The Terror

TV has rarely been put to good use as an artistic medium – the entertainment value that has, in recent years, become an integral part of every artistic effort is there, but the artistry itself is nowhere to be found, sacrificed in the name of cheap thrills and instant gratification, as evidenced by the slow yet steady decay in the quality of writing of shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Certain tropes and behavioral cliches have cemented themselves in television and one would be hard pressed to escape the constant onslaught of genre schlock. Instances of plot armoring, irrational decision making in service of a shoddily planned out story, Mary Sues and Marty Stus are all aplenty, and these are just some of the most superficial and glaring examples of lazy writing that can be encountered in the majority of modern TV shows. That isn’t necessarily bad, if of course one has a particular predisposition towards, say, drawn out soap operas set against the back drop of a poorly outlines zombie apocalypse with only a very limited set of rules governing the in-story world.

But every once in a while there arises a show that breaks the mold in more ways than one and earns the right to be analyzed as a serious work of art, worthy of both the praise and criticism inherent to careful scrutinizing. The latest to do so is AMC’s The Terror, a 10 episode period piece based on Dan Simmons’ eponymous book. The story is that of the real life search for the Northwest Passage on what would be Sir John Franklin’s final expedition. A cursory glance at the historical facts surrounding this expedition is more than enough to gain a rather firm grasp as to the tone of the show that’s based on it – dreariness, dread, claustrophobia and, most of all, utter, crushing hopelessness. It becomes abundantly evident from the get-go what the fate of the 132 strong crew of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror will be, and nonetheless the viewer is invited to insert themselves into the life of these ships, to get a feel for the nautical life. This very quality is one of The Terror‘s biggest strengths – its ability to construct realistic interpersonal relationships, to lead the viewer through the world of this isolated hyper-masculine community during its hour of distress and still invite empathy and sentimentality while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama and faux-emotionality. Characters grow and change before the viewer’s very eyes; as the years pass and the ‘man vs. nature’ narrative solidifies itself as the thematic center of the show, we witness the natural progression of humans under extreme duress and in conditions that few men of the modern ages could even begin to understand. And it’s not a case of virtuous men becoming wicked cannibals out of desperation and hunger, it’s a complex set of transformations that are all borne out of the material necessities and realities of each individual’s experiences, the best parallel I could come up with off-top would be the virtue system of Darkest Dungeon in cinematic form, except rather than having pure RNG dictate the virtues and shortcomings of characters, we see clear causational links between the person’s journey and their final state. Tiny details about each character reveal themselves through meaningful scenes, some of them quick and to the point, others longer, more dialogue-driven and harder to understand in the moment but extremely satisfying and helpful in retrospect. This is partly why mainstream audiences have reacted rather negatively towards this show, often recoiling in disgust at its ‘slow pace’ and ‘boringly long scenes’, both traits that, quite ironically, are shared by another one of AMC’s shows, international hit The Walking Dead, but whereas The Terror‘s pace is deliberate and thought out even when it stagnates, TWD is simply a mess in terms of story structure and plot progression, to the point where it seems as if the show creators themselves are having trouble figuring out how to turn the abomination into something at least somewhat presentable, to no particular avail, one might add.

What allows The Terror‘s brilliant characterization to shine is the stellar camera work; the first half of the season is a wonderful exercise in claustrophobic cinematography -frames within frames, slight camera movements in constrained areas, long takes of dialogue set to ambient natural lighting in dimly lit cabins that sway back and forth ever so slightly, wonderful character set-pieces that are aided by deliberate blocking and composition. Those episodes set on the ship are cozy and quaint and make for a great viewing experience both aesthetically and intellectually even without provoking the viewer to constantly be on the look out for details or intense action scenes (of which there is a surprising amount, thanks to a certain supernatural subplot).

The second half of the season sees the crew leaving the confines of the grounded ships and venturing out into the barren wastelands of the Arctic – never before have such vast expanses of land seemed so constraining, so suffocating. Flat, traversable land as far as the eye can see, and nary a second goes by without the viewer feeling like they would like nothing more than to retreat into one of the crew’s crude tents in order to hide from the crushing emptiness that makes all that empty space seem paradoxically insignificant and devoid of sense. Again, this is all enhanced by some stellar cinematography, mainly the way the void is framed by the camera and always made to serve as more of a backdrop to what is happening inside the characters’ tired minds and weak bodies. At times The Terror almost looks like part of an extended cut of The Revenant, with its icy color palette and the occasional jerking motions that are reminiscent of the ones Lubezki weaved into his one takes in Iñárritu’s movie.

Unlike most wastelands in film and literature, this one isn’t meant to symbolize any sort of spiritual emptiness or a search for some existential truth, The Terror is as old-fashioned as old-fashioned gets in that it is purely a story about Man’s struggle against Nature, a desperate battle not for dominance, but for a meager survival. There’s very little that could be described as philosophical about The Terror, save for some one-off musings by characters that are at the very edge of their physical capabilities. Instead, there is an intense examination of the psychology of struggle, a visceral representation of how far one would go in order to insure one’s own continued existence in a rather primitive and animalistic sort of way.

All of this plays out like a fever dream, the entire show feels like a series of vivid nightmares that you would hastily scribble down in your notebook upon waking up. The editing often breaks chronology to show characters retreating into moments of joy in their old lives as their current predicament becomes too much to bear; at other points scenes seem to jump around in a somewhat disjointed manner which makes the experience all the more terrifying as you’re bombarded with an endless stream of discussions or occurrences that serve only to solidify the dreadful awareness of things to come. Well, one thing to come, really; death has never been more palpable than in The Terror, its presence is at first a source of mobilization and fear, then an almost comfortable companionship, at least from the viewer’s standpoint, as the crew’s situation becomes ever more bleak, ever more excruciating in its hopelessness. Each main character to die receives a sort of send-off scene, a delicately directed and personalized take on their final moments – we get a glimpse at what these men think of as they go into the long night, their fears, their regrets, their pain. What’s most impressive is how tasteful each of these scenes is, the characters we’ve come to know, and in some cases even love, keep their grace and emotional depth even as they sometimes struggle with shocking physical injuries and illness.

Overall, I’m quite stoked about this show. It’s a brilliant work of art that I truly didn’t expect to see being produced by AMC, one that displays technical proficiency, attention to detail, and a love for storytelling. I can confidently say that The Terror is one of the greatest shows of the 21st century.

 

 

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.

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.

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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.