The following article was published in N-SPHERE Omega.

What makes cinema such a powerful environment is its ability to make the worlds presented seem real. Indeed, literature does that too, but in many cases cinema does this faster and with greater impact, because of its immediacy. Whereas literature has to create from scratch those worlds, cinema only has to make them believable. While this is not very difficult when it comes to a neorealist motion picture for example, or a documentary, one cannot say the same about those movies that deal with fictional aspects. Here, things may get a little complicated, but they also get more diverse, because there is no standard recipe as far as this aspect is concerned. Basically, in my opinion, this is where cinema starts: in depicting the less-familiar.

Fiction and intimacy go hand in hand here, because there is no standard pattern that is applicable on large scale in the real world and even if there would be, many would prefer to avoid it. To make things even more fun, this does not apply to the plot development only, but to the way the characters are developed as well. It is a matter of perspective.

One of the first movies that comes to my mind, in this particular case is Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures whose protagonists end up taking a life. However, the film revolves and is constructed around the notion of fantasy and even the real scenes have the same feeling attached to them. This is, indeed, a fairly standard approach and I am aware you have seen it before in many films, but what is not so standard about it is the way the protagonists are being portrayed. Not even in the final scenes are they directly depicted as murderers. The fantasy layer here goes as far as to alter the »real« layer as well as if the real protagonists were mirror images of the characters fleshed out in the fantasy world, not the other way around.

El Laberinto del Fauno by Guillermo del Torro revolves around the same notions and goes even further, by directly linking the two worlds. Therefore, here we do not have fantasy and reality going hand in hand, but two distinct worlds, both real in their own rights, interacting with one another. This is, again, another pattern that is used on a large scale. The first example that comes to mind is Darren Aronofsky‘s The Fountain and even Gerard McMurrow‘s Franklyn. The latter depicts both worlds very convincingly, so the end of the film is not really that relevant: take it out of the table and you will have an even more delicious movie. The list can go on with many other films. In these particular cases, the real/fantasy junctions work mostly only on the level of storytelling, they create new possibilities and sometimes may even give the viewer some new ideas.

However, in spite of everything mentioned earlier, strictly on a cinematic level, this approach is pretty plane and some dedicated cinephiles may find it unrewarding because in most cases it revolves only around the story and the same things could have happened in case of a book.

This is why some directors and viewers prefer a different approach, one where the fantasy elements are not treated/rendered differently from the real ones, where we don’t have indicators to tell us which is which. On the one hand, this may be a more effective approach because, if anything out of the ordinary will happen in real life, I am pretty certain that we won’t have any »indicators«, but those things will happen in the same way every other casual thing happens. So, in this case, the real challenge is to make those scenes extremely convincing. In mainstream cinema, one of the most popular examples is The Blair Witch Project, which not only attracted praise by both the public and the critics, but also a considerable number of copycats. However, The Blair Witch Project was not the first film to use this approach, but the first modern film to bring it back into the spotlight. More than two decades ago, an Australian film had walked the same grounds. It’s named Picnic at Hanging Rock and it was directed by Peter Weir (The Last Wave, Dead Poets Society). The difference between the two of them is that Picnic uses a far more poetic tone, but, interestingly enough, to the same effect – to »summon« a new protagonist: Nature (this will occur in Weir‘s later effort, The Last Wave as well). Of course, younger audiences may find this film dated, some would not understand what is the big fuss about it, mainly because of the two decade difference between the two films. On a similar ground, but on a more »metaphysical« tone, we find Tarkovsky‘s Solyaris or Stalker.

However, fiction does not only include supernatural events; a fictional event may be also something we imagined we have seen, someone we imagined we met or we think we are –  I will choose three films here: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock), Fight Club (David Fincher) and American Psycho (Mary Harron). In Psycho we have a pretty clinical and straightforward approach, but also an effective one. We do not see Norman’s mother in the flesh, but we do hear her in the end and somehow feel her presence. Psycho is effective because it does not show much, but suggests a lot. The film does not focus on showing how its protagonists became who they are, instead it’s focused in depicting »the result« in a very convincing manner. In simple terms: we are not told or shown, in detail, throughout the film, how Norman developed his possessive alter ego (his mother) – we are given a brief explanation in the end – but the more we watch Norman, the more we are convinced that we are face to face with a deeply deranged human being. This strategy of focusing on depicting convincing characters or events, instead of wasting time with useless explanations was frequently used by Carl Theodore Dreyer and the resurrection scene in the end of Ordet serves as a perfect example.

Whereas Psycho suggests, Fight Club shows. Here, the protagonist and his alter-ego are treated as separate entities. An obvious choice after all, since the film does not spend too much time on clinical observations regarding the evolution of its protagonist. Instead, it takes a rather »positive« attitude towards his condition – »OK, I am having a stranger period, let’s see what I can make of it« – which, indeed, points to a more stylistic approach. Many things that happen throughout the film (the ending included) are more legit as pure fiction, however, because it is very verbal and has a rather pragmatic tone. Fight Club makes its viewers forget these minor details and so does American Psycho: even if Bateman remains a serial killer only in his mind, in the end of the film he makes a convincing serial killer outside as well.

I mentioned before Dreyer and explaining versus suggesting. While this is a very effective approach on its own, Polanski proves that we can have it the other way around as well, especially in films such as Repulsion or The Tenant. In both we are shown how a mind can turn against itself. However, do not expect a standard recipe here, because none of these two films are wasting time giving lectures. Instead, Polanski accomplishes his task by using very little. Basically, he takes small events that can cause slight distress, and plays them against a character who has a predisposition to paranoia (for example: the scenes in which Trelkovsky asks for Gauloises, but he is served only Marlboro because the bar he was in »conveniently« ran out of Gauloises and Marlboro was the only brand they had). There is also another detail that I think contributes a lot in creating the right atmosphere: the way the people’s faces are shot. It is menacing, as if those people are ready to kill you anytime.

There is another category of interesting films here: the ones in which you cannot tell for sure whether what you see is fiction or reality, or in more exact terms: you can’t tell for sure if it is one reality or another. There are these films who use two opposite assumptions simultaneously and they never give you a direct on clue on which one is real and which one is fiction. For me, these films are interesting both on a storytelling level and on a cinematic one. The most recent film exploring this ground I came across is Sound of My Voice by Zal Batmanglij in which we are given reasons for both sides and – what is even more amusing – that we are given plenty of reasons to believe that both sides are true simultaneously. What I like about these films is that they are exploratory by definition, and somehow they encourage you to make various connections, to expand the material and it is not an easy task to accomplish cinematically, either.

There is another notion that rhymes with fiction and that is eroticism, especially if we talk about fiction of a darker nature. Ken Russell‘s Gothic does a fairly good job combining the two. While there are not many passionate character interactions in the film, one cannot deny it has a deeply erotic approach even it its sickest scenes. Russell‘s (and implicitly Gabriel Byrne‘s) depiction of Byron plays and important role, I would go s far as to say the most important role. He is not depicted as simple character/protagonist, but he is depicted nearly as a God of sorts, an entity coordinating everything and Gabriel Byrne I think is the perfect actor for this task. His performance is mesmerizing, submissive and passionate and at one point one may ask oneself on whether the film incorporates it or if this sole performance is guiding the film. And then, there is the imagery. No surprises here, for Ken Russell‘s ability to create vivid and striking images is well known (Altered States anyone?).

Another film I found particularly erotic was The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes by the Quay Brothers. In this case the first thing that comes into my mind is the story: it is both eerie, but strangely believable (not as in it can happen for real, but as in yes, this looks like a story). It does not have a particular message, but it can catch you in its web just by looking at it. The story itself if deeply cinematic. There is also the outlandish tone/acting, the animations; overall, it is a film to be experienced rather than dissected for a particular meaning.

With all its political allegory, Mircea Danieliuc‘s Glissando walks the same shoes. The film – which is an adaptation of Cezar Petrescu‘s short story Omul din Vis – binds together dream and reality, realism and surrealism and works best as an eerie fairytale with an occasionally Fellinesque touch (Satyricon, anyone?). And yes, the film contains a fair amount of nudity, but yes (again) this is an irrelevant aspect.

In the perspective discussed here, eroticism doesn’t necessarily imply anything involving a sexual act, but is referring to that specific type of energy. I think a film can be erotic without necessarily having sex scenes (Valerie and her week of wonders) and, even when it does have it, it is not those scenes themselves that give the film this tone, but the way they are crafted (the sex scene in Don’t look now or the more intimate scene in Tarkovsky‘s Offret are two examples). But if we are to talk about eroticism in both ways, we cannot overlook Walerian Borowczyk. In The Beast(1975), he takes a straightforward story and overlaps it with an erotic fantasy revolving around The Beauty and The Beast, framing everything in the tone of a farce. The latter was barely noticed at the time of the film’s release, due to its shocking content. While his name is sometimes unfairly and unwittingly linked to soft-core porn, Borowczyk‘s films (especially his earlier ones) show a versatile director, able to shift gears and create idiosyncratic and haunting films.

The list can go further with titles, names and approaches, but I believe that so far, this is enough. It is time for you, dear reader, to take your pick and viddy well.

by Shade

photo | The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Quay Brothers. Filmstill.

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE Omega.

Stereo is a blurred vision of a telepath’s commune. Nothing could sound weirder than this, but Cronenberg delivers to the viewer a witty rendition of what could be an insight of the human mind. Not only considered in its neurological or psychological sense, but also probing the great beyond of the unconscious, the deepest roots of the Self, so subtle and so ephemeral. That underworld has been often visited often David Cronenberg throughout his career, in a descending spiralling pathway that counts on its steps masterpieces like The Fly, Scanners or Crash, among others. I figure that his movies could be considered as a peculiar itinerary because of the common experiences shared by the characters, all of them embarked on a journey that touches the shores of hidden realities.

The concept of an unconscious mind developed in western culture when artists and philosophers started to touch the deep chords which were more visceral than reason or aesthetic beauty. The zone where these chords resound is covered by forces connected to sexuality and primal instincts. Our flesh is the ultimate »weight« that takes us back to earth when the mind starts to become more abstract: flesh sends »its« loud cry, making people aware of its existence. Neglected or not respected flesh reacts to the human mind, giving birth to oddities. In The Fly and Scanners we could see scientists playing with bodies. The results are someway extreme: in the first case we could see the deterioration of flesh stripping down man to his mere biologic support, in the second case the overpowered minds of telepaths have a more relevant consequence on the faculty to manipulate the integrity of other bodies. The mind that could »swim upstream« until it reaches the inner-self, attains the power to manipulate reality, therefore distorting other people’s lives, until the extreme exit.

The balance between the mind and the altered body causes an instability that could not be easily regulated: one of the most notable examples in Cronenberg filmography is Crash: struggling and pushing the limits of the body excites the mind, in a lethal and inuring imbalance.
From the first images we are introduced to an unusual kind of documentary, with several narrating voices revealing us information about experiments taking place inside a palace. Places are symbols, the zone where the movie unravels is built out of concrete, representing a sort of »brutal« introduction to the mind and visions of man, the modern man (or even the post-modern, if the »post-modern« term itself makes any sense to you). The filming is made in an amateur style: the viewer’s attention should be directed towards the development of the plot, well beyond the visual aspects of the movie.
Cybernetic experiments are conducted by Dr. Stringfellow with eight subjects, who undergone brain surgery (controlled by a computer) in order to develop telepathic abilities. We are then informed about the development of psychic addictions between individuals. Psychic aspects are also entwined with physical ones, and the knots of the net created between the telepaths give birth to manifolded sexual desires. The communication level becomes deeper: it goes to the origin of memories and emotion, and given the fact that reality could be considered a »logos«, the movie itself tries to show peculiar aspects of language.

The retro-viral enemy of Logos is language

Our »vision« is translated by language to other people, and language could be affected like a living being. Saussure explained the arbitrariness of language: the connection between the Signified (the object) and the Signifier (the word related to that object) is not logical, nor reasoned. This feature undermines the foundations of man’s rationality: the Eraclitan Logos is so inherently poisoned. This poison circulates in the blood of the telepaths, mixing with the impulses of flesh and crumbling down the structure of dialogue. What is latent on our daily experiences could be magnified in this experimental movie. These eight subjects become like messed up cells that cannot longer communicate. They are obsessively seeking for the satisfaction of reaching the meaning of their actions. Their ability to overcome the Signifier, as a part of communication, lets them see a crazy world of random elements moving in a Brownian motion.

The director’s choice of plot made it clear that he has a marvellous obsession with videocameras, television-sets (as seen on Videodrome and other movies made by him). Here the crisis of art and arts’ symbols produces a new electronic language that has shapes into addiction and dominance: the stronger telepath could assume the leading role, and couple with the weaker one, as in real life stronger individuals could shape the mind of others through ideas that spread like viruses (or memes, as Dawkins called them). Throughout the years, media developed to its full capability to shape minds: the Society of the Spectacle of the situationists’ has got a cancer, and this cancer is called infotainment.

I mentioned Situationism here to also point out the fact that experiments conducted in the Academy of Erotic Enquiry could be considered a way to discover new mediums for exploiting the desires of the masses. It is a sort of futuristic deviance of a society determined to obtain the complete control not only of the collective imagination, but also of minds and the bodies of the »citizens«. It is not simple as a chemical experiment, where often knowing the reagents we know where the reaction is heading to. As mentioned previously, the delicate equilibrium between mind and body, expanded now to a bigger level – the »collective unconscious« – body of the masses«, if touched in an invading and abusive way, it could react and bring the fall of the complex.

As time passes, media gets under the skin of the consumer: we are seeing a hybrid of human bodies with electric devices. Today life without social networking, without knowing each others’ thoughts through facebook statuses or single tweets means disability of relationships, at least for most of western-land-inhabitants.

The scene that sums up everything is the one portraying a telepath drilling its way in one another telepath’s brain: it represents the desperate Spectacular attempt to implant ideas (Memes) into an already formed system. The brain has got plasticity, but similar to all biologic layers, this plasticity could not be deformed beyond a certain amount of stress, without involving the death of Logos and of the physical body.

Stereo was ahead of its time (1969): the telepaths’ communication difficulties anticipate the use of the internet and mobile communication issues. Pervasive even if often necessary. It was an odd experiment, nowadays is the field of experience in which we are diving into, submerged in a massive fluxus of data. My hope is that humanity could have more success than the subjects of the experiment, using this »new« way of communication without becoming addicted to it, and losing vital parts of our intelligence like the telepaths lose parts of their

by Maurizio

photo | David Cronenberg. 1969. Stereo. Filmstill.

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE September 2012 issue.


I have seen Letters from a dead man (1986) by Russian director Konstantin Lopushanski after a brief review exchange of messages what some call »posthumanism« and I may say it was an inspired choice.

Konstantin Lopushanski‘s full length debut is a post-apocalyptic tale revolving around a small group of »temporary survivors« living in a museum bunker (interesting location and I will get back to you on that). Of course, dozens of films revolving around apocalypse have been made, some of which I have seen, some of which I have not and many of which I don’t intend to, but none of them caught my attention as this one did.

First of all, unlike other films I have seen, revolving around the same topic, Letters from a dead man is strikingly realistic. Many of them claim and even seem, but there is always something »prefabricated« about them (either the annoyingly pompous soundtrack, some unnecessary love-stories or an even more annoying over-dramatization). Lopushanski has made a deliberately depressive and…oppressive motion picture that takes away all the »little joys« and yet, prevents you from walking away (unless of course, this kind of films are not your taste. Somehow, it is quite predictable, because, as I said before, everything in this film is extremely believable, starting with the characters. There are no prophets here, no misunderstood geniuses, no strange beauties, but ordinary people put face to face with an extreme situation. And this is  what makes the film effective.

This is not to say that Letters from a dead man (or any other  Lopushanski film) lacks its poetry or its spiritual dimension, but whereas in Tarkovskys case, for example, such notions are coined simply to describe his films’ approach, here the poetic tone is far more discreet. I chose Tarkovsky for two obvious reasons: it is impossible not to see similarities between the works of the two directors and also Lopushanski assisted on the filming of Stalker.

In both Lopushanski and Tarkovsky‘s films spirituality goes hand in hand with religion and actually one can say that they form a single organism and I feel it would be the right moment to make several distinctions here. People often misunderstood and misused religion so when one would hear that a certain director’s movies are »deeply religious«, one would most likely tend to get the wrong impression.

Throughout history, some religions were used as socio-political weapons: some people were told what to or (more precisely) not to embrace and some others were busy making those lists. And moving further with this, some people believed that those giving orders had the voice of »god« inside them, others felt/knew/stated that this was all a charade. Given this particular equation, some people will consider their religion to be their god’s hand at work, others will believe that it is just another word for keeping people in line, making them easier to manipulate. (ironically, you don’t have to create a story to do this, not now at least, and I’m sure that then there were also simpler ways. There is always the nice lady telling you what to buy and so forth). What is missing from the sentences above? Amusingly enough, religion. Cause neither of cases deals with religion actually, but with some decisions being made by a group of people. I believe that the only viable starting point is history and not the one you were taught as a young lad, not history as a series of notable events with time-stamp markers. But history as a »museum« if you may. One that is timeless and encapsulates our »spirit«. In this case, religion is not longer this bureaucratic or political, not at all, in this case we have stories and symbols that best describe a group of people. In my opinion, religion was never about what was should or should not do, was never about one being blindly obedient to an a priori entity. People made it about that. I hardly believe that an entity beyond my powers of comprehension would need my obedience, as I hardly believe that a demiurge would sit and coach his own creation.

And this »timelessness« is what I have seen long ago in Tarkovsky‘s works (well, most of them) and what I am seeing in Lopushanski as well. Were it more »precise« than this, it would have been mechanical and meaningless.

I have mentioned early in the article that Letters from a dead man revolves around a group of people who survived after a nuclear meltdown (at least this is what it seems) and  living in a museum bunker. The location is not random and Lopushanski will use it again in his next feature film, Visitor of a museum which deals pretty much with the same topic. The museum in both cases acts as a portal, it is exactly the kind of »museum« I was talking about earlier.

There is another key element in the film: the children. They seem frail, but they display tremendous inner strength, in spite of having witnessed such atrocities. I wrote »key element« because for me. Letters from a dead man is not as pessimistic as it seems and even if nearly everything in the film seems to point towards imminent demise, the children carry out the hope that humanity will not end with this catastrophe. They are portrayed in a quiet manner, many things about them we hint and feel rather than see. There is also a strange, innate coldness about them somehow suggesting the idea of not being born(of course not to be taken literally, but rather by not being used to wallow in greed, vanity, cheap ideas and so forth). The same idea can be seen in Lopushanski‘s latest effort the 2006 adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel The Ugly Swans, but in this case everything is far more visible.

Returning to Letters…, the film is also a horrific future-mirror of a less-horrific present-world, a world currently ruled by greed, by excuses for greed, shallow punch lines and many other »beauties«. Actually, what is frightening about this film is that a catastrophe like the one there CAN actually HAPPEN.

All in all, Lopushanski is a worthwhile director, especially for those who admire Tarkovsky‘s work and are able to see the differences between the two, not only the similarities. I, for one, am eager to see the rest of his movies, because – so far – for me, they worked. Hopefully, they will work for you,  as well.

by Shade

photo | The Ugly Swans. 2006. Movie still

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE August 2012 issue.


Some films take serious topics seriously, others take them more lightly – eventually use them as selling points – while others distort them to the point that they really seem comic episodes. But very few directors take them seriously, while laughing in their face.

In 1970, the French director Joël Séria helmed a little project called Don’t deliver us from evil. Carefully labeled by some critics as a »children’s film«, the movie however – at its time – frightened/shocked a couple of the more puritan hearts and very soon afterwards was banned in the US for »blasphemy«.

What is, somehow, rather funny, is that Don’t deliver us from evil is not a blasphemous film, nor is it a film that actually deals with two girls who have suddenly decided to worship Satan (or other thing like that). The film itself has no religious, nor philosophical touch of any kind. It is never solemn, nor is it personal, nor – ultimately – takes itself too seriously. Those seeking to find deeper arguments or truth for the film’s protagonists’ behavior will be greatly disappointed.

This is not a film preaching revolt as a form of change, this is not a film preaching revolt, actually. It is a film that toys with things that most people consider unconceivable, or cruel, immoral, nightmarish, take your pick. The two protagonists of the film play their part well, because they leave all the side implications aside, the entire sophomore details and focus on the game itself, as if now nothing they do is actually real.

It is tempting to draw some parallels between this film and Peter Jackson‘s Heavenly creatures. Both films are (loosely) based on real events. In both we have two girls as protagonists and both films invest a lot in »games« and the idea of »cheerful madness«. However, Peter Jackson‘s film is more restrained, meaning that it uses a more domestic setup and it is, ultimately, strangely self-contained. Joël Séria‘s movie is, I think, more cheerful, but it also invests a lot more in its perversion(s).

Six years later, one of the protagonists of Don’t deliver us from evil »returned« in Marie, the doll. While on the surface considerably more restrained than its predecessor, this film, however, has its share of »unorthodox« moments and just like in its predecessor – we are very likely not to perceive them as such.

The film starts in a cheerful tone and after its first 30 minutes, those unfamiliar with Séria‘s work may think that they are dealing with a very sweet romantic comedy. The irony is that the film may very well fall under that category as well because – again – Joël Séria manages to make the troubling scenes look perfectly natural (I don’t know any other director who can do this as well as he does it).

There are moments in which Marie, the doll reminds me of Valerie and her week of wonders. There is the same child-like purity piercing through both works, however, unlike Valerie…, Séria‘s film has a far more traditional approach as far as the narrative layer is concerned.

There is a particular line in Valerie that seems to embody here:

»Grandmother: Hedvika is marrying.

Valerie: Poor Hedvika

However, unlike in Jaromil Jireš’ film, Marie doesn’t change. She marries, but, in spite of her husband’s efforts, she remains unchanged. There is the same repulsion over the excess of flesh, over the primitive »sexual approach« one can also spot in Valerie and here week of wonders and the same attitude towards useless formalities.

The film also displays an interesting point: from the male protagonist’s standpoint – the game was from the beginning just a game, what came afterwards was real/human, dry, but real. From Marie’s standpoint, the game was real from the beginning, what came afterwards was abuse. She did not want a life that would limit her to some common mechanical activities. The game was an antidote of that, pretty much in the same way it was for the two protagonists in Don’t deliver us from evil. The difference between the two films comes from their nuances. The first deliberately rejects all rules regardless of how this may affect others, while in Marie, the doll the protagonist is harmless. Her needs are simple and they do not affect (not in a meaningful way) others. For her, their bond was something sacred, for him it was just a vehicle: he wanted an object. A pretty little object he can admire every now and again the way he wants. It kind of reminds me of an idiotic ad/commercial/video called Women, know your place.

There are other things to be noticed in this film such as, for example, how mannerisms can turn into something rotten, there is a little déjà vu one may have at the beginning of Marie…, that the male protagonist will end-up being some sort of a villain. His expression gives this away. And also his slight predictability, the fact that he could tell stories about each and every doll he has or, more precisely, that he would let his »targets« know that he is not really interested in those stories, but interested in using them as selling points – and I am well aware that each of you had to deal – at least once – with those kind of people.

At its core, this is a sad film, but the director is not too solemn about this. He distances himself from Marie, lets her be the judge of that. Sometimes her attitude reminds me of Gelsomina (the protagonist from Fellini‘s La Strada). Women falling for posters. Maybe this is one of the hidden messages, because he has one of those faces.

All in all, the film is pretty slow-paced, but it may appeal to a considerable number of people because of its erotic touch. Although, this is not to be taken literally, since the only sex scene in the film is seen though a repulsive eye. It is also interesting to spot connections between Marie… and other films.

That’s about it, Joël Séria was a pleasant director to encounter for me, because of his mastery in making the unthinkable funny, exciting, while staying away from being exploitative. No matter how perverse a scene was, there was always this idea that it is just a game that holds no interest in investing too much in flesh rituals.

Also, Marie the doll works as some kind of Lolita-like story, with a far less creative male protagonist and a far more dedicated female protagonist. Kind of reminds me of a song Dark Lolita, come to think of it, which works well with the film, I may play it from time to time.

by Shade

photo | Marie, the doll. 1976. Movie still

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE July 2012 issue.


Mysticism/the supernatural has always been a tempting ground to thread when it comes to cinema (and not only cinema). There are dozens of films that deal with the occult: some of them are known, others more obscure, some of them choose to be true to some source, others are just fabrications. However, this aspect is not one of interest here, since we are not talking – in most of the cases – about works that document something. The films falling in the latter category are worth mentioning in order to draw a line between an academic (if such term makes sense here) perspective, one that presents a series of events in a detached manner assuming that the viewer is familiar with the ground, and a more artistic approach which subtracts or merely sketches all »familiar aspects« (rituals for instance) in favor of creating a compelling setup (so to speak) which works better with the casual viewer.

I am not going to debate about the presumed effect of some »occult« works, because I believe these effects are fabrications designed for people looking for sensational stories, nothing more. Nor am I going to discuss about rituals and other »real« sources, because this is not an article on witchcraft, neither it is an article on witchcraft in art. In itself, this is a contradiction in terms: either you have one, or the other. On the one hand, if you are filming a »successful« ritual, what you see is what you get, there is no need for the artist to do anything (art is supposed to at least transport the viewer or interpret reality). On the other hand, if you are making a film about – let’s say – a cursed house, you’ll be more focused in having your material compelling to the casual viewer, even if this means discarding most of the »standard ritualistic procedures«. In the  first case, you will either have a group of people viewing what they are already familiar with, or a group of people who are either uninterested or alienated by the material. Either way, I doubt that what they would experience would even remotely close to something related with what they are presented (mystical / occult are terms that are easily coined today to many works of art, but I doubt that these terms point to specific »procedures«).

Let’s consider the films of Kenneth Anger: the reason for which they work has nothing to do with the source material, but with the way the material is presented. If we are to take the imagery out of the equation, what we would be left with, would be completely useless. They work mostly because they are visually striking and vague enough to let the viewers furnish the space in their own way.

Another  worthwhile consideration is Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, the 1922 silent film about witchcraft, black magic and other related issues. Again, I found the mystical subtext in itself to be nearly of no interest, but what caught my attention was the overall atmosphere: it is a particular one, which can only find in silent films (or films that act like silent ones). First of all, silent films natively subtract something and they need to compensate what they subtract with something else – and here’s where the expressionism pays off: remember La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc? Don’t you think that it works best the way it is and it still is, even today, far more effective than other attempts on the same topic?. Another aspect of these particular silent films is the absence of colors, as it gives them a vague quality in addition to being in perfect tone with the topic. The occult and black&white/sepia: seems like they belong together, doesn’t it? Häxan shares many of these qualities – random fact: it was mostly shot during nighttime, which was unheard of at that time – and one of its editions has another interesting feature: William Burroughs as narrator.


Carl Theodore Dreyer‘s Vampyr swims pretty much in the same waters, the only difference being that Vampyr relies less on the story and focuses even more on the atmosphere, to the point where the whole movie feels like a dream.

So, having these three segments together, the question that emerges is: what is really a mystical film? Is it all about depicting so-called mystical experiences? I doubt it. First of all, because it is not like depicting, let’s say, a physical phenomenon, which can be observed, explained and so forth.  There is no standard truth to be found here: some people believe in supernatural forces, in the occult etc. – others don’t. Those who don’t will always find a rational explanation, or they will settle for the just-because-I-can’t-explain-it-doesn’t-mean-it-can’t-be-explained logic, while those who do believe in such things will more likely assume that the things we observe and explain rationally are actually a consequence of some invisible forces at play; but even if such things do exist, I doubt that they are so easily reachable to be explained in terms this simple or to be used in purposes this childish. This is why there is no real reliable source, there is no real academic angle, what is left are stories and, more exactly, a way these stories are told. In movies, this works better, because there is another catch: mysticism (I use this term because it is more generic) relies heavily on strong imagery and you don’t have to be an expert, not even to be familiar with the whole story, to figure this one out. Also, there is this oneiric feel through most of them. This is why silent films are such a fertile ground. Movies like Vampyr theoretically have nothing to do with occult processions or anything inhabiting the same neighborhood, but they are haunting, eerie and visually arresting.

Earlier, I mentioned films that are mimicking the silent ones. The opening act from Jodorowsky‘s Holy Mountain is such an example which, again, works best at its most vague and works worst at its most concrete (the whole part where planets are detailed starts as interesting, but ends up being achingly repetitive and exhausting). Of course, if we are to talk about this maybe the best candidate is the 1990′s Begotten by E. Elias Merhige, which creates its own (grotesque) mythology.

There are, of course other approaches, some of which I accidentally talked about on previous occasions (on films such as Rosemary’s Baby or Don’t look now), approaches that do not necessarily rely on gloomy dreamlike tones, but on having unfamiliar events depicted in a very familiar tone and placed on an equally familiar setup. Two early Peter Weir films, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave are such examples. Another one would be the above mentioned Rosemary’s Baby, where, except from a dream scene, everything is presented in a very mundane manner. We know what happens, we knew for quite a while and yet, before the ending scene, Polanski never throws rituals or even eerie-yet-powerful imagery at us. The film is compelling because we are witnessing such events fleshed out in a very convincing manner and at some point we realize that, if such things exist, they are more likely to happen the way they are depicted, than the way we got used to imagine them. The same can be said about the two Peter Weir films and Dreyer‘s Vredens Dag.

There is no way to fully cover this ground, especially since the most compelling scenes from such movies are far more related to sensory perception than they are to language. This having been said, it pretty much depends on what you prefer. Häxan is an interesting ride mostly because of the time it was released (to have a »documentary« on witchcraft that ambitious in the early 20s is quite something).

by Shade

photo | Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. 1922. Benjamin Christensen. Movie Still

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE June 2012 issue.

Japanese cinema has always seemed to work best at its most outlandish and I am certain there are no surprises here since many Japanese films are regarded as »rather eccentric« at least, and one may say the same thing about their entire culture.

What fascinated me about Japanese cinema (and partially their culture) was its whole »peculiar« erotic tension, even and especially in the many cases where a proper erotic/sexual act is not involved.

Leaving androgyny aside, one can notice that many (experimental) Japanese films are a visual feast. Pistol opera (Suzuki), Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto), Branded to kill (Suzuki) and even more »friendly« works such as Soseiji (Tsukamoto), Izo (Miike) are such examples. But indeed, the same can be said about works of directors such as Paradjanov, Tarkovski, Sokurov and so forth. The essential difference between the first and he former, asides narratives/themes and so forth is the approach itself. The former group brings together films that are, ultimately relatively straightforward by means of tone. We can tell where a Tarkovski film is going just by looking at its first 15 minutes, for example.

But we cannot say the same about directors such as Miike, Tsukamoto or Matsumoto. Here, the beautiful and the extremely disturbing are blended together: does anyone remember Imprint (Takashi Miike)? You may not discern much from the plot, you may – in my opinion – rightfully complain about the quality of Drago’s performance, but you cannot deny its mesmeric landscapes, blended with frightening characters and a very disturbing… torture scene.

In Tsukamoto‘s Soseiji the slums are visualised in a nearly »poetic« manner.

Somehow all these make me think about an androgynous extension of sorts: it is no longer about the masculine and feminine blended together,  but also the beautiful and the frightening/disturbing.

And this collision is even more delicious, because the first one mainly presents two rigid forms/ideas, we are given a myth and so forth, but in the end what we experience from it may be more or less related to the source material which is but a mere sketch.

The latter, however, threads more organic grounds because it is no longer linked to objects, but to what we directly experience and if you think that terror can’t be erotic, you may very well be denying the existence of all those S&M lovers, toy dolls and so forth. This is indeed a thin example because it is barely touching base, but works very well for a start. There is a line to be drawn between the disturbing and the unpleasant. Because what I think that bothers most people about disturbing experiences is related to that unpleasant layer. If one can physically achieve perfection, by being a whole, what about the experiences themselves. What happens to them? Are we to assume that the Androgyny myth implies also a marriage between opposite emotions? Would seem at least tempting to think so. And to go even further: how would our stories look like in such a setup? Would they still be a sum of chronologically sorted events if they are to be projected on some screen? I think not. An interesting example here is the animation Beladonna of Sadness/Kanashimi no Beladonna (Yamamoto), loosely based on/related to the Jeanne d’Arc story.

And speaking about opposite nuances, one cannot rule out Butoh (the dance of darkness) which combines the eerie grace with ghoulish appearances in maybe on of the most outlandish forms of dance in history.

As a side-note, there is pre-/Cronenbergian approach to some Japanese films. No surprises here, since neither Nagasaky nor Hiroshima were to go away quietly. Imprint again serves as a good example, and another good one would be Tokyo First (Tsukamoto).

The mirrors of Toshio Matsumoto – a glimpse on A funeral parade of roses

Perhaps the best place to approach Matsumoto‘s Funeral Parade of Roses is by approaching its imagery and juxtapositions and give less time to its story.

One the one hand, the film is, visually at least, very well crafted. Many of its images may linger in one’s mind long after Funeral Parade of Roses has finished because on the one hand they feel authentic on the other hand, however, they feel unearthly and some of them have the advantage of not being shown for too long. Hence this may give some viewers the feeling they are witnessing some supernatural phenomena.

On the other hand the film’s stylistic menage-á-trois, if you may, is at least interesting because we have two genres that go well hand in hand: documentary and neorealism, and a third which is in a diametrically opposed neighborhood: avant-garde.

However, in Funeral Parade of Roses this combination is effective because there are moments in which nuances change: for example some documentary scenes don’t feel like documentary scenes at all, but more like dream scenes or mood pieces. Others feel like extensions to a previous scene or to a particular feeling that a scene wants to depict.

This is why it works. Because it is well crafted enough so that you know that there is a payoff, but loose enough so the entire material does not feel like an academic exercise, vague enough to be eerie, but tight enough to work as some sort of a twisted story as well.

Of course, one cannot ignore the period in which this film was made, a period of revolt against the »formal wisdom« so to speak, against hypocritical and shallow mannerism and presumingly, since we are talking about Japan, this revolt was even more »passionate« here.

However, the film itself does not necessarily transpire this revolt, it is not a freak-show and for more than a second we forget we are »dealing« with gay people/transvestites.

photo | Bara no Soretsu / Funeral  Parade of Roses. 1969. Toshio  Matsumoto

by Shade.

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE May 2012 issue.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant plays like a fashion-world version of the maggot in the apple. The title obviously points towards a state of longing, the heroine’s name inspires a kind of elegance and beauty and yet, in the same time there is that coldness/harshness reminding of tragic heroines. Overall, before even seeing the film, one may form a rather strong image about it.

Fashion posters do that as well and we are sometimes inclined to believe that the person behind that poster has actually a common ground (at least) with the image he/she promotes. But in many cases we are deceived.

And so we are in this film. The Bitter tears of Petra von Kant contains many wounding moments and it is not – by any means – a hypocritical work, but a film revolving around a hypocritical character. Because Petra is not a tragic heroine, nor is her sadness anything else but a strategy to fool others and fool herself and we see this from the film’s opening sequence (the makeup scene, choreography and all).

For those at least slightly familiar with Fassbinder’s work this should not come as a surprise since the German director is known for creating rather unpleasant characters and he is not the only one. However, what I found to be particularly interesting is that Fassbinder doesn’t make his characters aggressive. Even when they seem to be – like in this film – it is just a façade. They are just presented, they present themselves, but there is no parade made around them, there is no moral angle, no direct attempt to be sympathetic about them. An example in this sense is the »Sister Gundrun scene« from In a year of 13 Moons in which we are offered a glimpse of the protagonist’s early life. The material itself is powerful, but it is also presented by Sister Gundrun in a very clinical manner.

What made The bitter tears of Petra von Kant rather interesting for me is that, unlike other Fassbinder films, this one does not revolve around outcasts. Petra is not an outcast, which may not be much of an argument in making the film interesting, however Petra sees herself as an outcast. She is weak because she wants to be weak and in the film’s opening moments we can see that from the clothing she chooses and the way she is filmed and from her overall physical aspect: all of them suggest weakness, more exactly all of them suggest »induced weakness«.

It is something – maybe induced – in some people’s mind telling them that weak people can show a fairly high degree of honesty, that they are authentic just because they seem or decide to be vulnerable. And then the title mutates: bitter tears can be an indicative of a quiet resignation, of letting – go – with a smile on your face – of something you don’t feel ready to let go. But »bitter« can also be an indicative of one being delusional. Petra creates a frail world where she is both queen and victim, but it is a world only she can see, not anybody else. From the outside she is clumsily portrayed as a queen and nearly nonexistent as victim.

What was said before can be also be seen in the dialogue, in Petra’s dialogue with her »love interests«. She either wants to make strong statements which are convincing halfway through after which they fall apart:

»It’s easy to pity, Sidonie, but so much harder to understand. If you understand someone, don’t pity them, change them. Only pity what you cant understand.«

The above quote is an example. Starts with a truthful statement, because indeed it is easy to pity and in so many cases it is also useless and sometimes even insulting, but the rest is just teenage nonsense born out of the desire of saying something that in the end would either be disarming, provoking, or would project some deep yet fictional wound. However, it ends being none of the above.

Other pieces of dialogue pretty much dance on the same tune or if not they are even far less.

There is also a very amusing contrast: the film is beautifully and elegantly shot, the interior is nicely decorated, the same can be said about the costume, coloring and all, however at its core it is a bleak and somehow repulsive film. Not because its heroine is too »deformed«, nor because she made decisions that transformed her in an outcast (13 Moons or Fox and his friends even), but because there is nothing about her that is authentic or at least intriguing. Not because she tries to manipulate, but because she wants to do it, or she thinks she wants to do it, she gives it a shot and fails. One may never be certain if she even tried hard enough.

This is why I said that this film deceives. However, I think Fassbinder was well aware of that as I am well aware that this was one of his intentions if not his main intention. If we strip the film of its narrative layer(s), we can see it as a cheerful attack against the bourgeoisie, the hypocritical social/pseudo-philosophical conveniences masqueraded as »good manners« or values. Again, this is not exactly news, actually you can say this about most of his movies, but I think here he has done it in a deliciously subversive manner.

This having been said, The bitter tears... was a movie I »enjoyed« (not sure if it is the right word) and I am looking forward to see more of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films (except In a year of 13 Moons, Fox and his Friends, The Marriage of Maria Braun which I have seen). From what I have seen, his films often tackle difficult/scandalous and sensible subjects of matter, they are bitter, straightforward and insightful (especially when it comes to »outcasts«)  and yet quiet and »unsensational«. And for me at least, this is the reason they worked. So if you are fed-up if films parading  »freaks« either for entertainment, either because the director wanted to fool the audience they are witnessing an important and challenging motion picture this may be your call.

by Shade

photo | Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 1972. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Movie Still

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE April 2012 issue.

Nicholas Roeg started his career as a cinematographer for films such as The Masque of Red Death and Fahrenheit 451 which maybe of little to no surprise at all if we are to look especially at his earlier efforts (Performance, Walkabout and Don’t look now). They all have a very well-defined, dreamlike and menacing style from the outlandish if slightly uneven Performance (in which he splits directing credits with Donald Cammell) to the quiet and meditative The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Don’t look know sticks close to this standard. An adaptation from the Daphne du Maurier short story, the film defies conventional approaches at every turn, creating, through its style a sense of the supernatural. Some called it a »psychic thriller« which is a fair statement on its own and gives a short glimpse of what the movie is made of.

There are several other films that come to mind when bringing up Don’t look now to the discussion, the earlier Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski) and the later Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento), to name a few. But whereas Rosemary’s baby is farily straightforward and clear, Don’t look now uses flashbacks and flash-forwards and while Profondo Rosso has a puzzle which is in the end solved in a rational manner, this film’s »apple of discord« belongs entirely to the supernatural.

These days supernatural-themed films are more artificial. We know we are dealing with the supernatural because we are being spoon-fed. Rarely can we see a film that relies on a certain mood to tell us that. We are presented backgrounds, we are acquainted with a certain logic, a series of events, we basically are presented unusual events in a pastiche manner. In few cases does the viewer get to experience anything: it is just a story as common as the next one. Even the faces are artificial. Here they are common, we expect some characters to look the way they look, but they are authentic (the blind lady, for example or the dwarf).

Like other »critically-praised« horror films in that period, Don’t look now relies a lot on suggestion. It is not necessarily what we see, but what we imagine, that is frightening. Again, the film’s ending server as a very good example. However, overall, the film is not necessarily frightening, but puzzling. It is puzzling to the point where we question the existence of some characters of the realism of some events. And now, with the several dozens of films that walked the same path we are tend to do it even more often, because we might have not seen Don’t look now, but we have seen a couple of some other films.
Another element that contributes to the film’s effectiveness is the loose construction. Here, we do not have an over-baked film. We do not have a neat and organized story, because the very subject of matter demands it to be otherwise. These events do not come invited, they are not something one can quantify, they are not related to a recipe, this being the very reason they are challenging.

We are expecting our logic to answer at every turn, everything to be explained according to what we know at the time being. Life does not make any sense, not because it really doesn’t but because this statement in itself is a mechanism supposed to tell us that we have not yet uncovered all the map. Surrealists knew this better. Buñuel was an expert in merging the sense of what is familiar and what we lose control over. The transition was seamless and effective. Absurd things seem absurd because there is no way we can dissect them using a rigid device. But they do exist, even more often than we think. Surrealism in its own is not just a fancy term, but a fact of life and it implies delving deeper than the rudimentary cause-effect device. Art in itself is surreal. All of it. The mere fact that we are transported places, that we feel for characters or wander through their obsessions defies the rigid logic.

Supernatural films/stories have a lot in common with surrealism; in fact they are surreal with one addition: we have a glimpse of something familiar.

Returning to the film, as I said before, it is done using a deliberately loose construction. Don’t look now does not follow the rules of developing a story, but follows the story’s mood. Somehow there is a strange effect of an open-ended work and nearly every »point« can be used as a start and it would retain the same feeling. The much talked-about sex scene is an example. We don’t have something straightforward, something raw and unraveled, but we see how it begins and how it ends simultaneously and even much more. The raw, the immediate, is muted and the scene itself may very well work like a frame for the whole film.

This is not to say that the movie is a puzzle, because we have the answers, it just gives the movie the seeming of a living and transforming organism on one hand and on the other it offers a sense of timelessness as if everything happens throughout a single segment: a rhizomatic structure (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use the term »rhizome« and »rhizomatic« to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation).

However, the movie is puzzling from the very opening scene. It makes us doubt what we are seeing, makes us question which is real and which is not. There are also loose »clues«: the book “Beyond the fragile geometry of space” which we are shown in connection with the way the early scenes communicate with one another, for example. For a moment you may be tempted to think that they belong to different planes, which leads to a different causal geometry.

There are also the subtractions. We are dealing with the supernatural, but there are no other real insights except the common-expected. Whatever assumption could have been made is transposed to another ground: the Giallo (the Italian noir). We are told something about a killer, but also in a very vague manner, we see no focus on a proper investigations, this is not brought up very often, it is something that can easily slip your mind.

There are films that defy classifications. In 1984, British director Alan Parker made a film called Birdy. The film’s protagonists were two old friends and a part of the film’s action took place in Vietnam during the war. However, the film itself is not a war/anti-war film, nor does it say anything new about friendship, however it does say a lot about the relationship between one man and a canary and his obsession with birds.

Nicolas Roeg’s film revolves around grief (over the loss of the protagonist’s daughter), the supernatural (no surprises here), but does not break new grounds in either of them (I know, many reviews will juggle with the two, but what transpires is just recycled material) and to make things even more fun, the film defies its own plot: looking at it though the plot is like looking at a rigid picture on some wall. Yet there are many who see this film as powerful and hypnotic and I am aware that this has nothing to do with the accidental topics or the plot. It is related to how this plot is played in one’s mind, it is a film which is playing another film or playing itself in a strange piece of glass (again, the opening scene comes to mind).

There are not many films like this one, many share some common ground with it but take a different route. You can see this in its style from another aspect as well: that of contrasts. The approach hints to something poetic, »arthouse«-like, but Roeg is no Tarkovsky or Herzog. The visuals are pleasing, but they are not as visceral. Actually, I think the film looks just the way many other films from that period look. The structure points to surrealism, however this is no Buñuel, Chytilová (and so forth) either. What we see is fairly believable, but it is not a common film either.

In conclusion, Don’t look now is unique and may appeal to a fairly wide category of moviegoers, from those who like the old horror films, to the Giallo fans, from those who are more into arthouse and surrealism to those who have enough patience and recalled liking some of the older films, but I guess if you have read this review, you can make up your own mind on whether this trip is best taken or avoided.

by Shade

photo | Don’t Look Now. 1973. Movie still

Full article here.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE March 2012 issue.

Juraj Herz is one of the more obscure exponents of the Czech New Wave, mostly because his works do not have that political touch, or should I say there may be some political touches, but they don’t revolve around a clear message in this particular area. He is a »late romantic« so to say, more fascinated with the mood and camera movements and, while you could say the same thing about some other better-known directors from the Czech New Wave, Herz‘s works (especially Morgiana and The Cremator) are strangely engaging from a certain point on. In his films there is a sense of a traditional plot (in Morgiana, for example, there is an entirely readable plot) and they are visually exquisite, but indeed they lack that type of frenzy the rest of C.N.W. exponents have.

Although, it is still a mystery to me why The Cremator has been overlooked. Not only that it shares enough common ground with other C.N.W. films by means of approach and aesthetics, but it is also a very corrosive satire on a considerable part of all the social commodities masquerading as rules of conduct or real values.

The opening scene of The Cremator is very poetic, and you are lead to believe that you will be watching a quite meditative film, until you realize you were being »conned«.

The satire is somewhat straight and in-your-face, there is nothing too subtle about it, but this makes it even more effective. There is that familiar tone, the things you heard before, things you were told to take seriously or things that people other people have shown a great deal of respect toward. Things and people here are presented in tones that switch from grotesque to repulsive.

Speaking of familiarity, some of the characters’ names are at least a bit interesting: Lakme (the heroine of Delibes‘ opera), Dvorak (Antonin Leopold Dvorak, Czech composer) and Bettlelheim (Bruno Bettlelheim, child psychologist and writer.).

There is a strong expressionistic scent throughout the whole picture: you could very well be thinking you are watching a silent horror/comedy. Horror can be born from confusion as well and this is where the camerawork pays off. It is mostly a type of suggestive horror, because we do not see something clear, even its final scenes not being graphical, yet being powerful. The state of confusion also serves well into depicting the mental disintegration of the protagonist.

In one of his other works – MorgianaJuraj Herz uses the same gloomy gothic tone, only this time the socio-political context is absent. Again, the story, from some point on, becomes pretty engaging, there is a hitchcockian feeling throughout the whole film and Herz, once again, proves that he is a creative visual stylist. While not presenting anything new in particular, Morgiana works well for those with a taste for gothic gloomy fairytales.

All in all, Juraj Herz is a director worth checking out by those of you who have seen and enjoyed at least half of the movies previously presented here, because it is difficult to place him into a more specific category than what I have described above. So, if you had »put up« with our other »friendly suggestions«, good chance you won’t be disappointed here either. Personally, I liked Morgiana better than The Cremator, but the latter holds a more significant importance.

By Shade

photo | The Cremator. Movie still

Full article here.


Juraj Herz is one of the more obscure exponents of the Czech New Wave, mostly because his works do not have that political touch, or should I say there may be some political touches, but they don’t revolve around a clear message in this particular area. He is a »late romantic« so to say, more fascinated with the mood and camera movements and, while you could say the same thing about some other better-known directors from the Czech New Wave, Herz‘s works (especially Morgiana and The Cremator) are strangely engaging from a certain point on. In his films there is a sense of a traditional plot (in Morgiana, for example, there is an entirely readable plot) and they are visually exquisite, but indeed they lack that type of frenzy the rest of C.N.W. exponents have.


Although, it is still a mystery to me why The Cremator has been overlooked. Not only that it shares enough common ground with other C.N.W. films by means of approach and aesthetics, but it is also a very corrosive satire on a considerable part of all the social commodities masquerading as rules of conduct or real values.


The opening scene of The Cremator is very poetic, and you are lead to believe that you will be watching a quite meditative film, until you realize you were being »conned«.


The satire is somewhat straight and in-your-face, there is nothing too subtle about it, but this makes it even more effective. There is that familiar tone, the things you heard before, things you were told to take seriously or things that people other people have shown a great deal of respect toward. Things and people here are presented in tones that switch from grotesque to repulsive.


Speaking of familiarity, some of the characters’ names are at least a bit interesting: Lakme (the heroine of Delibes‘ opera), Dvorak (Antonin Leopold Dvorak, Czech composer) and Bettlelheim (Bruno Bettlelheim, child psychologist and writer.).


There is a strong expressionistic scent throughout the whole picture: you could very well be thinking you are watching a silent horror/comedy. Horror can be born from confusion as well and this is where the camerawork pays off. It is mostly a type of suggestive horror, because we do not see something clear, even its final scenes not being graphical, yet being powerful. The state of confusion also serves well into depicting the mental disintegration of the protagonist.


In one of his other works – MorgianaJuraj Herz uses the same gloomy gothic tone, only this time the socio-political context is absent. Again, the story, from some point on, becomes pretty engaging, there is a hitchcockian feeling throughout the whole film and Herz, once again, proves that he is a creative visual stylist. While not presenting anything new in particular, Morgiana works well for those with a taste for gothic gloomy fairytales.


All in all, Juraj Herz is a director worth checking out by those of you who have seen and enjoyed at least half of the movies previously presented here, because it is difficult to place him into a more specific category than what I have described above. So, if you had »put up« with our other »friendly suggestions«, good chance you won’t be disappointed here either. Personally, I liked Morgiana better than The Cremator, but the latter holds a more significant importance.



The following article was published in N-SPHERE February 2012 issue.


Béla Tarr and the investigation of a storyteller above suspicion

Stories. Many feel connected to them and we tend to form an image of the people around us, those we know. According to their stories, to their »experience«, we often tend to say the following when someone does something that is considered unpleasant or simply uncomfortable: »life changed him« or »no wonder he did that, after all he has been through…« Amusingly enough, this seems to make sense, but only at a primary level: the one regarding the common consensus of what is perceived. Eventually, at best, those experiences surface what we did not know about ourselves or what we were afraid to admit and somehow the reason we were afraid of it is somewhat »story-connected«. We’re afraid that we may turn like »the-guy-from-that-story« or we develop a scenario ourselves which is, in many cases, far more dreadful in theory than in practice.

This is mostly because the stories we are attached to or we develop have an end. We know how this end looks like and we understand it. If they wouldn’t have one or if we could not understand it, they might not be so popular, would be »bad stories« or unfinished ones.

The same rule applies to cinema as well. Most people don’t see a film; they just see a group of stories. The film begins and ends with them. A consequence to this is that many movies are just a group of stories, there is no language, no energy inside.

Béla Tarr’s work is exactly the opposite: one can barely discern a story in his films, but if they get to you, you wouldn’t care to hear one. Indeed, there are but a few directors who make such great demands from our patience as Béla Tarr. Most of this is caused by the very slow pace and by the fact that there are very few familiar things to hold on to. His works go to the other extreme, they are devoid of any narrative device. His characters, in some cases, may be easy to connect with, until you realize that you are dealing with sketches (although blurs would be a more adequate description). Nothing happens here or, better said, nothing that affects them in any way. But there is extreme attention given to all the aesthetic aspects: from the way the takes are composed and choreographed to the score and the facial expressions of the actors.

At the first glimpse, you make be tempted to think that the director is an exponent of social realism, since his films take place in some gloomy villages of Hungary inhabited by characters who are dealing with poverty and a corrupt system. However, as the movie unfolds, this idea gets lost in the mist little by little, because there is nothing that sustains it. It is just a pretense.

The opening scene of his most accessible work, Werckmeister harmóniák, may tempt you to think you are dealing with a movie of strong tarkovskian scent. Indeed, in appearance, the two directors have some things common: long takes, slow pace and dialogue that would seem to be more appropriate for a novel rather than a film. But in reality, they barely have anything in common, or – better said – nothing in common except some technical particularities. Tarkovsky’s films work the best way on an emotional level by depicting – in cinematic language – things we can feel and we are connected to, things that are tangible, but can rarely be verbalized. The slow pace is giving them a clearer form. Ultimately, his films communicate something, whereas Bela Tarr’s work is not about communication: we are not told, but shown. The slow pace here is does not have its roots in a mechanism, his films are slow because they have to, otherwise they’d be artificial: an event is not supposed to be manipulated.

Bela Tarr’s films are not about something. Instead they show something and, in this particular setup, a story may get in the way. The long takes, the choreography, the music have the role of making the viewer become a part, without forcing him to do so. Tarkovsky’s films share a lot of common ground with poetry, Tarr’s films share a lot of common ground with music: events, pieces of dialogue, contained inside a wandering movement only few notes alike to what we are familiar with. This is even clear when we are to consider the scores of his films: lingering, sometimes minimalist melodies that seem to go on forever.

These aspects also explain the use of black and white: color would distract as it would also distract placing the action in very populated and dynamic cities so that is why all of his films are set in small towns, where the inhabitants seem to be stuck and live in a continuous state of absence occasionally interrupted by their frail attempts to escape.

The dialogue in his films either cements the overall gloomy atmosphere, either simply alienates, or both. This is a rather common characteristic of a many art-house films for the simple reason that we are not presented a mere immediate reality, but a multilayered one formed by what one may perceive and feel familiar with and abstractions associated with the flow of life (collective or individual). The opening sequence of Werckmeister harmóniák is a good example: what starts as an usual gathering is transformed in something resembling a surreal rite.

In the movie’s final 30 minutes there is another similar scene which starts as a riot, but in the end resembles a funeral. One can try to rationalize them, but the answers will be rather forced, especially in this second scene. It is the image that has great power and the mob’s reaction is basically the reaction facing an image this powerful. Nothing is said because there is nothing to say: images work better than words.

The physical space of Bela Tarr’s work acts as a vacuum zone bringing together elements of both immediate reality and inner reality: what we see and what we feel.

Somehow this movie reminds me a little of Werner Herzog’s Herz aus glas. Both films present people who fell under a spell, but whereas Herzog’s film is rather constant in its eerie and outlandish tone, this one makes it more familiar by inserting social commentaries (slim and underdeveloped, but they are present).

In his previous film, Damnation, we have the same setup, but this time the hook is an ill-fated relationship. Little is done to save it or end it and little does the protagonist to reach out for the woman he claims to love. Even when he does, one cannot escape the feeling that is more of a rationalization of sorts. In the end, nothing changes and few events are paid special attention. Few to none.

All in all, Bela Tarr’s films are demanding as they are – to some people – hypnotic. The director does not tell stories, but show events, situations, that may happen everywhere. The tone and dialogue seem to be part of a meta-reality re-experiencing itself in different contexts. Maybe the only reliable storyteller is the camera, which, in his films, can be considered a character on its own.

The inhabitants of Tarr’s world are sometimes »awoken« by incomplete visions, a false prophetic call, thus, at every turn, hope for escape/resolution is delayed until evaporated. So is the idea of action: the characters are defined by their dreams, obsession and a more-or-less legit anguish. Gilles Deleuze called this false »narration« based on anomalies/irregularities the »crystalline narrative«.

Tarr creates a dynamic setup, but, more than maybe any other director, he seems more fascinated with the dynamic itself, so he moves slowly, patiently, allowing, however, for everything to breathe and live. The result is either hypnotic or unbearable, depending on each viewer. So enter, if you’re willing…

By Shade

photo | Werckmeister harmóniák. 2000. Movie still

Full article here.