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.

Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and a closer look at zombies in fiction.

It’s extremely unlikely that there exists a single person on this planet who hasn’t heard the word ‘zombie’ or seen a movie that features the living dead. We can thank (or curse, depending on your stance on the matter) the late, great George A. Romero for turning what was then an obscure subgenre of horror into one of the biggest film categories to ever exist. According to this list on Ranker, there were more than 400 zombie movies being streamed on Amazon Prime and Netflix Instant at the time of writing, and I’m confident there are quite a few missing as well. But, looking through this long list, one would be hard-pressed to find movies that are objectively good. Sure, there are some outliers like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, but the majority is just C-movie schlock that somehow slipped through the cracks and added to the slow yet steady decline of a genre that was already suffering from untimely erosion in terms of raw quality.

Shaun of the Dead was the first movie to signal both the emancipation and death of zombie cinema. Its story beats closely mirror those of other movies in the genre, but unlike them it rarely takes itself seriously. Shaun is a loser and a bit of an idiot. None of that changes throughout the course of the movie. His plan is to quite literally have a pint in his favorite pub and wait for the whole mess to blow over. It’s not elaborate, it’s not heroic, hell, it’s not even reasonable. It gets most members of his group killed, but even that doesn’t make Shaun reconsider. There are dramatic moments, and they work very well because, in the midst of all the madness and hilarity, these rare minutes of somber clarity catch the viewer by surprise. But they’re just that – moments, minutes. The whole movie is just 100 minutes of satirization and dismantling of genre tropes and cliches. It’s almost ironic that Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is cited today as possibly the greatest zombie movie ever created, when its whole point was to show how ridiculous the genre was and how easy it was for someone with actual talent and film making flair to come in and trample all the low-brow efforts that came before.

Then came Zombieland in 2009. While Shaun of the Dead was, like the rest of the movies in the Cornetto trilogy, Edgar Wright’s take on a tired genre, Zombieland seemed more like an effort to reinvigorate this particular dead horse. If I was only allowed but one word with which to describe this movie, that word would ‘fun’. It’s a lighthearted play on action movies in general, but instead of making fun of their relative simplicity, it takes the ridiculousness even further and uses it to create a story that is genuinely amusing. The characters are likable and witty, the dialogue and banter between them is engaging, with some neat reference sprinkled in to reward the more observant fans. Bill Murray’s cameo is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and possibly one of Bill’s best performances to date. The atmosphere switches effortlessly between optimism and melancholy, never lingering too long on either. The editing is crisp (if at some points too heavy-handed and distracting), the action is well shot and rather imaginative, with zombies being killed by all manner of items, such as banjos, pliers and even falling pianos. We’ve seen countless zombie movies try to be cerebral and deep, but none of them succeed because the people behind them have no idea how to achieve anything meaningful. George A. Romero was the first and last to successfully use the zombie as a vehicle for social commentary. The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit TV show, came close to being philosophical at times during its first two seasons, but then Frank Darabont was ousted and the role of director was given to a makeup artist who hasn’t the slightest clue about how to create a coherent, engaging narrative. Zombieland is the anti-thesis to all of this. It is, at its core, a movie that aims to entertain, while still successfully weaving in some more serious elements.

Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland failed to change the genre’s direction. Zombie movies are still fairly common, good ones are still a rare and valuable commodity. Train to Busan is the only recent one I can name off the top of my head, and it isn’t even a Western production.

But there is one movie in particular that has, over the past few years, made me appreciate just how mediocre the genre is, despite the incredible potential that it has. Brad Pitt’s World War Z is a bland, unbalanced and horribly paced mess that shambles its way to the finish line, carried only by Brad’s acting ability and its high budget action sequences that offer some degree of satisfaction. All of this in and of itself is not particularly bad, plenty of movies like this one get released every year and make huge sums at the box office, but what is particularly infuriating about WWZ is that the book this movie is supposed to be based on is one of the best pieces of zombie fiction ever created. It’s a series of interviews with various people from around the world, with occupations ranging from marines on a Chinese nuclear submarine to bodyguards of Hollywood celebrities. All of these people are survivors, meaning they made it through the outbreak of the zombie virus, and they recount their stories to the interviewer, a man working for the UN. The stories reveal the changes that the world went through during the crisis – religious, political, social, environmental, psychological. Does this sound anything like Brad’s movie? Not at all, because all the studio needed was a name that would sound well and make it easier to bank on the zombie craze.

I feel this is a case of ‘I’m not mad, I’m disappointed’. There is an incredible deal of potential not only in zombie movies, but in the apocalyptic genre in general. There’s so much room to explore deep themes, to create immersive and interesting environments a la Mad Max: Fury Road, to introduce the viewer to characters that aren’t your run of the mill Mary Sue or Mary Stu. And I believe there’s still hope for that. With David Fincher directing the sequel to World War Z (which is rumored to be a reboot, rather than a continuation of the first movie’s story) and Zombieland 2 in the works, maybe it’s finally time for the apocalypse to become interesting again.

 

 

On the beautiful simplicity of the Middle Ages in film and literature.

 

Rolling, sunbathed meadows, pastures littered with sheep, their fleece as white as fresh snow, bare-foot children running through the not-so-dirty dirt road that weaves through a quaint village, comprised of wooden huts with straw roofs. Hard working men in plaid shirts labor in the radiant sun, forging, crafting, building. And all this is seen through the eyes of a comely knight-errant striding atop his gorgeous charger.

A pretty picture, to be sure, and one that most of us know all too well. Few things are more reassuring than the highly romaticised vision of the Medieval countryside. It’s simple, it’s naturalistic and wholly void of any sort of pretension or malignant thought. The Shire is a wonderful example of this very sentiment, a place of innocence in the face of the hardship and danger that grip the world around. And therein lies the allure of these tales, of this idyllic imagery – they are the pinnacle of escapism. Every one of us has, at some point in our lives, be it at a time of unbearable stress or existential desperation, dreamed of a simpler world, one where purpose is easy to discover, adventure hides behind every corner, as does opportunity, and social mobility is as quick and easy as wielding a blade in combat. To hell with the details, to hell with the technicalities of reality in the Middle Ages, historical accuracy needn’t have a central place in a fairy tale. Think of Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale – the story of a peasant that dons a knight’s suit of armor and takes part in jousting tournaments in said knight’s name, earning both himself and his friends coin and renown. The movie shamelessly borrows from true historical tales, as well as from other pieces of fiction. It combines classic rock (Queen, David Bowie) with a story that, at its core, is quintessential example of chivalric romance. It’s truly a dreamy experience (though, from a purely cinematic standpoint, it’s far from perfect).

But the desire for simplicity goes beyond the dream of a world that is easier to understand. In the age of the precariat, one wishes for a higher meaning, to discover his true calling in life, that which would fulfill and satisfy him. Economic insecurity turns man into machine, constantly performing repetitive tasks, until being summarily shut down. Wage stagnation and income inequality are some of the biggest hurdles that the generations to come must overcome, especially if the rise of the precariat class is to be stemmed – labor productivity grows much faster than wages and there are only so many hours in the day. In this climate of uncertainty and rampant class disproportion, it’s no wonder that the individual would look for reprieve in a magical place where the worker receives the fruits of his labor, where evil is black and good is white and one can easily hack evil to bits with their trusty sword if need be. Even nuanced works that borrow heavily from the history of Medieval Britain like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire feature a faction or party that is clearly morally superior and, sooner or later, receives a chance to retaliate, to exact vengeance upon those who wronged both it and the surrounding world.

The other crucial component of Medieval romanticism is the knight – typically a wanderer, lone wolf or one with a small pack, rarely displaying more than a limited array of emotional responses. The knights-errant are influential stoic characters, precursors to action movie badasses, as portrayed by the likes of Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wesley Snipes. And why is any of this particularly important? Because a strong character, one who is physically able and mentally sound, who lives a fulfilling life and is constantly confronted with something new, offers the opportunity for the reader, viewer, or player to live vicariously through this protagonist’s experiences. In an age where depression is becoming an ever more serious issue to public health, there is no wonder that some individuals turn to mediums such as gaming and film to explore aspects of life that are inaccessible to them in their current state. Becoming famed monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia in the Medieval Europe-inspired world of the Witcher offers something that a person suffering from severe anxiety or chronic depression may never experience otherwise. Likewise, watching The Seventh Seal, a film in which Max Von Sydow, a knight returning from the Crusades, finds Europe enveloped by the Black Plague and plays chess with Death, might bring the viewer closer to realizations that he’d never have reached himself, might even help him on a profoundly intellectual level.

Or maybe it’s all harmless diversion and my Occam’s razor simply hasn’t been sharpened in too long.