A video analysis of the warring religious and scientific symbolism in Interstellar.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Late night rewatch of this 80s classic at my local cinema where the subtext became glaringly obvious and touchingly profound.
Daniel Larusso, a wise-cracking street kid with charm and a taste for karate, moves from New Jersey to California with his mother.
The handyman for his local apartment comes in the shape of Okinawan mystic, Mr Miyagi, who slyly teaches him spiritual life-lessons but then also springs in to defend him from the Arian nation of bullies from his school with some spin kicks and high chops.
Trained in the Cobra Kai Dojo run by an ex-marine who teaches mercilessness, alpha-nazi Johnny takes issue with Danielson and repeatedly beats and harasses him with his gang, until it is decided that they shall meet in a proper karate tournament.
The Karate Kid is a film about fatherhood and models of masculinity. Daniel agrees to carry out chores for Mr Miyagi in the hopes of receiving training before he realises that this was the training. By waxing cars and painting fences he has powerful wrist movements that can block incoming attacks.
It is Miyagi’s incidental parenting that teaches discipline that can be applied elsewhere in Danielson’s life. His role is not solely a yoda-like guru (offering near exact advice as “do or do not, there is no try” except with a bit of colour about grapes and highways) he is an old man who lost his chance to be a father when he lost his wife and unborn child.
Carrying a zen-like patience, he passes on his wisdom though seemingly mundane and trivial instruction – but this becomes the model of Larusso’s character. When Miyagi tells him that he learnt from his father, Larusso says ‘you musta had some kind of father’. The sequel confirms that Larusso’s father had died – making this surrogate position an open vacancy. And Miyagi calls him Danielson. But of course!
Although it carries the 80s motif of good guys beat up bad guys in the end, even though they are the underdog and didn’t want to fight, the message, to my mind, was about the the ways in which you teach your children and ready them for the world, and the lessons we don’t realise that we’re learning. I had put away a few cocktails by this point.
Gifted some time these past couple of months I finished another video analysis, 3 years since I started, and 10 years since I wrote it.
Maybe I’ll make some more. Really fun process – everything except listening to my own voice.
I rewatched Ang Lee’s heart-aching Brokeback Mountain and thought I’d spew some symbolic noticings.
As a study of masculinity, I find the film fascinating. It takes the quintessential icon of Murca’ in the cowboy and flips it, face down into the pillow. The strong and silent hero of literature and cinema becomes a figure of repressed desire and pained sensitivity.
Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Ray is so constrained, suppressing emotion, that words can barely escape his tightly drawn face. Eastwood’s testosterone brimming squint is subverted by Ennis, as it seems to be holding back so much more. The model of the alpha male in the film (his name is almost phallic for fucks sake) he fights out of protection of his family, out of unobtainable love, but also defensively out of anger.
The first high altitude fuck happens like most – whilst drunk, camping, taking a break from watching over the sheep. Ennis is top. For now at least, as his inability to accept himself and his desires has his next drunk and teary tent visit wanting to be cradled. Trying out the yang. There is balance in this newly found relationship it seems, one that couldn’t possibly be matched by Ennis’ wife – these being the days before high-quality pegging paraphernalia.
A brief digression on Christ
The chaps talk religion briefly, in passing. Perhaps as a way to introduce that they’re not strictly religious, and don’t base their morality on the hetero-encouraging printed word of the lord, or maybe because there wasn’t much else to talk about.
But these lads, beautiful lambs of god as they are, take on the spiritually significant role of shepherds. That is until that fateful night with the fighting, and the whisky, and the making up. Ennis returns to his camp where he was supposed to be staying to scare off the wolf, the perfect symbolic embodiment of the shadow self, of latent and unexpressed homosexual desire. He returns to find a sheep has been killed, ripped open and eaten. The sacrificial lamb of his sin. Either way it doesn’t stop him going back for more, but this could embody the guilt and shame that he feels.
When the boys get back from Brokeback, and have families of their own, they meet back up under the guise of fishing trips. Cleverly repurposing the Christian symbol of the fish, that would serve as coded message for followers to have secret gatherings under Roman rule.
Jack and the beans-talk
Jack Twist appears to take a beta role in the relationship, coming across boyish – especially in comparison to the uber-staunch manliness of Pennis – or even effeminate in his adoption of certain engendered traits.
Jack is the more goofy of the two but also just more expressive. The love affair all begins when Jack complains of the sleeping situation out in the field with the sheep, preferring instead the camp, where he is able to cook for the both of them, mostly beans which they both tire of quickly.
Ennis is bringing back the food on his horse, when a bear suddenly attacks – another symbolic animal, representing overpowering primal urges maybe – once again costing the two cowboys. Sick of beans, Jack tries his hand at hunting for the both of them but fails. It is Ennis who eventually steps in and kills a bull elk to provide for the both of them.
Jack’s beta position is paralleled in his relationship with his wife. From a successful family, it is her father who takes the alpha role – seen initially at the birth of their child, when he sends Jack away like service staff, but coming to a head at Thanksgiving. This showdown of masculinity occurs when Grandpa’ takes the role of cutting the turkey. Jack accepts this. When he turns off the Football game on television, Grandpa’ gets up and turns it back on – saying some shit about how it’s good for boys. This ruffles Jack’s feathers, and his newly acquired moustache, as he finally stands and defends himself, threatening him to the point that he sits and is served. Jack carves the turkey, winning this battle and earning a sly little grin from his wife.
Meanwhile Penis is having Thanksgiving with his ex-wife and her new husband. Failing to be knocked off of his alph-spot, this is cleverly avoided by having the rounder, less threatening, man-of-the-house use an electric carving knife. Hardly threatening and a beautifully symbolic prop.
In the closet
Of course the most potent symbol that closes out the film is the bloodied shirts of Jack and Ennis. Dealing with notions of suppressing and hiding feelings that appear to run counter to constructed ideas of masculinity and morality – Ennis visits Jacks family home and finds in his wardrobe, a secret department, nesting the shirts from the first night of passion at Brokeback. Significantly carrying Ennis inside himself. When Ennis takes this memento to his mobile home, he reverses the order, placing Jack within himself.
He keeps the shirts in the closet but gives them time to breathe like, opening the door, to this side of his personality, and through this act of remembrance and acceptance, is softened very slightly, not having to keep up the facade of hyper-masculinity that has him being a shitty dad.
I had a few hours to kill yesterday morning, and although I knew it wouldn’t be for me, I had heard only good things about Le Mans 66. I will spoil it, or try my best at least.
I am not a car person. More a snowflake beta-cuck than a mans man. I picked my car up from a service last week and when the cost was 4 times what I had expected, I skimmed the list of parts and services, acted like I knew what what they were and just handed over the money. I feel threatened by people who know what they are talking about and feel there is some expectation that I should too.
Man and Machine
The relationship between men and cars is a strange one. There seems to be some disjunct between humans and technology as expressed in the film. Henry Ford II creates cars on a mass scale, factory lines of machines all making the same product. Ferrari is idolised for it’s sports car, we are told looking around the factory that each part is hand-made, which makes it that much more intimate – there is more of a craft, a relationship between man and machine.
When Ford initially try to produce a sports car in competition, they load it with data logging machines and sensors that apparently can’t detect the problems that are picked up by it’s very human driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). He makes a claim that disputes the robot, rips it out and makes his point by sticking wool to the outside of the car. He is the motor-whisperer. He uses a female pronoun when talking about the car, and it feels genuinely more sensual than possessive. He has tapped into its potential, he knows that she wants to go faster. It honestly sounds like he wants to fuck it.
Story goes: Ford try to make a deal with Ferrari, but are used and then insulted. Italian grandfather-figure Enzo Ferrari sends a message to Henry Ford II that he is fat and that his wife is a whore. This is motivating factor for Ford to want to win the prestigious 24 hour race in Le Mans, almost foaming at the mouth when he says that he wants to win.
They employ previous winner and driving celebrity Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to manufacture the car, and he in turn hires the emotionally volatile Ken Miles as driver, to talk to the car, grease her up and find out her secrets.
The film opens with Matt Damon waxing spiritual in voice-over about the point at which a driver experiences transcendence, apparently around 7000 RPM (which to me feels just as arbitrary as Doc Brown’s 88mph). At this point apparently, the car ceases to be and the man is just floating in space. Or something to that affect. It sounded like a float tank.
Ken’s wife is introduced in the film playfully roleplaying as a stranger at his garage, knowledgable about cars and turned on by the whole culture. They have a son (Noah Jupe), with whom Ken talks about cars mostly, they sit beneath the stars pondering the existence of the ‘perfect lap’. Young Peter plays with Scalextric, has model cars around his room and later his father’s trophies under his bed – the ultimate phallic prize for winning this manly competition of racing.
This 12 year old becomes my surrogate as he crudely sketches out the course of Le Mans and has his dad trace over each turn in the road explaining his method. In any other film I would feel patronised, here this is my lifeline. The connection between father and son through cars feels quasi-spiritual, this scene feeling similar to Four Lions when the father tries to explain martyrdom to his son through the analogy of The Lion King.
Any scene where I’m left alone with the grown ups makes me feel lost. They talk about parts and models, they make quips that make the men in the audience chuckle. When things get technical, I imagine those in the know, the manliest of men, are hypnotised with desire. The first 2 hours of the film felt like a segment from Strickland’s In Fabric.
The actual race in the last half-hour I did really enjoy. After Le Mans, we watch Ken get into a fatal accident and then skip ahead to Shelby visiting his family. He takes with him a symbolic gift: the wrench that Ken had thrown at him before winning a race. Before handing down this phallic baton, he explains in the most masculine of ways, that it is more consoling than words, it is a tool that can fix things.
The sound of the engines roaring are a constant throughout the film. They hum and vibrate with varying intensity, growing with the tension of each race, effectively working just like the score.
More than this though, at one point the noise is used as a practical tool. A slimy executive is locked in a glass walled office and his shouts are drowned out by the revving of an engine.
In the final moment of the film, as Shelby returns to his car after giving the wrench to Ken’s son, he is still for a moment and tears form in his eyes. As one falls down his cheek, there is the abrupt grief-cancelling noise of the engine, as he wipes away his sadness, drops his sunglasses and drives off.
This is why you never see your father cry
A History of Violence (2005)
It goes without saying that Jesus Christ is everywhere: He is in you and me and many films of Hollywood cinema – in the journey of the hero. Now I never tire of looking for Jesus, lurking in the subtext, and am prone to point out the parallels given the opportunity, and so I was delighted when talking about A History of Violence with my other half, she proposed a Jesus parable. Oh yes. He is always welcome here.
It goes like this: Tom Stall, an all-American family man, runs a diner where there is an attempted robbery. In an act of self-defence he kills the two assailants, with panache mind. Heralded by local news as a hero this humble man is then visited by a mysterious out-of-towner who claims that Tom is really a gangster. It transpires that Tom is a personality invented, and that he does in fact have a history of violence.
What is so great about this and many of David Cronenberg’s films is the complicated characters, their motivations and internal struggles – all of which are portrayed beautifully in this film, key moments happen wordlessly as you watch an expression take form, as emotions are experienced in sequence, leaving you to figure what is being communicated.
In keeping with Cronenberg’s fascination with sex, he had written additional scenes into the adaptation to allow this complex exchange of vulnerability. The first features Tom’s wife Edie dressing up as a cheerleader, trying to inject some excitement by enacting the teenage years that they never had together. A few themes are established in this scene (as well as the first ever 69 in mainstream cinema): the idea of a past that does not exist or is somehow lost, role-playing and the exhilaration attached to being with a stranger.
Later, as Tom’s true identity comes to light, there is a mirrored sex scene that begins as a fight, and continues being a fight afterwards. It is so strange and captivating. Cleary Edie feels betrayed and confused, and yet this is a dose of sexual excitement that she couldn’t even fabricate. Before she was pretending, through the cliche filter through which she understood deviance, but now she is experiencing the real thing, complete with its dark and violent underpinning, on the stairs no less, leaving bruises on her back as a symbolic memento. (Turns out that the amount of real bruises on actress Maria Bello had to be covered up in order to not detract from the one they show in the film.)
Cronenberg’s decisions always seem to enhance the story he wants to tell, they are motivated by intention. His portrayal of violence always has a purpose, he does not shy way from showing gore and brutality, and in fact makes a point of it, making you take in the consequences of violence.
I think it was director Michael Winterbottom who proposed that film certificates are the wrong way around: that the eradication of blood or physical pain requires an intellectual mind to know that this is fantasy, that you should have to deal with the fallout of violence. Or words to that affect. Either way I think it’s something that Cronenberg does expertly in all of his films, along with Gaspar Noe, with a great style too.
In History of Violence he punctuates any moment of badass combat, with a few seconds dedicated to looking at the wounds, the mangled flesh. In fact Cronenberg edited out some gunshots in the diner as he thought it was glorifying the violence in the scene.
Cross necklace wearing Tom Stall is hurt on separate occasions, notable injuries are the semi-stigmata that he receives through a gunshot to the arm and stabbed through the foot. He tries to avoid violence initially though he is really fucking good at it. And his real name is Joey Cusak – ol’ JC.
Now why would there be a Jesus parable in this story? Maybe it’s dealing with the idea of forgiveness and rebirth. Are we able to be forgiven of our past sins and move on or will they always be present under the surface, awaiting some catalyst to draw them out.
As with Bill Pullman’s Fred in Lost Highway, he is freed of his sins by becoming someone else, but unlike Tom Stall, he physically transforms and has no real memory. This was an imagining of OJ Simpson and the idea that he disassociated from the murder he had committed as a defence mechanism, convincing himself in the process.
But Tom cannot escape his past. His violent tendencies will come back as he protects himself and his family, and also we see his son begin this cycle as he kills a man himself. Another great wordless exchanges as Tom looks at him with anger, forgiveness, and reassurance as he realises what he will have to live with.
Did it again didn’t I.
Translated one of my articles into a monotonously narrated video.
A short video about the development of the mad scientist archetype in Ex Machina.
No reading necessary.
Scorpions and Frogs
A condensed video version of my bloated analysis on the symbolism in Drive.
Original article is here if like me you struggle to listen to my voice.
Mistaken Identity: The Real Subject of The Danish Girl
On the surface The Danish Girl looks like another film from Tom Hooper designed to scoop up awards for its grandiose sense of importance. But what is so striking about the film is its layers of detail, its subtlety and symbolism, and the formidable character of Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) who I would argue is the driving force and focus of the film (despite Vikander winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress in this role).
The Danish Girl is an adaptation of the novel by the same name which is in fact a fictionalised account of the life of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe. Played in the film by Eddie Redmayne, Einar was allegedly the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Despite its basis in reality, this source material was favoured over Elbe’s autobiography Man into Woman, which suggests that the film is not so much concerned with historical facts but instead wants to focus on the greater story that can be told. I think this is down to the positioning of Gerda Wegener and the relationship that she had with Einar/Lili. Unlike the film, the two had split-up and did not see each other after the surgeries, which were also a little more complicated than suggested in the film.
By telling this fictionalised account, the film is able to use Gerda to open up the story to a broader audience and have them understand and empathise with a position that may still persist as alien. For those unfamiliar and perhaps unsympathetic to the experience of a gender identity crisis, we are shown the first recorded instance – the point at which it would have been most alien to everyone: to friends, family and society at large. We are introduced to someone experiencing this crisis at a time in which these views are seen as delusional and a defect of mental illness. Lili’s intuition and resilience, though validated by an audience gifted with hindsight, still comes across as stubborn when shown in the context of a world that doesn’t yet understand. By using Gerda as an audience surrogate, we witness her first understanding the situation, coming to accept it and finally offering support – all from the position of having to give up the person she loves. Gerda becomes the voice of empowerment and the model of progressive ideals, but more than this, she is the eponymous Danish girl – the very term used within the film in reference to her.
It is not only through painting that Gerda affects the development, or discovery, of Lili – she is the model of womanhood that Einar draws inspiration from. Einar looks to Gerda as a muse, often borrowing her clothes and taking advice on what to wear and how to walk. Hooper, utilising the medium of film, cleverly shows some distance between the effortless biological femininity and hyper-feminine imitation by using performance and overacting. In her desperate attempt to attain femaleness, Lili instantly becomes sexualised – Gerda playfully accuses her of turning Lili into a slut – and later her gestures and posture become warped in overreaching for the natural womaness that Gerda possesses. This relies on the ability of Redmayne to overact but maintain realism and for Vikander to appear completely natural. It’s an incredible act of cooperation and misdirection as the former takes focus and the latter blends completely. This muse-like inspiration turns out to be somewhat reciprocal and reflective as Lili inspires Gerda to capture her likeness in her paintings.
Gerda paints portraits and close-ups unlike her husband’s focus on landscapes. Where he looks to nature, she turns her gaze on men and in doing so makes them the subject, just as she does with Lili. Within the frame of the canvas Gerda creates this identity. To those looking at the painting they see a flirtatious, sexualised figure, the supposed female cousin of Einar. But it is far more complex than this – far more complicated than this two-dimensional image. In fact, whenever Lili’s portrait is being painted by Gerda, we watch her paint from behind the canvas, looking through. We are shown that there is a muddied and unclear dimension that can be overlooked in the painting, just as in the film itself.
There is an intertextual reading here, a parallel between Gerda and Hooper who both aim to bring out the femininity in their subject, although Hooper’s scope is much broader in the medium of film and as such he is able to employ both portraits and landscapes within his style, able to provide context around an image and focus on multiple subjects. Importantly though, it is through the framing of the film that different values are communicated to the audience, unconsciously or not.
After a credit sequence which mimics Einar’s landscapes, the film opens on a tight close-up of Gerda’s face as she looks at one of his paintings. We see that she is the focus – however dialogue tells us that she is not, as someone out of frame and out of focus asks her degradingly if she wishes that she could paint like her husband. Here Gerda is vulnerable and our attention is diverted immediately to who we presume the story to be about: Einar/ Lili. He is shown to us first with far less command in the frame, in the bottom quadrant of the screen, literally cornered by suited men adorning him with praise. He is trapped and it is only through a playful look to his wife that he can escape. Within these first few shots the entire story is laid out before us, using the the indistinct chatter of other characters as noise through which the couple communicate without words, the dialogue inferring the status and positioning of the characters, the framing of the scene telling us quite the opposite.
Besides shuffling through these aesthetic styles, there is an undeniable voyeurism to the camerawork as it peers through windows at often intimate moments. This is another device which is used throughout the film. Shooting through windows and within thick-set door-frames restates this painting-like quality but also suggests confinement, especially with regard to Einar. Early into the film, when Einar is discovering Lili, he is framed by the the clothing around him, with most of the screen filled by white frills. In this case the usually imposing hard lines that close in around Einar are softened, and this is shown to have an immediate impact on him, a release. This constraint forced upon Einar by the camerawork is gradually eased off as Lili finds herself, but only released fully in the closing moments of the film. In this scene a scarf that has come to represent Lili is caught in the wind and flies overhead (reminding of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven) and is captured in the widest possible frame – this final shot suggesting liberation.
Over the course of the film we have been exposed to a character who is experiencing an identity crisis, but it is only through this sidelined character that we are moved to understand and relate it to ourselves. Whether you sympathise or not, The Danish Girl shows the admirable stance of someone in love and how much they are willing to sacrifice in order for this person to be happy. It is this more relatable facet of the story that is honed in on by the filmmakers. If The Danish Girl is to be effective at opening minds, the surrogate is the most important role of the film and I believe that Hooper was fully aware of the fact.
Grow your own Jesus with Johnny Depp
A look at the character of Dr Will Caster in Transcendence. I ruin the film outright so don’t watch it if you haven’t seen it.
Check out the original article for my argument on why Transcendence is actually a very interesting and subversive film that has been unfairly overlooked and disregarded. Or don’t. Whatever.