Friday, December 7, 2012

THE BEST FILMMAKERS OF ALL TIME

Is there truly an objective way to determine who the best filmmakers of all time are?  There’s always some subjectivity and personal opinion which are bound to come into play when making these kinds of decisions.  However, I do believe that if we set some guidelines to adhere by, it is possible to make a mostly objective list of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

So, the question arises—what are these guidelines?  For me, the most important criteria to adhere to is whether or not the filmmaker contributed in any way to innovating or advancing the medium of film.  Just as the most innovative scientists were able to come up with theories that contributed to the evolution of technology, we must similarly determine if there were certain filmmakers who were able to elevate cinema to a higher level. 

An equally important criteria is whether or not the filmmaker has influenced other filmmakers.  All art forms are influenced by earlier works of art, and there is a reason why this happens.  It’s because the original art work had a lasting and important impact on the field in question.  When an important innovation occurs, it is oftentimes misunderstood and questioned by many, and thus it may sometimes takes years, and even decades, before the innovation is even acknowledged by the wider society. 

There are many examples of films that were dismissed upon their initial release, only to be regarded as significant works of art in later years.  This is because these films were ahead of their time, and it oftentimes takes society some time to catch up to them. 

So, with these guidelines in place, here is my list of the ten greatest filmmakers of all time, along with their most important films:

1.     Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001)
2.     Jean Luc Godard (Breathless, Masculin Féminin, Histoire(s) du cinéma)
3.     Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Ran)
4.     Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window)
5.     Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, Alexander Nevsky, Battleship Potemkin)
6.     Ingmar Bergman (The Virgin Spring, Scenes from a Marriage, The Seventh Seal)
7.     Edward Yang (The Terrorizers, A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi)
8.     Fritz Lang (Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, M)
9.     Orson Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons, Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin)
10.  Federico Fellini (Nights of Cabiria, 8 ½, La Dolce Vita)

Honorable Mentions:  John Ford, Bela Tarr, D.W. Griffith, Martin Scorsese
 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

FILM REVIEW: A DANGEROUS METHOD

David Cronenberg has spent his entire career exploring the ideas of sexual perversion as defined by Sigmund Freud and the struggle between what Carl Jung termed the anima and the animus, or the concepts of the masculine and the feminine.  So, it is no surprise that Cronenberg would make his most fully realized and insightful film with A Dangerous Method, the story of the uneasy friendship between Freud and Jung. 

A Dangerous Method examines the relationship between Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and Jung (Michael Fassbinder), and how this intellectual alliance is affected by Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient of Jung’s who is suffering from severe trauma.  Sabina gradually makes her way into the lives of both men, and grows to become their intellectual equal when she becomes a prominent psychologist. 


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It is interesting to note that Cronenberg films Sabina so that she is androgynous in appearance; this is purposefully done to emphasize how she embodies the male and female ideas that Freud and Jung embody, respectively.  The competing theories of Freud and Jung merge into those of Sabina’s work as a psychologist, as she has in a sense reconciled the anima nature of Jung’s theories with the animus nature of Freud’s. 

Jung theorized that when anima and animus combined, they would form one being which has both female and male aspects, known as Mercurius.  With her androgynous nature, Sabina has become Cronenberg’s version of Mercurius. 

Similarly, Freud is filmed as being very masculine and unyielding in appearance, while Jung is portrayed as being feminine and soft.  Freud, with his emphasis on the validity of science and logic, embodies the masculine ideal in psychoanalysis, while Jung, with his interest in Eastern-inspired mystical theories, embodies the feminine ideal. 

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The Cronenberg film which most resembles A Dangerous Method is Dead RingersDead Ringers also deals with two doctors, twin brothers both played by Jeremy Irons, who become involved with a female patient of theirs.  Like Freud and Jung from A Dangerous Method, the doctors in Dead Ringers are overtly masculine and feminine in nature, while the woman they are involved in is androgynous in nature.  Thus, with Dead Ringers, Cronenberg was already exploring the psycho-sexual issues that the three central characters of A Dangerous Method embody.

Cronenberg examines this intriguing interplay between Freud, Jung, and Sabina in a very straightforward manner, which actually works better than portraying it in a more fantastical way.  If Cronenberg had made A Dangerous Method earlier in his career, when he specialized in films filled with surreal and shocking imagery like Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and Scanners, he probably would have visualized much of the surreal aspects of the film.

There are scenes where Jung describes his many fantastical dreams to Freud in vivid detail, and in another scene Sabina tells Jung about a recurrent nightmare she has about being attacked by a fleshy appendage.  Cronenberg has chosen to hold back and not portrays these sequences visually; instead, he purposefully leaves them to the audience’s imagination. 

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He does so because for the older Cronenberg, his purpose is no longer to shock the audience in order to get his point across.  Instead, he wants the audience to focus on the ideas and concepts of the film, rather than being distracted by surreal imagery.  This calculated move has already alienated many of Cronenberg’s fans, who have dismissed A Dangerous Method as being nothing more than an overly talky costume drama.

However, A Dangerous Method still explores all the concepts that Cronenberg has been dealing with throughout his career, including sexual aberration, the struggle between anima and animus, and repulsion of the flesh, but does so in a much more cerebral and intellectually stimulating manner. 

Most of A Dangerous Method consists of Jung, Freud, and Sabina sitting in rooms discussing their various theories and ideas.  Cronenberg is forcing the audience to approach his film in a new way, by focusing on what is being said, rather than being swayed by horrific imagery.  This new approach gives the viewer a chance to reflect upon the dialogue, and to approach each scene as a mental exercise in which they can actively engage with the intellectual discussions that are occurring.

With A Dangerous Method’s many scenes of verbal sparring between Freud, Jung, and Sabina, Cronenberg has found a way to convey his obsessions and concerns in a less literal level, and discovered that sometimes it is better to engage the audience through their head instead of their heart. 


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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

FILM REVIEW: ANTIVIRAL

It is not always an easy task to break into a field in which one of your parents has already excelled at, especially if your father is David Cronenberg, who is considered by many to be one of our most brilliant living filmmakers.  So, it took a lot of guts for Brandon Cronenberg to decide to plunge into his own filmmaking career.  The first thing that everyone will want to know is if Brandon is as good as his legendary father.

I think that this is an unfair question to ask because, number one, Brandon has only made one film so far, while his father has a long and varied filmography, and number two, I think all filmmakers and artists should be judged on the merits of their own work, without having to compare them to their respected fathers or mothers.  But, just to make you, my fellow reader, feel better…I will say this:

Brandon Cronenberg knows how to make movies, and he does have a very promising career ahead of him.


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With his film Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg has shown that he does have the trace DNA of his father in him, with his thematic concerns with body horror, the merger of the human body with technology, and aberrant sexual behavior.

Antiviral is a cold, clinical, and darkly humorous film about Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a disease-obsessed man who works at the Lucas Clinic, a company that specializes in injecting customers with diseases taken directly from their favorite celebrities. 

However, in addition to carrying out the mandatory injections into his customers, Syd starts secretly injecting himself with these diseases.  After he injects himself with the virus from the Lucas Clinic’s celebrity spokeswoman Hannah Geist, Syd finds himself involved in a labyrinthian conspiracy involving corrupt pharmaceutical companies, greedy scientists, and a mysterious doctor played by Malcolm McDowell.


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With its central concept of a future society in which people inject themselves with diseases from their favorite celebrities, Antiviral is about the commodification and monetization of celebrity worship.  For Cronenberg, the obsession with celebrities that is engrained within our modern society is akin to a disease that threatens to destroy us. 

It is no coincidence that Syd’s customers are willing to risk their own health, and sometimes their own lives, in order to make some sort of a “connection” with the celebrities that they so much want to be like.  Cronenberg films the customers as looking pale and unhealthy, even before they have injected the diseases into themselves, while the celebrities they worship are shown as having pristine and attractive physical features.  However, the flawless outer appearances of celebrities covers up the many disease-carrying viruses and pathogens contained within their seemingly benign exteriors.


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This disconnect between inner and outer appearances is a central theme throughout Antiviral.  The clean, white rooms of the Lucas Clinic at the beginning of the film gradually give way to scenes of blood-splattered walls and ruptured surfaces, as Syd discovers more and more about the nefarious, inner secrets of the Clinic.

Although it gets bogged down in exposition and pacing issues in its last act, for most of its running time, Antiviral is a cleverly made film that is alternately squirm-inducing, thought-provoking, and at times genuinely unsettling. 

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Friday, November 16, 2012

FILM REVIEW: LIFE OF PI

Ang Lee has always been interested in exploring the conflict between our inner and outer desires, and how society oftentimes prevents us from revealing our true selves. 

Eat Drink Man Woman was about a woman who had to defer her dreams of being a professional chef in order to advance her career as a corporate executive and take care of her father.  The Ice Storm was about a whole family struggling with the traditional concept of the nuclear family and the more liberating sexual revolution of the 1970s.  Brokeback Mountain was about a married man living in a prejudiced society who had to repress his homosexuality. 

Now, with Life of Pi, Ang Lee has created his most powerful and complex film yet about how our innate needs and wishes can conflict with the wider society.


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Life of Pi is based upon the Man Booker Prize winning novel of the same name by Yann Martel.  The film and book are about an Indian boy named Pi (played by Suraj Sharma as the young Pi, and Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi), who forms an unusual relationship with a tiger named Richard Parker.  After Pi survives a shipwreck, he is stranded in the ocean on a single lifeboat with Richard Parker, and he must learn how to live with and eventually gain the trust of the unpredictable tiger. 

From this simple story, Ang Lee creates a complex, multi-layered meditation on the nature of faith, compassion, and most importantly, the reconciliation of our inner desires with what society expects of us.  Life of Pi is told in flashbacks, as the adult Pi meets with a writer who wants to tell his story. 


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The first part of Life of Pi deals with Pi’s journey to find God, as he moves from one religion to another.  At the same time, Pi’s spiritual journey keeps getting interrupted by his father, whose strict secular worldview conflicts with Pi’s more religious leanings. 

Pi’s father represents the wider society that Pi always finds himself competing with; in a world dominated by science and technology, how can someone as spiritually adventurous as Pi survive?  However, Pi is a headstrong individual, and he’s constantly getting in trouble with both his father and the society at large with his restless yearning to find deeper meaning in the world. 

Pi’s journey leads him to being adrift in a single lifeboat, where his worldview and very survival depend on how he deals with a carnivorous, dangerous tiger.  The tiger is symbolic of many things—it represents Pi’s own strong-willed, unyielding nature in the face of a society that won’t accept his beliefs, and it also is a stand-in for Pi’s father who, like the tiger, is both a figure of menace and threat, and also of immense compassion.


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With the many visually astonishing scenes of Pi and the tiger framed against the vastness of the ocean, one gets the sense that there is a higher force at work, watching over Pi and guiding him in his journey of survival.  For the more religiously inclined, this force can be described as being God, but Ang Lee takes this concept further by suggesting that God is more than just a single, all-powerful figure. 

Instead, Ang Lee suggests that God is nature itself, as revealed in an astonishing sequence where Pi and the tiger find themselves on a lush island.  The island is a bountiful source of nutrients and fresh water for Pi and the tiger to live off of, but at the same time Pi discovers that the island also contains a more dangerous side which can lead to death.  Ang Lee is equating nature in the form of the island with God—both forces have the power to give and take away.

In purely cinematic terms, Life of Pi contains some of the most visually ravishing scenes in film history.  The aforementioned scenes on the island re-awaken a sense of wonder and amazement that has been missing in many of the more cynically inclined films of recent years.  Ang Lee uses 3D to astonishing effect in the many awe-inspiring scenes of Pi and the tiger as they encounter the variety of life that exists in the vastness of the ocean. 


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Instead of using 3D to thrill the audience with cheap effects such as creatures popping out of the screen, Ang Lee is more interested in using the medium to engulf the viewer in what can best be called a communal re-connection with nature.  In one particularly effective scene, we see Pi and his lifeboat appearing as little more than a dot against the expansive ocean at night; the ocean waters reflect all the stars above, so it looks like Pi is floating through the vastness of space.

However, unlike some other recent 3D films, Ang Lee doesn’t let the technical spectacle of his film overwhelm the more intimate and philosophical aspects.  Life of Pi isn’t just about visual splendor and 3D effects; instead, it is a deep meditation on life and death, and our ultimate place in the universe. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

FILM REVIEW: GINGER & ROSA

Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa is an emotionally shattering film about how the sexual and political environment of the 1960s affects the lives of two teenage girls living in London.  Ginger (Elle Fanning) is introspective and quiet, and has a pessimistic view of the world, while her best friend Rosa (Alice Englert) is outgoing and adventurous, and views the world as full of possibilities.  The sometimes reckless abandonment of Rosa, who embodies the “free love” and sexual liberation ethos of the 1960s youth generation, attracts Ginger, despite her innate timidity. 


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In fact, Ginger is more like her mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks), who is more reserved and at times obsessively anxious, while Rosa’s bold and temerarious personality is similar to Ginger’s father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), an anarchist whose brash behavior oftentimes leads to trouble.  Both Rosa and Roland fully embrace the more open-minded sexual mores of the 1960s counter-culture movement, as they casually engage in indiscriminate sex with multiple partners.

The main event of this era that informs every scene in Ginger & Rosa is the threat of nuclear annihilation.  As the film begins, we discover that Ginger and Rosa were born at the exact same moment in 1945 when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  This event haunts Ginger when she becomes a teenager, and she spends her days and nights obsessively worrying about the end of the world as a result of a nuclear war. 

Indeed, the central concern of Ginger & Rosa is of an era, specifically the 1960s, coming to an end.  For Ginger, this end is a literal end brought about by a nuclear war.  However, on a more symbolic level, Sally Potter is exploring how the “free love” movement of the 1960s, when sexual partners were freely exchanged without consideration of emotional attachment or familial concerns, came to an end. 


Ginger and Rosa: watch an exclusive trailer - video


The constant switching of sexual partners by both Rosa and Roland leads to the eventual destruction of their respective family units.  Rosa sleeps around to compensate for the lack of a real father figure in her life, leading to her mother falling deep into despair.  Roland sleeps with multiple women to the detriment of his wife and daughter, who are fully aware of his behavior. 

It is no coincidence that nuclear war is a central theme in Ginger & Rosa, an obvious allusion to the concept of the nuclear family which was formulated in the 1950s.  During the 1950s, the ideal nuclear family was based on the heterosexual couple of the mother and the father, along with the son and/or daughter.  This central unit had to fend for itself without the help of any outside support. 

Ginger & Rosa explores how this idea of the nuclear family came into direct conflict with the changing mores of the 1960s, as revealed by the characters of Rosa and Roland and their attempts to reshape the nuclear family.


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Just as a nuclear bomb could destroy the whole world, Sally Potter reveals how the outdated concept of the nuclear family was broken apart and changed during the 1960s.  

This is also revealed with her introduction of a homosexual couple in the film, played by Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt, who form a sort of alternate nuclear family to Ginger’s heterosexual mother and father.

Ultimately, Ginger & Rosa, with its cast of anarchists, free-thinkers, sexually liberated men and women, and gay couples, is Sally Potter’s attempt to reconfigure the idea of the nuclear family into something more inclusive, open-minded, and more fitting to the ever-changing modern world.


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Saturday, November 10, 2012

FILM REVIEW: LA CHINOISE

In 1960, Jean Luc Godard burst onto the cinema landscape with his groundbreaking debut film Breathless, a huge critical and commercial success that ushered in the influential French New Wave momement.  One can make the argument that from his debut film onwards, Godard's 1960s work defined the entire turbulent decade.  Indeed, Godard has an astonishing 12 films from the 1960s in the prestigious Criterion Collection, which is perhaps the most respected DVD/Blu Ray distributor of classic and important contemporary films.

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As the 1960s came to an end, Godard’s work became more experimental and politically radical.  Godard didn’t want to only entertain audiences; instead, he wanted to engage viewers in an active and cerebral manner.  As events such as the Vietnam War and the 1968 student protest movements dominated the social and political climate, Godard felt that cinema had to actively address these issues.  This led Godard to start making politically radical films such as Weekend, La Chinoise, and a series of works known collectively as the Dziga Vertov Group films.


La Chinoise is Godard’s most politically incisive work.  With its examination of Marxism and the student protest movement, La Chinoise is Godard’s ultimate manifesto on the politics of the 1960s.  It takes the same vibrant color palette of his less political films, such as Pierrot le fou and Made in U.S.A., and places it within a story of student revolutionaries in France during the late 1960s.  Most of La Chinoise takes place in a single apartment shared by a group of young students who are deeply dissatisfied with the government.

La Chinoise translates to the Chinese, alluding to the fascination that 1960s student intellectuals had with the ideas of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution in China.  These students were deeply influenced by Mao’s leadership role in the revolt of the proletariat class against the bourgeoisie.  Throughout La Chinoise, we see the students reciting from Mao’s Little Black Book, and even dressing in the traditional dark blue clothing of the Chinese peasant revolutionaries. 


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Another important thinker that the students are influenced by is Karl Marx, who espoused a similar critique about the dialectical struggle between the proletariat and the elite classes.  However, while the students spend their days studying the works of Marx and Mao, Godard ultimately views their actions with disdain and skepticism.  For Godard, the students are hypocrites because while they talk about oppression and exploitation, they never actually leave their apartment to engage with the outside population that they claim to want to help.

Instead, as Godard reveals, the students spend their days isolated from the wider society, entertaining themselves with theatrical games.  In one scene, a student stands in front of the other students, reading aloud from the works of Marx.  The seated students holler and yell at the standing student, as if he was an actor performing for them.  Godard emphasizes this theatrical aspect of the scene further by panning back and forth from a distance between the standing and seated students, as if the viewer was yet another spectator of this grand theatrical production. 

In another scene, one of the students states directly that the Vietnam War is a performance made up of different actors, with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam as the three main players.  For these students, politics is just a form of distraction, or a way to entertain themselves without having to face the real world.


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Thus, Godard ultimately views the students’ activities as being meaningless.  For Godard, it is futile to endlessly discuss political issues without taking any action.  And when the students do finally decide to take action, the result is equally misguided, as they ultimately resort to violence.


La Chinoise is a biting indictment of the deep gap which can exist between action and thought.  The students in La Chinoise espouse revolutionary thoughts, but their actions do not reflect this.  They ultimately do not succeed because in the end, they are members of the same class that they are trying to overthrow—the elite, bourgeois class.  Marx argued that a revolution must be carried out from the bottom up, as happened during the Cultural Revolution in China, not from the top up, as the students in La Chinoise are attempting to do. 


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For Godard, bourgeois cinema seeks only to entertain, just as the students in La Chinoise seek to entertain themselves with theatrical games.  Instead, from the late 1960s and throughout the rest of his career, Godard sought to create a form of cinema that actively engages audiences, and forces them to view films in a new light.  Perhaps this is why many have chosen to ignore Godard’s wide output of great work after the 1960s, and to focus instead only on his earlier, more accessible films.  La Chinoise was Godard’s first film to completely divorce itself from the bounds of traditional narrative filmmaking, and to point cinema in a new, innovative direction.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

FILM REVIEW: SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Olivier Assayas has always been fascinated with the youth and revolutionary movements of the 1970s, a period after the 1968 worldwide student protest movements which had a lasting impact in Europe.  In his previous two films Cold Water and Carlos, Assayas explored how the turbulent political and social events of the 1960s and 1970s influenced the lives of his various protagonists, whether they were young, idealistic teenagers, or infamous terrorists. 

In his latest film Something in the Air (Après mai), Assayas continues this exploration of revolutionary movements with an autobiographical story about a young man living in 1970s France.  Perhaps because Assayas is more at peace with himself, the frustration and nihilism of Cold Water and Carlos has been replaced by a more optimistic and blissful tone in Something in the Air.

The French title of the film, Après mai, translates to “after May,” referring to the May 1968 student protest movement in France, a major event in which students joined with laborers to stage a strike which brought the economy to a standstill.  The protagonist of Something in the Air is Gilles (Clément Métayer), a student in the early 1970s who joins a group of classmates in revolutionary activities to protest the corrupt activities of the French government.  All of their actions are influenced by the May 1968 protest movement, but throughout the film, Gilles struggles between his commitment to his political beliefs, and his artistic endeavors as a painter, and eventually as a filmmaker.


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Indeed, this is the central theme of Something in the Air—the conflict between political conviction and the more individualistic path of the artist.  Gilles finds himself more drawn to the world of painting and the arts, while his friends drift steadily further into more dangerous political militancy.  

Eventually, as in Jean Luc-Godard’s film La Chinoise, the political activities of Gilles’ friends lead them to contemplate an act of violence.  Gilles, on the other hand, decides to devote his time to the arts.  For Assayas, what began as youthful idealism for French students during the 1970s ultimately leads to disillusionment. 

Gilles’ first girlfriend Laure (Carol Combes) becomes enmeshed in the political activites of the 1970s, culminating in a hallucinatory scene in which she imagines herself being engulfed in flames.  Later in the film, as Gilles attends a festival for experimental films, he imagines seeing Laure on-screen in a beautiful, sun-drenched field.  The message is clear—in the increasingly disjointed realm of political disillusionment, Laure’s fate is violent and hopeless, while in the realm of the arts, Laure finds herself in a world of beauty and optimism.  For Assayas, art in its purest form is free from all political didacticism, and is universal and unchanging in its eternal search for beauty and the truth. 

The very aesthetics of Something in the Air reflects this search for beauty in its truest sense.  Assayas hired non-professional actors for the film because he wanted to avoid the artificiality and theatricality of more professionally trained actors.  Instead, the performances in Something in the Air feel real and honest, resulting in a naturalism that is almost startling in its authenticity.  In an interesting subplot, the filmmaking collective that Gilles' new girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton) becomes involved in proposes to do what Assayas himself did in Something in the Air—to film the laborers in their natural settings without hiring any professional actors.


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Similarly, Something in the Air is filmed in a straightforward, almost documentary manner, as the camera becomes a non-intrusive observer of the events it is capturing.  Many scenes are filmed from long and medium long shots, giving the actors a comfortable distance so that they can perform more naturally and without being aware of the presence of the camera.  This results in performances which feel natural and non-imposed upon. 

At one point, as Gilles attends a screening of political films, an audience member confronts the filmmakers about why they are not using a more radical, experimental style to tell their story.  The filmmakers respond by saying they want to make films whose form does not conform to the alienating, sometimes incomprehensible style of what they call “bourgeois filmmaking.”  Instead, they want to make films that mirror the real world in its truest form, just as Assayas himself is attempting to do in Something in the Air

Ultimately, with Something in the Air, Assayas is trying to return cinema to a more naturalistic realm, one which is free from political dogmatism and the constraints of traditional narrative filmmaking.  


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The character of Gilles does not essentially change from the beginning of the film to the end, as is required for more traditionally oriented Hollywood style narrative films, in which the protagonist has to have some sort of character arc or encounter obstacles to overcome.  This is a very individualistic and even imperialistic form of filmmaking, one in which the central theme is that of the individual himself or herself, free from any help from the wider society, ultimately triumphing over and controlling his or her environment. 

It is interesting to note that many Western critics have complained that they couldn’t identify or empathize with any of the characters in Something in the Air because they weren’t portrayed as being individuals, or as being indistinguishable from the other characters.  This was done intentionally by Assayas to confront the more Westernized, individualistic form of cinema, and to show that we should view ourselves as being more attached to the collective environment, than as being individuals isolated from each other. 

This is also a more subtle way for Assayas to come to terms with the utopian ideas of the 1970s, in which the youth envisioned a future society where everyone was connected to each other in a universal collective.  This is an idea that still exists today, as revealed in the recent Occupy movement, and one which will continue to exist as new generations of youth struggle to build a more optimistic future.

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