the montage begins once again, this time it is much more silent, with more voice-over, as the protagonist is shown pumping himself full of medicine and crying of loneliness in a scene that is a clear throwback to the first season.

Yes, this is a scenario that we have all seen before. But that’s exactly what makes it beautiful, it takes a sequence that we are already familiar with on a subconscious level and applies it to the given situation in a well-executed and visually appealing way. Instead of attempting to insulate itself from film, Mr. Robot uses it as a stepping stone on its own journey through a genre that is both remarkably familiar and oddly distant. And this is exactly what shows should be doing – using cinema as a reference point. There is amazing potential in TV and there have certainly been some remarkable efforts as of late to bring it up to par with the very best of films (the first season of True Detective, Breaking Bad and the parts of Mindhunter that were directed by David Fincher), but the overall quality of television shows is, to put it lightly, quite unsatisfactory. Game of Thrones has captured the popular interest by appealing to the lowest common denominator and shunning its literary roots in pursuit of further spectacle. In the process, the show has lost all semblance of logical continuity, and that’s not even mentioning the abysmal scripts that the admittedly talented cast has had to make do with for the past two or three season. The same can be said of The Walking Dead, another ridiculously popular show, and its reliance on melodrama and one of the most frustrating tropes of them all, the idiot plot. These are some of the most jarring examples, to be sure, but they are also the most popular ones among the shows that go for something serious rather than existing as a playground for comedy actors and stand-up comedians (to be clear, this is not a jab at comedy shows, they are a different beast entirely and cannot be examined in the same light as regular television).

Nonetheless, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future. There have been some impressive efforts over the past year (Taboo, Legion) that have managed to stand out despite the constant onslaught of garbage. More and more film directors are trying their hand at creating their own series and this migration could be the start of an intriguing new breed of television shows with film sensibilities and an artist’s steady hand behind the wheel.

Under 800: Columbus (2017)

Kogonada’s debut feature film tells the story of Jin, a Korean-born man, who finds himself stuck in, surprise surprise, Columbus, Indiana upon hearing the news of his father’s heart attack and consequent coma. There he meets a local girl named Casey who spends her time looking after her drug-addict mother and admiring the architecture of her home town.

As I watched through Columbus, I was struck by a feeling of profound emptiness. The viewer begins to feel trapped in Columbus in just the same way as the characters are. It’s as if there is a wall between us and the world around, a wall that is shared by Jin and Casey as well. They’re framed in ways that highlight both the physical possibility of flight and the emotional distance between them and everything around them. Kogonada is a self-professed fan of Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu and seems to share the latter’s propensity for using frames within the frame and lingering on long, empty corridors. There’s quite a bit of that in Columbus, many a shot shows bustle off into the distance, paths leading far away from the mise-en-scene offering an escape from the entrapment of the characters’ predicament. The protagonists themselves are sometimes showed to blend into the background or appear closer or further away from the screen than they actually are through clever camera angles and forced perspective, further augmenting the overall idea that freedom can become unattainable even while within arm’s reach. Casey is smart and passionate, a recent graduate who by all rights should be off to university but is instead stuck in Columbus helping her mother recover. She has the potential to pursue her interest in architecture but circumstances have forced her to look on as her peers progress through life while she drives around in circles. Jin is in a similar situation; his father was never present, never there for him when he needed him most, but his condition, as well as Korean traditions, lead him away from his life in Seoul and into the monotonous quaintness of Columbus where he can do nothing but wait for his father to either pass away or recover enough strength to move on.

Jin and Casey’s budding friendship is the focus of the film, thankfully, for without it Columbus would have run the risk of seeming too cold, too distant and observing. Their conversations are heartfelt and realistic in a way that is rarely found in modern cinema. Some of the scenes are reminiscent of Linklater’s walk and talk, just two people bonding over a seemingly casual conversation, learning about each other and becoming closer by the minute. I’d like to think that perhaps Kogonada will return to Jin and Casey in ten years like Linklater returned to his characters from Before Sunrise.

Kogonada has managed to create a movie that is both an homage to the styles of other, more prominent film makers, and the beginning of his own directorial trip. Apart from Ozu and Linklater, there’s also quite a bit of late Malick in Columbus as well. The camera focuses on shots of nature, of architectural monuments or simple trinkets in shops or museums. But while Terrence Malick insists on dubbing over these cutaway shots and having his actors talk over them, Kogonada uses the filler to let the audience breathe and take in the feel of the movie. He lets us come to our own conclusions rather than hammering us over the head with poorly written poetry. To be sure, Malick’s style does work in some instances, but a lot of the time it can feel ham-fisted and forced.

Overall, Columbus is a wonderfully pensive journey that takes its time in exploring certain aspects of modern life. It’s beautifully shot, interlacing views of exterior modernism and simplicity with the messy, cluttered nature of the characters’ homes and inner lives, and features outstanding performances by the leads, John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. Columbus will certainly make an appearance on my list at the end of the year and will most likely be a strong contender for the top spot.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Brawl in Cell Block 99 follows the story of Bradley Thomas as he goes from car mechanic to drug runner to convicted felon locked up in the most putrid of detention facilities. Thomas turns to his friend Gil after being fired in order to give his wife the life that they’ve both dreamed for. 18 months later, Gil forces Thomas into carrying out a run for the Mexican cartel. Needless to say, things go wrong. Thomas ends up in prison, where he learns that the cartel has his pregnant wife hostage and is threatening to amputate the legs of her unborn child if Thomas refuses to pay his debt by murdering a man in the titular cell block 99, which turns out to be a “prison within the prison”, situated deep in the underbelly of the Redleaf maximum security prison. Sounds like the schlockiest of schlock, doesn’t it?

And it is. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an unapologetic grindhouse gore-fest straight out of the late 70s and early 80s. It’s everything a midnight theater goer could ever ask for – a stoic protagonist whose main language is witticism, practical effects and well-choreographed, minimally edited fight scenes that almost always end with the blood-curdling sound of bones snapping or flesh hitting concrete. The sound design in particular makes Brawl absolutely devastating; every punch has weight, every smack with the baton practically sends a jolt through the viewer’s body, hell, even the electric belt that Thomas is forced to wear in the later parts of the movie manages to gives us a pretty clear idea of how painful the current running through the prisoner’s body is based on Vince Vaughn’s reaction and the low buzzing sound that the belt itself emits whenever it is switched on.

But what is it that sets this film apart, and what makes it worth a watch for a squeamish viewer who doesn’t find themselves grinning ear to ear as Vince Vaughn takes blows to the face like a champ and doles out terrifying retaliatory strikes? Well for one, unlike most movies that fall into the grindhouse category, Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn’t forego character development. The first hour of the film is spent slowly building Bradley Thomas, showing us his struggles, his moral compass. He isn’t a thug because he chose to be one or because that’s how he is by nature. Bradley is an intelligent man, sharp and street smart, but it just so happens that violence is one of the things he’s good at and always comes back to haunt him. We learn he used to be a boxer and a boozer before the events of the film and that’s always a recipe for disaster. His past is never completely revealed, but his demeanor and effect on those around him are enough to tell us all we need to know. The opening scene sets him up perfectly, as his manager is visibly afraid of Bradley while laying him off. The first we see of Bradley Thomas is his terrifying exterior – a tall man, muscled like a bull and sporting a tattoo of a cross on the back of his clean shaven head. The viewer senses the tension in the air from the very beginning as we expect him to attack his boss. But nothing happens. In fact, we see Bradley having a friendly exchange with an elderly black man on his way out. Suddenly we’re not quite sure what to think of Bradley. Is he a white supremacist? Is he a felon, or indeed a felon in the making? This is the way the entire first half of the movie goes, we’re constantly shown a new side of the protagonist, we come to understand his reasoning and see him as a decent human being caught up in an unfathomably horrible situation. Time and time again director S. Craig Zahler raises the stakes and makes it seem like Bradley is about to do something horrible to someone innocent, but nothing ever comes of this manufactured tension. It’s as if he’s poking and prodding the viewer’s mind, toying with our preconceptions and biases and prompting us to look deeper and harder rather than falling back into character cliches and notions of how a person should look and behave.

This, of course, would not have been possible if it weren’t for a monumental performance by Vince Vaughn. His towering physique makes him as formidable as a tank on the battlefield, his very presence intimidates both the audience and the characters on screen. There is rage bubbling underneath the calm exterior of Bradley at all times, terrifying anger that threatens to make its existence known every time Vaughn’s character is pushed to the edge. Bradley is a fully fleshed out character thanks to Vaughn and his ability to add meaning to every sullen stare and brooding moment of silence. It also helps that he’s always filmed in a way that accentuates his exceptional height. Bradley looks like a giant walking among men. He also sounds like one, thanks again to the brilliant sound design, which makes each step feel like the slow approach of King Kong.

From a technical side, Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s camera work makes every scene feel cramped; the lighting in particular makes his multiple cells feel that bit more hopeless, like a cage that is growing smaller and dirtier. The film has a desaturated look with emphasis on the blues and the blacks, making the atmosphere extremely oppressive and consuming. The Redleaf facility in particular looks and feels like the point of no return for the character, a black hole that will completely disintegrate him. The beauty of this film lies in its appropriate cinematography. Don’t expect any pretty wide-angle views of rolling meadows.

Overall, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a well-crafted film that shows a genuine love and respect for the works that inspired it and paved its way, but also, perhaps even more importantly, for the art of film. You might not agree with the extreme violence depicted in its later stages, but there’s no denying that there is a certain stark beauty in the gratuity of its gory action sequences. Hats off to Vince Vaughn as well for managing to escape the tight grasp of his goofy fat guy type cast and doing some incredible work in a new role.

The Duellists (1977)

Ridley Scott is a truly intriguing case. How can the director of Blade Runner and Alien go on to create mediocrities like Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor? Why is it that his career has been so uneven and inconsistent? I haven’t the slightest clue. What I do know, however, is that his earliest works are the ones that will forever be regarded as his masterpieces, as the films that cemented Scott’s place in the pantheon of film makers. The Duellists is one of those films, even if it is one of his more obscure and largely forgotten works. It isn’t a cult classic like Blade Runner, or a trend-setter like Alien. It is more an exercise in style than in innovation, but is nevertheless one of the most impressive debuts in film history.

The Duellists follows the story of a small feud between two officers in Napoleon’s army, d’Hubert and Feraud. The cause of this quarrel is insignificant, as Feraud claims to have had his honor slighted by d’Hubert during their very first encounter. What follows is a series of duels, set in different parts of the world, that stretches over more than two decades. One might imagine that the dueling would become quite dull after the first few engagements, but that assumption would be quite far from the truth. The novelty of their fights never wears off. The circumstances of their battles change with each iteration, weapons switch, as do the rules of their duels. But the main focus of these bouts of saber-rattling and gun slinging isn’t the physical act of fighting, it’s what this fighting represents for the two men. Their first duel is quick and largely impersonal, it looks and feels much like the opening scene of the movie in which Feraud battles and defeats an unnamed character. The monotony of this fight is broken in its very end, when d’Hubert prepares to deliver the final blow, by Feraud’s wife. She lunges at d’Hubert and scratches at his face, saving her husband. This interruption, this break with normality, serves as the introduction to their unusually long rivalry.

The most memorable round is also their most bloody. Unlike previous duels, we’re introduced to this one after its beginning, we’re thrown in the middle of a frantic spar in a dimly lit barn. Both men are wounded, heaving and striking at each other ferociously. Their lives are at their lowest at that point, and the fight represents their mental state. Each blow is vicious, delivered with both hands and with as much strength as possible. This is also the first fight that becomes almost intimately physical as they desperately tackle each other trying to get ahead. The camera is hand held, the editing is at its most frantic, the score is tense and thriller-like. All this, combined with the choreography and the fact that Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine both did their own stunts, makes for an incredibly kinetic scene that delivers on all fronts. This practice of using fight scenes as a means of exploring the character’s psyche was later used to even greater effect by Scorsese in Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta is, in the words of the late Roger Ebert, “…a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution.” But, unlike LaMotta, d’Hubert and Feraud do not seek penance or absolution. Their feud is utterly absurd, even by d’Hubert own admission.

The absurdity of the feud is what makes The Duellists a truly special movie. Instead of focusing on the psychology of the men or wading too far into anti-war territory, Scott explores the way this obsession affects both of them separately, the queer relationship that arises from their frequent battles, the mutual respect that develops over time. It’s a case of protagonist and antagonist establishing a connection at a fundamental level, even if not purposely. There’s a deep beauty to this film, it explores something very human, very natural. It doesn’t look at society as a whole, it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. Instead, it looks at the way life can spiral out of control by no fault of our own through the character of d’Hubert, as well as the cyclical nature of violence towards the end of the movie when Feraud stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates the way his obsession drove him, how it framed his life and completely consumed him. This last shot is incredibly meaningful because it doubles as a commentary on the pointlessness of war without being overt or obvious. It’s a reference to a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte on St. Helena by Francois Joseph-Sandmann, as he watches the ship that got him there sailing away. His lengthy campaign amounted to nothing and his life returns to the monotony of balance and normality.

Some have called The DuellistsBarry Lyndon-lite”. It’s easy to see the parallels. The setting, the decor, the way that interiors are shot with seemingly natural light emitted by candles or by the rays of the sun coming in through the windows. There are plenty of establishing, wide-angle shots that show the character slowly making his way through the big world, but these similarities are merely visual, the effect they have on the picture is very, very different. Barry Lyndon is a Kubrick movie, and as such it bears the distinct feeling of cynical detachment that Kubrick is known for. It’s almost as if an alien is looking at the lives of humans, coldly judging them from a distance. The Duellists is much more intimate. There are plenty of close-ups and moments of emotion taking precedence over logic and sound judgement. That said, Scott’s film does indeed owe much to Barry Lyndon in terms of the way that d’Hubert’s life is portrayed in the later parts of the film. The way that the camera shows up early on in the scene, showing characters just sitting around or going about their business puts an emphasis on naturalism and realism, and that is something that Barry Lyndon had in spades.

Overall, The Duellists is a brilliant film that served as a stepping stone for Scott on his way to creating two of the most influential films of the past 50 years. It’s refined and beautiful, though it does not truly reach very far. More than worth a watch for anyone looking for a good historical drama.

Russian Ark (2002)

It’s hard to say whether Russian Ark can truly be considered a movie. There is no plot, no actual story to speak of. There is but one character, a mysterious member of the Russian aristocracy who serves as the protagonist’s guide through the Hermitage. It’s also hard to say whether the protagonist himself is a character. The movie is shot in first person POV and we never really learn anything about the person whose eyes we’re looking through. This protagonist could well be nothing more than an embodiment of the viewer, an easy way for us to take a stroll through the museum without having to set up any rules beforehand. On the other hand, there is clearly a focus on film making technique, as well as artistry in the way that the camera moves around and witnesses whatever is happening around it. Each doorway transports us into a different time frame, giving us a glimpse into the world of the Russian aristocracy and the rise and fall of the royal family, all in the space of a gander through the halls of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. There’s also some impressive camera work on display as Russian Ark is filmed in one, excruciatingly long take, Eisenstein be damned. The set piece are beautiful to look at, but one questions whether this beauty arises from the film’s own merits or from the awe-inspiring architecture and design of the building itself. And if the impressive visual quality of the film does indeed arise from the architecture, can it truly be labelled a film? The mise-en-scene is a key part of film making, its manipulation and use in the thematic structuring are, in a way, what separates film as a medium from still photography or video capturing. That, and the presence of a story and/or active characters, both of which, arguably, are absent from Russian Ark.

Nevertheless, Russian Ark presents us with an interesting, if brief, look into the glamorous life of the aristocracy. We see czars and emperors living in almost unfathomable luxury. There’s a total of 2000 actors in Russian Ark, all of them choreographed to look as if they are going about their regular business. This business, of course, is by no means regular by our modern standards. The Hermitage is the stage of an endless ball, the scene of perpetual intrigue and excitement. And this is precisely my main thematic qualm with the movie. There is no semblance of realism, not so much as a pretense to historical accuracy when it comes to the lives of its passing subjects. Not that realism is the point of this film, in fact I assume director Sokurov might’ve viewed it as a nuisance. Cinéma vérité this is not. But even so, knowing that the main focus lies elsewhere, the film insists to an almost worrying degree upon painting the aristocracy as a noble, beautiful relic of a bygone era that is sorely missed. The Russian Ark is a daydream of the wonders of excess and power. One might assume that there’d be at least some judgement passed on to the revelry of this ridiculously rich social class, considering it occurred during a time when the average Russian peasant lived a terrible life of toil and poverty. Instead, the film embraces this culture of hedonism and looks at it through the lens of nostalgia and longing. Many critics fell for this portrayal of Russia, lamenting the death of the world that Russian Ark introduces us to without considering its implications and context.

Some might find my criticism unfitting or see my complaints as deliberately missing the point. I’d implore such readers to consider the nature of Russian film over the years and the way that it has been used to manipulate its audience. Look at Sergei Eisenstein’s works. The man is rightfully considered one of the most important and influential directors and theorists of all time for his contributions to film form as we know it today, but most, if not all, of his movies were propaganda pieces for the new ruling class. The same can be said for many others even today, with the Ministry of Defense financing pictures that paint the annexation of Crimea as a noble and heroic deed. Film has been used as propaganda in Russia since its very inception and it’s important to bear that in mind when watching Russian films that concern themselves with politics and history. That said, it’s not so easy to discern propaganda from the genuine ideology of the film maker today. The Russian people are disillusioned with their reality, as is tradition for them, and in their desperation they look back fondly upon their past, a past that is impossible to truly know and understand due to the nature of time and its tendency to distort and dilute information. For many Russians, the good old days are those of pre-Bolshevik Russia. For others, the Soviet Union represents a state of affairs that they’d like to return to. It’s nigh on impossible to be objective when it comes to Russian history. It’s a topic that is too raw, too politically and ideologically charged to analyze without letting emotions get the best of whoever is taking part in the discussion. In a sense, my criticism of Russian Ark is more of a warning than a genuine complaint based on analysis of the film. Nuance is extremely important when exploring history and this is what Russian Ark pretends to do, albeit it not quite successfully. Granted, it’s a gorgeous exercise in cinematography and the “screw it, we’re doing it live” attitude towards film making, but one must bear in mind the thematic undertones of a movie while praising it for its objectivity or accuracy, as many Western critics have done. Nevertheless, Russian Ark is worth a watch, even if solely for its technical and visual merits.