June Capsules

A monthly collection of short reviews of the films I’ve been watching.

Two Short Documentaries By Don Owen

High Steel (1965) dir. Don Owen

High Steel (1965)

Harold McComber speaks with such pride of his work. It’s dangerous, but he finds the heights thrilling. He’s a steelworker and he’s good at what he does. McComber’s father was also a steelworker, as was his grandfather. Like so many of the Mohawk men from Kahnawake at the time, he puts up buildings in New York and has a reputation for skill.

Director Don Owen conveys the details of the work precisely and efficiently; in just a few minutes we get a sense of what the job is about and the kind of teamwork necessary to get it done. This introduction is cut like a heist film, making every step of the process clear and cool. John Spotton’s stunning 35mm cinematography emphasizes the scale of the structures these labourers so precariously work upon, including the film crew themselves. The danger of both the construction and the act of capturing it on camera imparts an extraordinary sense of awe and fear; the usual modes of film production, with its money and safety precautions, could never conjure such primal thrills. This makes it easy to buy into the pride of these workers; few people are built for this kind of job, and even fewer can do it with such grace.

But the dangerous and exploitative reality of this labour becomes clear as we’re shown the circumstances of a disastrous accident that occurred while building the Quebec Bridge in 1907. These men put their lives on the line for this job, and when something goes wrong, the effect on their communities is immeasurable. With one accident, nearly the entire working population of indigenous men in Kahnawake was killed.

Putting minority workers in the most dangerous jobs is a longstanding Canadian tradition, and is one of our preferred forms of violent oppression. Is McComber’s pride a way to cope? What choice does he have? Like he says in the film, “I guess a man takes the best thing that comes his way.” The film ends with images of McComber nimbly climbing on beams at deadly heights intercut with shots of his homethe thing he works so hard for and also stands to lose so easily.

Holstein (1978) dir. Don Owen

Holstein (1978)

I grew up a short drive from Holstein. Every town around there is much the same, give or take a few hundred people. My older relatives, some of whom are actually from Holstein, walk with the same stiffness and speak with the same awkwardness of people so repressed that any communication that brings pleasure is embarrassing (and so they’re perpetually embarrassed). There’s a warmth and charm that belies such rigidity and director Don Owen captures it authentically. Somehow he managed to get a camera in the room with these people and not have them shut down completely. This is a genuine miracle.

I know just how every place Owen visits must have smelled. A film has never conjured scents so vividly for me before, but I guess a film has never so attentively captured the texture of the villages (most are technically too small to be towns) that I grew up around. Do New Yorkers get this sensation all the time?

Watching Holstein I was aware of how the passing of time necessitates a perpetual ending of an erait’s a constant state of existence. This film is a time capsule; a reminder of how in some ways these towns have changed very little, and yet nowhere will ever quite be like Holstein in 1978. Just a handful of new faces and funerals will fundamentally alter a village of this size.

Some Movies That Appear Not To Have Been Made By Don Owen

s01e03 (2020) dir. Kurt Walker

s01e03 (2020) dir. Kurt Walker

s01e03 is about the relationships we form online and the spaces within which those relationships manifest. The characters are represented by both their physical bodies and virtual counterparts equally; we weave between these states so freely that both begin to feel like avatars. Most of the communication takes the form of anonymous text on screen and we’re left guessing who’s saying what and to whom. Any of the people we see could be saying these things, and so the loneliness and anxieties expressed imbue every face that appears on-screen. We’re all lonely. We’re all in this together.

The primary narrative thrust is that the server these friends play Final Fantasy XI on (a popular but waning MMO from the early aughts) will be shutting down in 24 hours. The space where they virtually gather will disappear forever. There doesn’t seem to be much going on anymore – the characters roam empty landscapes, hacking at occasional monsters – but it’s where their friendship lives. It’s clear they met in the game, and though they frequently mention wanting to see each other in real life, or even move to each other’s cities, it’s unlikely to happen.

We fill the venues of our lives, both virtual and physical, with boundless longing. We take what intimacy we can get, and though it may be abstracted through screens, video games, and social media platforms, it’s genuine. But these venues are precarioussubject to the whims of capital. Online spaces are eventually abandoned; physical spaces are looted by gentrification. If we lose our venues for intimacy, do we also lose our capacity for it? Or do we just suffer?

Brasília Contradictions of a New City1
Brasilia, Contradictions of a New City (1968) dir. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade

Brasilia, Contradictions of a New City (1968) dir. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade

The feigned optimism as we’re introduced to a new utopian city under construction provides devastating clarity to the plight of the exploited and abused workers who build the walls they’re designed to be on the outside of.

May Capsules

A monthly collection of short reviews of the films I’ve been watching.

Starring Jean Arthur

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) dir. John Ford

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) dir. John Ford

The Whole Town’s Talking has all the components of a great screwball, except being particularly funny.

The premise is gold: a meek man toiling anonymously at an advertising agency gets caught up with the police, the press, and the mafia due to his uncanny likeness to a murderous bank robber. Edward G. Robinson plays both the gangster “Killer” Mannion and the advertising man Arthur Jones, demonstrating his iconic gift for playing tough guys and getting a chance to play diametrically against type. His performance as Jones is especially compelling: chipper in solitude, shy in public, and morose under pressure, he’s the kind of man who’s so mixed up inside he could do anything or nothing at all. I was reminded of Orson Welles’ insult toward Woody Allen: “He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation.” When the tension breaks, there’s no telling what will happen. His co-worker, played by a cool and wise-cracking Jean Arthur, can sense the mounting pressure in Clark and is drawn to it—partly as sexual attraction, and partly to have a front-row seat to the inevitable explosion.

It all should work much better than it does and the issue is rhythmic. The script and the actors are operating with a screwball pace, but the edit deflates humour. Frequently a reaction shot that should give a quick laugh will linger too long, switching the tone from silly to dramatic before the scene can keep moving. There are times where the energy is just right, like a hilarious scene where Jones gets drunk in the middle of the day with his boss and lets loose for the first time, but far more often the scenes drag. It’s impossible to say if the issues are primarily directorial or editorial (certainly some combination of both), but I couldn’t help but imagine how much better this material would be in the hands of Lubitsch or Hawks. Jean Arthur’s performance suffers in particular; she has the confidence and swagger of a “Hawksian” woman, but the film just can’t keep up with her. It’s a grave sin to betray Jean Arthur.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) dir. Howard Hawks

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) dir. Howard Hawks

One of the great pleasures of cinema is visiting a new place and getting to know the locals. More than plot, its the characters and locales that linger in the mind. With Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks created one of his richest and most unforgettable worlds.

Bonnie Lee, a travelling entertainer played by Jean Arthur, visits the fictional South American port town of Barranca while her boat shores for the night. She’s immediately swept up in the vibrant nightlife, making the acquaintance of some local mail pilots. Flying mail through the Andes mountains in what seems like constant bad weather is dangerous work and it demands a certain kind of recklessness and romantic idealism. Bonnie Lee becomes obsessed with learning what kind of men are so irresistibly drawn to the air, particularly the brash yet principled captain Geoff Carter played by Cary Grant. Being a travelling entertainer, she knows what it’s like to put yourself on the line to follow your own path; she sees something of herself in these men, but also something that she’s missing.

The opening 40 minutes covers Bonnie Lee’s first night on the island and is a perfect self-contained movie. We’re shown all we need to get a portrait of the life of a pilot on this island and to be changed by it. We see the charms, thrills, and dangers of an adventurous life; we see the monotony and sacrifice required to make it profitable work. The film could have ended after the first night and perhaps been even greater for it, but like Bonnie Lee who intentionally misses her boat, we can’t help but want more. The romance that follows and the nuanced exploration of masculinity and labour more than justify sticking around.

The film is lit like a proto-noir: at night, lights are dim and the shadows deep; during the day, hard sunlight passing through blinds patterns the rooms. Unlike noir, the effect isn’t menacing but inviting. These people are trapped in these dark and crowded rooms, but there’s nowhere they’d rather be—except in the sky. The aerial sequences are a mixture of real airplane footage (which looks equally beautiful and dangerous), miniatures, and actors in front of projections. There’s never any doubt which you’re looking at, but Hawks manages to overcome the artifice, crafting some of the most thrilling and stressful scenes with airplanes I’ve ever seen. The images of rickety old planes soaring around mountains say more about the allure of flying than any dialogue could.

I was looking into the cinematographer, Joseph Walker, and his accomplishments are worth noting. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers: “In 1911 he made the first wireless news report using equipment he designed; in 1912 he built the first wireless transmitters for airplanes and automobiles”. He’s credited as inventing the zoom lens in the 20s, which wasn’t used in film production until after WWII. He shot His Girl Friday, A Night To Remember, It’s A Wonderful Life, and was Frank Capra’s favourite cinematographer. What a career.

Some Movies That Unfortunately Do Not Star Jean Arthur

Extraction (2020) dir. Sam Hargrave

Extraction (2020) dir. Sam Hargrave

Extraction is a hideous, joyless mess. Its attempts at drama are overbearingly miserable, and what thrills the action should provide are smothered by Hargrave’s frantic camera.

The story attempts dramatic weight by suggesting a traumatic past for its hero, but the result is just a lot of close-ups of tired and sad looking faces. The film gestures towards tragedy but never does the work of journeying through it. I don’t expect high drama from every action film, but Extraction wastes its pauses between gun battles alternating between dejection and revulsion. We’re shown a man throwing a child hostage off a roof to his death. Our hero beats up a group of child soldiers and quips that they’re “little shits”. Another child is shot in the head point-blank while his friend is kidnapped (notice a trend?). What is the point of such unpleasantness? The heroes are sad, the villains are evil. Sure.

Perhaps its appropriate that such an ugly story is depicted with ugly cinematography. The image is tinted piss-yellow (Hollywood’s default colour grade for “scary foreign country” settings), which reduces to colour palette to shades of excrement. Flares catch the lens at ridiculous times, completely invading the image, even, somehow, on a dreary overcast day. When the camera moves it doesn’t shake so much as it wobbles, which is even more nauseating, especially given how closely people are framed.

Extraction’s biggest sin, and the one that really matters, is its action. Hargrave had a lengthy career as a fight choreographer before trying his hand at directing and manages some moments of intricate and clever brutality, but the camera consistently robs the violence of any impact. The camera jerks and tilts with the action in a way that is meant to accentuate the blows, but instead absorbs them. Conveying kinetic energy requires context; it’s difficult to understand the weight and consequence of a collision (e.g. a fist hitting someone’s face) when our view is so obscured by motion. It’s the classic mistake of assuming that seeing a camera in action is as exciting as seeing people in action; it’s rarely true, and never in this movie.

The film attempts the most egregiously fake one-shot action sequence I’ve ever seen. The cuts are so poorly hidden you have to assume the intent wasn’t to actually create the illusion of a continuous shot. So what are we left with? I’m guessing the intention was two-fold: to put the audience “in” the action with the characters, and to give a real-time sense of travel through a dangerous environment. Both of those fail when you spend so much time looking from the back seat of a car as the two actors in front bounce around in front of a green screen. The camera weaves through car windows, chases people up and down stairs, and charges through cluttered apartments, whip-panning and shaking constantly. By adhering to a pseudo one-take aesthetic, our perspective is limited and disorienting. The camera becomes a barrier to the action, not a window to it.

Song to Song (2017) dir. Terrence Malick

Song to Song (2017) dir. Terrence Malick

In Terrence Malick’s films there’s a persistent sense that we might witness an honest to god miracle at any momenta premonition that is nearly always fulfilled. In Song to Song, however, that feeling is missing. There’s no cutaway to the birth of the universe like in The Tree of Life (as audacious a sequence as ever committed to film, but completely natural in Malick’s hands) or even a smaller miracle like the birth of a tiny bird in the middle of a battlefield in The Thin Red Line. Here, the characters feel detached from that sort of spiritual, cosmic context; they’re small, alone, and lost.

Song to Song never strays far from its characters, although it weaves between them freely. It’s a decidedly smaller scale than we normally see from Malick who is so prone to a Whitmanian grandeuryet the smaller scale isn’t more intimate. The characters are as archetypal and broad as they’ve ever been: Rooney Mara is a struggling musician; Ryan Gosling is a marginally more successful musician; Michael Fassbender is a producer who tries to control and exploit them both. Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchet, and Bérénice Marlohe appear for romantic and tragic shenanigans. Their relationships are expressed with poses and platitudes as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s now-familiar gliding camera dances around the tableau. This is common of Malick’s late period, but here the poses feel more forced and the camera less graceful. At times it felt like a bad impression of his own earlier style, reducing his aesthetic to artifice, but I couldn’t shake the feeling this accumulated emptiness was the point. These people are desperately looking for meaning and coming up empty. What was initially fatuous became tragic.

Song to Song to meanders, but in the end the shape of the film becomes clear. A scene with Patti Smith (playing herself) is the key: she recalls the hardships of her life, a string of senseless but inescapable difficulties, which is contrasted by her iconic stature in American music. The title of the film becomes a simple metaphor for her (and our) journey through life. Simple, yes, but like the whispered voice-over that receives so much derision, sincere and fundamentally true. It’s worth giving yourself over to that kind of truth once in a while.

April Capsules

A monthly collection of short reviews of the films I’ve been watching.

The Early Films of Nobuhiko Obayashi

House (1977) dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi

A small, chronological selection of early feature films by Nobuhiko Obayashi.

House (1977)

Rarely has a film’s reputation and its substance been so discordant. It’s often pitched by both marketers and fans alike as something more to laugh at than withdelirious, bizarre, absurd, and ultimately vapid. But this characterization misses two key elements of House: the film is in on the joke, and it has a lot to say about trauma and grief.

Yes, House is a real trip to watch. Obayashi came from a dual background of experimental film and glossy effects-laden television commercials, and he combined the two to create a uniquely surreal and perverse aesthetic. These young, beautiful women glow under glamour light as they’re massacred in bloody, pyschadelic imagery. Obayashi goes to expressionist extremes with the intent of confounding his audience, and the depiction of a girl being eaten alive by a piano will certainly do the trick. The images are funny and scary for the same reason: they’re beyond comprehension.

But like Godzilla in ’54, the entertainment is a vehicle for examining the horror of atomic warfare, only the focus here is more generational. The titular house is haunted by a woman who lost her husband to the war. In a flashback we’re shown a wedding photographer capturing a happy bride and groom—the flash of his camera is match-cut to an atomic mushroom cloud. The light of the flashbulb capturing an important memory becomes inseparable from the light of the bomb which can never be forgotten. The devastation of the bomb was both instant and permanent, but the fallout wouldn’t be felt equally. Those born after the war could retain a naive innocence that was robbed of so many before them. The bitter ghost who devours young girls who enter her home longs not just for their flesh, but their innocence.

The crucial element of House that is so often ignored is that all its absurd comedy and violence is matched by a deep sadness. It’s often all three at once, which is what makes its surreal images so unforgettable.

Take Me Away! (1978) dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi

Take Me Away! (1978)

Obayashi goes sightseeing in San Francisco. Looks like a nice place.

Take Me Away! is one romance cliche after another, including such fan favourites as running through an airport to stop the love of your life from boarding a plane; trying to stop a wedding before she marries the boring, safe businessman; and challenging that rigid suit to a fistfight in a bar which results in a large crowd joyously pummelling each with many a pie in the face.

So that last one is a little different, and it’s what makes this movie work. Obayashi often used simple stories and elevated them to originality through style. The plot of Take Me Away! is more trite than merely simple and so the effect is diminished, but there’s still enough boisterous imagery and youthful joy that it all more or less comes together. The first half or so of the film is one absurdly beautiful young man guiding an equally beautiful young woman around San Francisco. The combined sense of discovery and laid-back bohemia is irresistibly charming.

It’s also interesting seeing such an iconic American city viewed through a Japanese lens; Obayashi seems right at home in this landscape. But you know how in many Asian films there often seems to be one white actor who shows up for a few lines and their delivery invariably feels off? That’s almost everyone in this movie. The stars are all Japanese, but everyone else has a slightly uncanny quality.  They’re happily posing for a picture with tourists and grinning for the camera. Some may find it off-putting, but I found it completely endearing.

The Deserted City (1984) dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi

The Deserted City (1984)

Obayashi settles down to make a quiet film about loss, memory, and nostalgia. The Deserted City is immediately stylistically distinct from his other films; he was always formally eclectic, but the energetic experimentalism that runs through his filmography is largely missing here. He shoots in a 4:3 aspect ratio and his camera moves slowly and deliberately, if at all. It feels like a film from an earlier era (there are even overt visual nods to Ozu) but Obayashi is not simply nostalgic. Tradition is used to ask questions about its own virtues and limitations, which is contrasted with the allure and dangers of reinvention. Do tradition and comfort lead to decay? Does longing for change blind you to the moment you’re in? He explores these questions through the nexus of home, family, friends and lovers. What answers are provided are not reassuring.

Ultimately, everything leads to ruin. Maybe all we can do is witness the moment and cherish our memories while they last.

Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast (1986) dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi

Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast (1986)

If there’s a better anti-war film than Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, I haven’t seen it.

It’s set in a Japanese village in the 30s as nationalism and the war effort are ramping up. Much of the film is a comedy focusing on how the absurdity of war refracts through the minds of schoolchildren. It plays like Moonrise Kingdom meets The Three Stooges; the children feud with slapstick gags, and the school teacher’s performance is so over-the-top as to make Loony Toons look sombre and withdrawn. Obayashi frames the comedy in distant, precisely composed shots, recalling silent comedies and predicting Wes Anderson (although Obayashi has a far deeper bag of tricks than Anderson). This picturebook quality both heightens the absurdity and gives a sense of fatalism; these people are captive to their brutal place in historyan early chapter of a book already written. The weight of the impending war weighs heavy over everything, and it corrodes the village’s spirit slowly, then all at once.

The exaggerated style and humour don’t retreat when the severity of war imposes itself. Instead, Obayashi does something incredible: he lets the whimsy of his characters invade the reality of war just as the war invades their village. This clash of tone drives home the human cost of overwhelming violence more than any conventional dark and gritty drama could.

Some Movies Not Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Gasman (1998) dir. Lynne Ramsay

Gasman (1998) dir. Lynne Ramsay

The sound of a child pushing a toy car over spilled sugar, each grain crunching between plastic wheels and scratched wooden cutting board. The crinkling of a clear plastic garment bag being lifted off an old jacket. An energetic little girl twisting and flailing as she struggles to pull on her tights. Lynne Ramsay makes moments like this feel enormous. Her gaze is uncomfortably close, often keeping important details just out of frame. She conceals faces, partially or completely, revealing character by disecting her subjects, observing the subtle gestures of their isolated body parts. By the time we see the young girl’s face we already know so much of her inner life and relationship with her family. We’re never quite shown her mother.

Ramsay teases out her story in much the same way. Bit by bit we’re given clues as to the secret life of a father and how the weight of it wears down on him and his children. It’s not a mystery – it’s there for everyone to see – but you have to look. If you look closely enough, you’ll see beauty and sadness everywhere.

Ask Father! (1919) dir. Hal Roach

Ask Father! (1919) dir. Hal Roach

Ask Father is a perfectly logical film. If you keep getting thrown out the door on your ass, put a pillow on the ground to break your fall. If you can’t win a fight against a much larger man, try coming back with full plate armour—that works every time. Roach establishes the rules and consequences clearly so the jokes have an immediate visual impact. The gags intertwine and stack, ramping up the absurdity with every scene. I’ve seen this film a dozen times and every joke still hits the mark.

An Eastern Westerner (1920) dir. Hal Roach

An Eastern Westerner (1920) dir. Hal Roach

Not as tight as Roach and Lloyd’s best, but there’s a lot of good gags. One hundred years later and the western parody holds up.

Some of the jokes aren’t as inventive or surprising as their best material. Lloyd sees a man jump from a window onto a horse so he decides to try it himself to impress a woman. Before he jumps, someone else takes the horse and Lloyd hits the dirt. I mean, I laughed, but it’s not their cleverest gag. And I was reminded of Buster Keaton’s philosophy of eliminating as many intertitles as possible to focus on the visual comedy—Roach must have disagreed, unfortunately.

At one point a man rolls a perfect cigarette with one hand and I was more impressed by that feat than any of the acrobatics. It’s not “story”, it’s not a joke, it’s a neat trick, and I appreciate that the film took to time to show it.

Widows (1975) dir. Peter Greenaway

Windows (1975) dir. Peter Greenaway

A dark comedy that works best with some context.

During apartheid, Greenaway noticed an unusually high number of political prisoners were falling to their deaths out of windows. His film contrasts the knowledge of those deaths with images of the views out of the windows of his country home in England. He underlines the absurdity with a chipper harpsichord melody and an equally unserious narration explaining the circumstances of the deaths, the details of which are presumably entirely fabricated.

It’s an uncomfortable film because Greenaway is undeniably making a joke about these tragedies. But the joke has teeth. What is one to do when one’s nation is committing atrocities in a distant country? Isn’t it absurd to have such idyllic comforts when the colonialism that provides them is responsible for so much violence? Greenaway makes the beautiful view from his home a sinister thing.

Dear Phone (1976) dir. Peter Greenaway

A dull mess of a film, but there’s something to the premise. We’re shown a series of images of empty phone booths which both look out of place and lonely. Then we’re shown scribbled letters in completely static shots. These letters are read in voice-over and tell of a web of characters that rely on telephones to a ridiculous, unhealthy degree. This might have been interesting in 1976. But the stories in the letters and the imagery used to convey them quickly become boring, then excruciating. Greenaway’s usual wit is completely missing here.

There’s one good moment when we’re told of a man who would stick the receiver under his sweaty armpit and masturbate, which is proceeded by the sound of a rotary phone being dialled slowly. That Greenaway managed to make a rotary phone sound so sexual is something of an accomplishment.

March Capsules

A monthly collection of short reviews of the films I’ve been watching.

Shirley Clarke’s Experimental Shorts

Dance in the Sun (1953) dir. Shirley Clarke

A chronological selection of Shirley Clarke’s wonderful short films.

Dance in the Sun  (1953)

Dance in the Sun feels like a really good jam session. A dancer and a pianist prepare to rehearse, and it all begins simply enough. He dances, she plays the piano. Soon, Clarke cuts to the dancer on a beach and we’re really off. She teleports us back and forth between the beach and the studio in a series of elaborate match cuts. Interestingly, the sunny exterior is used for the more sombre moments.

It’s a modest project, but the camera and the dance work well together. What elevates everything is the bookending conversations between the dancer and the pianist. After the surreal journey of the dance, they gather at the piano, smoke, and are immediately at work on improving the piece. A jam session is not a final work of art, it is an act of labour, but it can get you high just the same. Dance in the Sun is a tribute to that experience from an artist who knows it intimately.

My cat watched attentively and seemed to enjoy it.

Bridges-Go-Round (1958) dir. Shirley Clarke

Bridges-Go-Round (1958)

The film exists with two scores, and it’s interesting to watch them back to back to see how the music changes your perception of the images. The jazz score, by Teo Macero, is the better of the two. The electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron is sonically interesting, but doesn’t move with the images and is constricting as a result. Neither really feels right.

I watched it a third time, silently, which let the textures and patterns speak for themselves. The lines of the bridges sway, skew, and criss-cross, which in turn feels soothing or menacing. The camera moves and zooms in a way that distorts reality and makes it dance.

Butterfly (1967)

This one didn’t work for me. It’s admirably angry, but the horror and anxiety of wartime don’t feel adequately expressed. The abstract scratches and shapes set to gunfire, lullabies, and babies crying is a reminder of how futile art can be in the face of the grandest evils of humanity.

24 Frames Per Second (1977)

A series of paintings played back at a varyingly rapid pace – often, presumably, only for one frame. Sometimes we see a painting long enough to get some slight impression of its scene and composition, but then we’re back flying at an incomprehensible speed.

The effect is that we become aware that we’re seeing a procession of distinct pictures, but their meaning and context are completely lost in the shuffle. Filmmaking smothers its individual frames with the effect of motion; it’s both a destructive and creative process.

Clarke is extraordinary at finding evocative abstract motion. There seems to be no continuity between the paintings, but played back 24 images per second, new patterns appear. It’s playful and disorienting. The score perfectly sets the tone: bizarre, experimental, thoughtful, and, perhaps best of all, a bit silly.

Some Movies Not Directed by Shirley Clarke

Hotel Monterey (1972) dir. Chantal Akerman

Hotel Monterey (1972) dir. Chantal Akerman

I adore the cinematography in this. By lowering her exposure to match the hanging bulbs, the rest of the image falls into murky near silhouette. There’s so much colour and texture in the shadows, and Akerman uses it to paint ghostly, sparse still lifes of this mostly empty hotel. She’ll hold an empty frame for what feels like minutes, and I began to wonder if I was seeing things.

When the camera started moving at about 40 minutes I just about shit my pants.

Red River (1948) dir. Howard Hawks

Red River (1948) dir. Howard Hawks

A lot of racist, manifest destiny bullshit right from the start. And maybe that’s all that needs to be said about it.

But of course, Hawks is too good for it not to be gripping in spite of everything. He’s got that matter of fact way of directing, where everything feels easy and natural, so you maybe won’t notice how smart he is with a camera. Watch how seamlessly he reframes his tableau, stringing what might be several shots into one take, emphasizing the interactions these characters have with each other and their surroundings. He makes his actors, some of the biggest stars, feel grounded. There are some great performances here; John Wayne plays a tyrant, but has he ever been so weak and vulnerable?

There’s a critique running through the film about the kind of man Wayne often played, but the ending pulls the punch. I guess it’s good to be a hard, violent man, as long as you’re not too much of an asshole all the time.

The Invisible Man (2020) dir. Leigh Whannell

There are many excellent moments – especially a scene in the attic that was wonderfully intense – but the best is behind you by around the halfway point. The horror, which is so often effective, gives way to a much less exciting thriller.

The metaphor of trauma being a lingering, invisible abuse works in the early parts of the film. The sense of isolation from being tormented by a force you can’t show anyone adds weight and desperation to the horror. But problems arise when she begins to fight back. What are you going to do, shoot your trauma with a gun? Stab it with a knife?

The film is ugly as hell to look at. I’m sick of seeing wandering steady cam shots through dimly lit rooms and hallways with no contrast. The camera feels floaty in a way that’s neither precise nor spontaneous but always draws attention to itself. Whannell shows a great command of space in the early scenes, but when the action picks up all the subtlety is lost. He uses some camera tricks that worked well in Upgrade but look absurd here.

Elizabeth Moss is very good.

Interlude in the Marshland (1965) dir. Jan Troell

Interlude in the Marshland (1965) dir. Jan Troell

I don’t think this would work without Max Von Sydow. It’s a story of a man who suddenly abandons his job as a brakeman for a small bit of freedom, and we watch him enjoy simple, childish amusements as he wanders through the marshland. But Sydow brings a sense of immense wisdom – he’s not a man reverting to a childlike state in the face of crushing adulthood, but a man who has made the choice to change his life, and face the consequences. He’s got real grandpa energy.

It’s charming if a bit slight. Some good images of trains. The scenes between Sydow and Allan Edwall – an equally great actor who depicts similar, quiet wisdom – are the highlight. Troell really knows how to frame their incredible faces.

Hong Kil-dong (1986) dir. Kil-in Kim

Hong Kil-dong/The Avenger With a Flute (1986) dir. Kil-in Kim

This North Korean wuxia epic is fascinating, both as a cultural object from the mainstream of such an isolated and repressive regime, but also as an outsider view of a genre. It captures the Shaw feeling with remarkable authenticity, but mixes 20 years of aesthetics, techniques, and fads, which makes it feel out of place and time. There’s no small trace of King Hu in the majestic portrayal of the hero’s superhuman ability, and the swordplay feels inspired by his work in the 60s, but the hand to hand combat is from a decidedly post-Bruce Lee era. It’s a mixture that seems obvious, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this before.

It was apparently quite a hit in the eastern bloc, and it’s easy to see why. The action is great, the star is charismatic, and the story is more engaging than many of the Shaw films it’s drawing from. And while the portrayal of the dangers foreign imperialists reeks of propaganda, I’ve got to say, it’s nice to see an ending that doesn’t rely on a single hero, but a large and diverse group of people banding together for a common good. Oh shit! I’m brainwashed now!

The Circumference of Burning


Exploring Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film Burning through the lens of Emily Dickinson


I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —
I felt the Columns close —
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres —
I touched the Universe —

And back it slid — and I alone —
A Speck upon a Ball —
Went out upon Circumference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell —


Albert Gelpy, in his 1965 book on Emily Dickinson, wrote that her “most frequent metaphor for ecstasy was circumference. Each of the negotiations which consciousness conducted between the me and the not me established a circumference.” It’s both a border and an infinite circle, within which all mortal life is contained, and without – the unknowable heavens. Dickinson places her poetic voice on the line which separates the utmost of self and the sublime, and it’s here on this uneasy border that she negotiates her faith.

Dickinson’s attraction to Circumference is at least partially a Christian one. Her Calvinist upbringing likely made her skeptical of any direct confrontation with God; finite mortals can never fully comprehend such an infinite being, and our only knowledge of him is exclusively through his word. For this reason, it’s essential that there is a line between the inside and outside of the circle, and it mustn’t be crossed. But Dickinson, ever the quiet rebel, travelled this border (Went out upon Circumference) to find answers beyond the confines of her church (Beyond the Dip of Bell). What can be learned from such a perspective, and whether or not we ought to learn it, are recurring anxieties in her work.

Shin Hae-mi, one of three major characters in Burning, has less Christian concerns with Circumference but is still drawn to it an existential obsession. She is poor, has few connections with friends and family, and has only two major concerns: to find a greater meaning in life, or to find an escape, which she thinks might be the same thing. In an early scene, she tells a story to her friends Ben and Lee Jong-su about bushmen she met in Africa. These bushmen, she says, have two dances for hunger: the Little Hunger for physical nourishment, represented by swaying your arms low to the ground – and the Big Hunger, reaching your arms to the sky to seek the meaning of life. Hae-mi is full of the Big Hunger.


For much of the film, Hae-mi presents herself as whimsical and unserious, picking up odd hobbies like learning to mime eating imaginary fruit and has a habit of falling asleep in inappropriate places. There’s a whiff of manic-pixie-dream-girl in her earlier scenes, but this is a mask and a fabricated one. Her concerns are the most genuine in the film. Lee Jong-su, a man perpetually dumbfounded, seems more driven by lust than his ambitions as a writer. Ben is a sociopath whose only real joy is in manipulation and destruction. When Hae-mi tells them the story of the Big Hunger, their reaction is embarrassment and condescension to her public display of sincerity.

Hae-mi’s quest for meaning has led to a curated life of borders, lines between the me and the not me, that she travels and observes. These aren’t simply binary states. To stand on a border is to have some perspective of both sides. A geographical border, like the one between North and South Korea where Lee Jong-su lives (propaganda from the north can be frequently heard from his house), is simple enough to understand. But what about the borders of existence and oblivion? Of fact and fiction? These are what concern Hae-mi.

Her past is a mystery full of truths of untruths. She tells Lee Jong-su of a time she fell down a well on her family farm as a child, and how he was the one to rescue her. Nobody, including Lee Jong-su, remembers this happening. Her family and neighbours can’t even agree if there was a well on the property. Her relationship to her past is a game she plays, and each turn taken creates a reaction, which is an opportunity for a new perspective. Sometimes a great unsettling is required for an epiphany (The Earth reversed her Hemispheres — I touched the Universe). She even goes so far as to get plastic surgery so no one can recognize her anymore.


Naturally, Hae-mi’s obsession with the divide leads to the borders of existence itself – and the film’s best joke: her literal Schrodinger’s cat, who seems to live in her tiny apartment, eating and using the litter box, but is never seen. Lee Jong-su agrees to feed the cat while Hae-mi is vacationing in Africa. The food disappears between visits, but he can never find the animal.

In another story from Africa, she recalls her experience from a Sunset Tour in the Kalahari Desert. “The sun was setting beyond the endless sand-covered horizon. At first, it was orange. Then it turned blood red. Then purple, then navy. It got darker and darker as the sunset disappeared, and my eyes suddenly welled up with tears. “I must be at the end of the world.” That’s what I thought. I want to vanish just like that sunset.” In her final scene in the film, with Ben and Lee Jong-su at his home in the country, Hae-mi takes off her clothes and dances before a sunset – a beautiful gradient of blue, purple, and orange – her arms reaching upward, fluttering and swaying towards the heavens. A Speck upon a Ball – she grasps for an answer from the other side. When she stops dancing, she cries, perhaps because she’s still on earth, or perhaps because she saw something from this greatest Circumference. She looks to Lee Jong-su, almost directly into the camera, and something in her has changed. We never see her again.


Emily Dickinson was wise enough to fear the Circumference, either out of humble respect for the divine or simply self-preservation. To dance on the edge of the beyond, be it heaven or oblivion, carries no small risk. Some answers can change you, and some confrontations can destroy you. But perhaps more than that, a life spent on the edge of a circle looking outward will miss what the centre has to offer. Instead of finding satisfaction in the short life we’re given, Hae-mi loses herself in her search for the sublime. She never realized Dickinson’s wisdom: the border is alluring and may provide some answers, but there’s always a danger of losing yourself to the other side, either by spiritually confronting a domain only suitable to God, or by wasting yourself – your Little Circuit – looking everywhere but at what’s right in front of you. Some destinations shouldn’t be hurried. Some perspectives are best earned.

I should have been too glad, I see – 
Too lifted – for the scant degree
Of Life’s penurious Round –
My little Circuit would have shamed
This new Circumference – have blamed –
The homelier time behind –