Patron Request: ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’

I’m not a big fan of the films of Nagisha Oshima. While I appreciate his Cruel Story of Youth, I find Empire of Passion utterly noxious and In the Realm of the Senses an inferior twin to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Sada. His explorations of straight sexuality are alternately insipid and offensive in their insistent edginess. I just don’t like what I’ve seen of his work.

Except Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence remains incredible. It’s like it was made by a different filmmaker. It has none of the Oshima reflexes I find so off-putting. What it has to say about sexuality (homosexuality, in this case) it says non-explicitly, mostly through hard stares and fragile physical gestures. This film is not the work of a provocateur; it’s remarkably sensitive and gentle. How did this come from the man who made something as radioactive as Empire of Passion? Maybe auteurism is dead after all.

All joking aside, I love Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Oshima elides the themes typical of POW films — of endurance, bravery, and loyalty — and uses the setting to depict how intimate gestures reflect an individual’s inner desires as much as the political realities in which they live. Many Oshima movies are about sexual power relations, but Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence doesn’t turn that idea into some sort of game. Jack Celliers and Captain Yonoi aren’t playing some sort of sexy cat and mouse game, they’re just two men trying to survive their own worst impulses. When Yonoi takes out his repressed queerness in violence, it feels like the tragic consequence of emotion made illegal rather than the inevitable result of any and all sexual fixation.

What really sings about this film is the casting. Oshima made three brilliant and unusual choices here. The first is the casting of David Bowie, who had acted on-screen only a few times before this. Casting musicians as actors is always going to be a risk, but Bowie is a major talent in both fields. Speaking of, the film’s composer Ryuichi Sakamoto also stars as Captain Yonoi. Sakamoto had, to my knowledge, never acted before, making the casting of him in such a significant role a major leap of faith for Oshima. He made the right call, though; Sakamoto is revelatory. The way he plays Yonoi’s imposing yet trembling stature, a man whose inner turmoil is always on the verge of bursting forth, is astonishing. His performance expressions are so clear and vibrant. For a non-actor, it’s quite the work. (His score for the film is, for the record, also fantastic.) The final piece of this casting trifecta is the legendary Takeshi Kitano, in one of his first screen roles! Kitano was primarily known as a comedian and TV game show host at this point, so casting him in such a tender dramatic role is, yet again, a major risk that pays off tremendously. We could never repay Oshima for what he gave us by kickstarting Kitano’s career.

For all the guff I give Oshima, he’s very good at being what I think of as a “tableau director.” He’s so good at composing images of wide scale and intricate detail, where every little piece seems to be in just the right place. These shots can be complex or minimalist, but they’re always locked-off and still. Often the elements of the tableau arrange themselves within the shot itself, causing a commotion before eventually coming to rest in their proper positions. It’s like everyone on set is getting ready to take a group photo. Other times a shot will begin with the tableau and be interrupted and “ruined” by the chaotic movement of the actors. The film revolves around these still images, like an animated photo book. I have to laud Oshima for his technique here. Y’know, maybe he just shouldn’t have made films about women.

Patron Request: ‘A Scanner Darkly’

The first sentence of Wikipedia’s plot summary for A Scanner Darkly reads: “The United States has lost the war on drugs.” It’s a pithy, superficial summation of the film’s setting, and a disastrous misread of its narrative. A Scanner Darkly is about a very much ongoing “war on drugs,” the callous way it churns through human lives in its pursuit of victory, and its instigation of a world where corporations fight addicts with one hand while creating them with another. The “war on drugs” isn’t over in this film. It’s never going to be over.

A Scanner Darkly has a remarkably clear-eyed view of “war on drugs” politics and capital. Early on we hear a mention that 20% of the population is now addicted to drugs, followed immediately by the statement that “one company is helping.” It’s a very Paul Verhoeven dystopia here, with the state violence of policing inextricable from the machine of capitalism. The former is just one branch of the latter, the enforcement arm of the great American corporation. By the end of A Scanner Darkly, we learn that the “one company” that’s “helping” is actually manufacturing the country’s most popular and dangerous drug. Getting people addicted is their way of generating slave labor for their “rehab” facilities, which generate more of the drug, and cycling on and on forever. Grim stuff! And hardly outside the realm of possibility.

I wouldn’t call A Scanner Darkly a particularly sensitive depiction of addiction, though. Much of the film is devoted to the bumbling antics of its central addict characters. One’s twitchy and dissociative, one’s an animated asshole, one’s a spacey dummy. They’re all familiar Linklater archetypes, and their misadventures recall plenty of the director’s other films. While these character types can be fun for slacking stoners, I think Linklater missteps by applying them to people victimized by a capricious corporate agenda, people whose only destiny is suicide or slavery. The film has a little bit of a tone problem because of this. While it makes a strong case in the end, there’s too much Linklaterian ambling and rambling on the way there.

And yet…..discussion of A Scanner Darkly must come with an “and yet.” The film’s Wikipedia page lays out in typically blase fashion the terrible treatment of the animators on this production, from being forced to work 18-hour days to being locked out of the office while out on lunch and having their contributions to the film diminished in their official credits. This is a film about capitalist abuse built on capitalist abuse. I can’t talk about this film without talking about that fact. These artists were mistreated and then disposed of in the exact same way that the police in the film mistreat and then dispose of Keanu Reeves’ character. It’s a disturbing parallel.

I liked A Scanner Darkly. I liked its rotoscoped animation, I liked its thematic aims, I liked Reeves (as always). But the facts of its production are unavoidable, especially when they hew so closely to things the film decries. I wish this post could be more positive. There’s a lot to like about this film. I just can’t see past the people it stepped on to get itself made.

On Letting People Enjoy Things

Why are so many pop culture fanatics threatened by disagreement?

Unless you’re spending your first visit to the internet reading this article (in which case, I’m honored) you’ve probably seen an excerpt from this webcomic by artist Adam Ellis before. If there’s a semi-viral tweet voicing a minority opinion about a popular thing, it’ll be in the replies. It’s the ultimate expression of contempt for the mere idea that someone could not like an element of pop culture. What I didn’t know until seeing the full comic for the first time was that it’s been somewhat altered from its original context.

We see in the original that the refrain “let people enjoy things” is not meant as a defense of some nerd culture object, as the last two panels are so often used, but as a rejoinder to tired nerd dismissal of sports fandom. It was a message to the current gatekeepers of pop culture to stop being so annoying about people who enjoy watching football. Football, in this admittedly absurd and unrealistic context, is the underdog when compared to wildly successful genre film and television.

So why do so many people use the comic to defend the most popular things on the planet? What do they even mean by “let people enjoy things”? Having been beset by scores of angry commenters every time I post about a Marvel movie on Letterboxd, I think I have the necessary experience to unpack this idea.

It all comes back to the paradoxical fact that fans of the world’s most popular media are intensely insecure in their fandom. Avengers: Endgame is on track to make more money than any film has ever made before. So why do fans brigade negative reviews? When I posted about Endgame on Letterboxd, there was something that came up again and again in furious comments: “You made me feel bad for liking the movie.” Now, you can judge for yourself whether my review was at all patronizing. I think there’s something revealing here, though. If you hold an opinion about a movie, why should reading an opposing one make you feel bad? Unless, of course, you’re not secure in your own opinion. Unless you feel there’s some truth in those opposing arguments.

I’m not saying I’m objectively right about any movie. That’s not possible for anyone. I’m just saying that I think the notion that a negative review could make someone feel bad for liking a movie says less about the review than it does about the person reading it. It indicates to me that they want to like a movie and not think too deeply about why they like it, out of fear that introspection would lead to them not liking it anymore. So they lash out at critics, even if those critics are a tiny minority. They can’t feel comfortable just being part of a titanic pop-cultural movement. Any suggestion of disagreement has to be eradicated, because that hint of opposition is a reminder that it’s possible to not like the thing. And if that’s possible, should they?

So we see the comic posted everywhere. “Let people enjoy things.” What it really means is “You’re not allowed to not enjoy things.”It’s a fundamentally broken way to look at art. Why do so many people perceive a dissenting opinion as a literal attack on affirmative ones? Especially in a case where the affirmative opinions are in such overwhelming majority? People are so threatened by the existence of disagreement, or even just of abstinence. In this new pop culture landscape, to merely opt out of these massive events is considered snobbish and uppity. You see a million viral tweets that scream “No one cares that you don’t watch Game of Thrones! Let people enjoy things!” as if it’s somehow hurting your enjoyment that other people choose not to engage. Non-participation is considered at best a social faux pas and at worst a sneering act of malice. It’s insane.

And there’s something even more sinister going on here. It’s no coincidence that you never see the comic posted in response to criticism of some understated indie drama or underground Bandcamp musician. You only ever see it used to defend the commercial output of mega-corporations; your Marvel, your Game of Thrones, your Ariana Grande, etc. It’s no surprise, either. A recent development in corporate art is the positioning of it as a cultural underdog, constantly under siege from Haters and Trolls. You see it most with the nerd properties mentioned above. They parry the childhood fear of being bullied for liking nerd stuff into the suggestion that those bullies are still out there, waiting to pounce, and they take the form of everyone who dares to not like the IP in question.

It’s just marketing, but it’s worked astonishingly well. It lets a company like Disney, nearing monopolistic status in the film industry, pretend to be victimized by minor dissent. And their fans are such obsessives that they weaponize themselves in its defense. Disney doesn’t need to pay critics to give their films good reviews. Critics will do it for free, because who wants to be the one guy who isn’t on board? Who wants to be the bully? Certainly no one wants to be inundated with cruel and vindictive comments. I’m not saying that every critic who writes a positive review of an Avengers movie isn’t being genuine. But the culture Disney has built for us makes it harder to write a negative review than a positive one.

So if any “let people enjoy things” posters are reading this, I’m going to politely ask for a little introspection on your part. What is it about negative reviews that threatens your enjoyment of a thing? I can tell you with certainty that no positive review of a thing I dislike has ever made me feel insecure about my own opinion. I’ve found those takes interesting and worth thinking about, and it’s even happened before that my own opinion was swayed by different reads and analyses. It’s okay to change your mind about something after reading something that disagrees with you. It’s okay to not change your mind and continue believing what you believe. What’s not okay is telling people to shut up because they aren’t part of your hivemind. I’m grabbing your lips now and holding them closed. Please, let people not enjoy things. It’s not going to hurt you.

Patron Request: ‘A Moment of Innocence’

Is it gauche to open a talk about A Moment of Innocence with reference to Close-Up? Is it possible to talk about the former without mentioning the latter? The films are as much twins as any two works in the medium’s history. Neither is incomplete without the other, exactly, but they’re so intertwined as to be inseparable. It’s not just that they’re both metatextual docufictions from Iran, both focused on their own productions and both retelling real-life stories with the participation of the people who lived them. That all pales in comparison to the main relation between them, of course. A Moment of Innocence director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the subject of Close-Up, appearing in the film alongside a man who was arrested for imitating him. Close-Up was released six years before A Moment of Innocence, but they might as well have been created alongside one another. The two films speak to each other in their examinations of the politics of historical reconstruction and the essence of reality.

If there’s a key difference between them, it’s that Close-Up is much more deliberately playful in its experimentation. Abbas Kiarostami takes a Wellesian approach to the nature of “truth” by knocking down the walls between reality and reenactment. Makhmalbaf’s take on the concept is less direct and (though it feels sacrilegious to say this in comparison to Kiarostami) more soulful. Makhmalbaf sees his policeman’s humanity where Kiarostami sees what his impersonator represents. This isn’t a qualitative judgement on either film, of course. It’s just worth noting what I see as their different approaches.

I don’t mean to suggest that Makhmalbaf’s film is devoid of anything but personal drama, either. The most interesting scene, to me, comes early on, when the policeman and the boy who is to play him visit a tailor to obtain a costume. At first, the tailor balks at the idea of remaking the uniform of the Shah’s police force. But when he learns that it’s for a film, he happily obliges. In fact, he has one stowed away all ready to go. What’s most notable here is his first question when he’s told about the film: “Are you playing the bad guy?” He’s perfectly willing to contribute to the film under the assumption that the policeman will be portrayed the way he already views him. The uniform transforms from an object that induces disgust to a necessary prop in a particular contextualization. And that’s before it even appears on-screen! It’s a fascinating scene. Makhmalbaf doesn’t delve as deeply as Kiarostami into these ideas, but I think he does it more gracefully.

It’s funny, watching A Moment of Innocence I couldn’t help but be reminded of a time in my life when films like Close-Up completely blew my mind. I used to think that movies that were about themselves in that way, about the act of filmmaking, were as good as the medium could get. I have different interests and fixations now, and I think A Moment of Innocence might have hit me on a more significant level had I seen it five or six years ago. Now my appreciation of it feels inextricable from my memories of a time in my life when it would have truly blown me away. That’s not fair to the film, of course, but this isn’t really about the film at all. It just makes me think about how my taste has changed and evolved over time. I wonder how I’ll categorize my current obsessions another half-decade on. If nothing else, A Moment of Innocence helped me put my love of movies into new perspective.

Patron Request: ‘Begotten’

A little while ago I wrote about Gore Verbinski’s The Ring and why it was one of the few films I’ve ever seen to have genuinely scared me. Having now seen E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten, I can add another entry to that short list. It’s no secret why: Begotten was a clear influence on the terrifying tape from The Ring, with its scratched-up, blown-out, desaturated-to-the-point-of-abstraction imagery. Begotten is alternately engrossing and hard to stomach, a film that pulled me in as much as it pushed me away.

Merhige initially planned for Begotten to be a work of theatrical performance art, performed on stage. While the gothic costumes and nervy physicality of the actors certainly could translate to that medium, it’s hard to imagine this work being presented any other way. Watching this on stage, minus the way Merhige’s camera abstracts his subjects to the point of inscrutability, not to mention the disgusting squelches of the soundtrack, just wouldn’t be nearly as powerful an experience. Begotten is a film that even resists restoration. It seems to require a blurry SD file or a damaged print. These imperfections give the film character. It creates the impression (much like The Ring’s cursed videotape) that the film arose fully-formed out of some vile primordial soup, a paranormal consequence of psychic violence more than a relatable human creation, a true cosmic horror.

So what is Begotten? It’s nominally a Genesis fable; the film opens with the character called God Killing Himself, well, you know. God here is a figure in a haunting mask sitting in the corner of a room and disemboweling himself. After he’s dead and the goopy mess of gore has dripped onto his feet, Mother Earth seems to be born from within him. She masturbates his corpse and inseminates herself. In written form, I think this comes across as a little try-hard in its sacrilegious obsession with bodily fluids. It doesn’t play this way in the film, mostly because of how the blown-out black-and-white cinematography makes the central figures seem more like vague shapes than people. His abstraction of them makes them genuinely archetypal — descended creatures of myth and song, not humans in costumes. The overexposed sky in the later sections makes them seem to exist in a great bright void. There is a disturbing absence of setting in Begotten. Merhige creates such terrifying distance from his subjects; we cannot hope to reach them or understand them. All we can do is bear witness.

Up top I wrote that Begotten scared me. That was true, for a while. By the end, though, I was more sad than anything else. The film is a tragedy that makes no room for empathy; it actively pushes you away from the victims at its center. I appreciated Merhige’s commitment to pushing the viewer away at every turn, refusing to let them see any humanity in his subjects. They are beyond our help. And we have no choice but to watch.

Patron Request: ‘Opera’

I’ve never considered Dario Argento a particularly self-reflexive filmmaker, but I don’t know how else to describe his 1987 film Opera. His self-insert character here — a well-known horror filmmaker taking a stab at the world of opera — is depicted as vain and calculating, a man sadistically obsessed with a good bloody story. In any other film, he’d turn out to be the killer, so blind to the real impact of his splattering narratives that his bloodlust turns to reality. Since this is Argento’s work, though, our villain is a psychosexual sociopath who also represents state power and patriarchal dominion. All in all, something of a lateral move.

Opera, like most Argento, is an easy film to watch. His mad camera moves are arresting, constantly swooping and sweeping and flipping and spinning and refusing to stay still. It’s a film in a constant state of agitation, as panicked and nervy as its protagonist. Argento never takes a moment to breathe, nor should he. Opera is enjoyably relentless. I never felt exhausted by Argento’s madcap antics. It’s thrilling throughout.

Part of that is down to some truly ghastly violence, which I found hard to watch at times. At multiple points, the typically Argento-ish young ingenue at the film’s center is tied up and has needles taped under her eyes so she can’t blink. It’s the sort of wildly sadistic machination you’d expect from a Saw movie, but it feels less cynically provocative here. There’s something honest about Argento’s love of violence, a genuine excitement for the most twisted gory setups he can imagine. Movies like Saw want you to look away. Argento wants you to keep watching.

I couldn’t help but think while watching Opera of how unlikely the success of a filmmaker like Argento would be in 2019. An artist so fascinated with the startling bright red of a bloodstain, or the gruesome sound of scissors ripping into flesh, or the shape an eyeball takes when it’s been ripped out by the beak of a raven — these aren’t qualities the general public has much time for anymore. Audiences at large these days prefer bloodless, sanitized “action” and decry as problematic the more gruesome depictions Argento was famous for. The only people picking up his legacy are useless provocateurs like Von Trier or Refn, people who don’t understand that Argento was so great because he wanted to bring the audience in on his obsessions rather than scare them away. Opera is a fun watch because Argento is fundamentally an inviting artist. You may want to avert your eyes, but his lavish use of color and wild camera movements bring you right back in. There’s no one else like Argento, and there probably never will be.

Patron Request: ‘The Descent’

Having found most of his TV work rather uninspiring, I was surprised by how impressed I was with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. While I don’t think it’s a great film, there’s more of interest here than in his episodes of Game of Thrones or even the more directly comparable Hannibal.

The setup is familiar: A grieving young woman recovering from a tragic accident goes out on a trip with her friends and encounters a violent horror. Like most horror films with such a premise, The Descent uses its labyrinthine caves and vicious monsters as metaphors for overcoming trauma. I wrote about this trope recently, specifically about how horror films present a pessimistic vision of the healing process by virtue of the realities of studio filmmaking. The Descent has its cake and eats it too in this regard. It was released with two endings, the original one for the U.K. and an edited version for the U.S. In the latter, main character Sarah escapes the caves, but is haunted by a vision of the friend she left behind to save herself. In the former, the scene goes on to reveal that her escape was itself a hallucination, and she’s still trapped in the caves as the credits roll. The original ending was deemed too dark for American audiences (post-9/11 Hollywood was wild) but I actually prefer the edited version. It suggests something more profound about the immortality of trauma — you may feel like you’ve escaped, but the past never really leaves you.

While the first 15 minutes or so are clumsily edited, this awkwardness becomes a strength once the film enters the caves. The choppiness of the cuts turns dark shots of small flashlight beams into abstract light shows, where the lack of coherent composition is itself the image. The idea of “oh the editing is so rapid, it’s meant to be disorienting just like the characters are disoriented” is a little banal but it’s applicable here. It’s as hard to find your way visually through The Descent as it is for the characters to find their way through the caves.

This is accompanied by some arresting use of lighting. Besides the flashlights, which tend to be pointed towards the camera and thus rarely illuminate the surroundings, red flares give striking shape to the craggy caverns and green light tubes create a more unsettling and alien glow. These single-color scenes help make the caves feel less like a real place on Earth and more like a supernatural space-between. This really enhances the film’s attempts at horror, and it can use all the help it can get in that department.

If there’s a main problem with The Descent, it’s that it isn’t scary. It starts out well enough, seeding tiny hints at its monsters throughout unrelated tense setpieces. An early glimpse of one engulfed in blackness before it skitters away is properly frightening. It falls apart in the film’s second half, though. After a certain point, The Descent stops withholding its creatures and starts shoving them in your face. I’m normally skeptical of the old bromide that a film monster is scarier the less you see of it, but it’s true here. The pale-skinned creatures are less scary the more you see of them, and Marshall shows us every inch. He makes no effort to conceal them with his camera or in editing. And the more you see them, the more their humanity becomes apparent, the less they represent the terror of the unknown lurking in the dark. They don’t lurk enough.

The Descent really is a tale of two halves. All the cave scenes before the first creature attack are phenomenally creepy. Very little of what follows is worthwhile. I wish the film had stuck to its guns and kept the creatures at a distance, kept them in the shadows, kept them away from the camera (if at least not the characters). If I was let down by The Descent, it’s only because it seemed so promising at the outset.

Patron Request: ‘Burning’

This piece was based on a film suggestion by one of my subscribers on Patreon. For $3 a month you can submit a film for me to write about. Check out the link if you’re interested!

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is really two films, or it might be more accurate to say that it consists of the same film twice over. It splits neatly down the middle, seeming to end and then begin again. It tells fundamentally the same story a second time, only with a new plot for round two. This bifurcated structure could signify a number of things. Is it the distinction between the desired truth and actual reality? Does it represent a psychological break in the main character? Does it reinforce the film’s binary fixations: man and woman, introvert and extrovert, popular and ostracized? I was fascinated by how cleanly the film snaps in two, and how each half calls backward and forward to comment on the other. Burning is a film in constant conversation with itself, a screen dialectic.

The first half adopts the perspective of main character Jong-su, a frustrated depressive whose troubled childhood gave way to a dead-end adulthood. A chance encounter with childhood friend Hae-mi does little to liven his spirits, though they strike up a sexual relationship. Jong-su likes Hae-mi, though he has as little respect for her as anyone else. When Hae-mi leaves on a trip for Africa, she returns with a new friend, Ben, with whom she bonded during a traumatic experience. Jong-su is immediately distrustful of the confident Ben. His outgoing and personable nature shine a light on Jong-su’s own personality defects. One night, the two share a smoke and Ben reveals that he has a special hobby: Every few months, he finds an abandoned greenhouse and burns it to the ground. He leaves telling Jong-su that he’s chosen his next target, one very close to Jong-su’s home. The next morning, Hae-mi disappears.

It’s after that nighttime conversation that the split happens. The film builds up Ben through Jong-su’s eyes, as someone eminently untrustworthy and surely hiding something. Steven Yeun wonderfully plays up Ben’s likable affectations as sinister, but so subtly that only Jong-su (and the audience) seem to notice. When he reveals his penchant for arson, it comes not as surprise but confirmation. Jong-su seems terrified of Ben in the moment, but there’s a glimmer of vindication behind the fear.

The triumph doesn’t last, though, as Hae-mi vanishes and Jong-su receives a bizarre phone call from her where he hears only a series of ominous noises, ending with the disturbingly suggestive sound of a zipper. When he goes to her apartment, the code she gave him no longer works. When he manages to get inside, it looks completely different. The cat she asked him to feed doesn’t seem to exist. Jong-su’s first instinct? Hunting down Ben.

It’s in the second half that Burning calls into question the reliability of Jong-su’s perspective in the first half. How much of his relationship with Hae-mi was imagined? How much of his view of Ben is wishful thinking, borne of a desire to have the moral high ground on a guy whose popularity he resents? As the film unravels and Jong-su finds clues to Hae-mi’s disappearance, we can’t help but wonder if the pieces he’s putting together are pieces at all, or if he’s merely trying to force disparate details together to avoid having to confront his own relationship failures and personality defects.

Here, Burning reframes the dynamics of film noir (the vanishing lady, the dogged detective, the scummy high-class villain) in a way that could have so easily been corny or eye-roll-inducing. Lee doesn’t comment on the genre so much as he iterates on it, paying respect to his predecessors while using the space they created to tell his own story. It’s not entirely new, plenty of noir was self-reflexive in similar ways. Still, it’s quite well-executed. Hae-mi (the vanishing lady) is self-consciously an object for Jong-su’s (the dogged detective) motivated action. She is no less a fully-fledged character than anyone else, which makes her transformation into plot device deliberately uncomfortable. Jong-su is motivated less by a desire to rescue her for her own sake than by a vague obsession with her as a stand-in for his undefined emotional traumas.

And Ben (the scummy high-class villain) is only framed as such through the unreliable eyes of Jong-su. When he tells Jong-su of his hobby, it comes after Jong-su admits to being forced by his father to burn his mother’s possessions after she left them. It’s clear that the shame and guilt of this event has haunted him for his whole adult life. Did Ben really admit to an even worse crime of arson, or did Jong-su want to hear him say that he had done something worse? As the “evidence” piled up in the run-up to the film’s horrific climax, I continued to find it hard to have faith anything Jong-su was thinking.

In leaving Jong-su’s perspective for the second half, Burning recontextualizes its first part, slowly eroding whatever trust and sympathy you had for its central character. I had little to begin with (Jong-su isn’t a likable character by any means) but I was nevertheless intrigued by how Lee unravels his point of view at such a deliberate pace. By the end, it’s still unclear whether Jong-su is motivated by reality or by an imagined threat. Burning lives in that ambiguity, but it also asks a question: If you can’t trust Jong-su, are there really two sides to this story?

‘The End of Evangelion’ and Stan Brakhage

The film The End of Evangelion doesn’t open with the normal logo of production house Studio Gainax. Their typically unremarkable, austere card is replaced by the studio’s name briefly appearing in a lower corner of the screen, scratchy and erratically vibrating. Most people won’t think anything of this change (especially not considering the film that follows it) but it immediately put me in mind of a filmmaker whose influence is felt throughout the rest of the runtime. Studio Gainax and directors Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki make conscious reference to an icon of American experimental film. I’d like to break down how The End of Evangelion pays homage to the work of Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage’s artistic output (somewhere in the realm of hundreds of films created over the course of a half-century) covered a wide variety of formal and aesthetic ideas. Many of his best-known works share little obvious common ground beyond an impulse towards what, were the term not in use for a completely different purpose, I would call a direct cinema. Brakhage used the film strip not as a mere tool, but as a canvas unto itself. One of his most recognizable films, Mothlight, was famously created without using a camera. He collected elements of nature like moth wings and blades of grass, stuck them to a strip of film, and ran it through a projector. The celluloid became itself a physical element of the film’s creation and presentation, rather than merely a conduit for the images it conveyed. Brakhage was fascinated by the way film itself could be manipulated to create visual art. He stuck objects to it, he painted on it, and perhaps most famously, he scratched it.

Most of Brakhage’s films begin or end with the familiar signature “By Brakhage,” but in his mid-late period the title tends to appear scrawled by hand directly onto the film strip. The text is always wildly shaky, a product of the technique’s imprecision, and a fitting companion to Brakhage’s typical quick cutting and zippy movement. It’s this signature that The End of Evangelion calls back to with its production company logo. It’s a tribute to a man who was a clear forerunner not just for this film, but for experimental animation at large.

The film itself uses Brakhage’s scratching technique at key moments, to accentuate the characters’ emotional turmoil and suggest a frenetic, suffering mind. Brakhage was never quite so literal in connecting the tone conveyed by his aesthetic to the conveyance of any narrative feeling. That’s the nature of making a narrative film like The End of Evangelion, though.

I don’t know if Brakhage ever called himself an animator, or if he would have considered his film strip experiments animation. The case can be made, though, that he fits neatly into that category. His painted works in particular are the most obvious candidates, and all his non-camera films may technically qualify. Surely if stop-motion animation exists, the manipulation of real-life elements to create the illusion of motivated physical action, then Mothlight or its companion The Garden of Earthly Delights can be called a kind of animation. Was Brakhage a pioneer in a medium he never considered himself a part of? If you ask Hideaki Anno, I’m sure he’d say yes.

The End of Evangelion was produced using largely traditional animation techniques, a far cry from the level of experimentation on which Brakhage operated. Still, one can see more than a shadow of his work throughout the film. The use of quick cuts in the film’s scenes of heightened drama and action, while nothing new for fight-oriented mecha anime, in this context recall Brakhage’s editing style. Brakhage made frequent use of in-camera editing — that is to say, a lack of post-production editing, wherein shots are laid in sequence exactly as they were shot.

While this is absolutely not how The End of Evangelion was produced, its editing still recalls the rapid cuts of, for example, Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. It’s to the same effect, as well. Brakhage cut so quickly to blend his images together, an aggressive counterpoint to classic Soviet montage. His films are a miasma of light and color without many distinct “shots” in the way we typically think of them. Everything in a Brakhage film is meant to be part of one whole. The End of Evangelion similarly concocts a coherent “whole” image out of relative incoherence.

The other way it achieves this is through another familiar Brakhage technique: superimposition. It’s used in a majority of his films to some degree; one might call it his signature move. It’s all over Dog Star Man and most of what are considered his major works, like The Wonder Ring and Window Water Baby Moving. Brakhage used it to a similar purpose as his editing, that being the melding of discrete images to create something new. Superimposition allowed this more directly. Images could be combined through transparency to communicate something that they could not on their own, or even in edited sequence. Brakhage often used superimposition to suggest the resurgence of memory, which is exactly how The End of Evangelion uses it towards the end of the film. An extended montage of clips from episodes of the television show as well as other evocative imagery are laid on top of each other and rapidly cycled through, creating a visual experience akin wherein no one component is visible or even comprehensible. They all contribute to the whole. As far as the film’s narrative goes, what is Instrumentality if not the superimposition of billions of souls, all seen through one another as a single being of warm orange goo?

The End of Evangelion actually goes further than Brakhage and extends this technique to audio. Almost all of Brakhage’s work was silent, so concerned was he with the visual element that he rarely gave a moment’s thought to the audible. The End of Evangelion uses his visual principles in audio, overlaying multiple tracks of dialogue and sound effects so that they comprise a barely distinguishable whole, that whole being protagonist Shinji’s tattered mind. The voices of various characters swirl through his subconscious, mocking him and pleading with him and rejecting him and hating him. It’s at once a thousand thoughts and a single thought, as the images are numerous and singular, as the people of Evangelion’s Earth are individuals and one being.

Even The End of Evangelion’s brief break towards live-action makes one think of Brakhage’s The Wold-Shadow, a three-minute short wherein a still shot of a forest gives way to abstract paintings which recall the treeline imagery, as well as the found footage elements of Murder Psalm. It’s Brakhage in reverse, the “real” and “unreal” colliding. These live-action shots otherwise feel very Brakhage in their intimate sweep, their gentle movement, their vague sense of unease. The small montage of crayon drawings is also reminiscent of Brakhage’s scratching as well as his paint work. Brakhage is all over this film. You may as well call him co-director for the influence he exerts over it. In paying homage to Stan Brakhage, Evangelion shows its skill at iterating on the past rather than reinventing. Brakhage would have been proud, and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have been a little jealous too.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’

I’m so pissed. For years I’ve been told that Keanu Reeves in this film is bad. He’s on every shitty mid-2000s comedy website list of the all-time worst performances. His English accent is constantly mocked. He’s called wooden, emotionless, an embarrassment to the more talented actors around him. Well now I’ve seen the film, and the only embarrassment I can see belongs to the people who have spent the last quarter-century deriding Reeves’ work in it.

People have such limited imaginations when it comes to defining “good acting.” They think performance should be limited by boring notions like realism or believability. They think a good performance always resembles how a real person would actually speak and behave. There is, by and large, no audience conception of what performance actually is, that being a filmmaker’s broadly applicable tool. A performance need not be realistic to make you feel a certain way or think a certain thing. Film acting is a provocative act, not some passive imitation of an already subjective idea like “reality.” I frequently see terrible performances lauded and praised simply because they feel “real.” So fucking what?

Reeves is so good in Bram Stoker’s Dracula precisely because he doesn’t feel like a real person. No one in this movie feels like a real person. Gary Oldman is absurdly heightened to the point of camp, Anthony Hopkins is hilariously dry and matter-of-fact, Winona Ryder is almost a parody of the breathy romantic. There isn’t a realistic performance in the bunch, but none of them suffer for it. Reeves is there to play the straight man, and so he plays him as tortuously bland. He needs to work at a certain level to counterbalance what Oldman is doing. The early scene of the two men at dinner is funny and frightening. It works because of Reeves’ decided underreactions to Oldman’s ridiculous behavior. It creates a context for Oldman’s Dracula that carries through the rest of the film. Oldman needs Reeves to play against. Neither performance works without the other.

It wasn’t just Reeves that surprised me, though. I was astonished by the film’s visual design. Coppola makes spectacular use of crossfades and superimposition, creating images haunted by the traumas of past and present alike. For a story which often engenders dull, austere adaptations, Coppola is working in a surprisingly impressionistic mode here. He’s unafraid to blur and blend and stretch his shots until they resemble nothing we comprehend but imply something powerful. It’s an appropriately Romantic cinema, each frame exploding (sometimes literally) with lust and blood.

I adored Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for reasons which made it unsurprising how underseen and unloved it seems to be. Even many of the film’s fans are wrong about Reeves. Sometimes it’s hard being the only person with correct opinions about movies. It’s lonely at the top. But it’s a cross I have to bear.