Wednesday, October 17, 2012


During the 1960s, many visions for a Utopian future existed—one which could only be achieved through technological innovations.  The common perception of the 1960s was that science was boundless in terms of its ability to advance human society.  Science allowed us to reach beyond the limits of Earth; on July 20, 1969, the United States astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human on the moon.  This achievement occurred in the larger context of the Cold War, during which the U.S. and Russia fought each other to gain technological global dominance.  As a result of this rivalry, the United States’ striving for dominance in the field of science was fertile grounds for creative expression by many 1960s artists. 


Stanley Kubrick's 2001 was the most significant film from the 1960s which reflected this glorification of science.  Although it presented a Utopian future of the United States as colonizing and exploring space freely, 2001 also revealed the limits and the dangers of technology.  In a world of rapid technological changes, the self-destructive side of science is a frightening reality.


Kubrick’s 2001 portrays humans in the process of creating wondrous technological advancements, such as building a space station and landing on distant planets.  In the film, the United States has sent a group of scientists, including the lead character of David, to explore the solar system.  The lives of these scientists are in the hands of HAL, a super computer which is a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence. 

At first, HAL cooperates with David and his crew, carefully monitoring those who are in suspended animation, and even playing chess with David when he is bored.  At this point in the film, man and technology live in harmony, which each side benefiting from the other; Hal keeps David and the other scientists alive and functioning safely in the hostile atmosphere of outer space, and David keeps HAL company by talking with him. 

This state of peaceful co-existence between man and technology is what scientists in the 1960s wanted to maintain.  Scientists were aware of the darker side of technological development, such as the destructive power of nuclear weapons, but they consciously chose to ignore the dangers of science in order to help the United States gain global dominance over Russia.
Kubrick realized that at a certain point, the harmony between man and science could reach a breaking point—eventually, HAL starts to make mistakes, and David and his crew debate over whether or not to turn HAL off.  This leads to HAL becoming more and more malevolent, as its decisions start to threaten the safety of David and his crew. 


Through his portrayal of the darker side of HAL, Kubrick is warning us about the inherent destructive nature of human beings.  HAL was created to replicate human behavior, and in doing so, the designers of HAL also recreated the more deadly side of human nature—the ability to kill. 

The creators of technology ultimately have control over how scientific innovations are used, and if the creators are inherently destructive, then their creation will also be destructive.  The irony of 2001 is that despite all the technological advancements that humans have made, they have not been able to evolve beyond their inherent desire to destroy themselves. 

2001 opens with the dawn of man, which is depicted as a dark era when the first humans, in the form of apes, lived in fear of the dark, and constantly fight and kill each other over territory.  The major technological advancement which occurs with these first humans is the discovery of the bone, which is ultimately used as a tool to kill other apes.  The bone itself is discovered after the apes kill another species of animal; thus the first scientific discovery could only be created through murder. 

In one of the most celebrated cuts in all of cinematic history, an ape throws a bone into the sky, and Kubrick cuts from the upward motion of the bone to an image of a nuclear device floating in space.  This single cut reveals how little humans have evolved, despite all of our amazing technological advancements.  Kubrick is saying that if we cannot evolve beyond our nature to kill each other, then we are doomed to ultimately destroy ourselves. 


However, Kubrick’s 2001 is not ultimately a pessimistic portrait of humankind.  Rather, it is a warning against the human race’s natural inclination to recede to its baser nature. 

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?”   Man in his basest nature is an ape, whose natural instincts are to destroy life and conquer land. 

However, it takes great effort to overcome these primal desires, and to ultimately become what Nietzsche referred to as a “superman.”  This concept of the superman has been greatly misunderstood by those in power, and has been used to justify war and destruction, as in the case of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.  In order to become a real superman, a cleansing of what Nietzsche refers to as the polluted nature of mankind is necessary.

This cleansing is revealed in 2001 by the increasingly clean environments which the humans reside in throughout the film.  The first environment we see is the jagged and soil-filled environment of the apes.  This dirtier, more natural environment is replaced by the geometrically precise and clean environments of the spaceships.  The last environment is that of the elegant and clinically clean rooms which David lives in before he dies. 


Like the monoliths strategically placed in the film, an increasingly cleaner environment accompanies each stage of human evolution in 2001.  The final stage of evolution in 2001 is the rebirth of mankind into a higher consciousness—one based upon an alignment of the planets with the last monolith.  This final monolith serves as both a warning and a symbol of hope for the human race. 

2001 is both the most pessimistic warning against the destruction of humankind, and the most optimistic portrayal of our ability to evolve into a higher state of consciousness.


Thursday, October 4, 2012


So, should a director not even consider the audience and how they will react to his or her work?  Of course, there is a delicate balancing act between being true to oneself as an artist, without completely alienating the outside world. 

David Lynch

David Lynch has the ability to create a baffling, yet accessible masterpiece such as Mulholland Drive, while at the same time he can make an equally baffling and brilliant, but almost impenetrable film, such as Inland Empire and Lost Highway.

Lynch has never ceased making films, despite the sometimes hostile reaction to his work, because ultimately he is more concerned with expressing himself honestly as an artist, rather than being paralyzed by public perceptions of his work. 

Thus, the audience is always there for every film a director makes, but the real question is if one cares about what the audience thinks?  Can one imagine what a great loss to cinema it would have been if Scorsese had went into exile after his initial hardships? 

For directors such as Cimino and Carax, the secret is to keep making films for the right reason, and to not let the outside world determine the kinds of films they ultimately do make. 

Leos Carax

It is interesting to note that Cimino and Carax were ultimately vindicated in the same year—2012, at the Venice and Cannes film festivals, respectively. 

At the 2012 Venice Film Festival, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was presented in a restored print overseen by The Criterion Collection, and after the screening, the audience broke out into thunderous applause.  The Venice Film Festival also awarded Cimino the 2012 Persol Award for Heaven’s Gate because, in the words of festival director Alberto Barbera, “Cimino has exalted the filmmaking art and offered a portrait of America both critical and passionate, lucid and compelling.” 

The Criterion Collection has also released Heaven’s Gate as part of their highly respected catalog of films on DVD/Blu Ray.

At the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, one of the most talked about and acclaimed films was Leos Carax's Holy Motors.  Holy Motors was widely discussed as being in the running for the Palm D’Or, but ultimately lost out to Michael Haneke’s Amour. 

However, The Indomina Group acquired U.S. distribution rights to Holy Motors at the Cannes Film Festival.  In addition, Leos Carax received the Pardo d’onore Swisscon award at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland; this award is given out annually by Locarno to “a master of contemporary cinema.” 

Holy Motors also opened to widespread critical acclaim at several other film festivals in 2012, including the New Zealand International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and Fantastic Fest. 


Ultimately, what is most interesting to note about this insurgence in the careers of Cimino and Carax is the timing.  Literally decades have passed since their early initial success, and subsequent derision by fans and critics, so now their body of work can be judged on their own terms. 

They have been able to withstand the psychological need humans seem to have for taking down that which they once loved, and now they can be seen as they truly are—great artists who have been unfairly misunderstood for decades.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012


In 1999, the French director Leos Carax was booed out of Cannes with his film Pola X.  The character of Pierre in Pola X was based upon Leos Carax himself.  Like Carax, Pierre was a celebrated artist whose career fell into decline after his earlier phenomenal successes.  In 1984, when Carax was only in his twenties, he released his first feature length film, Boy Meets Girl, which was a huge critical and commercial success in France and Europe (although it was virtually ignored in the United States). 

Carax was hailed as the next great European film director, with many comparing him to his mentor, Jean Luc Godard.  Carax’s next film, Mauvais Sang, was also a huge hit and his reputation was rising.  Then, in 1991, Carax released what was at the time the most expensive film in French cinema history—The Lovers on the Bridge. 

The Lovers on the Bridge

Audiences and critics ravaged The Lovers on the Bridge, calling it a colossal waste of talent and money (although recently The Lovers on the Bridge has come to be seen as a classic).  Needless to say, Carax was devastated, and he disappeared from the filmmaking scene until 1999 with Pola X, whose disastrous reception sent Carax back into exile until 2008’s anthology film Tokyo.

Perhaps, like Pierre, Carax finally realized that all the praise that he received earlier in his career was ultimately false, as proven by the derision he faced later in his career.  Critics and audiences celebrated Carax during the early phase of his career, but when Pola X came out, the perception of Carax changed to that of a wasted talent.  But, Pola X is no different from his earlier films in terms of its artistic quality. 

What was different was that Carax had fallen into the “tearing down” phase of his career after his initial success—a precarious and potentially career ending phase that all great artists experience.  For some psychological reason, we have a tendency to want to destroy those things which we love the most. 

Pola X

Cinema history is filled with directors who were hailed as messiahs of film early in their careers, and then just as they reached their peek, the critics and the public soundly beat them down.  Perhaps the cruelest example of this is Michael Cimino, who began his career with the commercial success of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and then skyrocketed into fame with The Deer Hunter, a hugely popular film that was a cultural phenomenon at the time of its release.   
All this success occurred for Cimino while he was still only in his thirties.  And then came the infamous film Heaven’s Gate, which, like The Lovers on the Bridge, was the most expensive film in Hollywood history at the time.   

Heaven's Gate was a collosal commercial and critical disaster which contributed to the near bankruptcy of United Artists, and the resultant buy out of United Artists by MGM.  Cimino never recovered from this fiasco, although he did direct some embarrassing films, which did nothing to improve his reputation.

Other directors have faced similar derision after being initially celebrated, including even Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, but unlike Cimino and Carax, they were able to recover and make much more successful films. 

So, what lesson is to be learned here?  For directors, the lesson is to realize that, in true existentialist fashion, public and critical response to their films is nothing more than a subjective perception. 

In order to advance in their careers, they must learn to put the past behind them, and focus on perfecting their craft.  Carax comments on this lesson in Pola X.  The character of Pierre in Pola X begins the film with a comfortable life, living in an opulent mansion with an older, attractive woman.  At this point, his life is defined by his success as a writer; his material wealth surrounds him, and he regularly makes public appearances talking about his work. 


His life has meaning, but after he meets Isabel, a mysterious woman who may or may not be his sister, Pierre starts to question his existence.  He sees how meaningless his wealthy lifestyle is and as he becomes more and more intrigued by Isabel, Pierre starts to pull away from his material goods. 

Pierre realizes that his life has been defined by how the public perceives him, and he realizes that the perception they have of him conflicts with how he perceives himself. 

To Pierre, he is still a great writer, but he confesses to Isabel at one point that he is unable to express himself artistically because there is “something” from the outside preventing him from doing so.  This “something” is obviously Pierre’s constant need for public adoration for his work, which ultimately paralyses him from expressing himself.


Monday, October 1, 2012


The Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has always been influenced by the works of French New Wave director Eric Rohmer, so it’s only fitting that he would eventually make a film set in France.  That film turned out to be 2008’s Night and Day, a brilliant and witty comedy of manners.
Night and Day takes the European feel of his Korean set films and places them in Paris, which was the setting for many seminal films from the French New Wave era, such as Suzanne’s Career, Masculin Feminin, and The Mother and the Whore.  Like these films, Night and Day is a nuanced and cerebral film that contains long, extended shots of dialogue set among the cafes and apartments of Paris.  Indeed, the city of Paris becomes a third character in the film, one which both constrains and liberates the central characters.


Night and Day is about Seong-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), a middle-aged, married painter living in Korea who gets in trouble with the law when he is caught smoking marijuana.  He flees Korea to live in a hostel in Paris, where he meets and falls in love with Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye), an attractive, much younger art student.  A moral dilemma ensues as Seong-nam finds himself steadily more obsessed with Yu-jeong, while trying to remain faithful to his wife, whom he calls every night. 
Unlike the more romantic version of Paris portrayed in American films like Midnight In Paris and Henry and June, Night and Day presents a more realistic and grounded portrait of the French city.  Hong Sang-soo is more interested in exploring the everyday, mundane life of Paris, carefully observing Parisians in the park exercising or buying medicine at a drugstore, than in presenting an overly sentimentalized portrait of Paris as a city filled with bright lights and romantic encounters. 
Night and Day was Hong Sang-soo's first film shot in digital video as opposed to film, creating a more documentary-like look.  This resulted in the more naturalistic tone of Paris that Hong Sang-soo was going for.


The only time we see anything close to the cliché of Paris as a city of lovers is when Hong Sang-soo films a Parisian couple on a bench kissing, but this scene is shot from a distance and in the dull brightness of the day, removing the scene from any romantic connotations. 
Indeed, virtually all the outdoor scenes of Paris are shot during the daytime, giving the film a more prosaic view of the Paris streets.  Hong Sang-soo further distances himself from shooting the City of Lights during the more romantic nighttime when a character tells Seong-nam that it is difficult to distinguish night from day during the summertime, due to the long duration of the days. 
This inability to tell night from day also symbolizes the disconnect that Seong-nam feels as an expatriate living in a foreign country.  Not only is he separated from his wife in Paris, he also becomes separated from his desires in his pursuit of what he realizes is an unobtainable woman.  The art student that he chases, Yu-jeong, even tells him at one point that she cannot have a relationship with him due to his marital status.  Paris is no longer a mythical city where romance blooms for Seong-nam; instead it has become an emotional prison.


Thus, Hong Sang-soo is not only demystifying the overly romanticized portrait of Paris which so often occurs in American films.  He is also revealing the futility and messiness of relationships, where love is possible, but not without real-life consequences and emotional turmoil.  This deromanticization of love is a topic that Eric Rohmer also explored, most famously in his “Six Moral Tales” films. 
Both Rohmer and Hong Sang-soo use film as a means of portraying male/female relationships in a more realistic manner.  They know that oftentimes the desires of men do not match those of women, and vice versa.  This central fallacy of love leads more often to heartbreak and misunderstanding than eternal bliss, as portrayed in Hollywood romantic films. 
Night and Day is like an existential version of the Hollywood classic An American in Paris, minus its lavish musical numbers and brightly lit shots of Paris.  Indeed, by making his main character a painter and a foreigner in Paris, Hong Sang-soo seems to be paying tribute to the similar struggling painter and expatriate in An American in Paris.  In place of music numbers, Night and Day has long, clever scenes of dialogue, which at times feel like music numbers themselves with their elaborate back and forth banter, and inventive wordplay.  In place of the ebullient Gene Kelly, Night and Day has a brooding, emotionally awkward protagonist. 
The post-modern cinematic simulacrum has come full-circle—French New Wave filmmakers paid tribute to classic Hollywood films, Hong Sang-soo and other members of the Asia New Wave paid tribute to French New Wave filmmakers, and now Hong Sang-soo is paying tribute back to Hollywood classics. 
While the Korean character in Night and Day doesn’t quite fit in with his new Parisian surroundings, Hong Sang-soo’s filmmaking style is a perfect match for his new French setting.  Like French New Wave pioneers such as Eric Rohmer and Jean Luc Godard, Hong Sang-soo is able to make a film in Paris which doesn’t gloss over and overly romanticize the mythical city. 
Instead, like his European counterparts, Hong Sang-soo has made a sophisticated, intelligent film that presents a well-rounded and realistic portrayal of the eternal emotional dance between men and women.