Blog Directory CineVerse: August 2020

Shiver me timbers

Monday, August 31, 2020

Young director Robert Eggers impressed many with his directorial debut The Witch. But while his penchant for historical accuracy and extreme attention to detail was intact on his follow-up feature, The Lighthouse, the latter film was a different kind of dark cinema than his first foray. Layered with fascinating psychological subtexts and propelled by two powerhouse performances, The Lighthouse is a movie that practically begs for deeper analysis and scrutiny. Our CineVerse group took a stab at it last week and discussed several aspects and interpretations, including the following.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or memorable about The Lighthouse?

  • It’s a decidedly different modern movie: The canvas is black and white, there are only two actors in the entire film, and the aspect ratio is 1.19:1, called Movietone, which was more prominent in the silent film days and which helps better depict vertical compositions, especially the tall, vertical lighthouse structure and its interiors.
  • The film is sexually candid, depicts various bodily functions, and has homoerotic tones. The characters engage in private or embarrassing acts, including flatulence, masturbation, and potentially homosexual urges; additionally, the lighthouse itself serves as a giant phallic symbol, and we are shown a graphic depiction of intimate relations with a mermaid.
  • Both men are unreliable narrators whom we cannot trust. Both are revealed as liars who distort the truth to suit their needs.

Themes on display in The Lighthouse

  • Greek mythology: Winslow is written as a modern metaphor for Prometheus, who yearned to dwell among the gods and tried to trick them by stealing their fire but was punished cruelly by having an eagle peck at his liver for eternity. Wake is a representation of Proteus, a sea-dwelling God who serves Triton/Poseidon, is personified by tentacles, and is known for his prophecies and curses. And the lighthouse symbolizes Mount Olympus.
  • Moral shades of gray. It’s appropriate that the filmmakers use black and white in this movie, which signifies morally monochrome characters, whose ethics and virtues cannot be trusted.
  • The dangers of toxic masculinity and two men being cut off from civilization and women.
  • Gaslighting, as evidenced by each character playing mind games with and trying to assert dominance over the other, particularly Wake, who forces Winslow to question if he’s experiencing reality or fantasy.
  • Guilt and shame. Winslow experiences extreme feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety over his logging co-worker’s death, which could be impacting his mental health.
    • Consider that we witness Winslow seeing images of a third man – presumably the dead logger. He’s likely suffering a psychological breakdown due to this guilt. Recall, as well, that we observe the seagull he kills has only one eye, similar to the severed head he discovers later; both one-eyed figures remind Winslow of the man he either killed or whose death he didn’t prevent.
  • A descent into madness. The Lighthouse suggests that Winslow, whose point of view we are shown, is quickly devolving and losing his grip on reality – likely due to the extreme circumstances, including captive isolation with a domineering and critical boss, increasing reliance on alcohol, sexual frustration, physical exhaustion, and severe feelings of alienation and isolation.
    • It has been theorized that Winslow is homosexual and possibly had a homosexual relationship with a logger back in Canada who ended up dead. Now that he’s in an isolated environment with Wake, he experiences sexual impulses toward this new man, but instead of thinking about Wake sexually, he envisions having animal-like sex with a mermaid creature, possibly out of shame, guilt, or the inability to accept a homosexual relationship.
    • Another reading of the film is that, as Wake insidiously suggests, Winslow isn’t even on the lighthouse property – instead, he’s imagining this coexistence with Wake while he still back at the logging site in Canada.
    • Even though we see imagery of mermaids, Wake as a Poseidon-like God, and tentacled creatures, these things don’t exist except in Winslow’s mind.

Other movies and works of literature that The Lighthouse makes us think of

  • The writings of Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Night Tide, a 1961 supernatural film noir
  • Pulp Fiction and Kiss Me Deadly, both of which also feature strange objects that are unexplained to the audience
  • The Shining, which also features characters in isolation and threatened by an ax, an alcoholic caretaker, and mysterious or potentially supernatural phenomena.
  • The Fog
  • Black Swan
  • A Field in England 
  • Sleuth, another mystery yarn that features and involves only two characters


Don't squeeze the shaman

Monday, August 24, 2020

Part adventure/odyssey, part documentary, part road trip (with a boat and a river substituting for a car and a highway), and part psychedelic head trip, Embrace of the Serpent works as several films in one, creating an unforgettable cinematic experience aimed to stir your emotions and your social conscience. After watching the movie last week, our CineVerse group had many observations. Here's a summary.

Other movies or works of literature that spring to mind after watching Embrace of the Serpent

  • Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote
  • Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially for the similarities to the Stargate sequence at the end of the film
  • Apocalypse Now, which also depicts a power-mad and megalomaniacal dictator
  • Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, two historical epics by Werner Herzog set in the Amazon
  • Dances With Wolves

What did you find memorable, distinctive, surprising, or puzzling about this film?

  • It’s shot in glorious black and white, on location in the jungles of Vuapes, Columbia, with the filmmakers opting for a monochromatic palette over what many would consider the obvious choice: dazzling color. The latter would have showcased the Amazon jungle beautifully, but arguably would have distracted viewers from the central messages of the film. Black and white is often the appropriate template for movies about a bygone place and era, and it creates a classic, timeless patina and resonance that’s appropriate for a film like this.
  • Interestingly, the picture bursts into resplendent color once Evan takes his hallucinogenic trip, zooming out celestially with each subsequent image until we see universe become multiverse.
  • This is the first Colombian movie ever to earn an Academy Award nomination, in this case for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • This is a road trip movie of sorts that traces two different timelines, but with the shaman serving as the bridge between both tales.
  • This movie “aims to speak for the untold hundreds of thousands whose cultures and language were wiped out by invading rubber profiteers,” wrote Slant Magazine reviewer Steve Macfarlane, who added “the paralleled trajectories allow the screenplay to trace the Domino -like effects of this violence across generations. In the face of such historical vastness, no mere three-act screenplay would suffice for encapsulation.”

Themes evident in Embrace of the Serpent

  • The dark and destructive legacy of colonialism and the rape of the natural world. White men have been exploiting South America and the Amazon rain forest for hundreds of years, with countless conquistadors, missionaries, rubber barons, and modern capitalistic entities destroying indigenous tribes and cultures and stealing its natural resources.
  • The loss and reclamation of identity, and the redemption of a lost soul. The shaman Karamakate is shown in two separate stories and time periods, with his older self lamenting his loss of memory and devolution into a chullachaqui, a deflated spirit roaming the land without purpose or past to motivate him. Yet, we see the older shaman remember his way back to old haunts and places containing the rare and elusive yakruna plant. Karamakate can impart his wisdom upon a second white man, despite his diminished status.
    • We also witness how the orphans of the native tribes and those enslaved have been stripped of their identities, beliefs, and practices by the invading white men, including the missionary and rubber barons.
  • Man versus nature, as exemplified, respectively, by the serpent – which the indigenous peoples believed brought mankind to the earth in the form of an anaconda – and a jaguar, which could represent the untamed jungle, natural world, and/or Mother Nature. Later, we see a night vision-illuminated battle between the two animals, with the jaguar emerging victorious. This perhaps suggests that nature, or planet Earth, will ultimately prevail in its long struggle against the encroachment of man.
  • The circularity and constant flow of life. The filmmakers use the river, and some clever editing, to connect the two storylines, which feature two intelligent and relatively respectful white men, Theo and Evan, each seeking the mysterious yakruna plant. This plant serves as a kind of fountain of youth or holy Grail for each of these men.

Other films directed by Ciro Guerra

  • The Wandering Shadows
  • The Wind Journeys
  • Birds of Passage
  • Waiting for the Barbarians


Romantic fluency is hard to master

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Romantic couples struggling through a second act of their relationship have been well depicted in several films over the past few decades. One of the most recent worthy outings in this subset of the rom-com subgenre is 2 Days in Paris, written, directed, produced, edited and scored by Julie Delpy, who also stars alongside Adam Goldberg. CineVerse engaged in a group therapy of sorts recently to get to the bottom of this movie's strengths and flaws. Here's a recap:

Movies that come to mind after screening 2 Days in Paris

  • Annie Hall and Manhattan
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • The Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight trilogy starring Delpy
  • Meet the Parents
  • Lost in Translation
  • The sequel 2 Days in New York

What surprised, intrigued, frustrated, or enthralled you about 2 Days in Paris?

  • It felt authentic and believable, thanks in large part to it being written, directed, edited, produced, and scored by Julie Delpy, whose costars include a past boyfriend (Adam Goldbert) and her real-life mom and dad playing this character’s parents Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet.
  • While it was derivative to an extent of some early Wood Allen films—particularly the sexually liberated characters played by Diane Keaton and the neurotic and often irritating analytical personalities portrayed by Allen in Annie Hall and Manhattan—as well as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and it milked the running gag of Marion’s promiscuous past and the offputting nature of some Parisians perhaps too long, the film was entertaining and insightful about the pitfalls of relationships that have survived beyond act one.
  • Refreshingly, the picture didn’t rely on clich├ęs or stereotypes (Roger Ebert wrote that he didn’t think he “heard a single accordion in the whole film”) or famous landmarks like the Louvre or Eiffel Tower in which to rekindle Cupid’s passions. Actually, this film isn’t very romantic at all for a romantic comedy; the emphasis is more on laughs, plenty of them of the uncomfortable sort, and its sexual frankness gives it an edgy cache that sets it apart from a conventional rom-com.
  • However, the ending was abrupt and ambiguous, suggesting either a reconciliation or a breakup softened by happy recollections of better earlier times. Either way, this conclusion has a wobbly, tacked-on, rushed feel.

Themes examined in 2 Days in Paris

  • Skeletons in the closet: Past relationships and proclivities that can haunt a current romance.
  • A stranger in a strange land. This is a fish out of water tale of sorts depicting a foreigner who feels out of place and consistently confused in another country.
  • Relationship incompatibilities that can break up a good thing.
  • Honesty and trust, two virtues that can be elusive in a relationship where each party is culturally, ethnically, and politically different from the other.
  • The impossibility of completely knowing or understanding a significant other, despite intimacy.

Other films directed by Julie Delpy

  • The Countess
  • 2 Days in New York
  • Lolo
  • My Zoe


A film about lies that speaks the truth turns 70

Thursday, August 13, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #26, host Erik Martin treks back 1,000 years to Japan, accompanied by Akira Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince, a film professor at Virginia Tech; together, they honor the 70th birthday of a milestone work of world cinema, "Rashomon," directed by Kurosawa. Erik and Stephen explore why this movie is worth honoring all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.
Stephen Prince
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"If men don't trust each other, this Earth might as well be hell."

Monday, August 10, 2020

Any film that has introduced an oft-used term and well-understood concept in the pop culture and legal lexicon must be innovative and important. And that's certainly true of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's 1950 treasure of world cinema, which marks a 70th birthday this month. CineVerse celebrated by spotlighting the film last week and probing deeper into the profound mysteries woven into its intricate tapestry. Our discussion covered many salient points, including the following.

Why is Rashomon worth celebrating all these years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why does it still matter?

  • It’s debatably the most philosophical film ever made. Rashomon poses serious moral, ethical, psychological, and even spiritual questions; not only is it a gripping story supported by virtually flawless filmmaking, but this picture challenges you to ponder philosophically difficult questions and existential ramifications.
  • The nonlinear narrative employed creates a complex story that forces you to pay attention and think, not just sit back and be a passive viewer.
  • It’s also smart that we don’t see or hear the judge or judges presiding over the bandit’s trial in court; instead, the witnesses each face the camera and speak directly to the viewer, as if we are the magistrates of this moral dilemma.
  • Rashomon often plays like a silent movie, with few words and many expressive unspoken gestures, actions, and reactions; the filmmakers aren’t aiming for realism here, but rather the honesty of emotion prevalent in silent films.
    • Also, in its minimalist sets, it invokes the spirit of silent cinema as well as contemporary art: there are only three settings: the woods, the Rashomon gate, and the court.

In what ways do you think Rashomon set trends or was influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • It was the primary film that introduced Japanese cinema to many viewers in the West.
  • Arguably, this may have been the first deeply philosophical film many viewers had seen in 1950.
  • The reliance on non-linear storytelling via conflicting flashbacks and multiple points of view was a radical but refreshing notion for many viewers.
    • Taking a cue from a few predecessors like Citizen Kane, this would have been one of the first uses in the cinema of contradictory flashbacks that disagree with the action and suggest unreliable narrators: You’re not sure what to believe.
    • What’s brilliant is that all the flashbacks are both true and false—true because each testimony is portrayed as accurate by that particular witness, and false because they contradict each other and reflect a point of view that could be or definitely is wrong.
  • It’s been suggested that Kurosawa attempted to illustrate the despair and confusion of a devastated post-WWII Japan by depicting tales of personal heroism that proposed models for social recovery.
  • The ending may have also been uncommon for this period in film history. We are shown four testimonies that dispute each other and a conclusion in which there is no clear resolution about what truly happened. Moviegoers at this time were used to more definitive denouements in which the mystery gets solved, crimes are punished, and justice is served. Before the woodcutter offers to take the abandoned baby, this was, in fact, a decidedly pessimistic, perplexing, and disturbing film due to its ambiguity and ethical quandaries.
  • Kurosawa breaks a lot of rules in making this picture, too.
    • First, he defied the 180-degree rule, thus confusing spatial relationships: The 180° rule is a basic guideline in film making that states that two characters (or other elements) in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other. If the camera passes over the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects, it is called crossing the line. The new shot, from the opposite side, is known as a reverse angle.
    • He had the camera shoot directly into the sun, one of the first known examples of this in cinema.
    • He sometimes used a diverse array of shots back-to-back, juxtaposing close-ups, long shots, and contrary motion shots. Kurosawa and his collaborators additionally created interesting triangular compositions that emphasized the spatial and emotional relationships between the three main characters.
  • The term “the Rashomon effect,” which describes the problem of contradictory testimony from witnesses, has become a catch-phrase in the popular vernacular, kind of like “Catch-22.”
  • Films that would have likely been inspired by Rashomon are plentiful, with examples including The Usual Suspects, JFK, Courage Under Fire, Hero, Reversal of Fortune, Gone Girl, Wonderland, Blow-Up, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the Hollywood remake of this film, The Outrage.

What’s the moral of the story here? What messages or themes are explored in Rashomon?

  • This film asks profound questions, like what is the nature of reality, and what is the relativity of truth?
    • Kurosawa himself said the truth of what happened in the woods that day isn’t the point of the story; if that’s the case, the lesson here is that truth can be interpreted differently by different people, and that truth is subjective.
    • Ultimately, the movie posits, perhaps there is no truth: only a subjective assessment of events.
    • Kurosawa summed up the essence of the story as such: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.”
  • The unreliability and partiality of experience and memory.
    • The first words we hear are: “I just don’t understand,” and later, the commoner says “In the end, you cannot understand the things that men do.” We also hear the commoner say “Men just want to forget the bad stuff and believe in the made-up good stuff; it’s easier that way.”
    • The characters, like the audience, can’t trust what they’ve seen or heard.
  • This movie reminds us that the human heart and mind is complex and can be impossible to understand. It also reminds us that human beings are capable of extreme behavior. Human beings can easily succumb to dishonesty, duplicity, weakness, self-centeredness, greed, and corruption. But to buck that trend and be a force for good in this world, you have to demonstrate selflessness, empathy, and benevolence—as the woodcutter does at the finale by agreeing to father the orphaned infant.
  • Experts like Stephen Prince suggest that the film can be seen as a metaphor for the defeat of Japan in World War II and the erosion of Japanese culture throughout history. The baby appearing at the end can be interpreted as a ray of hope for the future of Japan, a theory bolstered by the use of traditional Japanese music at the film’s conclusions after western-influenced music is heard throughout most of the movie.
  • The word “Rashomon” means “gate of the dragon”; this is a fitting title because, as viewers, we are each gatekeepers of the truth.
    • A gate also signals a demarcation of boundaries and territories: Once we enter into the woods, we enter into foreign territory.
    • Also, the gatehouse stands as a visual symbol for a passage into the tale; it’s interesting to see the men pull pieces of the gate apart and use it for kindling, insinuating perhaps that honesty and truth are crumbling and disposable in our modern world.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • Although this is a period piece and culturally different from the expectations and values of modern westerners, perhaps it’s difficult in 2020 to see a lead woman character with so little agency and acting so subserviently. But how much power and autonomy did a woman in 11th century Japan actually have anyway, and in that period what would have been the fate of a wife who was sexually assaulted?
  • On the other hand, Rashomon speaks a universal and eternal certainty: that the nature of truth and honesty is elusive, and human beings can deceive others as well as themselves. Those messages never go out of style, unfortunately.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • This is probably the greatest film featuring and about unreliable narrators ever made. When you consider how many filmmakers today use lead and secondary characters who prove untrustworthy and inconsistent to throw the viewer off track and keep you guessing, that’s a testament to the power and immense reach of Rashomon. Not only do the four conflicting witnesses make for a compelling study in human behavior and an enthralling story, but they and the three men taking shelter in the rain who are parsing this tale conjure immense questions about what we choose to believe as gospel and who and what we can trust. Real life is complex and often morally convoluted, and unlike so many other movies, Rashomon forces us to grapple with those complications, faults, and ethical predicaments.


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