Dogville: failing to understand complexities and contradictions of American people, culture and history

Lars von Trier, “Dogville” (2003)

First in a series of films on American culture from Lars von Trier’s own rather idiosyncratic viewpoint, “Dogville” is a minimalist parable on how good people quickly turn nasty and commit acts of evil. Dogville is a tiny hamlet located in rural Colorado; the setting is some time during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A young woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is on the run from gangsters and comes to Dogville. The young town philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany) persuades the sceptical townsfolk to accept Grace as a refugee in a social experiment he is conducting on the town’s ability to be open and accepting of others. The Dogville denizens initially put Grace to a test lasting two weeks during which she assists with the town’s work. After that test, Grace is accepted by the town. In the months that follow, law enforcement officers arrive on two occasions to inform the Dogville residents that Grace is a fugitive who may be connected to crime. The townsfolk’s attitudes toward Grace change and they begin to abuse and exploit her in the most sordid and disgusting ways. She is chained up and forced to wear a heavy collar around her neck, the men use her as a prostitute, the women accuse her of sluttish behaviour and even the children of the town treat her like dirt. Finally Tom, who is supposedly in love with Grace, pulls out a business card given him by the gangsters earlier in the film to call them to come and take Grace away.

Unfortunately when the gangsters do come for Grace, the film’s punchline is revealed: rather than Tom using Grace as a tool in his social experiment, Grace was using Dogville as a laboratory and pawn in her own ongoing bizarre intellectual debate with her Mafia dad (James Caan) on the nature of evil in humans and the role that forgiveness – for Grace has been forgiving towards the townspeople in spite of their abusive and degrading behaviour – should play in how she deals with them. Daddy accuses Grace of being arrogant for constantly overlooking the townspeople’s motivations and reasons for abusing Grace and excusing their behaviour due to the peculiar circumstances in which she has come to the town; she is an outsider with an understandably shady past, police officers have warned the people about her and the town has been isolated for so long that hospitality towards outsiders does not come natually to them.

The film alludes to von Trier’s earlier film trilogy (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) of the golden-hearted girl who gives of herself unceasingly and without question until she has nothing left to give and even then is willing to sacrifice her life to keep on giving; but mostly it’s an exposition of a pessimistic view of humanity and its potential for redemption. (Perhaps von Trier himself got fed up with his golden-hearted heroines’ unceasing passivity and goodness and decided it was time Grace took collective revenge on their behalf as well as her own.) The townsfolk come to dislike Grace because she is a mirror of what is lacking in their lives or what they try to suppress in their natures in order to live from day to day. Von Trier seems to suggest that ultimately humans do not deserve to survive because when they meet something good that does not come with strings, they ultimately trash it. Morality or what passes for morality and ethics in Dogville is shown to be very fragile, especially when the realisation dawns on Tom and the townsfolk that Grace has very few choices and the safest choice for her is to stay in Dogville forever. Thus the people turn her into a slave.

I admit I am uneasy about this film: by reducing the world to a small town and filming the story on a stage with props, von Trier ends up over-simplifying the view that people are basically quite shitty in their natures and will resort to abusive behaviour given the right circumstances. An inkling that all’s not quite right with the town comes early in the film in Tom’s own behaviour as a self-styled thinker and town philosopher who lives off his father’s fortune and the way in which he decides to use Grace in his experiment to expose the flaws in the town’s communal mentality. Of course, Tom himself is undone by his experiment: he is just as mean-spirited as the townsfolk and in fact is even more so as he betrays Grace to the gangsters seeking her. There is nothing in the film about the role that other institutions and historical factors , such as the former institution of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans by whites in Colorado and the exigencies of the Great Depression might possibly have on the townspeople, to say nothing of the effects of social and cultural isolation from other communities on the people. There also isn’t anything about the town’s economy mentioned and how it might contribute to the people’s treatment of Grace: it seems significant to me that during her stay in Dogville, Grace has to work for wages to pay for board and her acquisition of a set of figurines and that the work she does, as well as her status in town, influences what she is paid. As her social status decreases, her work becomes more onerous and dangerous, and her pay drops.

Ultimately the film’s message seems to be that no matter how much grace is bestowed upon humans, human nature is so dark it cannot really be redeemed and in such a situation humanity is better off destroyed so that the world can be cleansed and be born anew. This is a despairing conclusion and one that belittles the acting performance given by Kidman as Grace. Kidman displays understated elegance in playing a Christ-like character who suffers endlessly and who represents a New Testament view of God as loving and forgiving. Bettany is quite good as the would-be disciple and Caan plays a judgemental mafia version of God who challenges Grace’s continued desire to forgive by suggesting that this desire arises from her own arrogance. (Say that again?) Other fine actors like Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson play fairly minor roles that could have been performed by others far less talented.

There is an underlying theme of the abuse of power by both the townsfolk and also by Grace and her godfather dad through the social and religious institutions these people have grown up with. Von Trier does not make much out of how individuals use religion, culture and social mores to gain and misuse power, nor how such institutions are moulded or lend themselves to people in ways that make the acquisition and abuse of power easy or difficult. The character of Tom is significant in this respect: he may have his real-life parallel in those sections of academia, science, industry, culture, religion, media and other intelligentsia who happily co-operate with their masters in government in oppressing the ordinary people but who just might find themselves thrown under a bus should the powers that be wish to dispense with their services.

I have the impression that von Trier in his own way was trying to grapple with the contradictions and paradoxes of an America that posits itself as a land of freedom, equality and democracy with the country where slavery lasted so long and racial prejudice has poisoned and corrupted many of its institutions, where money talks louder and more powerfully than abstract ideals and corrupts American people and their social, religious, political and economic institutions; and what he came up with is a comment on American society as he sees it from his narrow point of view without really exploring and understanding it much. It’s easy to sheet the blame home on a biologically deterministic view of human nature. As a result, despite the efforts of Kidman and company in giving life to the characters of “Dogville”, the film comes across as overly earnest, a bit shallow and very confused.



A Tattooed Life: underrated yakuza character study expressing anti-nationalist nihilism

Seijun Suzuki, “A Tattooed Life / Irezumi Ichidai” (1965)

A surprisingly touching and quite emotional drama, told in a traditional way, this is an underrated yakuza film from Seijun Suzuki in which he explores honour and loyalty between two brothers. Hit man Tetsu and his much younger art-student brother Kenji are forced to go on the run when they are suddenly ambushed by rival killers and Kenji, trying to defend his big brother, kills an important yakuza. The two men try to catch a ship to Manchuria but a sleazy hustler fleeces them of their money and they go to work instead for a man, Yamashita, in charge of a construction company trying to build a tunnel. The brothers are accepted by the work crew but it’s not long until Kenji falls in love with Yamashita’s wife Masayo and Masayo’s teenaged kid sister Midori falls for Tetsu. At the same time, one of Yamashita’s employees, a not-very-nice piece of work, has the hots for Midori so there are a couple of very complicated love triangles here. Add to those linked romances the police and the yakuza linked to the man murdered by Kenji hot on the brothers’ trail and you’ve got one slowly yet steadily simmering revenge drama that erupts into a brief but highly intense bout of violence.

The bulk of the film is basically a character-driven straight narrative that establishes the context for the violence for which Suzuki pulls out all the stops for the precious four minutes that underline his reputation for stylish direction: the traditional Japanese house structure provides an unforgettable setting for the interplay of shadow and light, what is seen versus what remains hidden behind paper screens, the use of colour as a dramatic device in its own right, and even the unusual angles at which the camera is held to emphasise the visceral nature of the sword and gun fights. As the fight proceeds, the camera pans along to the left, zooms in on a character running away from the camera lens through a series of rooms, then shifts position to film from above and abruptly jumps to film characters from below! The actual fighting is unforgettable to watch as men slash at one another with swords; it looks precise and graceful thanks to the lighting Suzuki used and the minimal backgrounds in which one colour predominates among the shadows.

Apart from the film’s set piece, the rest of the narrative is not bad to watch: the brothers improbably build up a rapport with Yamashita’s work crew which includes plenty of oddball characters who, even after they learn of Tetsu’s yakuza background and of Kenji’s crush on Masayo, rally behind them both. The brothers have a close relationship which is often strained by Kenji’s impulsive actions and his deeply felt loss of their mother which translates into a desire for Masayo. Kenji’s thoughtlessness leads to tragedy and Tetsu’s reaction is one of the most moving I have ever seen a male actor perform. The brothers provide a strong counterpoint to each other in characterisation. The two sisters are also contrasted in character: Masayo accepts that her marriage is a loveless one and is resigned to living within the strictures of convention while the young Midori ardently declares her love for Tetsu, yakuza or no yakuza, and tries to run away with him in defiance of social convention.

The natural landscape settings are often beautiful and scenes of rolling beach waves appear to suggest something of the impermanence of life and love. There is a nihilism present in the film: Tetsu does what he does for his younger brother’s sake only for the younger, naive man to throw everything away; at the end of the film (spoiler alert), Tetsu leaves Midori for a bleak future and the young woman is inconsolable. What happens to the Yamashita couple is uncertain.

Suzuki expresses a distaste for authority figures and Japanese corporate values throughout the film – the police are no better than the yakuza, the yakuza spread their corruption into legitimate business and corporate loyalty is called into question when it’s directed towards unworthy individuals and causes – and its historical setting in the 1920s hints at Suzuki’s own cynicism about the Japanese government and its conduct in the decades leading up to Japan’s invasion of China and southeast Asia and its attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The common people are hearty, honest, jovial and down-to-earth while their “betters” are suspicious and untrustworthy characters. The sleazy hustler, always wearing a white three-piece suit, turns out to be an ultra-nationalistic thug.

Perhaps “A Tattooed Life” is not quite as flamboyant or wacky as Suzuki’s later films but its plot is more highly developed and plausible than some of Suzuki’s later, better known works and deserves wider attention.


The 47 Ronin (dir. Hiroshi Inagaki): a drawn-out epic about maintaining abstract ideals in a changing society

Hiroshi Inagaki, “The 47 Ronin / Chushingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki” (1962)

The tale of the 47 masterless samurai who avenged their lord’s forced seppuku death in defiance of the Tokugawa shogunate’s orders is one that’s been celebrated in cinema several times and this version is a lavish epic lasting well over 3 hours. It boasts an impressive cast including Toshiro Mifune and is impressively staged: most scenes are breathtaking for the sheer beauty of the backgrounds and various props with their attention to historical detail. The plot itself can be very drawn out and slow but director Inagaki extracts and deftly escalates the tension and suspense towards the inevitable showdown climax. Themes of samurai honour and loyalty, and retribution for wrongful death and atonement run throughout the film, as might be expected; there is also a commentary on the political corruption of the shogunate that provides the social context in which the tragic events play out. The film challenges viewers on whether personal integrity and idealism are preferable over self-interest and street cunning, and on whether the code of bushido, admirable in many respects, might ask too much of people in surrendering their lives and relationships to abstract ideals. Within the film also, there is a sense that time is passing and the world of the Tokugawas is becoming irrelevant to the needs of people, high-born and lowly alike, and that as a result the old ways and ideals are succumbing to materialism and the pursuit of pleasure, and true and worthy values no longer hold attraction for people.

For Western audiences, the classic tale is basically as follows: at the turn of the 18th century, Lord Asano is obliged to receive envoys from the Shogun and offer his home and castle to his retainers. To this end, Lord Kira is sent to teach Lord Asano the finer points of the appropriate ceremonies to be conducted. Lord Kira demands that Lord Asano offer him gifts and bribes as befit his position when the younger man arrives at the Shogun’s residence but Lord Asano refuses to engage in such corrupt practices. Lord Kira angrily insults Lord Asano to the extent that the young daimyo loses his temper and draws his sword against the instructor. Lord Kira suffers a slight wound but Lord Asano is punished for having drawn his sword in the Shogun’s residence and is obliged to commit seppuku. In addition, his properties and wealth are to be surrendered to the Shogun and his entire family is ruined.

Lord Asano’s retainers, led by Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, become ronin (samurai without master), surrender their lord’s castle without a fight. Oishi and 46 other retainers swear to restore Lord Asano’s family. After an early attempt to gain permission to restore the Asano family fails, Oishi then gives up and resignedly leads a life of dissolution while the other men disperse. People wonder if he’s lost his marbles and jeer and make fun of him. The reality though is that Oishi is secretly plotting with his men to bring ruin to Lord Kira at a time when Lord Kira has let down his guard in the belief that Lord Asano’s men are not seeking revenge.

The film’s fastidious attention to historical details is prominent but this is not at the expense of the plot or the acting. Characterisation can be patchy: Oishi’s character and a few minor characters are fleshed out very well and viewers can see their inner struggles as they strive in their own ways to remain faithful to the memory of Lord Asano yet pretend otherwise in order to throw off Lord Kira’s spies. On the other hand, Lord Kira is portrayed as a pathetic clown who loves pleasure and clings to life in a way that invites contempt. (There may be a good reason for portraying Lord Kira in such an unbecoming way: the film suggests that Oishi and the other retainers are wasting two years of their time plotting revenge on such a pitiful wretch and they would have been better off fighting the Shogun’s army and dying for their lord’s castle in the first place before deciding to surrender it without a fight.) The actor Toshiro Mifune has a minor role as a masterless ronin that simply repeats past roles he played in various Akira Kurosawa historical drama flicks.

The plot flows easily from main story to various sub-plots and weaves all the parallel strands into one mega-work that gives the impression of encompassing all levels of society in early 18th century Tokugawa Japan. The viewer gains a little insight into social and political changes then sweeping the country: society from the Shogunate down is becoming corrupted by self-interest, the pursuit of sensuous pleasures and greed, and those who uphold the old ideals of loyalty, honour and self-sacrifice increasingly find themselves shut out of a society interested in material wealth, status and flattering and bribing others to get ahead.

Perhaps the film could have been edited here and there – the pace does bog down to very glacial levels – and critical moments in the film such as Lord Asano’s seppuku ritual tend to be cut off abruptly. The actual tale of the 47 ronin is quite thin and padded out with fight scenes, staged scenery, several sub-plots and moments of earthy humour. What motives Inagaki may have had in making the film – his version came out a few years after another movie version which itself followed hard on the trail of yet another – I have no idea: he may have been trying to revive people’s interest in their traditional culture, emphasising aspects he believed worth preserving and passing onto younger generations, in the context of a period in which Japanese society was exposed to heavy doses of American culture after Japan’s defeat in World War II. ¬†There is some emphasis on the masterless ronin disobeying the Shogun in plotting to kill Lord Kira and that could be taken as a warning to Japanese audiences that loyalty to samurai ideals should not be subordinated to unthinking obedience to government. On the whole, “The 47 Ronin” is a highly involving film, quite typical of action films of its time, which has aged well and whose themes might still resound with audiences in Japan and beyond today.



The Forgiveness of Blood: psychological drama of two teenagers caught between rapid modernisation and age-old traditions

Joshua Marston, “The Forgiveness of Blood / Falja e Gjakut” (2010)

Hard to believe that even in Europe there are societies where the very new and modern can co-exist with traditions and customs that have lasted for hundreds of years, and individuals, even communities, end up getting the short straws of both. In an Albania long since supposedly liberated from the rule of Communism, teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) lives in a small village where he dreams of running his own Internet caf√© and has his eye on a girl, Klodi, at his local high school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), planning one day to attend university, helps her father on his bread delivery run. To make more money, dad Mark (Refet Abazi) takes short-cuts across his neighbour Sokol’s land. The neighbour fences off the land to prevent such short-cuts and a feud develops between the two men that results in Sokol’s death. Mark goes into hiding and his brother is arrested. Sokol’s family invokes the Kanun (a centuries-old code of local law and tradition) and Nik and Rudina are most affected by the restrictions involved: Nik must remain inside the family home to avoid being killed and Rudina must give up her dream of further study and take over Dad’s bread delivery business.

The film, which has a documentary feel in its slow naturalistic approach, close-ups, long shots of scenic country-side and relative paucity of soundtrack music, explores the effect of the Kanun on two young teenagers’ lives and its unexpected usurpation of traditional gender roles by which a teenage girl ends up becoming the family bread-winner while her brother becomes a prisoner in the family home. The film also contrasts the young people’s attempts to find ways of mediation with Sokol’s family that don’t involve too much financial expense and time wastage with their elders’ view that the requirements of Kanun cannot be watered down for the benefit of youth. At the same time, while Nik and Rudina’s family try to bargain for besa (a time period granted by the victim’s family to the killer’s family during which Nik would be free to go outside the house), some members of Sokol’s family harass Nik’s family by shooting at their house or burning down their shed.

The film’s style is quiet and slow and naturalistic in its treatment of the plot and the actors’ actions. Halilej and Lacej give excellent performances as the young stoic teenagers forced to grow up very quickly as a result of their father’s headstrong actions. As the film progresses, Nik and Rudina demonstrate resourcefulness in making the most of their extreme predicament but the long house arrest with no end in sight takes its toll on the two youngsters and the rest of their family. Tension accumulates slowly and casually until it comes to an intense confrontation between Nik and Sokol’s family and Nik is subjected to conditions that force him to make a hard decision about his life that will also affect Rudina and their mother and younger siblings.

Marston’s intelligent and sensitive depiction of a rural Albania under the burden of rapid modernisation and stubbornly maintained tradition, that can never be subjected to change as long as elderly men uphold it to the detriment of the young and of women, is sympathetic to its subject without supporting or condemning age-old values and customs. Rudina enjoys an unexpected freedom running her father’s delivery business and talking to strange men much older than herself. Nik finds a new hobby building a makeshift gym and exercise apparata. One unintended effect of the imposition of Kanun on two rival families is that children seem to act more like adults than the adults themselves do. Nik and Rudina’s older male relatives are unable to countenance any possibility of change and flexibility and the children’s mother disappears for long stretches of film while Nik tries to comfort his younger siblings and send them to school, and Rudina negotiates with shopkeepers to buy cartons of cigarettes at discounted prices so she can make more money on top of what she earns for delivering bread (by horse and cart, mind).

Although the actors portray stoic and resigned characters who get what they can out of a difficult and stressful situation, the film derives its strength from the psychological drama and tension generated by the plot. The naturalistic style helps to focus viewer attention on the characters. While slow and driven by dialogue and plot, the film does feature long shots without dialogue in which Nik and Rudina feel the strain of the conditions imposed on them in accordance with Kanun.

For its subject matter, the film appears calm and subdued. Yet there is tension between families and within families, and violence can be unexpected and sudden. One doesn’t expect that there’ll be an easy answer or a happy resolution that satisfies everyone. The message though is very despairing: the only way out for Nik is to escape literally but this leaves Rudina with a very uncertain future. What we have seen of Rudina in the film though is supposed to leave us in no doubt that she’ll find a way to survive and thrive, and this is the hope viewers are expected to carry at film’s end.

Stoker: psychological thriller let down by stereotyped characters and poor scripting

Park Chanwook, “Stoker” (2013)

Appropriately Chanwook Park’s Hollywood directing debut is a psychological thriller featuring an oddball protagonist who has lived a life of isolation for a long time and who carries out a devastating revenge against someone who has destroyed her family unit. (This scenario will be familiar to fans of Park’s Vengeance trilogy films.) On the eve of her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) hears that her father has died in a bizarre car accident and she and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) duly attend her old man’s funeral and must entertain the guests at the lunch-time wake. One of those guests is Dad’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who insinuates himself into Mum’s life and affections. For someone besotted with Evelyn’s porcelain beauty and brittle spirit, Uncle Charlie pays rather too much attention to India herself. In the meantime the house-keeper and well-meaning Aunty Gin (Jacki Weaver) disappear mysteriously and India later discovers they have been murdered. India also learns a few things about Uncle Charlie and his murky past, and how his past may be connected with her present, her relationships with her parents, separately and together, and what these mean for her future as she leaves adolescence behind.

The plot is based on the Alfred Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt”, in which a character, also called Charlie, preys on a widow and her daughter, and “Stoker” contains several visual references to Hitchcock’s work (“Psycho” most notably since this is the Hitchcock film most people know). However, in spite of a fine acting performance by Wasikowska, “Stoker” comes across as rather hollow compared to Hitchcock’s work. This may be due to the script, penned by actor Wentworth Miller, that Park worked with: the dialogue isn’t very good and some scenes in which India goes to school and is bullied by male classmates do not fit well into the rest of the film. Significant characters are very stereotyped and lack depth: Kidman, in playing Evelyn, must be on a personal quest to play Blanche duBois in the “A Streetcar named Desire” production to end all such productions while Goode’s character is plain creepy from the time when India spies him observing her at Dad’s funeral right up to the climax. At least Wasikowska does an excellent job portraying India (whose middle name could be Wednesday Addams) as an outsider coping with the usual angsty teenage-girl issues like competing with her mother, coping with social ostracism at school, fending off the attentions of boys and, er … dealing with an uncle with psychopathic tendencies.

Where Park excels is in creating an atmosphere of unease and growing horror with great use of cinematography that emphasises long shots and creative panning of the camera, and beautiful visual scenes that combine the innocence of nature with the grotesque and brutal. The style of “Stoker” is rather less flamboyant and melodramatic than some of Park’s earlier films but the toned-down style suits the subject matter and its steady but sure build-up to the climax. The use of music which includes Lee Hazlewood’s song “Summer Wine” is an important element in the film’s narrative and intense atmosphere of sexual frustration and longing.

The narrative has a cyclical structure in which the same or similar visual shots bookend the film. This refers to the film’s nature-versus-nurture theme: how much of India’s character and subsequent behaviour is the product of her family genetic inheritance, and how much of her upbringing? Kidman’s character Evelyn has some poignant lines in which she talks about the reason for having children: do people have children because they hope that their children will succeed where the parents do not (or cannot)? How aware were India’s father and Charlie Stoker of her character, to the extent that the father tried to shield India from Charlie and the family way by banishing Charle and teaching the daughter hunting? If the Stoker family has a troubling relationship with psychopathy, from which there may be survival advantages (it is only because India discovers her inner psychopath that she saves her own life and Evelyn’s life), what might this say for society at large?

Strip away Park’s input and the film becomes an ordinary if creepy family drama with a tight and incestuous love triangle. A Nick Cave is needed to inject some complexity into the script so that a motivation for India being and becoming in the family way can explain why she was brought up the way she was. How the best efforts of parents often tend to reinforce psychopathic tendencies in their children rather than keeping them dormant and unrealised could also have been made clearer in the film than it is.

Upstream Color: how love and hope can overcome a cycle of evil and bring about healing

Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color” (2012)

Since making “Primer”, Shane Carruth’s career as film director and producer has definitely leapt ahead. There is still a rough-edged quality to his work but it also has a new-found poetry. A definite Shane Carruth universe based on real life, yet combining certain elements of wacky sci-fi and reality in a highly eccentric style, now exists. Compared to “Primer” which was based around the familiar SF trope of time-travel and the complications it caused for the two guys who used it, “Upstream Color” has a more straightforward narrative revolving around another familiar trope of apparent mind control and the message that that trope might embody.

Kris (Amy Seimetz), a film production executive, is drugged and abducted by a thief (Thiagos Martin). In her drugged state, Kris is tricked into handing over most of her life savings to the thief. Awaking from her drugged state, Kris discovers a worm wriggling in her body. Responding to a series of low-toned drones, Kris travels to a pig farm where the farmer, who has used sampled infrasonic sound to attract specimens of a nematode worm to his farm, performs a transfusion operation to remove Kris’s worm and inject it into a sow.

Apparently healed, Kris tries to reorganise her life but finds herself unemployed and her bank accounts empty. By chance, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is drawn to her. Through trial and error, the two discover that they have had similar experiences and start to feel one another’s emotions and pain. As they eventually piece together various coincidences in their lives to ascertain the nature of their mysterious link, a parallel story runs in which the pig farmer makes field recordings of sounds in and around his farm, travels astrally to observe people, and drowns a litter of piglets mothered by the sow who receives Kris’s worm. While the piglets are dying, Jeff attacks his co-workers and Kris suffers a panic attack.

Jeff and Kris come to realise that they are being controlled by the pig farmer and confront him. They contact several other people who have also been infected by nematode worms from the farm and surrounding forests, and bring them to the farm. In time, the pigs are made healthy and the nematode worm infestation disappears.

The film might be considered a metaphorical investigation of cycles of physical / sexual abuse of children and how those cycles can be broken by the victims acknowledging that their problem exists, owning the problem and finding for themselves the solution to the problem. The victims also reach out to others and educate them, and together they all work to eradicate the original cause and heal their environment and society. The pig farmer might be a metaphor for Evil or Satan and the thief might be Satan’s tool for spreading temptation throughout society. At the same time, out of suffering and its banal repetition, represented by the nematode worm’s life-cycle through innocent flowers, humans and pigs, love and hope can arise, and from those positive emotions can spring motivation to eliminate evil, heal wounded souls and spread good health and bounty.

The cinematography is very beautiful and often poetic: Carruth may not be a very experienced director but he has a distinctive, matter-of-fact style that finds unexpected beauty and art in even the most gruesome shots. Scenes in which nematode eggs are released into a creek and spread through it to infect an entire ecosystem are lyrical yet sinister. The use of close-ups and hand-held cameras gives a documentary feel to the action. The soundtrack is an essential character in the film though actual music is quite conventional: the pig farmer uses found sound to entrap and draw his victims to his farm to extract the fully grown worms and inject his pigs so the parasites can complete their life-cycles.

The romance between Kris and Jeff is very deep and complex, and the sex scene between them, filmed in a short, choppy series of close-up shots, reveals more intimacy than a hundred Hollywood romance films put together.

The film’s structuring can be confusing to viewers and the narrative has plenty of logic holes – shouldn’t the nematode life-cycle go from flower to pig (a herbivore) to human (a carnivore)? – plus there are loose ends a-plenty; but all the rough patches do not detract from a film that speaks up for the power of love and hope to overcome evil and heal society.

Reflections: original and beautiful use of black-and-white animation to illustrate a cosmic joke

Jerzy Kucia, “Reflections / Refleksy” (1979)

Black-and-white animation has never been used so well as in this little film about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a small scale. A newly formed adult insect struggles to emerge from its cocoon after a long period of pupation, only to be attacked by a predatory ant that has been waiting for its prey for a long time. The insect and the ant struggle but the battle is very one-sided. No sooner does a victor emerge than it too is subjected to another cosmic joke.

Simple though the narrative is, it is beautifully told in the way Kucia changes the viewer’s POV from side-on when the first insect completes its metamorphosis and is attacked, to a bird’s-eye POV when the insects fall into a puddle and fight to the death. The action moves off-screen and all we know is the crackling noise the creatures make and the ripples of black and white waves moving across the screen as the animals struggle. (Animator Kucia originally trained as a painter and his painting background is obvious in the way he uses black and white colours to show the rippling water moving across the screen and to reveal narrative.) The ripples change to show a silhouette of the trilby-hatted man watching the insects and listening to background traffic noises, waiting for a car to arrive. The man ends up playing God to both insects.

Remarkably the action looks as if it could have been done in one take without any editing as it moves from left to right continuously and then to the top right-hand corner of the screen as the ant pulverises its victim and the victim fights in sheer desperation. The final blow occurs off-screen and we have to infer it from the foot-prints left behind by the man as he leaves the puddle. With the action appearing as though in close-up, the viewer is in a position of being voyeur and therefore complicit with the trilby wearer in allowing the first insect to suffer as it does while the ant is attacking it.

As with much other Polish animation, there is grim black humour which arises from the film’s theme of the vicissitudes of Fate and the fragility of life in a particular microcosm. “Refleksy” gains its power from its style of animation, the originality of the way the action is framed, and in the way it leaves out the most significant action which has to be inferred by the viewer. The viewer is then left to ponder as to why the man didn’t act earlier with regard to the insects’ battle.

The Banquet: a much loved cartoon with wry gallows humour

Zofia Oraczewska, “The Banquet / Bankiet” (1976)

Its style seems outdated for a short animation of its vintage but I believe this is still a much loved cartoon in Poland for its inversion of roles and what that might have said about Polish society at the time (and might still say generally about Western society today). Waiters and cooks working at a swanky hotel or palace prepare a lavish banquet for guests (one of whom looks suspiciously like Liza Minnelli) who arrive dressed in luxurious furs and glittering jewellery in chauffeured limousines. The guests eagerly race for the food – but unpleasant surprises await them and never was the saying “eat the rich” more appropriately applied as here.

The short piece is rich in gallows humour fantasy at a level that would delight and scare the very young and the old alike for different reasons: among others, the weak and powerless rise up against those who would literally consume them, heart and soul; Gothic horror meets the every-day; and the amount of mayhem and mess left behind when the waiters come to clear away the dishes might be a comment on the devastation we unthinking humans leave behind whenever we stop at or pass through a place or country.

The animation is reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s collages of cut-up figures set against painted backgrounds. Only the waiters and cooks are fully animated characters done in conventional children’s-cartoon style, and only they seem fully alive and alert to their surroundings. Everything else from the food to the guests either looks realistic in parts or is grotesque and crudely drawn, which suggests the food and the guests have much more in common with each other than either has to the general human collective. Thus the eater and eaten are cannibals of a sort.

The music is excellent accompaniment to the proceedings, giving away little hint of the carnage and bloodshed that will occur when the guests charge towards the groaning tables of food.

As long as there is short, succinct and intelligent animation and an audience exists for it, “The Banquet” will always have its fans.

House of Wax: realism versus art and artifice in horror cult film

Andre de Toth, “House of Wax” (1953)

“House of Wax” was the movie that established Vincent Price as a horror film icon and in itself is a larger-than-life cult classic. “Professor” Henry Jarrod (Price) is a wax sculptor who pursues art, beauty and perfection in a series of life-sized wax models based on historical characters and events; his particular pride and joy is a model of Marie Antoinette in her resplendent Ancien Regime finery. Jarrod regards his sculptures as his children, more human than the real humans around him, and talks to them frequently. His partner Mathew Burke (Roy Roberts), keener on making profit out of the wax figures, proposes burning down the lot to collect insurance money but Jarrod rejects the idea. Burke goes ahead anyway, the two men fight and soon a conflagration is raging through the building where the wax works are housed. Burke escapes, the building burns down in spite of fire-fighters’ best efforts at the time (the film is set in the early 1900s) and Jarrod is presumed dead.

Cut several months later, Burke is enjoying the gains of his ill-acquired wealth with a pretty socialite Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) who happens to be a room-mate of a working-class girl Sue (Phyllis Kirk). Burke soon dies in mysterious circumstances and Gray follows him shortly after. Sue happens to see Gray’s murderer who pursues her through the streets of New York City. She manages to escape him. While police investigate the deaths of Burke and Gray and the disappearance of their corpses from the morgue, a new wax museum, containing figures derived from horrific crimes and scenes of murder, opens to much fanfare. Jarrod has survived the fire and with two assistants (one of whom is played by Charles Bronson, credited as Charles Buchinski, in an early role) has restored most of his figures. Phyllis, visiting the museum with her sculptor boyfriend Scott (Paul Picerni), is drawn to and freaked out by the figure of Joan of Arc who resembles Gray. For his part, Jarrod is drawn to Sue who reminds him of his beloved Marie Antoinette figure which he intends to restore with Sue’s likeness …

The original film was made in 3D which explains several rather pointless scenes in which women dance the can-can on stage and a man advertising the wax museum’s opening bangs ping-pong balls on bats at viewers and people attending the opening. There is quite a long chase sequence early in the film with Sue and Cathy’s murderer through shadowy streets that might have come straight out of an early Hitchcock film which milks suspense and terror for all these are worth. Generally the first half of the film is quite slow with very little horror but a lot of talk and character establishment; the second half of the film when very minor characters are introduced and the plot is well under way moves quickly to tie up all loose ends and resolve underlying issues.

Price delivers no less than 100% and then some in his role as Jarrod, evoking both sympathy and revulsion from viewers. His idealistic pursuit of beauty for its own sake, spurning greed and profit, is noble although creepy at the same time. There is an underlying theme of realism-versus-artifice throughout the film; the plot deliberately confuses the two in Jarrod’s pursuit of art and Sue, and in a number of characters who, though live, might as well be puppets for Jarrod to manipulate. Viewers will see the contradiction in Jarrod’s need for actual humans – and very dead ones at that – on which to base his creations and realise his ambitions of creating art. Even live humans, whether deaf-mute ones like Bronson’s Igor or live ones like Sue’s beau, end up as putty in Jarrod’s hands regardless of whether they have feeling or not. The other actors present competent performances as required by the plot and Hollywood narrative conventions imposed on it.

There may be a second theme, not fully explored in the film, of women as things to be moulded by men and then gazed upon for their beauty and art (or artifice); the characters of Cathy Gray and Sue may be compared and contrasted in this respect as well, Cathy delighting in being a plaything of rich men and shaping her body to fit into tight-waisted clothes to satisfy the fashion diktat while Sue presents a more natural and even at times feisty would-be heroine who does her own detective work and brings it to the attention of the police.

The look of the film is colourful and near-Gothic with a strong carnivalesque atmosphere. Actors wear rich and sometimes luxurious costumes and the sets are often gaudy. Sly humour and puns are incorporated into the dialogue and sometimes performances verge on camp. The character of Igor is a stock figure in horror films but Bronson manages to carry it off in a way that makes Igor genuinely sinister.

The Sweet Hereafter: a fragmented film labouring under too many issues about loss and betrayal of children

Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997)

It won quite a few Best Film and Director awards and was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars but I found Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” overly long and laboured for what it is and what it seeks to do. An ambulance-chasing lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), lobs into a small rural community grieving over the loss of several children in a school-bus accident; Stephens aims to round up enough willing applicants to launch a class action litigation suit alleging negligence against the bus company and the school insurance board. He manages to rope in a few people but the lawsuit threatens to open raw emotions and other wounds afresh among the townsfolk and set them against one another. Two significant eye-witnesses, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) and Nicole (Sarah Polley), are unwilling to testify; Nicole in particular, despite her singer-songwriter career having been derailed by the accident, suffers from survivor guilt, resents her parents’ interest in a huge cash payout to compensate for her no longer being a money-pot, and refuses to have anything to do with the suit. While rounding up potential litigants, Stephens must also deal with his personal problems, most of which revolve around his guilt over the upbringing of his young daughter Zoe who as an adult has become a drug addict and who fears she has contracted an HIV infection after she is rejected as a blood donor.

The lonely and melancholy beauty of the harsh mountain landscape in winter, where the action takes place, provides an ideal setting for the tragedy that unfolds leisurely through flashback scenes interspersed among Stephens’ visits to the locals and his own narrative of loss, tragedy, despair and guilt. At the heart of the film is the issue of responsibility and blame, how people cope with loss, and how it has the potential to rend a community apart or bring people closer. One underlying theme is how people as individuals and as a collective and through their institutions have failed their children and themselves time and again; there is also a related theme of child sexual abuse that raises its ugly head at the film’s climax. Human institutions such as an adversarial legal system or organised religion can be dangers in this respect. Stephens, running away from his own guilt over Zoe, pours his anger at himself into posing as a crusader for social justice on behalf of the town but is ultimately thwarted by the young girl Nicole when she is called to give a witness statement.

The acting is good and restrained but I wonder if Egoyan errs on featuring too many close-ups of people about to break down and cry, as if seeing one or two almost weepy people isn’t enough to turn on viewers’ own lachrymal spigots. The blues-rock music soundtrack can be too intrusive at times, trying to stress the intense emotional aspects of the plot and the issues it raises. At one point the film appears to aspire to soap opera status by featuring two people having an affair that goes nowhere. For an otherwise low-key film, there is too much emotion and not enough questing as to how people should cope when a tragic accident that could be no-one and everyone’s fault occurs and whether it is right to apportion blame and responsibility arbitrarily and to pursue justice in a way that exploits and manipulates people’s emotions with the potential to create conflicts, grievances and problems that need never exist.

In the figure of Stephens himself, Egoyan could have raised issues about how running away from guilt and not confronting it directly but channelling it into other people’s affairs may cause friction and serious on-going conflict that escalates further. The structure of the film in which various narratives are interwoven and end up open-ended is problematic in that it offers very feeble hope with most characters left to fumble through personal demons. At the very least, we could have had some closure in which Stephens resolves (perhaps yet again after so many other failures of courage) to meet his daughter and get help and counselling for her. The climax of the film in which the lawsuit collapses due to an underlying incest issue that two family members keep hushed up jars horribly with the film’s ending in which one of the two appears as an angel of forgiveness and redemption … in a period before the bus accident!

Disappointingly the mountain landscape is a passive bystander in the film: its stunning vistas and the soft light of sun that glints on ice and snow could be the very thing that inspires hope in the community to do better by its children.