Hidden Figures (2016) – slice

In the end, they are looking at–and trying to solve–the same problem.

Theodore Melfi’s film about three trailblazers in NASA is expectedly conventional. It has beginning, rising tension, emotional chords and ending almost exactly as you would expect from a film like this. It starts within the system and stays in the system. And it still is satisfying.

Some may attribute this cinematic satisfaction to the subject itself; the underdog coming to dominate, or the underprivileged blasting off to success (pun intended) in the sea instituional prejudices, are all too familiar sujects of a good Hollywood drama film. Hollywood, from the start, may have been a deeply racist system, but one cannot deny that it is also a system that knows how to make sure a subject like this to be, well, satisfactory. The tools are beyond doubt effective.

It has all the failures that radicals will point out: has a white male boss that solves the big problem, has an all-American white guy who happens to be really nice regardless of what skin colour his conversation partner has, not really focusing the problem on wide scope, etc, and that’s one way of looking at the film.

What impresses me the most the films acknowledgement of the institutional side of the problem. There are racists/sexists in the film, yes. However, you very rarely see open and intentional hatred against blacks or women. Most of people do what they do not because they are openly racists/sexists and have a willful resentment towards these groups, but because of the deep entrenched ideology they themselves may participate but did not create, therefore stays ignorant about.

The subject of this film then is so befitting. It’s about women achieving something for the first time in their society to help the society achieve something for the first time. The film emphasises on the idea of “first” as an all-American concept. First space travel, first black woman to be an engineer, first judge to allow that black woman to be an engineer for the first time so that the first orbital space travel can end in success, and the list goes on and on. Even the main dramatic dilemma strikes when America is not first. The film simpifies the bipolar political order of Cold War into a race with two contestants, where “difference” only denotes being behind.

It is an effective setup in this context because it ultimately incorporates that concept into the idea of fighting institutional racism and sexism. It focuses on the idea of “first” rather than “change”–by doing so, the film argues the destined course of history, that this is bound to happen. Just as America should be “first” in space race because that is the destined course of history, the eradication of racism and sexism is something that will happen as a part of natural progress. It will not mean a “change” in direction, but a step forward. The question is then, who will be the first to do so.

It is an interesting paradox: prejudices are institutionally-rooted, but it is also institutionally destined those prejedices be eradicated. The film understands that the problems of racism and sexism can only be fixed by acknowledging the institutional entrenchment of those ideals, but it also recognizes that the institution functions better in achieving its manifest destiny by eradicating those institutional problems within itself. Therefore, one may argue the film precisely highlights the importance of internal reform within the institution, instead of a change forced by an external pressure. There is only one direction an institution can progress: being better by being “first,” and not changing to something entirely different.

And this attitude on the problem shifts the perspective of the issue quite effectively. The problem is not really about explicit racism; it’s about implicit racism that is normalized, and how that affects the marginalized. Take the bathroom problem the film shows repeatedly: it means a lot to Katherine, having to run basically a mile in heels just to get to a bathroom. And once changed, it does not mean a lot of difference to those who were initially privileged, but it does to people who weren’t. If anything, it opens up new doors for both the previously underprivileged and the originally privileged (Kirsten Dunst’s character saves her white female computers from being let go from their job by reconciling with her African American colleague–in now-desegregated bathroom).

After the change, really, the life doesn’t change much for white people in the film. The most racist “villain” of the film comes to naturally accept his African American colleague. To him, it’s not really how he becomes suddenly anti-racist, aware of his wrongdoings and feels guilty about them–instead, he just adjusts the new normal, which really just feels like a natural progression of his institution, just like the introduction of IBM. For America and NASA, their chief enemy remains the Russians. America is America, and really, America without racism/sexism is just a more effective America; it is not new America, at least in the eyes of initially privileged.

I think that’s one of the chief reasons it works in this specific context, because the film understands that bringing about institutional change can really mean no change at all to people who are not affected by it. Sticking to conventional Hollywood system to expose systematic problems, ironically, works, because of this. While it will surely give audiences who are women of colour a reason to be proud of their identity, but in the end, I don’t think this is a film for them; instead, it’s a film for normal Americans who are not affected by everyday institutional prejudices–telling them, “no, the world is not going to end if we change it, in fact, it will barely change for you.” Radicals will argue that is not enough–and in some areas, they are absolutely right–but then again, it’s a film about a part of human history where the most memorable moment is signified with “one, small step.”

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Déjà Vu (2006) – slice

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Is “looking” at image-time the first step in controlling them?

What should one think of Déjà Vu? It throws around difficult and morally-charged concepts of time-travel, fate, patriotism and government surveillence of post-9/11 America. In a way, it’s Tony Scott’s crude way of recognizing the American regret of that tragedy (and its aftermath). There are some neat cinematic experiments he does here, especially that past/present chase scene, which I believe–despite its somewhat dumb premise, which in my opinon, doesn’t really matter in most Tony Scott films anyway–works well with his signature quick-cut, rapid-pan style.

I watched this before Lucy, but in retrospect, this is a film that is loosely what Lucy attempts to do except mostly fails: it’s an action vehicle that actually attempts and more often than not roughly succeeds in fusing its subject matter (image and time, Gilles Deleuze must be proud) to the generic principles that the studios and the audience expect from the action auteur.

Of course, as per usual, his preference for constantly-moving entertainment supercedes any meaningful engagement that is deserving of the concepts he touches, and overall becomes a mind-numbing–I’d say in both good ways and bad–thriller that’s more about puzzles than ideas. But it does have some merit; Unlike Lucy, the film simplifies the concept of time into something decidedly linear–looking into past, the time flows linear, and so are the images. Once Washington’s character travels back in time, the image becomes reality that he can temper, ultimately disrupting the flow of time itself. It’s a rudimentary attempt at connecting image and time (therefore making time a visible concept), and furthermore connecting image-time to the regret and temptation to control time and image, but it works more or less while sitting nicely in that limitation of an action flick.

As with Scott’s excellent Unstoppable and Enemy of the State, Scott is always good at infusing cinematic theories into an action movie fundamentals (Unstoppable is a modern example of action-narrative-structure-symbolised-by-train that reaches back to Buster Keaton’s timeless The General, while Enemy of the State is the mother of all image surveillance/voyeurism films in post-Cold War era). It may be a limitation in a way to have those generic “shackles” attached, but at the same time, they do sometimes reinforce his ideas, and sure as hell make them more approachable.

If anyone’s interested, Gavin Hood presents a (lot) more sophisticated poke at similar ideas regarding image in his recent film Eye in the Sky.

Also, I should re-read Gilles Deleuze, and this time try to actually understand what the fuck he’s saying.

Lucy (2014) – slice

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So what went wrong with Lucy?

There are so many ways it could have done to be better, but it hasn’t, and there are so many interesting things it attempts without much insight ultimately leaving them in the dirt.

What I hate in sci-fi films that attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible is that too many times that said films just end like “it happened, there is a complicated reason behind it, but it’s too hard to tell, so it happened and that’s all you have to know.” The problem with that way of storytelling (another film that commits this sin recently is the inexplicably overrated Interstellar from the understandably overrated director Chistopher Nolan) is that it ends the discussion right there–you can discuss how it happened, the missing link that should’ve been there in first place, but the openness of exploring the unknown, perhaps one of the chief appeals in the utopian sci-fi genre, disappears. Maybe it is science’s ultimate goal to understand everything, but a science fiction must strive to depict that endless struggle to understand everything–if not, the “fiction” is lost, while the “science” is left abandoned.

While many fans of sci-fi criticised Lucy for going light on science (what the hell does your brain have got to do with changing your hair, let alone control electromagnetic signals?), I believe Lucy‘s biggest failure comes from going light on science fiction. The plot being thin is least of its problems (so many films have succeded with relatively simple plot), but it’s the entire narrative effort as a whole that fails to synthesise its subject matter with all the generic shenanigans it does to please its studio execs. At times, it almost seem like a self-parody (Choi’s character is as cliched as he can be, while Amr Waked’s role is either a very bad spoof of police procedural cop character or a tiring joke at gender reversal the film seems to push too obviously), but as with all the bad self-parodies, it never goes beyond just embarassing itself. Johansson not bringing anything new to the table doesn’t help either; I was never really impressed by Johansson ever (except for Her; Under the Skin doesn’t count because it’s mostly Glazer filming Johansson being awkward), and this film does not change that.

The idea of brain and the supposed myth of humans not fully using it, and the linearity of time being an artificial conceiving method for our self-locked brain capacity, seem all good on paper, except this is a film on screen, not a scribble on paper. The interesting ideas never fully become realized in film form other than the tacked-on CGI sequences that rarely show anything more than just spectacles and (almost intentionally) jumbled expositions, and that is perhaps the worst way of representing something that could be inherently linked with the fundamentals of film medium itself. I am not even looking for something that rivals Act IV of 2001 Space Odyssey; even a cheap gimmick would have sufficed, but no, it’s all visual exposition/spectacle on and on and on until the film loses meaning and forgets what it was trying to talk about in first place. Besson tries to salvage anything he can, and some of the scenes are indeed exciting to watch purely for his effort, but mostly, the film is too much of a mess from the ideological conception to become anything great.

For a film about brain, it’s conspicuously brainless, and for a film about non-linearity of time, it’s strangely linear. And that’s all because the “fiction” never takes off in first place; it just keeps on circling on the ground, wondering what it wants to be until the end credits roll.

Godzilla (2014) – slice

The thing about Gareth Edwards’ version is that it really does not care about its story. As far as the narrative goes, it comes to its audience and says, “hey, this is a film about three huge monsters destroying everything, so shut the fuck up and watch.” There are plot holes everywhere, characters are as one dimensional as they can be, some shoddy attempt at relating Godzilla to the atomic regret, and really, the ending is a mess. The pacing, while more or less consistent, is mostly disjointed, and the emotional impact of the story rarely follows through.

But it’s the visual direction that carries the film. Most of the shots involving towering monsters wrecking havoc are shot at human-level–be it on the ground, in the building, in helicopter–regardless whether there is a diegetic reasoning behind such placement (there is only one explicitly diegetic, character-bound POV-shot in the entire film, if I recall correctly). By doing so, Edwards amplifies the force of nature that the titular monster and his adversaries bring to fullest potential: they are huge and awe-inspiring, and that impression is universal for all humans. While the beginning seves as a workable drama setup only, it’s the late-middle part of the film that graces us with a memorable aesthetic spectacle, crafting a scene that is almost equal to the eerieness of its soundtrack by Ligati. Edwards uses not the movement (sometimes he does, but usually not the main technique) but the placement of the camera and the lighting–CGI or otherwise–to get the atmosphere spot on.

It’s too dark to see everything, but to be honest, I like the apocalyptic feel that directorial choice brought. Compared to Fury, another 2014 film that really pushed the grim apocalyptic visual direction, Edwards’ work is more coherent: the balance between red fire and grey darkness, as well as the ominous nature of fog/dust clouds, are sufficiently linked back to the entire point of the film which is the post-nuclear disaster in (gigantic) flesh. Granted, Godzilla‘s task of creating a huge monster is far less of a conceptually complicated one compared to Fury‘s (ultimately failed/only partially successful) attempt to bring the darkness of war in post-Apocalypse Now war films, but that does not mean one cannot be impressed by Edwards’ visual consistency. Moreover, Edwards really understands how to create tension through exaggerated shadow and light here, like that scene in Nevada nuclear waste management site where a beam of light in a dark room instantly signals danger without any action, and it is these kinds of visual cues placed at the right time and right place that holds the film together.

So as a disaster film, Edwards’ direction shines through. As anything else however, that’s a whole other story.

The 400 Blows (1959) – slice

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Freeze frame: will Antoine meet his Bazin, or will he be forever lost?

I’m confused; we learned French New Wave through Breathless and other batshit crazy Godard films, and boom, I finally watch this, and this film actually makes sense. What the hell?

Joke aside, this is, I think, the first non-blockbuster film I’ve watched since graduating in April. It’s kind of fitting, considering it was on my wishlist exactly since my first day of the cinema studies class, after my TA said it was her favourite.

Truffaut focuses on details. The mundane actions that culminate into something equally mundane–or something dramatic that is cinematically rendered mundane–are what take place of the most of the film. You don’t really get to feel Antoine or empathise with him, but rather, Truffaut just lets him be, exist in the diegesis, while we peek into his daily activities without much overarching plot. What should kickstart a story–the kid running away from his home–is soon rendered meaningless and Truffaut maintains the narrative uneasiness (of renying resolution) all the way through until he just, literally, freezes it.

This attention to detail is from Bresson. The social realism is obviously from the Italian neorealist masters that preceded Truffaut just few years before. What’s interesting however is that Truffaut seems to bring the camerawork of none other than–from what I understand–Hitchcock. It’s not entirely noticeable, but some of the long takes have Hitchcock’s eyes, shifting focus and flowing naturally to tell a story rather than show it. It strangely fits Antoine’s wandering personality, as well as the equally wandering narrative. In the end, I think it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it is a work of homages, but as with all good homages, it transcends the source materials while respecting them to create something new–something next.

A baton well-passed, indeed.

Life of Pi (2012) – slice

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A heaven on sea.

Yann Martel’s book is one of the best contemplations on faith in the era of post-nuclear rationalism. It hits the heart of what religion is, not doctrine, not tradition, but what it actually means to believe, God or anything, with the unwaverable reason(able doubt) always lingering behind the reader.

In a way, Cinema, especially that of Hollywood, is a medium of reason. Its origin coincides with the jubliant advent of technology, its advancement saw the rise of reason-based miracles and atrocities. Its grammar (in Hollywood form) follows a strong causal relation that is aimed at making sure the visual image–a far more instantly and readily recognizable form of information transer that is almost unanimously associated with the idea of truth than its ancestor, text and language–comes to create a coherent story that is, in the words of David Bordwell, “excessively obvious.”

What is most impressive about Lee’s adaptation then is understanding the very idea of exploring and expressing something so intensely spiritual in the age of ratonalism into a medium that is perhaps one of the most crowning examples of that age’s philosophy. Lee’s visuals are sufficiently miraculous, serene and catastophic, bewildering and coherent. Lee captures the essence of Martel’s book in only way that cinematic grammar can achieve, and that in itself is an exciting achevement. The film is rich with so many visual symbolism that is not only carefully placed (look at the picture above, a perfect use of CGI to visually symbolise heaven), but coordinated with other symbols.

But it’s not just the visual spectacle; the storyteling, which is done through editing and script (and Irrfan Khan’s wonderful voice) is one of the best in recent memory. Too many times has cinephile community regarded the trend of social realism as the ideal method of mature storytelling in recent auteurist cinema, but here, a film that quetions the very notion of realism in first place, the storybook-like storytelling shines to achieve every goal it wishes to master.

I still cannot figure out the very last shot: why does Lee juxtaposes Pi’s face on the right and sea on the left, Richard Parker’s back replacing the sea, then fade Pi’s face away while the jungle takes over? What is the meaning of the gradual desaturation of the jungle shot? Is trying to relate all these visual symbolism into something that had happened–or about religion–what the film wants the audience to do in first place? Or should our questions and exploratons lie elsewhere?

It is a film, like that of Martel’s book, that is at one hand coherently closed while on the other endlessly open. To have made a film that captures that essence of the source material while making it even more approachable without any narrative or symbolic sacrifice, is indeed a miraculous achievement.