Love in the Time of Heroin: Jerry Schatzberg’s THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK


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The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)


Since it started streaming on Netflix, Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park has been seeing a sort of resurgence among movie fans and cinephiles. Centering on the lives of two heroin addicts in love near New York City’s proverbial “Needle Park”, the film navigates the maddening desperation and hopeless attachment of this couple to showcase a grim underbelly of addiction in America.

Despite sounding a bit like the exploitative “poverty porn” you’d see on a TV primetime news special, the film deals with its subjects, and its audience, in a respectful and unsensational manner, highlighting humanity over depravity. It doesn’t manufacture grim atmospheres nor does it play up the debauchery of its subjects to exploitative ends. Rather, the film’s characters resonate with us as charismatic, congenial but also incredibly flawed and frustrating people who succumb to the worst of vices and eventually trap themselves in a cycle they can’t break out of. Both Bobby and Helen, despite having their relationship hinge on their dependency to heroin, do things normal couples would do: eat sandwiches in the park, talk about their life ambitions, get jealous, and stick up for each other.

That it’s bubbling up from the depths now to be discovered by a Netflix-streaming generation is rather fortuitous. While many of us may think we understand heroin addiction as an obvious social problem, the breadth of our knowledge is limited solely to the depiction of junkies as depraved and scary individuals. The academics among us will throw around data like the increased opioid overdose rates among teens and what percentage of those are heroin induced. Even those of us who empathize with the idea that an addict is someone who needs help, not punishment, can’t say much about the day to day experience of an addict beyond stealing money and getting a fix.

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The Panic in Needle Park shouldn’t be treated as some ‘be all say all’ of the junkie demographic (it is a work of narrative fiction after all, even if it presents its subjects unfiltered) but it does serve as one of Hollywood’s single most responsible documentations of the slow and painful collapse caused by addiction. That it filters itself through a love story, as we see the co-dependency that heroin entraps both of them in forcing them to drag each other down, makes it all the more devastating. Addiction within the film is not solely in the context of drugs, but also love and money. Helen’s dependency on Bobby for emotional comfort is reciprocated equally as Bobby begins to depend on Helen for his scores. His need for money turns their supposed loving relationship into a pimp-prostitute business contract. He continues to get jealous every time Helen sleeps with someone for money even though their desperation makes it a necessity. Despite the abuse and the perversion by which their relationship is defined, Helen can never seem to leave Bobby. Their arguments and fights and bouts of domestic violence are always outweighed by the knowledge that they are each other’s sole meal ticket to money and heroin.

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The central mutual self-destruction of two people who love each other makes The Panic in Needle Park easy pray to becoming a sappy sob-story which manipulates our emotions and draws out the tears. Schatzberg and his screenwriters Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne however, create incredibly multi-faceted characters who’s likability and unlikeability at different points throughout the film keep us empathetic but aware that we are not so far removed from them. There are things in our life, be it people, substances, or places, we keep going back to despite them being terrible for us. Attachment is a powerful thing. So is dependency. Addiction is a culmination of both and magnified ten-fold. In the end of the film, the whimpering and forced sadness we would normally feel in a “traditional” melodramatic Hollywood treatment of drug addicts is instead a practical understanding of Bobby and Helen’s plight, and if maybe not quite expected, an appreciation for them as humans.

A note on the acting: The movie’s claim to fame is that it is “Al Pacino’s debut role”, which is a false statement, though the film is the first role in which Pacino is the lead actor. Opposite him (Bobby) is the ethereal Kitty Winn (Helen), whose film career unfortunately only spanned six films (including The Exorcist) within one decade, after which she inexplicably retired from acting. If her performance in Panic in Needle Park, which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1971, is any indication, we missed out on an actress who could’ve been at least as great as Ellen Burstyn or Sissy Spacek, her young 70’s indie contemporaries.



Poesia sin fin (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2017)


Some background:

[I first discovered Alejandro Jodorowsky while getting a bit deep into the dark parts of the film-web which discussed weird and disturbing movies, ranging from benign-strange like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to just completely batshit what-the-fuck-did-I-watch strange like E Elias Merhige’s Begotten. Jodorowsky falls somewhere smack in the middle of that, and completely by surprise to me, it was an artistic sweet-spot.

I came to admire his passionate wonder and other-worldly vision when I watched his greatest masterpiece The Holy Mountain. I was further sold after watching the good-but-overrated El Topo and the lyrical and most emotionally mature of his films, Santa Sangre. Even his lesser work, a mainstream Hollywood film starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, The Rainbow Thief, is a film I conclude is only not-great because Hollywood producers handcuffed Jodorowsky from expressing his true vision. None of these films are easy to digest at first glance. Jodorowsky is a filmmaker who’s films do absolutely everything in excess. Their philosophy is haywire, their violence is vulgar, their sexuality is uncomfortable, and their love is heart wrenching.

But there is a purpose behind everything. Much of what made Jodorowsky such a cult icon is that he created a cinematic universe all his own, guided by his own divisive ideas of life and art and shared it, bare naked, unfiltered, and uncensored for all to see.]


The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)


Now, with his latest two films, he bares for us all, his childhood, and his path to becoming the filmmaker he is today.

This “new” Alejandro Jodorowsky, the one risen from the ashes after his 23-year hiatus following the commercial and critical disaster that was The Rainbow Thief, is someone I still have to get readjusted to. From an ideological standpoint, not much has changed. Jodorowsky is who he is. But from an artistic standpoint, there is something plastic-like about both The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin (Endless Poetry), the first two films of his 5-film cycle recounting his childhood and adolescence. Jodorowsky’s aesthetic doesn’t really hold up in the 1080p high definition world. What was endearing about his early-to-mid films was that their ambiguous sense and time and place was augmented by the graininess of the celluloid. That authenticity is gone in this movie, which plays more like a glossy stage-show. Throughout these two films, there are embedded vignettes where the characters will expand on a theories or ideas, and asides where a present-day-Jodorowsky will break the fourth wall and prophesize to us and his past self simultaneously.


Much of this sort of symbolism is a little too straightfoward. Jodorowsky’s imagination is not as bold as it once was, even though the violence and sex throughout the films are just as provocative and weird. Especially with The Dance of Reality, it was clear to me that there wasn’t much of an interesting story going on here. Sure, Chile’s tumultuous political backdrop amidst Pinoche’s rise is noteworthy as is Jodorowsky’s father’s abusive attitude and a not-quite-obvious-but-still-uncomfortable Oedipus Complex between the young Alejandro and his very large-bosomed mother, who sings all of her lines as parts of an aria. Though, in regards of his self-discovery, hardly anything illumniating comes about. The young Alejandro has vague conversations with a pan-religious monk, tatooed with all sorts of symbols, reminiscent of The Alchemist in The Holy Mountain. These conversations don’t seem to move the needle much with whatever Jodorowsky is trying to say and many of them are repetitive.


In Poesía sin fin, as with previous Jodorowsky offerings, much of the verbal philosophizing that goes on can be taken with a grain of salt, and much of may be dismissed by most as nonsensical blabber anyway, but what cannot be ignored is the brutal events which the central characters undergo and their constant search to find meaning in the physical pain and suffering they go through. Here too, Alejandro is beaten, raped, bled, and abused in several instances, and his anger is always accompanied with a questioning of his existence. This is how Jodorowsky thinks. After all, he is a man for who limitations and convention are a complete detriment to his world-view. Much of the film still struggles to bind interesting scenes together, and a good portion of the film is decked with filler material, this time explicitly sexual rather than philosophical, but there are clear ideas being sprouted unlike in Dance of Reality.


Poesía sin fin comes into it’s own when it starts examining the two things which truly drive Jodorowsky’s art… poetry and the neglect and abuse of his father.

The best scene of a rather messy film is when Jodorowsky and his real-life poet-buddy Enrico Lihn discuss the idea of “poetry in action”, spontaneously compelling them to travel through the town in a literal straight line, with no deviation; if there is a car in the way they climb and walk over the car, if there is a house in the way, they knock on the door and ask permission to walk through the house, even climbing over the bed in the master bedroom. There is no actual need for this rigidity and it is rather inconvenient for the duo and moreso for everyone around them, but it encapsulates the eccentricity of Jodorowsky within a single sequence. It highlights his own view of art as an expression of unwavering, dedicated movement rather than mere theory and discourse. This idea is present in all of his previous films, as most of his characters go on rigorous and tortuous journeys of self-understanding and artistic enlightenment.


Likewise, the most emotionally charged sequences in the film occur near the beginning where the still young Alejandro is forced by his father to savagely beat a poor couple and strip them naked in front of a crowd as a sign of power, and near the end, when he finally confronts his father’s savagery with some of his own, taking joy in the fact that his parents’ house has burned down rendering them homeless and poor. It is a bit uncompromising, perhaps an immoral mark of Jodorowsky’s character, but it’s the first time in this 5-film cycle we’re seeing Jodorowsky express deep feeling and understanding of who he is in relation to his disturbed past.

It’s quite clear Jodorowsky’s obsession with himself and his continued deeper discovery of cinema is still just as rich as it was at the beginning of his career, and if not necessarily works of great storytelling, The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin are still pure Jodorowsky and for his fans that should be more than enough.



Out of Memory and Time: The Cinema of Victor Erice


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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?

Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.

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In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.

Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).

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As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.


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El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.

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Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.

From What is Before

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From What is Before (Lav Diaz, 2014)

In continuing with my series on Lav Diaz, a filmmaker who I have just begun to discover and now revere as a modern giant after having seen Norte The End of History, the next film I decided to embark upon was the 6 ½ hour historical epic From What is Before. A solid two hours longer than the already lengthy Norte, this Diaz feature was a bit sparser, a little more dependent on sound and atmospherics of a geographic location and a cultural “whole” than an individual character study. Nonetheless, this film was yet another entrancing offering from Diaz, and his ability to weave so much unspoken socio-political density and insight through silent static imagery of the Filipino countryside, this time in gorgeous and haunting black and white, is something that rivals the cinematic artistry Bela Tarr (who I can only assume had at least some influence on Diaz’s career).

The exploration of The Philippines as a nation, politically, socially, and religiously continues here, but now from a historical context: The year 1972, when military dictator Ferdinand Marcos initiated Martial Law onto the nation. Much like Norte, the specter of political corruption and brutality existed during this time, but we don’t really feel it until we get towards the end of the film. Instead, the Philippines which exists for majority of the movie seems like a relic of the ancients. A hunter-gatherer society, only gradually showcasing its ties to the more modern world with, amongst other things, a saleswoman pitching mosquito tents and electronics, and the small technological gadgetry in the village shacks like a coffee maker and an iron. But this is still a place where clearly, the metaphysical and the spiritual phantoms of a pre-colonial era Philippines that once existed permeate through every frame of the film, be it figuratively through the pitter patter of the rain in the ominously dense and barely inhabited or disturbed jungle, the more reactionary death of livestock and unknown villagers automatically deemed an act of dark magic, or the literal shamanistic chantings of what seemed to me at least, a female witch doctor.

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The characters in the film can be thought of as moving parts connected by a singular rural organism, similar to the communal farmers in Tarr’s Sátántangó. They live, move, and die together and their actions are wholly dependent on the fate of the land they reside in. Several actors from Norte make up the caste here as well, but in very different roles. Sito and his mischievous son Hakob try to make a meager living tending to buffalo for a landlord. They fall on even harder times when some of the buffalo are found dead and Sito is wrongfully blamed. Itang is a hard-working but naïve young woman who is burdened with tending to her mentally disabled sister Joselina, who she believes has the power to cure peoples ailments. She gives people in the village medicines and “magic” from Joselina’s powers to help cure them in exchange for money. The livelihood of the Philippines rural community, throughout the film, is self-sustaining, and although there are clear hardships and deprivations for many of the people there, they still seem to gravitate towards its comfort and a routine way of life they don’t mind living.

Also similar to Sátántangó is the sense of impending doom that that gradually starts to grow more and more real as the film goes on. What is unique about Diaz’s narrative is how our perception of this village community as isolated and in a sense “pristine” in its lack of shackles to any of our modern political weights changes to a realization that even this dense jungle of folks does not go unnoticed for possible blackmail and slaughter by a borderline tyrannical government. In a sense, visually, Diaz forms a timeline throughout the film that slowly shifts from pre-industrialization into a political military state. This seismic shift hits us without our knowing (in six and a half ours, the movie works in small increments like the changing of the hour-hand on a clock), and much like the villagers, it devastates our souls once we realize what has happened. Then, all of a sudden, in one sequence, it is slapped across our face. Just like in Tarr’s film, the nasty schemer Irmiás drops a hammer on the villagers in one devastating scene at a funeral, Marcos’s military encroachment is unveiled in a speech by a lieutenant who implores the villagers that what Marcos is doing is for “the good of the nation” (a claim that we can automatically assume means the opposite).

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Diaz is as searingly unforgiving in this film as in Norte, but he is giving us a real context here. For those who don’t know the history of the Philippines, we get a sense of understanding through the fading of village life into a military-controlled hell that there is much suffering amongst the people of this nation that has not yet washed away. Sito is the only villager at the end of the movie who refuses to leave the village, staying in its dense jungle as a lone hermit, a Thoreau for who the Philippines that once was is his own personal Walden to which he is latching on for dear life. Lav Diaz, with From What is Before, makes his case for holding on as well.

Norte, The End of History

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Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)

A disclaimer to start off:

I have personally become disillusioned with the American critical stance of films having to have a certain time-frame of “watchability”. I don’t get that. To me, a film’s “length” being indicative of its watchability only really depends on the seriousness of the filmmaker. If there is, in the filmmakers judgement and intellect, truly a necessity for the runtime he has allotted for his film, then I leave that to his discretion. The nonsensical argument that a movie lasting more than 2 or 2 ½ hours is one which is poorly edited is a myth, and it’s a myth which has ruined films like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, forced Tarantino to chop Kill Bill into two parts, and made the 4 ½ hour version of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King be restricted to DVD instead of where it really belonged: in the theater. Yet, evidence exists everywhere of films with lengthy run-times that have gripped me far more and relentlessly than even 90-minute features.

One of them, Lav Diaz’s 4 ½ hour Norte, The End of History is in a word, incredible. Incredible to behold in not only its cinematic scope of location, camerawork, and time, but equally in the density of its core, packed with so many discussions of socio-politics, religion, and the fight between immorality, innocence, revenge, and love so jam packed one after another with so many ideas and insights into the film, that its 4 ½ hour runtime doesn’t feel even a millisecond “too long”. There wasn’t a moment of this movie which made me check what the time was, on my watch or my phone. I was glued. From the opening scene discussing a provocative conversation of nihilism, dictatorship, we are automatically drawn to the upstart law student Fabian, who’s radical ideologies, Marxist level of disdain for the economic and social state of his nation, The Philippines. This may not seem riveting to the average film-goer, but I am a sucker for philosophical discussion, especially one in which fervor and anger take central stage, because it displays the passion for socio-politics that I think everyone in every country could benefit from in a knowledge standpoint and one of inspiration.

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Diaz is clearly speaking to the effects of the nation on its populace and in turn, the reaction of its citizens throughout the film. While Fabian’s disillusionment leads him down a dark and horrifying path of self-hatred, poor construction worker Joaquin and his family (wife and 2 kids) lead a life of quiet desperation, going about their daily chores, living hand to mouth, not saying much because they don’t have the power nor the energy to do so. The two threads that made up the quilt of Norte are weaved in the winding lives of Fabian and Joaquin. The distinction between their two lives is important, the former a brilliant prodigy of the law student praised by his teachers as an “outside thinker” and the other a low wage worker at the bottom of the totem pole, a mule of the economic system. As Fabian commits a gruesome murder, one sparked by both a sense of righteousness and blind hatred, Joaquin is the one who bares the brunt of the blame, a perennial scapegoat of the corrupt, a “disposable entity”.

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The irony at face value of course is that in his Raskolnikovian guilt and shame, Fabian lives in his own prison outside of the bars, while Joaquin in jail is shown to grow as a person and his kindness succeeds in winning over even the coldest of hearts. But Diaz’s commentary goes a bit deeper than this, as a 4+ hour film should. We realize that Fabian’s existence as a disillusioned youth was his prison, and his murder was already a murder committed behind bars. For him, the Philippines itself was the prison, a nation which, from the beginning of the film itself, was at the precipice of complete hopelessness according to Fabian, one where every transgression deserved a murder, every political lie deserved torture. His anger at the socio-political turmoil which surrounded him infiltrated his mind and ignited the fire of a young would-be dictator. One teetering between the heart of a good kid wanting so much better for the people of country (he gives up all his saved money to Joaquin’s wife for her to keep and raise her kids with), and a madman who’s helplessness in the grand scheme of things leads him to violent insanity.

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To me, Diaz’s ultimate message in this film was that the oppression and neglect of a ruling government can be directly related to rise of violent and immoral individuals. The lack of power, the lack of solutions, and the continued boiling anger of a population can produce a Fabian, and it can also hamper a Joaquin. There is unforgiving heartbreak, death, rape, and torture which is peppered throughout the film, but none of it is disingenuous, or manipulative, or politically preachy. It is showcased as a happenstance of life in a country where Diaz clearly believes so much to be morally wrong. A country where the populace is devoted to God, where Jesus and Catholicism and priesthood are such a prevalent part of the culture, yet, Godless acts seem to occur, without much mourning.

Readers know from a few of my previous articles, that I am very averse to labelling a film a masterpiece because I always feel like I’m short-changing the power of that word. We use it so loosely (just like everything else today) and freely that I feel the need to be even more strict with my usage of it to counter the complete liberal abandon with which it is being flung around nowadays. But I thought about it, I pondered it, and I spent the better part of the last month letting Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History sink in. I am at a loss for another word to describe my experience with this movie. Masterpiece, it is.

(Suffice to say, I will be watching more Lav Diaz in the coming months, starting with From What is Before…. Stay tuned!)



Colossal Youth: Paintings of a Life on the Brink of Death

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Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)

I haven’t come across a filmmaker with an almost Ozu-like dedication to the static shot as Pedro Costa. Throughout his examination of the people and places in the Fontainhas Neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal, we get an almost painterly experience throughout his films. A gallery of frames, sculptures, contained spaces with some moving parts, but mostly still, as they are, in real time, decaying before our very eyes. His characters too, hardly moving and even when in extensive conversation rarely looking at each other or at anything in particular really; mannequins, furniture, remnants of the slowly dying surroundings which they have inhabited their whole lives. Even the clean polished apartments, which Ventura, Costa’s central character in the beautifully understated film Colossal Youth, is being forced into moving into as his slum community is being demolished, look lifeless and dead. The white walls are not really that white, the clean corners are not really that clean. As the “realtor” explains the beauties of the area, Ventura quietly points to a cobweb near the ceiling and matter-of-factly states “there’s spiders everywhere”.

Costa is as much of a visual filmmaker as anybody, but his visuals are not really associated with what we normally see and are used to as ‘cinema’, but more a combination of performance art and modernist sculpture. Lighting plays a role almost opposite that used in the films of Aki Kaurismaki. Kaurismaki puts spotlights on actors to illicit the feel of a theatrical performance, highlighting a dramatic space but then subverting it with a typical Finnish dead-pan subtlety. Costa’s lighting is simply part of the aesthetic. It isn’t highlighting the characters, but blending them into their surroundings. They are part of the scenery, just as much a piece of the greater painting as the furniture or walls they stand beside.

Even as characters shift around and pass by places, the camera and lighting doesn’t follow them. Our eyes and attention is constantly being guided to the details of the buildings, the inanimate monoliths, walls, staircases, roofs, street-corners, alleyways, and witnessing their death in real time. All the scratches, mold, chipped paint, dirt, mud, dust, everything signaling the passing of life. The only time the camera moves throughout the entirety of Colossal Youth is the two sequences in which Ventura sits in a park… the only two places he ever visits which exhibit a sense of vibrant living, a fight for life and against death… organisms, trees, birds, worms, nature at work constantly living, never stopping, never still.

The beautifully decaying images of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth:

Growing Pain

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Ratcatcher (Lynn Ramsay, 1999)

One of the more inventive things about the beginning of Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher is that it managed to subvert my own assumptions about the early staging of a story of a young central character. The first kid that popped on screen in this movie was a handsome young man with blondish hair, the kind of kid you’d expect most people to cast in the leading role of a film. Even his name, Ryan Quinn, is that of a hero. As he ditches his mother and goes in the back near the canal to play with his friend, I found myself settling in. Essentially, the thoughts that here’s the central character of our story; we’ve already built his relationship with mother (she doesn’t have much control over him) and now he’s with his scrawny, big eared weird looking friend, perhaps the proverbial ‘sidekick’, goofing around. What I didn’t expect was the scene to end with Quinn’s death, drowning in the canal accidentally after horse-playing, and James Gillespie, the scrawny and weak-looking supposed sidekick, now becomes the central figure in our story.

Throughout the rest of the film, I found myself again being subverted from my own clichéd assumptions about a story which clearly plots itself as a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). This is why Ratcatcher is so remarkable. There’s hardly a moment in the movie in which I just knew what was going to happen next. Cinema about children is often confused with children’s cinema, and in the same sense, the narrative structure of such cinema is easily stacked into cemented bricks of clichés. The arch of overcoming the doldrums and destitute existence of underprivileged youth is bread and butter for the coming-of-age tale, but Lynn Ramsay clearly has other ideas.

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Her story is set in Scotland during the Garbage Strike, a very conscious choice, as piles of garbage stack up on the sides of the road, in apartment courtyards, and inside of homes. The strike signifies the metaphorical lawlessness of the land, wherein the despicable and derogatory acts of the children go unnoticed in a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic setting. It is a time when children, especially one like James who’s home-life is comprised of a stepfather who treats him like a bastard child, and a mother who heeds beck and call to her borderline abusive boyfriend to the detriment of her own kin, James, are thrust into an unforgiving world and forced to swim. The idea of ‘maturation’ which is the stamp of approval for most adolescent stories is almost laughable here. Perhaps in the cozy quarters of one’s middle-class suburban life, dealing with the facts of life can be hard and maturation of character signals the success of the individual having grown up (come of age), but in Ratcatcher, the holding on of sanity and morality for James, who witnesses the girl he loves, Margarete Ann, getting gang-raped over and over by older kids, having to hide and bury the guilt of having been involved in the death of Ryan Quinn in the canal, and the continuous neglect of his parents, is an impossible battle in and of itself . The depravity that James succumbs to both outside and inside the walls of his home is in many cases, a fight for maintaining his innocence, a fight against growing up, because if the truth of the world is this horrifying, then why accept it? ‘Maturation’ seems almost like giving up.

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At the same time, what really magnifies this depravity is the few sequences of utter relief and beauty within the film, most notably when James hitches a busride with money he steals from his stepdad, and travels to the last bus-stop far away from his neighborhood. He sees empty houses, many of them newly built and untouched, surrounded by a golden wheat-field that shimmers in a stunning sunlight. It is here we see James smile genuinely for the first time. The second sequence is the surreal moment in which James’ animal-loving friend Kenny, ties his pet rat to a balloon and sets it afloat in the air. We see the mouse go up and the camera cuts to a shot of the rat attaining orbit in outer space. It’s a feel-good moment, one in which we envision along with the children an escape from their grounded desperation, a place where all the garbage rats get together, near a crater on the moon and happily socialize with each other. It’s a literally other-worldly scene, soon cut short later by James, at the brink of hopelessness, telling Kenny that his rat is not in outer-space but is in fact, dead. Kenny, out of frustration brings up the death of Ryan Quinn as James fault, a brutal stab back in James’ direction snapping the last straw in half.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 12.24.46 AMI was reminded of similar other films which depicted in rather matter-of-fact detail the uncompromising lives of kids in destitute situations, namely the early films of Harmony Korine. In Gummo and the controversial Kids, which Korine scripted, the children were abjectly cruel, again, signaled by a seemingly post-apocalyptic setting such as “the recent tornado” which devastated Xenia, Ohio in Gummo. Unlike Korine’s movies however, which tend to revel and take a perverse joy in their lawlessness, Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher remarks on the tragedy of youth as a fight against coming-of-age. It subverts the bildungsroman to suggest that James’ situation, which forced him to mature, lead to his own self-destruction; that his resistance, his naïveté, was what was keeping him alive. He did not feel the utter heartbreak of watching Margarete Anne getting gang-raped until he found love for the first time. He didn’t truly feel loneliness until his friends betrayed him. He did not truly feel guilt until Ryan Quinn’s mother cried over her son’s death on the sidewalk and offered James his old shoes. He did not understand the difficulty of escape until he bought his own bus-ride out of town to a better place. These moments ironically, signaled the maturity of our central character, and yet, were stepping stones to his own demise, his own hopelessness. It is why Ratcatcher is a painfully honest, and remarkable subversion, from beginning to end, of the coming-of-age cliché. It tests our own maturity as film-watchers, film-appreciators, to how we can react to a movie which refuses to treat us like children.

Lars von Trier: Roots of a Madman

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The Element of Crime (Lars von Trier, 1984)

Lars von Trier is easily one of the most divisive filmmakers I have ever discovered, it’s almost impossible to not have a strong opinion about the movies he makes. The reason for this, I conclude, is that he has an incredibly vociferous world-view, and that is something that should always be commended from a director, but when your vision is that boisterous, that in-your-face, that provocative, its easy to become misguided, its easy to blur the thin line between what is truly thought-provoking and what is self-indulgent crass manipulation. Usually, von Trier unabashedly falls into the latter. I love directors with a unique style, a sense of self-importance especially when they know they have a lot of intelligent things to say and their art is much more to them than just a means of “storytelling”.

But for the better half of Breaking the Waves and onward including his latest film Nymphomaniac, von Trier has had some kind of ugly chip on his shoulder, the kind which forces his creative decisions to leave a bad after-taste in ones mouth. It’s the kind of mocking, unfettered, rude, and emotionally blackmailing kind of art-cinema that makes me wonder what exactly went wrong in von Trier’s life that he decided to take all his pent up frustration out on us. Usually, a filmmaker of his talent would channel that into something we could sympathize with, something that we could cry or scream alongside him with. Instead, what happened with Anti-Christ became a nuclear vendetta against women that bordered on clinically insane. His most egregiously bad film was Dancer in the Dark, a film so emotionally manipulative, watching it should be a criminal offense in violation of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Suffice to say. much of what Lars von Trier has done since his popularity grew in the United States has been in my trash-pile. The sole exception might be Melancholia, if only for the final 10 minutes.

So, what exactly was Lars von Trier doing before his global hit Breaking the Waves? He is a Danish filmmaker right? I had heard of von Trier’s early filmography a while ago, but I never quite got the chance to catch any of those movies. This weekend, I was presented the opportunity to see The Element of Crime, not only an early von Trier film, in fact, his first film. A noir thriller about a detective named Fisher who tries to track down a serial killer (named the Lotto Killer) who has a taste for young girls, the plot-line of the film is a ripe subject for any young budding filmmaker to take on. The Coen’s Blood Simple and Terrence Malick’s Badlands are similar examples which center around the futility and loss of innocence in the face of immense violence and helmed by first time future-masters.

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Von Trier shoots the entire thing with a sodium light filter, giving an orange-sepia glow, to, on a surface level, elevate the movie’s dingy post-apocalyptic feel, but even further, it relays the story as a dark and twisted nightmare of sorts, recalled by Fisher as he sits in a therapist’s office in Cairo. The title of the film references a well-developed theory layed out by Fisher’s idol, Osborne. Osborne took on the Lotto Killer case years back and used his Elemental theory of crime to track down the man responsible, Harry Grey. After failing in his attempt and becoming a recluse, ashamed of his inability to nab the culprit, he agrees reluctantly to let Fisher answer the call to complete the puzzle.

The movie creeps down a winding track, von Trier taking his time, but keeping the momentum and tension of the mystery high. Von Trier’s camera accentuates the grimy corners, tattered remnants of a Europe that Fisher recalls is not like the one he grew up in. Everything is rotting, left to decompose, a similar fate of the poor victims of Harry Grey. Michael Elphick, playing Fisher, is a highlight of the film, a brilliant casting choice as his burly physique and rough pragmatic voice gives us a true “hero” to rally behind, someone we think we can count on to get the job done. His narrations add an extra dimension, and von Trier treats this film with a much more balanced mindset than any of his post-1995 ventures, everything is calculated, and the human psychological turmoil that Fisher undergoes is never taken over the top, it is also a slow dissent, but one which reveals new perspectives rather than singular self-affirming proclamations. Von Trier isn’t declaring anything as he is so eager to do nowadays. He is, surprisingly to me at least, letting us decide what we take from his protagonists revelations for ourselves.

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The entire film’s staging as a recollection from a therapists office in Cairo accentuates that von Trier’s central character underwent a transformation that didn’t destroy him, but rather, made him change who he was.

The worst parts of Anti-Christ and Nymphomaniac revel in the mean-spiritedness of their characters, their nastiness towards each other, with von Trier expecting us somehow to get something out of their one-dimensional hate, their finite narrow mindset that this is the nature of man (or woman), “deal with it”. In The Element of Crime, even the so-called ‘meanest’ characters, particularly the anarchist police chief, Kramer, are displayed purely as argumentative points, perhaps cynical, maybe even malicious, but never touted by von Trier as “correct”.

Perhaps the joys of finding a great first film from a director with such a recognizable style and philosophy to filmmaking is that we get to see another side of them, perhaps a much better side that we can wonder what the heck happened to it. With The Element of Crime, I found a von Trier who was still curious about the discussions human nature, death, anger, and cynicism… well before he started acting like, in his misery, he had figured out why everything sucks. It’s almost as if von Trier started the beginning of his career as a budding cinematic philosopher, and got dragged backwards into being an angsty teenager who just got dumped by his girlfriend and hates life.


The Passion of Joan of Arc : Cinema becomes Art becomes Human

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1928)

I watched Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc two times. Once with Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” music score as background, and once with complete silence. Suffice to say, Dreyer’s genius, and the utter emotional churning and heartbreak of Maria Falconetti’s magnum opus performance were resilient and just as evocative regardless of which way you decide to see this film. The Passion of Joan of Arc has many times been recounted as the moment that cinema became art. What was the most astounding aspect of this film was its absolute nakedness. With minimal dialogue, being filmed without music and with zero diegetic sound, there is pure structure, composition, framing, and acting. It is the motion picture at its bare-bones foundation.

Dreyer’s work with Falconetti is the support beam and the cement which this film is built on top of. Each scene is a juxtaposition of Falconetti’s rending pain, hopeful joy, and eternal sorrow with the world around her. As the men of the church do all they can put fear, shame and anguish into her heart, forcing her to recant her devotion to God’s mission, we sympathize on an almost metaphysical level with Falconetti’s Joan. The power of Dreyer’s depiction and his cuts between Joan’s reactions and her surroundings pierces any predisposed belief system we have for or against religion. It is a testament to the craft and film form, that Dreyer’s ability to evoke pain and empathy runs across all ideologies to tie us together and react on the level of a unified human suffering; a suffering brought about through injustice and intolerance. We root for Joan the woman, Joan the human being, Joan the martyr of ideas and beliefs and her freedome to believe. We root against a Church which represses her devotion, a most ironic injustice. All of this, seen and felt through a camera and and editing room. Carl Dreyer, with The Passion of Joan of Arc gave us a film that will transcend through time, unfettered, because it speaks to the basis of human unity, and does so with the most artistic and passionate of visions on screen. This is the power of cinema, so clear even at its earliest stages.

3 movies I just recently caught

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2015)

It’s been a while since I really wrote film reviews! After that giant slew of movies that I watched at the end of 2014, I was completely burnt out. But I did manage to catch some very interesting films in the meantime which I will briefly mention here. But don’t worry. I’m back in the swing of things… more to come… hopefully a review of Neil Blomkamp’s latest Chappie as well as that new Spongebob movie will be out as well.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (William Greaves, 1968) – A seminal “meta” picture of American cinema. Essentially, a movie about the filming of a movie about the filming of several audition takes in a park for a movie called “Over the Cliff”. The most important “cinematic” aspect of the film is probably the use of three simultaneous camera crews; one which films Greaves directing some novice actors for a scene between a distraught married couple, another which is the crew filming themselves talking about the confusion and direction of Greaves, and a third of just random people walking around in Central Park, NYC. Also, R.I.P William Greaves who passed away just last year… found out during the Oscar “In Memoriam” tribute.

The film is aimed as a look at the culture of sexuality in the late 60’s and approaches it with a lot of discomfort… the blatant homophobia of average American society during the time is on full displayIt transcends this simple examination of sexual preference and destruction of marriage however, and becomes an examination of the cinematic form itself. Handheld cameras and zoom ins and outs, along with the crew’s commentary or distrust in Greaves approach to film creates a dense background which adds to the dichotomy of how directors, actors, and ‘behind-the-scenes’ film artists collaborate, argue, exchange ideas and insults. The movie therefore, you could say, sexually dissects the artform of cinema… as the husband and wife in the park bicker over homosexuality and death of their conventional marriage, the crew and the director bicker over the death of the conventional narrative.  Suffice to say, this is a very strangely intriguing and realistic film… a John Cassavetes turned upside down.

Goke, The Body Snatcher from Hell (Hajime Sato, 1968) – Here’s a pretty strange and cheesy movie. Like many of Japan’s ‘disaster films’, filled with charismatic characters, overreactions, soap-opera style camera work and some hilarious special effects, Hajime Sato’s Goke is a camp ride. Its’ not a movie you should or would enjoy if you took it seriously. But it is also not a total mindless mess like a Michael Bay film. It’s the kind of genuine pulp film enthused by Sato’s obvious love for monsters, mystery, and mayhem. A plane of important government officials gets hijacked by a mysterious force that drags it into an uncharted land possessed by aliens and demons. Like an amusement park ride, its only appropriate to let Goke wash over you, thrill you, entertain you, and possibly enlighten you about its eclectic filmmaker’s personal interests. If anything Goke serves as an example of a movie that can be both easy-going, entertaining, and at the same time, worth noting in film discussion as a piece of genre cinema.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2015) – The first film I watched this calendar year. It’s interesting that I watched this film right after Sato’s Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell because this is another cinematic piece which revels in the ridiculousness of its own premise and influences. Matthew Vaugh is never shy about his gusto and panache, his ever-willing tenacity to pay homage as a pupil of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie but add in a little bit of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as well. Kingsman is silly, in many parts stupid, and in its ending a bit eye-rolling, but it is also never trying to be anything more than just a fun time at the movies. In this sense, you can respect Vaughn’s film without really liking it. I would really like him to make anime or something for Pixar because much of his pulp-impulses come off as too cartoonish, and when you’re using live action and real actors, there needs to be a center of gravity in what your characters are trying to aim at. Tarantino may be outlandish in his handling of violence and dialogue, but his characters are still human. Guy Ritchie’s world is still a real world (its seedy London), but throughout Kingsman, Matthew Vaugh exists in this strange void between Looney Tunes and James Bond that you can’t really enjoy much of either. Its an interesting take… can’t say it succeeded though.