Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Screengrab - This Is This

(Or the Strange Case of Michael Cimino)

No American Director has ever fallen the way Michael Cimino did. In a way, that was only fitting, because his rise had been just as sudden and startling. Having co-written the screenplays for two middling but interesting 70s genre films, Silent Running and Magnum Force (the latter with John Milius), Cimino's script for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was purchased by Clint Eastwood, who intended to direct and star in it himself. Cimino persuaded Eastwood to allow him to direct it and the film, a peculiar little heist story, was a hit - Jeff Bridges was even Oscar nominated for his role - and Cimino was suddenly a player. For his next film, the extraordinarily ambitious tale of the effect of the Vietnam War on a group of Pennsylvania Steelworkers, Cimino gathered a starry cast, a sizeable budget and the trust of a major studio.

Has any director ever trumped "difficult second album syndrome" quite so effectively? The Deer Hunter is a Great Film, one of the best of the decade, perhaps one of the greatest American films ever made. It was an immediate Critical and commercial success, it won 5 Oscars - including Best Film and Best Director - and it gave Cimino a clout most of his peers could only dream of. Ever ambitious, he decided to use that clout to make a massive Western which was really a Marxist history of the Johnson County Wars, and indeed of the American expansion into the West itself. Heavens Gate would cost $40 million, the equivalent of $107 million today, come in months behind schedule, and prove a resounding flop, both with audiences and critics. Cimino's original cut was over 5 hours long, but United Artists forced him to cut that down to 219 minutes for its premiere at the New York Film Festival, where it was eviscerated by critics. The film was again subjected to editing and the version eventually released was only 149 minutes long and barely coherent. It earned $1.8 million at the American Box Office. The financial fallout of this failure led to the demise of United Artists itself.

Cimino moved on, though his reputation had suffered such damage that no Hollywood Studio would involve itself with him, and five years after the 1980 release of Heavens Gate he was forced to finance his next film, The Year of the Dragon, independently. It was a commercial success but didn't fare quite so well with critics, and his next effort, The Sicilian, was an outright failure. In the 20 years since he has made only two films (Desperate Hours and Sunchaser), both of them unmemorable and lacking any evidence of the involvement of the singular talent responsible for The Deer Hunter. He lives in Paris, has published a novel, and is still the subject of numerous Hollywood rumours, including tales of madness and sex changes. From Oscar Winning Wonderkid to exiled has-been in a few decades is an impressive decline by any standards. But at least Cimino has left a legacy to be proud of.

Momentarily leaving aside The Deer Hunter, the two films that bookend it both have their admirable qualities. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is perhaps the quirkiest film Clint Eastwood made in the 1970s, a buddy movie comedy-drama, made with uncommon confidence and sureness of tone by a debuting director. If Cimino used it as a sort of film school - and he has spoken at length of his admiration for and gratitude to Eastwood - then he learned his lessons well, because the leap between it and his two subsequent films is enormous. Heavens Gate has been re-evaluated in the decades since its original release. A screening of its 219 minute cut on the American cable channel the Z-Channel in the mid-80s was met with some approving reviews, echoing the noises coming from France, where the film had a strong following among Film critics.
Steven Bach, an executive at United Artists throughout the films production, wrote a fascinating book called "Final Cut" about the experience, painting an extremely unflattering portrait of Cimino as a pretentious egotist in the process. But the film was released in the 219 minute "Directors" Cut on VHS in the mid-80s, arguably beginning the trend for Directors Cuts that has flourished on DVD in recent years, and its critical reputation is perhaps higher now than at any time since its release. It is a terribly flawed film, but its spectacle and beauty are exhilarating, as is Cimino's insane ambition. His canvas is massive (you can see much of that colossal budget on screen), and he needs big movie stars to carry the story through its long running time and more involved political stretches. Instead he cast character actors like Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert, who, fine actors as they are, are incapable of shouldering the burden of a film as huge as this. Cimino, as Bach's book suggests, was also far too in love with his own material and his vision, and, unwilling to compromise, he allows longeurs to settle over too many scenes, so that some stretches of the film are unforgiveably boring. But it is all stunningly shot, and some of the set-piece sequences are brilliant. An indication of how problematic many aspects of the film are is the nature of that beauty itself - Cimino and his Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond are so enamoured of many of their perfectly lit, finely composed set-ups that it seems the film is reluctant to cut away from them at all. The viewer is invited to luxuriate in them and marvel at their beauty, at the expense of the narrative. This is the very definition of self-indulgence. But though Cimino may have taken himself too seriously, that is partly what is awesome about the film - it is ambitious enough to regard itself as a work of art, and though it fails on many levels, there is something glorious about that failure.

That leaves The Deer Hunter as Cimino's greatest achievement. Taking something from The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler's 1946 Oscar-winning melodrama about 3 soldiers returning to their smalltown lives from the Second World War and the changes and problems they encounter, Cimino fashions a humanist epic, full of vivid, recognisable characters and relationships. The film works so well as a drama that on a first viewing it is difficult to discern its thematic concerns. The characters - a group of friends revolving around the core of Michael ( Robert DeNiro), Steven (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) - and the story - the days before their departure to fight in Vietnam, some of what befalls them there, and the consequences - involve the audience for all of the three hour running time, making the ending emotionally shattering. But it is a rich, layered film, the kind of experience that offers something new on every viewing. Its first hour, which seems to drift plotlessly through a (shotgun) Wedding and the ensuing party, patiently introducing characters and painting in their personalities, subtly outlining the tensions crackling between them, is utterly masterful and seamless. David Thompson has written that it prompts the viewer to think "where is this film taking me, and why am I going with it?"

One of Cimino's major themes is the idea of ritual and as such the film is full of them - a Wedding, the dances at the Wedding party, hunting trips, men drinking together after work, a funeral, people gathered to gamble. He seems also interested in structure and The Deer Hunter toys with cinematic norms, just as Thunderbolt & Lightfoot had in its own way. The sudden jumpcut from a quiet, sombre scene where John (George Dzunda) plays Chopin on the piano in his bar and the men listen in silence to the roar of a Vietnamese battlefield is probably the best example of this, serving as it does to signal the end of the films first act and the shift of gears into the second. That second act is an awesome piece of filmaking, and was the most controversial element of the film upon its initial release. But The Deer Hunter has remained in the popular consciousness because of the Russian Roulette sequence, which is central to the second act, and is an amazingly tense, agonising scene, superbly shot, edited and acted for maximum impact.

The sadness and regret of the third act - where the characters struggle with what has happened to their lives and their country - is the only ending such a story can really allow. It is a modern epic, encompassing much of the reality of life in the late 20th Century, and perhaps the best depiction of a group of working class friends in any film from its era. It is also many stories in one - a love story, a story of friendship, of the cost of war, of community. Pauline Kael damned it at the time of its release as "Beau Geste goes-to-Vietnam" and she was right, but that seems to me to be high praise. Because it is an adventure story as much as anything else, and it is a truly great adult adventure story.

The passage that I love most in The Deer Hunter is the hunting sequence that follows the Wedding Party night. The men drive into the mountains and squabble when they arrive, hungover, and discover that Stan (John Cazale) has forgotten his boots. He and Michael argue, and the importance of the hunt to Michael is underlined, along with something of his solitude, his apartness from the others, his discipline. These are the qualities that will ultimately allow him to survive in Vietnam. Until this moment it has been a film abubble with humanity - the roar and clatter of the Refinery, the clamour of a bar, the ceremony of the Wedding, the raucousness of the party. The argument in the mountains is another scene intent upon the people, their humanity and the tensions between them. Suddenly Cimino cuts to a shot of a hunting lodge upon a mountain and his camera follows Michael and Nick as they emerge in the cold grey light of dawn. Choral music rises on the Soundtrack and Walken's silhouette is picked out as he crests a hill and is reflected in a small lake below, his oddly graceful dancer's movements unmistakeable. He and DeNiro are silent on their hunt, which climaxes when DeNiro takes down a deer with his "one shot". We hear that shot and see the deer fall and quiver and die as the music arrives at a crescendo. It is a rare scene of pure natural beauty in the film, and it feels somehow transcendent, blessed by the death of the animal, which seems to presage all of the death and pain to come. A few moments later the film and the characters are in Vietnam, and all is different.

On the basis of The Deer Hunter, Cimino seems like a visionary, more than the equal of other giants of his generation like Coppola and Scorsese. But then he could never sustain such a level, and it seems that the film was a one-off, a uniquely beautiful and perfectly-formed work. The pity of it is that since Heavens Gate, not one of his films has even seemed to have been made by the same man. The best of the four, Year of the Dragon, is an exploitative cop thriller based on an Oliver Stone script and almost parodic in its lack of originality, dredging up of cliches, nastiness and borderline racism. The other three could almost have been made by any journeyman director, so lacking are they in any real personality or sense of vision.
Which raises the question : what could have happened to Cimino? How can such talent simply disappear?
Perhaps its far simpler than that. Perhaps he knew he could never equal The Deer Hunter after his only real attempt, Heavens Gate, almost ruined him. Perhaps he gave up. Who could blame him?


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Pow, wham, thud! - comics aren't for kids anymore

Take your average tv soap opera. Eastenders, say. Its been on tv for 20 years or so, twice a week at first, now three times weekly, I think. Thats hundreds of hours of tv. All set in the same general location, with a shifting but linked group of characters. That means some problems with continuity. When old characters come back, ridiculously, having been killed off - that sort of thing strains continuity. When a viewer considers the "life" of a long-term character and the dramatic and melodramatic events just pile up in an endless list - the attempted murder, the rape, the abortion, the infidelity, the drug addiction, the hiring of a hitman, the second attempted murder, the car crash - well thats continuity creaking, showing its age and weakness. Continuity, by which I mean the believable order of a series of linked events, is a problem in any long-term fictional reality where regular dramatic events are part of the appeal, you see.

Now take a fictional Universe. Built initially by a half dozen men, 50 years ago. Populated by two or three dozen key characters, surrounded by hundreds of supporting characters. Since those half dozen men passed their Universe along, its been developed and built upon by hundreds of others, some more talented, many less. But all of those key characters remain. A few others have been introduced, too, to ease their burden. Lets say one of those original key characters - the most popular, who would become a massive cultural icon, for example - featured in one story a month for the first decade or so of his existence. That means he'll have featured in 120 stories, each over 20 pages in length, in that decade. Not to mention the yearly special stories published separately and his many guest appearances in the adventures of the other key characters. His popularity in the real world has only made him more popular in this fictional Universe, you see. After that first decade, he grows more popular and gets a second monthly volume for even more of his adventures. Then another, featuring his shared adventures with a revolving gallery of the supporting characters from this vast fictional Universe. Another decade, yet another monthly volume, more guest appearances, until by sometime in the last decade this character had 4 monthly comics regularly published, generally at least two limited series, one-shots, graphic novels and possibly as many as 5 guest appearances each month. This character had been around for 40 years yet had grown perhaps only a decade in the lifetime (like dog-years in reverse) of his fictional universe. Yet he had faced hundreds of enemies in thousands of violent confrontations, saved countless lives, thrown thousands of punches, made thousands of quips, loved several women, gotten married, lost loved ones, had his identity discovered, died and been reborn, lost and regained his powers, been a criminal and a hero, worked for and against the government, travelled into outer space, travelled through time, been cloned, changed his outfit - very publically - a few times, had a book published, had a dozen jobs and invented a product which if he patented it would likely make him a millionaire. Through all this, his essential personality has remained largely unchanged. The characters name is Peter Parker. Spider-Man. This is continuity with severe artrithis.

The comics medium is odd in that what constitutes mainstream comics in the Western World would make for a sub-genre in any other field or country : the Superhero story. From the various genres covered by the pulps and comics of the early 20th Century, including War, Westerns, Romance, Humour, Horror, Sword & Sorcery and Sci-Fi, for some reason Superheroes triumphed and remain the default genre of the American mainstream. There have been books written about why this is so, and what strange power the Superhero has in the Mass American psyche, and thats not what I'm interested in here anyway. Suffice to say that the majority of comics published in America today are Superhero comics. That can be felt in other mediums - the dominant genre in Blockbuster cinema over the last decade has been the Superhero film. Spiderman, Superman Returns, Batman Begins and the X-Men series have all made lots of money and generated tons of hype. Lots of more minor characters have featured in lesser movies, too. The most successful new drama on American tv last year was Heroes, a series about ordinary people suddenly granted super-powers. Superheroes are mainstream even here. But cinema and television would never dream of telling stories the way the big comics Publishers do, with incredibly complicated back-stories going back decades always relevant and present in any new story.*

DC Comics, whose DC Universe is home to Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern, has been publishing superhero comics for over 70 years. Superman first appeared in 1932 but for the first few decades continuity was simply not a concern. Stories were almost all single-issue affairs and though the supporting cast recurred, there was no real change or development in Superman or Batman's world for the first few decades of their existence. It was almost an afterthought even to reveal the origins of these characters. Which makes the archetypal force of those origins - Superman with his christlike flight from space, sent by his father to protect us humans, and Batman's vow to avenge his parents murder by fighting all crime (oddly, both are orphan stories) - all the more wondrous and surprising.

Marvel Comics changed the way the comics industry viewed continuity. It changed the way the industry viewed many things. Characterisation, for one. Marvel's heroes weren't always heroic. They bickered amongst themselves, had selfish motivations, felt scared and got sick. This would have been unimaginable for Superman at that time, but it was a major part of Spiderman's appeal to an audience of prepubescent readers who understood exactly what Peter Parker was going through (minus the superpower part). It also attracted an adult readership in unprecedented numbers. And Marvel used continuity as more than just a story tool. In the first issue of The Amazing Spiderman, our hero visits the Baxter building, home of the Fantastic Four, and offers to join them, assuming the salary will solve all his money problems. Of course this results in a misunderstanding, only cleared up after the obligatory fight scene. But it made clear that Spiderman existed in the same New York City as the FF, as did the references to that initial meeting in their later encounters, which showed that in this fictional universe, such cross-referencing mattered. It certainly mattered to fans, who were always eager to see their favourite characters meet up, and who loved the detail of Marvel's ever-expanding Universe, as heroes combined to defeat villains and also fought one another. In the 1970s, Marvel launched their first official crossovers running between separate series when the teams the Avengers and the Defenders met up in a linked series of stories across both comics. Then they launched Marvel Team Up, which was a revolving platform for various pairings until it finally, inevitably became a secondary Spiderman title, each issue featuring him teaming up with a different character. This was copied by Marvel Two-In-One, featuring The Thing and a series of guest stars.

All the while, Marvels line of titles and universe of characters was growing. Two major characters from the 1940s (Captain America and Namor, the Submariner) had been reintroduced to this 1960s Universe, their wartime histories neatly accounted for through storylines explaining their absences in the intervening decades. The care taken to explain such an event shows how important continuity was to the Marvel readership, and how well the company understood this. The continuity of this massive universe grew more and more convoluted by the month. DC took note of Marvel's sudden assumption of market leadership, and their comics suddenly grew more continuity-heavy. But the weight of all that history - many of their big characters had existed continuously since the 30s and 40s - began to tell. There was simply no sensible way to account for it, and after DC had tweaked concepts such as multiple Earths existing in different dimensions and playing host to various different incarnations of its characters, the company ambitiously set about simplifying its continuity in the 1980s in the Mini-Series "Crisis On Infinite Earths". That worked, sort of, for a while. It involved the deaths of some major characters (Supergirl, the Flash) but this just meant that when the new versions were introduced, DC had a nice marketing hook. It also meant that DC could go back to Year Zero, and the company relatively flourished in an artistic sense with new versions of the origins of Superman (Man of Steel) and Batman (Year One). But 20 years later some of it had been undone, and the weight of all those cosmic fictional events (some of it was dealt with in a mid-90s mini-series called Zero Hour) was starting to make DC continuity sag once again. So last year they again addressed their continuity problems in another mini-series : Infinite Crisis. The aftermath of that is still being felt across most of DC's line of titles, and particularly in a weekly series; 52.

Marvel too has struggled with its long years of continuity, but its solutions are generally different to DCs - Marvel just soldiers on. Marvel used the return of some prodigal writer-artists from major 90s competitor Image Comics to jumpstart a couple of ailing franchises - Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers all went back to Year Zero and "new" origin stories. These barely lasted a year before they were folded back into wider Marvel Universe continuity. The massive X-Men crossovers "Age of Apocalypse" and "Onslaught", both of which should have been earth-shaking, continuity redefining events, passed with nary a ripple. More or less anything that happens in Marvel continuity is subject to reversal and therefore effectively meaningless. Characters die, then return. The 1980s resurrection of Jean Grey, whose death was perhaps the biggest and most important event of Marvel continuity in the preceding decade, only confirmed this. Heroes have their identities exposed, then are let off the hook. The recent "House of M" storyline has its short-term effects, as I'm sure will the current "Civil War", but a few years later all sign of such events has usually faded entirely from view. Indeed, its difficult to view these storylines as anything other than entirely cynical marketing opportunities for the big companies, especially since there now seems to be one a year, every single year.

But then continuity makes a fanboy cynical. The dark ages of the 90s and the proliferation of terrible comics filled with bad art, no storylines, and derivative characters happened to coincide with Marvel and DC desperately trying to revamp several important characters by fitting them out with new costumes, new powers, and most particularly new, harder-edged attitudes.
Batman was replaced by an armour-clad psychotic for a while. Superman died and was replaced by four lesser characters. When he returned he temporarily had a different costume and different powers. Spiderman was revealed to be a clone of himself - I know, I know - while the real, original Spiderman had been drifting around America for years under the name Ben Reilly. When he returned he briefly usurped Peter Parker and became the Scarlet Spider, basically Spiderman in a different costume. The Punisher briefly became an Angel of Vengeance. Literally. Green Lantern went mad and destroyed an entire city, necessitating his replacement with a younger, snappier Green Lantern in a different, uglier costume (to its credit, DC stuck with that one for a decade or so). Aquaman lost a hand and grew a beard, coz, like, beards are edgy. Iron Man was briefly a teenaged boy. If you have any emotional attachment to any of these characters, then all this is almost painfully offensive.

And so, at last, to my point : I hate continuity.
If the first X-Men film revealed anything at all about the characters and concept, it was that they have a power of their own, outside the massive weight of continuity they carry around with them in the various X-Men comics. Marvel seemed to take note and soon after launched the Ultimate line, featuring new, slightly more contemporary versions of classic Marvel characters in a new Universe. Of course, this soon became known as the Ultimate Universe, as connections between the various characters were being established within the first year of launch. But these titles were better than the official Marvel Universe versions had been for years. Ultimate Spiderman captured the spirit of the original Lee-Ditko Spiderman as well as any run had since the 60s, and modernised it effectively. It also utilised characters and ideas from all 30 years of Spiderman's lifetime, but it ran one issue a month, and all of its ideas were stripped down and simplified, in many cases improvements on what had been done in the Marvel Universe. The Ultimate Spiderman version of Venom, for instance, is far scarier and less lame than the Marvel Universe version has been for some time.
Ultimate X-Men had its thunder stolen somewhat by Grant Morrison's run on the Marvel Universe X-Men, wherein Morrison treated it like it was an Ultimate title anyway, ignoring what characters and continuity he disliked, inventing and twisting others where he saw fit, rejuvenating the title completely, and leaving Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men looking like a slightly redundant Teen X-Men.

But the jewel in the Ultimate stable was The Ultimates, Millar and Brian Hitch's rereading of The Avengers. It took cinematic storytelling in mainstream comics to another level, with its massive widescreen action sequences all captured in stunning detail by Hitch. The reimaginings of some old characters were interesting and witty - particularly Thor - the dialogue frequently funny and the pacing perfect. Marvels Ultimate line was such a commercial success - Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate Iron Man, along with several crossover series, have followed the initial titles - that DC eventually copied it.
Its AllStar line began with AllStar Batman and Robin last year, written by Frank Miller and drawn by Jim Lee. Though a commercial success it is absolutely terrible - Miller's scripting revealing his increasing revulsion and boredom with the entire Superhero genre, Lee's art a stilted, mannered parody of itself. AllStar Superman, however, is perhaps the best mainstream Superhero comic being published today, each issue a great showcase of Grant Morrison's endlessly inventive approach to the genre and of the beauty and storytelling mastery of Frank Quitely's art. And crucially it understands perfectly the appeal of Superman as a character, in a way the official Superman titles never really seem to.

Perhaps these two big companies should really have understood the potential of non-continuity series a couple of decades ago, though, with the success in 1986 of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons Watchmen.
The Dark Knight Returns is a future-Batman story, a brilliant piece of pulp, and key to the rejuvenation of Batman as an iconic character. Watchmen was originally written with the characters belonging to the Charlton comics stable recently purchased by DC comics (such as The Question, Captain Atom and Blue Beetle) in mind, but when DC decided to introduce these characters to DC continuity - because it doesn't have enough characters, right? - Moore changed the names and the characters were redesigned. Together the two series massively changed the comic marketplace and influenced superhero comics for the next 20 years, with the sudden prevalence of grim & gritty heroes directly traceable to Miller and Moore (as was the continues-to-this-day habit of News stories having headlines like the title of this piece).
It is amusing that this element of these two series was the most noticeable effect on the mainstream. Revisionist, mature superheroes were suddenly popular. But Marvel and DC briefly sought to introduce the revisionist sensibility into their own Universes instead of creating new continuities where they would be better suited. Part of the difficulty of this was the reluctance of the companies to entrust their valuable franchises with frequently maverick creators, and the reluctance of said creators to work on properties they do not own. Grant Morrison's recent runs on X-Men and Batman - both inside continuity, both fantastic in their differing ways - are a rare example of an A-List writer on the Big comics characters. Eventually with the Epic and Vertigo imprints, the Big Two, as the industry habitually refers to Marvel and DC, attempted explicitly grown-up comics, abandoning the super-hero to his continiuity nightmares.

Where he lies still. I continue to read some mainstream Superhero comics - its an addiction, extremely hard to shake once you're hooked. I have to know how they're doing, what the art is like, whos writing now, how the tone is. But I don't buy much anymore. Continuity is a big part of that. It bores me, annoys me, frustrates me. I like stories now where the iconic power of the characters shines through, without the shadow of decades of past events falling across them. My favourite superhero comics over the last few years have all been outside continuity or only vaguely connected to continuity : the Ultimates, Supreme Power, AllStar Superman, Seven Soldiers of Victory, The New Frontier, Rocketo, Batman: Year 100, Ex-Machina, Invincible. I've tended to follow writers and sometimes artists over the last decade more than I have characters, anyway. You can put that down to what they did to Spiderman with the clone saga between 1994 and 1996. I don't ever want to hurt that way again, you see. I'm just getting over it. So is Spidey. And now they throw Civil War at him, and his secret identity has been exposed and hes on the run and hes had three costumes in three months and...Marvel, you bastards. You bastards.

*Though the success of a show like Lost seems to contradict this. Lost is written like a comic series, by comics writers (Jeph Loeb, Brian K Vaughn) with a comic-like use and understanding of various genres and part of its appeal lies in the obsessive devotion of its fans to the tiniest details of its convoluted continuity...


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle"

Balian: You go to certain death.
Hospitaller: All death is certain.

The world of Directors Cuts opened up by the DVD revolution has brought us many questionable riches. Studios seem to mainly regard the label as a marketing tool, and so mediocre films with no particular value are issued twice on DVD to maximise sales - once in their theatrical versions, then again in versions with cut scenes, often amounting to only a few minutes of screentime, restored. Did anybody really feel that Underworld needed a Directors Cut? It reached the stage a few years ago when Directors were planning two versions of their film during production - the theatrical version and later DVD Directors Cut.

But there are certain films that demand to be seen in versions untouched by Studio interference. Indeed, since the 1930s, cineastes have dreamt of seeing Von Stroheim's Greed in the version he intended the World to see. Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons is another example. Certain directors seem to have attracted studio interference throughout their careers, meaning that their filmographies are complicated lists of "definitive" and "alternate" cuts. Welles would probably be chief among them, with the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino also getting a mention. But Ridley Scott, the argument over which version of Bladerunner is better aside, would not really feature. He has long been a successful, powerful director, influential enough to justify lengthy running times on his films despite the odd commercial failure like 1492 : Conquest of Paradise or White Squall. Which is why the butchering of Kingdom of Heaven by 20th Century fox seems so strange. Before its release, Kingdom of Heaven seemed like the one cast-iron guaranteed success the post-Braveheart boom in Period Epics would produce. It dealt with the Crusades, never really the subject of a major Hollywood film before. It featured a strong cast topped off by a rising young star in its lead. And it was directed by Scott, who had delivered the best and most successful modern Epic only a few years earlier in the form of Gladiator. But Fox worried about the running time and chopped out 45 minutes, including at least two plot-lines, rendering the theatrical release just about incoherent. The film was a Box Office flop, and alongside the failure of Oliver Stone's similarly muddled Alexander, it put an end to the new Epic.

But of course, the DVD Directors Cut was released last year after a short run in a single American Cinema. In this case, the Directors Cut seems not just a marketing opportunity but a necessity. Every copy of the theatrical cut should now be destroyed, because this version makes its existence utterly pointless. Not to say that Kingdom of Heaven is now a great film,because its flaws remain fundamentally the same. Chiefly, Orlando Bloom. He has never been better than in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when he was required mainly to seem unearthly and beautiful - Legolas doesn't really have any personality in the realistic sense. He is a heroic ideal, and Bloom, blessed with his good looks, could manage that without difficulty. But in every other film he seems one-noted and cardboard. In the Pirates of the Caribbean films, both he and Keira Knightly are required to be little more than models. They look generically pretty and let the likes of Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush chew the scenery all around them. In Elizabethtown, Bloom seems hopelessly out of his depth in portraying grief and the onset of maturity. He is a cipher ; the audience assumes he should be feeling a certain way, but he gives little sign of it on that strangely inexpressive face. In a film like Kingdom of Heaven, where he is required to handle big emotions, he is again blank-faced. His single expression is a sort of empty smoulder - he seems to have walked off the set of an aftershave commercial. His character, Balian, is driven through the film by a search for his faith, yet Bloom gives little sign of this.

It is a pity, because he is surrounded by a truly classy cast of mainly European supporting actors, most of whom seem totally at home in the Medievel world Scott creates. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Kevin McKidd, Martin Csokas and Brendan Gleeson all have big masculine presences, and Bloom seems dwarfed by all of them in his shared scenes. Eva Green suffers beautifully, and Edward Norton offers a somehow Brando-esque but very effective voice performance as the masked Leper-King, Baldwin.
Some of the plotting remains slightly weak even in this version. Balian's arrival in the Holy Land comes about by shipwreck, of which he is the only survivor, an arbitrary element repeated in HBO's Rome. But characters who suddenly disappeared and had unaccountable motivation for their actions in the theatrical version here make sense. The political machinations of the various factions within Jerusalem before the climactic siege, which seemed dull and overlong in the theatrical version, here are given enough context to work and indeed, to seem integral. William Monaghan, who wrote the dazzling dialogue for The Departed, shows that he can do the same for a vastly different world here, though there are a few clunky exchanges. This version also seems far more ambitious thematically - it is an exploration of ideology and of the difference between religion and faith. Its contemporary resonances, dealing as it does with a battle in the Middle East between Christian and Muslim forces, are unavoidable and well-handled. It is fair-handed, with Saladin, the Commander of the Saracens, played by the charismatic Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, emerging as one of the best and most likeable characters, while many of the Christians are plainly rabid animals using their religion as justification for slaughter.

The real glory of this film, though, is Ridley Scott's direction. It seems a synthesis of much of what he has done before - the reconstruction of Old Worlds in Gladiator and 1492 and the Duellists is here attempted on an even bigger canvas, and it is achieved more vividly and more beautifullly than in any of those films. The ferocity of the battle-scenes in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down is replicated here, again on a bigger, more beautiful scale. The contrast between the wintery mud and misery of Continental Europe in that era with the exotic melting pot of the Holy Land is brilliantly detailed.

I suspect, however, that even if this version had been released originally in cinemas, it may well have failed commercially. Its flaws are obvious and even its strengths are partially uncommercial - it is more complex and adult than any of the other modern Epics, its conclusions about religion and war too ambiguous for popular acceptance. If Gladiator used a simple revenge story to great effect, Kingdom of Heaven has no such basic structure, its tale of a man searching for faith and redemption far too interior to drive such a big narrative emotionally. The film it most reminds me of is Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (which Gladiator took quite a lot from, incidentally), another Epic with a miscast leading man and a downbeat, complex tone. In tribute to such classic Epics, the DVD Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven opens with a two-minute orchestral overture and has a similar theme during its intermission. All of which just made me wish that I had seen it in a Cinema, on a big screen.


Monday, February 05, 2007

On Football - No. 6: Juan Roman Riquelme*

I've written before (in the very first football entry on this blog) about the importance of the Number 10 shirt in Argentinian football and about Argentina's stupendous line of creative playmakers since Maradona. But Maradona is an impossible player to emulate. Arguably the greatest player in history, easily the greatest player of his generation, he could do everything that a creative player is required to. He could dribble like no player before or since, twisting and teasing, his low centre of gravity and amazing acceleration making him difficult to dispossess even illegally. He could run a game with one or two touch passing, sweeping the ball this way and that across the field, dragging defences out of shape with flicks and perfectly weighted long balls. He could shoot from distance, either delicately placing or blasting the ball wherever he wanted it. He obviously wasn't the greatest player in the air - altough he could still outjump Peter Shilton, a good six inches taller than him when it mattered - but he was usually the player supplying the crosses, not the player on the end of them. His true genius was in the combination of all these talents. On his game he was unplayable, no team could cope with him. In the 1986 World Cup Final, Germany detailed two players to mark him, hoping to copy the effect Berti Vogts had on Johann Crujiff in the 1974 Final. Lothar Matthaius, West Germany's best player, followed Maradona everywhere, and when the Argentine had possession Matthaius was joined by one of a revolving number of players in closing him down. For most of the game this worked, but Maradona only needed an instant to hurt an opponent. His pass had set off Valdano on the run that led to Argentina's second goal, and not long after, he embarked on one long run right through the centre of the German defence, evading tackles, which ended with him in mid-air having been kicked by two players at once. Then, with seven minutes remaining and the game tied at 2-2, Maradona, with three Germans in close attendance, found Burruchaga breaking free in the German half with a beautiful first-time volleyed pass. 3-2. Argentina were World Champions.

Most of the Argentinians who have been hailed as "the New Maradona" have excelled while running with the ball. It is this aspect of football, the "gambeta", as they call it, which most excites the Argentine football imagination. It is also what Maradona is best associated with, his goals against England and Belgium in the Quarters and Semis of the 1986 World Cup springing instantly to mind. Players like Saviola, D'Alessandro, Messi, Ortega, Tevez and Aimar have all been excellent dribblers, while Juan Sebastian Veron and Juan Roman Riquelme are more old-fashioned, passing playmakers. Riquelme in particular seems the last of a dying breed. He has no pace to speak of, and so would seem unsuited for the hustle and flying shrapnel of a modern midfield. Yet he never seems hurried and always seems to have time and space on the ball. He never panics. When he is man-marked, he finds enough space to hit devastating one touch passes, Maradona-style. His technique is beautiful, his control flawless, allowing him to caress the ball and make it do exactly what he wants, and so those passes, be they long or short, volleyed or slid along the grass, never seem to miss their intended targets.

Much of Riquelme's work goes almost unnoticed. He takes the ball and relays it accurately, often with the same touch. He moves with his head up and reads the game superbly. He is always moving into space, calling for the ball, moving it along and finding space yet again. This is not often flashy work, as the ball moves back and forth across midfield and his team probes for weakness. But it is Riquelme dictating the pace of that probing, Riquelme's eyes the keenest at identifying the weakness. Creating angles, pulling opposition players out of position, making space for his teammates. The game of the classic playmaker is all about angles around the penalty area, creating gaps in a defence through which to slip the ball. Riquelme is a master at this art. The second goal of Argentina's 6-0 routing of Serbia in the 2006 World Cup was the goal of the tournament, with 24 passes in a minute in the build-up, and its a typical example of Riquelme's subtle prompting. He plays a one-two with Saviola before the ball is passed across the face of the Serbian area to Cambiasso. His touch is a mere flick straight into Saviola's path with the outside of his right foot that instantly eliminates two Serbians from the play allowing the move to culminate in a beautiful goal :

That sort of touch is pure Riquelme : casual, perfect, with an almost sensual feel for the properties of a football. He is capable of dribbles and tricks as well, his ability to get himself out of tricky situations enabling him to maintain his teams possession of the ball, obviously an eternal priority :

His touch is so subtle and delicate that if you watch many clips of him in possession he barely touches the ball with his toes or with either instep or outstep, as most players do. His lack of pace is almost an advantage when it comes to controlling the ball - when faced with an approaching defender he knows he cannot knock the ball beyond them and then outsprint them to collect it. So he has to be clever and use trickery. He tends to drag and spin the ball beneath his studs, minutely inclining and angling his ankles to spin it in first one direction and then another. He is also extremely strong - he is 6ft - and can turn his back on a defender and hold the ball up seemingly indefinitely, losing little ground with twists and turns until he sees a runner he can pass to.

You would imagine that such a talent would be cherished by any footballing nation, but Riquelme is a controversial figure in Argentina. The Argentine style has always combined skillful individual dribbling with fast, short passing along the ground. The above goal against Serbia is perhaps the perfect example. Riquelme's critics contend that he slows the game down too much when in possession. He has been derogatorily called "the tollbooth" in reference to the appearance that everything stops when it comes to him. But this is to miss the point. Riquelme is always in control of that pace, skillful enough to slow things down when he needs to, but with the timing and technique to inject just the right amount of pace into the movement of the ball at the right moment. Jose Pekerman, coach of Argentina at the last World Cup and a big fan of Riquelme, has commented that in football, it is the ball that needs to move fast, not the player. He was the first National coach to give Riquelme a regular place in his starting line-up. Indeed, he built his team around the playmaker's talents, meaning that the likes of Veron and Ortega, still major figures in Domestic football, were dropped, and Aimar, Saviola, Tevez and Messi all rotated from the bench to supplementary positions in the teams offensive formation. He was rewarded by Riquelme by an utterly dominant performance against Brazil in a South American qualifier in Buenos Aires, topped off by this goal and the audacious volleyed pass with the sole of his boot that precedes it:

Argentina qualified for the World Cup ahead of Brazil. After a strong win against a powerful Ivory coast and the destruction of Serbia, they were favourites in the early stages. Riquelme was controlling games in the manner expected of him, but he seemed to tire as the tournament progressed and was not quite so influential in the first knock-out match against Mexico, though Argentina edged it with Maxi Rodriguez's wonderful goal. Against Germany, in a tight midfield battle, Riquelme was again crucial. Argentina were leading and dominant, Riquelme spraying passes around and the Germans unable to hold onto the ball when they could get it off the opposition. But Pekerman surrendered to his defensive instincts and substituted his Number 10. Moments later the Germans equalised and they, not an Argentina without its conductor, were the dominant team throughout extra-time, only to win on penalties. Pekerman resigned, Riquelme only lasting a single game as Captain before retiring from International football altogether, claiming that the criticism he had attracted in Argentina during the World Cup had made his mother sick.

He has had a tough time with the Argentine press ever since he left the country to move to Barcelona. He had been signed by Boca Juniors from Argentinos Juniors at the age of 17, and broke into the first team a year later. Here he became a central figure, Maradona's favourite player, and bearer of the heavy burden that is the Number 10 shirt. He wore it lightly at that time, helping Boca win the Argentine Championship three times between 1998 and 2001, winning the South American equivalent of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, in 2000, and the Intercontinental Cup (beating Real Madrid 2-1)in the same year. He was voted South American Footballer of the Year in 2001, putting him in the company of legends like Maradona, Zico, Pele, Socrates, Enzo Francescoli, Carlos Valderama and Romario. In 2002 he became involved in a contract dispute with Boca and was eventually transferred to Barcelona. He already had a reputation as a quiet player, singular in his needs in training, and unable to perform to the best of his abilities unless he had a midfield "minder" to do his dirty work. At Barcelona, coach Louis van Gaal made it clear to his new player that he did not actually want him, that he was a "political" signing, and promptly deployed him on the wing, utterly wasting his talents. To compound these problems, his brother was kidnapped and held for ransom in Buenos Aires only a few weeks after he left Argentina. Riquelme negotiated with the kidnappers and eventually paid the ransom money. But unsurprisingly he played fitfully after his first few months in Spain, until Barca eventually sent him on loan to Villareal in 2003.

Villareal are a small club in a small town, and their Chilean coach, Manuel Pelligrini, based his playing style on South American football, recruiting a backbone of talent from that continent. Brazil-born midfielder Marcus Senna won the ball and did the running for Riquelme, while Uruguayan Diego Forlan gave him a yellow shirt to aim for with his through-balls. At the back, Argentine captain Juan Pablo Sorin commanded the left wing, and there were three other Argentines, an Ecuadorean, a Bolivian and a Mexican in the squad that reached the Semi-finals of the Champions League in 2006. That Champions League run was due to the disciplined, fast-passing game Villareal played, and Riquelme was utterly cruical to that. Diego Forlan won the European Golden Boot in 2005 with 25 League goals, a good proportion of them coming from Riquelme assists. He was the same player he had been at Boca, and the name on his shirt read "Roman" instead of Riquelme to signal the psychological break from the events at Barcelona. He was nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year award the same year and came second only to Ronaldinho in year-end polls amongst Spanish football writers. But it all went wrong for him in 2006. That World Cup exit and his subsequent International retirement, at the age of 29. His penalty miss against Arsenal in the Semi-final of the Champions League, which resurrected old Argentinian criticisms of his lack of mental toughness. And in recent months he has fallen out with Pelligrini and been left out of the Villareal squad which is not performing to anything like its levels of 12 months ago in his absence. The club signed Chilean wonderkid (and Winner of this years South American Player of the Year Award) Mattias Fernandez from Colo Colo around the same time Riquelme and Pelligrini's problem came to light. Fernandez is a more modern style of playmaker, and he has gone straight into the team, playing in Riquelme's position, but without much success so far. It takes a while for a South American to acclimatise to European football, as Riquelme would testify.

So Riquelme spent much of the transfer window looking for a move away from the club he drove to unprecedented success. Bayern Munich, Man Utd and Inter Milan were all rumoured to be interested, but nothing came off and at the time of writing he remains a Villareal player, though one who is not playing. For me, he is one of the top 5 players in World Football, and the fact that he is essentially without a club at the moment is one of those instances of insanity football throws up from time to time. This compilation ends with a few minutes worth of his performance against England in last years friendly in Geneva. I remember reading after that game the English players testimonies about how elusive and superb he had been. Watching the match, the first half had seemed almost a private duel between Riquelme and Wayne Rooney, each daring the other onto the next piece of intuitive genius, until Riquelme pulled away from Rooney, the younger man's relative inexperience showing as Riquelme dictated the course of the game and repeatedly made John Terry look like an idiot. Pekerman substitued him with only a few minutes left and Argentina 2-1 ahead. In his absence, and granted some possession of the ball, England scored two late goals and won the game. Of Course Pekerman repeated the mistake in the World Cup....

*But hes still playing, I hear you cry. Well, just about. But I never said those were the rules, did I?


Saturday, February 03, 2007

On Some Faraway Beach

I don't go to many Exhibitions. Or Galleries. Or museums, really. It seems an awful lot of effort, to go somewhere like that just to walk around, even if there are amazing works of art or items of historical interest to gaze upon. I'm old, I need to sit down with my culture these days.

But I make the occasional exception, especially if an artist I know and admire from another field is somehow involved. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, one such artist, is a Turkish film director. At the time of writing I've only seen one of his films (his latest, Climates, is released in the UK on Friday and I'm very much looking forward to it) but that film, Uzak (Distant) is a masterpiece. It is also an incredibly beautiful and vivid example of the possibilities of photography in modern cinema, and I was unsurprised to learn that Ceylan was a photographer before he began making films. Hes something of a renaissance man, Ceylan. He wrote, stars in and directed Climates (while his wife is his leading lady) and he is still a working photographer, claiming that still photography allows him an intimacy and connection with his subjects impossible in cinema. To coincide with the release of Climates, the National Theatre is hosting a small exhibition of Ceylan's recent photography, Turkish Cinemascope.

As is made plain by the title, Ceylan's work is explicitly cinematic. His pictures have the same dimensions as cinemascope frames, and many of his images recall the snowy Istanbul cityscapes so indeliby captured in Uzak. He uses pigment ink on cotton paper to give his blacks more power in the palette of his work, meaning that there is always a high contrast between the areas of shadow and shade and all other colours. This gives each picture a strange vibrancy, a heightened realism beyond mere representationalism, reminiscent of the power of cinematography. It also means that the many shots of Istanbul under snow appear starkly magnificent - the flashes of colour leap out of the pictures away from the blacks and whites. Films often make life appear more beautiful than it can to the naked eye, and Ceylan's photographs do the same thing.

Uzak felt like the work of an original and distinctive voice in World Cinema, but if it reminded me of any other director, then that director was Michaelangelo Antonioni. Ceylan's many studies of figures dwarfed by their environments - whether it be in the vastness of the Turkish countryside or between the Minarets of Istanbul and the dark swell of the Bosphorus - recalled Antonioni and his fascination with figures and their relationships with landscape, and his interrogation of the meanings of architecture. Turkish Cinemascope continues in a similar vein. Ceylan repeatedly picks out solitary figures against vast landscapes or desolate, darkened cityscapes. He often seems to deliberately include glimpes of both sides of Turkey, the ancient and modern, with cars just visible beyond crumbling sidestreets, and Mosques always dominating skylines. Many of these figures seem timeless, Ceylan obviously using his formidable eye to choose children with ancient faces and men with the air of the medievel bazaar about them as his subjects. As well as Antonioni, these pictures often reminded me of another Italian director, and perhaps the best ever exponent of the art of widescreen composition : Sergio Leone. Just check out the example below, and imagine the Morricone for yourself :

Ceylan's photography has been compared to the painting of Pieter Brueghel, and there is definitely something painterly about this work, in the epic scope of each picture, the attention to detail and the compositional eye. Ceylan views most of his landscapes from above, in a series of "God shots" which are possibly the most breathtaking feature of the exhibition. Seen like this, these old Turkish towns and temples look positively Biblical, and always beautiful. As well as fuelling my anticipation for Climates, these pictures made me want to visit Turkey, a first for me.

As renaissance men go, Brian Eno makes Nuri Bilge Ceylan look like a beginner. Eno is a record producer, a songwriter and singer, a soundtrack composer, a cultural theorist, a journalist and author, an artist and inventor. Obviously I love his music. His first four solo records are among the best rock albums of the 1970s, defying categorisation as they proceed through a series of amazing songs, never confining themselves to any set style or sound, alway mobile and interesting. Eno somehow managed to combine this intellectual approach to pop with the ability to write some incredible hooks. And then he lost interest in making this sort of music, and moving on, he more or less invented and named an entire genre - Eno is perhaps most celebrated as the father of Ambient. While releasing a series of seminal albums exploring his new interests and collaborating with a diverse list of musicians, Eno kept a roof over his head by producing other artists. Of course, in the pursuit of these jobs for hire, he happened to produce some of the best records of the era, from Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" to David Bowie's "Low". Then he became involved with a post-punk band from Dublin who wanted to expand their sound, and he produced some of the most commercially successful albums of the 80s and 90s for this band - "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby". All the while he was writing, painting, theorising, always creating.

Last year he released his first straight "pop" record for decades with the excellent "Another Day On Earth". But one reason he abandoned mainstream music in the first place was the astonishing eclecticism of his interests. He has been producing visual art for 20 years, increasingly combining his creative urges with his fascination with computer technology. His work generally focuses on "painting with light", using various light sources - television monitors, spotlights, projectors, backlit screens - to create constantly evolving works. His latest project is called 77 Million Paintings, and it utilises unique software created for Eno to follow this long-established methodology. Using high-definition monitors and home computers, 77 Million Paintings presents a series of self-generating, ever-changing pictures. This approach allows the work to be displayed in various different galleries and settings in many different configurations and designs. One such exhibition is presently being hosted in the basement of Selfridges on Oxford Street under the title "luminous".

In Selfridges, there are five different clusters made up of thirty "windows" hanging in the darkness of the exhibition space only feet away from one of the store's cafes. These windows are continually changing - colours wash through, patterns emerge and fade, figures can be made out, then transformed by the slightest alteration - as is the music, also randomly generated by computer software from elements created by Eno. This means that "luminous" is never the same, the combination of so many different pieces always in different configurations. The music sounded vaguely industrial at times, with buzzes of feedback and distorted vocals drifting in and out through fogs of synth and the odd snatch of rhythm. The visuals work through juxtaposition - both of colours and of the odd patterns and details that sporadically emerge - and the seamless subtlety of the transitions. I had assumed I would hate it, as my usual response to most modern art is dismissive, and this was in a Department Store to boot, but the cumulative effect is strangely calming and even a little hypnotic. You walk out of the bustle of one of the busiest spots in Europe into Eno's ambient world. You sit on a sofa in the darkness and watch the colours shift and ebb. The music cocoons you. If it wasn't for the odd invasive rattle of cup upon saucer from outside and the unavoidable awareness of a slow stream of people passing through the heavy curtains and into the space, it would be an utterly transportive experience.
And of course, you get to sit down throughout, definitely a bonus. 77 Million Paintings is available as a DVD and DVD-Rom, and I can imagine it would make a beautiful screen-saver as long as the images were combined with the musical content, since photography (including the photographs above) can't really hope to capture the experience.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Screengrab - Xibalba

"Morality is a question of tracking shots" - Luc Moullet, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959

Style is the grammar of cinema. How a filmaker uses his camera, where he positions it, how he composes and lights a frame, the palette he uses, how he cuts his shots together - this is style. I spend far too much time thinking about style, about how somebody with an invisible style can still manage to have a distinctive "voice" by a variety of different means (Howard Hawks or Woody Allen spring immediately to mind). How some directors alter their style from film to film but still manage to be more than mere hacks (Stephen Soderbergh, perhaps?). Or about how some directors have no real visual sense at all, and how this can really harm a well-scripted, nicely-acted film. Take Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, for example. Gaghan is primarily a writer ( he won an Oscar for his script for Traffic) and Syriana is full of good writing, both in terms of dialogue and characterisation. The actors are well-directed, with George Clooney giving probably the best performance of his career. But Gaghan seems to want to ape Michael Mann in his use of intimate hand-held cameras. The sense of authenticity, the intimacy of this style is present in Syriana, but Gaghan doesn't have Mann's eye or ability to orchestrate many elements to make a scene feel fresh and electric. Syriana always feels slightly pedestrian in its direction. There are none of those moments of sheer beauty familiar from Mann's work, which is a pity, because Gaghan's script is brave and deals with political issues in an adult way, a rarity in modern American cinema. But as a director, he will never be any more than competent - which is better than, say, Michael Bay can claim - which marks him out as an oddity in a Hollywood full of almost excessively visually-minded directors who came from the worlds of Music videos and advertising.

Darren Aronofsky, on the other hand, has a definite visual sense all of his own, and each of his three films is dazzling in its own way. He has co-written the scripts for each, suggesting that he has as much interest in narrative as style, a relief in terms of speculating about the future of his career. The Fountain may be his most visually ostentatious film, filled as it is with special effects and visual mirroring and echoing. Scenes and shots refer to one another, compositions recur. Aronofsky seems to love symmetrical compositions and his film is full of them to the point that it is noticeable whenever he breaks away for an asymmetrical shot.

Of course, cinema - and the eye - loves symmetry. The human face is symmetrical, as Aronofsky seems out to prove with his endless loving closeups of Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman, each staring deep into the camera. And the closeup is the most basic and perhaps most important shot in narrative cinema. But Aronfsky shoots so much of the rest of the film this way too : temples, a particular tree, people at prayer, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, and even an overhead tracking shot. The only other director I can think of with such a symmetry obsession is Luc Besson, who perpetually places his characters right at the centre of the frame.

The Fountain addresses big, profound themes to match its visual style - love, death, spirituality - and though it doesn't really say anything radical or new, it is impressive in its very ambition and its visual grandeur. Also impressive is Aronofsky's willingness to use science fiction as a serious genre, a genre made for dealing with weighty themes. But those symmetrical compositions continue to bother me, mainly because I can't see a reason for their ubiquity throughout beyond Aronofsky's obvious affection for them. They don't seem to offer anything thematically, and it seems odd that a director as obviously smart and controlling as Aronofsky would be so casual about the look of his film. Perhaps it can be argued that they make the visual echoes throughout the film more obvious, with the various shots of Jackman in different time periods almost coalescing at the climax acting as the payoff. But then I recall his previous films, and the use of fish-eye lenses, which twist the world into a unique hall of mirrors symmetry, begins to seem particularly relevant. When I remembered this, the key recurring shot from Requiem for a Dream, it all made sense :

Hes just one of those directors who see the world this way, an image which is balanced on each side. Or at least, thats how he wants us to see it. Just like Besson, and to some extent Stanley Kubrick. Consider the iconic images from Kubrick's career and many of them are also symmetrical compositions : Kirk Douglas walking the trenches in Paths of Glory, Malcolm McDowell leering straight at the camera in A Clockwork Orange, the red eye of HAL in 2001, the boy rolling his tricycle along the corridors in The Shining...surely a director as deliberate and careful as Kubrick would have a reason for choosing this composition so often in his work? But thats another blog...

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