Wings of Desire

I'm loving humans instead...

I’m loving humans instead…

Reviewers always suggest watching a film at least twice and waiting at least a day to fully digest the subject matter. I’m not going to do that: mainly because I don’t have the time, and secondly because the film I’ve just watched compels me to writing through some thoughts right now.

Wings of Desire is a 1987 offering, written by Peter Handke and directed by Wim Wenders (the man behind Paris, Texas). Set in Berlin across various time periods, the film centres on the life of Damiel, an angel who surveys the diverse lives of people milling around the city below. In the movie’s universe, angels exist in a separate realm; able to walk the same streets as the living, but completely invisible and unable to interact with them.

These angels are able to hear humans’ thoughts, a technique that is pulled off excellently through a combination of roaming cinematography and stream-of-conscious voice-overs through the film. For this reason, Damiel is able to have a full understanding of human thought-processes, but has no direct experience of them himself. There is an emotional divide, that in a clever reversal, leaves the omniscient angels feeling profoundly isolated.

Damiel’s voyeuristic mind-reading slows its pace and lingers on a pretty young trapeze artist at a travelling circus. Kitted out in fake wings for her performance, Damiel is immediately drawn to her, and is privy to her most intimate private thoughts; she is lonely and longing to meet someone who can extricate her from her situation.

Try as he might Damiel cannot get through to her and with a growing discontent, sets his mind on a plan: to cast off both his immortality and atemporality and enter the world of mortals…

Wings of Desire is very unique, in that (despite what I’ve just described) it seems to lack a central storyline. This unifying thread emerges gradually, as scenes involving the girl are introduced more frequently. Rather the story mimics Damiel’s omniscience: it goes everywhere.

The camera floats through an apartment block: we hear the thoughts of a young man contemplating suicide, his parents, a man whose mother has recently died, some children playing hide-and-seek, an American journalist, a woman who worries about surviving on her small pension. In a way, one of the central characters of the movie is ‘the city of Berlin’ – as we get a cross-section of all the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants. For the first half of the film it can be argued that there is no central character, since Damiel is more of a cinematographic device than a human-being who emotions we have access to.

As such, watching Wings of Desire is a rather disjointed experience, and at first I wondered whether I could really be bothered with such a sincerely artistic experience on a lazy Sunday morning. Within thirty minutes however, I was captivated. I suddenly started caring about every little scrap of everyone’s lives – an impressive feat considering these Berliners are only given a couple of lines of interior monologue each.

And this is why Wings of Desire succeeds in its audacious form. It aligns the viewer very closely with Damiel; floating over the city, entering people’s thoughts but leaving you wishing you could turn these snapshots into more. Damiel’s compulsion to get closer to people is passed on to the viewer; we are cast outside by a lack of typical dramatic conventions such as dialogue and plot-development and start longing to flesh these people out into three-dimensional characters. When this does start to happen, it is compelling; we are finally given what we have been denied and it is all the sweeter for it.

There are some strange disjoints to the film including a live performance by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and time-leap back to wartime Berlin where we follow some sheltering Jews, but these are mesmerising in their own weird way. They are necessary to demonstrate both the film’s historical breadth, and its naturalistic contemporariness…an audacious goal for sure.

And does Wings of Desire succeed in its audaciousness? Most definitely. If it didn’t this film would be very pretentious. Many will still call it very pretentious. But this film doesn’t set out to do more than it can achieve. It actually achieves it.

This is bold, bold cinema. Even if you’re not 100% sure about the concept, it is worth watching for the execution alone. I certainly won’t be forgetting this movie any time soon…

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Only God Forgives

- It's all in the hands.

– It’s all in the hands.

*Huge spoilers ahead*

After being prepped by Nicholas Winding Refn’s most ‘arty’ film Valhalla Rising, I decided to delve into the latest Ryan Gosling movie! As it happens, I find calling Only God Forgives a Ryan Gosling movie fairly hilarious, since I cannot help but imagine throngs of girls feeling absolutely crestfallen by his character in this movie. The enigmatic badass of Drive has been whisked away, and replaced by a pathetic, envious and conflicted individual with huge mummy issues. More on this later…

Only God Forgives is being met with lukewarm reception, with its few advocates being accused of trying to cling on to just about anything to save this sinking ship of a movie. For my part, I feel very conflicted in my reaction to it; in that I found it fairly unpleasant and boring to watch, but upon reflection and further reading, think that it is trying to do something very difficult. Maybe it doesn’t completely succeed, but the best it can be called is ambitious.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is running a Thai boxing club in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). It quickly becomes obvious that this club is a front for drugs and that Billy is not a very nice person. This is, perhaps, established when he runs amok smacking women around the face in a brothel and then brutally murders a fourteen year old girl who is being prostituted by her father. Retired police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) arrives on the scene, giving the father the option to exact vengeance on Billy, which he swiftly takes, with no gore being spared. So goes the first ten minutes.

This is the event the plot of Only God Forgives hinges on. Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Thailand and demands that Julian avenge his brother’s death, setting into motion a set of killings and counter-killings that fill that central segment of the movie.

As Julian’s and Chang’s paths gravitate toward one another, we learn more of Julian’s fraught past including the fact that he murdered his father with his bare hands. In the finale, Chang kills Crystal and upon seeing the body, Julian does what every grieving son would do: he slashes open her stomach and put his hands inside her womb.

After this episode, Julian seems somewhat calmer and meets with Chang, who promptly cuts off Julian’s hands with his sword. Chang then sings a traditional Thai song. Fin.

It’s certainly a perplexing plot arc. It is at different points dull, gratuitous, unnecessary, mesmerising, bemusing and seems strangely lacking in something. What that something is, is character. At least, in terms of motives and an understanding of past events. Refn makes very little use of explanatory dialogue in Only God Forgives, instead quite superficially showing us a string of incomprehensible actions. All effect, no cause, in other words.

Twinned with this, is a plot that does not take follow a conventionally satisfying structure. Many events seem invested with a little significance, and most of it can be described as a string of gratuitously violent episodes.

Upon finishing the movie therefore, you just feel a bit empty. I wouldn’t say I felt like I wasted my time (there are certainly some redeeming features) but that the film hadn’t invested events with any kind of personal importance or built up any sympathy for Gosling’s character.

However, it is when you start recounting the story yourself in your own head that it starts to have impact. Julian’s character is the essential key to this movie, but it remains inscrutable until the final scenes. The film meanders because we cannot divest the scenes with any meaning, and we cannot do that because we have very meagre means of appreciating Julian’s motives.

This is a piece of cinema that is drawing attention to one of cinema’s limitations as a primary visual medium. How do you capture the inner demons of a near-mute introvert without resorting to interior monologues or other characters’ input? Only once we find out that Julian killed his own father and was intensely jealous of his brother’s sexual relationship with his mother (!), do the Oedipal building blocks fall into place.

I must credit Chris Stuckmann’s incredible reading of the movie for this: that Julian quite literally has blood on his hands. And plunging his hands into his mother’s womb could signify an attempt to expunge the guilt for his father’s murder. This doesn’t work directly, but Julian takes repentance into his own hands after his mother’s death, having Chang remove the tools that did the deed. With his hands severed, Julian can proceed with a life free from guilt: he has received his forgiveness.

In a movie where the audience are tasked with constructing the main character’s back story, there are bound to be divergences of opinion and interpretation. There are also those who are bound to say that a movie that doesn’t sufficiently explain itself within the confines of its run-time is a failure or else, lazy.

The reason that this movie isn’t a failure however, is that although I was less than enthralled during it; I was thinking about it on the bus to work the next day. I was thinking about it at work. I was thinking about it for days after in fact. Sometimes a film needs the viewer’s supplement to complete it, which in the case of Only God Forgives results in a haunting experience.

And I think I just reviewed a Nicholas Winding Refn film without even mentioning the cinematography. It’s jaw-dropping, go figure.

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising

Visually Impeccable – Vahalla Rising

 

Nicholas Winding Refn drew a lot of attention to himself back in 2011 with Drive, and this August, his latest offering Only God Forgives hit the screens. His second film starring Ryan Gostling, it has garnered some divided opinion, most likely due to the fact that it isn’t Drive II, and that many aren’t aware of his trajectory as a director before Drive.

Like many others, Drive was my entry-point into the oeuvre of Winding Refn, but I didn’t want to go ahead and watch Only God Forgives without some grounding in his work as a whole. This is what after all, seemed to be a stumbling block towards appreciating it. So, my first pit-stop is Valhalla Rising, released two years prior to Drive, and renowned for its stunning visual style.

An opening shot of a bleak, craggy, Nordic landscape. A blonde boy with curly locks shoulders a bucket of water and trudges up a hill. There’s a lot of mist, there’s a lot of bearded men standing around ominously, and there’s Mads Mikkelsen (of recent Hannibal fame) chained up by his neck and being daubed in black paint. OK, the composition of the shots is kind of bleak but I can see the beauty…

And then, men start beating the shit out of one another, left, right and centre. Very brutally. The tone suddenly becomes one of pure aggression, as one slave’s brain is caved in and another is strangled in a highly-theatrical manner. We don’t know why Mads’ character ‘One-Eye’ has been captured, but he appears to be little more than a killing machine. It doesn’t help that he is completely mute; in fact, he doesn’t speak one line of dialogue in the entire film.

The key to ‘One-Eye’ is that he has prophetic visions. Many of these are tinted in a red glow that makes for some very unique shots, whilst others jolt onto the screen with abrupt sound effects that make you jump out of your skin. Considering the Nordic setting, this immediately sets up parallels with Oðin, who in Norse mythology has his eye gouged and is given the gift of prophecy.

In short, ‘One-Eye’ escapes his captors, murders them all brutally, and trudges off into the wilderness with the young boy. They meet a group of Christian Vikings, who are making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to form a new Jerusalem. Upon joining this clan, they sail to a land of vastly different scenery; crags and bracken give way to rippling streams and forests.

But all is not what it seems in this beautiful promised land. As the Vikings start to get in touch with nature, giving in to Pagan impulses, they begin to distrust and ultimately, slaughter one another. Strange men caked in orange earth, covered in runic symbols start to emerge, and One-Eye trudges towards his destiny…

It is not hard to sum up this film in one paragraph as I’ve just done, as that is literally it; this is a film that is very light on traditional plot. In fact, it is painstakingly slow, giving you the impression that it is stretching 15 minutes worth of events into a feature film. It is also unbelievably unusual, if that wasn’t already obvious. Overall, this is one difficult film to even watch, let alone comprehend.

There is a lot to respect in Valhalla Rising, and I think ‘respect’ may be the key word here. It is not necessarily a good film, and it certainly isn’t enjoyable in a typical sense. What it does do however, is seem like exactly the film Nicholas Winding Refn wanted to make. It takes incredible license with convention, and meanders along unhurriedly with little concern for pacing.

Then there’s the content. If we try and pick it apart there are strong allegorical and mythological elements. But nothing is pointed to explicitly in the slightest. Does ‘One-Eye’ really represent the god Oðin? The Christian Vikings seem to represent a new order that would historically replace the Nords’ paganism, but the film’s message seems muddled here, as these crusaders end up being engulfed by forces of nature. Who are the captors we see at the beginning of the film, and why is ‘One-Eye’ castigated by them?

Endless, endless questions that we will never get an answer to. And that’s fine; art doesn’t owe anyone any explanations. But the symbolism in the film is just so obtuse, that I don’t even feel like I can offer a tenuous, highly-subjective interpretation of the plot.

And this is what makes Valhalla Rising a special film. It is immune to being pinned down and understood and this will inevitably frustrate many viewers. So here is my advice; just enjoy this film as a sensory experience. It has an incredible ambient soundtrack, it is astonishingly beautiful, and if you persist it will make you slow down to its languid pace.

This must certainly be Nicholas Winding Refn as his most abstract, so now I feel ready for Only God Forgives

A Field in England

- Just follow the rope.

– Just follow the rope.

I’ve never seen a film like A Field in England before. Newcomer Ben Wheatley’s latest film is his most obscure, surreal and artistic effort to date.  It’s a far-cry from the grim realism of Kill List, and will most likely be labelled pretentious by many. After all, this is a black and white 17th century psychedelic war-drama focussed on metaphysical themes that features The League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh. I’m sure that after that sentence those who would despise the film outright have run for hills… so let us continue.

The beating of drums, horns being blown and shuffling feet: these are the sounds that open A Field in England, along with some ambient bass notes. England is in the grip of civil war, but this film does not plan on delving into historical realism… We are introduced to Whitehead (Shearsmith), a somewhat apprehensive and cowardly alchemist’s apprentice who is trying to desert the scene of a raging battle. Julian Barratt as a staunch cavalry commander is shouting after him, using a barrelful of expletives, before he is speared through the chest and dies pointing at Whitehead with a maniacal and accusatory look. So, Julian Barrett is dead, two minutes in!? He was a lead character according to the credits! Oh, don’t worry, in this film, just because someone has been savagely killed, doesn’t stop them from coming back…

Whitehead walks along the hedgerow to find a rag-tag bunch of deserters, who convince him to traipse across the countryside with them in search of the nearest inn. This is the simple premise of A Field in England, serving as the tenuous plot that structures the next ninety minutes. However, the group get rather diverted when they gobble down a stew made from magic mushrooms, and here, strangely enough, things start to go slightly nuts.

The group find a rope that leads to nowhere, they start questing after an obscure alchemical device, horrible things are done behind tent-flaps that turn men into grossly grinning zombies. There is so little cause and effect in this film that it is just downright unnerving. As a viewer, you almost feel like you’ve feel lassoed and dragged along on this perverse, diabolical quest.

Cinematography-wise, this film is spot on; for as the trip gets increasingly more disjointed and nonsensical, we are greeted with abrupt, jolting cuts, that contribute greatly to the sense of unease this film will inevitably inspire. Special mention must be made of a psychedelic ‘experience’ towards the end of the film, a scene that will doubtless go down in film-making history. Possibly one of the most inventive, accurate and downright intense portrayals of drug-use in a feature film, it is worth watching on its own, even if the rest of this bemusing film puts you off.

There is a lot going on thematically in this film, but like a lot of surrealist works, those themes are the only thin tendrils holding it together. And they’re not even that tangible or self-explanatory at that. There’s a lot about divinity and cosmology, determinism and free will (where the rope imagery comes in) and sensory experience vs. intellectual experience. All set against a very particular 17th century background which seems to be relevant but I still can’t quite figure out how…

Ok, so there’s all that stuff going on in it, but what is A Field in England actually like to watch? Well, at first, rather boring. The dull monochrome, slightly-flawed acting and mumbling characters don’t prove for an engaging beginning. But then when it all goes ape-shit, you can’t help but be slightly perplexed and enraptured. I felt profoundly uncomfortable during the middle sections of the film, which were perhaps the most engaging, before it devolved into a hectic, action-heavy ending which seemed rather inconsequential and meaningless.

Looking over this last paragraph, it’s all quite negative, and if I used a star system to rate films I have absolutely no idea how A Field in England would fare…probably not very well at all. Yet, this is a film that I doubt I’ll ever forget, and I felt that it was a completely worthwhile use of the ninety minutes I spent watching it. It is incredibly low budget, the acting is pretty dreadful and it isn’t entertaining for long-stretches at a time… But I’ve also never even dreamed of some of the sequences this film has shown me.

If you’re into strongly visual cinema or a fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, this is for you. If you like pre-enlightenment allegorical morality plays, this is also for you. Otherwise, Ben Wheatley’s latest film is a rather hard pill to swallow. Or should I say mushroom? Either way, it’s stuck in my throat, and it still won’t quite let me forget about it…

Upstream Color

Upstream Color

– There’s something about worms in Upstream Color.

…What did I just watch? Well, let’s start with the plain details. Upstream Color is Shane Carruth’s second feature film. This is the man who debuted with Primer; a dense, confusing time-hopping film about two guys who create a rudimentary time machine in their garage. That film was so complex it had to be explained by using a flow chart.

Upstream Color is something very, very different however. Primer had a plot that could be quantified, whereas Carruth’s latest offering is ephemeral and resists being pinned down. It is soundtracked with a booming, beautiful ambient score and the cinematography is mostly comprised of discreet close-up shots often with pauses and black-screens between segments. Close-ups of leaves, riverbeds, faces, floors, books: this is certainly a film that must be watched in high quality.

But what is it actually about?  Well, I shall describe the opening of the film but go no further. We see a man (Thiago Martins) buying plants from the garden centre and scraping a strange blue residue off their leaves. We see him collecting worms from the plants’ soil and running a strange liquid over them. We see children drinking this liquid and becoming able to harmoniously synchronise their body movements with one another. The man puts the worms into capsules and attempts to sell them as drugs outside a club. Failing to receive any customers…he tasers a woman (Amy Seimetz) and force feeds her a worm. The worms have a scopolamine-like effect, making the woman completely open to suggestion. He instructs her in all kinds of maxims, and eventually dupes her into mortgaging her house and leaving him all of her savings.

We are only ten minutes in here, but this shall suffice to talk about some of the themes of the film. Needless to say, it gets all the weirder, but the backbone of the film is actually a heartfelt love story between Seimetz’s character and Jeff (played by Carruth himself). The couple are visited by uncontrollable bouts of emotion that affect their everyday lives and we are invited to speculate as to why these impulses occur.

Upstream Color is essentially a film about free will and offers a bizarre model for how external forces affect our lives. There is plenty of metaphorical guesswork to be had here, and in fact, the film becomes hard to follow without considering some events as metaphors. This is not a film for those who want concrete answers and will certainly be very boring and displeasurable to some. I was left feeling completely aimless in the middle of the movie, but fortunately the threads started to come together (very tenuously, but at least it’s something) towards the end.

Looking back on the whole thing, as an experience (and it certainly is an experience) I feel myself gently in awe. Upstream Color doesn’t smack you in the face with a crazy revelation, but it certainly gives you the fleeting impression that it embodies a concept almost perfectly. The film is trying to tell you its secret, but it left me feeling like an outsider, able to glimpse some of its truth but otherwise feeling fairly bemused. I do not say this in a negative sense. This is ninety minutes of beauty that has quite a humbling effect. Just don’t expect to be able to appreciate it all on the first watch…