I gave an artist talk on my game project, AURA, this summer. I go into binaural brain entrainment, environmental narrative and ECCO the Dolphin's subversive roots.
Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, shot as usual by the incredible Sven Nykvist, is a fascinating entry in the auteur's catalogue. Considered by many a minor work for Bergman, it's an odd film that surprises and resonates in ways that few films can. It's often treated as his only explicit "horror" film, yet thematically it falls in line with many of his other films, which create their own horrors through exploration of the human psyche.
The film opens by informing the viewers through on screen text that Johan, and artist, has gone missing. The film about to be screened is based on his diaries and the accounts of his wife, Alma. The couple are portrayed by Bergman standards Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman. As is typical of his 60s films, we're treated to some meta context as the director's voice is heard over the title and introduction setting up a shot. This element combined with the set up of unreliable narrators (the diary and the wife) creates the expectation that the account of events we're about to witness will blur reality and fiction, and that nothing can be counted on as "real."
The story is set up as Johan and Alma arrive on an isolated island on a small boat. They carry their possessions, consisting mostly of Joahn's canvasses, up a steep hill in a wheel barrow. Here, Alma tends the home while Johan works on his paintings. They are initially happy - when he promises to draw her every day, she shyly but playfully exposes her neck in just the right way.
Their happiness soon dissipates as Johan seems more distant and frustrated. I would be shocked is Darren Aronofsky weren't referencing this film when he was producing Mother!, but then again the tale of a self-centered, tortured male artist neglecting his poor lover is hardly a new tale. We discover that Johan is seeing monsters; a woman who can remove her face when she takes off her hat, a winged bird man, and assorted other creeps.
The key piece of dialogue comes when Alma tells Johan about how she wants them to grow old together until they look alike, but then wonders if a couple can begin to share psychological aspects as well. Not long after this, she is visited by a strange old woman in a large hat. She and the audience are just waiting for her to remove her face as the woman advises her to look under the bed for Johan's diary, which discovers and reads. Here, the distrust settles in, her loneliness transforms to fear.
Soon, unusual characters are coming out of the woodwork to interrogate Johan while he paints. An intrusive professor who gets a slap in the face, the wealthy owners of the island and, somehow, the woman with whom Johan had years earlier had a scandalous affair. These encounters lead to an invitation to a horrific dinner party, including over eager widows and a nightmarish puppet show. The tension and events escalate, as the motley crew of wealthy eccentrics seem to be trying to divide Johan and Alma - they seem obsessed with his former lover and even own Johan's painting of her for the house. The couple are forced to look at the painting as its owner gushed about obsession and love (also inappropriately revealing a sex related injury to the pair, to drive home the discomfort of the situation.)
Everyone we meet here is, apparently, a personification of one of Johan's persona demons. THey're lustful, indulgent, they needle for the pretension of considering himself an artist, and they all seem obsessed with his sexual appetites. Notably, one of the men is pointed out as a homosexual, implying a more complicated sexual psyche for Johan.
After their horrific dinner, Johan and Alma stay up all night in terror, while Johan begins confessing even more secrets. Shown in an overexposed silent flashback, without and indication of when it happened or IF it actually did, we see Johan painting near a cliff as a barely dressed pre-pubescent boy crawls over the rocks to provoke him.
The boy is intrusive and annoying, and is clearly trying Johan's patience, but it seems to be the last straw when the boy lays down and strikes a provocative pose in the sun. Johan is infuriated and attacks the boy, screaming something that the audience never hears. Ultimately, he kills the boy and disposes of the body in the sea over the cliff.
So a point is reached where we see Johan's lust, in various forms, a sexual deviancy, a tendency towards violence and a deep insecurity as an artist. The lead up to this tense moment has Johan in a mentally fragile state - under slept and ravaged by his own demons. Alma, desiring so much o be a part of her husband's world, ha subjected herself to these very entities, leaving herself frayed and vulnerable.
A late night visit from the professor leaves the pair with a gun, a heightened sense of fear, and the information that Johan's former lover is waiting for him back at the castle. Johan, being swayed by the professor's guidance to eliminate any small threats, shoots Alma and runs back to the castle.
Here, the monsters reveal themselves, the woman removes her face, a man shows his hideous wings and walks across the ceiling while bemoaning that it's all because of his jealousy. Johan is treated to a makeover to prepare him for his meeting, where he is transformed into a ghoulishly feminized version of himself, gaudy eye shadow and lipstick smeared over his mouth. He is told to wear a robe before entering, further emasculating him. He discovers his lover as the residents of the castle laugh.
Far more explicitly surreal and horrific than most of Bergman's films, Hour of the Wolf is a thrilling ride through the darkness of a man's psyche. His mind over processing his guilt and repression, warping reality into a landscape of monsters and demons must have been a huge influence on David Lynch - what fictions does a person create to make sense of the horrors of trauma and failure? No one explores this space as elegantly and horrifically as Bergman.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to show my work at Play NYC, an indie game convention and the first of its kind in new York. For me, it was about feeling out the scene - I was there showing my first video game project and getting a feel for the scene. I talked to a on of fascinating people and left with the sense that there's a pretty solid community here. The range of what can be done with gamin is massive and people were open to multiplayer party games, VR experiences, mobile games and narrative work like what my friends and I were sowing. It felt nice to have a little island of story based gaming in the crowd where it was hard for people to sit down and take their time with a game (shout out to Charles Hans Huang for his meditative/introspective Reflections at Sunset for creating an actual oasis).
I left feeling pretty good about existing in the indie game world, wether expanding on Aura or moving on to the next thing. I not only feel an excitement for the possibilities of game storytelling, but a great sense of place in a community of makers.
Catherine Breillat's 2003 film A Ma Soeur!, released in the States as Fat Girl, is a rough watch, the kind you can' turn away from. Alternately (sometimes simultaneously) disturbing, horrifying, romantic and hilarious, the film succeeds based on a superb script that doesn't hold back and forces the viewers to participate.
Twelve year old Anaïs is an overweight, somewhat annoying but oddly relatable girl. She's dressed in garish green swimwear through most of the film to underscore her awkward physique and postures. Anaïs's sister, fifteen year old Elena, stands in contrast - a budding beauty, ready to explore her sexuality. The pair of sisters open the film discussing their personal views on sex and love. Anaïs claiming her first sexual encounter should be with someone she doesn't care about, just something to get it out of the way, Elena dreaming of the moment being a perfect manifestation of young love. Interestingly, Elena comes across outwardly as far less romantic in nature, while Anaïs dreams up a love triangle between herself and the ladders in the pool while swimming alone.
The film's simple setting - a remote resort town in coastal France - removes the family from their normal trappings. It creates an atmosphere of isolation - we're stuck here with this dysfunctional family on their vacation as observers. This idea is reflected in the micro via the sisters' shared bedroom. Elena won't let anything stop her quest to lose her virginity to an Italian tourist she's just met, conflating her adolescent longing for the true love that she needs to surrender herself to, as per the rules she's set for herself. Not even her sister in a bed just feet away deter her from twice inviting her lover over to seal her destiny.
The viewers are forced into the extreme discomfort of Anaïs as the scene drags on. Breillat doesn't spare us a single uncomfortable moment or bit of dialogue as Elena navigates and negotiates her first time. After getting cold feet, her partner assures her that going in the back door will assure that she'll retain her virginity. Here, in one of the few moments we're spared of directly experiencing a graphic incident, the camera focuses on Anaïs, pretending to sleep, just barely covering her eyes through a few fingers. We hear Elena and it's obvious that this isn't a pleasant experience for her.
This scene feels like the centerpiece for the film, which is really just a handful of incredibly long scenes. A less artful film maker would have made this absolutely punishing to sit through. Between the scenes of excruciating discomfort are some very realistic, moving scenes of the sisters' love hate relationship. They snap at each other, Elena makes Anaïs cry when forcing her to cover up her exploits, they giggle in the mirror about how different they are, they lay in bed laughing at shared experiences. This completely convincing sisterhood makes the pair's actions believable, and makes you root for both of them at the same time.
Fat Girl's controversial and shocking final scene is something that won't leave one's mind for a long time after viewing. Elena is exposed by her lover's other and the vacation is cut short. The drive home build suspense masterfully using the emotions of the passengers - the mother's anger, Elena's dejection and Anaïs's pain over being unished for her sisters wrongdongs - to create a tension that you can feel through he screen. This is coupled with long shots outside the car showing the poor driving skills of their mother, cutting off trucks with no regard, the sisters talking about their mother's mortality as cars pass frighteningly close while they're pulled over. Such an atmosphere of dread is created that we know something is going to happen, and when it turns out to be an axe murderer at a rest sop the shock is so great that we almost piss ourselves at the same time as Anaïs.
The attack ends with Anaïs as the only survivor, raped in the woods by the attacker. The script set us up for this - the story is all about young sexuality, expectations and disappointment. Moreso, it's about the horror of getting what you want. Both Elena and Anaïs lose their virginity in the ways they wanted, but absolutely not the ways they'd expected to.
This week I finally sat down to watch Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady. I've been meaning to see it for some time, looking for one of the elusive "actually good gay movies," and this one is added to my personal canon. His movies have the effect of pulling you out of your body and making you feel completely out of place for a period after the viewing.
One of the few directors who can actually sell magic realism, Weerasethakul also presents one of the most organic and believable romantic build ups in recent memory. It's sweet and charming but there's still the sense that the two men, one, Keng, a soldier who just arrived in town, the other, Tong, a villager are concealing something. There are so many honest moments, how they meet in the crowded city street with Tong riding in a truck, the way Keng erotically smells Tong's hand after he urinates, their bashful entanglement of limbs in a movie theater. We get the sense of true affection littered discreetly with signals that the two men aren't completely allowing one to know the other fully.
The film's second half places Keng alone in the forest, hunting a dangerous tiger who as been mutilating cattle throughout the story. Barely a word is spoken outside of Keng unsuccessfully trying to communicate through a walkie talkie and the brief appearance of a subtitled monkey. The tiger is Tong, sometimes in human form, sometimes as an actual tiger. There are references here to a Thai folk tale that the two seem to be reenacting. The fact that Tong is hunting his lover, who the monkey tells him is also stalking him, casts a dark shadow over the sweetness of the film's first half. The monkey informs Tong that he must either kill the tiger to set its soul free, or allow the tiger to kill him, where Tong will join the tiger in the darkness forever. Keng and Tong's relationship is subverted through this metaphorical hunt, demonstrating what was perhaps the secret nature of their courtship all along.
Darkness and all, the film somehow feels hopeful, even if just for the uplifting first half and jaw dropping beauty throughout. As in many of Weerasethakul's films, he spiritual world invades gently, mingling with the mundane. A woman might be talking about "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and in the same breath talking about a genuine ghost. In the more recent Cemetery of Splendour, a woman mingles with Goddesses and later takes a tour through her companion's dream world while we watch from the outside.
I think a key to the beauty of Weerasethakul's films is the way the viewers distanced from the action. So many shots are full body, showing a person in their larger surrounding, and a close up is rare. Silence is allowed to exist; so many moments of this film are filled with sound of wind blowing and leaves rustling. This gives the environment and its mystic nature narrative weight while giving every moment ample breathing room. It's in this sense that Tropical Malady itself seems to breathe, take on a life of its own and stay with you.
Last night I re-watched Videodrome as reference and inspiration for a current project. I'm eternally blown away by Cronenberg's work, few other creators balance intellect, craft and horror so successfully. The film is prescient, beautiful and still shocking; the images of the videodrome transmission still unsettle me, and as ridiculous as the images are, Max's hungry, vaginal orifice consuming orders on VHS tapes is shocking and audacious.
Thematically it's a broad movie - desire for something new, living in a plugged in and overstimulated society, higher forces wanting to rid society of "trash." These all lead more specifically to pornography and BDSM used as tools for people living in this over-connected, overstimulated world. This being 1983, the main focus is on television, which works to its favor in a pre-Matrix cinematic world; we hadn't been inundated quite so much with internet conspiracies and alternate reality horror. Cronenberg would rival The Matrix thematically with the under rated Existenz years later, but would never again be as ahead of the curve as he is here with Videodrome.
One of my favorite literary themes is the idea of wanting to experience more than you've been allowed, wanting to feel more than you maybe should and paying a price for it. There's a shared DNA here with Hellraiser, opening Pandora's box, willingly exposing yourself to Videodrome and never being the same. James Woods' Max wants viewers for his tiny TV channel, but he knows to attract people these days you need something shocking. He looks for something new in pornography but it's not enough. Enter Videodrome, a program supposedly broadcasting from Pittsburgh, its frequencies picked up by a pirate sattelite and presented to Max. Against an electrified clay wall (?) women are being beaten and humiliated, It seems real, but can't be. Max needs it. Later, on a talk show, he's interviewed alongside radio psychiatrist Nicki and television religious leader Dr. O'Blivion. He begins dating Nicki, who confesses to living life in a state of constant over stimulation, leading her to masochism in order to feel satisfied; extinguishing cigarettes on her chest and sexually piercing her skin. The pair watch Videodrome on a date (dream date) and Nicki is more than intrigued. She wants to be on Videodrome.
To sum up the plot, Nicki goes missing and the trail leads to O'Blivion, whose Cathode Ray Mission is plugging the homeless into television to reconnect them to society. Max begins having violent fantasies and delusions, he inserts a gun into a gaping wound in his stomach. Turns out Videodrome was a corporate/military invention designed to cause hallucinations and create zombies; the content had two functions - to attract those low enough in their eyes to want to watch Videodrome, and to use violence to open up neural pathways to make them susceptible to the mind control and hallucinations. The only moment where Videodrome doesn't work for me is when the creators of the frequency tell a brainwashed Max to kill his partners and give them Channel 83, it just feels like having the president murder his partners wouldn't necessarily shift control of the channel to these shady people.
So, what's driving these characters? It's maybe not the most character driven story in Cronenberg's oeuvre, but the story is pushed forward by the desires and decisions of Max and Nicki. Overtly, Max wants an audience for Channel 83, but why is he driven to do this through pornography and shock value? It's a view on humanity and society that this is what attracts people, but also, as Videodrome creator Barry calls him out, a mirror to his own cravings. The porn and BDSM aren't shocking, but the Videodrome frequency seems to awaken a subconscious desire to hurt people, mainly women. A dark feature of this film is that the main character is possibly driven by a subconscious desire to hurt women, manifesting in the attraction to Videodrome and the sadistic role in his relationship with Nicki. Nicki, however, has confronted her desires. She knows she wants pain to feel good and goes after it. It's almost inconsequential though when she does. As far as the audience knows, she's been snuffed out by Videodrome, or perhaps she never existed beyond the talk show, as she largely enters the story after Max begins hallucinating. One could read into her disappearance as cautionary, as she looks for an extreme experience and gets killed for it, but, for better or worse, her disappearance serves to push the plot forward, causing Max to look for her in Pittsburgh. Interestingly, he doesn't seem all that concerned with Nicki (nor does anyone, really) but is looking for answers about Videodrome and O'blivion.
Nicki returns in the end, having transcended the "old flesh," transmitting to Max through a television set full of human organs, where Max will join her in the "new flesh." Wether this is a permanent connection, a final result of our plugged in society or a rejection of it I can't say, but the words ring eternally: "Long live the new flesh."
I went to see the Revenant last night for a second time. A few friends who hadn't seen it wanted to go and I enjoyed it enough the first time to see i another time, the gorgeous cinematography certainly warranted another viewing in a theater.
Second time around, I paid a lot more attention to the theme of death and rebirth in the movie. There is a real beauty to the way that every time the unstoppable Hugh Glass "dies' he re-emerges from something as if being born again, sometimes totally naked and out of a biological organism, such as the horse he sleeps in for warmth after a fall over a cliff. This is repeated in a hut built by a Pawnee man he meets and earliest when he digs himself out of his own shallow grave.
Each time Glass is reborn he's stronger, but less human. Revenge becomes his sole purpose for surviving, his son having been taken needlessly.
The idea of who's good and bad in this film is very black and white, the characters don't have a lot of depth, functioning more as living ideas of intangible concepts. Fitzgerald is greed and apathy towards life personified, Leo's wife and child were all that is good in the world, taken away. Glass functions not quite as good or evil, but a force of nature, fueled by rage.
If I have a problem with this film it's that the only female character exists solely to be kidnapped and raped. I understand this from a narrative viewpoint, and she gets her revenge s well, but I like to imagine we can do a little better with female characters. Obviously there aren't going to be a lot of women in the fur trapping camp, but some of the native American females could have been given some depth. The only other woman in the movie I recall is a survivor of a pillaging that gets thrown a little bit of food by the sympathetic young man passing through.
Knowing that the real life Hugh Glass did not have a son is an interesting thought narratively. A lot of weight is given to Glass's back story as an outsider that made a life of peace with a native American family, creating an emotional resonance to his anger for the audience. In reality, he was pissed that Fitzgerald left him to die, which is a pretty legitimate reason to want revenge, however lacking in altruism and familial bonds. The son was a nice addition to give some humanity to a cold revenge story.
The Revenant presents a Herzog like view of the brutality of nature. The viewer can't help but realize that the typical living human today wouldn't last a few days in the conditions that Glass drudges through. The environment looks huge, and it is, the panoramic cinematography of the legendary Emanuel Lubezki places the viewer in the wilderness, the mountains and valleys so enormous that we feel like dwarves in our seats. This is balanced by an aggressively intimate shooting style during violent scenes. Blood literally splatters onto the camera lens in a visceral shock, creating a phantom twinge of pain. I swear the theater got colder when Glass was wet and freezing in the snow. Iñarritu's signature long fluid moving shots bring the viewer into the frame, creating the illusion that you're the one looking around, moving your eyes back and forth between Glass and his dead son in desperation. Big events for humans in the film are often preceeded by images of pure nature; elk crossing a river or wolves attacking buffalo give light foreshadowing to what happens next in the world of men.