Cinema Bars

While the question of the artistic value of video games has always been a pointless and self-indulgent one, it’s hard to deny the impact of that ongoing debate on game productions from all levels of the industry. From the smallest independent creations to the most sprawling corporate behemoths, we see the same apparent insecurity, the same desperation to be taken seriously. To consider these works on these terms isn’t just boring, it’s a critical submission to marketing. It is far more interesting to consider why those terms are what they are. What does the game designer (and, more significantly, marketer) consider a baseline for artistic worth? 

For some reason, the answer is always cinema. Games, particularly on the AAA scale, have for decades used film as both inspiration and barometer. “It’s like playing an interactive movie” has been both text and subtext in the critical response to countless games. It’s certainly easier to draw parallels between the general characteristics of a AAA video game and a film than between a game and a novel, which has no visual or sound design, or a painting, which has no movement in its imagery, or a song, which can be heard but not seen. These are all rather basic understandings of these mediums, but you see the point: Games are more like films than they are like anything else. 

What’s worth remembering, though, is that this similarity was a choice rather than an inherent feature. Games used to be far more distinct from films in their aesthetic qualities and methods of engagement. Pac-Man and Galaga bear about as much similarity to books or paintings or music as they do to films. Even many games at the advent of 3D were structurally alien; you could not imagine someone editing clips of Super Mario 64 into anything resembling cinematic narrative, and games like Resident Evil  and Silent Hill were more obviously influenced by films but still featured novel visual approaches far more indebted to the demands of their own medium.

There were, of course, plenty of alternate examples. RPGs have pretty much always featured more recognizable narrative building blocks. Games based around full-motion video cutscenes like Phantasmagoria incorporated literal filmed elements into a point-and-click adventure game structure. Still, these works feel more like synthesis than imitation, and their typically low production values meant that they were typically classified as campy cult objects more than anything else. Still, by the late 1990s, the swing towards movies was in full effect. After a while, games became far more interested in resembling films than they were in engaging with the properties of their own medium. Finally, in 2020, we arrive at Ghost of Tsushima. This is the year we entered Kurosawa Mode.

Ghost of Tsushima is, on the surface, essentially identical to any other Sony AAA open world game from the past several years. The game’s protagonist, Jin Sakai, wanders around a massive map, runs into random enemy patrols, picks up side-quests to help random villagers, follows objective markers to locations, stealthily infiltrates an enemy camp and quietly takes out guards until he is discovered, presses a button on a glowing plant and collects 2x bamboo to be used in crafting equipment upgrades. It’s all quite familiar. 

How does a game like this distinguish itself? The better question is, why would it want to? Games like this, which can be played in a lazy, relaxed state, serve their purpose well. I’ve played tons of them purely as objects to occupy my hands while I zone out and listen to podcasts. Ghost of Tsushima is far from the best example of this subgenre; its controls are a hair too clunky and thus require a bit too much attention. Combat, too, centers on timing that is slightly less forgiving than it could be. Ghost of Tsushima wants you to pay attention to it, despite possessing nothing of substance to earn that attention. You can almost see the gears turning in the heads of the designers at this point, like Skinner plotting to disguise fast food as his own cooking. What if there was a way to dress up this bog-standard open-world action game as something more, something with deep roots in the history of another medium? What if there was a Kurosawa Mode? 

What is Kurosawa Mode? It’s essentially a Snapchat filter over the entire game. The images become greyscale and covered in fake film grain and scratches (even in the menus), the sound gets a little fuzzier, and a few elements are removed from the game’s HUD for the sake of “immersion.” In theory, the mode is supposed to make you feel like you’re playing an Akira Kurosawa film. In practice, it’s illustrative of the ways in which games betray their misunderstanding of cinema in their attempts to imitate it. I played through Ghost of Tsushima in Kurosawa Mode for around 15 hours, and the game felt far more compromised than enhanced.

This entire piece is, I acknowledge, written at the risk of taking a marketing gimmick far too seriously. As I shared my progress through the game, I frequently saw people responding with mock frustration that I was playing the game wrong. Ghost of Tsushima isn’t supposed to be played in Kurosawa Mode all the way through, they told me. If that’s the case, and I believe it to be so, then why does the game prompt the player to turn it on before they even start playing? Is the player supposed to go into the display settings to toggle it on and off as they play? I know it’s not just meant for the game’s photo mode, because you actually can’t change it from that menu. What is the point of Kurosawa Mode if not to play it? And once you are playing it, how can you possibly stand to continue doing so? 

It’s important to note that the game’s visuals are, in their unaltered state, occasionally quite nice to look at. At one point early on, I entered an area called Golden Forest. I saw grey trees and grey leaves on grey dirt and grey grass. I turned off Kurosawa Mode to see what the area really looked like, and was instantly struck by the vibrancy of the colors. I ended up doing this several times throughout the game, and each time was the same. Far from the black-and-white compositions of the actual Kurosawa, the mode that bears his name is nothing but indistinguishable splotches of grey. Why does a mode named after one of cinema’s greatest visual stylists look so utterly disgusting? 

The answer is obvious, though I hesitate to put too fine a point on it. The designers of Ghost of Tsushima have no understanding of cinema as a visual art form, only as a container for reference points. If you put a shot from Kurosawa Mode next to a shot from a Kurosawa film, you may see superficial similarities. There might be a samurai in both, for example. Yet Kurosawa was a visual stylist with few equals in his medium’s history, and Sucker Punch Productions, to be as kind as possible, are not. The images in Kurosawa’s black-and-white films are full of staggering depth and complexity and texture, perfecting and then reinventing common techniques. The images in Ghost of Tsushima couldn’t be reasonably expected to scratch his mastery. But they don’t even seem to want to try. The game stays true to the stiff shot/reverse compositions and rhythms of countless other AAA titles, as though it can think of nothing more interesting to do in a cutscene than sit still and listen to people talk. 

Certain scenes weakly gesture at a sort of One Perfect Shot-ish conception of cinematography. There’s a lot of symmetrical compositions of two warriors squaring off with a picturesque landscape behind them. A sunset, a sprawling field, a fortress. It’s imagery for desktop wallpapers more than anything else, an artistic impulse towards Twitter screencap threads. 

Most of the time, though, Kurosawa Mode delivers a muddled, inscrutable mess. During the opening setpiece, a chaotic battle on a beach, the screen is filled with smears of grey which render the action difficult to read. Kurosawa himself never ran into this problem. An iconic action scene in Seven Samurai takes place in a ferocious downpour, yet the actors and objects on screen are always clear and distinct. I’ll give Sucker Punch the benefit of the doubt that the technologies used in game production are at least partially to blame for this problem. I don’t know enough about those tools or the process of using them to feel comfortable entirely blaming the artists.

That being said, the problem is right there on screen, and it never goes away. These images have no character or texture or life. Kurosawa Mode makes Ghost of Tsushima a constant stream of blotchy, indistinguishable grey. The fake film grain effect applied on top feels like a bandaid on a severed limb. Does Sucker Punch know what film grain is? Like so many things in this game and this mode, it seems to be present only as a contextless point of reference. They care more about triggering shallow memories of old movies than actually learning anything from them which they could put into practice.

Sometimes this even directly affects the experience of playing the game. Early on, I was given a quest to track down something or other which required following a hand-drawn map. I was told to look for patches of purple flowers to lead me in the right direction. You can imagine the conundrum here.

How would the real Kurosawa have solved this issue? In his film High and Low, shot in black-and-white, the appearance of pink smoke represents a key development in the story. Kurosawa illustrates this by, well, literally illustrating it: the smoke is colored pink amidst the otherwise entirely grey city backdrop. Kurosawa wasn’t precious about leaving the black-and-white cinematography undisturbed, as though doing so preserved some kind of ethereal artistic experience. On the contrary, the film is all the better for this one striking break in form.

All this is to say that Sucker Punch not only could have just made the flowers in question appear purple despite the Kurosawa Mode filter, but doing so would have actually been a direct reference to the man the mode claims to be inspired by. Perhaps the developers had never seen High and Low, or perhaps they just didn’t bother to consider the issue that Kurosawa Mode would introduce for this quest. Whatever the case, I spent what felt like ages stumbling around in the general vicinity of the objective trying to deduce which flowers were meant to be the purple ones, thinking that surely the developers must have added in a way to tell the difference even without being able to see the colors. Eventually, out of frustration, I turned the mode off in order to complete the quest. The flowers were right in front of me the whole time. This isn’t the only quest in the game which relies on the player noticing colors in the environment. In fact, a key mechanic which lets the player know which incoming attacks can be parried and which cannot relies on flashes of red and blue which Kurosawa Mode renders completely indistinct.

Even without color being a factor, though, the smudgy visuals of Ghost of Tsushima frequently make it a nightmare to play. In the next screencap, for example, see if you can tell where the enemies are, and how many of them are present.

Having trouble? So did I during this section. I died again and again because I could not for the life of me tell what was going on. Since the game required me to kill every enemy in the area to progress, I ended up sprinting around aimlessly hoping to run into someone I could kill. A 3D game should prioritize the player’s ability to orient themselves in its space. Perception of distance, shape, speed, and the player character’s movement capabilities should be attained intuitively. Games had this figured out almost from the moment that 3D movement was introduced. The gameplay in Super Mario 64 may feel a little sluggish in 2020, but knowing where you are and what’s around you isn’t an issue. The degree to which Kurosawa Mode annihilates an aspect of its medium which was figured out decades ago is genuinely staggering.

Putting the gameplay interactions aside, though, I think Kurosawa Mode does a good job of demonstrating how Sucker Punch’s pretensions of cinematic inspiration reveal a gaping lack of knowledge about the medium. One of the more amusing instances of this is during cutscenes, where black bars appear on the top and bottom of the screen to imitate a widescreen aspect ratio. (Worth mentioning that several of Kurosawa’s samurai films, including Seven Samurai and Rashomon, were not shot in widescreen ratios.) Hysterically, when this happens, the fake film grain and scratches of Kurosawa mode actually appear on top of the black bars as well. Anyone who knows even a little bit about film can tell you that (unless you’re watching a hard masked print, I suppose) this isn’t how movies work. No one told Sucker Punch, apparently. No one even seems to have told them what that masking effect even represents. In the game’s photo mode, it refers to the effect as “Cinema Bars.” Cinema bars.

It’s always at best amusing and at worst annoying when games try so hard to be like movies. Ghost of Tsushima represents a new low in failed ambition for the medium. It would be one thing for Kurosawa Mode to just be what it is: a lazy, hastily assembled marketing stunt for an otherwise generic AAA action game. It’s something more than that, though. It’s a perfect representation of how the game industry’s supposed cinematic ambitions come at the expense of innovation in their own medium, and sometimes even at the expense of making their work playable at all. It’s unlikely that this is going to change any time soon. These studios aren’t just going to get over their obsession with chasing cinematic signifiers. If Ghost of Tsushima showed anything, it’s that this stuff sells. The only hope I have is that maybe, when the next game like this rolls around, the producers will have watched a few more of the movies they claim to be inspired by. They might even enjoy them.

My Final Words on ‘Jojo Rabbit’

These are the last words I will ever write about Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. After almost 4 months of fielding near-constant rudeness from the film’s fans, I’ve gotten tired of it. I’m tired of trying to explain to people who won’t listen why I found this film so harmful and upsetting. I’m just going to say my piece here, make my full and complete case, and then never discuss it again. This is my final statement on the film.

Jojo Rabbit let us know everything we needed to know about it as soon as its marketing campaign began. From the beginning, the film’s posters and trailers billed it as “An Anti-Hate Satire,” the kind of corporate mishmash terminology familiar to people who have watched massive media entities try to carefully worm their way into praise for “inclusion” and “diversity.” It was hilarious, then, to see a film that seemed by its nature so edgy and dangerous instantly defang itself. It was an obvious attempt to head off social media backlash to the premise and imagery. “Don’t worry,” it said, “this film is anti-hate, which means not pro-Nazi, and it’s a satire, which means nothing in it is real.” The use of “satire” in particular rankled; over the past decade, the term has become an easy way to deflect criticism for bad jokes, a way of saying “but I didn’t really mean it.”

 It’s more often a tactic of the right than the left, though. Youtuber PewDiePie has made a habit of brushing off questions about his frequent bigoted remarks and boosting of white supremacist channels by calling it all satire and refusing to explain further. Other public-facing white supremacists and neo-Nazis have also called their statements satire as a public defense, only to turn right back to their followers and keep saying them, because to them it’s all real. What, exactly, is being satirized here, and how? It’s not clear. What is clear is how meaningless the term has become. Calling your work satirical these days amounts to little more than saying “I don’t really mean anything I’m saying, so you can’t criticize me for it.” Despite being an ostensibly leftist work, Jojo Rabbit has more in common with those cowardly right-wing hacks than anything else. It hides behind its “anti-hate satire” label to excuse its refusal to actively engage with the implications of its premise. In other words, it calls itself a satire so that it doesn’t have to actually satirize anything. 

A good way of framing the problem with Jojo Rabbit is through a classic dynamic in Jewish comedy: the schlemiel and the schlimazel. The classic explanation of these archetypes goes, “The schlemiel always spills his soup, and the schlimazel always has the soup spilled on him.” In other words, the former is a klutz and an oaf, and the latter is an unlucky object of schadenfreude. These characters can exist independently of one another as well, and often do. Who is the schlemiel in Jojo Rabbit? The easiest answer is that all of the Nazi characters fill this role. After all, they are almost all depicted as clumsy, stupid, and incompetent. I’ll get into the uselessness of this characterization of Nazis later. For now I’ll say that I don’t think all of the Nazis of Jojo Rabbit can be accurately defined as schlemiel. Consider that the film takes place very near the end of World War II, and a running thread is how badly Germany is losing. The Nazi war effort is prone to constant mishaps and accidents. Failure, and probably death,  is imminent. In one scene, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) has asked his subordinate Finkel (Alfie Allen) to find some German Shepherds to assist with the war. Finkel is revealed to have rounded up a group of stereotypically dressed shepherds (as in, sheep herders), to which Klenzendorf sighs and does a facepalm. The unlucky recipient of Finkel’s foolish error is Klenzendorf. He is the schlimazel. 

Why does this matter? It’s key to understanding the fundamental problem with Jojo Rabbit, which is its perspective. We laugh at the foibles of the schlemiel, who may seem innocent and naive in his mistakes. But when we laugh at the schlimazel, it’s out of pity and sympathy. The schlemiel is funny because his mistakes can be kept at a distance. The schlimazel is funny because his problems, the problems caused by other people, are relatable. In the schlemiel, we see other people. In the schlimazel, we see ourselves. Why does Jojo Rabbit expect us to see ourselves in Nazis? 

The other concern here is the sheer toothlessness of the film’s comedy. It draws to mind the American liberal inclination to mock the right as stupid or hypocritical while letting their actual ideas and actions slip by. This has been the mission of shows like The Daily Show for ages now. It allows liberals to feel good about themselves without having to do the hard work of fighting reactionary ideology head-on. It also unwittingly provides the right great fodder for their own campaigns. Donald Trump notably rode to success by firing up conservatives against an elite class who belittles them. Whether or not their beliefs are right or moral is irrelevant. The point is that as a tactic to discredit your political opponent, it’s pretty useless. As evidence of this, I encourage you to look for white supremacists or neo-Nazis whose minds were changed after seeing the depiction of Nazis in Jojo Rabbit. In fact, while you’re at it, take a look and see if any of those people cared even a little bit about Waititi playing Adolf Hitler, a decision which Waititi again and again boasted would really piss these people off. None of them care one way or the other about this film. That’s because the film isn’t for them, it’s for self-satisfied liberals who want to be told that they are good people for holding their milquetoast ideas about diversity and acceptance. 

Let’s talk about Elsa, played by Thomasin Mackenzie. She’s a Jewish girl being hidden by Rosie (Scarlett Johannsson), the mother of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). The film introduces her as a horror movie monster. She skulks in the shadows, just out of sight. Her fingers slowly curl around a doorframe, like a ghost in a Guillermo del Toro movie. Jojo is terrified of her right away. Is this because the film is from his perspective, and Nazi brainwashing has conditioned him to see Jews as hideous monsters? If so, this might be an interesting choice. I don’t think this is a fair reading of the scene, however. As it continues, Elsa assaults Jojo, disarms him, and threatens his life if he tells anyone about her. This was the moment when I realized how disastrously misguided Jojo Rabbit was. Somehow, in a film about a Jewish girl forced into hiding during the Holocaust, she is made out to be in a position of power over the Nazi Youth whose house she is hiding in. It is offensively ludicrous that a girl in Elsa’s position would taunt and threaten and toy with a boy who holds her life in his hands. It reminded me of the film Zootopia, which presents an oppressed minority of predator animals in a world run by prey animals as a corollary to real-life racism. But in the history of Zootopia’s world, predator animals used to be vicious, fearsome killers. The message seems to be that while racism may be justifiable based on history, it doesn’t make sense in a modern society. Jojo Rabbit also presents a message of “tolerance” that seems predicated on the idea that bigotry is wrong despite being logical. 

Elsa softens up to Jojo, of course, but that development presents a whole host of other issues. Here we have yet another film where the responsibility of rehabilitating someone’s racism falls to one of their victims. In a film that genuinely satirized Nazism, Jojo might have come to see the Nazi leaders in his life as foolish and vapid and hypocritical, and through that come to question what they taught him. Instead, Jojo’s transformation comes mostly through an adolescent crush on Elsa. The intention here, I think, was to show that coming into contact with an actual Jewish person would contradict the propaganda Jojo had been inundated with. He would come to realize that the lies he’d been fed about Jews weren’t true, because they didn’t apply to her. This notion has its own problems, of course, chief among them that the only two resulting implications are “not all Jews are monsters” or “all Jews are saints”. Both of these ideas flatten the Jewish people such that antisemitism seems illogical. But the evil of antisemitism doesn’t come from it being illogical, it comes from it being immoral. Antisemitism isn’t merely stupid, it’s wrong. Jojo Rabbit skirts around making an ethical argument, perhaps because it knows its cloying dramatic sensibility can’t sustain it. But the real issue, as I said, is that this problematic intention doesn’t even come across. It’s Jojo’s attraction to Elsa that changes his mind in the end. I don’t think Waititi fully understands the fire he’s playing with here. A classic literary stereotype of Jewish women paints us as lustful seductresses who steal good Christian men away from their good Christian wives and into sin. Why is the only Jewish character in this film about the Holocaust such an empty, harmful stereotype? 

Compare it to the characters of Shoshanna and Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, another irreverant take on the Holocaust. In that film, Shoshanna is a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight in Nazi-occupied France. Zoller, a Nazi war hero, falls for her, and tries to woo her. He does so by making it clear how famous and powerful he is, but also by trying to casually downplay it. He wants her to think that he doesn’t care about his status as a Nazi icon, and might even be troubled by it. He wants to seem sensitive and intelligent. Shoshanna doesn’t buy it for a second. She rebuffs him again and again, only acquiescing to his interest when it’s clear it would be dangerous to deny him. The film ends up asserting that she was right to do so. Zoller kills Shoshanna in the end, though not before her plot to murder the entire Nazi high command has been set in motion. When her film plays for the Nazi audience at the climactic moment, it’s not a plea for understanding and sympathy. It’s a final kiss-off before she blows them all to hell. Inglourious Basterds understands what Jojo Rabbit doesn’t, that Jews shouldn’t bother to make an effort to reform Nazis who seem amenable to it. 

This is where I want to get into how Jojo Rabbit diverges from Caging Skies, the novel on which it is based. Besides the addition of the imaginary Hitler, the most significant change Waititi makes is in the ending. Jojo Rabbit’s ending sees Berlin captured by the Allies, and Jojo running home to Elsa not to tell her that she’s no longer in danger, but to lie to her that the Nazis won the war so that she won’t leave him. Elsa sees through him right away, but remains sympathetic to the boy. The film ends with them joyously dancing together in the streets, finally free. 

Caging Skies ends quite differently. In the novel, Elsa believes Jojo’s lie, and the story continues well into their adult lives. The two are eventually married, though Elsa continues to live in hiding in Jojo’s house, still believing that the Nazis are in power. Eventually, Jojo can’t maintain the lie any longer, and the novel ends with Elsa leaving him after discovering the truth. I find this ending much more powerful and honest. The film’s ending, with the Jew and the (ex-)Nazi united in hopeful dance, is insulting in its childish conception of everything about its context. A more honest version of this ending would see Elsa, no longer having to pretend to be Jojo’s friend for her own safety, fleeing his house as soon as she learns the city has been liberated. A smarter film, one that presented a perspective from someone other than fascists, would show the horror of Elsa being forced to befriend a boy who is so inundated with antisemitic propaganda that he doesn’t even see her as human. It’s a fascinating dynamic that is true to history, and not a patronizing neoliberal fantasy.

The problem is that Elsa really isn’t much of a character at all. More importantly, she could hardly be said to be a Jewish character. Yes, she fills the role of the suffering Jew in Nazi Germany, but only to facilitate the redemptive arc of Jojo. What about her is Jewish? At no point does she communicate any Jewish ideas or themes or perspectives. Vitally, it is her apparent “normalcy” to Jojo that spurs on his transformation. The film seems to say that Jews didn’t deserve the Holocaust because “they were just normal people, like anyone else.” But this idea gives into the dichotomy between “normal people” and “not normal people.” Why couldn’t this film be a celebration of what makes Jewish teachings and culture so starkly different to Nazism? Why must Jews be absorbed into a generic, neutral “humanity” to earn salvation? 

This is why I get so angry at people who defend Jojo Rabbit on the basis of Waititi being a Jew himself. That is far and away the most common response whenever I openly criticize the film. His Jewishness is used not to absolve the film’s sins, but to deny their existence. The argument is that film made by a Jewish person about the Holocaust can’t be picked apart, because it is by definition an expression of the filmmaker’s personal relation to that trauma and history. I am, of course, absolutely sympathetic to this idea in general. For example, I am consistently troubled by the vitriol leveled at trans artists who express complicated and disagreeable feelings about their own experiences. My problem with this defense of Waititi is the lack of Jewish perspective in Jojo Rabbit. He may be Jewish, but this isn’t a Jewish film. It contains no Jewish point of view. And no, Elsa name-dropping golems absolutely does not count. This, more than anything, is what infuriates me so much about Jojo Rabbit. In my original Letterboxd review of the film, I said it was more a Nazi movie than a Jewish movie, a line which more than any other has led to people spewing misinformed and confused vitriol in my direction. To them, I invite explanation of what else I’m supposed to call a film about the Holocaust with a cast that is 99% comprised of goofy, harmless, sympathetic Nazis. I don’t think that Waititi’s Jewish background immunizes him from criticism for a film with nothing particularly Jewish about it, especially not from other Jews. 

As I said, this will be the last time I talk about Jojo Rabbit. This article contains all of my thoughts on the film, except for what I’ve expressed in other published pieces. I’m done listening to the clueless, excessively rude comments from the film’s fans, and I hope I’ve addressed all of the most common counter-arguments here. I know this piece is a lot less casual and friendly than my usual output, but my feelings on this film are very raw and my concerns are very serious. Thank you for reading. 

Welcome to Esther on Film!

Hey! I’d like to welcome you to my new website. My name is Esther Rosenfield, and I’ve been writing about film, television, and video games for over ten years. I’ve drifted through various websites and blogs, most recently publishing my work through Medium. I decided it was time to make a permanent, serious home for my work. So here we are! This site currently features all the work I’ve published on Medium over the past two years. I may eventually add even older pieces from since-shuttered outlets. All my future work will be published here. Thank you for reading me, and for supporting my work!

Patron Request: ‘Taipei Story’

Taipei Story is the first film I’ve seen from Edward Yang. It’s also one of the ones I hear about least often. This is probably down to its lack of availability in America until very recently, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Discussion of Yang’s filmography is dominated by his meaty, massive epics: The four-hour A Brighter Summer Day and the three-hour Yi Yi, the latter of which was his first breakout hit in the West but was also his final work before his death in 2007. Taipei Story comes in at a more modest runtime, but that’s no reflection on its ambitions. Even early in his career (Taipei Story was his second feature) Yang had a confident enough command of his craft to aim conceptually high.

The film tells the twin stories of a couple with quite different personalities. Chin is a straight-laced businesswoman who is beset by a run of bad news. Her boyfriend Lung is an unfocused baseball-obsessive who seems a poor match for the hyper-driven Chin. Yang takes them places that deliberately twist one’s expectations of them, in a way that’s neither didactic nor punishingly playful. There’s a breezy naturalism to the script, and you see it as well as in the lead performances.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is how Yang’s formal ambitions almost oppose his more realistic screenplay. So much of the film is comprised of shots of two characters where the camera is pulled just slightly back, just enough to emphasize the walls around them. It makes things feel that much more like a set, or perhaps like a stage. The blocking, too, feels very theatrical at times. You get the sense you’re watching a blackbox production more than a film. I don’t mean that at all as a criticism. It’s an intriguingly contradictory approach.

I’m quite curious to see if it spills over into Yang’s later work, or if Taipei Story represents more of an early experimental period. I get the strong sense that he knew exactly what he was doing here, though. There’s little of the wild abandon one expects from a young filmmaker using all the tools at their disposal. This feels like the work of someone much more accomplished and experienced. That, more than anything, makes me want to see what his films looked like after he actually gained that accomplishment and experience. I hope to get the chance to check them out soon. For now, I’m quite pleased with Taipei Story.

Patron Request: ‘Blow Out’

I first watched Blow Out only a day or two after Elliot Rodger murdered 6 people and injured 14 more in the name of misogynist aggrievement. His manifesto and YouTube channel contained lengthy screeds against, among other things, women as a whole. He blamed women for his loneliness and isolation, citing his inability to enter or maintain romantic relationships. His ideas about gender, sexuality, and society were consistent with what, in 2019, we define as “incel” ideology. Straight, mostly white, young men whose alienation and depression are deliberately aggravated by internet cults and personalities.

Watching Blow Out with these killings swirling around in my mind, I couldn’t help but take away mainly a sense of disappointment in the film’s treatment of women. I was frustrated by what I felt was an unnecessary turn towards sex crime villainy in a film that introduces itself as a political conspiracy thriller. I was especially upset by the fate of Nancy Allen’s character in this context. Why, I wondered, did Blow Out have to be about a killer of women? To what end, beyond typically De Palma-esque salaciousness?

I expected to have a much different reaction to the film now, five years later. Beyond just having distance from that particular event, I’ve grown a lot since then in terms of my understanding of myself and my relationship with “problematic” media. I thought I’d be able to appreciate De Palma’s formal strengths more. I wish that was the case, but Blow Out still doesn’t really do it for me.

To be clear, I’m not as distraught by the film’s violence anymore. I think the notion of a government agent callously becoming a serial killer of women in order to cover up a single political assassination is intriguing in concept. De Palma clearly has a distaste for politics and politicians, and the John Lithgow character embodies it. The ease with which he plots to commit a series of rapes and murders merely to disguise the removal of a key witness in a previous killing is chilling. It speaks to the filmmaker’s obvious hatred for political institutions, a necessary trait in anyone making a conspiracy thriller.

Still, I found myself less than interested in De Palma’s style. While I certainly respect his idiosyncrasies and specific flourishes, he just doesn’t really excite me personally as a film artist. That’s not to say that I think he’s untalented, or even that Blow Out is a poorly directed movie. I just don’t really vibe with what he’s doing with, for instance, lens use or editing. As I’ve gotten older, I think my tastes have narrowed down past my ability to fully appreciate De Palma. Maybe that’s me being unfair. It’s just the way I look at him. I want to see in De Palma what so many other people do. Maybe someday I’ll see a film of his and he’ll finally click with me. Blow Out is still not that film.

Patron Request: ‘In This Corner of the World’

My patrons know me well. I knew nothing about In This Corner of the World going in, and I was delighted to discover that it’s something akin to an animated Nobuhiko Obayashi film. Besides the obvious medium-mixing creating stylistic parallels, its primary concerns — of the rough transition from wartime Japan to peacetime and the impact of the atomic bomb on the national psyche — also appear in a large number of Obayashi works. There are particular scenes that feel directly inspired by comments and observations made by Obayashi in interviews. I don’t know enough about the film’s production to say whether or not it was directly inspired by him, but the connections seem quite strong to me.

As I said, the most obvious similarities are stylistic. In This Corner of the World tends towards the straightforward for long stretches of its runtime, broken up by instances of war violence and tragedy. It’s mostly in these dramatic breaks where the film introduces a playful inclination to mix mediums. Obayashi, of course, does this with more directly cinematic elements like color palettes and green-screen. This film, being animated, uses watercolors and crayons and splotchy acrylics. At first it seems to disguise the violence being depicted through a childlike lens. As the film goes on, though, it seems more that it represents a necessary psychological distancing on the part of the central characters from the attacks they are subjected to. Viewing something through an abstracted lens makes the horrors easier to stomach, not for us the audience but for them the characters. It’s a graceful touch, and one that grants the film new emotional depth.

It’s thematically, too, that the film recalls Obayashi. In a recent interview about his latest film, Hanagatami, the director recalled having been told as a child by his neighbor that if Japan ever lost the war, the man would gladly help young Obayashi honorably kill himself. There was an ingrained notion in his generation that the country would rather commit mass suicide than allow itself to be conquered. When Japan didn’t just lose, but surrendered, Obayashi was surprised to learn that such an event never came. People just went on with their lives. He said he felt betrayed by the older generation, not because he wanted to die, but because he felt they had misled him into a nationalistic fervor that would never be followed through on. I saw this reflected in main character Suzu’s outburst of fury upon learning of Japan’s surrender. She lost most of her family and one of her hands to the war, only for her country to (from her perspective) decide none of it was worth it.

In This Corner of the World isn’t so didactic that I’d call it an anti-war film. Obayashi tends to be much plainer about his intentions in this regard, even as his style trends much further towards the avant-garde. There’s no broad moral lesson imparted by this film. Instead, it ends on a note of quiet hope. War takes everything from us, but once it’s over, perhaps we can pick up the pieces. Perhaps post-war life is not just possible but necessary, a societal obligation. We are responsible for picking one another out of the rubble and learning how to live together again. In This Corner of the World is a sweet, gentle, and elegantly made film. It’s one I foresee sticking with me for some time.

Patron Request: ‘Hard Boiled’

I can’t think of a movie with a better opening shot than Hard Boiled. A man pours a drink, downs it in one go, does a classic post-shot exhale, and all of a sudden pulls out a clarinet and starts to jam. On its face it’s a silly opening, but a no less electric one, a perfect establishment of the film’s typically John Woo tone. You can’t even really call it “absurdity” because for Woo, it’s all quite familiar territory. This is what you come to his films for, and Hard Boiled doesn’t disappoint.

I will say that I missed the homoerotic tension between Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in The Killer, and that’s not least of the reasons that I think I prefer that film overall. Tony Leung has terrific chemistry with Chow, but it’s missing the spark between him and Lee in Woo’s other film. Part of it, I think, is that Hard Boiled loses the cop/criminal dichotomy that made The Killer so exciting. In Hard Boiled, both men are cops, though one spends much of the film undercover and the two have to play at being enemies. It lacks that inherently tense dynamic of two men whose similarities and bond belie their opposing positions on “the law.”

It’s still a fun movie, of course. The action is far more heightened than The Killer, with more wild stunts and expressive images. Chow’s face totally caked in white dust, suddenly splashed with bright red blood. Blood seeping around the edges of a book and leaving perfect right-angled stains on a library table. Blood splattering against a sterile hospital window. Really it’s just a whole lot of blood, when you get down to it. Woo really understands the dramatic potential of the stuff in a way so many gorehound directors don’t. His blood is so striking because of how he uses it in clever juxtapositions with clean and serene settings. There’s nothing grimy or gritty about the world of a Woo film, just the actions of the people who live in it.

As I said, I prefer The Killer for certain elements, but Hard Boiled is just an absolute blast. Woo once said that while critics loved The Killer because “it mixed the action with the art,” it was “movie lovers” who adored Hard Boiled. I wish I could quibble with that assessment! I like the latter film quite a bit anyway. It’s just the tiniest bit of a comedown.

Patron Request: ‘The Outsiders’

My associations with S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders are entirely filtered through my memory of middle school English classes, which is to say that those associations aren’t entirely positive. You don’t need me to tell you that the way American public schools teach you how to approach art is, at best, misguided. I remember the insistence on pulling very bland and basic metaphors out of a text. A represents B, that sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, this led to me thinking of those books as rather bland and basic as well. That’s the prevailing memory with which I went into Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of The Outsiders. Turns out, it wasn’t a fair one.

To be clear, I don’t think this is the best Coppola film I’ve seen. I prefer the wild abandon of his later work, something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to the Godfather-era prestige projects. There’s only a dash of the formal creativity he’d fully commit to in more recent years in The Outsiders. What’s there, particularly the instances of superimposition and brief distortion, are exciting and intriguing. But while this isn’t as austere as something like The Godfather or The Conversation, it’s still a bit plain.

The real standout here, of course, is the cast, comprised almost entirely of future stars. Matt Dillon is the clear MVP for me, beautifully embodying the tug between Dallas’ heartfelt paternal instincts and his more childish commitment to petty gang feuds. It’s a fiery performance, but one tempered by a genuine love for the younger kids in his care. His anguish at the death of one of them, and the consequences of his subsequent rampage, is the bloody heart of The Outsiders. More than Ponyboy’s loss of innocence (that rubber-stamped theme we learned about in middle school) the film made me feel for Dallas, a man who lost his long ago. So much of that is down to Dillon’s outstanding performance.

What I think is really admirable about the film is how Coppola refuses the melodramatic or the heightened. The image of these two warring aesthetics (sorry, gangs) can seem a little silly, and it’s easy to imagine a version of The Outsiders that leans into this and ends up resembling West Side Story minus the music. This might not have been a bad thing! But it would have been the easy thing. It’s easy to treat such big, loud emotions as something a little beyond reality. Coppola takes them entirely as real, and it’s to the film’s benefit. It’s true that it still seems a little absurd. But it’s the type of absurdity that arises genuinely from teenagers. That’s the key idea that Coppola hits on with The Outsiders. Yes, the way they see the world may seem ridiculous. But that doesn’t insulate them from tragedy.

Let’s Talk About The Gay Stuff in ‘It Chapter Two’

This article contains spoilers for It Chapter Two as well as the preceding film and the original novel.

Like the Stephen King novel on which it’s based, It Chapter Two opens with a hate crime. Adrian Mellon (here played terribly by former director of note Xavier Dolan) kisses his boyfriend at a Derry carnival, and the two are followed out of it by a gang of homophobic hoodlums. The two are viciously beaten, and a barely-conscious Adrian is thrown over the side of a bridge into a rushing river. He’s pulled out and eaten by Pennywise. The crime alerts Mike Hanlon to It’s resurgence, spurring him to reunite his friends to battle it again.

So, there’s gay stuff in It Chapter Two. Queer shit. There is Homosexual Content TM. If you read Stephen King’s novel, you knew it was coming. If you’re like me, you were dreading the film’s handling of the Adrian Mellon scene. We were right to do so. The scene is exceedingly brutal, seeming to relish the seeping blood covering Adrian’s now unrecognizable face the same way the film delights in the outlandish gore inflicted by Pennywise. In King’s book, homophobia in Derry is implicitly tied to the presence of It, both evils feeding off of and into one another. In the film, homophobic violence is no different than Pennywise’s fantastical “kills.” We’re meant to be horrified by both, but with the whispered suggestion that it’s still fun to watch.

This is where the queerness ends in the book. Not so in the film. Seemingly by way of apology for the Adrian Mellon scene, the filmmakers have added just a dash of gay to their main cast. Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Bill Hader as an adult) is heavily implied to be gay. I say “heavily implied” because it’s never outright stated. There’s no coming-out moment. Still, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.

The film’s lengthy middle portion is taken up by new flashbacks which take place during an unseen part of the first film, when the friends briefly split up after wounding and escaping from It. Each character has a new jump-scare setpiece encounter with It during this time. Richie’s begins at an arcade, where he’s playing Street Fighter with another unnamed boy. The game ends, and the boy slaps Richie’s hand, lingering just a half-second longer on the gesture than expected. The camera notes the physical contact. Richie responds by asking, a bit too desperately, for the boy to play another round with him. At this point, the bully Henry Bowers and his gang appear. The boy is Henry’s little cousin, and he instantly turns on Richie. The bullies call Richie a faggot and a fairy and chase him out of the arcade.

A frustrated Richie wanders to a nearby park, at the center of which is a massive statue of Paul Bunyon. Naturally, the statue comes alive, but its taunt of Richie is of particular interest. “Wanna kiss, Richie?” it asks him, before transforming into a garish CGI monster and chasing him across the park. The illusion vanishes and Richie is spared, and the film cuts to adult Richie in the same park, staring at the same statue. Then Pennywise appears to him and starts to tease him about his “dirty little secret.”

So at this point it should be obvious what the film is getting at. Richie is gay, he’s closeted, and this is the deep-seated fear that Pennywise is picking on. The problem is that there’s a clear divide in the film between the treatment of this idea in the child segments and in the adult segments. When Richie is a child, the depiction of his burgeoning sexuality is depicted with shocking subtlety and tenderness. As an adult, it’s nonsensical and heavy-handed.

The centerpiece of Richie’s sexuality is his relationship with fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak. The new flashbacks to the Losers as children have a new focus on the playful antagonism between the two. They tease each other and bicker in the way only close friends can. It’s never the primary focus, but it’s conspicuously present.

At one point, the two argue in the background of a scene over whose turn it is to lie in the clubhouse hammock. Eventually Eddie just gets in with Richie and they lie there together. Eddie gently kicks Richie’s face with his foot, knocking his glasses off. There’s something sweetly familiar to this detail, that moment of physical contact that meant nothing to Eddie but something more to Richie, a gesture with significance Richie couldn’t decode at the time. It’s, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually recognizable to my own experience of being a young queer person who had no idea who she was. You carry these little totems with you, tiny pinpricks in your heart. The details may drift away, but the way the moments made you feel never will. Is it great queer cinema? Not hardly. But it’s far better than anyone should have expected from a film like this.

That’s the kid scenes, though. The adult scenes are much, much different, presenting some pressing questions of coherency. Chief among them: Why is Richie still closeted in 2016? He lives in New York City, he’s a successful stand-up comedian, he has no family ties to speak of. Why can’t he just be out? Had the film’s timeline adhered to the novel’s, with the adult half playing out in the 1980s, this may have made more sense. It certainly does for the child Richie. I thought of the scene in the first film where Eddie, ever the hypochondriac, rants about the terrifying possibility of AIDS infection. What must young Richie have thought of that?

This isn’t to say, of course, that homophobia doesn’t exist in 2016. The film makes a point of this with the Adrian Mellon scene. Still, the film can conceive of no reason why Richie should have remained in the closet all these years beyond a general sense of shame and internalized homophobia, neither of which is ever actually depicted. We have no idea how Richie feels about being gay. There’s no sense of his life or personality as they relate to his queerness. Him being gay is just another Dark Secret for Pennywise to pick on. It’s Ben’s shame over being formerly obese, it’s Beverly’s fear of her abusive father, it’s Bill’s guilt over his brother’s death. It’s just another hanging thread to be tugged on, a board hung around the neck headlined “This Is My Trauma.” It’s cheap, it’s ugly, it’s borderline offensive.

And yet….there’s an “and yet.”

At some point in the film, we see a flashback to young Richie carving “R +” into a wooden fence. The camera obscures the final initial. The last we see of adult Richie is him returning to that fence, where we see that he carved “R + E,” and he gets to work digging out those same old lines, making the mark new again. Eddie didn’t survive the final battle with It, and Richie was more affected by this than his friends. As I watched him re-carve those letters, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of warmth, remembering the look on young Richie’s face as young Eddie lightly kicked it. Hader and Wolfhard turn a deeply lame character rewrite into something gentle and tender. They find a queerness that feels familiar in a script to which queerness is alien. It Chapter Two is not queer cinema. Its depiction of gay characters is largely trashy and pointless and incoherent. But in these performances, there’s something more. There’s real queer life. If only the movie was good. If only, if only, if only.

Patron Request: ‘Redline’

Perhaps my expectations were skewed, but I was sort of expecting more racing in this movie about a big race. For all the discussion I’d heard about Redline and its bold art style and its experimental animation, I found that its narrative plays things far too safe. So much of the film’s runtime is taken up by a plodding second act, where the characters do little except hang around and wait for the race to start. While the alien designs and bizarre sci-fi cultures are amusing and cool, it’s not quite enough to buoy such an extended section. I wanted a thrill ride that never stopped to breathe. I got something far more restrained than I was promised.

Even once the eponymous race begins, the film keeps cutting away to military war rooms and enemy soldiers, breaking up the tension of the competition so severely that it doesn’t even seem to matter until the final minutes. I know that this film was made in a pre-Mad Max: Fury Road world, but it’s disappointing that the filmmakers didn’t feel confident enough to just make a 90-minute race sequence. When the film does focus entirely on racing, it’s exhilarating. The way the animation bends and stretches around the incredible speed of the drivers, suggesting that even an entirely hand-made visual medium strains to depict them, is outstanding.

It does lack the specificity of expressionism in the Wachowski Sisters’ Speed Racer, its most obvious contemporary. That film’s experiments feel more deliberate, an explicit attempt at something rather than Redline’s more freeform style. I prefer Speed Racer by a wide margin, but I can’t criticize Redline for thinking outside the box. I just wish they’d thought a little further.

Still, there’s so much to like about this film. I already mentioned the design work, and it’s probably my favorite aspect. The film’s imagination seems limitless, unshackled by any kind of consistent sci-fi aesthetic. Aliens in Redline can look like anything. I so admire the creative freedom on display in this film. While I’m not entirely in love with the art style, the designs are tremendous.

I so wish I could be fully on board with Redline. It’s a hair’s breadth away from being a movie I could unreservedly love. There are certainly bits and pieces that I feel that way about. As a whole, though, there’s too much dragging the film down, too much fat untrimmed. There’s much to admire in Redline. It’s a shame that the whole film isn’t one of those things.