BoJack Horseman, Season Five.

bj3

It’s difficult to articulate entirely what’s so special about BoJack Horseman as a television show, particularly given the show’s uneven opening movements. As deliberate a choice as it was, starting as a mildly amusing animated offering that slowly transitions into something more personal, intimate and serialised is a somewhat hard sell in a world brimming with immediately gripping television. Still, hopefully those with patience – or adequately persistent friends – will find BoJack Horseman to be a show of sophisticated characterisation, pathos and a well of empathy for the self-destructive characters that lie within.

With all that said, this assumes you’ve watched all of BoJack Horseman up to this point. So if you haven’t, this will both make little sense to you and likely spoil much of the show, which would be a huge disservice as the relentless unravelling of BoJack is one of its strongest achievements. With that all said, let’s talk about season five.

Season five is one of the show’s most fervently creative and ambitious, whilst simultaneously feeling peculiarly rushed and transitional. It’s richly packed with details and character moments that seem to pass by like a breeze but carry significant weight with context. It also features some of the shows most leaden scenes and episodes, which feel crafty in concept but dishonest in execution. At the end of season four, there was both a sense of revitalization and impending closure for show, with introductions of new characters and sombre dissections of secondary ones which gave the season an expansive feeling. It was never joyous, featuring some of the show’s most vividly rendered moments of pathos, but there was much more light mixed in with the darkness. Even the cruellest of time’s arrows made room for tiny seconds of warmth and understanding.

bj1

The broader issue with season five is that it feels like something of a regression, which isn’t entirely surprising. Whilst the show has always flashed a justified snide smile at Hollywood, the past year has seen a ferocity of despicable behaviour that inherently forces the tone of the show to change. The storyline makes explicit reference to the #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s insipid definitions of ‘redemption’, but it also stirs in the quieter moments too. There’s the lingering notion that BoJack is a few steps away from the predatory elite that have so dominated news headlines the past year, and this is an element the show struggles to rectify. The mechanisms the show uses to force BoJack into another place of degradation don’t fit together properly. The movements feel too easy, too obvious, too out of step with the previous season. BoJack’s younger sister Hollyhock was one of the most invigorating additions to the show, creating a genuinely charming pairing that illuminated the trauma of BoJack’s childhood and gave a sense of weight and responsibility to BoJack, allowing a slight shift and progression of his character that felt authentically motivated.

One of season five’s best episodes features her return, but it’s so fleeting she feels wasted. There’s a running theme that BoJack’s spiral is a product of his inability to seek help or allow himself to rely on others, but the show’s insistence on relegating Hollyhock to a protracted cameo does this a disservice. Where BoJack ends up in the predictably low point (this time both thematically and qualitatively) of episode eleven feels so aggressive because there’s not much precedent. The show plays sly and clever with the details which pave way to the grand finale (the constant wearing of the coat, the mentions of strangling women) but the character work simply isn’t there. BoJack has previously been identified as a person who functions like a whirlpool, his own failings and depression pulling those with similar destructive tendencies towards him, and those who can genuinely help he pushes away for fear they’ll be caught in the spiral. The notion that all it takes is an opioid addiction to turn him into a raving, paranoid mess who strangles his girlfriend is entirely unconvincing. It’s even more disappointing in a show that has previously taken such pains to layer his character, where even at his worst there is a throughline which never justifies him, but at least attempts to understand the harmful choices he makes.

 

It feels like a complete reset of his character, something the season manages to do even before its final act. Whilst audacious, the lengthy monologue of episode six feels oddly unenlightening, especially given the forensic depth with which season four examined BoJack’s relationship with his mother, and this is a trend that continues throughout the season. Ideas and nuances previously well established seem to melt away for a storyline that’s far too simplistic, and when complications are added, it seems to muddy the messaging. There’s vague handwaves towards the notion that BoJack shouldn’t be a likeable character, but the final episode softens the blow far too much. The lack of commitment is palpable.

bj2

There is still plenty to enjoy in season five. Diane’s character is given some more mature shading. Personally speaking, Diane has always been my favourite character, and this season pushes her further than she has been before. Diane is one of the most conflicted characters on the show, with an emotional intelligence that gives her a warmth but also a crippling self-awareness and insecurity, along with a penchant for stubbornness and idealism that belies a hypocrisy underneath. The season makes good on this, smartly deciding to annex the easy plotline of her divorce for something richer, a mostly delicate exploration of her own loneliness, which leads to both the help of one friend and the soft cruelty she shows towards another. Her interactions with BoJack remain some of the most poignant in the show, cutting and deeply sad, with an integrity that only just manages to buoy the last scene of the season, saving it from feeling like a completely flatlining finale.

Princess Carolyn eventually manages to adopt a child, though the process is more laborious and messy than perhaps necessary, with one character reappearing just to feel entirely redundant, and a flashback which feels all too familiar. The dialogue and dynamics are still, moment to moment, exemplary, boosted by pitch perfect performances. At this point Todd barely seems worth mentioning, his one defining moment of character building quickly cut from the show in favour of more comedy.

What’s truly the biggest problem is that this all feels like the setting of places for a more interesting next, and possibly final, season. In some ways this is fine, as there is always value in appropriate build. The issue is that the darkness comes easier than it should, and the previously clean lines of character development become entangled in notions of what the show should say and how it should say them. Every episode feels like it’s trying something new, either structurally or dramatically, but unfortunately this comes at the expense of a season which overall has a hollowness to it, an artificiality to its core that’s dispiriting and disappointing. For the first time in all of BoJack Horseman, you can see the strings.

Advertisements

Annihilation

Spoilers.

title

Ex Machina, was a film of care, study and detachment. Perhaps this was to be expected of the directorial debut of novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland; confident in dialogue and individual scenes, unsteady in visual mounting and broader structure. While Ex Machina proved that Garland had both read and digested his homework, its subject matter was encased within an unfulfilling narrative, one which mechanically glided its way to a climax unable (or unwilling) to better synthesize its transgressive intellectual ponderings with its predilection toward brasher, blunter genre shorthands.

Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest tension that lies within all ambitious mainstream sci-fi, the desire to discuss the unconventional within the confines of the conventional, alongside the conflict of complicated abstract ideas with complex tangible emotion. Over engage the brain, risk drowning out the pulse. In the case of Annihilation, Garland’s second directorial effort, the fear was that its philosophically dour nature would be rejected as unpalatable by uneasy multiplex audiences.

But, I don’t want to belabour that point. Firstly, because discussing the tastes and desires of modern audiences always carries a twinge of arrogance as, paradoxically, they both constantly rise above expectation and endlessly disappoint. Secondly, to dwell on the importance and distinction of a film’s haggard distribution problems distracts from the film itself, and in the case of Annihilation that would be a great shame, as it’s a terrific film, one that is both sprawling and insular. If that seems somewhat contradictory, I will attempt to explain.

5

Annihilation is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, and while they share a foundation, the film appears to construct an entirely different structure atop it. At least, superficially. VanderMeer’s novel is unforgiving in its disregard for convention, dreamily subjective in its flow and resiliently particularised in its detail. The protagonist is left without a name. The film gives her the name of Lena. However, for all the novel’s organic, abstracted, poetic macabre, there is an incandescent humanity within the book, one of longing and lost connections, burrowed, spiraling distances and an innate desire to bridge them.

Whilst a measure of Garland’s restructuring doesn’t quite work, this glistening, beating heart remains, alongside a few evocative additions which creep out into the film’s subconscious like gnarled, darkened, infinite veins. The broad canvas remains Area X, depicted in the novel as tangible yet indescribable, rooted in an ethereal ecology that’s both believably biological and dizzyingly preternatural. The film is much more oneiric, resplendent with motifs, spread out like particles to convey the internal universes of its central characters. The choice is made very early on to dispel the Shimmer’s extraterrestrial shroud, facilitating the film’s core interests in breathing more openly. Details such as the location of a tattoo, or the recurring interior of an abandoned home, the way a character’s computer monitor radiates a pulsing red image that resembles the cancer inside her. These all give verdancy to the film’s central themes of shifting internal identity and isolation, and the ways in which we absorb or reject the others in our lives to form our own being.

Garland’s script employs flashbacks, with a gestating sophistication, taking momentary fragments and aligning them with the bow of Lena’s arc. These flashbacks are rarely expository and often brief, punctuating the distraught beauty with a faded melancholy. The precision of these scenes entangles Lena’s mental state with that of the Shimmer, as she struggles to separate her grief and self-loathing from the environment she’s found herself in, an environment that both expands and preys upon her fractured inner life. The most affecting of these is the most graceful, as she and her husband simply existing together. By itself, it means little. Placed in context, it becomes elliptical and irrecoverable.

2

These flashbacks give Annihilation its vitality. At opening. Lena appears static, lost in in a grief she feels she doesn’t have the right to overcome. Initially stoic upon entering the Shimmer, she’s revealed to have just as much capacity for self-destruction as everyone else on her mission. While dialogue does call attention to this idea of self-destruction, it’s how the story weaves itself around this central trunk that adds a roughened texture of complexity and even empathy.  Lena’s actions appear selfish and cruel, but the film offers no moral appraisal. She behaves illogically, but then again, the Shimmer defies logical understanding. The way Lena disintegrates her life runs juxtaposed to the way the Shimmer consumes and then refracts it.

There is less of an interest in the mechanics of self-destruction, and more about how we adapt or fail to adapt. Some willingly, softly succumb to their tendencies and some are given no choice but to fully implode. The Shimmer forces upon the central group a refraction of their own trauma, those things they desire to either leave behind or finally confront. The world outside no longer makes sense. It’s filled with absence and contradiction, even more so than the uncanny, rainbow visage of the Shimmer. Their voyage there seems both suicidal and desperately necessary.

In the case of Lena, she is driven by guilt. Her affair, and its subsequent discovery, doesn’t merely affect her, but it bleeds its way into her relationship with her husband, pooling into an inescapable despondency that dissolves who they used to be. The ‘they’ is important, as Annihilation evokes images of duality as a way to express our influence and connection with those in our lives. Lena’s betrayal branches out, her act of self-destruction become one of mutual destruction, as her heartbroken husband chooses to venture out on his deadly mission to the Shimmer. Inside, he commits suicide, an assured act of immolation that leaves only a hollow duplicate of himself to return home. One act of self-destruction begets another, our failings resonating out and infecting those we love and care about. Perhaps this is why the group’s psychologist has no family or children, a conscious sacrifice, made all the more notable by her obliteration in the final act.

6

And it’s in this final act that the film reverberates, abstaining from the pressure of a rudimentary climax to deliver something wordlessly, profoundly metaphysical. It takes on the shape of silent cinema, Lena’s confrontation with the being of the Shimmer scored only by a crawling pulse of manipulated, animate, synthesized drones. This extended crescendo at the lighthouse is a pure, vivid, screeching expression of Lena’s tormented inner life and the way her past actions threaten to wrench her into a vacuous state, as hollowed out as her husband has become.

But Lena, vitally, rejects that. The Shimmer suggests that our capacity for self-destruction is so strong that it fundamentally alters ourselves, our perception of ourselves and the identities we construct in relation to other people. The Shimmer appears to spiral into something more complex and less tangible, as Lena comes to terms with her own instability and flawed humanity. Yet while others show acquiescence to the Shimmer, unable to recover from the destruction in their lives and instead becoming uncanny, lesser versions of themselves, Lena chooses to kill her doppelganger. In doing so, she not only annihilates the being at the heart of the Shimmer, but the person she was before her mission; a static, detached creature, adrift in self-pity and grief.

VanderMeer’s novel ends ambiguously with the protagonist, having reflected upon her life with her husband, choosing to follow his trail upriver in the hopes of reconciliation. Garland’s film adaption ends with slightly more melancholy, less hopeful in narrative but still filled with a trace of pathos and perhaps even optimistic meaning. If we’re all programmed to self-destruct in some way, all programmed to not always live up to expectation, programmed to hurt and fail those we care about, what is the point of closeness, of intimacy, of knowing other people? Annihilation posits that we maybe don’t have a choice. That to be human is to lose parts of yourself to those you allow into your life. But in return, we gain parts back, our lives and futures shaped by the details, passions, warmth and time others give to us and we give to them. While we cannot stop self-destructing, perhaps we can find a way to remain ourselves. For as long as we remain ourselves, the distances we form can still find a way to be bridged.  

3

The Films of 2017 (4 – 2)

4

grad

Cristian Mungi’s previous films have been some of the finest dramas of the past two decades, socially conscious works which use an intense natural realism to convey feelings of dread, despair and decay. While Graduation continues his trend of using his native Romania as part of a broader commentary on modern societal values and their fundamental hypocrisies, Graduation takes a much more palatable, almost delicate approach to its subjects. While Mungi continues to only find difficult answers to complex questions, his interrogations feel more compassionate than before, though no less considered and precise.

In the past, Mungi has covered issues such as illegal abortion, eating disorders, queer issues and psychosis, though they tend to exist within broader ideas of an abusive and failing system. Graduation is closer to the system than ever before, as a doctor attempts to positively influence his daughter’s exam results after she is attacked. What begins as an attempt to skew an unfair result to her benefit becomes a case of perpetuity; that by condoning and facilitating a system in its dishonesty, you are simply asserting its and reinforcing its corruption. In doing so, you remove the independence and autonomy of those below it.

This broader idea mirrors the domestic focus of much of the film, drawing parallels between the whispered corruption of the state and the domineering presence and expectation placed upon children in their home lives. In doing so, Mungi humanises the processes and manipulations which exist within systems, simply by categorising them as products multiple human weaknesses. However, once entangled, the reasoning and rationale cannot be deciphered and regardless of intent, engaging in corruption merely breeds further corruption.


3

level

Taking place almost entirely on a small farm in Somerset, The Levelling is an expansive film of remarkable restraint which alchemizes contrasting feelings of resentment and kindness to fashion something penetrating and elegiac. Hope Dickinson Leach’s debut as both director and screenwriter finds her populating her film with intricate, personal details which she audaciously refuses to authoritatively expand upon, content in constructing an image that is idiomatic to her characters rather than pandering or expositing to an audience.

The Levelling initially appears to be furrowing itself into a mystery, as a sister returns to her childhood family farm to find her brother has died from a self-inflicted wound. Her father, boisterous and seemingly pathologically disinterested, refuses to confront the death, continuing to act as if all were normal. However, much like the flooded farmhouse at its centre, there is an undercurrent of unspoken despair and guilt. The Levelling takes its time to dig through its characters histories in an organic yet pressing way, examining their insecurities, flaws and grief with a commiserate eye.

On the outskirts of the human story, there’s an emphasis placed upon the inability of nature to react or care to the psychological weight of the central characters. There’s a sense that this seeming lack of meaning or purpose has unreasonably formed certain worldviews within the film, forcing a breakdown of communication and letting unspoken pain root itself and take control. Despite these nihilistic ruminations, in the final moments a wave of empathy breaks through, a momentous powerful force that changes the outlook from one of bleak stoicism to profound human understanding. This refusal to succumb to silence, detachment and false imperturbability brings an emotional intimacy and comprehension to a world seemingly bereft of understanding. It gives a faint but tangible ray of hope, with the knowledge that a destructive cycle can only be perpetuated if left unacknowledged.


2

lady bird

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a small marvel, an intimate buzz through the final high school year of a teenage girl in Sacramento. Honest to the point of frequent discomfort, the true joy of Lady Bird is how softly and without irony it allows itself to be. In a genre often mired by archness and sardonic stylings, Lady Bird soars on sincerity, nostalgia and gentle sentimentality. The nostalgia and sentimentality never consume the film, with the titular character’s acerbic, selfish and ungainly nature presented without apology or recourse. She is endearing despite herself, captured with wit and occasional bursts of kindness which signal a greater maturation and depth to come.

Gerwig’s screenplay evokes a sense of disillusionment of place and people not simply through dialogue, but through its intelligent structure. While the film chooses to employ a few impressionist flashbacks towards the end,  it mostly paces itself and reveals itself in the manner of memory. The story unfolds over a year but feels like a collection of vital, alive, subjective snapshots, often capturing a single exchange or line of dialogue and moving on. Whether these memories are embarrassing, poignant or destructive, they all come together to form something perceptible and revealing, like a warm recollection, recounted by someone slightly older and wiser.

There’s a selflessness at the heart of Lady Bird, in both the film and the character. It’s not a film about developing the singular identity or affirming the nature of its central character. Gerwig instead uses and dismantles the staid fallbacks of stories about young adults to cover a broader canvas. The journey that Lady Bird takes isn’t one of self-fulfilment, but rather one of finding yourself in other people and the places you call home, and understanding that others live their own internal lives. This poetic reverence for home and nostalgia doesn’t come across as trite or vapidly comforting, nor does it undermine the central characters meaningful and purposeful ambition. Instead, the film considers that wherever we go, we carry the places and the people that we care about with us.


 

 

The Films of 2017 (7 – 5)

7

thelma

A scandinavian-noir with a tantalising supernatural bite, Thelma is a shapeshifting portrait of a young woman coming to terms with her repressed sexuality. It’s redolent of Stephen King yet aware of modern complications, disinterested in the superficiality of nostalgia and instead choosing to forge an icey trail of its own. It might be tempting to blanket the film as merely winter Carrie, with blazing fires replaced by chilling waters, but Thelma is much too ambitious and self-aware to be so easily dismissed.

Director Joachim Trier works from a script penned by both himself and Eskil Vogt, and, save for one a spectacular montage, plays it with a downbeat, minimalist attitude which evokes the work of Tomas Alfredson. As the titular Thelma, Eili Harboe gracefully slides from a youthful naivety to embittered darkness, as the third act takes her to a location so remote it could function as the very end of the world.

It’s in this third act that the film’s  suffocating grasp is at its most pronounced, and Trier doesn’t allow the story to close cathartically or spectacularly, its ambiguities allowing themselves to beguile and permeate. It suits the character, having slowly unravelled part of herself but still without complete understanding or meaning. Perhaps she’ll never find a whole truth, but what’s valuable is she’s no longer denied the opportunity to search for it.


6

lady macbeth

A young woman, wed to an older nobleman, finds herself in the dizzying throes of an affair with a stablehand. It all sounds very typical, with the reliably distasteful sexual politics of the genre painting the opening movements with an assured but audible sigh. However, Lady Macbeth reaches its logical culmination relatively early into proceedings, and chooses to boldly and unrelentingly explore the darkness of its concept. What initially plays as unconvincing becomes deliberate artifice, as Alice Burch’s screenplay pushes her anti-romance towards ever more viscous places.

Assuredly managing the story is Florence Pugh’s central performance, which utterly dazzles in constantly unexpected ways. The film asks her to darken and retract as the drama mounts, and she is remarkably up to the task. Yet she never closes herself off to the audience, even as her actions cascade towards abhorrence, and she allows herself to remain readable and lucid. Her decisions come across as a collusion of entirely human evils, ones formed inside a head where fantasy and fear swim together, with her self-interest denying her the opportunity to divorce them. This ruminating, illuminating character study allows the film to have it both ways; disavowing the conservative, misogynistic moralising of the time period whilst remaining unconvinced of the fantastical escape its genre romance provides.

Lady Macbeth is the coldest film of the year, which is meant entirely as a positive. At a relatively brisk 89 minutes, it’s impressive how much it manages to freeze itself over, portraying a Victorian forbidden romance that capitalises on than dispenses with its tropes, more interested in burrowing itself within a bed of inhumane truculence. The toxic fetishization of a fake romantic ideal is the arrow that plunges itself into the story’s heart, and all that remains is bitterness. “It is done”, indeed.


5

personal

Personal Shopper is possibly the film that has lingered most in my head this year, as over the months its spectres of grief, isolation and duality have taken shape and rearranged themselves to take on deeper meaning. It’s an almost impossibly difficult film to talk about thoroughly and convincingly, with its stark genre permutations and inclinations covering a plot ambiguous to the point of frustration.

Kristen Stewart gives one of her finest performances as Maureen, an isolated American living in Paris, who is attempting to connect with her recently deceased twin. The film isn’t shy about its ghosts, openly delving into ideas of hauntings and spirituality unabashedly, sincerely, using Maureen as a subjective vessel with which to explore the stratum between personal, intimate grief and a broader feeling of disassociation and loneliness. As a flood of sinister, yet erotically charged text messages infiltrate her life, Personal Shopper expands and dilates its themes, moving into realms of identity in an ambiguous, anonymous society whilst sadly, poignantly depicting the vacant melancholy of estranged and missed human connections.

In some ways, the film seems to call back to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo, another ghost story circulating around the body of technology and our place in and beyond society. But while Kurosawa’s film was firmly about societal breakdown in the face of inescapable oblivion, Personal Shopper’s scope is much smaller and resonant. It focuses on the life of one person, and her anomalous lack of purpose, leading her to reject meaningful existence in favour of the unknowable; out of fear, out of self-loathing and out of doubt for her own future. It’s quiet, intimate and, well, personal.

The Films of 2017 (10 – 8)


#10

mother

There are coherent arguments to be made that Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is a failure, and perhaps including it at number ten is a personal concession to those arguments. Its structural allegory is both too obvious and yet too muddled, Lawrence’s performance is emotionally indistinct and the darker elements can sometimes play as revelling in the ideas in condemns. There are very few wrong opinions when it comes to mother!, and its subjective inner nature often feels as conflicted as the reactions it provokes. And, oh, does it provoke.

To mount a defense, it is audacious. Audacity is not a virtue in and of itself, but for a mainstream film to so deliberately play against expectation and form is worth celebrating even if the content is, for some, too unwieldy and unconvincing. Aronofsky’s house feels more like a stage, and his allegory a backdrop for a hysterical screed against celebrity culture, the destructive nature of gender roles and the abuse of women to facilitate the empowerment of men and the broader social conscience. The material becomes increasingly ghoulish the more the narrative foundations crumble, eventually arriving at a destination of grand guignol that maniacally smashes together The Giving Tree and European extreme horror. Depending on your tastes, this could be utterly enrapturing or entirely off putting. I found it to be both.

Whether Aronofsky makes good on his thematic trajectory is debatable. Perhaps he gets too caught up in his notions of cosmic exploitation to hammer down the finer human details in his grand plan. It feels almost wrong to award a film for the bold attempt rather than the successful execution, but its hostility is sincere and potent, despite coming dangerously close to losing itself in its misanthropic ravings. Some say it just takes time to settle, but I don’t think it ever does settle. Maybe that’s entirely the point.


#9

it comes at night

It Comes At Night is a sophisticated chamerpiece that makes a fine companion piece alongside last year’s brilliant The Witch. Both films are despondent, bleak, suffocating looks at the breakdown of the family unit when confronted with uncontrollable horror, but while The Witch fully embraces the supernatural, It Comes At Night’s greatest strength is how it chooses to embrace more organic, crueler unknowns.

Unfairly marketed as a ‘bump in the dark’ horror film, It Comes At Night is much more preoccupied with the notions of survival and protectiveness, and the manners in which they evolve to a paranoid blindness. Set during an unspecified disease outbreak, the film spirals around the mutual benefit and eventual mutual destruction two families inflict upon one another as bid to keep what they love safe. There is no interest or evocation of possessions or personal goods, no distinct evil or discernible moral pandering as the story contorts itself to a place of despair. The victims and the monsters are one and the same, confused and frightened in a world that has long since stopped caring about them. Initially it all feels nihilistic, but the films true central themes blossom with poignancy, asking us the value of our lives against both those we barely know and those we love.

Director and screenwriter Trey Edward Shult builds the film out with purpose, initially guiding us with long, organic takes  which eventually bleed into disorienting static as life evaporates from the story. The warm oranges of humanity’s fires and lights go out, sinking us into a black, fractured dreamstate of a dying world and family. The frame constricts as the situation becomes more and more inescapable, the reality of existence consumed by the horror of non-existence and the numbing loss of purpose. The film grapples with the notions of a traditional family unit and what it means in the face of the unrelenting, unanswerable questions of death and suffering. It’s not what comes at night that should scare us; it’s what doesn’t.  


#8

all me

In a year filled with films grappling with the consuming nature of despair and grief, Call Me By Your Name is a powerful rebuke. Ponderous yet always delicate, it transcends the typifiers of a homoerotic love story by acknowledging its complicated genre and artistic history, but ensuring the trajectory remains sincere and focused on the individual emotional journeys of its characters.

As a romance, Call Me By Your Name is sensual and tender, but never disregards the awkwardness and emotional complexity of blossoming love and sexual attraction. In fact, the deliberate clumsiness of their physical and emotional intimacy only braces the chemistry between the two central characters. They never feel too comfortable with one another, but that only highlights their believable vulnerability, their unsteady conversations and fumbled kissing revealing a beguiling honesty with each another. The sex scenes invest more in the anticipation than the culmination, portraying a relationship in which two people genuinely, sincerely enjoy being with the other person. 

However, referring to Call Me By Your Name as a love story sells it somewhat short. It’s more a bildungsroman, in which the thesis of Elio’s relationship with Oliver is that, regardless of outcome, it’s something he should not neglect for the rest of his life, even the event is momentary. That the joy and pain and romance and parting are all meaningful, valid and worthy parts of his experience. The denouement is purposely unsatisfactory in a way that is considerate of the power of their relationship: that for something to truly hurt, it must have brought meaning to our lives in the first place. Call Me By Your Name earns that meaning, and is never taudry nor does it patronise. It simply presents the love between its characters and asks you to believe it, and believe that it has purpose and value. And it convinces entirely. 

Pre-1980s J-Horror Month: House

I still don’t have a better name for this.

House 1

House  is unique within the post Golden Age of Japanese cinema. Its anarchic nature isn’t particularly removed from the confines of Japanese film (precursors include Shunya Itō and successors include Takashi Miike) but its blending of broader commercialism with an aggressive, chaotic aesthetics that builds itself around madcap horror set-pieces makes it a sui generis popart masterpiece. It superficially foregoes the trappings and traditions of Japanese ghost stories, while secretly burying their tragic undertones beneath the floorboards.

In a conventional setup, seven schoolgirls travel to the mysterious, eponymous house owned by one of their elderly relatives. In a less conventional payoff, the house begins to devour the girls in a series of grand guignol scenes that are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes horrifying but always bizarre, outlandish and mesmerising. The film’s tone is rigorous, though demented, with director Nobuhiko Obayashi unleashing an assault of formats and media in just the basic scene-setting. The film transitions from frame bending inserts, to stop motion, to animation in ways that jar but in a conscious way, with this chimerical nature deliberate and purposeful yet never ironic nor arch.

As the film’s narrative evolves into something more manic and morbidly hypnagogic, Obayashi expands his vocabulary to include almost every in-camera trick in the book. The disorienting layering of effects, shutter speeds and splicing produces an intoxicating nightmare, so emblazoned with bold energy and Kafkaesque visuals that the final section of the film is near indescribable in palatable, reasonable terms. But what’s most invigorating is how the film takes lessons and established trends from his commercial background and slams them together with a bolder, more abstracted vision.

House 3

Obayashi discussed the story and ideas with his young daughter, asking her what she feared when visiting her grandparents in the country. It shows, as the horror is built around a child’s perspective, with gleeful, anthropomorphic abandon. A piano whose lid transforms to a mouth, a grandfather clock bleeding all over its own mechanisms, a ceiling light sucking you inside to feed; these are all frighteningly bizarre visuals that feel uniquely tailored to the worldview of a young child who is unsure and unsettled within their environment. With special effects that are deliberately scrappy yet endearingly luculent,  the film works as much as a down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy tale as much as it does a horror film. Perhaps more so.

Obayashi began work in experimental film in the 1960s, with an overt avant-garde sensibility that was still notably vibrant and playful. He moved into commercial directing in the 1970s, and while experimental filmmaking and commercial directing seemed entirely opposed to one another at the time, the structures of House resemble a thoroughly successful mixture of both. Obayashi felt many directors were too proud to move into the realm of commercials but he enjoyed the higher budgets, making particular note of how you could film a perfectly blue sky. This line of thought is most apparent in his use of mattes to convey the shifting skylines, When the schoolgirls stop at a radiant mountain backed by clear blue sky, they are foregrounded by a billboard showing the exact same image, a reference to the film and the house’s own artificial and deceptively comfortable nature. Later, the sky takes on shades of orange and black, not as a beautiful sunset but as a suffocating texture that resembles an encroaching fire.

The film’s musical score, a collaboration between Asei Kobayashi and psychedelic rock band Godiego, further bridges the expressionist and the popular. Kobayashi’s piano pieces are strange, lilting lullaby melodies that grow and further mutate as House spirals further into madness. Initially sounding youthful, joyous and innocent, as the film sparks into its final act they become warped and sinister, yet retaining a beauty and lyricism which marks a true ghost story. Meanwhile, Godiego’s songs crash in to further accelerate the already propulsive energy of the film, wrapping themselves around blistering montage sequences with an upbeat frivolity that almost distracts from the dark core of the film. House 2

And that core is dark, indeed. Born in Hiroshima in 1937, Obayashi intended the film as a story about the conflict between the older and younger generations. The girls are seen as innocent, undamaged by the war, perhaps even naive to the destructive mark the conflict and the atomic bomb left on Japan. When one girl recounts a story of war and loss, it is presented as a film within a film, the girls’ perception of the events distorted by time and history so that is resembles a sort of fiction.

Meanwhile, the elderly relative (simply named Auntie and played with a serene and sinister edge by Yōko Minamida) represents the bitterness and hatred created by the war. She despises the girls, cruelly jealous of how young and vibrant are with the chance of love in their future. As such, her spirit within the house devours them, a broader allegory for how if left unchecked, the sins of the past will consume and destroy the young which follow. With that in mind, the charred skyline around her home begins to take on a greater, weightier meaning.

In the end, what’s remarkable about Obayashi’s accomplishment is that he sacrifices neither his pop tenancies nor his artistic ones. His history as a commercial and experimental filmmaker is his debut’s strength, wrangling a traditional, fantastical ghost story into a madcap, exciting, viscerally anarcho-punk experience. While more distinctly genre filmmakers such as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson would come to typify this brand of horror cinema in the eighties and nineties, none of them would capture the lucid expressionism of House. It is a singular, beautifully realised entity that is daring, exhilarating and thoughtful.

House 4

Pre-1980s J-Horror Month: Ugetsu

I need a better name for this.

Ugetsu

Ueda Akinari’s short story collection, Ugetsu Monogatari (literally Tales of Moonlight and Rain) was first published in 1776, and while the ghost tales that lie within have become a popular staple of Japanese culture, there have been few film adaptations. Imagine if Dracula or Frankenstein had merely one or two productions featuring their distinctive visages. Part of this is that Akinari’s stories are reinterpretations, drawing from traditional Ming dynasty supernatural tales and fables, then revitalising them by integrating their original Chinese elements with modern Japanese storytelling and culture. As such, a direct adaptation of the stories doesn’t make as much sense when the elements and themes are naturally woven into the fabric of Japanese ghost stories. However, Akinari’s collection is still something of a progenitor, condensing and compiling its ideas in such a way for it to become a fount of inspiration for readers and writers. 

The same can be said of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 adaptation, which trimmed the title to simply Ugetsu and the nine stories down to two. More accurately, it fuses The Lust of the White Serpent, a tale of supernatural seduction, and House Amid the Thickets, a tale of supernatural tragedy. The stories are distinctly separate in Akinari’s collection, yet Mizoguchi’s choice to collapse them into one narrative provides a supportive structure and a more satisfying resolution.

Ugetsu 1

The film concerns pottery artist Genjuro and his family, who live in a village during Sengoku Japan. Around them is a violent and spreading civil war, with their home under constant threat from the roaming bands of soldiers. His brother in law, Tobei, obsesses over buying a suit of armour and becoming a samurai. Eventually, the two men’s individual greed consumes them. Genjuro is seduced into the home of Lady Wakasa, who admires him for his craftsmanship, and he neglects and eventually abandons his wife for her. Tobei purchases a set of armour and heads to war for glory, eventually securing prestige, almost accidentally, through cowardice rather than being a worthy fighter.

Mizoguchi depicts the men in his film as selfish, arrogant, superficial and insecure. Their lust for recognition isn’t portrayed as heroic or even particularly understandable. They have simple, but comfortable lives with women who love them, but both choose to sacrifice it in favour of an idealised and romantic notion of masculinity. Genjuro is seduced not by the sexuality of Lady Wakasa, but rather by the praise and adulation she drapes over his craftsmanship. Tobei is not drawn to the life of a samurai through notions of heroism or even glory, instead he fawns over the armour, the spear, the helmets, the horses. The superficiality of the samurai image is what he desires.

While these two stories diverge, their thematic trajectory is the same. Mizoguchi pays just as much attention to the plight of the female characters in the film. Their abandonment during war time is the emotional core of the film, with a particularly pointed attack on comfort women, an audacious and notable move from a film released not even a decade after the conclusion of World War 2. A refrain throughout the film describes that for men to gain in war, women must suffer. For soldiers, the women in war are just part of the spoils, drawing parallels between Tobei’s ascent to Lordship and his wife’s descent into sex slavery. Meanwhile, Genjuro surrenders to his seductress for the warmth and comfort of her wealth and standing. In his secluded paradise, he doesn’t need to worry about survival or providing for his family. But it’s all a charade, with the spectre of a helmet lying at the centre of the house, a reminder that Genjuro’s sanctuary is a product of the suffering and destruction of those left outside. The tragic results that close the film only reinforce this, an indictment of the fantasies wealthy and powerful men wrap themselves in  as they wilfully disillusion themselves to the horrors they gain from.

Ugetsu 2

But this is a ghost story after all, though these elements skirt around the central events in the background, leaving disquiet and discomfort until they burst through to the forefront. A sequence in which the central characters attempt to cross Lake Biwa begins to plant the seeds and showcases the distinct influences Mizoguchi is drawing from. The horror in the film plays to the traditions of Japanese theatre, with Lady Wakasa’s face painted to resemble a Noh theatre mask. Meanwhile, Funio Hayasaka’s unconventional score bases itself on Geza music, with rising, droning flutes and faded vocals giving way to capricious percussion. Mizoguchi was the antithesis to his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, and built Ugetsu around flowing single takes, trying to cover each scene with graceful, fluid motion. This omnipotent camera moves exclusively with character movement, giving a floating and spectral presence to even mundane events. Moreover, his technique establishes itself as powerfully resonant in the film’s final movements, building to a single showstopping move that breaks time and space in heart rending fashion.

Just as Akinari’s writing is a catalyst for much modern Japanese horror fiction, as is Mizoguchi’s adaptation. It gives us the foundations for which much of Japanese horror film would come to build upon, a story of life encroached upon by spirits of the past we can’t relinquish. While not overtly frightening, the traditions of the Japanese ghost story are here and built upon. Lady Wakasa’s curse is a deeply sad one, reflecting ghosts not as unknowable evils, but as reflections of melancholy, unfulfilled past lives. The epilogue is haunting, with Genjuro’s sins and failures reflected back at him forever. By attempting to cling onto fake ideals, we lose ourselves and our identities and punish those who love us. Ugetsu is about attempting to exist in a world we don’t belong, at the expense of those around us. Much like the ghosts trapped inside our stories.

Ugetsu 3