Volume 11: Death + Resurrection

Credit: WhyHow

In the suspicious, anxiety-riddled world of cinephilia, there may be no phrase that captures the zeitgeist more aptly than Late Style. It is the new Vulgar Auteurism: a catchphrase for the cinematically dispossessed. Its prevalence as a turn of phrase in reviews and essays is no great breakthrough, but a symptom of a film culture that venerates the old, while the Young Turks suffer and fail. 

Late Style is a crutch for those who wish to describe a certain fluency in form, an ability in the old masters to do away with the BS and cut-to-the-quick. This should be a Cinema of Dread then, but in the tossed-off cinematic aphorisms becomes a Cinema of Acceptance. Cry Macho, Crimes of the Future, The Master Gardner, Parallel Mothers. All critical behemoths, all given the tag, films of resurrection to signal the last gasp of a declining empire. In his posthumous On Late Style, itself an example of the form, Edward Said stresses proximity to death as a quirk of this category. He quotes Adorno, ‘Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form’ From Clint’s sweet face to the mass grave Penelope Cruz uncovers, these aren’t just films made by old people, but are works preoccupied with mortality. Their sprightliness masks emotional frailty.  

We don’t see film as dead (outside of the British sphere), but it’s always approaching a breaking point. If this sounds like making up a guy to be mad at, remember that in late style Cinema Year Zero we don’t get mad, we get back. After months of something approaching death, we are pleased to announce that Cinema Year Zero has been resurrected. 

Since our last issue, the British film culture has been in a particularly bilious state. Cineworld bit off more than it could chew and has now filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Massive Cinema, a sinister puppet site for a PR agency, polled critics on the 100 best British films of the 21st century, setting the parameters so wide that now films like Cold War and Inside Llewyn Davis are to be considered British classics. Bemused cinephiles were left puzzled by the absence of lads hit each other with chair. Of course, that didn’t stop the campaign from being nominated for a national industry award. Considerably less laughable is the sudden collapse of the Edinburgh International Film Festival along with the closure of several independent cinemas in Scotland. The cruelty of making over a hundred workers so suddenly redundant was compounded by the concurrent excess of the London Film Festival. In keeping with the current trajectory of British life: the tale of the country’s film culture is told through smiley marketing and stomach-turning balance sheets. 

Across the channel, the passing of Godard prompted worldwide reflection on the future of the medium. Godard’s life work was a broadly enjoyed but singular language, which paradoxically defied language. With him gone, the medium feels all that closer to extinction. Film has been in its late style since Avatar and 2009’s major shift from film to digital projection. It’s been in late style since the television. It’s been in late style since we abandoned the kinetoscope. As features are for the large part shot not onto film but captured by a digital camera to reside on a hard drive or server, and are never experienced projected on a physical format, the medium that cinephiles concern themselves with may be an entirely different one to that which Godard fancied. Criticism is always trying to convince the reader that there is meaning in language. That’s why Godard the critic was such an effective and exploratory filmmaker. 

On Twitter, Letterboxd, the places where film conversation really swims and where film culture turns on a dime, memories are short, replaced by an archive of screenshots. In shirking the quick-take culture that motors film publications, our mission is not simply to venerate cinema’s past, but to resurrect the snarling quality of the contemporary.

In Cinema Year Zero’s own brush with mortality – a 6 month hiatus, a change in personnel – we declare this issue the first in the publication’s own late style. And yet we’ve never felt so alive.  

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

August in the Water

Credit: Hill Villa

Ellisha Izumi

Hazuki Izumi (Reno Komine) stands on the edge of a rooftop looking out at the city beneath her. A clutter of competing architecture styles and buildings at various points of development: scaffolding, newly-built, maturing, declining, abandoned, condemned. Traffic lights glow, cars drone, and roads curve. A web of powerlines connects every part of the city. Hazuki is deep in thought, contemplating something or other, almost as if she’s listening to something we can’t quite hear. Her friend Mao (Shinsuke Aoki) notices the rooftop figure and approaches her as he becomes concerned that she might jump. 

This scene takes place in August in the Water (1995) but variations of it can be found in a number of Japanese films and anime of the late 1990s to early 2000s. At the time of release these films and series belonged to different genres and production cycles yet retrospectively we can identify a fascinating pattern of imagery, themes, characters and even locations that recur to form an enigmatic genre called denpa. Little has been written about it in English, so allow me to venture forward.

‘Denpa’ is a Japanese word that means electromagnetic wave or radio wave. Within the genre, characters tune into these waves and feel their effects: they sense things, hear voices and see spectres, indeed the stories of Chiaki J. Konaka begin this way, including his Lovecraft-inspired psychological horror Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and Marebito (2004). The characters are susceptible to the waves due to alienation caused by their oppressive surroundings which is depicted through a distinct, industrial aesthetic: antennas, chain link fences, telephone poles, a web of powerlines across the sky, trains, manholes and sewers, grainy and distorted footage, a muted colour palette. This imagery reoccurs across denpa fiction, from the visionary anime of Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue 1997, Paranoia Agent 2004) to the live-action poetry Shunji Iwai crafts out of adolescent cruelty (Picnic 1996, All About Lily Chou-Chou, 2001). 

These bleak,alienated urban settings raise questions of tradition vs modernisation, mass-communication and a critical look at new technologies. Denpa situates these themes amongst references to folklore and the paranormal such as ESP, hauntings, aliens and spirits a combination explored by both the cult horror favourite Boogiepop Phantom (2000) and influential franchise starter Ring (1998). These supernatural beings are known to inhabit different realms and through electromagnetic waves these beings can cross over to our world, and humans can cross over to their worlds. The blurred lines between these spaces are illustrated with surreal imagery and experimental filmmaking. Such creative innovation can be found in the surreal psychological torment of Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion 1995-7, Love & Pop 1998, Ritual 2000) and in the breath-taking urban dreamscapes woven by Gakuryu Ishii (August in The Water, 1993’s Tokyo Blood). Within this cocktail of urban alienation and supernatural forces are plot points such as rumours, conspiracy, mental illness, and delusion often with cosmic and apocalyptic consequences, best embodied by the hypnotic horror of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure 1997, Pulse 2001).

So far, denpa has only appeared as a loosely defined genre label on English-language databases for anime and videogames, on the occasional blog post, a handful of letterboxd lists and one lone essay [1]. It is at once both recognisable yet hard to define. I understand it on an emotional level, I can identify it as a vibe, yet I want to tease out the details and define it in more concrete terms: what makes something ‘denpa’?

The genre derives from ‘denpa-san’ or ‘denpa-kei’ a name for a type of person that emerged in the late 20th century. Think of denpa-san as analogous to ‘tin foil hatter’ – someone vulnerable to paranoia, conspiracy theories and delusions hoping that the foil will block out those invasive electromagnetic waves. Or maybe they’re already at their mercy, following instructions heard via the waves and doing unsavoury or even dangerous things. The term initially hit the mainstream consciousness in association with the 1981 ‘Fukugawa Street Murders’ where a 29-year-old man indiscriminately stabbed passers-by, killing several people and injuring more. The highly-publicised trial hinged on the controversial defence of insanity: the perpetrator argued that they were driven to murder after years of torment from electromagnetic waves [2]. Over time the term expanded to become associated with creepy, unpopular people in general, those on the fringes of society with unusual quirks and obsessions. 

It is here that the term overlaps with another: ‘otaku’. A social outcast who obsesses over a hobby to the detriment of their social life. Think ‘geek’ but usually uttered with more contempt. Otaku is typically associated with anime, but contrary to popular belief can be about many subjects from videogames to cars. What ties them together is the negative effect it has on the self. Much like denpa, the term otaku gained traction in association with a horrific crime; in the 1990s it was elevated from merely a pejorative label to the centre of a moral panic in relation to the years-long trial of a serial killer nicknamed by the media as ‘the otaku killer’ for his extensive video collection of pornography and horror films [3]. In the years since, the collective otaku have shaken off the worst of these associations and become a phenomenon as they developed a distinct culture and became a major economic force that has been embraced by the media they obsess over. On the darker end of the subculture some favour the fantasy world of their hobby over the real world and get lost in it, which in itself has become a common denpa narrative with an iconic example being the idol otaku in Perfect Blue.

Critics ascribe the emergence of denpa-san and otaku to society at the time. The Japanese economic bubble burst in 1991 and the decade that followed became known as ‘The Lost Decade’. The population faced a recession which stunted young people as they came of working age. And yet Japan was known on the global stage to be at the forefront of home electronics and new technology. This was in tension with traditions of the past and complicated their national identity as new cultural connotations outpaced traditional ones posing the question: can an old culture survive as a new one emerges?

The development of these new technologies also introduced new issues as they quickly became part of everyday life. Camcorders in every hand, phones in every pocket, so easy to use that soon everyone had one without knowing how they really worked. Life was changing as there was now constant recording, growing access and intimate conversations were now held not in person but via phones and on internet forums. As people became increasingly reliant on these technologies, people began to wonder, what is the existential cost of these new conveniences? 

From moral-panics and national identity crises to new technologies denpa fiction responds to this new cultural landscape. 

The war between tradition and modernization often forms the backdrop of denpa fiction in urban spaces where a dedicated few keep old customs alive, while others push on for progress. Gakuryu Ishii (previously known as Sogo Ishii) depicts the tension of this conflict well in August in the Water where participants of the centuries-old festival in Hakata pulse through the city in historical costumes with traditional matsuri floats surrounded by modern buildings and stopped traffic; Ishii finds strange beauty in the cityscapes that engulf and imprison his characters. Investigations lead Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) in Cure to abandoned buildings and disused factories which signal the failure of a once-promising industry. In Love & Pop and Tokyo Blood, supporting characters are construction workers who signify this changing landscape as they meet on noisy building sites that are the eyesore we must endure for another dubious future.  

The rooftop is a recurring location for these films. It can be a place for a clandestine conversation with a confidante, or a place for solo contemplation. The sight of a lone person on a rooftop can be startling to passers-by: the threat of suicide looms and in denpa often does happen. Cinematographically speaking it’s an opportunity to view an urban vista: the buildings, antennas and powerlines that populate the skyline. Again and again characters are drawn to the rooftop where they can get the clearest signal to the electromagnetic waves that mesmerise and influence them. 

Alternatively, the clearest signal can be found by going right to the source. In Serial Experiments Lain we meet Lain’s father (Ryusuke Obayashi) at his impressive 6 monitor desktop and over the course of the series Lain’s (Kaori Shimizu) simple computer set-up evolves to be larger and larger. A soundscape is built from keyboard tapping, mouse clicking and monitors gently beeping. Denpa characters are often found hunched over a desk or workstation in the dark, the only light source being the glow of a screen or the small bulbs of a switchboard that gently whir as a pen scratches while detailed notes are being made. It’s an image with unhealthy connotations indicating obsession and someone losing touch with the outside world. In Boogiepop Phantom, the deskbound character is a videogame otaku finding solace in a fictional fantasy world. In Cure they’re a detective and in Ring a journalist whose respective investigations turn fanatical as they uncover disturbing histories. In each instance the foundations of their worldview will soon be shaken and their mental health questioned as conspiracies and paranormal explanations become more and more likely. Are the characters’ paranoid, or are they seeing things clearly for the first time? 

These paranoid thoughts or deteriorating mental states are often heard through voice-over narration. Depending on the film the voice-over could be the trademark psychological introspection of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or the expansive philosophical musings of August in the Water or even the sinister and somewhat incoherent rambling of Marebito. Though superficially different, what they share is a painfully personal and poetic type of soliloquy.  

Alongside narration, different psychological states are expressed through surreal imagery and experimental filmmaking, which often leads to a striking use of mixed-media with live-action moments in anime. In Boogiepop Phantom, a drug-addled videogame otaku experiences visions which are depicted by heavily edited live-action footage in a break from the traditional animation of the series. In Serial Experiments Lain there are animated character figures over live-action backgrounds which has the uncanny effect of blurring the lines between the different worlds that Lain traverses. In the case of Neon Genesis Evangelion: End of Evangelion, the sequence of live-action footage breaks the diegetic barrier between the text and audience, seeming to directly address not only the delusions of its’ characters but its own otaku fandom. 

This subtle sense of self-awareness can be seen in the eerie experience of watching characters watching screens. Frames within frames or looking at a picture within a picture, voyeurism becomes infinite. New technologies allow people to see people through a thick glass lens or a pixelated screen. Distant yet paradoxically seeing each other more intimately than ever. In Perfect Blue this newfound intimacy fuels the obsessions and delusions of both Mima and her otaku fan.

The spectre of denpa is not limited to Japan. The same themes and same motifs can be found in English-language films from around the same time. There is Donnie Darko (2001), Richard Kelly’s film about a schizophrenic teenager who is told to commit crimes by a phantom in a rabbit suit and whose survival of a near-death-experience has apocalyptic consequences. You can find denpa in the films of M. Night Shyamalan: from the delusion of Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense (1999), to the haunting image of mass rooftop suicides in The Happening (2008) and to the potent mix of aliens and religion in Signs (2002). Even in the music video of Eminem’s Stan (2000)– in which a disturbed otaku hunches over a desk under a perpetual raincloud. When I recognise denpa motifs in films made outside Japan, I begin to think of denpa less as a genre and more as a zeitgeist. A restless, nihilistic gen x moan of exasperation. That feeling of living in The Matrix (1999); groaning at the end of the century and looking to the new one with only pessimism. Yes, there are new technologies but there are as many negative possible outcomes as there are positive ones. It seems inevitable that people will succumb to their worst impulses. 

This essay is limited to cinema and anime but that is not to say these are the limits of denpa, for there are denpa videogames [4], denpa music [5] and denpa manga. While not yet written about, I believe that there is denpa photography [6] and that there are denpa novels as a number of the films I have already mentioned are based on books (Ring, Love & Pop, Perfect Blue). But I will leave those to experts and fans of those media. In the case of moving image, I have often run myself in circles with my definition of denpa fiction, hunched over a desk while I collect and compare screenshots [7], muttering to myself, and scribbling notes when a connection becomes clear. With tabs upon tabs, I try to connect the dots between antennas, filmmakers, and social contexts. Sometimes the nuances of definitions contradict themselves but that is because that is the nature of genres: they are messy with blurred edges and they mutate. They can be splintered into a dozen subgenres, take for example horror – there are slashers, torture porn, haunted house, the polarising post-horror, and now denpa horror. But I say let us be inclusive, not exclusive. Let’s dive deep and watch the lesser-known films of celebrated Japanese auteurs. Let’s watch the films of Japanese filmmakers that didn’t make it into the canon and crossover to the west. Let us celebrate what unites them and how they enrich our understanding of the genre as we journey into the denpa realm. 

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

[1] The first comprehensive essay I found on denpa fiction: https://ontheones.wordpress.com/2019/06/29/on-denpa-a-guest-article-by-kenji-the-engi/

[2] Fukugawa Street Murders https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%B7%B1%E5%B7%9D%E9%80%9A%E3%82%8A%E9%AD%94%E6%AE%BA%E4%BA%BA%E4%BA%8B%E4%BB%B6 

[3] The ‘Otaku Killer’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsutomu_Miyazaki 

[4] On denpa videogames: https://warudochaos.wordpress.com/2022/02/05/what-are-denpa-dempa-%e9%9b%bb%e6%b3%a2-visual-novels-an-introduction-to-the-weird-world-of-denpa-games/ 

[5] On denpa music: https://altairandvega.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/denpa-bigaku-riron-the-rise-of-the-radio-aesthetic-in-japanese-subculture-in-the-21st-century/ 

[6] Resource for potential denpa photography: https://www.instagram.com/japanese.neo.noir/ 
to note: this instagram account posts a range of 20th Century Japanese photography, so not all of their posts are denpa but I consider some of them to fit the denpa aesthetic and themes well

[7] An instagram account where I post screenshots of denpa film and anime: https://www.instagram.com/denpa_diary/ 

Further reading:

A blog post with a good description of denpa that brings together denpa music and denpa videogames in an analysis of the anime series Boogiepop Phantom: https://artificialnightsky.wordpress.com/2021/03/25/denpa-fever-dream/ 

Letterboxd list of denpa films and anime: https://letterboxd.com/izumi/list/denpa-on-screen/ 

Letterboxd list of films made outside Japan that could be considered denpa: https://letterboxd.com/izumi/list/denpa-ish/    

The Earrings of Madame De…

Credit: Janus Films

Esmé Holden

We always follow the earrings. At first a wedding gift from the unnamed General (Charles Boyer) to his unnamed wife (Danielle Darrieux), they move from person to person, finding their way in and out of people’s lives in ways at first fortuitous, but increasingly, destructive. In The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) Max Ophuls’ camera glides elegantly, but it doesn’t move with an all-knowing certainty, it always follows, whether a person, an object, or a look. Far more concerned with the material than the emotional, it keeps enough of a distance to give a great sense of the opulent milieu that surrounds the tragic and ironic lives of his characters. But the first shot holds close, moving through furs and jewellery and coats and hats, a world of objects that Madame lives in as she struggles to find a single thing she’s willing to sell in order to pay off the debts she’s accrued, eventually deciding on the earrings she’s half-forgotten. The opening shot ends with her perfectly framed in an ornate mirror. She’s not trapped in this world, she’s a part of it; what we see isn’t Madame but a reflection on another beautiful surface. As the film increasingly explores the spiritual that is at first so casually dismissed—Madame drolly notes that she needs her bible more than ever as it falls from the shelf it’s been carelessly thrown onto—perhaps we see even less, a reflection of a reflection; the body is just another object, only briefly filled with a spirit. 

For all her selfishness, her materialism, her manipulations, Madame remains very likeable; self-assured, and at enough of a distance to be composed amongst the absurd pettiness of the supposedly sophisticated Belle Époque. When the General is wandering around the theatre looking for the supposedly lost earrings, a man accuses him of simply looking at his wife in a way that might suggest suspicion. Hardly a polemicist, Ophuls is most critical of the things he loves. He gives so much room to luxuriate in every draping curtain, every extravagantly detailed painting and every flickering candle reflected in the mirrored walls; it’s a beautiful world of beautiful things, but that never obscures how silly it is, or how dull. Madame is something of a performer—before pretending to lose her earrings, she pretends to faint at the jewellers—because she’s an ironist, she has to be, most of the characters are. All of these supposedly material things are glittering and suggestive: of taste, of gender, of class.

Unlike his contemporary, and a more obviously religious director, Robert Bresson, who finds the material world endlessly burdensome and heavy, the only reprieve coming in the lightness of the spiritual. The two cannot connect without a miracle, which only seems to come at the end of a long life of suffering; maybe then you’ll hear the quiet ringing of bells. For Ophuls the spiritual is the only thing with any weight at all, the literal world is as light as air; immaterial and diffuse, and he finds much pleasure in that. The film spins on the axis of the earrings’ amusingly serendipitous journey. After the General buys them back from the jeweller, he gives them to his mistress (Lia Di Leo), who sells them, later to be bought by Donati (Vittoria De Sica), a diplomat who will become Madame’s lover and returns them to her. Some life is even revived in Madame and the General’s dying marriage when he decides not to tell her that he knows about the earrings. When they’re both lying to one another sparks can flicker again, they flirt, if only with raised voices from their distant beds. For Bresson there aren’t even flickers of harmony with the cruel material world, but for Ophuls there is something freeing in its distance from the gravity of religion, irony is a fittingly frivolous lens. 

Even Ophuls’ role as director is infused with irony, he’s someone who suggests rather than shows. The long dances between Madame and Donati, moving to and from the camera, at one point surrounded by paintings, quotations of dance, echo the scene in his earlier La Ronde (1950), where the mysterious master of ceremonies—a kind of demigod lightly guiding, directing, another series of coincidences—bemoans the censors as he cuts out a sex scene. As Madame and Donati’s relationship grows more intense, irony transforms from pleasurable to evasive, becoming the only way for Madame and Donati to not look their situation in the face. There are limits to indirectness because it leaves enough space for other impulses to come in and take over; an empty worldview for an empty world. But those feelings feel so much stronger from their lack of articulation, Ophuls argues that suggestion is so much richer. Twice we see the General walk a woman to the train, the first time to send off his mistress for good with only a meaningless gift, the second, after he’s ended Madame’s affair, sending her away from Donati to recoup; to be trapped. But it’s not a simple juxtaposition between letting go and holding on, the solemn look on his face as he watches Madame’s train leave suggests that he knows he’s already lost her. He’s just emptily repeating rituals of a control he once had, in a different time with a different woman. 

Despite Ophuls’ love for the signifiers of extreme wealth, he does give some moments to the workers lower down the class ladder, those who instead of leading pointless lives, just have pointless jobs. A Doorman huffs to his colleague that he won’t open the door the next time the General rushes in and out, but of course he does anyway. Ophuls prods at the social order, but no character has either any interest in changing it, or any idea that such a thing is possible. Despite the fact that both The General and Donati work in politics, their roles seem more ceremonial than anything else. (If the former represents conflict between nations and the latter harmony, one assumes the nations are Man and Woman.) It’s all taken as a given. Politics are more firmly formed than anything else in this world of illusive materialism. Meanwhile, politics and the material world become increasingly irrelevant to Madame. As her affair is collapsing, she tries to distract herself with an extravagant painting of the Battle of Waterloo, its import and drama feel deeply futile. But it’s those social forces that she has to distract herself from in the first place; its presence is clear even when its form is diffuse. It’s like a God reigning over, unseen in all its might.

In the world of Ophuls, politics might be stronger than the actual religion it is supposed to be informed by, in service of. Madame first goes to church to pray for her earrings to be sold, she pays for a prayer candle and quickly crosses herself on the way out; as empty a ritual duty as any other, like a marriage continuing long after all love has died out. Even when she returns to pray in sincerity that Donati survives the duel the General has challenged him to, she’s still only come in her time of need, though maybe it’s less cynical and more like her husband’s desperate reenactment. She doesn’t believe it will work, you can see that in her eyes, but what else is there to do? Either way her prayer goes unanswered. Maybe faith has no impact in this world, maybe God doesn’t exist. Or maybe she’s being punished by another patriarchal force; when she confesses to being guilty only in thoughts, perhaps that’s as guilty as she could possibly be. 

Despite how much passion fills Madame when she falls in love, she remains an empty character: emptied by materialism, emptied by love, and finally, emptied by despair. There is a limit to her transformations. When Donati dies it’s as if her feelings are too strong for this formless, insincere world. And so she has to leave it, though maybe she was already half-way there after they had been separated. But then, as we move closely through the church—the final shot showing the spiritual, as the first shot did the material—Ophuls pans down from a statue of a saint to the earrings. In a world where everything changes forms so fluidly, even abstract ideas like irony can turn from intimate to evasive. There has been a genuine and deep transformation; a true rebirth. As God came down to the Earth in human form, the earrings have connected the material and the spiritual, they’ve become more than simply an object, even more than one that accrued so much meaning. In the end, Ophuls, much like Bresson, reaches the spiritual only through the material, but instead of harshly contrasting blunt images of an empty and dead world, Ophuls shows emptiness in a long take. His camera is like the spirit that moves through this world, giving it the space to breathe and transform, but from a distance that cannot be crossed, except by a miracle.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Bullet Train

Credit: Fuenferfilm, Tita Productions

Joseph Owen

Notes from Locarno, 2022

This year Locarno Film Festival celebrated its diamond edition: 75 years of cinema in a small town tucked between Lake Maggiore and the Swiss Alps. It’s wet and warm, mostly at the same time. Stormy weather offers language. Dark and moody, like the sky. I’ve brought a thin, waterproof poncho, and a cap. The people are rich and the food is expensive. The festival’s artistic director, Giona A. Nazzaro, is two years into his premiership, and because he has written several books on Hong Kong action cinema, attendees speculate on the programme’s tilt towards genre moviemaking. A Coke Zero costs around five Swiss francs. 

The marriage between art and commerce forms part of the festival’s conundrum. David Leitch’s fists-and-banter epic Bullet Train opens Piazza Grande, the vast plein-air cinema in the main square. It stars Brad Pitt and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. No better time than to watch Fairytale (dir. Alexander Sokurov), an absurd CGI theatre that reanimates Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin onto purgatorial ruins. None of these characters can die, Sokurov tells us, because they’ll always be alive, and because they’re already dead. 

Competition films Stone Turtle (dir. Ming Jin Woo) and Tommy Guns (dir. Carlos Conceição), one Malaysian and the other Portuguese, confront the nature of violence by appealing to the mode of revenge thriller. Stone Turtle is about how men hurt women; Tommy Guns is about how soldiers colonise countries. Both intersperse ethnographic scene-setting with category stylings: the former employs a Groundhog Day mystery; the latter evokes the horror latent in the return of the repressed. A critic I speak with suggests that these films illustrate a prevailing, even permanent, “gentrification of genre.” I wonder if this phrase is right, wary that the artistic predilections of directors, programmers, festivals and audiences generally tend to fluctuate and dissipate, so that in time they can be resurrected.  

A Perfect Day for Caribou (dir. Jeff Rutherford) concerns the misery handed from father to son: how intergenerational failure deepens and transforms as time passes. A middle-aged man, Herman (Jeb Berrier), balding but otherwise hirsute, sits in his pick-up truck, recording a suicide note for his estranged son, Nate (Charlie Plummer). Nate calls to reconnect, setting in motion a subsequent two-hander of “remember when,” held across a sprawling backdrop of Oregon hills, peaks, and plains. Shot in black and white, the screen appears in a cramped 4:3 ratio, shading with irony the wide expanses of terrain and jagged rises. The concentrated, tasteful framing of situations, objects, and characters is distracting: the bisected cemetery where Nate arrives in his car; the display of household goods tied to Herman’s truck. The inarticulate dialogue insinuates authentic portrayal but is novelistic. Plummer has a difficult role as a young man struggling to reconcile with his wounded patriarch: his strained, tilted head, his self-conscious mumbling, and the inevitable moment of his climactic anger. This sad, lonely outsider is a classic figure illustrating the film’s own derivative nature. To derive is no bad thing, but the inspired moments in this work are purely imaginative. One abrupt shot of a family unit—Nate, Herman, and a woman whom they briefly encounter—offers a striking alternative reality of lives redeemed, or at least not yet destroyed.

Medusa Deluxe (dir. Thomas Hardiman) is a slick, shallow, serpentine debut feature high on bombast and short on plausibility. This is filmmaking as elevator pitch: a murder mystery set during a regional hairdressing competition, suddenly capsized by a gruesome scalping, igniting a carnival of restless, bickering grotesques. These wretched souls point fingers and elude interrogation, slinging blame into a cyclone-whip of opprobrium. This movie is not a polite retread of the static, classic whodunnit; rather it is a roving visual slalom, an ostensibly “one-take” showcase for prominent cinematographer Robbie Ryan. The cast is without household names, so Ryan’s bravura camerawork is the star performer, tagging his lens onto rival stylists and their coiffured models. The technical work is impressive, the acting haphazard, and the plot nonsensical. The film likes to insist on how fun it is: this tendency culminates in an encore dance number that’s valedictory and unearned. The snippy, quickfire dialogue is generally overengineered, thwarting the viewer’s amateur-detective efforts to decipher the killer or understand motivations of the accused and accusers. 

Human Flowers of Flesh (dir. Helena Wittmann) is a work heavy on images and light on exposition, harbouring a tendency to meditate rather than explicate. The story (as much as it is revealed) concerns Ida (Angeliki Papoulia) and her polylingual crew as they sail from Marseille to Corsica to Sidi-Bel-Abbes, following the trail of the French Foreign Legion. Their motivation for this trip is not just historical; it is spontaneous. The six-strong group possess an occasional curiosity: bodies of water constitute a stage upon which to wander and contemplate, the promise of an endless horizon. These people embody the romantic attitude, quoting poetic passages from Marguerite Duras, offering sparse narration to life on deck and onshore.

This is a film about looking. Ida leads the troop of five men (an ironic comparison Wittmann insinuates) across a rocky cliff-face. They observe the boat from afar, established within a glorious seascape. When the viewer sees them, we are afforded an abridged perspective. Wittmann, as cinematographer, deploys severe styles of framing: her camera follows only the succession of feet as they negotiate the coastal terrain. Elsewhere, the filmmaker tends to abstract picture-making, showing comparably small organisms on separate trajectories: a snail on its sticky path towards some watermelon; a spider cocooning a fly in its web; nebulous bacteria gestating under a microscope. Other shots are more conventional: white buoys are match-cut to nautical portholes.


Wittmann hangs her captain’s hat on a homage to Claire Denis’ 1999 film, Beau Travail, whose direct and literal influence extends to the port of Marseille, shadowboxing on the sand, and pedantic bed-making. Denis Lavant’s character, Galoup, is extraordinarily reintroduced. His short scenes—standout, comic, kinetic—break the formal austerity, reimagining the film’s unhurried treatise on colonial power, mythic legacy, and histories of extraction and conflict. These themes find a vessel in the figure of Galoup, presumed lost to a cinematic past, now juggling three eggs and acting the clown. This belated revelation expresses a kind of beauty, and it is even more striking given the meticulous, undulating visual grammar that preceded it. Galoup never died, I suppose, because he’ll always be alive, and because he’s already dead.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Cryptozoo

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Kirsty Asher

Dash Shaw’s animated adult film Cryptozoo (2021) opens as all films should: a naked hippie embalmed in post-coital bliss recounts a dream to his girlfriend. In the dream, visually reconstructed in a fractal kaleidoscope, the 1960s counterculture movement storms the United States Capitol, successfully breaking in and establishing an egalitarian utopia. The couple, Matthew and Amber, (voiced by Michael Cera and Louisa Krause) are psychedelic babes in the woods, as doomed as Adam and Eve were when their inquisitive commune with nature leads them to the boundaries of a hidden ‘cryptozoo’. A brief moment of connection with a unicorn, that most unpolluted of mythological beings, quickly unravels into the visceral death of both Matthew and the injured unicorn. Cryptozoo premiered at Sundance Festival 2021 a mere twenty two days after the Capitol was stormed by 2,000 Trump supporters. The first time the Capitol had been violently seized since the War of 1812. A prophetic scene, but not in the way Matthew envisioned. The interregnum of American politics would not herald a rebirth of decent-minded liberalism as many Blue voters hoped. 

“Now is the time of monsters.” 

That last phrase, attributed to Gramsci through a translation by Slavoj Zizek, can be interpreted as the systemic and direct violence which flourishes as long-established power structures begin to crumble, and populist thought arises across the political spectrum to confront this. Elements of this can be seen in the works of Hieronymous Bosch, which threaten the viewer with contorted figures of all beastliness in portraying humanity’s struggle to reach godliness. Bosch’s lurid work was created at a turning point in European history as feudalism gave way to market capitalism. Gramsci’s “time of monsters” referred to the political interregnum out of which fascism metastasised. And so Cryptozoo found itself premiering at the breaking point of US liberalism. With regards to Cryptozoo, it begs the question how much liberalism can assist in the birth of a better world, or whether we truly are poised at the edge of humanity.

The film concerns itself with a world in which cryptids – an umbrella term for beings enshrined in folklore, believed to exist by some but for which there is no scientific evidence – truly exist. They are rescued from trafficking and abuse by amazonian justice warrior Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell), a veterinarian with a face reminiscent of Rossetti’s Proserpine who kicks bad guys’ asses armed only with her trusty catch pole. She then brings them back to the ‘safety’ of the Cryptozoo, another perceived hippie utopia which was brought to fruition by her boss Joan (Grace Zabriskie), the zoo’s architect. When Lauren was a child, an army brat growing up on countless military bases, she was tormented by nightmares about nuclear apocalypse, nightmares that were assuaged by a baku, a tapir-like Japanese cryptid which feasts on bad dreams. From an early age, Lauren associated the relief of her anxiety with the benign (though ultimately not altruistic) actions of a wild creature. 

It was through this formative first encounter with a cryptid that Lauren’s charge to become saviour and protector of such creatures took hold, which comes to a head when the US army, led by cryptid trafficker Nicholas (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan), decides it can exploit the baku’s powers for its own purpose. Thus the liberal do-gooders represented by Lauren, who have built their dedication to a better world off a strong ethical standpoint are pitted as worthy protagonists against a powerful arm of the state. The problem with this is that throughout the first act, the narrative had seemed to be building to the idea that Lauren and Joan, well-meaning as they may be, are the (not so) secret villains of this tale. 

The Cryptozoo after all is not merely a sanctuary or wildlife park, but a full-blown consumerist package to entertain the masses. As Phoebe, the gorgon of Greek myth who assimilates to human culture with contact lenses and sedated snake hair, puts it: “It doesn’t look much like a sanctuary, more like a shopping mall.” Lauren’s response is one of pragmatism, that to keep the zoo going it must generate revenue. She also hails incremental change as key to the coming utopia: “The cryptozoo is going to change things gradually…people will learn to be more accepting”. With the commercialisation of the cryptids, so they are unceremoniously flung into the marketplace of ideas, with no attempts to promote autonomy or self-sustainability in sight. 

In this way the cryptozoo reeks of neo-imperialism and a homosapien saviour complex, imposed by two women who perceive themselves as at the apex of morality.  Lauren uses possessive language about the cryptids, argues that ‘she was there first’ when Nicholas takes a cryptid from her in an act of zoological colonialism. With every plot point that worsens the situation for the baku and other cryptids, it is always Lauren’s actions that are culpable. In her first rescue scene involving an alkonost, a woman-headed avian cryptid from Russian folklore, she bungles the attempt and Nicholas arrives to take her, having been led there by Lauren’s movements. She goes hunting for the baku and finds that a New-Age tarot reader has hidden her in her house, once again leading the US army directly to their location. This narrative rhythm of the protagonist being regularly scuppered by the antagonist is intended to create a clearer delineation between good and bad. However introducing Nicholas and the army as the film’s primary antagonists is a deflection from what would have been a more honest critique of liberalism than the film actually achieves, and having been made in the current political timeframe, it would have been a necessary critique to make. 

The defenders of neoliberalism to the left of centre often tend to inadvertently champion Thatcher in declaring that There Is No Viable Alternative. This can be seen in the Vote Blue No Matter Who movement during the 2020 US election, France’s battle to keep Macron in office, and the dismal attempts to rally around Sir Keith Starmer in the UK. It is reminiscent of the mainstream centre’s adherence to the Enlightenment, an era which saw colonialism and systemic white supremacy become endemic in global humanity and yet still is upheld as the most rational philosophy by which we should govern ourselves. The Cryptozoo, however progressive its foundational beliefs pertain to be, is what Jedediah Purdy coined as a Neoliberal ‘market utopianism’. Financed off the personal wealth of its founder on her own private property, it is not beholden to any rights organisations or government oversight. No matter what Lauren claims its impact will be, it was created as a commercialised venture to make income from the captivity of its inhabitants. It is exemplary of how all the social progressivism in the world will be inadequate without the additional attempt to recalibrate the systems which govern us. We cannot, it seems, marketise Be Kind until a better world is born. 

Lauren only learns a hard-driven lesson about her actions after bloodshed and tragedy decimates the Cryptozoo. Her adherence to a belief in utopia based on pragmatism leaves her with little to do other than baleful hand-wringing. It is testament to how the liberal desire to uphold late-stage capitalism even while decrying its most ghoulish side effects will inevitably lead to disaster. It renders the words attributed to Fredric Jameson by Mark Fisher that it’s “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” into mortifying vindication. 

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Boys Don’t Cry

A Revisitation

For Liz, Who Guards the Archive

Credit: Matt Kennedy

Matt Kennedy

***

When writing my master’s thesis on transness and death, the above scene acted as an archival object.

One that I was unsure existed.

I wrote through the uncertainty ‘of myself in the doorway of my uncle’s house’ and reflected on how I felt the scene had manifested in my mind as a memory, a photograph or as potentially fictitious. 

For the longest time this scene haunted me. 

Years later I found the photograph. 

Buried among insurance paperwork, birth certificates and mould in my parents’ attic there I was frozen in time, meeting my own eyes across multiple iterations of lived lives. 

***

Death and its relationship to loss was the conceptual backdrop to my initial engagement with queer theory. I was and remain interested in the intellectually generative insights death, loss and by extension archive, memory & haunting afford us in examining the complexity of trans life. My thesis at its heart wanted to understand why it felt like a version of me, an otherly gendered version of me, had died and why I was haunted by certain objects, photographs, documents and texts. 

Queer Autoethnography 

This pull to understand brought me into theoretical kinship with queer theory and rooted me in a deep appreciation for qualitative methods specifically autoethnography. Queer theory enticed me initially through its self-description as a form of ‘subjectiveless critique’ that could not be defined by its objective of study (Eng, Halberstam & Munoz, 2005, p10). Queer presented a dynamic modality of intellectual engagement that was uninterested in attending to existing ontologies and epistemes. Rather, queer insisted on facing away, ‘reading against the grain’ (Hall, 2003). As such, pairing the subjectiveless critique of queer theory with autoethnography provided me with an opportunity to engage a more muddled history of trans subjectivity that resisted narrative coherence. 

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand socio-cultural experience. In a sense, autoethnography moves to capture lived experiences and place them in relation to broader social phenomena. Thus, queer autoethnography as a theoretic compound allows for the creation of narratives which bring together the ‘ideas, intentions, practices and affects of queer theory with the purposes and practice of autoethnography’ (Adams & Bolen, 2017). In this instance, I have a rare opportunity for revisitation through a queer autoethnography. Now knowing the scene that began my consideration of trans embodiment, memory and death is a photograph, I am drawn again into a reckoning. 

Haunting

Photography has often been named as a medium with spectral characteristics, a form of capture that has something to do with loss, absence, death and pastness. This photograph haunts precisely because it presents a past that cannot be reconciled with the present. The child in the photograph is both me and not me. My younger self is heralded into being by a series of referents no longer of relevance to me. The spectre in the photograph knows only a sense of self named as she & her and her name; Clíodhna. She embodies a subjective position and experience of gender that is dead to me, dead in the Derridean sense of having one’s remains, not just one’s body, but everything one leaves behind, totally at the mercy of others, to be exposed. In this context, this photograph creates a contradiction between my embodiment now and my previous embodiment. 

The Violence of Inspection

Thinking with Sontag ‘to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have’(1979, p.14). This conceptualising of the violation of photography names a certain discomfort that this photograph produces within me. The photograph disrupts the here and now of my identity. Presenting an otherly gendered version of myself to the world, the photograph has the power to destabilise the legitimacy of my manhood and point to inconsistencies in my embodiment, in my narrative, in my timeline. 

         In a way this photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that I existed for a period of time as a young girl. That I was not always Matt, not always hailed into being by he & him. This enacts what Jay Prosser has described as the fear ‘that the image is more real than the subject; that the photograph is the referent’ (1998, p.220). This fear is particularly relevant in relation to a scene in Kim Pierce’s Boy Don’t Cry (2000) in which Brandon Teena is depantsed in order to show his body to his girlfriend Lana with the aim of delegitimising his manhood. During this scene Brandon experiences an ‘out of body and out of time’ (Halberstam, 2005, p.86) moment which is captured through the positioning of him outside of his body watching the violence of inspection unfold.

Credit: Fox Searchlight

This moment in Boy Don’t Cry creates an incident of haunting which I can attest to feeling. Brandon is positioned as a ghostly figure outside of himself, othered by the ways in which people are viewing him and his gender. The camera in this moment functions as a cisnormative tool of violation, forcing the viewer to participate in this violence of inspection. When I look at the photograph of my former self, it invokes the violence of inspection in another form as it forces me to witness myself as something other than a man. This is a distinctly trans experience where ‘photographs of a pretransition self threaten to incarnate a “dead” self that one is not’ (Prosser, 1998, p.217). The power of this photograph to haunt lies in its ability to represent more than simply a past notion of self. The photograph is at once an archive of my previously gendered self but also a threat to my current embodiment. Photographs of trans people throughout the lifetime of our transitions (both social and medical) brush up against the limits of gendered representation. This photograph of me simultaneously evokes a gendered haunting where the referent (the me in the photograph) and the subject (me, presently) are given equal access to the potential of the “real”. How can this be reconciled? 

Reconciliation

One project of reconciliation would require more nuanced accounts of transness which do not rely on narrative coherence. I continue to question in my work why and for whom trans people are expected to perform a narrative telling that resolves gendered incoherencies in our timelines. The expectation on trans people to maintain narrative coherence to conceal our transness ultimately can have detrimental physical and psychological implications. Throughout Boys Don’t Cry Brandon is forced into forms of retelling that legitimise his manhood while also preventing him from acknowledging the fullness of his experience and in the end the revelation that Brandon is trans results in his murder. In part we employ gendered narrative coherence for safety, as often acknowledging our otherly gendered pasts outs us leaving us open to hostility similarly to Brandon. However, many trans people find agency in reworking the past to reflect their current embodiments, genders and identities. I have always struggled with this. 

         There is no theory here, only to say that the actualisation of my transness was accompanied by so much loss, trauma and rejection that it really did feel like something, someone, died. This was the messaging I internalised from my family and rather than dismissing it, I leaned into it, I worked with it, I embraced it. I find agency in acknowledging an otherly gendered past. I look to Avery Gordon to name the ways in which haunting can be transformed into reconciliation. A meaningful reconciliation has always moved me to grief. How do you grieve yourself? My loss has always been ambiguous and creates a kind of disenfranchised grief. Because my loss does not produce the loss of a coherent, visible life, an entity, a person; because it is the loss of a life, the grief and the mourning required to resolve it, is just as ambiguous as the loss itself. Where is that loss and how does mourning take place? In part, it takes place here as a kind of textual mourning by acknowledging the loss, by making space for the ghost. More nuanced accounts of trans life imbued with complexity, paradox and contradiction facilitate a kind of reconciliation that looks like a willingness to be haunted, a willingness to revisit and acknowledge a past ‘which constantly diminishes but never vanishes’ (Doty, 1995, p.4). 

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

References

Adams, T. E. and Bolen, D. M. (2017) ‘Tragic Queer at the Urinal Stall, Who, Now, Is the Queerest One of All? Queer Theory | Autoethnography | Doing Queer Autoethnography’, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 4(1), pp. 100-113.

Butler, J. (2004) Precarious life: The powers of mourning and violence. London, England:

Verso

Derrida, J. and Wills, D. (1996) The Gift of Death. University of Chicago Press.

Doty, M. (1995) My Alexandria. London: Cape Poetry.

Eng, D. L., Halberstam, J., & Muñoz, J. E. (2005). What’s queer about queer studies now? Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

Gordon, A. (2008) Ghostly matters: haunting and the sociological imagination. New University of Minnesota Press; New, Second; edn. Minneapolis, Minn;London: University of Minnesota Press.

Halberstam, J. (2005). In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York, NY: New York University Press.


Hall, D. E. (2003). Queer theories. Houndsmills, Basinstroke, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.

Prosser, J. (1998) Second skins: The body narratives of transsexuality. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Swank, H., Sevigny, C., Sarsgaard, P., Sexton, B., Sharp, J., Peirce, K., & Bienen, A. (2000). Boys don’t cry. Beverly Hills, Calif, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

New Fictions: Remote Control

Credit: RingRing Visuals

S. Paul

  1. “Is This A Film?”

The natural place for any story to start is the beginning. In the case of Justin Bieber, let’s rewind from the current moment of facial paralysis. Let’s skip past Hailey Baldwin and Selena Gomez, past the paparazzi and #CutForBieber, past the Christmas album and the pre-Monster Future collaboration. Let’s go all the way back to 100 Huntley Street, a Canadian Christian daily talk show that hosted Bieber’s first appearance on broadcast television in 2009. Bieber’s mother does all the talking — about how he’s the most subscribed musician on YouTube in Canada, and the 20th most subscribed in the world — while he sits quietly, showing the world the iconic Bieber haircut for the first time. In a time before algorithms, all you had to do was search “Justin singing” and he’d be the first thing you see. Mother Bieber talks more about how Justin Timberlake and Usher are courting him before the segment closes with a call for prayer to support Justin on his journey. It’s a seminal video document because it marks the rise of the internet-made music popstar, but also is indicative of television dominance in decline. Bieber came of age, and to stardom, at the same time as phone cameras exploded in numbers and the internet transformed the ways we live. Bieber was the first smartphone superstar.

We construct stories, just as we construct nature. Five years later, after this initial televisual prayer, TMZ leaked footage of a deposition given by Bieber. The crux of the issue revolves around Bieber allegedly instructing his security to beat up paparazzi photographers. We invent words, as things that are invented need names. Paparazzi emerged from Paparazzo, a character in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). “Justin Bieber” emerged from Justin Bieber, his government name, creating a lifelong rift between the image of Bieber and the identity he maintained. Perhaps this is best seen through Lil B’s 2011 music video “Lil B – Justin Beiber MUSIC VIDEO COOKING MUSIC!!! OMG!!!”, in which Lil B repeats Bieber’s name over and over again, until emptied of meaning, reduced to pure signifier. At one moment, a lawyer instructs Bieber to watch a video on a television, saying “Can you look at the film?”, to which Bieber, ever-aware that this deposition would get leaked and, as such, performing for the camera, repeatedly asking “Is this a film?” in a tone that turns from innocent to mocking. The lawyer replies “Is there a difference between a film and something else?” Bieber warbles out an unsteady “Yes.” 

It remains important that we situate Bieber’s deposition in a brief but significant lineage of superstar celebrity deposition leaks of the 2010s, the other notable tape belonging to rapper Lil Wayne. The leak of this tape by TMZ established a precedent in which Bieber and his team would have expected their deposition to leak as well, creating a situation where Bieber was not just answering questions for lawyers, but performing “Justin Bieber” for the world to see. There are moments where he breaks — questions that encroach about his then-recent breakup with Selena Gomez being one — yet we can only imagine that Bieber was overwhelmed with emotion; La Dolce Vita and the paparazzi flashing through his mind when he insisted that the video the lawyers were showing him on the television screen was not a film. We create definitions, definitions which in turn outline the contours of our reality. The difference between “a film and something else” is a map. 

  1. Le Temps de L’Amour

Dimitris Panayiotatos’s Lovers Beyond Time (1990) is a softcore Greek love story, bathed in lush neon that heightens Panayiotatos’s erotic vision, and accompanied by a sensuous synth score that itself becomes a character in the film. Written by Petro Markaris, best known for his collaborations with Theo Angelopoulos, the film is a beautiful minor work that has now been predominantly relegated to the status of a file floating through P2P torrent networks and sites such as rarelust.com, an archive maintained by a single anonymous webmaster who states the site is a “personal project to keep rare flick rips alive freely and stop sellers who sell these movies at insane prices”; a few DVD copies remain on eBay and Amazon from a Mondo Macabro release. There is little material about the film published, and no interviews with Panayiotatos published in the Anglosphere, yet the director remains active on Facebook, posting musings and links to his writing authored in Greek

The story goes like this: a young beautiful couple, Sylvia (Christine Skaza) and Angelos (Benoît Rossel), are embroiled in a passionate, chaotic relationship. The sex is phenomenal, but it’s all too inundating for Sylvia, who breaks it off, frightened of what she’s experienced. A heartbroken Angelos stabs his hand at dinner, then Sylvia’s jacket is covered in blood as the couple has one last fuck in the restaurant bathroom. Before they part ways in the night, Angelos tells Sylvia about a musician, Zinos Flerianos, and how she needs to take a tape of his music to the record label she works at — he intends it as both a final gift to her, yet a curse if she refuses. The mysterious figure of Flerianos lingers throughout the film, and his music reflexively operates as the score of the film, a gorgeous accompaniment that heightens the sensuality of certain long takes, allowing the mysteries of love and time to penetrate deep. As elements of time travel warp into the story, we come to find out that the Angelos and Sylvia of that evening will never be together, though, as the title suggests, there is still love to be found between the Angelos’s and Sylvia’s of the past and future.  

Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) is another film whose dazzling score, a composition by Fatima Al Qadiri, plays an essential role in what is simultaneously a love story, a ghost story, and a detective thriller. The film speaks through a postcolonial lens about the impacts of globalization on migration and the precarity of laborers in developing nations. A young man, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who after months of not receiving pay for construction labor on a new skyscraper in Senegal (which is depicted through one of the best deployments of CGI in recent years) decides to attempt to sail to Europe in search of better work to help provide for his family. Souleiman leaves with a group of young men – all of whom are leaving behind their girlfriends and wives -who tragically perish at sea. The souls of the young men then take control of their partners at night, as they work to seek retribution for those who forced them out to sea in search of money.

Diop splices in gorgeous shots of the sea throughout the film, which also underscores, despite their tranquility, the violent potential to kill contained within them. The relation of these images to the score, which crescendos with the song “Body Double” during the film’s climax, a dance between lovers alone in a bar, is an essential part of the interlocking commentaries woven together by Diop. It is a film of rhythms, romance, and heartbreak, that shows us the realities hidden across our present globe and provides us with a way to think beyond the migration crisis into one of what it means to be human, yet also realizes the limitations of how language can convey this story. While commenting on Chris Marker’s Letter to Siberia (1958), André Bazin states “it might be said that the basic element is the beauty of what is said and heard, that intelligence flows from the audio element to the visual”. Al Qadiri’s score, in effect, takes the impossibility of visualizing the true impacts of colonialism and renders it into sound. 

Marguerite Duras’s India Song (1975) and Her Venetian Name in Deserted Calcutta (1976) present an extraordinary double feature in line with Bazin’s conceptualization of aural intelligence flowing into the visual elements. The latter film uses the entire soundtrack of India Song – itself a unique film in that the dialogue is never spoken by on-screen characters – while substituting in shots of colonial wealth in decay and ruins where we once saw extravagant furnishings and decadent couture in a house of opulence. Duras would continue to build a body of filmic work based on this cinema of aural intelligence. In her 1979 release Le Navire Night, a film that tells a story over telephones during the German occupation of France, there is a moment early in the film, where a female voice says “The love story. A story without images.” Indeed, through Lovers Beyond Time, Atlantics, and Le Navire Night, the moments at which cinema can convey the closest feeling towards ideals that can never be fully expressible, whether that of Love, Tragedy, or a combination of the two, is through the soundtrack. Is this a song? Is this a film? Is this a whisper? It is whispers and songs and songs of whispers that make the film. 


Interlude: 

 “… sound is simultaneously ‘in’ the screen, in front, behind, around, and throughout the entire movie theatre… the language used by technicians and studios, without realizing it, conceptualizes sound in a way that makes sense only for the image. We claim that we are talking about sound, but we are actually thinking of the visual image of the sound’s source.”

Christian Metz, The Aural Objects (1980)

Vilém Flusser, ‘Chamber Music’ in  Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985)

“In a sounding image, the image does not mix with music; rather both are raised to a new level, the audiovisual, which could not realize its meaning until now because of its grounding in earlier levels… It will become pointless to try and distinguish between music and so-called visual arts because everyone will be a composer, will make images.” 

In tandem, Metz and Flusser bring us to a new function of how sound and image function today, with Flusser cheekily referencing the idea of “Chamber Music” being transformed into a synthetic and improvisational mode of music-making through computers and code. We see this today with DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) like Ableton, FL Studio, and GarageBand creating ways to make music for individuals who might not even know how to read music, instead operating these interfaces in a manner of signal processing. This extends into digital image-making, as workflows on non-linear editing softwares transform the process once controlled by the Steenbeck. Image-generating software, whether simple tools like Microsoft Paint or AI tools like Midjourney and Dall-E, have the trajectory of image-making in the same way as analogue photography transformed painting. Sound and image are now composed magically, and the ease of creating compositions has enveloped us in a torrent of audiovisual media.   

As telematic societies emerged and transformed in the 1980s and onwards, we witnessed an unprecedented rise of types of electronic music that continues to sprawl towards infinity today. At first, it was house and techno created in Black communities in Detroit and Chicago and spreading to Europe, then it became hip-hop spreading from New York City to the rest of the world, and the transition from radio and physical media to streaming and the connections of the Internet resulted in the popular soundscape we have today. In a reading of her essay-poem METRO BOOMIN WANT SOME MORE NIGGA, poet Simone White examines the phenomenon of Trap music functions. This reading, delivered at Abrons Arts Center in New York City in September of 2017, occurs just as trap music was in the process of mutating into a new form — that of drill music. White reads:

“The trap music producer exhales a pervasive diffuse and dilute sonic affective atmosphere through the machines. Trap beat-making is a methodology of surround so that we find ourselves in a club that we have not chosen to enter, but we’ve paid. The club is everywhere and everyone is in it. It is put on the internet; it flies through the air. A cursory scroll through the discography of the producer Lex Luger bears out the extraordinary historical speed at which the trap surround has developed and spread. The numerosity and thickness that belong to its presence. A sub-bass drone accompanies words the rapper says, deftness, sleight-of-hand, with the limited discursive materials of consumable black life, more of which below. This is borrowed from the beat-making repertoire of electronic dance music, which thrives on investments in the pushy invasion that occurs when sine waves developed in vast open space make contact with bodies that intend to absorb them, bodies invested in turning toward the direction of the sound, catching the wave of bass between them as intimacy, sex, euphoria. To make much or everything of a single ambient tone, to throw it about a cavernous space… In rap music the open space of the club is the world space of the music industry, the anti-club, everywhere.”

  1. Make A Movie

In the summer of 2022, drill rappers Kay Flock and Fivio Foreign released their collaborative single and music video “Make A Movie”, a collaboration between the boroughs of Brooklyn, where Fivio Foreign is from, known for pioneering and developing drill music in New York City, and The Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop in the late 70s and Kay Flock in the early 2000s, which took the sounds of Brooklyn drill that emerged in the late 2010s and reconfigured it even further. The video is a fascinating text – it doesn’t draw definitions, but instead creates worlds within worlds. The opening shot shows a couple walking into a theater with posters and the marquee advertising “Make A Movie” by Kay Flock and Fivio Foreign. Thenthe lights dim, and the song soundtracks images of a teenager with braids and a cracked iPhone going from recording songs in his bedroom to walking on stage to perform in front of a massive crowd. A later shot shows the teen with a new iPhone but the screen still shows the same image – a music player with Kay Flock’s 2021 song “Being Honest”. Spliced into all of this is Fivio Foreign and his friends, rapping and dancing inside and outside of the theater the couple walked into. The question of “Is this a film?” cedes to “Where is the film?” which is, as White read, “the open space of the club is the world space of the music industry, the anti-club, everywhere”. Like Lovers Beyond Time, like Atlantics, the film is its soundtrack, the flow from the audio to the visual.      

When White delivered her poem in 2017, rap was in the midst of another moment of its continual transformation, a defining aspect of its shape-shifting ability to escape definition. The trap music she describes comes from Atlanta, brought to popularity by rappers such as Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, and Waka Flocka Flame during the late 2000s and early 2010s before a major fork in the sound emerged. In Atlanta, a new style of rap would be brought to the forefront – that of Young Thug’s delivery, which was inspired by and hyper-extended the patternings of New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne. Meanwhile, the trap production styles migrated to Chicago, forming the sonic backbones of what would eventually become known as drill music, with stars such as Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and the late King Von bringing it to the forefront of culture. Drill music was a virus, and aided by the access to the internet that came with the 2010s it traveled the globe. Chicago Drill traveled to London, where it underwent further transmutation, incorporating the sounds of grime and garage. In 2016 and 2017, rappers in Brooklyn such as 22Gz and Sheff G began rapping on UK drill instrumentals – Brooklyn drill, still a nascent genre at the time of White’s reading, rapidly ascended with Canarsie rapper Pop Smoke rising to stardom in 2019, before he was tragically shot dead in February 2020. 

“I’m talking about now, and about the future, about the beautiful and terrible new kind of consciousness this new black music surfaces… This is a sound of no hope, no futurity, black life is black death,” White continues in her reading. And indeed, both the sound-images of drill music and the music videos that accompany them are bleak reflections of the realities that produce these sounds. See Yus Gz’s Dead Loccs, a 2021 music video from the Bronx rapper, which samples the Macarena, that opens with a clip of paramedics performing CPR on a rival gang member, shot on a phone camera, before continuing to feature Yus Gz and a group of teenagers dancing and rapping along to his lyrics dissing rival gang members, both dead and alive. 

This visualization of street politics through both music and the internet is a phenomenon that lies at the center of O Block (2022), a Youtube documentary by independent journalist and filmmaker Andrew Callahan (best known for his All Gas No Brakes web series which later became Channel 5 News). The piece contains interviews with residents of “O Block”, the Chicago housing project where Michelle Obama grew up and where drill music was born. Callahan and Channel 5 go beyond speaking to the individuals on the street and also interview content creators DJ Akademiks — best known for his video series covering the early days of Chicago drill called “The War in Chiraq” — and Adam22, host of the No Jumper podcast, which frequently platforms and interviews active gang members.

The problem as Callahan sees it is when music about highly specific and localized gang disputes gets pushed by algorithms to gain millions of views. In turn, forums, such as the subreddits r/Chiraqology and r/NYStateofMind, and other forms of content emerge, sharing information about things that everyday civilians and suburban residents would never know about without the internet. This creates feedback loops that can amplify violence and also creates opportunities for content creators to make money by creating the type of content the algorithm rewards by creating narratives around the violence — like that of what DJ Akademiks and Adam22 have put out. Callahan specifically questions Akademiks, who had bestowed nicknames like “The Chicago Grim Reaper” on rappers who had allegedly committed multiple murders, on whether he feels responsibility for inciting tensions leading to violence, victims of which are often teenagers. Akademiks maintains that he is not at fault, that he isn’t the one pulling the trigger. All the world’s a stage, and he’s merely reading narration — which begs the question: who writes the script? 

Like any other blockbuster, there are profits to be taken. While O Block residents lament that they feel that the outside world views them only as characters, Lil Durk, one of the biggest rappers to make it out of the same projects, partnered with the video game Grand Theft Auto Online to create a custom role-playing server called ‘Trenches’. Durk appears in the game as a playable character, while the game also features a mural honoring the late King Von, an O Block rapper whose videos now boast hundreds of millions of views. And as rumors that the housing project itself has been sold and will undergo the cycle of redevelopment and gentrification that has come to define American cities in the 21st century, memory of the time and place will become consolidated from the physical to the digital. Near the end of his sprawling Livestream Follies, Nick Pinkerton briefly discusses the life and death of Pop Smoke, and how the visualization of both his youth and his rise to fame created a “Damn, my life a movie,” effect. And as Fivio Foreign frequently ad-libs “Viral!” and “Movie!” throughout his songs, it becomes clear that the magic of the movie theater has been compressed into the screen through which we access the world. 

  1. TV To The Internet

👨🏿🎨🇫🇷 (Or, “Man Artist: Dark Skin Tone Emoji”, “Flag from France Emoji”), a video uploaded by the YouTube channel denna frances glass on July 29, 2022, presents footage of American rappers arriving at Paris Fashion Week over the recent years. Kodak Black, Playboi Carti, Lil Baby, Pop Smoke, and Gunna, among others, emerge from their luxury vehicles, dripped out in designer — the images are cut to audio from Mike Dibb’s Channel 4 documentary The Miles Davis Story (2001). The narration explicitly ties the current trajectory of rappers, and the concept of the rapper-as-artist, to the jazz artists of the 60s and 70s who have now been institutionalized into the American academic systems: “It was his first trip to Europe and he was overwhelmed by the reception. Not only was jazz accepted on an equal basis with the other arts, but black musicians were accepted as equals by enthusiastic white audiences.” 

The situation is different now, and the 21st century will not be the 20th century. As academies crumble financially, neither Juilliard, Oberlin, nor NYU will teach rap, be it drill or “Soundcloud”, just as the academic funding that allowed theorists such as Fred Moten to produce works like Black and Blur (2017) will not be there for future generations of theorists to produce book-length studies on the works of Lil B, movements in Drill, or the future-music yet to come. Instead, these theorizations became subsumed into the practice of music-making itself. What makes rap a preeminent form in its ability to reinvent, transmutate, and ceaselessly evolve is that it isn’t hindered by these institutions. In Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (1993), which lies somewhere between a scientific study and theory-fiction – using the case of the vampire squid to comment on human society, art, and culture –  Flusser writes: 

“Society did not realise, at the time, the impact of the industrial revolution upon the creative process, because art in the restricted modern sense of the term continued to be crafted, untouched by the new methods of production since it was relegated to ghettos called “exhibitions and museums”.” 

And the video piece by denna frances glass escapes these constraints, while simultaneously recalling works that exist within these boundaries with similar themes. Arthur Jafa is perhaps the best inflection point to examine, with works like Love is the Message, The Message is Death (2016) which exists in Flusser’s ghettos and can only be seen in fragments and poor images, filmed in galleries on smartphones and uploaded to YouTube, and the music video for Ye (formerly Kanye) West’s Wash Us In The Blood (2020), which exists as an inversion – archival and cell phone footage compiled, reoriented, and sequenced for an intended broadcast through the internet. The latter work’s utilization of CGI and video game footage (from none other than Grand Theft Auto) add a further dimension to the work in which the “Realness” of the images seen is destabilized and undermined. As Ye raps “I know it’s fake if it’s in the news”, the words coalesce with the images of the riots of 2020, emphasizing how the media channels of the 20th century utterly fail to adequately capture the realities of our current situation. It’s a phenomenon that Lil B rapped about on the 2010 track “TV To The Internet”. 

 “…it’s like TV doesn’t show what’s real in life, but the Internet, you got the power to do whatever you wanna do and put it out there… I learned about the Internet around 15-16 really heavy, started getting on it heavy, but didn’t understand the power that it was beheading… it’s like TV, the Internet is real though, you watch TV and you can’t respond, the Internet you have a response, you have a voice, you can comment, you can move through different things, you can move through different channels and present yourself, so really the Internet is another world…”

Rapped is not the perfect word — perhaps there isn’t one to describe what Lil B does. In “METRO BOOMIN WANT SOME MORE NIGGA”, White talks about how her students say that the late XXXTentacion is not a rapper: “He just does this thing and puts it on the internet”. And Lil B pioneered “doing a thing and putting it on the internet”. “TV To The Internet” is closer to spoken word, the instrumental does not have drums, and Lil B’s stream of consciousness about television and the internet produces priceless gems with just as much if not more theoretical value than the tomes of Vilém Flusser.

The track, broadcast through the internet, becomes an exegesis of being on the Internet, an ekphrasis of the Internet, and effectively “doing” media theory. But rather than creating a volume of essays like Flusser’s Into the Universe of Technical Images, Lil B creates mixtapes – like Dior Paint (2010) – effectively essays of sound-images, some of which can be transcribed into linear text, parts of which remain ineffable within the bounds of linear writing and can only be furthered along in dialogue through more sound-images. Other Lil B tracks in this oeuvre include “Paint” and “The Canvas”, which orient themselves too as aural tracks with the intention to evoke sound-images. 

As beautiful and transcendental as some of these works can be, they also serve as a continual reminder of death. Barthes notes in Camera Lucida (1980) that every photograph of a person is an image containing death, and in the same way every recording of someone’s voice contains their eventual death as well. We witness this in how “Futura Free”, the penultimate track of Frank Ocean’s Blonde (2016), has transformed since the death of Ocean’s younger brother, whose vocals are heavily featured on the track and album’s outro, just as how drill music is transformed when it’s an archive of the slew of lives lost due to a preexisting system of violence, and Soundcloud rap has transformed when the voice behind the music has been lost to a system that perpetuates violence and an opioid epidemic. 

In the 1953 essay film Statues Also Die, the narration, authored by Chris Marker notes that “An object is dead when the living gaze that was once cast upon it has disappeared. And when we disappear, our objects will go where we send those of the Africans: to the museum.” Marshall McLuhan’s most famous statement “The medium is the message” echoes through the title of Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death. Everything that passes through the Internet and its world of images is marked by death – The Message is Death.

Refrain: “This Is A Film?” 

There was a second question. Before Justin Bieber asked “Is this a film?”, he began by repeating “This is a film?” twice. The words cut through the deposition tape itself, as the “this” shifts from the video pictured on the screen in the video to the experience of watching the video on your screen: This is a film?

In 2021, the late Jean-Luc Godard joined the International Film Festival of Kerala for a conversation about film, that is, about a World created by Godard, that was hosted over Zoom. Televisual in essence, the discussion contains a crucial moment where Godard says:“I thought that production was the main aspect of cinema, and I realized that distribution was and today more than before. Distribution has choked production by pretending to be in service of the audience. Today distribution serves the audience but production does not.” As the conversation is transposes separate realities into digital image and sound, it enters a lineage with other cinematic essays of Godard, such as Letter to Jane (1972), a postscript film to Tout va bien (1972), that is now available on YouTube, just like the aforementioned conversation. Though his authorship in the presentation of this piece is limited, the question remains: This is a film?

The same morning news broke out that Godard had passed, electing to commit assisted suicide, a prominent snuff film circulated on Twitter – cell phone footage of rapper PnB Rock shot and dying in Los Angeles. The rapper’s biggest song on YouTube, Middle Child, has more than 80 million views and features XXXTentacion, whose murder was also filmed on smartphones and posted onto social media. Millions across the world have screen memories of the two bleeding out: This is a film?

Within hours of the news of PnB Rock’s death, DJ Akademics uploaded the video “PNB Rock Talks about How he Almost Got Lined and Robbed in Los Angeles while out with GF & Daughter”, a snippet of a conversation with the late rapper recorded a week and a half prior to the incident according to the description. Despite mostly bringing his coverage of “The War in Chiraq” to a halt, DJ Akademics posted this video, designed to bring in as much as much algorithmic traffic as possible through its title: This is a film? 

When Pop Smoke was shot and killed in the Hollywood Hills mansion he was staying at, much attention was put onto social media posts the rapper made that potentially exposed his location. When PnB Rock was shot and killed outside the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, much attention went to an Instagram story his girlfriend had posted and then deleted, documenting their dinner out. The camera and the screen can make life a movie, but they can very well edit reality as well. When Souleimane and the other laborers decide to sail for Europe in Atlantics, they do it because they’ve heard of and seen it done before. Their deaths are never pictured on screen, only existing as aural images, told by a ghost possessing a woman’s body, spoken through whispers and songs: This is a film? 

To write about the internet is to critique a map with shifting contours, that is constantly drawing and redrawing itself, where the Borgesian 1:1 map that stretches across the entire territory is impossible to perceive, just as it is impossible to view every image and hear every sound. It is a beautiful graveyard full of the dead, undead, and the dying inching and accelerating towards their caskets, waiting to be lowered and buried, some of which will receive engravings on their headstones, others to be set into unmarked graves. Though just like flammable celluloid, the zeroes and ones behind the digital image are not forever. In Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Adolescents (2021), Italian philosopher Federico Campagna notes that “More fragile than the papyri of the ancient world, the immense wealth of digitized culture hangs to a thread, depending for its survival on the continuation of the techno-economic settings of this civilization. The treasure of this society, obsessed with data, will be the first victim of annihilation, once its historical body will have exhaled its last breath.” 

There is death in the image and voice of Justin Bieber – indeed the Justin Bieber who asked “This is a film?” is dead. We keep him undead, cryogenically preserved in that moment of questioning, through a medium and a technology that could at any moment break. This is a film.

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Both Sides of the Blade | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Wild Bunch

Ben Flanagan

At the beginning of Both Sides of the Blade, Claire Denis gives us something new: an iPhone creation myth. Blissful ocean waves splash with that XS shimmer, and in the distance, two figures dance. Sara and Jean – Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon – in bliss. It’s like a Malick parody, nothing can get better than this. But the digital photography is too revealing. Vincent Lindon, owner of the widest pair of shoulders known to man, looks oddly cramped by the dimensions of the lens. And he will continue to shrink, as Denis’ game of sexual cat-and-mouse transforms him into a cucked Quasimodo figure. 

This magnetic film from Claire Denis sometimes plays like a greatest hits piece. Establishing shots of Paris rooftops could be from Vendredi Soir (2002), recurring shots from the inside of a train carriage looking out at the tracks from 35 Shots of Rum (2008). The absent mothers that haunt Denis’ films, (most recently High Life [2019], filmed while she was in mourning), reach a fulcrum here, where every single character tries to recall what it’s like to be nurtured. These oils with which she paints have never dried quite so solemnly. Back from vacation, the apartment that radio DJ Sara and ex-con Jean share becomes a prison when she spots her motorcycle-riding ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin, ageing with a bloat that emphasises his past glories) near her workplace. Clearly, this awakens something from the deep within, and when François approaches Jean with a business proposition, the couple’s orbit discovers a new constellation. 

It is dour and difficult – particularly in the long, talky scenes that pad the film’s second half. As Sara/Jean reconfigure their relationship – their lust, their vision of each other – we get the kind of actorly showcase fight scenes that you wouldn’t expect from Denis, the master of ellipsis. Here, though, extended awkwardness becomes a powerful tool, like when Jean whitesplains racism to his mixed race son, pacing back and forth across a living room with admonishments and assertions of the value of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. 

Denis tends to get a pass for her crude depictions of race. Within her decoupage, her interest in/fetish for Black bodies tends to have a sensuous effect that burrows into the psychology of her characters: they know not what they colonise! Here, though, it becomes too on the nose. Jean’s tearaway son stands shivering on the far end of a railway platform, an image from a thousand bad kitchen sink dramas. When Jean drives to see his son, only to be turned away by the Grandmother who takes care of him, he yells up to his son’s bedroom window. The boy hides from his father behind the curtains. He can’t send him away face to face, but that sheet of glass becomes a dividing screen that makes the truth easier to see. 

We see this in reverse, later, when Sara attends a party for Jean’s new business. She practically has a panic attack ascending the stairs to meet François, but outside, she sees him and François through the window. Now, she can speak to them on the phone, knowing their reaction, and hiding her own visage. Later, the phone becomes another body to be caressed and pulsed in that oh so Denisian way. This fear of being exposed is what pushes Sara to go back and forth between the two men. To Jean she is mother, to François she can be plaything. It’s not just that François takes her back to the past, but he takes her away outside of her own reality. Denis emphasises this in her clever use of disposable masks: when they try to kiss, they forget their faces are covered, because they can’t actually see each other, just memories!

In High Life, Binoche’s scientist gave birth to a similar looking daughter, memorably concocted from Robert Pattinson’s semen. Pattinson’s horror at his inevitable attraction to his daughter led him to drag them both into a wormhole. Sara similarly sees Jean/François as two parts of a whole. But if you cannot have both, then each side is incomplete and harrowing: Jean’s bullish aggression threatens to turn violent, while François energy is as cunning and manipulative as it is sexual. It reminded me of the melodrama urtext, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), where Nicolas Ray’s central trio are locked in a battle of wills that seems almost cosmic – if they get too near they will combust. If the twilight colours of Both Sides of the Blade aren’t as immediately appealing as Ray’s bold combination of technolour and widescreen, their clarity exposes Sara, Jean, and François’s own blindness. 

By the time this swirling mess of emotion and plot draws to a close, with Tindersticks crooning the film’s title over the closing credits, one feels reborn. The universe ends in High Life. In Both Sides of the Blade, it begins anew.

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The Kegelstatt Trio | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Basilisco Filmes

Tom Atkinson

A film that almost wasn’t, Rita Azevedo Gomes’ Kegelstatt Trio began life as an abandoned cinquième aventure in Èric Rohmer’s Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (1987). Opting instead to develop it as a stage play, Rohmer’s offshoot is a familiar reorganisation of shapes he played with his entire career: two ex-lovers have a series of digressive but honest conversations about art, love, and life. Paul (Pierre Léon) lives in a large but sparsely furnished modernist 1960s house in the countryside; Adélia (Rita Durão) visits him often, and the two are drawn closer together even as they discuss Adélia’s dissatisfaction with her current partner.

Gomes shoots the house, already a sharply defined architectural imposition, on lenses with angles that lean towards the wider end, making Paul’s relative solitude even more pronounced. The hardwood floor seems to stretch for miles across his living room, adorned by a few sets of shelves, a table with CDs and a stereo, some plastic garden chairs, a piano. Captured in clean, rigorous static shots lasting several minutes, the Paul of Gomes’ interpretation appears to have cleared out all distraction, filling up the hole left by Adélia’s love with music. 

Or perhaps his stripped-down living situation is a symptom of another facet to Gomes’ version of Rohmer’s play: Paul and Adélia are actors, performing the playscript as though it were an original work by a particularly fickle director, played by actual Spanish filmmaker Adolfo Arrieta. He fusses over details, praises the actors as perfect and yet remains perpetually unhappy with the finished product, and gets them to rehearse independently without guidance. “You were both perfect, but it’s not right,” he says at the end of the first scene, frustrating both performers with his inscrutable supervision.

The Rohmer connection becomes an ironic one. For an artist so invested in a digressive and ambling discursive cinema, Gomes has loaded her tribute to said artist with a knowing fussiness in both her formal framework and the character of the director. Where Rohmer preferred a relaxed editing style, and let his camera roam freely when it suited him, Gomes’ film looks rigid and highly controlled. A focussed artistic effort, certainly, but more than that, the film’s formal austerity is a total inversion of the source material’s core values. This is, after all, still Rohmer’s script, albeit delivered in the fashion most dissonant with his philosophy.While these separate pleasures of sweet, tender writing and tight formal control are endearing in the first instance, their disparity becomes more pronounced by the second hour. The conversational circularity of Rohmer’s writing is tiresome, even as Gomes’ framing skills don’t miss once. It renders a potentially radical examination of Rohmer’s insular, overwhelmingly French artistic ethos into something more hermetic. It has the distinct feeling of an exercise, a passing fancy for the global festival circuit that acts as an Avengers-style ‘What If…’ for fans of Rohmer, Gomes, and Arrieta too. As a tribute, it’s more thoughtful than the average supercut or fancam. But it lingers for about as long.

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Europe | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Square Eyes

Kirsty Asher

Documentary essayist Philip Scheffner’s Europe may be a work of fiction (his first in feature length), but only in the sense that it contains a structured narrative built around the lived experience of its lead actress, Rhim Ibrir. Ibrir’s life is closely mirrored in that of the protagonist Zohra Hamadi, a young Algerian woman on the cusp of recovery from severe scoliosis, the same condition which affects Ibrir, in Western France. Ibrir previously contributed to Scheffner’s documentary essay Havarie, about a group of refugees adrift in the Med in an inflatable dinghy. Like Zohra, Rhim is separated from her husband who can’t visit her from Algeria due to lack of papers, and this storyline was featured in Havarie

Scheffner and screenwriter Merle Kröger effectively build a sense of cautious optimism in the opening scenes of the film on what is shown rather than said. As Zohra’s voiceover in the opening states, “It’s not the kind of film that tells you what to do, because the story says so.” After leaving a doctor’s appointment where she’s told she no longer needs surgery, Zohra takes the bus on her usual route home, where  she takes the seat with the little blue and white disabled access sign, until an elderly woman with a walking stick embarks and politely mentions that the seat is only for disabled access, and Zohra pleasantly gives up her seat. She once needed it, and habit may have led her to sit there, but her life has now changed, for the better.  It’s this emotionless portrayal of small, quiet victories which eloquently sets up the trajectory of trauma which comes to plague Zohra’s life.  

The benevolent state which France and other wealthy post-colonial European nations hold in high self-regard dissolves when it emerges that, since Zohra is now in recovery, she has lost her right to stay in France and is to be sent back to Algeria. The bus scene, ever so polite, identifies a world where Zohra is expected to give up what was always temporary, even if unbeknownst to her. Zohra was always journeying to but never quite arriving in Europe, even as the bus drops her at a stop that is, in the real-life town of Châtellerault, quite literally called Europe. 

After Zohra receives this news, Scheffner makes the pointed decision to temporarily erase her, not from the story, but from screen presence. Instead, we see neighbours, friends and state officials talking at a fixed point offscreen where Zohra is imagined to be standing, punctuated with pauses representing Zohra’s responses which are neither seen nor heard. 

Scheffner is a self-aware filmmaker, wary of what he describes as a “reflex” by the media to humanise the stories of refugees and immigrants for a well-meaning but politically limited European audience. His decision to vanish Zohra from her own story is a deliberate rejection of news stories and documentaries which forcefully construct adulatory narratives of tragedy and hope, to instead showcase the brutal reality for a woman in Zohra’s position. As a disabled woman from North Africa she is rendered completely voiceless and powerless at the hands of an indifferent system, and the narrative decision to vanish her reiterates this, rather than resorting to heart-tugging cinematic techniques. 

This attitude is present in the camerawork too. It’s interesting to note the difference in style from a film like the Dardennes’ Deux jours une nuit (2014), which features a (white) French female protagonist, played by Marion Cotillard, who also must fight to preserve her social security after a health crisis. There, the camera is handheld and frequently follows her footsteps, matching her pace and spurring her onwards in her quest with its momentum. In Europe, the camera makes no such benevolent gestures for Zohra. It remains passively neutral, always capturing the scene from one fixed point, allowing the narrative to speak loudly for itself instead of building sentimentality. In the aftermath of receiving the news that her residency in France is terminated, Zohra happens upon an official memorial service for the Algerians who sided with the coloniser in the French-Algerian war. The announcer talks of their sacrifice, and how France will always make known its gratitude, as Zohra stonily watches from amongst the small crowd gathered. The local government officer in charge of her case tells her there’s nothing he can do and goes for a cigarette break with his colleague, who calmly but pointedly questions his decision to hire ‘an Arab’ to care for his ailing father while they chat. Racism and imperialism are glaringly exposed in the cracks of a system that purports to care while failing those who are vulnerable, always reflected in Zohra’s calm but long-suffering gaze. 

Europe does away with asking its audience for sympathy and instead creates an experience where a more privileged viewership can understand what powerlessness looks, feels, and sounds like, in the plainest of terms. Rhim Ibrir’s life mirrored Zohra’s to the extent that it directly affected the filming process after her residency permit was rescinded, and the finished product is a mutual pact between Scheffner, Kröger and Ibrir to tell her story honestly and directly. 

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Dry Ground Burning | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Cinco da Norte

Ben Flanagan

Dry Ground Burning (Mato seco em chamas) is, among the critics I spoke with, the consensus pick for best film at the festival. The public audience with whom I saw the film would probably disagree, as there were at least a dozen walkouts. But fortunately there isn’t an audience prize at Berlinale. Their dispute won’t have been because of extreme gore or sexuality, but perhaps because of its lack. In Dry Ground Burning, emptiness is a virtue.

Consider its premise: fresh from jail, Léa (Léa Alves) joins forces with her half-sister Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who sells gasoline from a makeshift oil refinery in Sol Nascente, on the outskirts of Brasília. While their all-female team sling to bike gangs, an armoured police car circulates the favela in search of scalps. Along the way, the ladies run a political campaign in protest of Bolsonaro, and attempt to reclaim their community from authoritarian patriarchy and globalisation. All in a day’s work for these steely, magnanimous women. One can’t read the minds of the audience at Akademie Der Kunste last night, but hearing this Russ Meyer premise, they would be forgiven for expecting Bacurau 2

The film is a writer/director collaboration between Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta, who also acts as cinematographer (she shot his earlier Once There Was Brasilia in 2017). It is quite elegantly constructed. Its genre signifiers are a way to hold the audience down, but Dry Ground Burning has more in common with documentary. So between the gun toting scenes, we travel around the region: party and barbeque, and, in the most apocalyptic scene, a Bolsonaro rally where the volume is turned all the way up. 

The characters of Léa and Chitara, too, are fictional extensions of their actors’ lives. When it holds on faces as they tell stories, the film is enrapturing. Léa and Chitara both have a way with words that transports us into their recollections, both painful and funny. Léa’s stories from the pen are mostly wistful recollections of the three girlfriends in her cell. Chitara, the heart of the film, speaks mostly of family or business. But words can be few and far between. Really, Dry Ground Burning relies on sheer visual language to inject the audience with Sol Nascente, and the hunt for economic and spiritual agency. 

One scene abruptly begins on a bus, where a party is taking place: women twerk, a rapper MC’s, and Léa soaks it all in. Then, a cut to a prison bus. Léa was dreaming all along. From that, cut to Léa back at home. Queirós/Pimenta took us into layers of memory in the way it really happens. The long close-up shots invite comparison to Pedro Costa, though when the characters here are dromospherically angled in the corner of the room one goes back to Costa’s beloved Straub-Huillet. They are cut from the same cloth. 

None of this is subtle. When the action starts, characters fire guns off screen at unseen adversaries, quite like how Feuillade or Lang would stage such scenes. At one point, a stallion trots past a burning billboard with the faces of our heroes. Zack Snyder used the same metaphor for his Wonder Woman – grow up dudes! These shorthands, which Queirós/Pimenta reach to over and over, have a rhapsodic, cumulative effect which is quite powerful. In the final moments, one wonders why the film isn’t ending. A perfect final shot is followed by another perfect final shot. Does that mean each shot is perfect, or that Quieros doesn’t know how to wrap things up? Frustrating as this can be in the moment, the abundance is this film’s life blood. 

The tendency towards docu-fiction hybrids in contemporary cinema might be reaching an endpoint. From Costa to Kiarostami, to Robert Greene, to a dozen other names that I won’t bore you by listing, the festival market thrives on this kind of cinema. The reasons are self-evident: these are reflexive films about themselves and their making, which comforts audiences and critics who lack the cultural context to read these films as anything but a movie. They diversify fiction-heavy festival strands, but by leaning into the frame of a traditional narrative film, they don’t alienate audiences. If something like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was the pinnacle of this trend, then Dry Ground Burning is at least so outlandish in its winks towards science fiction, gangster movies, and worldstar culture, that it lifts the project into a poetry that almost escapes the new convention of the festival film. 

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Small, Slow But Steady | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Charades

Cathy Brennan

Telling a story about disability and boxing, Sho Miyake’s Small, Slow But Steady takes an unexpected route by being a contemplative film about relating to society and working through a sense of loss.

Keiko Ogawa (Yukino Kishii) is a dedicated boxer who is early in her career. Having completely lost her hearing in both ears, she is most comfortable communicating through sign language. Viewed in this lens the ordinarily solemn Keiko’s ability to throw punches becomes a new mode of personal expression in a world that often fails to consider her. Yet even this outlet is shown to be precarious, as the gym she trains at is shedding members and its ageing chairman (Tomokazu Miura) is increasingly beset by health problems. 

Faced with the gym’s imminent closure, and a future without her mentor, Keiko’s determination falters. Despite this Lifetime movie premise, Small, Slow But Steady isn’t a hollow story about a singular overcoming. Rather, through deliberate pacing, and a subtle performance by Kishii, the film is more about accepting the pain of life as it encroaches around you and finding the will to trudge forward regardless.

Miyake quickly establishes a thematic preoccupation with perception. When we are introduced to Keiko in the first shot of the film, we see her through a reflection in the mirror. Later, when she is changing at the gym, we see her again through a reflection, this time a full-length mirror. Such a motif creates a dual effect: first, it distances us from Keiko as a character. There is an awareness that her interior life is not entirely open to us as an audience. Characterisation comes from overhearing snippets from the chairman and her brother (who she also lives with) about Keiko’s past, such as her fights with bullies in school. Other times it is intimated through her subtle reactions to turns in the narrative. Her sameness at a prospective new gym hints at her subdued sorrow at the loss of her old training ground. This is contrasted with one of her trainers Hayashi breaking down in tears while doing mitts with her. 

The second effect is an awareness of the scrutiny she is under as a disabled woman in an unaccommodating world. Set during the Covid pandemic, interactions with hearing people can become alienating for Keiko as face masks prevent her from lip-reading. At one point, a pair of police officers spot her hanging around a favourite training spot near a bridge. First assuming that she is a high school student due to her short stature, they then assume her black eye is from some kind of abuse. Yet their unwillingness to communicate on her level means they quickly give up pursuing an explanation and walk away.

Throughout the film it is made clear that boxing as a profession is more dangerous for Keiko since she cannot hear the bell, or orders from the referee. The chairman of the gym also notes that as a short person with limited reach, she is at a disadvantage. Yet it is clear from the grounded training sequences in the film that boxing is an integral part of her life. The film largely forgoes a score, but when Keiko is doing mitts with one of her trainers, the thwacks and Keiko’s breathing harmoniously come together and take on such a rhythm as to become musical.

It is tempting with boxing films to turn the final fight into the supreme point of the story, where the main character must overcome. Through its languid pace, Miyake’s film sidesteps such a simplistic narrative frame and instead dwells more on the quotidian aspects of Keiko’s life. The balance between her mundane day job as a hotel cleaner, her training as her boxer, and her relationships with friends and family take precedent over a showy climax in the ring.

When Keiko meets some friends for lunch, and the group of women communicate in sign language, the expected subtitles do not appear. It’s a quietly striking moment in the film. This decision to withhold places a hearing audience in Keiko’s position, where we are put into a situation where we cannot understand. By denying us access to this facet of Keiko’s life, the film prompts larger questions about a disabled character’s relationship to an able-bodied audience. A rather liberal progressive view of cinema is that films can educate a privileged audience about the plights facing people who are marginalised in society. Yet doing so, can create a false impression of “understanding” in the audience and also exposes marginalised characters to an interpretive scrutiny that can at times be unwelcome.

If the film touches on the politics of living as a disabled person in an ableist world, it springs from a robust foundation of quietly stirring human drama. Miyake’s film is understated, seemingly out of respect for the withdrawn character at its centre. 

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The Novelist’s Film | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Jeonwonsa Film Co.

Tom Atkinson

Hong Sang-soo loves nothing better than putting distinct forms in unknown spaces and seeing what frictions they create. In the case of The Novelist’s Film, the instigator of this friction is a writer, Jun-hee, played by potential new Hong regular Lee Hye-young, who also appeared in In Front of Your Face (2021). Despite being in an artistic crisis herself, having written very little in the years previous, Jun-hee exerts a force on the drama’s other players that, as with Hong’s other films, sends each of them in unexpected directions. She encourages a ritualistic sign-language recitation with an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) and said friend’s bookshop assistant (Park Mi-so); lashes out at a film director (Kwon Hae-hyo) who once promised to adapt her book and never followed through; and uses a chance encounter with famous actress Kil-soo (Kim Min-hee) and her nephew (Ha Seong-guk) as a starting point for the three of them to collaborate on a short film together.

Despite being another notch in Hong’s ongoing project of detail-driven, small-scale works, and featuring many of his favourite shot setups – medium shots in long takes that will only occasionally zoom to isolate one character from others in the scene – this is perhaps Hong’s most hermetically artificial work. The sharp black-and-white look of the film often washes out windows in each scene more noticeably than in any of Hong’s previous films, making interiors look like strange spaceship control rooms – or film sets with bad lighting designers. Meanwhile, the film features a rare POV shot when introducing Kim Min-hee into the narrative, singling her out under the dramatically rendered gaze of the director.

No stranger to metatextuality, Hong nevertheless has tended to find self-reflexivity in knotty structures, such as narratively modular diptych Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), or in the very foundation of his concepts, most notably the thinly-veiled autofiction of his greatest work, On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). In The Novelist’s Film, the artificiality of his filmmaking is creeping, ambiguous. One isn’t even entirely sure that it’s there at first, or whether the blown-out lighting and unexpected shot choices are naturally occurring production restraints and on-the-fly experimental notes in an otherwise straightforward drama for Hong.

But then the short film finally appears, showing Kil-soo (or is it Kim Min-hee herself?) wandering around a woodland with an elderly woman, brandishing a bouquet of flowers, and play-acting a wedding aisle walk. Suddenly, the picture turns to colour. Despite looking so unassuming on Hong’s consumer-grade digital cameras, the overall effect of the film’s harsh monochrome palette elsewhere is to make this sequence akin to seeing colour for the first time. And at the centre of this burst of colour? Kim Min-hee herself, forever Hong’s romantic and artistic muse.

Jun-hee thus becomes more than just a stand-in for the director’s artistic pretences, and even then she is particularly loose in that regard – she is, after all, experiencing writers’ block, something I doubt the prolific Hong is particularly worried about right now. No, her role here is more orbital, a walking manifestation of Hong’s methods: goad people into action, see what new modulations come from it, and you have a film. A post-credits stinger that erases all trace of Jun-hee appears to drive home this point, consciously sending the film straight into the realm of speculation and once-and-for-all blurring the line between Kil-soo and Kim Min-hee. It’s a somewhat circular way of getting there, but this might be his most romantic film, a love letter where he tries to answer the question of what inspires him to create. And in the end, he can only muster this missive: I do it because of her.

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