A video analysis of the warring religious and scientific symbolism in Interstellar.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Written for RAF News November 2017
Steven Murphy is a successful heart surgeon, admired by his peers and loved by his family, but all that is about come apart when demons from the past come back to haunt him. Not literally, well who knows.
Murphy has been meeting a young boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) to give occasional gifts and fatherly advice but his wife and kids are unaware of this relationship. Murphy feels indebted to Martin for some reason, things getting substantially more serious when it seems a hex has been placed on his family that will end in a lot of people dying if nothing is done about it.
It sounds absurd but stranger things have happened in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films – like turning people into animals in The Lobster. The style is unmistakable, the flat matter-of-fact dialogue and delivery that can find humour in the darkest ideas. It has a wonky realism that makes you think the hex could be real and so the stakes are as high as they can be. Murphy has to confront superstition and contemplate an unthinkable sacrifice*.
Colin Farrell, having starred in strange success The Lobster, looks at home with this mechanical direction, and Nicole Kidman dovetails in with a bit more soul as wife Anna but is enough Stepford Wife to keep things off kilter, especially in the bedroom. The young actors are excellent, making the blunt and sometimes bizarre dialogue sound natural.
Once again Lanthimos has created a beautifully strange piece of work that is uniquely his own. It is a horror revenge film that has a tone that flits between tragic and slapstick. It uses real drama but in such a false way that it’s hard to connect to anyone, but this feels beside the point. What is clear is that it knows how to challenge expectations, create suspense and get a laugh – even if it is a nervous one.
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.
No Ghosts Just Gravity: Science and Spirituality Reconciled in Interstellar
The problem when making central characters scientists, or at least defining them by their rationality, is that in order to abide by the format of Hollywood cinema, they’ll have to step down as hero or cave to the pressure of the spiritual or supernatural. Director Chris Nolan goes one better in Interstellar, attempting to explain away the mysticism of the narrative through science.
The conflict is introduced early on when ex-NASA pilot and apparent rationalist Cooper (McConaughey) dismisses his daughters claim that there is a ghost in her room – knocking books off the shelf, and parting dust into piles on the ground. This poltergeist isn’t like most others, acting arbitrarily and making shit move to be spooky; this one has a message.
Granted this message changes from the word ‘STAY’ to the missing quantum data of the gravitation problem, communicated in binary on the second hand of a watch. Pretty much the opposite of stay. And a tad more complex. But our hero of the third act is the little girl grown up, daughter Murphy Cooper: scientist and ghost-whisperer. She embodies both the religious and the rational, reconciling the faith-driven attitude of Hollywood with the scientific method by eventually providing proof of her own spiritual experiences.
Ex Machina; or, The Modern Frankenstein
While most reviews of Ex Machina (2015) reference Frankenstein, none that I read unpacked the idea fully. Here I want to focus on the character of Nathan Bateman, played by Oscar Isaac, and how he compares to the archetype of the mad scientist.
Just as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Nathan isolates himself from society and hides away in his research facility. He has a sole companion and servant – though trade hunchback gravedigger Fritz for android concubine Kyoko. And he dedicates himself fully to his work, the work of gods: creating life.
Victor Frankenstein’s first words upon reanimating his monster: ‘Oh God! Now I know what it feels like to be God.’ It makes sense then that his creation is constantly compared to Adam, the first man. Nathan takes the baton from his predecessor and endows his own artificial intelligence with sexuality, creating Ava (an Anglicised version of Eve) – the first woman.
Nathan playfully alludes to his godlike status when misquoting a remark made by Caleb, employee and human component of the Turing test, “I’ll never forget it, you turned to me and said ‘You’re not a man you’re a god.'” (more…)
The Second Coming of a Scientific God in Transcendence
Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, was a science-fiction blockbuster released last year that was condemned as a critical failure. Many reviews criticised the film for its inability to contain the expansive concept and the scale of the story. An undiscussed element of the film which may have also impacted its reception is the structure of the narrative and the unusual ideals that it presents when compared to typical Hollywood fare. The following analysis will look at how Transcendence subverts the standard model of story-telling by reversing religious and scientific values – and by making Johnny Depp Jesus.0.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell looked at the archetypal hero that traversed the mythologies of ancient cultures, theorising that there was really only one overarching story structure, which he termed the ‘monomyth’. This universal metanarrative applies not only to theology but contemporary narrative forms such as cinema – Hollywood especially – appearing to reinstate the same values now as they did centuries ago. Reduced to the extreme the monomyth can be seen as the journey of a hero who has his faith tested through trials of doubt before he can achieve success on his quest. Inherent in this story structure is the conflict between faith and doubt, attributes that I would argue (and have argued again and again) are aligned with religion and science respectively: with faith treated as heroic or noble, and doubt a sign of weakness or ill-intention.
The hero is typically the protagonist of the story whom the audience will follow and support. Transcendence is unusual in that it has no clear protagonist; or rather it has one then kills him in the first ten minutes of the film. With no guide through the narrative, the audience are presented two opposing perspectives that represent faith and doubt, and so experience the trials of the hero first hand. Crucially though, the positions of religion and science, essentially good and evil, are reversed so that the audience truly doesn’t know whether they should be believing or not; whether to have faith or doubt. (more…)
Blame it on the Pop
Pop music is pretty abstract when you think about it. Working in an officespace beside a radio has forced me to think about it, and how much a value my life as a result. It gives artists poetic licence to spout absolute nonsense so long as it’s catchy. To tread the well worn path of those that came before, and to leave their mark as an empty looping jingle in your brainspace. One that makes you want to go through your eyes to scratch them out. Songs about love
and… that’s most of them. New love, lost love, love locked-down etc. There is something truly bizarre about pop music (how bizarre?) – something that everyone seems to buy into and chooses not to acknowledge: the clotheless emperor that appears to you in the car, in shopping centres and in the background of adverts; every time you look around he’s dancing there with his bare naked body right in your face. At first it was my patience being tested now I fear it’s my sanity.
As a genre the defining feature is popularity. So really it shouldn’t be a particular style but an evershifting trend. It becomes somewhat paradoxical to consider how a pop band would start out, or how a pop song is released. How do you predict popularity? It seems many a boardroom has been filled with executives working out how to capitalise on the interests of the public; how to turn an artform into a cashcow – like a team of robots trying to work out the allure of a flower for the sole purpose of catching bees. (more…)
No Ordinary Love Story: The Subverted Romantic-comedy in (500) Days of Summer and Friends With Benefits
The mainstream romantic-comedy has steadily become saturated with genre conventions and narrative devices that seem to have shaped audience expectation. A formulaic love story that relies on certain narrative hooks and character details that become almost interchangeable. This is made more noticeable by the sub-genre trends that seem to overlap as they reflect current attitudes – think the few rom-coms released in 2010 that centred on artificial insemination. The films do not not disappoint rather they play out just as suggested in the trailer. While every genre has its conventions, two recent romantic-comedies Friends With Benefits (Gluck, 2011) and (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009) seem to bring attention to, and in some cases overtly criticise, the tendencies of the genre. Most importantly though both films offer the promise of no ordinary love story… and both films break that promise.
Recently more films have been challenging the conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, moving away from the uniform portrayal of heterosexual, Caucasian, materialist archetypes. The anomalous box-office success Bridesmaids (Feig, 2011) was viewed as a breakthrough for depicting stronger more rounded female characters – perhaps an affectation of actually being written by women. Although this film challenged certain Hollywood clichés and stereotypes it also appeared to reinstate and reaffirm others – such as the heterosexual, Caucasian materialist. (more…)