Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

Spirited Away is the kind of film that divides you between the urge to describe and recommend it and the fear of never coming with words that will do it justice. How can I describe a film that has no apparent parallel? A film so full of imagination and so powerful it brings reactions I didn’t know I had? Much like I’ve defined films like Vertigo, 2001 or The Mirror, this is a film for which the term masterpiece seems banal (it is for most other cases, anyway). It’s the kind of film that proves that the best films aren’t the distancing works of art (as fair as choice as that is), but the immersive ones, and this is a film that takes you beyond reality.

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Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime)

Princess Mononoke (Mononoke not being a name, but the Japanese term for monsters or spirit), like all of Miyazaki’s films, bravely stands out against the majority of mainstream animation of the last three decades while retaining its accessibility. Set in the late Muromachi period, it is an especial entry in his body of work, abandoning his traditional view of the world as harmonious and uplifting even in its most adventurous times for a very different one, where war and destruction are an inherent component of human life and the world is driven by the collapse between peace and chaos. It is, in a way, an improvement over similar attempts in Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, which also bring passionate environmentalist and pacifist ideals to the table. But instead of playing like an animated Dances with Wolves or Avatar (also known as “Space Dances with Space Wolves, with an additional Space Tree”), Princess Mononoke plays like an update on Metropolis‘s plea for cooperation and understanding, uniting head and hand through the heart. 

In what’s Miyazaki’s most complex take on human greed, that heart belongs to Ashitaka, a Legolas-like young prince whose village is attacked by a demon. Ashitaka pays the price of saving his village with a demonic curse, and is force to leave town due west in order to search the cause of the attack and the possibility of a cure, rumored to be found in a forbidden forest inhabited by wild gods, spirits and monsters. Ashitaka’s journey proves to be the cross-section of the beginning of the Iron Age, when civilization and nature battle for the same space in the world and each has its own weapons to fight back aggressive advances from the other.

The world of Princess Mononoke, a departure from the extraordinary cuteness of My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, is one governed by war and disagreement; its monsters are much less merciful, and so are the humans. The former are lead by giant animal gods and supported by San (the monster-princess herself), a girl adopted by spirit wolves who’s grown to learn and hate that the destruction of nature is inherent to being a human. The latter, iron workers and samurai who work under the uncaring eye of the Emperor, are lead by Lady Eboshi, who dedicates herself to defend her people from animal attacks and guarantee their access to food and shelter, scarcer than ever due to everyone’s war efforts. They’re the kind of non-objectified female heroes Miyazaki is famous for: unflinching, brave, principled and determinate, and feminine in their own way.

One of this film’s greater strengths is its fair balance of both sides of the situation: everyone has its needs and its well arranged purposes for his or her actions, even when they come at a certain price. Both must fight for their needs by all means necessary to serve and protect, but without complete knowledge of the situation as a whole – note how Eboshi relates to women and the disabled, and how the forest treats Ashitaka in his path to knowledge and maturity. The difference, Miyazaki seems to defend, is that nature cannot retain the same level of understanding of a constantly evolving civilization, and that technological advancements must come with responsibility (with great power…)

It’s important to say that Princess Mononoke, which I defend is the kind of animation we should have more of, is not exactly suitable for small children. It’s aggressiveness comes with some graphic violence, probably as a result of the director’s attempt to show, for the first time, the darker side of his movie universes. This is a harsher film, with blood, gunshots and beheading (yes, decapitation in a Miyazaki film), and some scenes come with a stunning anti-war message. This is similar of the films of Akira Kurosawa, where violence is sudden and very intense, but not as nearly as effective through Miyazaki’s fairly optimistic lens (I recommend Kurosawa’s Ran or Sanjuro for comparison). Still, to watch that in an animation only proves how horrifying the consequences might be, as Isao Takahata had already proved in his soul crushing masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies.

But first and foremost, this is an absolutely gorgeous film, solid proof of the supremacy of image over plot that the greatest animators – and filmmakers in general – have always put to practice. The backgrounds are richer, the higly detailed sets are grander and more ambitious, the camera movements are swifter and more immersive and the special effects are better than ever before. In a breakthrough for Studio Ghibli, Princess Mononoke blends traditional animation with digital painting and even some 3D rendering, which can be seen in some of the first 20 minutes of the film. And this mixture shows how every detail of the frame is important: every leaf of grass, every stroke of watercolor, every line and every dot is amazing. For first-timers, it’s an experience like no other; for those more familiar with the work of this director, it’s one of his greatest achievements.

When a Miyazaki movie starts with drumbeats and reading titles, you know you’re being taken for a ride, a strange and beautiful one. Princess Mononoke is a glorious tour de force of animation – and one of the director’s best -, and is accordingly a unique jewel of filmmaking, offering a fantasy world like no other. It’s an epic, ferocious movie, and unforgettably so; beyond that, it’s the kind of animation we should be craving for these days. It’s bold, morally complex and breathtaking in its immediacy and depth. It creates a time and place where everything makes sense and there are no clear-cut solutions, but clear-cut discoveries of the self.

Princess Mononoke

Year: 1997

Director: Miyazaki Hayao

Voice Cast: Matsuda Yoji, Ishida Yuriko, Tanaka Yuko, Kobayashi Kaoru, Miwa Akihiro

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)

After more than two decades working with animation in TV series, studio projects and his own feature debut, the Miyazaki we know from the likes of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away began in 1984 with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, his gorgeous sophomore effort that only recently came to prominence – heavily cut at the time of its initial releases in the West, it was re-released in its original form in 2005. His monsters (both biological and mechanical) do not yet come to life as they do in his incoming masterpieces, and his highly detailed movie universes have more space of their own in most of his subsequent works, but Nausicaä feels incomplete in the same way a button would feel incomplete next to its final form as a flower.

Released five years after Miyazaki’s feature debut, the ridiculously fun The Castle of Cagliostro (which is more or less a Miyazaki Bond movie with a thief as the leading man and desexualized Bond girls as sidekicks), the film is a transitional work between his TV years and his latter authorial aspirations towards feminist, environmentalist and pacifist themes, all organized into his second film in a much familiar prototype. The creative genius of catbuses, dragons, tree spirits and scarecrows here lies in the form of building-sized bugs, bird-like airplanes and jet gliders, extemporal clothes and armors that come as something out of a Mad Max movie (it even includes a metallic arm-wearing badass empress) and more – results of a post-apocalyptic Earth that makes room for an wildly organic universe of toxic forests and acidic oceans. They retain the beauty of Miyazaki’s more famous images, but they also delve into unconventionally darker realities.

Nausicaä is Miazaki’s first full-fledged leading heroine, a young, independent princess who doubles as adventurer, warrior and researcher whose most particular interest consists of the strange bugs that hide in the toxic forest that threatens her home, the Valley of the Wind. These bugs hide an untold story of survival and adaptation against the ruthlessness of society’s technological impositions, and if this sounds like a black-in-white fable about humankind’s incontrollable impulse to destroy and pollute, you won’t be surprised to know that the film is sponsored by none other than the WWF itself.

But the world of Nausicaä and the problem in question are shown with an ambiguity lacking in most films of its kind in their environmentalist pleas for understanding. The film shows that fighting this impulse is a difficult mission because more often than not finding evidence of the problem and subsequent solutions is the hardest possible approach amid bellicose bureaucracy and dirty politics. In the way the fauna and flora presents itself to its people, one could assume that this is an alternate take to the apocalyptic vision presented in other Japanese films such as Godzilla and Akira. Instead of nuclear explosions, atomic breath and grotesque super powers, Nausicaä is a crystal clear example of the sort of filmmaking Miyazaki would be famous for: the forests are filled with exotic plants full of floating spores and glowing fruit, and the animals we discover through his imagination could very well be from pre-historic eras or undiscovered ecosystems within the ones we know.

While the director builds a fairly elaborate universe and merges a multitude of his favorite themes into one story with admirable ease, the film is still a transitional work and must be taken as such. The Castle of Cagliostro is a great example of action filmmaking for not binding with exposition and letting its intricacies and plot twists surprise the audience and reveal crucial information, Nausicaä is something of a disappointment for doing exactly and consistently the opposite. In a breathtakingly detailed world of bizarre surprises drawn under very compelling rules and lead by a great protagonist, the thrill of such discoveries is ruined by a script that is all exposition and no character development, sacrificing layers and layers of detail for the sake of clichés.

The problem with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, an oil drop in a glass of water, is that a story as familiar as that has to crave for more maturity and play with out expectations instead of following them. Instead of ambiguous, complex heroes and villains, we get features of common period pieces and children’s stories taken by the numbers: a small village oppressed by a ruthless king; a young hero who defies the conservative rules of the elderly; the misunderstood creatures whom the hero befriends; the inevitable confrontation between man and creature as good and evil. Seen after watching superior work from the great master of animation, it feels like an warm-up by comparison.

Yet this sophomore effort is still a marvel to behold, a work of animation like no other that transcend conventions and creates an entirely new concept of movie experience. Much like the work of other great directors, a lesser Miyazaki is better than most, and Nausicaä is as compelling a hero as you could get from such a film. One could just watch it without any subtitles and still understand everything, and one should if only for how beautiful it is. And that’s essentially the reason why we can come back to his films over and over again.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Year: 1984

Director: Miyazaki Hayao

Voice Cast: Shimamoto Sumi, Matsuda Yoji, Sakakibara Yoshiko, Naya Goro

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été)

Jean-Luc Godard, a passionate fan of Chronicle of a Summer and its creators, famously said that “style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” The style of this film, defined by Jean Rouch himself as “an experiment in cinema vérité”, serves as a complement and a helping hand to its content, and the opposite is just as true. It starts with the very question it wants to pose, asked by its own directors in front of the camera, and ends with the directors themselves trying coming to terms with their experiment by the end of it. Such a self-reflexive experiment would later go down as one of the best and most original documentaries of our time.

The question, which unfolds in excerpts of unscripted debates, direct interviews and voice-overs, is whether a person can act sincerely in front of a camera. Since the veracity of a film’s subject and the relevance of its main topic is always at the center stage of such any film experiment and every good one, this is arguably one of the most important questions in the history of documentary filmmaking. And the film’s uncompromising quest for cinematic truth, which relies on the immediacy of its answers and the slow buildup of consensus – or lack thereof -, is what makes this film a must-see.

Led by leading ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, the film is deceptively simple in the way it is conducted: informal conversations and non-intrusive observations of everyday life, the duo draws a cross-section of the France of their time, the 1960’s themselves and even of contemporaneous urban life altogether in its most natural and recognizable. And the result, a spontaneous and energetic manifestation of humanity with a refreshing sense of immediacy, is a marvel to behold in its delicate balance of optimism and pessimism, acceptance and indifference, prejudice and compassion. From the opening question regarding whether they are living happily or not onward, the interviewees set a wide spectrum of the multiple ways with which society looks at modern life – all still very familiar and almost depressingly relevant after decades of social, cultural and historical changes.

Here lies this deceptive simplicity and its transcendent outcomes: the film’s overall structure, easy to imitate and very effective, would be the matrix of countless derivations and replications, all attempting to experiment with film form and use the medium as a way of encompassing everyday lives. But it’s amazing to realize that the core of its experiment – the human faces provoked by the interviewers – feels like it could have been achieved at any time in the last few decades. Their lifestyles and perspectives of the world ring as true to our times as anything spoken today by our friends and relatives.

As one bloc of film leads to another and yet another back, forth and sideways in various documentary templates, the experiment proves the differences that stand between the multiple forms of non-fiction filmmaking developing at the time and in later years. While the Direct Cinema of Canadian and American directors of the time proposed that real truth could only be achieved with minimal interference – the “fly-on-the-wall” concept –, Rouch and Morin believed in directorial interference, since provocation lead to “to reveal, with doubts, a fictional part of all of us,” which in their vision was “the most real part of an individual”. This relates to Herzog’s recurring attack on Direct Cinema that a film should rather be “the bee that stings”.

Chronicle of a Summer, unlike many documentaries that demand absolute realism, understands the questionable concept of cinematic truth and plays with it to its very end; using universal topics such as happiness, ideal living and current social and political conditions, it displays real people living their lives and talking about themselves as truly as they can, but even that is put into question. The subjectivity that surrounds these real and fictional truths, in the end, is an inevitable result in a film that constantly comes closer and further away from its idealistic goals. But the sting is there regardless of the limits of the film’s reality: notoriously refusing to shy away from then violent topics like the Algerian War and the Holocaust – one episode in particular, involving main interviewer Marceline, is as poignant as everything you could see in a documentary.

Divisiveness is ever-present in the film’s style: Rouch, the filmmaker wants to use the film to explore cinematic form through lightweight cameras, synchronized sound and long scenes filmed outdoors; Morin, the sociologist, wants to create culture clashes and bring people together as a friendly test. Content also goes both ways: some interviewees believe in happiness, some in unhappiness, some in both of them together; later in the film, part of the interviewees believes that the film speaks with true words all along, while the other part feels repelled by it and claims the footage destroys its own purpose. In a way, this divisiveness mirrors the very polarizing nature of cinema and its fierce debates over whether a certain film is good or bad, realistic or otherwise.

More importantly, it reveals, in what was a shock and a disappointment to Rouch and Morin, how hard it is for people to understand one another, and how certain things hardly ever change in society’s collective thinking and acting. But for all that seems to be lost by the end of the film, this film makes me feel better about life than otherwise. In the unforgettable faces captured, the bursts of sadness and joy that collide with one another in a race with no particular favorite, and the audacity of a film that wants to be a chronicle of an entire summer, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin create a documentary that, like all great ones, proves that reality is often stranger and more beautiful than fiction. Few films go so deep into the spirit of human lives.

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Chronicle of a Summer

Year: 1961

Director: Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin

 

Nanook of the North

Off to a good start, I watched Nanook of the North, the granddaddy of traditional documentaries, during my Movie Sunday (not to be mistaken for Movie Monday, Movie Tuesday, Movie Wednesday and their variations). I usually watch movies in bed right next to my bedroom’s window, so I have the luxury of looking outside for inspiration whenever there are new cloud formations or it’s sunset time. Not this time, though: this was a cold, indifferent Sunday, and the sky was like a grayish sea of boredom. It was the sort of weather that shows up in mid-April and sticks to the city’s routine until late October, and that makes everyone feel a little colder and a little glum for a day. It was perhaps the most suitable time to watch a documentary about life in the Arctic, which poses the most appropriate question: if Nanook can keep such a wide smile during such inhospitable days, why couldn’t I cheer up a bit?

Nanook’s peace of mind set against the hostile environment of Northern Quebec is Flaherty’s favorite discovery from his dire expedition: directly facing the camera for a considerable amount of screen time, Nanook is always wearing a disarming smile full with sincerity and warmth. His family isn’t very different: all throughout the film, they always constitute a cherished nucleus of simple, brotherly love to one another playing, cuddling and sleeping together. Next to the vast white fields they have as a home, they are like an anthill of humanity in a city of snow: vulnerable, but strong and united. The film subtitles itself as “a story of life and love in the Arctic”, and it is nothing less than that in the film’s vision.

This could be the end of it, more or less, but it happens that Nanook isn’t really Nanook, but Allakariallak, and his family was cast and paid to play alongside him. Their survival tools – the carefully arranged igloos, the harpoons, the kayaks -, were bound to become obsolete. Nanook of the North is not a documentary, but a documentary-like retelling of the Inukitut’s generic past, when survival in the Arctic was even more challenging and their relationship with the outside world was minimal. I emphasize the term documentary-like here: Flaherty didn’t intend to manipulate reality just to offer a distorted, more accessible narrative; in fact, his intention was to tell a fictional tale – after all, it is “a story of life and love in the Arctic” – from the very beginning.

How he did this blend of narrative and documentary filmmaking before there was even a solid concept of non-fiction cinema was revolutionary, and the film is still a surprise when you consider it has no predecessors of its kind. The most popular documentary of the period, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, doesn’t count as a reference to the documentary style of its time because it bears no relation with Nanook. While Vertov’s piece wants to abandon narrative for good for the sake of universal poetry, Flaherty’s docufiction creates something entirely different: the documentary format itself. While this is still a primitive version of the kind (how strange is a narrative documentary with no interviews, no voice-over and no graphics?), it gets one essential thing right: to transcend the sameness of travelogue, the humanity of your subject must be the center of your film at all times.

Nanook of the North, despite its eccentricities, is a film built out of mutual respect: you don’t sense discomfort in the family’s performance or in the way the camera frames it. If the techniques presented in the film as general practices of their times were outdated even for Nanook’s own standards – hunting walruses with harpoons sounds like a really tough cookie -, everyone’s well aware of how things worked before, and the Inukitut themselves often made suggestions for Flaherty’s story. Instead of depicting them as primitive tribes, the film shows great admiration for how they gracefully survive under harsh conditions. The historical inaccuracy of the story is less a bigoted mistake than a sentimental quest for the historical reconstruction of a long lost time.

All technical details considered, I don’t find them an essential part of the film. The mystery of Nanook of the North’s immense appeal is in the lively humanity of its characters and the speckle of life amid cold, death and polar bears that they symbolize. It’s more about the family bonds they form, the smile on their faces after a good hunt, the breath of poetry in the ice block that serves as a window to their igloo, and the mini-igloo for puppies design to protect them from the adults – yes, there is such a thing. It’s about the contrast between the huskies, patient statues in the blistering cold, and the layers of fur that protect Nanook, his wives and his children in their single bed. If Flaherty is by all means manipulative and mawkish, Nanook of the North is a beautiful manipulation of our emotions.

Nanook of the North

Year: 1922

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

Cast: Allakariallak, Nyla, Cunayou, Allegoo

Film Socialisme

Throughout the 101 minutes I spent watching Godard’s Film Socialisme, I could hardly avoid thinking about the Ylvis trailer for Jacques et Florine, a “story about nothing” (which points out to the overlooked fact that the Norwegian group is actually sending messages in its brainless video clips). I knew beforehand that the Godard film would repel any definite conclusions I could derive from it in a first impression, but so do many other films that I nevertheless enjoyed and accepted without understanding them entirely. If a film like The Mirror, Persona or Sátántangó is thoroughly watchable because it seems to be inventing fresh, new rules and breaking conventions for the benefit of storytelling, and a film like Un Chien Andalou is equally compelling through creating anti-narrative in narrative form, Film Socialisme seems to have abandoned all rules of visual language.

There’s no context, no sense of linearity, narrative or self-contained universe, no direct path to a center theme, no reality. Usually, when I watch a film and conclude I have felt too much and defined too little for a film review, I write about emotions and leading impressions I’ve had on it. Film Socialisme doesn’t allow that, because, for starters, I’m not even sure of what I’ve felt towards it. What I’ve read the most about the film, beyond endless references to novelists, philosophers and filmmakers, is that it tells us, provocatively so, that we are unable to achieve socialism and that the debate surrounding the socialist movement has always been too confused with too distracting branches of arguments to move forward.

Since materializing this idea feels like the cinematic equivalent of losing your buoy in the middle of open sea (the film does start with a cruise trip), I’m not sure if this conclusion comes from an unrelated state of mind indirectly achieved from watching this film, or from a deliberate success by Godard’s latest phase. The film, divided in three surreptitiously interconnected episodes, is visual anarchy at its best (or worst, or whatever): it’s so loose and so disconnected if feels like an art installation creeping through what probably was a feature film essay in the likes of Chris Marker (La Jetée, Sans Soleil).

You know what? I was gonna finish this review in a serious tone, but this film was just too much for me. When you watch Film Socialisme, you don’t let yourself go to its abstraction, you give up and look for compensations. I was gonna write more paragraphs about how complex and twisty it is, and how deeply I felt that I’ll have to watch this one again, but I quit. One digital film switches to another, sound comes on and off, and no piece of dialogue constitutes a single definite and understandable idea. It’s just philosophy thrown in the air and rearranged, and while it’s good philosophy, the film never feels finished; it’s as if Godard had gone so far in exploring the film form that Film Socialisme is a straightforward anti-film, a weapon for cognitive masturbation. It’s just mind-fucking for two hours. You’ve been warned.

Next time I’ll redeem myself.

Film Socialisme

Year: 2010

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Cast: Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Olga Riazanova, Élisabeth Vitali, Eye Haidara, Patti Smith

Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard (nominated)

The Fountain

An honest remark: I knew very little about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, other than that it had multiple narratives and was a very divisive film, before watching it. Therefore, it’s to my surprise that I’d be reviewing a second film about a tree of life this week, one that’s also about early death, religion and spirituality, and above all one truly ambitious work from a respected director. And I know that to say that Darren Aronofsky is as respected as Terrence Malick – or that The Fountain is as respected as The Tree of Life – is a major overstatement and a sin of cinephilia (you could call it an act of “sinephilia”). But there’s something about this film that it never rings pretentious or overblown. It’s a misfire for sure, but for the first time in 16 months reviewing films, I didn’t think of it as a good film or a bad film, but simply as a bold experiment gone wrong.

To summarize and describe The Fountain in a few words (which, by my terms, is a full paragraph), it’s the story of one man’s journey of sentiment, gain and loss into himself and his own feelings. These feelings assume the form of three different episodes that unwrap in linear order within themselves but shuffled in the film’s full narrative: that of a Spanish conquistador whose passion for the country leads him to the mission of finding the Tree of Life, hidden somewhere within the New World, which will save Spain from its enemies; a 21st century doctor who turns a series or brain surgeries into his personal project to find a cure for his wife’s deadly cancer; and a futuristic astronauts who shares his bubble-shaped spacecraft with what seems to be the Tree of Life itself while hallucinating with the aforementioned doctor’s wife. The tree men and the tree women are all played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, respectively, and if anything else is wrong in the film, I rest assured that both of them are a very fine compensating factor; they give themselves wholeheartedly.

This audacious film, for reasons with dimensions I can’t put into words, strikes as a bad enterprise, a journey that falls incomplete before reaching its wishful goals. While thoroughly watchable, the film is hard to bear in its exaggerate sentimentality and appeal to extremes (we see the characters at either a claustrophobic set of close-ups or very distant shots). The narrative at times seems to have missing links and fails to feel either open-ended or discreetly complex, and there are distracting changes in tone that repel a deeper relation with the material. The problem, perhaps, lies in the overwhelming contrast between the film’s utterly simple story – that of a young man who does not wish to see the love of his life go away – and the grandiose scale of its branches; one has to jump between the major levels, instead of flowing through them.

But The Fountain feels neither pretentious nor dull; in fact, it’s a very entertaining film, and I surely liked to finally watch it. It’s overblown, uneven and overall non-good, but still surprisingly compelling. You can feel here, and that is different from many misfires of most serious directors, a nearly materialized passion for the material, a dedication to making this film the best it can be. It usually follows most reviews that Aronofsky had in hands a 70 million dollar project that was suddenly shut down before evolving into a 35 million dollar personal effort, with a new cast and new limitations that extended beyond its lower budget. And it certainly feels like Aronofsky really wanted to go through with it: the film’s visuals, despite their weird esoteric feel, are solid and consistent to one another, and the film brightly succeeds in getting its message clear to its spectator. If his efforts fail because his reach exceed his grasp, they’re at least trying to reach as far as they can.

The Fountain

Year: 2006

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Patrick Thomas, Mark Margolis