Oh, To Be Young and Insignificant

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Rebel Without a Cause (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1955)

**An ongoing thing, where I watch a thing and then talk about my thoughts on that thing, hopefully giving some sort of implicit recommendation so that you watch that thing. I love things, particularly those things that go for (on average) 100 minutes and are like pictures but they are moving, and this is me talking about my love for those things.**

Early on in Rebel Without a Cause Jim’s (James Dean) new classmates go on an excursion to a planetarium. The scientist there explains, whilst showing off the grand expanse of the universe, that if earth, and in turn humanity, were to be extinguished the rest of space wouldn’t really care too much. It’s a heavy thing to be telling kids in the 50s. Hell, it’s still a heavy thing to be telling kids, or adults for that matter. Our insignificance is not something that we tend to accept too readily. But it’s something that, I think, everyone wrestles with somewhere or at some point within themselves. 

The primary conflict, for basically everyone in the film, is people battling some form of insignificance; Plato with his absent father, Judy wanting to be loved by her father, Jim wanting to be noticed by people at school and Jim feeling contempt for the way that his father’s willingness be insignificant (at least in Jim’s eyes). And on the subject of Jim’s father it must be said that, for a film about teenagers, this film manages to draw it’s adults with a lot of depth. It seems to be suggesting that the real reason for most inter-generational conflict is that adults have simply found ways to ignore how much they don’t matter; with careers, and housework, and families, and image. And how can you find common ground with anyone on something you’ve chosen to forget? 

The adults in the film, besides Edward Platt’s youth worker Ray, don’t understand where the teens are coming from, not because one generation is any different to the next at all, but because their whole lives have been one big play at distracting from the way they felt as teenagers, that they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And that’s why Rebel Without a Cause remains so eternal, because it understands that generations aren’t any different from each other at all, they’re just at different stages in a universal path. One that begins with kicking and screaming and ends with implicit acceptance. One of insignificance. 

You Made Me 8 (Years Old) Again

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Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2014)

**An ongoing thing, where I watch a thing and then talk about my thoughts on that thing, hopefully giving some sort of implicit recommendation so that you watch that thing. I love things, particularly those things that go for (on average) 100 minutes and are like pictures but they are moving, and this is me talking about my love for those things.**

There’s something that happens to me when I watch films like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. It’s something that happened the first time I saw Jurassic Park. It’s something happened the first time I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s this weird kind of giddiness and childlike amazement. It’s like my imagination is being presented on the screen in front of me, fully realised. And I can’t really remember the last time I felt it in a theatre. 

If there’s one word I would use to describe the first two acts of Godzilla it would be ‘Spielbergian’. And I don’t use that to, in any way, claim that Edwards isn’t his own artistic voice (Clearly, he already proved that with Monsters), but I do use it to suggest that the way he understands an audience, the way he plays with them, the way he sets up for spectacle, and the way he appeals to imagination, is very much reminiscent of the ‘Berg in his heyday. We catch glimpses of Godzilla, we get tastes and we hear theories surrounding him and we see some of his carnage throughout the globe-trotting opening acts, in much the same way that we, as an audience, are teased in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Jaws. And, although the human element of the film is fairly ho-hum and relies on a few too many child-in-danger scenarios, it remains tense and it remains intriguing, if only because of that childlike imagination that it manages to tap into and exploit, somehow. 

And then comes the third act. Which is visually stunning, absolutely loud and insane, and left me, who is usually bored by the destroying of cities (Hey, Man of Steel, I’m lookin’ at you!), with a huge dopey smile across my face. On paper it’s just monsters destroying San Francisco, which isn’t any different to Transformers or Avengers doing it. And I believe it is largely due to the camerawork. The audience’s views of Godzilla are commonly, and almost exclusively besides a few money-shots, relegated to that of an insignificant human witness. We are placed in the shoes of awe, and so we look on in amazement, just as the man that the camera is standing in for definitely is. Rather than the audience hovering above and level with the destruction, we are very much planted in it, as we would be if we were there. And it’s because of this that I believe Godzilla managed to tap into a part of me that other recent blockbusters just can’t. Too reliant on out-special-FXing one another, I think that many studios have forgotten that human beings, not digits on a page, are partaking in their entertainment. And for that I say, blockbusters don’t have to be empty shells that shout at you. They don’t have to rely on a fight between superheroes every fifteen minutes. They don’t have to be what they have, largely, become in the past decade, give or take a few years. They can be like Godzilla. And they should be. 

The Story of an Artist(?), Brought To You by a Madman(?)

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Bronson (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008)

**An ongoing thing, where I watch a thing and then talk about my thoughts on that thing, hopefully giving some sort of implicit recommendation so that you watch that thing. I love things, particularly those things that go for (on average) 100 minutes and are like pictures but they are moving, and this is me talking about my love for those things.**

The line between exploitation and art has alway been kinda hazy. Debate rages, new films come out that push the elusive boundary, debate continues. And it most likely will continue unless the human race reaches a new evolutionary yardstick and decides, collectively, that this whole century spanning ‘art thing’ was a waste of time and energy. Considering, then, that we haven’t yet reached that yardstick, let’s talk about it. 

Bronson is the story of Britain’s most violent prison inmate, as told by the man himself. And when I say that, I mean the character of Bronson (Tom Hardy) literally stands up on a stage and tells his story to an audience, making them laugh, cheer, all while exhibiting various different kinds of mime-ish makeup. It’s an impressive way of showing the motivations of a character, while keeping the character himself blissfully unaware of how transparent he really is. 

Bronson is driven by a need to be heard, to be famous, to be noticed, to be known. He strips all of his clothes off to punch and kick prison guards until he is inevitably subdued. During his short time out of jail he focuses on the crowd attending his barn-yard brawls, rather than his opponent. If it wasn’t for his violent method of expression, I don’t think it would be overly controversial to refer to him as an artist. But, due to the fact that punching someone in the face would not and probably should not be deemed art, he isn’t.

The line starts to blur, however, when he actually does incorporate a certain amount of artistic skill into his expression, and it forces one to question the very nature of film violence. Does violence become any less despicable, or any less, well, violent, just because it is presented within the confines of an ‘artistic medium’? Refn doesn’t just ask this question within the film’s narrative, but seems to be asking it of his own work, which is often described as visually stunning but unnecessarily violent, with the film itself, challenging us to figure out for ourselves where the line actually is. 

With modern film attaining a certain level of realism with its depictions, when does it become any different to just watching two men fighting on the street, and at what point does the man throwing the punches differ from the man telling an audience to believe in the punches being thrown? And, in the end, who is anyone to tell a man he isn’t an artist? I definitely couldn’t tell you. 

A Man Witnesses the End of His World

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Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols, 2011)

**An ongoing thing, where I watch a thing and then talk about my thoughts on that thing, hopefully giving some sort of implicit recommendation so that you watch that thing. I love things, particularly those things that go for (on average) 100 minutes and are like pictures but they are moving, and this is me talking about my love for those things.**

Anxiety isn’t always an easy thing to talk about. It’s something that really hard to get unless you’ve been through it. But, I think, next time I’m asked what it’s like, or how I feel (it is something that I’ve had to deal with for the past few years), I will simply advise the questioning party to sit down and watch Take Shelter

Put upon by visions of an impending apocalypse that compel him to extend the tornado shelter in the backyard so that it can house his family for a prolonged period of time, Curtis (Michael Shannon), a father to Hannah (Tova Stewart) and a husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain), is a regular Noah for the modern age (In fact, if you are wanting to hear a story about a Noah-ish dude, go watch this instead of this year’s Noah). But what’s most striking, to me anyway, about this film is the symptoms of these raging, end-of-the-world, raining-gasoline, people-running-rampant-and-killing visions. 

Curtis gets short of breath, he can’t communicate very well and becomes closed off from his family, he wakes up in sweats gasping for air, he throws up and feels sick, he feels phantom pains, he becomes fixed on certain things, he can’t think very far into the future, at one point he makes a poor judgment call on his medication. Curtis, basically, has anxiety. And the way the film is constructed, slowly edging him further and further from the state in which we find him, only makes that anxiety both deeply felt by the audience and instantly recognisable to anyone that has suffered with a similar condition. 

The film’s tendency to lean on the world and reality of Curtis, make it seem very likely that the intended storm that Curtis has nail-biting dreams about, and the impending doom the film refers to, is not really the end of the world as we know it as much it is about the end of his world as he knows it. Whether it is a metaphor for financial ruin, as suggested by the constant monetary threat present in Curtis and Samantha’s home life, or simply a sign of Curtis’ plunging further into the depths of anxiety and depression (I would suggest that it is both, that they are two closely knit problems, mental illness never has such a simple cause), it remains a beautiful, methodical and important portrait of a man on the brink of insanity. 

Universal Indifference a.k.a Shit Happenz

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Sexy Beast (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2001)

**An ongoing thing, where I watch a thing and then talk about my thoughts on that thing, hopefully giving some sort of implicit recommendation so that you watch that thing. I love things, particularly those things that go for (on average) 100 minutes and are like pictures but they are moving, and this is me talking about my love for those things.**

Shit happens. I don’t think that is very controversial of me to say. It’s cliché, but it becomes pretty obvious, to anyone that has lived life for about ten minutes, that it is unequivocally true. Shit doesn’t wait for us to be ready, it doesn’t call very far in advance to let us know it’s coming, it just kind of decides, in some kind of logic only understood by the universe (I suppose) that it’s time some shit happened. For Gal (Ray Winstone), a retired gangster from London now sunbathing on the regular in the countryside of Spain with his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), and a pretty huge gut, this first strike of universe-driven excrement comes in the form of a boulder, hurtling, down the mountain behind his house, towards him and his pool. The second comes in the form of Don (Ben Kingsley), hurtling forth from Gal’s past, and taking aim at basically the same things, Gal and his way of life. 

While the idea of ‘just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!' is tired and overused in the modern gangster film, Sexy Beast manages to set itself apart due to the way it treats the whirlwind of imbalance that decides to inject itself into Gal’s kushy new life, a treatment that is outlined and defined in the opening scene, the one with the boulder and the hurtling and the pool and Gal. And it is through the lens of the first scene that the rest of the film should be viewed and interpreted. Sexy Beast isn’t too concerned with why things happen to Gal, they are simply ‘acts of God’ akin to a boulder managing to dislodge itself from a mountain just as Gal stands up to go for a stretch almost directly in its trajectory. Sexy Beast is, instead, concerned with the ‘why not’. 

It doesn’t really matter why Don has come to find Gal after all this time to complete a job that, according to Don himself, could be done by anyone that is not currently retired and living in Spain. And even when the film starts to reveal the reasons, thanks in part to Ben Kingsley’s venom-spitting performance, we learn it still doesn’t matter in regards to Gal himself. He did absolutely nothing to instigate this profanity-laden blast from the past. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to deal with it. And no amount of wishing Don away is going to stop him from, at some point, having to deal with it. Don is as much a force of nature as the boulder flying down the mountain at breakneck speed, and can be reasoned with just about as much. And, ultimately, its this that makes Sexy Beast connect far more than its British-Gangster film contemporaries (Guy Ritchie anyone?). 

Beneath the surreal dream-sequences, the buzzing dialogue, that pops with about as much profanity as any one human could dream up, and the stylistic flourishes very much rooted in the time of its production, Sexy Beast is just a film about a guy that the universe decides, with a certain amount of indifference, to take a nice little dump on. And who couldn’t relate to that?