#50-48: If “2001” is a solo by David Gilmour, “The Tree of Life” is a Buckethead album.

The journey through CineFix’s best movies starts off with the captivating visuals of Malick’s Golden Palm from 2011. I had been metaphorically lashing myself for not having watched this yet: the mixed reception at the time of its release, combined with its acclaimed aesthetic ambitions, had won it a place on my ever-expanding must-watch list. A place, it turns out, undeserved.

The beauty of some of the scenes is as undeniable as, sadly, sterile. The editors’ choice of placing this movie right behind The Mirror and Samsara makes me wonder if this was a consciously ironical juxtaposition, for Malick’s movie seems to long for the strengths of both its neighbours, without managing to reach their same depth. It would indeed be possible to mistake a still from the Tree with one of the many magnificent views from Samsara, as in some cases they seem to be of the same representative nature. Malick’s, however, fail to reach the same level of universal celebration of life that Samsara achieves, because they disappoint in their artificiality and studied nature. At the same time, the Tree shares with Tarkoskvy’s Mirror a common theme of inevitability of past and pain, while heavily relying on similar narrative/poetical devices.

Moreover, it is tempting to compare Malick’s history of the universe with Kubrick’s origin of man in 2001… and why should I refrain from doing so? The sequences have more than a few points in common in their representation of a 21st-Century version of the great chain of being; however, while Kubrick’s apes effectively help the viewer take the first step on the journey towards the betterment of Man, Malick’s dinosaurs sadly lack the relevance to Grace with which the director probably wanted to imbue them.

In conclusion, what is supposed to be Malick’s masterpiece seems more like an attempt at borrowing from the giants to stand on their shoulders; unfortunately, the result only manages to further highlight its dwarfish nature.

After dedicating (too) much space to a disappointment, it is actually harder to write about a movie that I love deeply like Samsara (#47) and a heavy masterpiece like The Mirror (#48), on which I feel too humble to comment. The former is not a movie in the proper sense of the word, and it immediately brings me back to the heated discussions with fellow film nerds on what should actually be called cinema. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just highlight how many stories it manages to tell, with its complete lack of plot.

Finally what can I say, in a short blog post over The Mirror, which has not already been said? Not much, other than I agree on its inclusion in this list. Would I have placed it so far down? I’ll make a decision while I continue my personal quest. For now I can say that the space occupied by The Tree of Life could very well be used by Pasolini or Godard instead. To my eyes, Samsara should definitely dwell closer to the top, but I wonder if some titles I’ve never seen before will make me change my mind…

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The 50 best movies of all time… maybe.

I’m not a compulsive YouTube subscriber: the instances in which I have accepted the invite at the end of a video can be counted on one hand. I haven’t even subscribed to CrashCourse, or PBS Space Time, which I watch every day while cooking, doing the dishes, or dozing off on the couch.

One channel I have subscribed to, however, is CineFix: much as the name suggests, it gives me my daily cinebread with highly entertaining scene dissections, insights, trivia and, most importantly, movie lists. Basing herself on one of said lists, a friend of mine had recently asked me which my 5 movies were. Not my favourite movies, or the best movies, just THE movies. As much as I tried to answer her request, I could not comply by making a convinced and conscious decision. Moreover, my Socratic self kept on doubting my ability to complete such a list with all the movies that I had yet to watch. Where to start? I needed inspiration.

Thankfully, that inspiration was right under my nose: another, longer list. CineFix’s choice of the best 50 movies of all time.

As soon as I started watching, however, I started turning my nose up at the clips: would I have included that movie that I didn’t really like? And that other one, which I would have placed closer to the top of the list, why was it so far down?

Hence came the idea of a personal challenge: to watch all of said films in the succession suggested by CineFix, to finally determine my own best 50 (and, consequently, my best 5 too!). Since it would be too easy to forget my reactions and reflections as I move further into the experience, I am going to document my journey here, for my own delight as well as that of whomever will stumble upon my writings.

The project will be carried out with no sneering intent; on the contrary,  my thanks go to the editors of a channel that has given me reason to write again. In the end we will probably disagree, but who cares, really?

Paris Magnum – an exercise on creative critique

The Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris has a ductile salon that is often used to host displays of various kinds. It is divided into a mezzanine and a larger, rectangular area on the lower level, with a very high ceiling and no obstacles, such as pillars. Briefly: it is spacious and exhibit-friendly.

In spite of this the exposition of the 150 shots dedicated to the city of Paris by Magnum photographers, currently hosted in the aforesaid salon, manages to fail, because of the poor organisation of the available space.

It takes some effort for a bungle
to come out of the finest works
thrown in a senseless picture jungle
regaining light, but losing perks.

The oldest and most famous pictures by the founders of the agency did not actually need to be brought back to light, of course, since even to the untrained tourist the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson and black and white shots of a younger Paris go naturally together. It is namely the contemporary photographers that in this exhibition suffer the most.

Chronology can be forgiven
as trivial but serviceable.
But viewers from war have been driven
to today: inexplicable.

The itinerary starts in the mezzanine with pictures by Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Seymour; when moving downstairs the viewer is naturally prone to proceeding through the first of the three aisles in which the works are presented, and it works well. In the middle of that aisle, though, many might overlook the panel, oddly placed at their backs, on which more, chronologically irrelevant pictures are projected (without the necessary captions).

The way that needs to be taken from there is unclear and the viewer can easily end up admiring Paris in the ‘80s before enjoying “Les années pop”; an inconvenience that could have been easily avoided:

It’s always best to start at the beginning,
and all you do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.
(The Wizard of Oz)

The awkward problem of the projectors presents itself again in the crammed, sacrificed space dedicated to the current contributors to Magnum, where the bystander is forced by the pressing crowd to skip more images cast in corners in which it is impossible to enjoy them.

In conclusion what is true
is the exhibit was rich
but to avoid the annoying glitch
for next time don’t overdo.

The Shining: the wasps, adaptation and the uncanny.

During a research seminar in UCC I had the chance of hearing a still unpublished work by Dr. Graham Allen on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which was centring its reading around the freudian concept of the uncanny and, most importantly, around an important element that was “lost in adaptation” from Stephen King’s original novel: the wasps’ nest.

In the Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud identifies the elements that according to him generate the feeling of the uncanny, many of which can be found in Kubrick’s 1980 iconic picture. The most relevant to Dr. Allen’s discourse is the focus on the eyes, that Freud identifies as a sublimation of the castration complex and that is also central to The Shining (Freud 7). During the whole movie Danny’s frightened and frightening stares are a leitmotiv and the viewer often learns about the events in the Overlook Hotel through the child’s physical or psychical point of view. The act of protecting himself through the eyes, by covering them with his hands and cutting the line of sight, suggests strongly the power that this closure can give. Danny can close his eyes and be saved from the two little sisters, but he is unable to shut out the images coming from his inner eye, his Shining, just like wasps are not able to blink.

ShiningDanny2

Why wasps? These insects were actually a central element in Stephen King’s original novel, as Professor Allen pointed out, but they were left out of the movie for reasons yet unknown. However, during his talk the Professor claimed that it would still be useful to use the literary trope of the unempty wasps’ nest as a key to read the movie in terms of emptiness and fullness.

In the book, the nest is given to Danny by Jack after the latter has got rid of the wasps, so it is supposed to be empty. Nonetheless, the insects reappear during the night and attack the child, coming back from the dead as humans in the Overlook do. The nest represents thus an emptiness that is unduly filled and the same trope is represented in the movie by the disappearance of the interior monologue, only applicable to the novel, and the filling of this void through the aforementioned focus on sight.

As a matter of fact, instead of representing the multiple voices in the heads of the characters, Kubrick fills this void using the sense that is closer to the cinematic medium: a plurality of images for a plurality of voices. The focus on vision is brought further by the “eye” of the hotel, represented by the lurking camera, and by the way in which Jack dies, different in the two media: in Kubrick’s version Jack is frozen in the snow, with his eyes still open. Oddly enough, Kubrick then reverses again what in the book is a visual image to transform it in dialogue when deciding to represent Danny’s “imaginary friend” Tommy by having the child distorting his own voice, while in the book Tommy was actually a vision.

While emptying the movie from the recurring wasps, Kubrick refilled it with scenes that have become iconic, but have nothing to do with the novel: the ghosts of the two Grady sisters, the pedalling in the tricycle and the continuously reviewed scene of the bloodstream coming out of the lift. According to Dr. Allen, Kubrick’s adaptation is ultimately justified by the awareness of the difference in the media used to tell the same story, but with the will of obtaining the same, uncanny effect.

If I may add something further to that, another way in which Kubrick fills the void left by the unsettling element of the wasps is the use of music. The violins are played in a way that is purposely uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, as stinging bees. What the power of imagination cannot do in a movie, that shows everything ready-made for the viewer, is done by the rising of tension given by the unbearable innunendos.

To those who wish to watch the movie, but are, as I am, sensitive to horror stories, I always suggest to watch it turning the sound off and reading subtitles. The result is comparable to watching only half of the masterpiece, but it also gives the possibility of weighing the actual visual effects described above. Unfortunately for the weak of stomach, the movie still remains frightening. However, it is still better to mute the music than to cover our eyes with our hands, which would be exactly what Kubrick wants us to do. He knows that the childish gesture leaves us no escape from the fright, because we cannot simply cut our hearing out, just as wasps cannot simply close their eyes.

On Grammar Nazism

grammar-nazi-wikipedia-1854844


In theory the Internet could be the lucid version of Wonderland: a place of virtually limitless knowledge, where anyone with a connection can become a successful autodidact. The reality of it, as we all know, is unfortunately harsher and in some cases even damaging: the case of “Grammar Nazism” is an appropriate example.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a Grammar Nazi is somebody who actively criticizes grammatical mistakes and inappropriate use of language. The same English term describes attentive speakers and readers in different languages and it is perceived in opposing ways depending on who is using it. Grammar Nazis themselves can decide to walk under this banner proudly, but there is a strand of users who utilise the term as an insult.

This doesn’t sound like a real problem, but the consequence is a further downgrading of the perceived importance of grammar, language use and fine writing.
In the English-speaking world the problem starts in school, as grammar has disappeared from the teaching programs and even young adults who are interested in the appropriate use of their language are unable to explain why they use it in a certain (correct) way.
At the same time, the web is filling up with failed attempts to build coherent sentences, or even to simply pluralise correctly.

In her 2003 best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss painted a very sad picture of the reality she lived in, surrounded by fellow English native speakers unable to double check the correctness of the sign for their business before displaying it. Since that time, the irritation against Grammar Nazis have turned the interest for good language use into something boring, annoying and unnecessary. To correct somebody’s mistakes is regarded as a nuisance and the perpetrator can be covered in insults, or harangued with voluntarily misspelt words.

At the same time, though, those uninterested in grammar need to use their language for more or less practical purposes, of course, butchering it cruelly.  Quoting Truss:

Isn’t this sad? People who have been taught nothing about their language are (…) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. (17)

Over time such an attitude could have important consequences, as the risk is to gradually deaden the rich differences between words and punctuation marks through misuse and finally have the resulting flattened language standardised. As a matter of fact grammar is not strictly normative, as most laymen would think, but it has a vital descriptive branch, responsible for the observation of mutations in use. When a distinctive element dies in the use, it eventually dies in the norm as well.

Everyone can make mistakes, of course, we cannot always be alert and awake. But to write “your” meaning “you are”, or to pluralise with an unnecessary apostrophe before the S, should not be a habit for anyone older than 7.

So there is nothing wrong with being a Grammar Nazi. It’s not being Nazi at all, actually: it simply means to care about an art in decay. A more appropriate association than Nazism? I suggest the WWF.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

~Kickstarter link~


In 1982 a young Bob Weide started a project around the life of his hero Kurt Vonnegut. Weide was 22 at the time, and afraid of meeting his favourite author, but he was determined to start a documentary about him.

Very luckily not only for him, but for everybody, Vonnegut was keen on the idea, and the letter in which he accepted Weide’s proposal was the very first kickstart for this film. The two of them met in various occasions and Weide was not disappointed: the wit and humour of the writer were also those of the man.

There are now over 20 years of filming that still need to be disclosed to the world. Over time, Weide and Vonnegut had become friends, the writer had poured his memories onto the director’s film and had contributed to the material with some original clips from his childhood, too. But the documentary had ceased to be an objective representation of an author from the point of view of a director. It had become a movie about a friend.

Lack of time, lack of money, indecision on where to go exactly with the documentary, all of this blocked Weide from finishing up his work, until Vonnegut’s death in 2007. After that day, what stopped him was mourning.

Today, though, in cooperation with Don Argott, he is finally about to deliver to us all the precious material that he has collected through those unbelievably true encounters he had with Vonnegut. He just needs a bit of help.

Following this link ( http://kck.st/1A8IJtb ) you will be able to join the Kickstarter campaign for this documentary. For those who do not know how Kickstarter works, it is very simple: when you see a project worthy of your money and love, you can pledge the amount that you are willing to donate. There are possibilities for every wallet, because any cent can be precious. On the project page there is a description of the reward that is earned by offering certain amounts of money. For instance, in Vonnegut’s case, by pledging 30$ you will receive a digital copy of the full movie (that’s very reasonable, isn’t it?). But more importantly, the money is not withdrawn from your card unless the project actually starts, so you don’t risk losing out on your investment.

So if you watch the video and you think, as I do, that this project is worthy of your money and love, please donate and join the karass! http://kck.st/1A8IJtb

preparing a conference/ career choices/ the devil you don’t know

Last Friday I took part in the annual Textualities conference organized by the School of English of UCC. As I was preparing for it, I thought of putting my feelings towards this experience into a blog post, that I actually did not complete, as it was getting more and more personal and less professional. Its content, though, gives me the possibility of comparing the before and the after, in both feelings and resolutions.

More or less one week ago I was writing:

The nervous feeling that is slowly but surely overcoming me as the date approaches makes me question more than just the topic of my talk. If I manage to pursue my career objectives in the academic world, it won’t be the last time I have to perform in front of a judicial audience and probably (hopefully)  I will have to face harder challenges than this one.
At the same time, though, I am aware of my limits and how they can influence badly the results that I will have in this environment.
I do not like to be at the centre of attention, but I can easily go past this obstacle. The real issue is being confident.

I am extremely satisfied with my performance, but I still think that what I wrote is true and that it might be a problem for my career: those who reach success (whatever one chooses it to mean) are those who truly believe in their ideas, while the only certainty that I really have is that I would not want to be certain about anything, because that could make me miss some of the clues.

My doubts were in some way confirmed during the after-event, while I was talking with one of my peers about the conference itself: he told me I apologise too much for my ideas, and he was right.

So after the exciting and productive day I was left with the question: am I confident, or strong enough for academia?
Do not hold your breath, because I do not have the answer yet.

Still, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed both presenting and (even more) listening to the projects of other speakers, as well as discussing everyone’s ideas. I have had the chance to understand how and why I was being effective and I think I could reproduce the experiment. I normally speak extremely fast, even when I’m just chatting over a coffee, but I have learnt to slow down and make myself clearer. Maybe.

So probably I am not strong, or confident, nor will I ever learn how to be those two things, but I have proven to myself that, when facing the devil I don’t know, I can leverage my number one strength, passion, and be effective.

Let’s see where the road goes from here.