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Those familiar with this blog were probably expecting this entry in my list of ten significant films, and it is one that will likely provoke eye-rolling and nodding in equal measure. A bold statement, but this film is the finest example of cinematic art that I have ever seen. I didn’t see it until I was in my late twenties, which is a good age to first encounter 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the film carries a ‘suitable for all’ certificate, it is a smarter child than I was who would sit through a very deliberately paced (read: slow) and often barely comprehensible film. By the time I did see it, I was sufficiently mature and experienced in film viewing to appreciate it. Not that that stopped me from finding the film utterly baffling on first viewing, and deeply beguiling and thought provoking since then. I had a rule that I would only watch 2001 at the cinema because I thought TV would not do it justice, a rule that led to me seeing multiple screenings, often with an introduction from experts on the film. However, when I watched it on DVD, I found it just as impressive. I regard this film as the greatest cinematic achievement I have ever seen because it is pure cinema. The plot would fit on the back of a postage stamp – birth of humanity to dawn of new species – but the attention to detail in the mise-en-scene and the extraordinary combination of cinematography and editing make it a genuinely transportive experience. Furthermore, one of the major criticisms that the film receives is for me a great strength. Arguably, the most sympathetic character in the film is a computer, the HAL 9000. I don’t particularly engage with HAL any more than I do with the humans, and therefore I am not distracted from the experience of the journey, the Odyssey, itself. As I mentioned in my post on Titanic, lack of character and characterisation is not a problem for me, because the less character there is the easier it is for me to project myself into the film. The most powerful cinematic experiences for me are not where I follow a character’s journey, but go on one myself. I have similar experiences with Avatar, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Gravity, which also attract criticism for their lack of characterisation. Through Stanley Kubrick’s exquisite direction, I feel myself part of the revelation when Moon Watcher starts to use bones as weapons, myself on the journey to and across the Moon, I also spin through space away from the Discovery, and most memorably, I travel through the stargate and beyond the infinite. This sequence is the film’s pinnacle, where sound, colour, emotion and reason and the divisions between them merge into pure sensation, in possibly the most profound and compelling sequence I have ever encountered in cinema. I genuinely find this encounter hard to describe beyond it being an incredible and transportive experience, cinema taking me to strange new places. In addition, it turns out that 2001 is a great teaching text: when I ran a student debate on the film, the session was so filled with insight, argument and students sparking off each other that I was reminded of why I love to teach. Thanks, Stanley.
Thrilling filmmaking blends a coming of age drama with adolescent relationships and more pop culture references than you can shake a registered trademark at. This is the smorgasbord of Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, an immersive and bombastically brilliant adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel, scripted by Cline himself along with Zak Penn. In 2045, the world is a dystopia future with nothing to look forward to except the OASIS, a virtual reality environment where one can do and be anything. Within the OASIS, designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has hidden three keys that enable the finder to control the entire virtual world and become incalculably wealthy. Gamers of all types, from the corporate ‘Sixers’ of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) to the enigmatic Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and our protagonist Wade Watson/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) compete in extraordinary events where literally anything can and does happen. Motor races feature Back to the Future’s Delorean roaring alongside Tron’s light cycle and the Batmobile, while a Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Kong take swipes at them. Zero gravity discos merge Saturday Night Fever with Aliens; battles to rival The Lord of the Rings sweep across distant planets, where the Iron Giant battles with Mechagodzilla and there is cause to shout ‘It’s fucking Chucky!’ In a bravura sequence, Spielberg pays homage to his mentor Stanley Kubrick with a prolonged sojourn into The Shining. In the midst of this eye-popping Nerdvana, Ready Player One tells a fairly traditional story where a young hero comes of age, learns the value of friendship and connections in the real world (including first love), while evading the nefarious machinations of corporate scumbag Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
What is especially pleasing about Ready Player One is that it demonstrates Spielberg experimenting and delivering with new technology. Previous efforts with motion capture including The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and The BFG were interesting but lacked a sense of immersion. Here, Spielberg and production designer Adam Stockhausen as well as various effects houses including Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic have crafted a world of virtual environments and extraordinary avatars to match and in some cases exceed, well, Avatar. Long takes propel the viewer through incredible vistas that are uncanny in the best sense – different yet also familiar. The action sequences have a visceral thrill despite their virtual nature, the viewer never forgetting that their surroundings exist in a digital framework but experiencing the rush much like the characters. That is Ready Player One’s greatest achievement: with a cinematic marketplace stuffed with familiarity, the film manages to take a plethora of archetypes and trademarks and deliver something that feels wholly fresh and thoroughly exhilarating. For this, it deserves the highest applause.
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
Only God Forgives is an extremely ‘arty’ film – languorous and deliberate, seemingly opaque, potentially pretentious. It has very little plot and even less characterisation. The visual palette largely consists of prolonged takes in long shot, capturing both cavernous and intimate spaces in deep focus, as performers walk, reach and turn their heads or even their eyes in extreme slow motion. This emphasises the placement of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and the other characters within the highly expressive mise-en-scene, which is really the star of the film. It may seem strange to praise the scenery, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive is more concerned with mood than plot and character, and the film expresses theme through a visual composition of set design and colour scheme that positively throbs with meaning.
Multiple viewers and critics have lambasted Only God Forgives or at least advised caution upon seeing the film, especially due to its lack of sympathetic or even engaging characters. Such characters are not unusual in Refn’s films, as the eponymous character of Bronson is psychotic and Gosling’s Driver is inscrutable and blank. This conceit is taken further in Only God Forgives as the characters are largely cyphers, expressive of the underlying forces that bleed into the slow motion and mise-en-scene, particularly the extensive use of red light that led at least one reviewer to describe it as film rouge rather than film noir.
A recurring topic on this blog has been characterisation, and whether it is essential for audience engagement. When I hear the criticism “I didn’t care about the characters”, I often ask “What about everything else?” and am met with blank stares, as though I had asked if you enjoy conversations with yoghurts. In the case of Only God Forgives, I appreciate that the lack of characterisation is a noticeable absence in the film. As Julian, Gosling takes the strong, silent type to a new level, having only 22 lines of dialogue in the film (about the same as Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator). When he speaks, it is almost a painful effort, as though he is reluctant to express himself. Most of his lines are monosyllabic, and the only time he expresses strong emotion his shout turns into an almost childlike scream. This is reminiscent of Gosling’s last role, Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines, who displays childlike naivety and, in one scene, screams like a petulant infant. In both cases, the high-pitched scream undermines the power of the character, Gosling’s voice contradicting the poise of his physical presence.
Despite his “Photoshopped” physique, Gosling is not an especially large man, yet he is capable of conveying significant gravity through his remarkable screen presence, but writers/directors like Derek Cianfrance as well as Refn play with this presence, undermining it with losses of control, such as the scene in Only God Forgives when Julian screams at his preferred prostitute, Mai (Rhatha Phongam).
Crystal is rather more talkative, having several amusingly filthy speeches that suggest the strained relationship between her and her son:
[To Mai]: And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?
And what with Billy being the older brother and having a bigger cock… Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was… oh, it was enormous!
Julian’s lack of reaction to his mother’s unflattering comparison between him and deceased brother Billy (Tom Burke) indicates that he is used to taking Crystal’s abuse, not reacting, and largely following her instructions. Yet even in his obedience, Julian is a disappointment, Crystal taking charge when her son does not measure up to her expectations following Billy’s murder. The viewer can get a sense that Julian’s own identity was largely ignored by his family, and his tightlippedness is a symptom of a childhood in which he was seldom if ever heard.
I interpret this character detail but there is little evidence to support it. The lack of character detail however did not prevent my engagement with Only God Forgives, because I have great fondness for film stylistics. The long takes, highly designed mise-en-scene and overwhelming soundtrack constituted an immersive cinematic experience for me, and the people moving within it were, literally, part of the expressive scenery. And while dialogue is sparse, the film is anything but quiet. Since Inception, many soundtrack composers have favoured the use of a booming sound, referred to by some as BRRRRRRRAAAAAWWWWRWRRRMRMRMMRMRMMMMM!!! In Only God Forgives, the soundtrack doesn’t boom – it roars. Various scenes begin with a strange roaring scream that emphasises the impending danger and the underlying menace that permeates the entire film. Earlier in the year, I described Man of Steel as using the trope of swelling – Only God Forgives is a constantly throbbing film, not because of a constant sexual presence, more a throbbing sense of scarcely-contained violence. Violence is a recurring theme in Refn’s work, as demonstrated in Bronson and Drive, but whereas they focused on violent men, Only God Forgives depicts a violent world, in which the cypher characters are merely manifestations or even conduits for the violence that constantly throbs and sometimes erupts.
Sexuality is part of the throbbing violence, as the film’s sexual events demonstrate violence in sexuality – Billy’s murder is retaliation for his rape and murder of a sixteen-year old girl, and Julian’s session with Mai involves him being tied to a chair while she touches herself. The scene implies that Julian’s own sexuality is eruptive and violent like his brother’s, so he has himself physically restrained in order to prevent an incident.
No such restraints are necessary for Chang, who is presented as a manifestation of punishment for the guilty. If only God forgives, Chang is the Angel of Death, there to arrange the meeting. Chang speaks through perfectly applied action as well as verbal lessons that he delivers with his brutal sentences. These sentences are the film’s striking scenes of violence, which are hideous both in their brutality and in their foreshadowing. Chang’s very presence exudes danger, and his slow, deliberate drawing of a concealed sword throbs with portent. Nor is the sword for show, as limbs are lopped, ribcages slit and throats pierced. The precise application of violence is presented in exquisite detail, including the agonised screams of Chang’s victims, the slow, almost balletic sprays of blood and the lingering shots of the bodies mutilated by Chang’s actions. Whereas in Bronson and Drive, violence erupted suddenly and without warning, it is a constant undercurrent throughout Only God Forgives, the mood of the film leaving the viewer in no doubt that violence will erupt – the only question is when.
The one unconvincing element of Only God Forgives is the karaoke scenes, when Chang sings to the police. The scenes are not necessarily incongruous, indeed they maintain Chang’s celestial status by giving him an angelic song. The karaoke even makes sense from a character perspective, as this is the way Chang unwinds. But tonally, the scenes interrupt the grim menace of the film as a whole, coming across as simply odd and therefore jarring in an inscrutable and frustrating manner. But as the whole film is inscrutable and frustrating, perhaps that is the point.
Karaoke aside, Only God Forgives is a treat for the cineaste, because of its highly expressive visual composition. Every scene, whether it is Julian examining his fists, Crystal smoking in her hotel suite or Chang drawing his sword, displays exquisite visual detail that throbs with meaning. It is also reminiscent of the work of other directors, much like other films by Refn. Bronson is similar to A Clockwork Orange, and I described Drive as the best Michael Mann film that Michael Mann did not direct. Only God Forgives is what might have happened if Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and David Cronenberg collaborated on a film. The sense of something lurking beneath the surface, expressed through the lighting and production design, echoes Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Blue Velvet, while long, static takes of corridors are reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.
The eerie beauty of shots depicting bodily injury echo Cronenberg’s work such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, especially in a surreal and disturbing scene in which Julian finds the corpse of his mother, executed by Chang, and touches the bloodstained ruin of her abdomen. It is as though he is looking for a way back into her womb, a return to the only place he might have felt safe and wanted. Refn may not have consciously sought to emulate these directors, but his film does suggest their stylistic and thematic concerns.
This lack of explicit meaning may explain both the positive and negative reactions to Only God Forgives. The slow motion, excessive design, lack of character, plot and dialogue, leave an absence into which the viewer can place their own understanding. I have suggested background features of Julian, but these are speculative and drawn from my own interpretation of the events onscreen. Minimal onscreen background can suggest style for style’s sake, Refn concentrating on hyperbolic lighting, set design and cinematography to compensate for a lack of story. But it also allows more interpretation on the part of the viewer, requiring us to fill in the blanks. Mainstream cinema is intensely plot driven, with character development generally integrated into that of the narrative. Arthouse cinema, typically, operates in contrast to mainstream conventions of narrative and style, and Only God Forgives certainly offers this contrast. It can be argued that it goes too far into being ‘arty’, but the minimalist plot and cypher characters allow for the film and viewer to work together in creating meaning, rather than meaning being explicit. This is not to suggest that those who found Only God Forgives frustrating are incapable of deciding on the meaning of a cinematic text for themselves, but highlights that this film has particular pleasures for those who enjoy filling in the blanks as to character background and the implications of expressive style.
These pleasures made Only God Forgives a great experience for me – it is intensely cinematic and a treat for those who enjoy cinematic features, techniques and tropes. This is not to say that only those with my background and taste (a pretty narrow demographic) will enjoy the film, but it demonstrates the particular pleasures that can be found in films that eschew the mainstream elements like detailed plot and rounded characters. Only God Forgives is not an easy film to love, but I came away with a lot of love for it.