Films With Meaning

Thanks, Sweetie

“Sweetie”, by Jane Campion

“Sweetie”, by Jane Campion

“Sweetie” is a hard film to write about for several reasons. For starters, the style and aesthetic of the film are like nothing else I’ve seen, making it impossible to do justice to it through mere description. More importantly, one of the greatest strengths of the film is discovery, and so the more I write about the film, the more it takes away from the film. The one tantalizing thing I will say about the film is that while the film is called “Sweetie”, it is more about Sweetie’s sister. If you can understand the psychology behind such a choice, you will have a good idea what the main themes of this movie are. However, even unraveling this clue so completely as to know everything about the themes of the movie will not give you even the slightest clue as to what this movie is like or what to expect. And that brings me to what I can write about with this film, artistic discovery.

When I talk about artistic discovery, I mean of the artist, but true artistic discovery becomes discovery for the audience as well. All filmmakers, like all artist, have influences and heroes of their own. But the true artist digs deep inside themself to find what is theirs and theirs alone to share, to create, and risks vulnerability to create something new and never before seen. It is such a risk because all art is subjective, so there is no guarantee that if an artist follows this urge to create that it will be appreciated or even accepted by audiences, popular and critical. The more daring the artist is to dig deep and expose themselves, straying outside the norm, the greater the risk of rejection or ridicule, especially by the popular audience. But it is only when great artists risk that cruel rejection of their exposed self that something as remarkable as “Sweetie” can exist. 

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Of course now it sounds like I am putting unreasonably lofty expectations on this film that it could never live up to for those who read this and then watch it. But my appreciation for Sweetie as remarkable has nothing to do with how it was received by anyone who has watched it before, and not for anyone who will watch it after. It is merely an acknowledgment of the film as something wholly unique, unlike anything I’ve seen before. WIth the long history of film, that is quite a feat. A film like that really only comes about when it is an authentic representation of something really deep and personal within the filmmaker. And, if the audience is open to it, then the audience gets to discover something new as well, something that may just alter their perspective on film, on people, on the world. 

Finally, that brings me to “Sweetie” and me. I have not felt this creatively invigorated by a film in a long, long time. There are many films I love, many more I admire, but few nowadays that open up my eyes to wondrous new possibilities. I have started working on a treatment for my first feature film script, with plans to begin writing soon. It is going to be the most personal film I have written by leaps and bounds, and while I have the story and themes down very clearly, I have been having trouble visualizing just what I want the film to look like and to feel like. I was feeling a little bit stuck inside of old ideas and old influences, and that was leaving me feeling empty of vision. Watching “Sweetie” pumped precious new life into me creatively speaking and I am excited to start seeing this next film in my head rather than merely thinking about it. Thanks, Sweetie.

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Seventh Seal of Fate

Bengt Ekerot as Death in ‘The Seventh Seal’ by Ingmar Bergman

Bengt Ekerot as Death in ‘The Seventh Seal’ by Ingmar Bergman

What I was most surprised to pick up in ‘Seventh Seal’ is the idea that action, good or bad, can give purpose to a man and relieve existential crisis. The backdrop is an England that is welcoming home knights from war as paranoia about the spreading plague invades every conversation and action. In this world, it makes perfect sense that Death is an actual character that is lingering around at all times, challenging and unsettling our protagonists. And it is in this context that we can understand the need to put less emphasis on right vs. wrong and more emphasis on being able to live life normally whatever it takes to stave off the fear and anxiety of impending death.

Our hero, Antonius Block, spends the entire film trying to think of any way to outsmart, trick, or cheat death to stay alive, and he spends most of his time in angst over his fight with death. His squire, Jöns, however, bully’s some poor fellow one minute, and comes to the aid of another the next minute. He saves a woman from being raped, then immediately forces a kiss on her and says she is lucky he is choosing not to rape her because he could. His actions sway from bad to good, but he never hesitates, and he feels none of the angst that plagues Antonius. To act is to be present, and to be present is to be free of the future and the past. The one failure we must all face, that none of us can escape, is the failure of death. And when we know it could be just around the corner at every moment it does no good to be fearing what is just around the corner because we lose the ability to live in the present.

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The dynamic between Antonius and Jöns is quite like the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna keeps worrying about how to act in the face of huge impending battle with family and friends among the enemy forces. He fears taking the wrong actions and frets over how he could possibly prevent the war from happening. Krishna argues that he must act because war is going to happen with or without him and we cannot separate or remove ourselves from the happenings of the world. In the face of death, it is only through action that we can find peace of mind. I think most people have a hard time with throwing out the idea of right vs. wrong in any situation, and so these arguments can be problematic for some. In the modern age we might want to believe that Krishna is wrong when he tells Arjuna that the battle is unavoidable and he must not waste energy trying to prevent it. It takes away our belief in the control and free will we have as people. However, while many people could see the folly of going to war with Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, larger cultural forces made it unavoidable. And at that point, most people sought peace of mind through action, whether that action was to join the army and go to war, or whether that action was to find out the truth and expose the lies of the government. It is those of us who sat on the sidelines that felt the most existential angst about the situation. There is real power in action, the power to control your own fate, which is the essence of free will. Fate and free will are not mutually exclusive, and they need not oppose each other, they are merely two sides of one of the universe’s many beautiful, confounding paradoxes.

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There is another character in The Seventh Seal, Jof the actor, who represents passion. He is happily married with a small son, and both her and his wife are traveling performers. He does not make much money, he is always on the road, and many times the audience does not appreciate or care for his performance, especially in these troubled times ruled by anxiety. However, throughout the film while he is around this strange cast of characters in the midst of chaos, he and his family are never hounded by death. He lives a simple life doing what he loves, and his reward is family, peace, and life. In fact, the only moment of stillness Antonius has in the entire film to appreciate the beauty of life is when he first meets Jof and his family, sharing a picnic with strawberries in the countryside. Antonius cannot hold onto the moment for long, and he even states he wants to remember it, but that moment is just everyday life for Jof. So while the film acknowledges the importance of action above all else in times of crisis and fear, it also does show that acting out of passion are what will not only allow you to live without angst, but to live with joy and love instead.

Looking at its historic impact, The Seventh Seal was also revolutionary from an aesthetic and thematic standpoint. Much of the film fare of the time will still focused on entertainment, because popular success was of paramount importance. Even early masters of cinema around the globe who had bigger ideas on their minds would often put them into entertaining, relatable stories, or popular genre fare. The Seventh Seal, however, is very strange. It wears its existentialism on its sleeve, and it could easily be labeled as pretentious or corny. It doesn’t even have the luxury of great costumes or fancy techniques or special effects to mitigate those aspects that could be open to ridicule. The imagery is stark black and white, the pace is slow, and the mood is heavy and philosophical. However, when researching the film, I discovered that it was largely responsible for opening up America to international arthouse fare and not just popular entertainment from other countries because it became a big hit. As someone who first learned about the world from watching international arthouse cinema from around the globe, I feel a deep gratitude to this film and the way it helped open up America to foreign cinema, and maybe even cinema as a whole, to the idea of film as art.

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Laying Around La Cienaga, Wrapped in Grace

La Ciénaga by Lucrecia Martel

La Ciénaga by Lucrecia Martel

La Ciénaga by Lucrecia Martel can really the warp the viewer’s sense of time in a beautiful, maddening way. Nothing much really happens in the film, just plenty of wasted days laying around the house, the pool, and the forest. There are two intertwined families whose relationships to one another aren’t always entirely clear, spending time in a communal malaise in the swampy heat of summer, with lots of literal laying around. I’m sure that sounds like the worst sales pitch ever to watch a film, and this definitely isn’t a film for everyone, or maybe even most people. But, for those that like to be absorbed into an atmosphere and to be with characters who feel lived, not created, this film is for you.

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The biggest thing we as viewers can pick up on is that the adults have abdicated all responsibility and authority and left the children to care for themselves, physically and emotionally. In a scene early on, one of the mothers gets drunk, falls, and cuts herself by the pool, she yells at and pushes away her teen daughter who is trying to help her. Yet this young girl, whose family has made her grown well beyond her years, bears with the immaturity and continues to make sure her mother gets to the hospital to receive appropriate medical attention. The woman’s husband, also drunk, is lounging in the background and making no move to help out his wife or daughter while all of this is playing out. That one scene tell us everything we need to understand about these people and how they relate to each other. It sets up the rest of the film so that we don’t have to question any small interactions or things we see and what they mean, we already know how shit this family’s relationships are and any little action that seems shitty is really shitty, there is no explanation or redeeming story behind it.

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The only redemption in the whole film, in fact, is Momi, played beautifully by Sofia Bertolotto. She puts up with every member of her family and their shit, and she desperately clings to the one light for her in this mess, the family maid, Isabel. Momi’s mom (the aforementioned drunk), is casually racist towards Isabel as an indigenous person and sees her as a fundamentally lesser human, whereas Momi regards her as one of the family. The tension seems such that it will eventually lead to Isabel leaving the family, taking away Mom’s one source of joy and relief. It is with that lens that we must look at Momi’s interactions with her family as fairly miraculous, still taking on the role of caretaker for the family despite the total lack of help and support they give to her and their seeming desire to drive Isabel away. Momi represents that hope still exists in this swamp of hopelessness. She represents that you can be put in the middle of chaos, you can give of yourself to everyone around you while receiving nothing in return, and still have the potential to grow up and escape the swamp and live a happy life. Perhaps that is me imposing my own hope onto this character and the film because I need there to be an escape from the dreary existence it chronicles. And I acknowledge it’s a strange hope: a teen girl being burdened unfairly by tremendous parental neglect and the need to manage her family’s drama is able to handle it without being crushed into nothingness like her parents so that she may one day live a functional life and have the chance for happiness, hooray!

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But for me, it is a hope. And right now, with the state of the world as it is and all the chaos and unmanageable relationships abounding everywhere, I need a hope. Because the thing about Momi, as I see her, is that she doesn’t judge or condemn anyone around her, and she doesn’t disengage from any of them either. She deals with them as they are and tries to manage things the best she can for herself and for her family around her. Sometimes we are destined to fail and the chaos around us is too much to overcome, but we cannot be crushed by it, so we can pick ourselves back up after the fall and move forward. We cannot hide from or prevent the trauma the world is going to throw at us, we can only learn how to bear it. And for me, Momi is a symbol of hope that we can bear it with grace and dignity.

Seven Samurai In Hollywood

“Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa

“Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa

There is no way I can write objectively, reasonably, or critically about “Seven Samurai”, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece. I fell in love with Kurosawa around the same time I fell in love with arthouse and foreign cinema, and I held up “Seven Samurai” as almost the holy grail of film. For that reason, I kept putting off watching it because I wanted to save it for the right time, whatever that means. In the end, it has taken me over 15 years to finally watch it, and so the 15 years of expectations and anticipation I brought into watching it were absurd and unfair to any film. I don’t feel it’s fair to even give an assessment of the film, as it cannot really compare to the effect watching “Rashomon” had on me at 23 as I was just discovering the world of film beyond the mainstream action blockbusters of my youth. It’s also strange because Kurosawa was one of my main entry points into the idea of cinema as more than entertainment, but as a true art form. However, the reality is that “Seven Samurai” is very clearly made to be a piece of popular entertainment, even at 3 and a half hours long. That’s not to say it’s not art, it clearly is, but it’s much less arthouse than the films Ozu was making at the time, and less arthouse than other works of Kurosawa. In fact, I believe that is why Kurosawa and “Seven Samurai” continue to have such a high standing in film history, because of his ability to fuse popular entertainment with an artistic quality that perhaps was not seen at that level before. 

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That brings up the most salient point about Kurosawa, which is that he set the template for so much of Hollywood after 1950, and did so most effectively and effortlessly with “Seven Samurai”. Many of the most popular and most successful Western films of all time, a quintessentially American genre, were remakes of or inspired by Kurosawa films. George Lucas has admitted how much inspiration he took from Kurosawa for Star Wars. There is one sword fight in “Seven Samurai” in particular that looks exactly like some of the most famous light saber battles in Star Wars, from the stance and posture of the combatants to the framing and tension building. The realism and chaos of the epic final battle in “Seven Samurai”, mirrored in the dynamic and chaotic way it was shot and edited, was a big change for the time and influenced countless war films that came after it. The way it brought an eclectic cast of characters together one by one to team up and fight a common enemy despite their differences has been echoed in endless action films, and can still be seen today in movies like The Avengers and the Fast & Furious series. Kurosawa was slightly controversial in Japan in his day for being to Western in his filmmaking style, but the reality is that he kind of set the standard of style that the Western mainstream film industry would copy, consciously and unconsciously, from his first film until today. 

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The last thing that makes it harder to appreciate the true mastery of “Seven Samurai” when watching it today is that it is impossible to pick up all of the powerful social commentary if you are not well versed in Japanese history and culture. Of course, the commentary is weaved into a narrative whose themes and ideas are universal, which gave his films mass appeal around the globe. But to miss the specificity of what he was trying to say about Japan and Japanese culture is to miss the the full power and force and his message and how radical it was at the time. To portray samurai as anything other than the trope of noble and honorable warrior was revolutionary at the time. To give respect to the farmers and validate their grievances against the samurai was to push back against the caste system that dominated Japanese society throughout its history. To allow a farmer to become a samurai, and to allow a samurai to fall in love with a farmer, these were incredibly taboo ideas at the time, especially for a country as conservative and honorific as Japan. We can watch these things today and understand them in the context of the film as unusual, but we cannot even come close to grasping how significant those images up on the big screen were for the Japanese people in 1954. While someone like Ozu may have been commenting on Japanese society by reflecting it in his films, Kurosawa was directly challenging it by putting up a fantasy of what could be, and I’m sure what he thought should be. 

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There are a few other aspects of this film to highlight that are quite remarkable. At a time when dynamic and complex camera movement was incredibly challenging, practically speaking, due to the equipment available, so much so that really no other films outside of America were using it heavily, Kurosawa managed to employ a ton of incredibly smooth and effective dynamic camera movement throughout the film, especially in the aforementioned epic and influential final battle. To master something no one else was doing around most of the globe is shows what an innovator he was. It was also very uncommon in Japan at the time to film outside of studio designed sets where a director had complete control and good working conditions for the actors and crew. Yet for “Seven Samurai”, Kurosawa insisted on building a town out in the countryside and working in difficult weather conditions to bring an added level of realism and authenticity to the production. I cannot imagine the challenge it created in fulfilling his vision, but it was worth the effort, and is among the best examples of something Kurosawa came to be known for, which is the dynamic use of movement in the background or foreground of his frames created naturally by weather to add texture and mood to scenes. This includes things like heavy rain, wind blowing dust in the air and rustling trees and hair and fabric. I watch a youtube video one time comparing classic Kurosawa scenes and the life this use of weather added to his frames to the coldness and lifelessness of modern action and superhero films shot mostly with green screen due to static or artificial backgrounds in nearly every shot, and “Seven Samurai” is a great example of this. 

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When I started this essay, with the conflicted feelings I had after watching this film, I honestly had no idea what I would write and thought perhaps this would be the shortest one yet. However, I was clearly inspired by the audacity of Kurosawa and “Seven Samurai” upon reflection and upon learning so much new information about the film in my research of it. Watching it at 38 after watching so many hundreds of films it just didn’t hit me viscerally the way it may have had I watch it at 23 like “Rashomon”. It also didn’t strike me emotionally the way “The Music Room” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc” have in this film writing journey so far. That brings me a hint of sadness given how long I’ve been waiting to watch it. It also makes me eager to watch other Kurosawa films I haven’t seen yet that don’t bring that level of expectation with them and see how they strike me. Most notably “Ikiru”, starring the fabulous Takashi Shimura, who was incredible as the lead Samurai Kambei in “Seven Samurai”. Regardless of “Seven Samurai” not living up to the insane standards I set for it in my mind 15 years ago and held on to, it is undeniably a masterpiece of cinema that any serious cinema fan should watch immediately, as well as anyone wanting to learn about the history of film and see where so much of Hollywood entertainment got its start. If your favorite movie of all time was made by Hollywood and was wildly successful and popular, chances are it was in some way influence by “Seven Samurai”. Now that’s a tough legacy to live up to! 

Burning Youth

“Burning” (2018) by Chang-Dong Lee

“Burning” (2018) by Chang-Dong Lee

It’s been 4 days since I watched “Burning”, by Chang-Dong Lee, but the images from the film are still seared onto my brain. I don’t normally like to leave such a long gap between watching a film and writing about it, but the hazy quality time places over memory somehow seems to match this film perfectly. Remembering every detail of the film feels like arguing against it’s own existence, because everything is up for question and remembering every detail won’t help you get any closer to the truth. Watching it feels like the end of a long wasted day alone on a deserted island with only an anxious mind for company, staring at a purple and blue horizon well after the sun has gone down with an unquenchable yearning in your heart. If you find the abstract, ambiguous way I am compelled to write about this movie pretentious or annoying, “Burning” is probably not the movie for you. For everyone else, I highly recommend you let it’s warm waves wash over you.

There is a story, of course, a mysterious love triangle between 3 young adults who barely know each other. Except that it is not a romantic or erotic film, and while there is a mystery, the film isn’t particularly interested in solving it, only exploring it. And frankly, it’s not entirely clear what is the intention or motivation of any member of the triangle in question. So, you may be asking, what the hell is the point of this film? I think it’s really about the loneliness of the modern age, the aimless nature of a generation with fewer job opportunities, inauthenticity shaped by a social media culture, and an inability to truly connect with other people. That may sound like it’s a film looking down on the younger generations, but it is actually one of great empathy for a youth culture constantly misunderstood and misrepresented in media. The way these characters behave is shaped by the world they live in, our world. They are underemployed and drifting, seeking for meaning, seeking for connection, all without a clue how to go about it. No one taught them how to cope in this world, because everyone from the older generations lived their youth in a completely different world, and they are blind to the difference. 

Jongsu, Hae-min, and Ben

Jongsu, Hae-min, and Ben

This is a good moment to pause and acknowledge something important about generational gaps. Every new generation rebels against the older generations, and the older generations tend to have trouble understanding the new generation, which can lead to looking down on them. However, what is happening in the modern age that is different than the past is that the rate of change (of technology, society, scientific discovery) has accelerated so rapidly that we have crossed a threshold where the world is fundamentally, rather than incrementally, different than it was one or two generations ago. In my lifetime we have shifted from no internet and almost no global awareness outside our own country, to ubiquitous internet and constant awareness and connection to every corner of the world. I think we do not acknowledge and talk about the impact of that change enough, and how much more complex and challenging the world has become to navigate practically, mentally, and emotionally. Throw on top of that things like the opioid crisis, looming automation takeover, climate change, and many other dire issues that are hanging over the younger generations, and the argument that they are just lazy or weak or narcissistic sounds absurd. They are desperately trying to cope with an information overload that gives them a bleaker outlook than previous generations. The media and governments could control information much more easily in the past, so what people had to take in, process, and deal with was comically small compared to today. It has gotten to a point where I don’t think we fully understand the emotional and mental burden of the modern world on the human brain, and the youth of today are growing up knowing nothing but that world. 

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Getting back to “Burning” and loneliness, the most interesting thing about our main character Jongsu is the way he allows himself to be drawn into more and more awkward social situations out of a combination of politeness and loneliness. He runs into a girl from his hometown in the city, but he doesn’t recognize her because, as she says, she had significant plastic surgery. He falls for her because she’s pretty and she shows a desire for his attention and affection. Jongsu presents as incredibly aloof, he does not know how to flirt or express affection, but the moment a girl he barely remembers flirts with him he falls in love because his longing for connection is so overwhelming. Soon Ben enters the picture out of nowhere, cool and confident and rich, and he is always with Hae-min. Jongsu is left feeling confused and hurt because he senses he has lost Hae-min romantically, but he never expresses his feelings, and instead just hangs around with Ben and Hae-min trying to understand them; what is their relationship to each other, and what is his relationship to each of them. The form an instant constellation, as if seen from Earth, where it is impossible to tell how close or far apart the stars really are or what is the true nature of their relationship to one another. Three ambiguous lives sharing ambiguous space for an ambiguous amount of time.

There is a core mystery that arises, but as the movie isn’t particularly interested in solving it, neither am I. Instead, I am fascinated by the way the movie combines the aesthetics and style of a mystery/thriller with those of an arthouse film, and uses that combination to create a mood which transmits the existential angst of our main characters. We don’t need to know all the details of what happens to feel what the characters feel, to be lost in a world of vast natural beauty and splendor yet feel trapped and suffocated by it. There are a few scenes in the film where characters are chasing fleeting moments of illumination, literally, moments of passing or fading sunlight or flames, mirroring their futile efforts to hold onto any meaning or substance in their lives. Hae-min dances topless in the dusk after sunset by the countryside with her arms outstretched towards the heavens trying to satisfy her ‘Great Hunger’ for knowledge of the universe. Jongsu dreams of standing as a boy in front of a burning greenhouse, the flames violent and vivid against the black country night. Everything for them feels so big and unattainable, even when it’s right in front of them.

Steven Yeun as Ben

Steven Yeun as Ben

Ben represents for Jongsu and Hae-min everything they think they are searching for, but everything about Ben is unreal, illusory. They chase Ben’s manufactured life the way so many young people chase the manufactured lives they see on Instagram, and it just leaves everyone feeling sad and inadequate. How do young people deal with life when they are made to constantly feel like they are not enough? Rather than comparing to the past, can we acknowledge the rapidly changing world and the challenges it presents? Because that is the future, constant change. The young people of today are pioneers and explorers, figuring out how to cope in an ever shifting social and technological landscape for the benefit of future generations who, let’s be honest, they probably won’t understand! Sorry, after all that searching, I thought it would be fun to end on a joke.