Thoughts on Maniac(Khalfoun, 2012)

The main gimmick in Maniac (Khalfoun, 2012) is that, with the exception of some fantasies, it’s all filmed from the killer's point of view. Your perspective of the film is shaped purely by the antagonist vision of the events. In this respect, it's like the anti-found-footage movie. The tension in found-footage films like Atrocious (Luna, 2010) or [REC] (Balagueró; Plaza, 2007)  works because of what you don't know and can't see. You only get as much information as the person, usually the protagonist, holding the camera. By isolating your perspective in this way, these films effectively simulate the feeling of being stalked or terrorized, becoming a virtual reality for people who like being scared. With Maniac, Khalfoun switches perspectives to the villain, and the antagonist’s view in horror films is generally more omniscient. Think of Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers, who seem to always know where you are and can be behind whatever corner you’re going to turn. Frank (Elijah Wood), the killer in Maniac, is just like them, able to hide in the shadows and see everything you're doing without you knowing it.  As an audience member, who surely doesn’t want to play the role of the bad guy,  this means you have to fight against the forced perspective and attempt to identify with the victim in the distance, but it’s too difficult - they’re too distant and for the most part you don’t know anything about them other than they’re not going to make it. There is a strange feeling of guilt, having to lurk around with Frank, and stand idly by while he hacks and scalps. It doesn't really make for good tension, but it does make for an interesting, albeit dirty, experience.
The film often displays characteristics of POV Porn, where a character gets to know a girl in a fantastical situation, like picking up a hitchhiker in your bus and she just so happens to be willing to have sex with them. Maniac has this in certain situation, like the dancer on the train station which just so happens to be completely devoid of anyone who can catch them in the act. But in Maniac, sex is rejected for violence, and because of our brain’s inclination to empathically take on the first person perspective as our own, this causes us to experience something we wouldn’t really want to experience. It’s reminiscent of video games, in which you control characters that are expected to kill or destroy in order to progress the story. If you want to see how the movie ends, you have to stick with Frank the whole way. However these games, in which you assume a virtual reality as your own, are generally considered to be enjoyable, while the experience in Maniac is unsettling and uncomfortable. This is most likely because of the very real human beings conveying suffering as opposed to pixelated avatars that no one feels bad for when they bleed out. Unless their name is Aeris.
Additionally there's an aspect of misogyny that can't be avoided, but because it's so intentional it becomes more interesting than your garden variety macho bullshit. Frank desires an idealized version of women, not wanting to take in any particular flaws that would actually make them human beings. Take the girl he meets over the internet for example. She is not virginal or angelic, but a rebel and very forward sexually. This give her power and independence that unsettles Frank, even though she hasn’t exhibited any truly negative behavior. Even though she questions his masculinity when he becomes uncomfortable about the idea of sleeping with her, she also subjugates herself to him by performing oral sex. Her character has a balance of independence and submissiveness, but Frank is upset by her nature and decides to kill her. Since this is the perspective of a villain it's okay, but the film takes it further by adding a cliche backstory involving his mother, who was a bad mom doing drugs and banging dudes in front of her son. The women Frank desires are meant to fill a void left by his mother. They need to be the opposite of her, taking on qualities that he feels best represents a good mother. This backstory attempts to create sympathy for the villain by saying he's a product of nurture and puts blame on the female character for not being a good mother. She created the beast, and he's now wreaking havoc on women everywhere. Thanks mom.
Another cliche is then added: The Shitty Boyfriend. Take The Wedding Singer (Coraci, 1998) as an example. Robbie (Adam Sandler) falls in love with Julia (Drew Barrymore) but Julia is engaged. The good news is that Julia's fiance is a complete dick bag. He's so awful that you can't fathom why someone perfect like Julia, who is funny, smart and cute, would be with a callous, materialistic, douche. The Shitty Boyfriend disposes of any ambiguity regarding the protagonist's quest to obtain his heart's desire, even when she's given herself to another - so we have no other choice than to root for Robbie, or whatever underdog in a similar situation, to succeed. She deserves better! This character somehow finds its way into Maniac. Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is not unlike Julia from The Wedding Singer. She's cute, smart, and appreciative of art. Frank isn't unlike Robbie, socially awkward with anger issues. Jason, Anna's boyfriend is the belligerent alpha male, assuming Frank is gay and marking his territory by wiping his hands on Frank's jacket after using the bathroom. Exposure to countless stories have given us a Pavlovian response to the Shitty Boyfriend, and Maniac uses that, much like The Shitty Mom, to garner more sympathy for someone whose actions should render him completely unsympathetic.
There’s a strange false catharsis at the end of Maniac. Frank seemingly has everything he think he wants, Anna is added as the crown jewel of his collection, but succumbs to the wounds sustained from their earlier confrontation. As he dies he imagines the women he’s killed tearing him apart and eating him alive. This moment, in which we can witness all the victims getting a gruesome revenge on their killer, while visually engaging, doesn’t feel like a denouement meant to purge all those icky feelings we’ve had to deal with the whole film. Maybe we’re supposed to get some solace in knowing that Frank still didn’t get what he wanted, but at what cost? Frank getting ripped apart was merely a fantasy, the victims didn’t really get any revenge - they died horrible and sad deaths. And because we’d developed some kind sympathetic relationship with the character, it comes off more like a release for Frank - who no longer has to suffer and create suffering.

In many films from the “extreme horror” niche, to which this film’s writer/producer Alexandre Aja helped pioneer with Haute Tension(Aja, 2003), there is almost always a lack of catharsis for the audience. It’s a classification of horror films characterized by nihilism, seeing the worst in human nature, while victims are reduced to carved meat.The characters will undoubtedly die in a cruel way, and usually the villains will walk away, leaving little hope to hang on to for the viewer. And what could be scarier than hopelessness? At their worst, these types of films are two dimensional gore fests in which the audience stands by waiting for the villains to just end the pain so we won’t feel bad anymore. The best of these, Martyrs (Laugier, 2008), leaves the audience with questions about the film’s purpose and what the big idea is with watching all this suffering.  Maniac isn’t as interesting as Martyrs but it feels closer to that direction, philosophically, than other films of this ilk. We’re left with conflicting feelings about compassion for horrible people, but because of the cliche and simplistic methods used to create these feelings, it doesn’t explore the themes as effectively as it could. However, the ideas are there and interesting enough to discuss, which is probably more important than any quality issues.

What I Talk About When I Talk About The Blob (Yeaworth Jr., 1958)

It's kind of sad that Steve McQueen doesn't look nearly as engaged or interested in this film as I am. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe his attitude, in contrast to the fun and earnestness in which the other actor's play their parts, further defines the campy strengths. You can see in his eyes that he'd rather be anywhere else. When he overacts it's fueled by exasperation that these are the lines he's been given in his first starring role in film. You probably wouldn't blame him. Before all this he'd been a Marine, a motorcycle racer, and a student of the Sanford Meisner method of acting. And now at 28 years old the future "King of Cool" was playing a pretty tame teenager who doesn't care to race cars and doesn't make the moves on the girl. He's probably right. He's much too cool for this type of film. No matter. The Blob eats his condescension and only grows stronger.

The Blob feels like it took its cue from other teen exploitation movies of the era. Films like High School Confidential (Arnold, 1958) and Untamed Youth (Koch, 1957), that propagated fears that the nation's youth were out of control and needed the reinforcement of good ol' American Values to set them straight. At the same time these pictures were cashing in on those teens who showed up to the drive-ins to watch rambunctious rabble-rousers raise hell and race hot-rods. But Steve McQueen's character isn't much of a rebel and neither are the other teens, who'd really rather just hang out and watch spooky movies. The teens in The Blob do run into the same problems as the ones in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955), another film originally meant to exploit the fears of juvenile delinquency (though director Nicholas Ray decided he was firmly on the side of the kids, setting it apart from all the others). Just as James Dean fails to communicate with his elders about what's going on in his life as it spins out of control, Steve McQueen and company are unable to convince prejudiced adults that there's a monster on the loose about to ravage the whole town. An adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he feels lost - an adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he's talking about a red mass that grows larger as it absorbs people and cannot be easily stopped. Same difference, you see.

The threat of the red menace is always present in the film. The color palette is mostly blue hues, with some earth tone exceptions inside a couple of homes. But in nearly every shot there's something or someone bright red to reminds us the creature could be anywhere.
In the following shot we see Mooch's red shirt and Nick's red car lurking behind the blues of Steve's car. When Steve races the car backwards it leads to him being reprimanded by Lieutenant Dave. It's this initial mistake by Steve that create seeds of doubt for the police officer of the film. They think he's just another delinquent trying to get a rise out of them for kicks.

Here we have Mrs. Porter, dressed in red. Her character enters the crime scene and explains with certainty that Dr. Hallern is off to a convention. No matter what Steve says, she has an alternate explanation as to where Hallern is and how he's getting there.

Here Nick and his date are trying to explain to a group of adults that there's a monster on the loose, but the party goers are too inebriated to pay him much attention. The red lantern, hanging over the heads of all the party goers, both signifies the threat of the Blob and represents the obstacle keeping the kids from being understood - the party itself.

It's hard not to look at the Blob as a metaphor for the threat of communism, especially given the time and place, and of course the big red creature that's threatening to absorb everyone you know and love. As the threat of the Blob becomes obvious to everyone in town, all characters young and old unite to fight against it. The cure for juvenile delinquency and the age gap is something to fight against, and what better enemy than the communist threat of Russia.

The final battle between the town and the Blob is reminiscent of Godzilla (Honda, 1954). When guns fail the small town police, they shoot down a power line in an attempt to electrocute the red mass, and, much like the electric fence failed to stop Godzilla in Japan, The Blob continued its reign of terror. Only through dumb luck does Steve realize that the only way to combat the extraterrestrial threat is freezing it, thus waging a "cold war" to stop the monster. But you can never kill it, you can only contain it. Before the military drops the creature off in the arctic, far outside our borders, Steve tells us that as long as it stays cold, we'll be safe - a line that Al Gore would surely shake his head at now. The insinuation is that this threat will always be out there and that our fight against it will be indefinite, a philosophy that has fueled our military industrial complex ever since. This is a stark contrast to Godzilla (Honda, 1954). In that film, a Japanese scientist invents the ultimate weapon - the Oxygen Destroyer - that only he knows how to create. When the weapon is detonated the scientist sacrifices himself so that the secrets of the weapon will be forever lost - a gesture meant to convey that wars and arms races will end in tragedy and must cease. It's inconsequential whether these messages were intended by the director or writer of The Blob. Viewing the film within the context of history makes it difficult to avoid such readings.

Despite my, admittedly indulgent, negative interpretation of The Blob's "message", I still enjoy the film. It still feels innocent and unaware of its influences - a film that's just wanting to have a good time, yet still a product of a nation's misguided fear of anything outside its borders. I blame nurture over nature. The joy in The Blob comes from its pride in just being a film. It displays reverence for the art form. When Steve asks his friends to walk out of a scary movie they look at him incredulously "Get up? In the middle of a movie?" And it's not until the Blob attacks the sanctity of the cinema that the townspeople realize how much trouble they're in. The theater is still regarded as a sacred safe zone today. It's within its walls that we can experience anything and everything with complete freedom. The pain of loss in Amour (Haneke, 2012), the thrill of adventure in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), the fear of an unstoppable red mass that absorbs everything in its path. And we can do it, (and this is the sexy part) with a room full of other people doing it at the same time. When those sheltered boundaries are breached, as they were in Aurora, Colorado where a young man fired on an innocent film audience, it is most disturbing.

Maybe what I love the most about The Blob is that, despite the camp and kitsch, it still manages a reaction deeper than it probably intended. The best films are the ones that help us communicate with each other, and while The Blob may not be what many consider "high art", it certainly facilitates a conversation or two. And in the technology age, which sometimes feels like the age of isolation, in which we hide behind smart phones, earbuds, and a host of other borders, a little conversation sounds like a great idea.

FROM CIFF 2013: BLUEBIRD (Edmands, 2013)

The opening moments of Bluebird let you know everything that’s coming. In the snowy Maine forests, we observe machines methodically cutting down trees, sawing them down to manageable sizes before grinding them down to pulp. The detached, observant camera will work the same way, slowly chiseling down the characters until we get to the guts of them.  But through it we’ll learn, just as they’ll learn, that they’re lonely isolated people, surrounding themselves with glass and metal to protect themselves from the harshness of the environment and, more tragically, each other.

The interconnection between man, nature and industry runs throughout the film. The title Bluebird  could refer to a couple of things. The inciting incident of the film that pushes all the characters awkwardly together happens because Lesley was distracted by a bluebird that flew on to her bus. The presence of the bird is unsettling - it’s the middle of winter in Maine and all the birds should be on vacation down south. Perhaps this bird was left behind by its family connecting it to Owen, who will be left on a bus by himself over night. Or the title could be referring to the Bluebird Corporation who manufacture and sell the buses that our school children ride on everyday. When asked about the title during a Q&A, writer/director Lance Edmands said he had the title before there was even a Bluebird, but didn’t expound on where exactly it came from in the first place. Perhaps he is imitating his own art, unaware of the connections he makes to his own film just as the characters in the film are oblivious to their commonality.

In some ways Bluebird is reminiscent to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films(who’s next film, coincidentally, is called Birdman), with characters playing out their own personal dramas, but in many cases not knowing how they relate to one another, or what part they play in a certain chain of events that ties them together. In Iñárritu’s Babel, you have a Japanese man who gifted a gun that shot the tourists, whose children are being watched by the Mexican nanny, who is also an illegal immigrant and gets deported - and maybe none of the events happen without the first man gifting the gun. An illustration of how much a small action can affect people you may never know. Bluebird’s connections are more trivial, but possibly more personal. For example Lesley’s daughter, Paula, winds up a dozen or so snow globes as she stocks them in the clearance aisle at her work. Later Marla would come and buy one of those same snow globes as a gift for her ailing son. In another moment Marla, high on drugs, falls asleep in her bathtub. She awakes in the freezing water to the news that her son was left in a bus last night and he now suffers from hypothermia. The principle thread that connects Lesley and Marla, forgetting Owen on the bus, is presented not so the film can spend its duration finding someone to blame - they both share responsibility - but in showing the difficulty human beings have dealing with these burdens.

This self-conflict feels like the film’s preoccupation. The dialogue is short and terse and feels like pulling teeth from a jaw wired shut for years. And the few emotional outbursts between characters, though usually out of anger, feel cathartic because they’re finally letting themselves be affected or to affect others. These are people who know something is wrong but don’t even know what it is, clumsily fumbling around obstacles, unable to help each other because they’re busy with their own personal conflict. Lesley’s refrain of “I’m fine” is just as ironic as Marla’s confession “I just want to be like a real human being.” Lesley isn’t fine and Marla is a real human being, it’s just that being a human sucks sometimes.

After the Q&A with Edmands, those of us who stuck around slowly shuffled out of the theater and I overheard a woman ahead of me:  “Well, I still don’t like the ending,” she said to her friend. Still. It sounded as though she were defending her sensibilities despite the director coming off as a nice guy. Before the movie had started Edmands told us we’d have questions and he’d try his best answer them. I think the film answered enough. Most questions people will have when the credits roll will be inconsequential. Does the boy survive? Does the marriage work out? Does Marla drop the lawsuit? Depending on your disposition you could answer these any way you want, there’s no wrong answer here. And while these questions may frustrate viewers, it seemed clear that this film was never about resolution. It’s about acknowledging that you have a problem, not how they get fixed. We’ve seen enough of those films, we know how they end. But by putting the focus on the internal conflict of recognizing your own faults and allowing others to see them too, Edmands is able to mine some interesting, beautiful, human moments that would possibly get lost in other movies trying to fit in all that tedious resolution. So what if they live happily ever after, just as long as they live.

Lights and The Color Red in The Lords of Salem (2012)

In The Lords of Salem, Zombie uses practical lighting to create a supernatural feeling in simple shots. Through out the film there are multiple lamps in nearly every shot, and all of them have a blown out effect, contrasting their brightness with the dreariness of the scenery. The lights symbolize a the supernatural, surrounding all the characters through out the film. In this shot of the hallway the furthest light swings from side to side inexplicably, further illustrating the lights as a key component to the supernatural world.

In these two shots, Zombie uses the lights to connect the characters of Lacy Doyle(Judy Geeson) and Heidi(Sherri Moon-Zombie). Their relationship on the surface is that of landlady and tenant. When they go their separate ways, Lacy makes her way up the stairs surrounded by three lights.

Zombie cuts from this shot to the following of  Heidi walking outside, also surrounded by glowing lights. This visual queue shows that these characters will be more connected than their relationship would lead you to believe - which is bad news for Heidi.

Beyond the general practical lighting, Zombie also makes strong use of the color red to signify the fantastical. The first moment in which Heidi experiences something otherworldly is during her night with Whitey(Jeff Daniel Phillips). Here he's dancing to Venus in Furs by The Velvet Underground. Here we can see two practical lights that we perceive as giving off the primary light of the room. But we can see the ceiling lights in the background and a lamp on the far left that are shaded in red.

When they put on The Lords record, the white lights are seemingly overtaken by the red ones. Notice that the camera has now moved further down than in the previous shot and tilted upward - showing more of the red ceiling lights than before.

 The camera tracks from right to left, as Heidi moves further from Whitey. Eventually the red lamp eclipses the white bulb:

We then cut a close up of Heidi as she seemingly experiences a flashback involving the witches persecuted by Jonathan Hawthorne.
This use of red continues through out the film, like when Heidi first enters Apartment #5 the room is lit by a red cross.

After this Zombie becomes more somewhat more subversive with his use of red, as the superantual world bleeds into Heidi's normal life. For example, Megan(Patricia Quinn) , the most abrasive of witches has red hair.  In the scene where she dreams of being raped by the priest, the red returns as a part of the walls in the background and the drapes.

The red is also used when the Lacy, Megan and Sonny(Dee Wallace) reveal their true nature by killing Francis Matthias(Bruce Davison). When we were in Lacy's apartment previously, the color scheme was closer to green.

It's when Heidi eventually succumbs to her addiction she makes her way to her dealer, who has a bright red door. This moment is pivotal to the film because it's Heidi who is comes to the color, and it's after this moment, where she fully succumbs to the will of her tormentors.

The skulls on the door become her mask once she starts smoking heroin again and gives herself to Satan in Apartment #5.

This all leads to Heidi giving birth as the witches rub the blood from her womb all over her body. The color red has washed over her body and she realizes her destiny as the mother of Stan's child. Congratulations Heidi.


I AM WAITING (Kurahara, 1957)
Joji is a former boxer, who gave up his successful career when he killed a guy in a bar fight. Saeko is lounge singer who thinks she accidentally killed a guy who wanted to turn her to prostitution. You'd think this connection would be ripe for a love story, but in Kurahara's noir, the characters are so over come by their own problems that romantic love seems almost impossible to contemplate.

Kurahara illustrated this personal disconnection through some striking shot compositions. First we see Joji staring off into the water, the water represents new opportunity - Joji later tells his doctor friend there's nothing left for him in Japan his future is across the sea in Brazil.  In this frame Saeko is approaching from Joji's restaurant, unsure if she should intrude on Joji's contemplation.

After a day at the boxing matches, Saeko's past catches up with her but Joji is able to scare the thug off. In the following scene we get a beautifully shot scene by the bay, where Joji and Saeko are silhouetted. They are lost unsure of where they're going and physically and mentally disconnected with each other. The scene ends with both staring off into the water, seemingly waiting for an answer to their prayers that never comes.

In this shot below, the two are divided by a diagonal line, with Saeko surrounded by the water and Joji in the concrete. In this scene Saeko is trying to make a connection but it fails. She has the power to do this because she's come to grips with her new identity. In the same scene we cut to an even more dramatic composition that shows just how far away Joji is from Saeko. Joji has some learning to do.

It's not until Joji reconciles his past that he and Saeko can even exist on the same plane. Often times films and stories use romantic love as a way of saving a troubled character. But in the philosophy of Kurahara's I Am Waiting, love has to wait until we are able regain our own individual identity. How can we love another when we don't even know who we are?

Words and Images: The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

"I want to talk to you as openly as I can, but my heart is empty. The emptiness is a mirror turned towards my own face. I see myself in it, and I am filled with fear and disgust. Through my indifference to my fellow men, I have isolated myself from their company. Now I live in a world of phantoms. I am imprisoned in my dreams and fantasies."
-The Knight 

In this scene the Knight gives his speech to a wall as if looking in a mirror. He sees emptiness because he is looking into nothing but stone, literally. The imprisonment is represented by the following shot with him caged in on the other side of the confessional. Death asks him why he is trying to prolong his life, and the Knight answers that he's trying to know god - to know for sure of his existence. We can see this illustrated in this third shot in which the crucified Jesus hangs over Death's shoulder. This image tells us that the Knight can not know god until he accepts death.

I love this scene in the movie. 


I noticed this visual cue that unites Jude Law and Rooney Mara's characters in Soderbergh's Side Effects. Both characters are seemingly going though an emotional crises at two separate times of the film. I find that his decision to use this light behind a character's head an interesting one because of it's place in art history. Religious paintings use a light behind a character's head to show that character has been touched by divinity.

But neither of Soderbergh's characters are saints, that's for sure.


Side Effects(Soderbergh, 2013)
I recently watched Side Effects and wanted to explore briefly some of the cool stuff visual cues Soderbergh uses to unite his twisty narrative. Spoilers ahead, so watch it first, coz it's good, and come back and check this out. Then watch it again.

At the start of Side Effects, Soderburgh brings us into an apartment window. First we can see the city itself. The street is to the left and surround the building. Then we slowly pan right and eventually zoom into a window that belongs to Emily and Martin Taylor(Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum). Once we're in the apartment the action of the story beings, telling us a story about how Emily came to killing her husband.

As we come in closer to The Taylor's apartment the complex feels less like a building and more like a spreadsheet. Soderbergh explores these elements though out the film by using objects to create a secondary frame around the characters. Take this shot for example:

 One of the best shots of the film, Soderbergh shows in one frame Emily's isolation from all the people at the party, whom we can see in the window's reflection staring at her. He also frames her with two black bars making her feel even more closed off from society. This shot is also foreshadowing later as Emily is eventually sent to jail for the murder of her husband.

There's also an irony in this still in that even though Emily is technically outside, standing on the deck of a boat, she's more closed off than those in the room. Soderbergh plays with this irony multiple times through out the film. Like here where we see from Emily's point of view, Dr. Banks(Jude Law) and Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones):
The bars both frame the outside characters while also reflecting Emily's own imprisonment.

Soderbergh sets up a somewhat humorous and cruel joke by showing Dr. Jonathan Banks outside, surrounded by boxes on the wall behind him and the squares on the ground. The space feels very open and deserted:

The punchline at the end of this scene is that even though they're outside, Jude Law is actually just in a bigger box:

At film's end zoom out from Emily's place in the psyche ward and pan left ending showing the lack of connection to the rest of civilization. Unlike the first shot, the road now veers at an extreme angle away from the building, illustrating Emily's break from society.

Going Nowhere Fast: Degradation and Progress in Lee Daniels' THE PAPERBOY

           In Lee Daniels' The Paperboy, Zac Efron’s character Jack Jansen jumps into the ocean after an argument with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). Bless is an pretty older woman, who wears clothes that are loose and tight in all the right places. Her sexual energy is ever-present and volatile, the perfect concoction to ensnare the teenage boy. Jack was a star swimmer in high school, so the water is a natural place for him to escape, but once he’s in the water he’s stung by jellyfish. He makes it back on the shore, where three young women find him and decide they might need to urinate on him to neutralize the poison. Charlotte gets wind of this and runs them off because, if anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be her. When Jack comes to sometime  later, he finds out that his father, who runs the town paper, published the story of him getting saved by Charlotte and her heroic bladder. Jack is upset - degraded because the woman he wants has saved his life by pissing on him, and the father he wants respect from tells the whole town about it.

           Degradation is always related to perception in The Paperboy, and often related to sexuality. Jack perceiving his experience as humiliating, though it was necessary to save his life, is directly tied to his sexual frustration towards Charlotte. Later in the film we’re given an alternate perception of being urinated on through the eyes of Jack’s brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey). Ward is found naked and nearly beaten to death on a plastic tarp by two men that he’d asked up to his room. After Jack kicks them out he keeps asking what the plastic is for, drawing attention to its presence to the viewer. It’s common practice for people who enjoy getting urinated on to use plastic to safeguard the carpet, and it’s because of Jack’s earlier humiliation and the film’s references to “watersports” that it wouldn’t be out of the question to assume this is what was going on in the room. It’s not wrong that he’s homosexual or enjoys urolagnia, but it is sad that he can’t find a way to experience both activities in a safe environment. The humiliation gives him pleasure and the two men severely beating him in disgust makes Ward pitiful because his trust in them in regards to a very personal matter has been violated.

           Ward’s desire to keep his pleasures secret is contrasted by Charlotte who is incapable of hiding her sexuality. She’s been writing letters to Hillary Van Wetter (who’s name is in line with the rest of the water themes in the film) and believes he’s been wrongly convicted of murder. She enlists Ward and Yardley (David Oyelowo), his black British writing partner, to help investigate the matter and gladly hands the letters between her and Hillary over to them for their perusal. There’s nothing of any real value in these letters, and at one point Yardley reads them aloud revealing them to be lurid and sexually explicit. Charlotte clearly doesn’t care who knows what goes on in her private life. Later on, when Jack asks her if she had sex with Yardley, she tells him fucking is just a part of human nature and that she used her sex to get him on her side, nothing more. Her sex isn’t just her personality but a tool she uses to get what she wants.

          When Charlotte, Yardley, Jack, and Ward all meet Van Wetter for the first time, Charlotte gives her most outward display of sexuality and exhibitionism.The two pen-pals seemingly have sex while sitting several feet apart in front of relative strangers. She sits with her mouth agape while Van Wetter(John Cusack) brings himself to climax, thinking of her performing fellatio on him and calling her a bitch. Even telepathically she has to pleasure herself and him at the same time - their simulated sex reveals everything about their character and relationship. He is dominant and selfish, while she is submissive and pleasing. After it’s over a guard kicks them all out, and Yardley laughs at the absurdity of what he just saw, but for Charlotte this moment is tragic. Her man is being taken from her and she’s not embarrassed by her actions. In Charlotte’s mind this is all just part of being human, the concept of decency is a foreign construct used to restrain us from being ourselves - sexual animals.

           In contrast to Charlotte, Yardley creates a false identity of who he is. Late in the film we learn that he's an American who pretends to be British so as to be accepted by racists in the South, taking advantage of this American perception that having a British accent makes you more learned or of a higher status. Yardley’s deception is degrading because he can’t be himself and get a good job at the same time. Ironically, he didn’t get the job he has because of an accent and fancy clothes, but through sexual favors he gave to Ward. Even his harmless deception as a means for social advancement is a lie. His truth is that he degraded himself by exploiting another’s sexuality, and the mask he wears publicly allows him to both hide that truth and openly judge others for their truths.

          Anita, the Jansen family maid and narrator of the story, shares Yardley’s frustration with how her race is treated but responds differently. Her employer doesn’t even know she has kids, her sex is indifferent to him, as he and his wife clearly view Anita as property - not as a human employee. Anita silently does her work, even cleaning up broken glass after her day is done and she’s already gotten dressed up for a baby shower. But there are moments, at dinner specifically, where she seems quietly get her revenge. She fills Mrs. Guthrie’s tea so that it spills on her and she apologizes for her clumsiness while also telling Guthrie it’s not really a big deal. In another moment, Anita collects the dirty plates of everyone at the table, each one with piles of uneaten food. She then brings this stack to Mrs. Guthrie’s face, waiting for Guthrie to pick her own plate up and put it on the pile. These small instances clearly get to Mrs. Guthrie and Anita knows it; her disdain for the ugly, vile woman, is justified, but she doesn’t waste her time hating her and being equally vile in response. It’s that restraint that empowers her.

           Degradation, by definition, is the is the opposite of progress, and Lee Daniels uses degradation of these characters to show lack of progress not just in the film, but in our own time. The film takes place in 1969, after desegregation and the height of the Civil Right’s Movement, and yet racial discrimination is still prevalent. Passing those laws didn’t suddenly make us “post-racial” any more than electing a black President did. The same can be noted in characters being unable to express their sexuality. Charlotte is a sexual being and unafraid to admit it, but because of that fearlessness the male characters around her only view her as a sexual object. Even Jack, who thinks he loves her, looks at her sexuality as a possession to be obtained and he shows child-like giddy when Charlotte finally gives him an apathetic and pitying green light. Women today haven’t moved far beyond this role. If they exhibit too much sexuality they’re labeled whores, and if they don’t exhibit enough they’re looked at as prudes or uncool. Their identity and place in their community is dictated by only one aspect of their personality. Ward Jansen wants to hide his homosexuality and keep it discreet out of fear for his livelihood, and only just now, 44 years later in 2013, did the first active professional basketball player admit to being gay. Is that progress? Maybe it is, but it’s slow moving and suffocating like the swamps the characters of the film have to wade through.

           At the end of the film Van Wetter, who was freed by the foursome, is arrested and executed for the murder of Charlotte and Ward. This will of course ruin Yardley, who had a book deal lined up about his role in releasing the now twice convicted murderer. All their work had been in vain and ultimately lead to their downfall. The only character to come out seemingly no worse off than before is Anita, who, despite her degradation, kept respect for herself. It’s fitting then that she’s the one to tell the story of these people who were damned from the beginning, perverted by their inability to properly deal with their inner truths. Anita is the survivor because she understands the ugly and has found a way to live with it without letting it dictate who she is inside.

Blind Shaft(Li, 2003)

Humanity in the way of industry.

The first act of violence in Blind Shaft is abrupt and unsettling. Three miners are on a break, sitting in a secluded area of the mine to have a drink. They refer to one another as “bro” and one man talks about what it’s like back home and the lonely women there. Suddenly one of the men, Song, thumps this man in the head with a pick, killing him. At first you’re not even sure it happened; there’s no warning and the camera doesn’t stylize the violence. Its not just the act itself, it’s the banality of it that gets to you. Song and the third man in the conversation, his partner Tang, are con-men of the nastiest sort, and this is just another day at the office for them. They pretend their victim was family, killed by a cave-in, and get paid off by the boss of the mines to keep it quiet. Once paid, they move on to the next illegally run mine, picking up another rube who will pretend to be a family member with the intention of killing him and getting paid off again.

Their next mark is a young 18-year-old kid, whose father abandoned him to find work six months previous. He has left school to earn money and find his father a sad but noble quest. His naive and trusting nature stirs sympathy in Song, making him apprehensive to go through with the murder. Of course this uncharacteristic compassion doesn’t go unnoticed by Tang, who spends the movie reminding Song that the kid is nothing - just like them. This rift between the two con-men is not only the source of drama but also raises questions as to whether a man who has been so horrible can actually be redeemable.

Blind Shaft is a film that transcends the culture and boundaries of China. It’s at once a story about capitalism and about humanity’s lack of respect towards itself. The first mine Boss doesn’t really care about the dead miner, he wants him the hell out of there and forgot, but his lack of compassion doesn’t stop with others, it even applies to himself. When his payoff is 2,000 yuan short, he offers to cut off two fingers to make up the difference. You don’t doubt that he’d do it, either, the fatalism among all the characters is clear. The second boss, when asked why he can treat the workers unfairly boils it down to a fairly simple line “China has a shortage of everything but people”. You could just as well remove China and replace it with “the world”. That line actually fuels Tang and Song’s personal philosophy that they use to justify their vile scams: “Why care for them if no one cares for us?” It’s a pretty tragic viewpoint, but the clarity in which this world is illustrated makes you understand it and even sympathize.

Don’t confuse sympathy with approval though. The two get paid pretty well from their schemes but the money doesn’t better their situation. They go whoring, sing karaoke, and eat pretty well,  and yet they’re continually covered in dirt, wearing the same clothes, and surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Tang and Song may be working the system that created them but it’s clearly not paying off.

Li Yang, who directed the film and adapted it from the Liu Qingbang novel “Sheimu”, gets the most out of untrained actors and his low budget production. Shooting with a 16mm hand-held camera in a cinema verite style, the film is filled with the kinetic energy you find in French New Wave films, but the whimsy and romance of France is replaced with the desolate and downtrodden locales in the poorer areas of China’s vast landscape. The minimalism and intimacy of the production effectively illustrate the hopelessness of being deep in the mines, a place that posed legitimate dangers to the actors and crew during shooting. There are some great images found here, my favorite being the bright light coming down the shaft that gets eclipsed as people try to make their way out.

Recently I watched a documentary called Side by Side, in which many very important people in the film industry debated digital formats vs. film. While incredibly fascinating, I find the digital vs. film debate to be frivolous, an attempt to dictate the right way to make a movie. 16mm, the film format used for Blind Shaft, was considered to be the amateur’s film stock reserved for experimenting or, gasp, lowly television programs. This obsession with the tools used to make the art is detrimental to the artist, using the newest advances in technology to cover up how shallow the product is. At the same time it creates a false identity as to what constitutes a “real film”, making would-be filmmakers scared to create using what they have for fear that their work will be looked at as “amateurish”. Was it shot in digital or film? Is it high-def? Who cares?  I mention this because Blind Shaft is a strong example of how an engaging story that challenges the viewer rises above the limitations and biases imposed by “the pros” against a low budgets and “inferior” film formats. It’s not the tool it’s the hand that guides them, and Li Yang proves that with Blind Shaft.