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.

The Full Monty, the charm of British comedy, and some thoughts on the state of the industry.

The Brits know comedy better than anyone else in the world, that much has become abundantly clear to me over the past few weeks as I’ve slowly made my way through a long list of comedy movies set in the UK and directed by Brits. But what exactly is it that sets these movies apart, and why do mainstream American comedies pale in comparison?

I believe the answer lies in the very nature of the British comedic form. It is highly situational, arising from seemingly random events. The characters are left to deal with the consequences of something that they had little to no effect over in the first place. The Full Monty illustrates this point rather well. Sheffield, as seen in the movie, is a broken place. A city that was once an industrial hub has reached its expiration date and its inhabitants are left searching for work and dealing with the psychological effects of long-term poverty and unemployment. That’s the undertone of the movie, it permeates the atmosphere and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. But this is never the focus of the movie. It exists as a set up for things to come, as the characters find ridiculous ways to make some money on the side while searching for employment. The Full Monty feels like a look into someone’s life, someone who we can even trick ourselves into identifying with, despite the occasional over-the-top moments of hilarity. The protagonists, Gaz and Dave, have remarkable depth, they’re not cardboard cut-outs waiting to recite their next line of dialogue. The moments of humor come about naturally, we see the most hilarious scenes forming, as the characters build up towards them and set the tone by just being themselves and, more importantly, being real people.

And this is where I feel compelled to voice one of my main complaints when it comes to the US style of comedy, and that’s the way the script plays out and how the jokes are relayed. TJ Miller is, I feel, the very personification of modern American humor in film, his role in Deadpool being an especially egregious example of poor joke conception and delivery. He stands still, center frame, stares right at the character opposite him (in this case Ryan Reynolds’s Wade Wilson) and comments on his looks. What’s funny about that, you might ask, and the answer would be the ridiculous comparisons made by Miller in order to describe what he thinks Wilson looks like, along with a bunch of childish metaphors and gratuitous swearing. This could work, of course, but it rarely does. It never feels earned, there is no progression or build up, movies like Deadpool simply exist as a series of random outbursts of creative playground insults and frankly cringe-worthy scenes that are supposed to shock the viewer and send him or her into a laughing fit, borne not so much out of the quality of the scene but out of how misplaced and nonsensical it feels. It’s incredibly lazy. What’s more, it’s insulting to the audience’s intelligence, dumbing everything down and turning the genre of comedy into a cesspool of slapstick punchlines and insult trading. That isn’t to say Hollywood can’t get comedy right. Films like 50/50, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day and Dr. Strangelove have shown just how good American humor can be and just how well it can be translated into film. But you look at these films and you see a common theme, one that runs through the majority of good British comedy as well – there’s always something below the surface, something more profound than the exterior lets on. It’s this versatility that makes a good film, not just one in the comedy genre. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a movie that can be enjoyed superficially while standing up to deeper analytical scrutiny at the same time. By this I do not mean to posit that every movie, or indeed every comedy movie, should have strong philosophical undercurrents. Depth could refer to many things, and comedy lends itself best to the exploration of certain aspects of our nature as a species and our response to certain external stimuli. The World’s End is a brilliant look into the life of man whose glory days are behind him but he is unable to let go of them and move on. The Full Monty shows us how important meaningful and rewarding work is to a man and how worthless and directionless we feel when left to face the crushing reality of unemployment. And so on. Of course, this too is not a recipe for success and there are plenty of films that are light-hearted to the bone yet still provide brilliant visual and conversational comedy (see Baby Driver, some of the Monty Python movies or Snatch for examples of this very phenomenon). But these are films that are incredibly stylish and well thought out, conceived by people with a clear vision of how they want their movie to look and how they want it to play out. There’s an actual plot to follow, characters to meet and get to know. American comedies skimp on all that and go for complete satirization of everything and everyone, turning themselves into parodies first and foremost while omitting the whole ‘movie’ part and becoming a boring slog to get through, as is the case with the recent Hitman’s Bodyguard.

Acting is another point I’d like to touch on. British comedy is very physical. This very aspect of it greatly enhances the effectiveness of the script, partly because it gives the writer more to work with. The Cornetto Trilogy is brilliant because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are amazing actors who are more than willing to go the extra mile in order to make the most out of every scene. Passivity in moderation is fine. That is to say that a single character being the equivalent of a vending machine for jokes can be quite amusing and can be a great asset, given the right context. But having all your characters mope around and move at a snail’s pace, without having any sort of physical reaction to whatever is happening around them could potentially make for an incredibly dull experience. Likability is also important, though much more subjective. There’s just something that clicks with Pegg and Frost or Carlyle and Addy, a sort of chemistry that makes the viewer privy to their friendly relations, both inside the movie and out. This could just as easily be my bias making its presence known, though.

In the end, it comes down to the one thing that I’ve advocated for in almost every one of my posts here at Total Misfire and that is for film makers to put more thought into their movies. I don’t mind blockbusters. I don’t mind commercial ventures. I just want to see some passion, I want to see flair. There is no humor to be found in any of the Avengers movies. It’s not because it’s impossible, it’s because superheroes have been turned into a corporate cash cow and artistic integrity has taken a backseat to the business expertise of men with linear programming and minimax solutions in their minds. The audience isn’t comprised of imbeciles, we know when a movie is good and we turn out to watch it, and I will most certainly praise any film that shows respect and love for the medium and reaches for something that is at least slightly interesting.

The Turin Horse (2011)

Hungarian director Bela Tarr has long been hailed as one of the greatest film makers of all time. Most oft-cited is his undeniable magnum opus, Satantango, a towering achievement of cinema that is as intimidating and intellectually challenging as any great piece of art that has ever been created. But don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him or his films, they’re not exactly easy to come by, least of all because of how long they are (Satantango boasts a run time of precisely 450 minutes or seven and a half hours).

The Turin Horse is Tarr’s latest work, as well as his last (the director himself believes that he has said all that he has to say and anything past this point would be the cinematic equivalent of verbosity), and it really does show. It’s the story of a farmer and his daughter living in a rundown house in the middle of nowhere. They’re poor as dirt and completely unable to escape their dreary homestead. Not that they truly want to. There is nothing to say past this point. That is the story. We see six days of their life, each day being more or less the same, with some slight yet noticeable variations to each iteration.

It all begins with a black screen. The narrator recounts the story of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s final moments of sanity. As Nietzsche left his hotel in Turin, the narrator tells us, he saw a man whipping his horse in frustration. Nietzsche ran over and put his arms around the horse’s neck, collapsing into a sobbing heap. I find it interesting that the narrator doesn’t mention the philosopher’s words during those emotional moments, a simple “I understand you!”. I assume Tarr thought it would have made the general theme of the movie much too obvious if he had included that tidbit in the opening narration, for most have come to see Nietzsche’s words as his final admission that life cannot be positively affirmed. His work was based around the idea that life should be celebrated, that it is something beautiful and valuable and must be cherished even in the face of the Universe’s horrifying coldness. Could it be that, in his final moments of lucidity and relative sanity, he realized that he was wrong, that his idea of nihilism as a phase that one must go through in order to better themselves and achieve a new, higher level of understanding was fundamentally flawed? That I cannot say. What I do know is that Nietzsche fell ill shortly after and spent the next ten years of his life in his mother and sister’s care. The narrator then tells us Nietzsche’s final words, “Mutter, ich bin dumm.”, meaning “Mother, I was dumb.”. Now that I think of it, the subtext here is quite similar to that of the omitted quote.

The opening is a beautiful horizontal tracking shot of a horse-driven cart with an elderly man sitting in it. We follow the horse’s movement for more than four minutes before we reach the true mise-en-scene of the film, the man’s home, situated in a geographical depression. There is nothing to see there, nothing to focus on except for the dying tree at the top of the hill opposite the house, and the leaves blowing in the harsh wind. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white and features the intense celluloid texture that all of Tarr’s films have in common, making the dreariness of the imagery even harder to miss. Or escape, for that matter. There is absolutely nothing in The Turin Horse that could be described as even mildly optimistic. It is, in a sense, Tarr’s admission that all is lost. In fact, the preterist notion that the apocalypse has already occurred is present multiple times throughout the film. There is even an anti-Bible, as Tarr describes it, that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s writings.

The inside of the house is brilliantly crafted, drawing inspiration from stage-lighting practices in an effort to make the space that the two characters occupy as dramatic and claustrophobic as possible. It is there that the father and his daughter spend a majority of their time, slowly moving back and forth and going about their day. The camera moves gradually and slowly, it takes its time to switch from place to place. There are very few cuts in this film, just like Werckmeister Harmonies which consisted of 39 shots in total. Tarr resorts to the shot within the shot technique in order to make us privy to the desperate boredom and sadness that the characters feel, confined to their decrepit home. The outside is practically inaccessible to them, as the weather is shown to be extremely cold and the wind is a constant sight – yes, sight – in their one window. They only go out to fetch water from the well or to feed the horse, their only connection to the outside world. But the horse refuses to pull the cart. Then it refuses to eat. It gives up. Just like everything else in The Turin Horse, apart from the two main characters who continue to exist as biological automatons with no real substance to their depressing lives. The well dries up. Their fire goes out and the two seem unable to light a new one. The wind stops blowing at one point, despite being a constant for more than two of the two and a half hours of the movie. Everything in the movie just stops functioning, flat out refusing to play a part in this ridiculous exercise in futility that the main characters call life.

There are only a few moments that break up the monotony of the family’s daily life. At one point they are visited by their neighbor (though we never see any other buildings, the horizon is completely clear of any signs of human habitation) who says he has run out of booze and has come looking to buy some from the main characters. He seems like a rich man, much better off than the elderly man and his daughter, but we never actually learn anything about him. He rants about the debasing of all that exist at the hands of those who have renounced morality and holiness and wholeheartedly embraced their own egotistic desires upon realizing that God does not exist. Tarr has described his movie as diverging from Nietzsche’s idea that God is dead and we have killed him, thus freeing ourselves to forge a new morality. Tarr sees this not as an opportunity for progress, but as evidence of degradation and decay, of man’s inability to see and appreciate the immaterial, to value anything that is spiritual and fundamentally human. It’s important to note here that God is not, in this context, a religious figure, so much as a representation of our inner selves.

In conclusion, I can confidently say that this is pure cinematic genius. It’s beautifully shot, excellently acted and remarkably poignant in its commentary on philosophy and the human condition. That said, I don’t particularly like it. It’s hard to enjoy something as bleak and hopeless as The Turin Horse, a work that renounces existence and, in a sense, argues that non-existence is preferable to life. It also marks a bit of a turning point (the final one, mind you) in Tarr’s career, as his previous works have all harbored at least a hint of hope, despite the depiction of the heaviness and cruelty of our shared existence. Nevertheless, The Turin Horse is an extremely high note to end your career on, it is a feat that few can so much as hope to achieve even at the apex of their film making days.

Under 800: It Comes at Night (2017)

It Comes at Night can only be described as an overtly competent film. There is no denying its impeccable atmosphere, generated, surprisingly enough, mainly by its haunting soundtrack that never misses a beat or misplaces a tone. The close confines of the cabin in the woods that Paul has hid his family in in order to ride out the apocalypse in relative safety make for a quaintly unsettling experience that is constantly teetering on the edge of terror. The interwoven nightmares that we experience along with Travis, Paul’s son, are an impressive attempt at combining the tone of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road with constrained surrealism à la Lynch in The Straight Story, where he found the perfect balance between coherently telling an emotional story and sprinkling in moments that are closer to his typical dream-like absurdity. The set is well constructed and presented, an incredibly important detail when it comes to creating paranoia and low-burning fear. Director Trey Shults has admitted to taking inspiration from Kubrick’s The Shining for the layout of the house that Paul and his family live in, deliberate leaving it unclear and confusing, a maze that the viewer’s mind can’t help but attempt to navigate. Overall, there’s no denying that the film is pretty damn good. So why, then, have audiences shunned it? Why do some hail it as the best horror movie of the past few years while others see in it nothing more than a polished turd?

The first part of the answer is simple – people hate being misled. The trailers for It Comes at Night made the movie seem much closer to the typical horror movie than it actually was. Most of its audience went in to see a straightforward monster flick, expecting the “It” in the title to refer to a zombie or a ghost. What they got instead was a visceral meditation on the nature of trust and the unreliability of the human brain’s perception of reality. Travis is as unreliable as narrators get, and that is where many of the seeming inconsistencies and plot holes arise from. None of the scenes we see through his eyes are representitive of what actually happens in the movie’s world. And that’s one of It Comes at Night‘s main stregths – the viewer is never put in a position of omniscience. We’re given just as much information as the characters dealing with the situations on screen. When Will, another survivor who happens upon the family by chance, moves his wife and son into Paul’s house, we’re given visual cues that make us doubt their true intentions. As Paul grows ever more suspicious and begins regretting his decision to invite them in, the viewer is still unsure as to the reality of the situation. Is Will a good guy? Is he simply waiting for the right time to strike? And no, in the end we realize there are no bad guys in this situation. Will and Paul both work towards the same goal – protecting their loved ones. They like each other as people, they like being together and keeping eachother company in the face of the overwhelming sense of isolation and ennui that is inherent to the deepest parts of any forest. But the world as they know it has collapsed, and no one can truly be trusted, except if they aren’t an immediate family member. The loneliness runs deep in It Comes at Night, bubbling just below the surface of each character’s perpetually uneasy demeanor.

The second thing that seems to have left many people upset is the lack of resolution to many of the film’s themes. It’s true, It Comes at Night raises many questions but rarely even so much as approaches an answer. How did Stanley the dog make it through the first door to the house, especially considering it was sick and lost in the woods just hours prior? Who opened the second, red door? Did Travis really see Will’s son sleepwalking? Were the events at the end of the movie indicative of the existence of some creature outside the house? Many audience members weren’t satisfied by the notion of a truly confused and possibly insane narrator. And it’s hard to argue this point because it comes down to personal preference. I personally thought that seeing the most important parts of the story through Travis’s eyes was a brilliant touch that fit the movie like a glove, thematically speaking. The way I saw the movie, there never really was an “It”. “It” is fear, coming at night when the characters are at their most vulnerable, creeping in the gloomy, dimly lit edges of the house. Travis is only unreliable during the night, when he is scared out of his mind and unable to stay asleep, constantly seeing scarier versions of the things that terify him in his waking life.

It Comes at Night is very much an experience and is definitely worth a watch for anyone willing to go into it with an open mind.

 

 

On Christopher Nolan and Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is a mediocre movie. And the reason lies not in the product, but in its creator and his hubris. What was supposed to be a modern sci-fi epic in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, turned out to be no more than a melodramatic adventure movie with pretences of intellectual depth.

Around the release of the movie, many gushed over the stunning visuals of Interstellar, praising its beauty, as well as the realism of the CGI. I’d be inclined to agree, if we were discussing still photography. But the fact of the matter is that Interstellar is a boring movie in every sense of the word, and that includes its visuals. See, most great directors have mastered the art of visual storytelling. Blocking, lighting, transitions and editing, different in-camera effects. What Interstellar presents us with is sterile cinematography. There’s nothing clever about the way things are shown and presented to the viewer. No depth to the image. No meaning behind it. Everyone remembers the match cut in 2001, the one that transitions from a bone thrown in the air, the very first weapon in the history of humanity, into an orbiting satellite with nuclear capabilities. There is very little of that in Interstellar. The cinematography of Interstellar can only be described as functional. It shows you what is happening. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s very little symbolism or world building to be derived from it. Take a look at this still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001-A-Space-Odyssey-024.jpg

This is a great example of a meaningful shot. As the apes huddle around the black monolith that has appeared in their lair over night, the camera is placed at its very bottom, staring up at the rising sun. It’s the dawn of man. The beginning of our long journey, our evolution. There is much more that can be said about this in the context of the film, but I won’t go any further than that.

Now look at this page full of stills from Interstellar. Thousands upon thousands of them, probably every single shot of the movie is in there. And what do we see? Establishing shots. Close-ups. Mid-shots. Shot-reverse shot during conversations. The occasional view of the Earth from far away. Some stills of a CGI black hole. Dust. Space. There really isn’t much to look at, and really the only memorable shot was during the chase sequence with Dr. Mann, when the geography is distorted and seems to be closing in on the camera, heightening the tension and raising the stakes.

Now, one must agree that the lighting is quite exceptional and van Hoytema did a great job, considering the spacial constraints inside the space ships. It’s never easy for a cinematographer to work with practical effects, especially ones that move and are as complex as those in Interstellar. That is one thing I will always praise Nolan for – avoiding CGI when it isn’t strictly necessary and using practical effects where possible.

The issues I have with Interstellar’s cinematography play into a much wider problem I have with Nolan’s work, and that is his tendency to tell instead of show. There is a constant barrage of ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ in Interstellar. Characters spend minutes describing things to each other that both parties should already know. Whole discussions end up being nothing but very thinly veiled exposition. Nolan’s movies aren’t known for their riveting and believable dialogue, his brother Jonathan, the one who writes and co-writes all of his movies, is no Tarantino. It’s an issue that was most obvious in Inception, where one of the main characters served almost no other purpose than to ask questions so the audience could learn the rules of the world. Much the same can be seen all throughout Interstellar. Scientists, considered the best the world has to offer, sit around and discuss relativity like 8th graders, just so the viewer could learn that 1 hour on the planet they’re about to touch down on is equal to 7 years on Earth. Which in and of itself is hooey. Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist and scientific consultant for Interstellar, did his best to explain to Nolan that it was impossible for something like that to occur, but alas he was forced to bend the rules of physics in order to come up with a half-way plausible scenario.

The final scenes of the movie are always completely spoiled by this insatiable need to placate the audience with needless information. Initially, the inside of the black hole is interesting, it’s odd, it’s mysterious. But as the viewer tries to piece together the puzzle, to understand how this queer place, one that modern scientist aren’t even close to understanding, works, he’s overwhelmed by narration. The sense of wonder vanishes, as does our interest in what is happening on-screen, as everything is explained, down to the most minute detail. Connections are made instead of us. There is no payoff because Nolan takes it from us, replacing the satisfaction of figuring out a complex sequence of events with a melodramatic shouting session, courtesy of Matthew McConaughey.

And that brings me to the last point I want to touch on. As the credits roll, we’re hit with a realization – this movie wasn’t about saving the world from starvation or lack of oxygen. It was about family. Now, that could work, of course, anything could work as long as the execution is good enough. I’m sure that someone somewhere has a brilliant idea about how to put together a movie that combines familial struggles with epic space opera. That someone isn’t Christopher Nolan. Why? Because his characterization is abhorrent. His protagonists are almost always tropes, as are most of his characters in general. They act like walking clichés. Everything about them is plastic, it feels like you’ve already met them before, quite a few times at that. And that’s because Nolan doesn’t care about his characters, or his story for that matter. The man has a set of abstract ideas in his head, and very rarely do those ideas translate into anything more than a good popcorn movie with well-choreographed stunt work, great practical effects and horrible fight scenes. And I say that as someone who considers The Dark Knight to be the greatest blockbuster film ever made. But at the end of the day, that’s what his movies are – blockbusters. They’re meant to make money, not push boundaries. And decent movies make quite a bit more than bad ones.

 

 

The art of violence in Bronson (2008).

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is 92 minutes of pure rage. There’s no rhyme or reason to Charles Bronson’s actions. He’s the most notorious and violent prisoner in the history of Britain, despite never having actually killed anyone. There doesn’t seem to be any contempt for his fellow man in his behavior. Bronson simply fights for the heck of it. He wasn’t raised poor, his parents in the movie were fairly well-off and in real life they were mayor and mayoress of his home town. There’s no rebellion against an unjust system, no attempt to escape attempts at subjugation or indoctrination, poverty or systematic discrimination. There is quite literally no reason for Bronson to be the way he is. And yet he exists, both in the film and in modern day England.

There are a few possible explanations for Charles Bronson’s seemingly (and most likely truly) insane actions. The most obvious and succinct one is that Bronson is simply a masochist and enjoys getting smashed to a pulp over and over again. Another is that he suffers from a severe mental illness. But I’d like to present an alternative view, one that is based more in interpretation than original intention and shouldn’t be considered as an attempt to legitimize Bronson’s violent behavior, but rather to rationalize it and use it as a means to explore questions that quite possibly haven’t even entered his head at any point in his life. Also, the following thoughts shall be based mostly on the film, so bear in mind that they might slightly misrepresent Bronson’s current image and attitude, as he seems to have mellowed over the past few years.

The one recognizable emotion that Bronson, portrayed masterfully by Tom Hardy in one of his career best performance, expresses is his distaste for mental facilities. Why would that be? Because there he can be subdued. He is tranquilized and spends a large chunk of his time there in an immobilized state that does not permit him to do the one thing he does best. It’s that one thing, fighting, that gives him agency over his life. In a sense, one could see Bronson’s constant indulging in short bouts of fisticuffs against numerous foes as an expression of freedom, of his ability to choose when and how hard to be walloped. In prison, everything is fairly simple – the hierarchy is clear, as are Bronson’s foes. He knows who’s going to give him the best beating, and he knows exactly how to ask for it. His biggest joy is being able to strike back and knock a few teeth out. The people he holds hostage are merely catnip, a way to attract more attention and thus, more guards to hit.

Furthermore, Bronson isn’t a man focused on the material. His only possessions are practical, like butter to cover himself in to make it harder to for his opponents to grasp. He’s seen escaping to the rooftop of one of the prisons he’s kept in, not in an effort to leave the facility and start anew, but to destroy property and cause damage.

There is no growth, no character arc. Bronson simply is. Towards the end, we see him practicing his painting skills and becoming close with a member of staff in the prison who helps those incarcerated to find the beauty in art. The viewer is left, even if only for a while, under the impression that Bronson is rediscovering himself, that there might be hope for him yet to be reintegrated into civil society. But what does Bronson do once the warden notices his interest in painting and begins making plans for his future? Bronson once again rears his animalistic side, the one that is ever present, and destroys everything in the final showdown between him and the guards in the movie. Does he achieve anything? Not really. He gets to paint a clown mask on a man’s face while listening to classical music. Then he hits some people over the head and causes a bit of a ruckus. It’s not grand. It’s not some overarching philosophical achievement that advances him as a person. It’s just a man doing what he does best, doing what he enjoys. Incidentally, that turns him into a celebrity among the British prison population, and Bronson seems to enjoy that. He, like every man, enjoys recognition and appreciation for his work, if you could call it that. It’s all very basic, very reminiscent of primitive societies that saw violence and physical strength as a sign of spiritual freedom and a basis for respect.  And fame and recognition are two things that Charles Bronson seems to enjoy – he’d rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

What Bronson does to assert his freedom of the spirit and will is abhorrent to most, and justly so, but it’s an extreme response to a feeling that everyone experiences. That creeping sense of worthlessness that comes whenever we realize that we have no effect over whatever is going in our lives or in the world in general. It’s an idea that’s been explored in many great films over the years as well. Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Brazil, as well as many others, explore this lack of individual agency from different angles, but fundamentally it all boils down to the same feeling of insignificance in a world that is moving on and growing ever smaller in the distance as the protagonist watches it with despair and disappointment in their heart. The difference is that Bronson doesn’t justify its main character’s actions, it doesn’t rationalize his behavior or glorify him. Refn doesn’t give us much backstory or motivation for Bronson’s current attitude towards the world, but simply presents the man as he is and lets the viewer decide what to make of him.

The movie itself is very well made. It walks the thin line between indie arthouse and action-fuelled romp, and it keeps the balance thanks to its levity and good direction. The editing is great, combining a more subdued take on transition and visual imagery with what I can only describe as the old English gangster movie style that emerged in the 80s and was mainly popularized later on by the likes of Guy Ritchie, with flashy cuts, matching or fading transitions and constant narration that adds an extra layer of entertainment. The action scenes are decently choreographed, though at times it’s a bit too easy to tell just how far Tom Hardy’s knuckle stopped from his fellow actor’s body, making the punches feel floaty and weightless, thus causing the fight to lose traction. And, last but not least, Tom Hardy delivers a phenomenal performance which alone makes the movie a must-see. Hardy switches effortlessly between schizophrenic stage performance based loosely in classical acting and more modern method acting that he prepared for with the help of Charles Bronson himself. A truly masterful display that cements his place as one of the greats of our generation.

 

The Master and power.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a controversial figure. Some laud him as the greatest contemporary film maker and a potential inductee to the pantheon of cinema, while others remain unconvinced by the former’s enthusiasm, and that’s putting it mildly. Accusations of baseless pretentiousness and lack of coherence, both in thematic and narrative structure, have accompanied the release of most of Anderson’s films. Before I get to discussing the work at hand, I’d like to make clear my own thoughts on the matter. The rules of art are not set in stone. In fact, I’d go even further and assert that there are no rules when it comes to creating a work of art. The writer cannot be held at gunpoint by a set of arbitrary requirements or expectations. Neither can the painter, the singer, the actor or the director. The rules should only exist as a guideline, as a means for the creator to keep in check his or her unrestrained flight of fancy. Bearing this in mind, one cannot fault Paul Thomas Anderson for creating films that aren’t cut and dry. That ask the questions but provide few answers. He engages the audience and challenges it to find the truth, their truth, wherever it may be, whatever it may be. Does a free man need someone else to tell him what is good and what is evil, what is just and what is not? No, because a free man is a thinking man, and the mind needs quandaries and inner debate like an engine needs oil.

So what is the deal with The Master? A great many viewers felt disappointed or confused upon finishing the movie because of what they perceived as a lack of payoff, be it in terms of character arc or closure of the story. But what’s important to note about The Master is that it is not a story as such, it’s a character study that pokes and prods, like all memorable works of art, at the very heart of the human experience, in this case power. Power is an abstract term, I know, but it’s a fundamental component of our societies and has been since the very dawn of our existence. There has always been a leader at the head of the group, someone who’s achieved superiority in one way or another. In primitive societies this superiority stems from the physical abilities and traits of the would-be ruler. In our modern, advanced world the difference between the leader and his followers is much harder to notice, much harder to perceive from the outside. Yes, money and birth factor in, but these two alone wouldn’t be enough to convince a large group of people, each member of said group being an educated, thinking, semi-rational human being with needs and desires of their own, that this particular person is worthy of climbing the ranks and receiving a great deal of influence over the group. And this is where we can learn much about the dynamics of power from The Master.

People are prone to becoming invested in ideas. Whether it be the thought of travelling the world or writing a book, an idea is something that gives purpose to our existence, it’s the driving force behind each of our conscious actions and decisions. But there is a particular set of ideas that is more lucrative than the rest, as evidenced by the creation of countless religions and philosophical schools of thought – those that explain our existence and give us a rough outline of what to expect after death. Fear is motivational, but hope even more so. Even if it isn’t well-defined or expressly stated, hope resides in the mind and heart of each individual with the will, power and opportunity to continue existing. And that is what Dodd, like many religious and spiritual leaders in the real world, offers to the followers of his doctrine. He claims not only that each and every person has lived and died before, but that this process is a continuous loop, as old as time itself. Life, according to him, is as intrinsic a part of the Universe as death. Add to that the fact that the knowledge of your previous lives is lost upon rebirth, and you have a cautiously optimistic theory that provides each person with an endless amount of blank slates and start-overs. This is the basis for Dodd’s cult following. The other important part of his success is he himself. He’s charismatic and well-spoken, fiery and emphatic when needed but tender and mannered when not challenged. His view of the world is that of a visionary, at least in the eyes of those who choose to drink the cool-aid and accept him as their master (quite literally, as that’s his title among his followers). At first he seems to single out potential members of his cult, vulnerable or useful people who he manipulates easily enough and keeps by his side as boot-lickers, body guards or, as was implied by his wife, sex dolls. It is this tendency to surround himself with a group of blind and easily manipulated fools that puts into question Dodd’s committal to his own idea. Does he truly believe in what he preaches? Or does he simply feel an innate desire to be followed and revered? Again, this film does not tie any loose ends. It merely asks and gives out hints, leaving the conclusions to the viewer. But of hints there are plenty. It’s hard to ignore the camera work in The Master, and it is the most obvious way of recognizing the relationship between whichever group of characters is on screen. The actors are placed and presented in certain ways or in certain parts of the frame so as to indicate their importance and their place in the hierarchy, and this is made blatantly obvious fairly early on, during a wide shot of the ship where Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell first meet. As the ship sails, the lower deck is full of people dancing, drinking and laughing. It’s hard to discern any one of them, it’s a large group of people having fun. But just below, on the lower deck, we see a lone couple having a discussion. The woman is seated obediently, staring up at her husband who towers over her and talks down, while a waiter stands a good distance away and tries not to interrupt. This shot shows us not only that power will play a role in the movie, but also that there will be a striking difference between the surface and the substance, between what’s visible to the public and what stays in the family. As the film goes on, we learn that Dodd isn’t nearly as powerful or all-knowing as he would have everyone believe. He isn’t even the strongest and most influential member of his family when it comes down to it – his wife defies and at times even controls him, his son believes him to be a hack. Scientists mock him and run circles around his idea of the way life works and his theory of processing which supposedly induces a sort of counter-hypnosis and permits the subject to become one with time and glimpse their past lives that aren’t actually past, but parallel (because cult ideologies are weird that way). But still, his following grows larger as the years go on, his detractors, as well as eventual inconsistencies in his teachings, remain largely unheard and ignored.

Another visual example of power dynamics in The Master is Quell’s hunched back, which shows that he is neither the leader nor the follower. He takes both roles at different times in the film, never committing fully to either. The hunched back shows that he’s not a kneeler or a ruler, but an amalgamation of both that comes out somewhat awkward and stunted. He comes to see Dodd as his surrogate father, but at the same time he can’t completely come to terms with his viewpoint or the way he runs things. Nevertheless, Dodd recognizes the fact that Quell is much stronger and sturdier mentally than any of his followers and in an effort to once more and for the last time assert his dominance, he tells Quell that, if he didn’t fully commit to the Cause, he would be his mortal enemy in the next life. This is possibly a throwback to Greek mythology, where Cronus realizes the threat his children pose to his rule and chooses to devour and destroy them before they can grow strong enough to defeat him. Quell doesn’t accept Dodd’s influence. At the end of the film, we see him using Dodd’s method on a woman he meets at the bar, further solidifying the point that Quell is a man in the middle of the road between master and mastered.

The Master is an intriguing movie, brilliantly directed and gorgeously shot. At times it even defies some of the most basic cinematic conventions like the shot-reverse-shot dialogue, but it does it in style, in part thanks to astounding performances by Joaquin Phoenix and, one of the greatest of all time, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a great, if somewhat loose, package thematically and visually and a must-watch for anyone willing to experiment with films that push the envelope.