The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: celebration of a religious ritual that imprisons as much as it liberates

Kenneth Anger, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954)

A lush creation by famous underground avant-garde film-maker Kenneth Anger, this film of a celebratory religious ritual mixes several of Anger’s favourite themes and obsessions while remaining mysterious enough that it can be interpreted on a number of levels depending on the viewer’s background and opinions. I can see here a fascination with the occult and its symbols and trappings, many of which look like deliberate parodies and send-ups of Christian ritual and symbolism, into which Anger has inserted his own interest in the work and philosophy of English mystic Aleister Crowley. There is also a sense of people creating their own selective mix of mythology and ritual. Coming from another angle again, I can see criticism of formal religion, a suggestion that ritualistic religious ceremony can be corrupted and rotting from within, as much a prison from which there’s no escape except death, as it is a source of comfort and affirmation for its followers. In the midst of ecstatic communion, laughter and joy, there is also violence and an offer of a sacrifice to dark gods. The sacrifice could be interpreted as liberation as well, a release into a new clean world without sin and corruption. If we interpret the symbolism of “Inauguration …” very broadly, the film also becomes a critique of Western culture and people’s subjective notions of what is culturally acceptable and what is not.

The actual film itself is set to the music of “Glagolitic Mass”, a composition for solo voices, choir, organ and orchestra by Czech composer Leos Janacek, and could be seen as a very long music video. There’s no dialogue at all, no background or other ambient sound. The film builds up steadily with static diorama-like scenes up to the moment where various participants consume an intoxicating drink and then the visuals explode into layered scenes of bursting, flaming colour and strange superimposed juxtapositions and combinations of repeating images, Hindu-god figures with green skin (a symbol of death), Egyptian gods and maenads (female acolytes of the Greek god Dionysius, lord of ecstasy) tearing apart a young man. The film’s close, near-fetishistic attention to objects, the actors’ elaborate costuming and studied appearance, and the staged, mannerly look of scene set-ups recall the equally camp kitsch film classics made by the Armenian film-maker Parajanov in the 1960s and 1980s.

This is obviously not a film for everyone: much of it up to the 20th minute is slow and appears quite remote, not at all concerned about drawing viewers into its ritual and secrets. Characters are preoccupied with consuming rosary beads, a snake and a jewel. Religious rituals have never been about entertaining or informing viewers of their purpose after all; you’re always assumed to have undergone some training or education in the religion’s basic practices and knowledge and to receive further knowledge you have to be selected by the religion’s standard bearers whose expectations of you and your conformity to its precepts may be severe. Eventually the film does immerse viewers into its realm but you need to interpret its goings-on for yourselves: there’s no attempt to explain what’s happening for the benefit of first-time participants in the ritual. Is the death scene of the young blond man a send-up of Christian Holy Communion ritual as well as a literal interpretation of Dionysian ritual? Is it a reference to the destruction of a particular worldview or civilisation? Is there the possibility of rebirth, that the death is but a necessary initiation step he must take into another (and better) plane of existence?

People with no interest or appreciation for arcane religious ritual, veiled symbolism and the eclectic mixing of deities, figures and stories from different religious and folkloric traditions will be bored by the film and perhaps should pass it over but they will miss its layered symbolism and message of initiation, celebration, ecstasy, death and the hope of new life.

Invention of Love: short film challenges us to rediscover our humanity or allow technology to define us

Andrei Shushkov, “Invention of Love” (2010)

Came across this elegant and melancholy film short by chance while hunting out another film short on Youtube.com and decided this was worth a look. And I’m glad I gave it the time of day (just under 10 minutes to be exact) as its story of a doomed romance is beautifully and economically told in a style that recalls Indonesian shadow puppetry with excellent contrasts of black silhouettes against simple coloured backgrounds of which each colour signifies some aspect of the world the characters live in and highlights the film’s theme. Set in an alternative 19th-century world of steampunk technology, an inventor yearns for love amid his mechanical gadgets and goes in search of it. He finds the girl of his dreams in the country, they marry and he takes her to his home in the city. But she is ill-adapted to life in the city where people’s pets and even vegetation in public parks are all mechanised, and the air is polluted with the wastes of industry, and the wife begins to ail and rapidly fades away.

In some ways this film is a throwback to 1920s silent film: the figures, their settings and backgrounds are all in silhouette so the film has a highly expressionistic style and there’s no dialogue so the plot is straight all-action narrative and expressions of emotion and intention are portrayed completely by the two characters’ movements. Movement is strictly from left to right or right to left and maybe in just a couple of scenes is there movement from front to back or back to front. Significantly, near the end the inventor appears to turn to the viewer (breaking the “fourth wall”) as if to plead for understanding for what he has done. Although the characters and close objects are two-dimensional, Shushkov portrays city landscapes as three-dimensional with a clever use of layers of silhouettes superimposed one over the other and shading the layers with increasingly lighter and more faded tones going into the backgrounds so as to create an illusion of aerial perspective.

The music soundtrack, in part original and in part derived from Frederic Chopin’s work, mostly played on violin, matches the plot well, accentuating characters’ feelings as they travel from joy, happiness and love to homesickness, sadness and despair.

The use of mostly blue and yellow shades to contrast the world of nature with the world of machines, industry and pollution is very effective. The yellow suggests pollution and ultimately poison and death. The white background near the end of the film suggests loss of vitality and surrender to mechanisation. While the tragic end can be predicted – viewers can guess even before the halfway mark that the marriage will end in tears – the film’s ultimate conclusion is unexpected and horrific with the inventor deciding to give his life over completely to the world of machines rather than reconnect with nature and all that gives him his inspiration and creativity. The ending is horrific due to its ambiguity: the inventor turns to the audience but his silhouetted face is blank and viewers must choose either to sympathise with his desperate actions or pity him for his inability to escape, mentally as well as physically, his hi-tech Victorian world.

The film suggests that the world of machines can replicate or copy nature but can never really replace it and while it copies, it will continue to undervalue and destroy the original live creation. Humans have lost sight of what is really valuable and sustains them; they may try to replace it with tricky and clever technologies but the results are pale and sterile substitutes. Like the inventor, we must choose whether we want to remain with our machines and allow ourselves to be defined by them or break away and reconnect with the true source of life, vitality and identity.

“Invention of Love”? The title is very ironic indeed.

 

Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

Jumping (dir. Osamu Tezuka): experimental short snapshot of the human condition through a child’s viewpoint

Osamu Tezuka, “Jumping” (1984)

Boing! BOING! BOI-I-I-ING-G-G!!! Here comes “Jumping” by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astroboy, who made a fair few experimental anime film shorts in a long career that spanned creating manga comics and animated series and full-length feature films. “Jumping” jumps well above its weight in cartoon kingdom for its innovative adoption of a particular first-person point-of-view to present a snapshot of the human condition around the world in just under seven minutes. An unseen child trudging, hopping and skipping down a dusty road in a sleepy country town makes a silent wish and suddenly discovers he can jump longer and higher than he ever did before. Each successive jump is higher and longer than the one before and soon he is leaping above trees and over entire forests. He bounds towards an industrial estate and jumps over tall chimney stacks puffing out thick black smoke. He somersaults over skyscrapers and lets himself go into free-fall down, down to the busy city street just to bounce up again before the traffic warden booking the driver for speeding can get hold of him. He flies through a steel tower, bounces onto wharves and ships and leaps onto distant islands and other countries.

But it’s one thing to wish for something and quite another to have that wish granted … and often you end up biting off more than you can chew as the child discovers. There are suggestions throughout the film that the child nearly comes a-cropper in most situations he bounces into: he lands in a hen-house, he finds a lost toy in a forest (which might suggest another child has gone missing) and he gets attacked by a magpie. In the city, he meets a man preparing to commit suicide, nearly tumbles into a crane’s maw and intrudes on a woman sunbathing in the nude. There are close encounters with a jumbo jet and a helicopter. Farther afield, the child is nearly speared by angry hunters and becomes a casualty of war in a foreign country. A bomb explodes and he tumbles down into Hell to meet two demons.

The plot appears at first to be very simple, featuring just rhythmic bouncing that gets bigger and longer and increases in pace and tension as scenes flash by faster and the child starts losing control over where he lands and where the next bounce takes him. There is no dialogue either, just background sounds and the sounds of leaping, flying and landing on solid ground or grass. At first people are surprised to see the child but later become hostile towards him. What had once been a simple, friendly, peaceful world becomes more aggressive, complicated and dangerous. A lot can be read into the minimal plot: some people may see a moral that you should be careful about what you wish or strive for as the result may be more than what you can handle; others may find that it’s only by seeing things as others do that the world opens up in all its richness and complexity. And why shouldn’t children dream big? – it’s by dreaming big that you learn about the big bad world out there and if you’re lucky, you come away wiser and thankful for the things you already have, boring though they might be.

The hand-drawn animation is exacting in the depiction of weather phenomena, rural and urban landscapes and technical details of objects, buildings and technology. Animated figures look very cartoony but until near the end this is not a drawback as they appear very briefly. If the film has a weakness, it’s that the demons the child meets aren’t at all fearsome but merely more cartoon characters. The encounter doesn’t come over as terrifying or intense in any way and the child is merely relieved when it’s all over, as if he’d just had a dream that went bad.

This is a worthwhile film for students of film and other creative art forms (such as writing fiction) to see how a very simple story with no dialogue and with just one main character whose point of view forms the whole plot can portray a complex theme or express a philosophy about life and humanity.

 

 

 

True demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” but weak story and characters need more work to bring out the monsters

Shuhei Morita, “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” (2004)

A very lavish short film that uses cel-shaded animation to render the CG imagery three-dimensional, “Kakurenbo” has a definite dark layered look and atmosphere and features considerable detailing in its backgrounds and non-human characters. The major weaknesses of the film are in the plot and the child characters, of whom there are too many for the film to describe adequately beyond stereotype. Seven children descend into the concrete depths of Tokyo to find a place called Demon City to play a game of hide-and-seek. One of the children, Hikora, is looking for his sister Sorincha who disappeared in this area while playing the same game. The rules of the game are basic – the youngsters have to wear fox masks as they play – but as the children wander through the shadows and dimly lit gloom, one boy disturbs a statue by hitting it with a stick, and before you know it, the kids are being chased by bizarre demon monsters sprung right out of Japanese Buddhist nightmare myths. The kids are picked off one by one until Hikora finds himself alone with a small girl. He discovers to his horror who the girl is and what she plans for him, and what happens to all the children who have come into Demon City and been defeated by its monsters.

Demon City looks much bigger than it really is and the buildings seem to be of different architectural styles but then most of the film is shrouded in darkness so perhaps my mind is being overactive and filling in the blackest parts with images of Indian Hindu temples runing riot in carvings and statues of animal-headed gods and leering goggle-eyed demons. Pity though that the same level of detail doesn’t apply to the seven children who could be clones of one another apart from size, shape and hair colour. Indeed, two kids actually are clones – they’re identical twins! – but whether they are boy or girl twins, does it really matter? English-language dubbing turns the kids into teenagers of Scooby-Doo country: their strangled talk seems trite and inappropriate for the film’s ambitious visual settings. Even Hikora, who should be the most developed character, comes off as an underdone stereotype with limited emotion and motivation. The use of fox masks obviously cuts down on the amount of work the animators would have had to do to individualise the seven children and create a range of emotions for each and every one of them but at the same time the masks dehumanise them and force viewers instead to scrutinise the children’s body language for expression. Ah, big mistake there! – the children’s bodies aren’t very expressive at all and there is so much shadow (lights in Demon City are dim for a reason) that even body outlines can be hard to discern.

The one-track plot flits from one group of children to another as they are separated into three groups and each group is pursued by a different demon. The action gets repetitive and the film stalls in parts where a child is caught by a demon and the scene fades into black. For a film of its nature, there’s no build-up in tension towards the scene where Hikora is the only one left standing: one expects a lot of quick and sharp editing in the scenes where demons corner children and the kids make narrow escapes only to find themselves in dead ends and the monsters bearing down on them. A lot of screaming and wailing might be expected too but apart from one teenage boy who exhibits a lot of bravado but is actually a scaredy-cat, the children meet their fate grimly with very little vocalisation and not much pleading or bargaining. The twins especially are mute beings.

Anyone who’s played hide-and-seek won’t be too surprised at what happens to Hikora but the conclusion does come across as more anti-climactic trite than creepy and horrific. Overall this is a good-looking little anime that could have been tightened up with respect to plot and its characterisation worked at to bring out the child characters’ individual quirks and motivations for playing the game. Deeper characterisation could have enlivened the film with teenage gang rivalry, jealousies and fights over girls, and one-upmanship. As the kids quarrel and fight over which street to turn into, the monsters stalk them silently. The game itself could be expanded into something more than just hide-and-seek: there should be different levels of proficiency, treasures to search for and weapons to pick up to fight the monsters. I’m really surprised the game in this anime isn’t designed like a computer game that gets more complicated the deeper you go into it. No lessons are learnt, no skills are picked up. If there is a deeper message in “Kakurenbo”, it may be that the game, childish though it is, represents the gradual loss of carefree innocence that children used to have in a pre-industrial age and the destiny of all those who venture into Demon City is the destiny of children when they leave school or university and are acknowledged as adults: enslavement in a machine society. The demons represent those adults responsible for preparing young people to take up their appointed slots in the giant factory system that is modern Japan.

There is a real demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo” but it’s going to take a lot of work for future animators to seek it out.

Cat Soup: surreal meditation on life and death, time, religion and the universe

Tatsuo Sato, “Cat Soup” / “Nekojiru-so” (2003)

Here is a beautifully animated surreal short film which superficially looks like a children’s film but is clearly intended for adults: an early circus scene in which a strange magician chops up his assistant into pieces with a chainsaw and the film zooms in on body parts with meat, blood and bone marrow clearly exposed will dispel any and all lingering doubts! The style of animation is at once simple with the main characters (two cats) drawn with very charming large heads and large eyes in the style of  “Hello Kitty” mascots, and other characters and some objects also very basic in appearance; yet backgrounds, buildings, various props and creatures the cats encounter have realistic details. The plot also is simple and complex: on one level, it’s a quest and on a different level it’s an investigation into faith and religious belief, the nature of God, the life cycle and death itself.

Nyatta is a boy cat whose sister Nyakko is nearly taken away by Death; he struggles in a tug-of-war for his sister’s soul with Death and both rivals come away with half her soul. Nyatta determines to retrieve the other half of Nyakko’s soul from Death so he takes her to a circus and this trip sends them on an odyssey that drops them onto a boat in a vast ocean, then into a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale and through a desert where they come close to dying from thirst. They meet some strange characters: a pig who allows his flesh to be cut up and eaten, a man who dresses in bondage clothes and tries to cut them up with giant scissors and a woman who sews dismembered limbs back onto bodies. The strangest character of all is God Himself who treats Earth as a giant bowl of soup (blood soup as it turns out) and runs time backwards and forwards on a creaky mechanical clock machine.

The film is worth several repeat viewings for the colourful surreal visuals alone. All animation is done with traditional hand-drawn or hand-painted methods. A water elephant tries to help the two cats in the desert but evaporates, a giant bird contains within it all the world’s clouds and weather and butterflies of metal flit through a swamp. The scene in which God loses a walnut and forces to time run backwards and forwards in order to get the nut back is a highlight that features scribbled animation in shots where humans execute other humans, a pedestrian is run over by a car and guillotines fall (or not at all in all three shots). Most memorable is a scene where the two cats wind up sitting on huge red waves, frozen in movement and resembling waves on traditional Japanese woodblock prints in detail. The colours are not very psychedelic and blatant: they can be bright but usually they are subtle and the surprises and the magic come by way of usurping viewers’ expectations about things that appear on the screen at any one time.

“Cat Soup” isn’t to be watched for its plot which is bare yet turns out vague and puzzling: the value of the film is in its strange visuals and juxtaposition of actions in bizarre sequences: to take an example, a pregnant woman falls over a waterfall, a stork saves her and feeds her to its chicks, the chicks defaecate and the poo lands in soil from which a tree grows and sheds tears with images of the woman’s babies within. This sequence has no relation at all to the cats’ quest; it exists to illustrate the random nature and cruelty of life. The later sequence in which God disrupts the chronology of the universe to search for his lost walnut suggests that such randomness and cruelty are often due to petty thinking and behaviour and lack of foresight and consideration. God Himself is a small-minded being whose main concern is where His next meal might be coming from. The very vagueness of the film and the strange sequencing of visuals and actions invite multiple interpretations of what it might be saying.

Rather than try to make sense of what the film is throwing out, viewers should relax and immerse themselves in the cats’ adventures: I consider that this is the goal of the unusual visual style and associations that appear. Huge red tsunami waves that don’t move? An elephant made entirely out of water? Mechanical butterflies? These are ingenious ploys to get you to suspend logic and rational thinking.

For those who still insist on finding something that makes sense, there is a message but it’s a very pessimistic one: we can forestall death with all the effort we can muster but it can still come at unexpected moments. Belief in God or religion is of no comfort; God is an arbitrary and capricious being. There is also the idea that if one is fated to die, then one accepts that fate. As with many films of similar nature to “Cat Soup”, dealing with universal themes, the ending may seem a depressing let-down and a nasty joke on the animators’ part.

Russian Ark: visual travelogue through art and culture meditating on identity, history and time

Alexander Sokurov, “Russian Ark” (2002)

At last a film was made with just one take and a well-executed and visually gorgeous film it is too. “Russian Ark” is an affectionate journey through just over 300 years of Russian history, art and culture and a travel guide through the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, taking in a tour of the Winter Palace in particular. An unseen narrator (voiced by director Sokurov himself) has become a ghost through an unknown accident and is fated to haunt the corridors and galleries of the museum throughout its existence starting in the very early 1700s. He meets 19th-century French diplomat the Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dontsov) and together they trawl the museum buildings, seeing, meeting and sometimes interacting with people of the past and present. They are unintentional witnesses to some significant and not-so-significant events of Russian and St Petersburg history including Tsar Nicholas I’s reception of Persian diplomats come to apologise for a mob lynching of a Russian ambassador in Tehran and the siege of Leningrad (1941 – 1944). They watch the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II dance in the Winter Palace corridor and the Marquis himself takes part in a huge and extravagant ball to the music of 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.

The film makes some references to the Marquis’s life: he was known to be very religious and was skeptical of Russian attempts to appear European and civilised. The Marquis and the unseen narrator provide a “plot” of sorts in which they comment on what they see and express opinions and feelings about Russian art and culture. Mildly critical comments about Russian people are made: their seeming reverence for the rule of tyrants, their penchant for trying to keep up with the West and copying the West on a grand scale, the notion that big is best where Russia is concerned. The question of what it means to be Russian is raised but as the film progresses the narrator and the Marquis end up carried away by the visual glories they see and the discussion of Russian identity as something distinct from or parallel with European / Western identity, however superficially conducted, melts away.

The roving camera becomes the film’s major character and the narrator is its voice; the film acquires a voyeuristic and even conspiratorial air as the camera glides, often unseen, through the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. The camera and the Marquis don’t try to hide – the Marquis often addresses people directly in spite of the narrator’s pleas not to speak to people – but watch people from behind windows, columns or other spectators. Viewers familiar with Russian and Soviet history may be reminded of the authoritarian, police-state surveillance aspects of past Tsarist and Soviet governments and present post-Soviet governments. The single-take structure of the film with its intrusive Peeping-Tom flow immerses the viewer in whatever the camera lens takes in; the viewer becomes part of the stream of images and ultimately a participant in the film’s proceedings. The Russian Ark, for which the Hermitage Museum is merely the physical bearer, turns out to be the Russian people and their artistic, cultural and historical heritage, worth preserving, remembering and passing down to future generations. By watching the film, viewers share in the responsibility of interpreting and passing on the best of Russian and Western art and culture to the future.

The flowing single-take format does have its disadvantages: its arbitrary route through the Hermitage assumes viewers already are knowledgeable about Russian and Soviet history and can make sense of what they see and why Sokurov chose to focus on some famous historical incidents and personalities and not others. Why Sokurov didn’t focus on some part of the construction of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace or of St Petersburg is a mystery since that could have told us something about the personalities of the Tsars and the power they wielded and about the nature of Russian society during the imperial Romanov period. There are significant events missing from the film: the 1905 Russian Revolution; the revolutions in February and October 1917 that respectively felled the Tsarist government and brought the Bolsheviks to power; the 1918 transfer of the Soviet government to Moscow; and the bombing of the museum during the city siege in World War 2. The format is very subjective: the immersion of viewers into the film sweeps them along and admits no resistance or criticism of Sokurov’s view of Russian history and culture. Even the Marquis near the end of the film is awed and impressed by what he sees and experiences, and admits that Russians are “European” after all. The film even dismisses itself as a historical drama: the Marquis early on talks about Russia being a theatre and Russians as actors, and this idea is picked up at the end of the film when hundreds of people attending the ball leave the building by going down an enormous staircase. People wanting a history lesson will be disappointed – they will know no more about Russian and St Petersburg history at the end of the film than they did at the begininng.

With the single-take structure, there will be untidy moments where edits are needed and errors in timing and pacing become apparent. Apart from one early scene where an actor appears to miss his cue with Dontsov waiting patiently behind a set of double doors, the action and pace are smooth, graceful and leisurely in keeping with the notion of plunging the viewer into Russian and European art and culture. Sokurov and Dontsov keep up their patter without missing a beat so to an extent the single-take form has been successful. The camera’s movements do not jar though it’s possible some viewers might feel nauseous after seeing the effortless way it pans around or circles objects and people.

Watching this film, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic and sad for the loss of Imperial Russia, especially when one considers the upheavals, the chaos, genocide, suffering and tragedies that followed in the Soviet period. A strong sense of time passing and erasing, diminishing or changing the meaning of events and artefacts from various historical periods can be felt. This is reinforced by the way the camera travels through the physical museum and history, backwards and forwards, in what’s meant to be a cyclical journey through space and time; some viewers may find the film repetitive in parts. Audiences need to know that the real Tsarist Russia, for all its wealth, flamboyance and exaggerated grandeur, was a harsh world for the majority of its subjects and had its share of invasion, famine, tragedy and mass killings. We need look no further than St Petersburg itself which was built on the labour of conscripted Russian peasants and Swedish and Finnish prisoners of war in the early 1700s. Perhaps Imperial Russia is best appreciated as a place to be visited in novels and stories by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Gogol, nicely sanitised according to individual preference, and never to be actually visited except by ghosts.

 

 

The Cathedral: search for life’s purpose and oneness with God isn’t fulfilling in this little film

Tomasz Baginski, “The Cathedral” / “Katedra” (2002)

It’s a short film – less than seven minutes – created entirely with 3D computer animation but Baginski’s “The Cathedral” is beautiful and stunning visually while vague and weak on plot and character. A lone pilgrim has come from afar to a huge cathedral structure on a barren planet at the far edge of the universe. What quest brought him here is unknown as the film lacks spoken-word monologue or dialogue. He gazes around him as he walks through the vast edifice of intertwined trunks and branches through which human faces and statues can be seen. As he passes the statues and arrives at the edge of a cliff, at which the cathedral stops repeating its structure and gapes, as if in reverent awe at the abyss below, the focus discreetly shifts to some of the statues’ faces close-up and we see slight twitches, a knowing look, a secret smile, an expression of pain and sorrow, in these portraits.

Those of us who’ve seen numerous science fiction horror films can guess what happens to the pilgrim once the sun rises and casts its rays over the unfinished cathedral and the man himself. This reviewer wasn’t surprised; it was rather like watching that special 4-episode Doctor Who adventure “The Five Doctors” in which a renegade Time Lord seeks immortality and has his wish granted. Very likely the pilgrim’s quest was more about coming closer to God or finding inner peace and purpose to his life. The reply is that of humankind overall searching for its ultimate destiny in the universe with the pilgrim playing just one more part in his people’s outreach to the infinite: the pilgrim’s quest is the same as humanity’s quest and ditto for his purpose in life. As to whether the pilgrim was asking the right question in the first place and got an answer he didn’t expect or want or was led on by his beliefs and upbringing to find God and peace, only to discover too late that he’d been deluded all along or even tricked, viewers will have to decide for themselves. A sly black humour may be at work here and there is a paradox too: to reach God, to know our ultimate destiny as individuals and as members of a collective, must we submit to enslavement to find freedom?

At least the animation is  elegant and beautiful, majestic in parts, and has a slightly sinister Gothic look to it. Colours are dark and gloomy and the atmosphere is creepy. Some viewers who know the English doom metal band Cathedral may find the style of animation reminiscent of that group’s album covers of fantasy art by Dave Patchett. The film cathedral is an organic structure of inter-twined trunks and branches: tall, imposing, commanding respect, yet severe and not at all bulky. Huge spaces within the building emphasise the barrenness of the world around and highlight the pilgrim’s existential enquiry. The film spends little time on its protagonist and doesn’t encourage much viewer sympathy for him: this is the major weakness of “The Cathedral”. Viewers have to guess what he’s come to the cathedral for and work out from his behaviour and actions at the edge of the cliff his inner anguish and turmoil and loss of faith and hope. Perhaps he realises what’s in store for him but doesn’t know what to do. When his purpose is achieved, viewers catch a brief glimpse of his face, frozen in calm, but the moment may pass too quickly for viewers to see whether this is the calm of inner peace or of the resignation that comes with being an immortal vegetable.

The 1970s-styled music soundtrack is a drawback to the film: the melodramatic orchestral music doesn’t gel well with the disco beats and the result doesn’t suit the film’s style. Atmosphere is diluted and the film appears less sinister than it should. This is one occcasion where no music or very minimal, unobtrusive music, perhaps of an ambient nature, is called for.

If it had been a bit longer to allow for greater character development and to immerse the viewer more into its dark atmosphere and strange, half-live / half-dead structure, “The Cathedral” would have been a great little film about the quest for immortality, unity with God, the relationship of the individual to the community of humankind and the nature of faith and religion.