The rhythmic drones of a train as it heads down unknown tracks to unknown destination and Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye has effectively set the tone for what is to come. The movement of a train has been a staple of cinema since its inception. It has power that is rooted in centuries of pre-established conventions and those tropes have drilled an idea …
Analyzing a debut feature is often times like finding an old photo of an acne-ridden and brace-faced friend: both images may be embarrassing relics of the past, but they still manage to reveal a developmental stage of unrealized potential. In looking at Brian De Palma’s first feature, Murder à la Mod, De Palma’s talent is evident, but is still in its nascent stage. He exposes his future interests and obsessions, but is unable to avoid clunky elements and a clichéd student-film aesthetic.
Woody Allen once said in an interview that when he first showed the executives of Palomar Films his first movie, Take the Money and Run, one of them leaned over about ten minutes in and asked, “Is the whole thing going to be like this?” And thus began one of the most illustrious, prolific, and celebrated film careers in history. Of course, Allen had been writing jokes professionally since he was a teenager, and had written and acted in three films previous to this – actually, he was by this point a household name in comedy; but this was the first film over which he’d been given complete creative control: he wrote it, directed it, and starred in it.
It is only appropriate Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang should burst onto the scene with a film whose title and central image allude to Nicholas Ray’s seminal blighted-youth picture Rebel Without a Cause. Nicholas Ray himself being one of the central Hollywood figures whose work led young French film critics such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut among others to start their own theoretical and cinematic revolution as key artists of the French New Wave. And it is their work as much as Ray’s in which the young Tsai immersed himself at a Taiwanese film school. Along with the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni, the artistic preoccupations and techniques of these European masters would come to shape in varying degrees Tsai’s own filmmaking across two decades starting with 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God.
Kubrick sets the stage for his adaptation of Nabokov’s literary classic with nothing more than a foot occupying the frame. Kubrick is (among many things) a visual artist, and in this single unbroken sequence that plays behind the credits he establishes much about the psychological elements behind the story that is about to unfold. The foot is clearly not one of an adult as the proportions aren’t quite fully developed. A man’s hand enters the frame and the characterizing wrinkles and weathered shade quickly imply that this man is much older than the person attached to the foot it gingerly approaches. The opening credits roll as the hand fastidiously and ritualistically applies nail polish with tender affection. We can sense the visual taboo even if we are completely unfamiliar with the story. We know that the action is not being carried out in a socially appropriate way as the hand labors daintily over each stroke of the brush.
Stanley Kubrick attempts to indoctrinate the soul of Pvt. J.T. ‘Joker’ Davis (Matthew Modine) in Full Metal Jacket. The indoctrination process begins with the removal of hair, a symbolic gesture that removes the identity of the recruit going in to basic training. There is no room for individuality in the early stages of training, and recruits must earn the right to have an identity in the meritorious military. His foil in this process is R. Lee Ermy’s iconic portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a role filled with one-liners that have shaped public perception of the basic training process for decades. Hartman’s job is to use the most effective means at his disposal to prepare these men for war, and this can prove to be a monumental task when forced to suffer fools like Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pvt. Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence.
By now we’re all familiar with the opening shots of a mountain passage as the camera swoops near trees, over jagged peaks, and over rushing mountain rapids as the blaring synth score sets the sinister undertones for Kubrick’s iconic horror film. This is the art of Kubrick. We’re in his realm now, and any perceived imperfections in the adaptation from the source material are irrelevant. This is a new interpretation that has little to do with King’s original novel. If film were capable of perfectly expressing the ideas contained in literature then there would be no need for literature. Film has its own power that is impossible to translate in to words, and each form of art carries its own merits, operates by its own rules, and owes nothing to the other forms of expression. This is a standalone work that merely uses its source material as a rudimentary framework and the means to wrap Kubrick’s highly effective filmmaking in to a digestible narrative. Kubrick uses the mastery of his craft to disorient the viewer and to play tricks on our subconscious, manipulating the audience like a finely tuned instrument and making us feel unsettled in ways that we may not be able to understand or articulate.
Raúl Ruiz is a passionate love for those viewers who shut themselves into his fictional universe. He is a courageously repetitive filmmaker, continuously reiterating the same visual games, philosophical ideas, aesthetic patterns, and metanarrative gymnastics. He was not unaware of this, and, as if to comment on the fact, his stories are populated by reflections, paraphrases, hidden quotations, parallelisms, imitations, forgeries, and double exposures of all kinds. In fact, the prevalence of repetition is the soul of Ruiz, his engine. And this compulsive mirroring implicates cinema as a whole. Ruiz has made nothing but remakes – distorted, wild remakes – of both his own and other films. Adrian Martin, in his excellent book on the director, Raul Ruiz: Sublime Obsessions, writes that the Chilean employs “literature, film, and music as a generative matrix for his own creations, even as he suppresses the prints of said matrix.” In doing so, he portrays the creative blending behind most art, in which influences are used as building materials.
Tight Manhattan upper-class environments squeeze in characters and bare their misdeeds for the entire world to see. They’re all living in a Fitzgerald novel, but they are oblivious to the emptiness that creates distances between them in these too-close-for-comfort environments. This is an empty world of high-class promiscuity and bourgeoisie excess. This is a world of people that are supposed to be too erudite for the fatalistic trappings of human desire, but despite their outward appearances, they are driven by the same primal desires and irrational fears as anyone else. They try to mask their human qualities, but the stifling nature of their environments drives their desire to explode in secret closed-door expressions of carnality and hedonism. They all wear masks to shield their darkest desires, but the most effective masks are the ones they wear in public, whether it is the mask of doctor, upstanding citizen, or upper-class socialite.
Juxtapositions of intricate baroque embellishments offer a makeshift frame for a large stage. On the stage a woman is being brutally beaten and raped by a gang of hoodlums. The foreboding shadows of Alex and his group of croneys enters the frame. ‘The Thieving Magpie Overture’ builds in the background, combining new ideas about artistic expression as the images of new cinema are married with great art of generations past. This is what Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange sets out to do in nearly every scene. It creates a link between various artistic media across multiple generations and from innumerable sources, whether it is a reference to Anthony Burgess’s original novel, to the music of the classical masters, or the golden embellishments that frame the entire bankrupt world as a giant stage; Kubrick pays homage to the greats while creating a new form of art for mainstream consumption. Here we are, a mere twenty years after Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In the Rain, and we have a protagonist in a major studio film carrying out horrific acts of violence and sexual assault while singing its titular and instantly recognizable ditty. Kubrick’s mastery of content and form would allow him to make such presuppositions about his own work, both winking at the audience in its flagrant boasting and insistence on its place in the history of art, while simultaneously grounding the more shocking elements by placing them in a historical context. Alex and his group of droogs did not invent violence or sexuality; they’ve always been there through the course of history as unavoidable historical mile-markers that never allow us to forget our true nature.