Monthly Archives: April 2014

What makes for a truly great film?

What makes for a good film, a great movie? I’m sure the answer can be just as diverse as the amount of films in existence. This makes it particularly hard to define a certain set of criteria I may use to define a film that stands out from the crowd.

Psycho Awesome

Hitchcock knows his spectacle!

Lets begin by films that left a lasting impression on me, and then try to ascertain why. Most of the earliest films I remember seeing were visual spectacles. When looking at films like Spider-Man (2002) the Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and the Matrix (1999) we can easily suggest that story and theme might have been neglected to make way for magnificent action sequences or eye candy. But is this really the case?

When we look at films and franchises like the Lord of the Rings and the Matrix, I can’t help but think there is more than spectacle contained within the binds of the titles. The Lord of the Rings, admittedly has a rather straight forward premise, but the way it is presented, and the way the hero’s journey is so accurately captured can’t help but seem more significant. Similarly in the Matrix, the protagonist is taken on a road of growth as in Spider-Man, but in this case the subject, and discussed themes, meanings, and subtleties make the film more than simple popcorn action.

In the Matrix I see discussed topics on religion, society, world-view, identity, destiny, and love, to name but a few of the many themes that seem to feature. These are the things I remember better than any action scene therein contained, things that stick with me, making me think. But was this a honest creation? Was the Matrix honestly what the film-makers were trying to communicate, or was it only unoriginal plot-devices used by the film-makers to trick me into thinking the film was more than a cool sci-fi with some legit fight scenes and hardcore stares?

To answer this would be practically impossible, I’d have to put the Wachowski’s on a polygraph before I get close, in the mean time I can say it did contain meaning for me, and so fulfil the next tick on my criteria for a good film, meaning.

Now I realise the examples used are rather mainstream, and it’s much easier to crown some cult art-film as being magnificent, or some obscure classic that in some renowned critics eyes captured the very essence of a great motion picture, but I think mainstream films should not be undervalued in their occasional magnificent contribution to the great film canon, just as classics should not only be seen a bygone building blocks, and avant-garde pieces as backwater hippy snuff.  When I watch a great movie, I know I’ve watched one, within me, be it a classic, avant-garde or modern blockbuster, it resonates within me, stays with me.

And thus, even when not considering other important criteria like technical competence, captivating screen performances, music and the other aspects that help make a film truly great, I believe what makes a film great lies with you, with me and with every viewer. We experience, we interpret, and we try to decode the film makers idea. If we are satisfied (or not, if open endings has your fancy) what ensues will be a truly great cinematic experience.

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Ek sit net hier

A piece of poetic prose in my native language. I apologise if you can’t follow

-Ek sit hier lanks die stroompie en suig my ‘n hartseer kuiltjie, tussen giggeltjies en baljaar spandeer ek my lekker herfs aand briesie.

Ek probeer onthou wat ek die Here wou vra, maar val dan maar terug op die ou verhaal, wat die keer weer met herhaalendheid die lug golwe in straal.

Maar dit is tog die keer bietjie anders, of dit die kinder laggies was, of die stroompie sag, is daar nou ‘n stadigge kruip in my gedagtes na iets waarop ek al lankal wag.

Die liefde is ‘n snaakse ding, mens is nog so rustig, en dan weer verwring, en nou is ek skielik weer diep kant toe gegooi. ‘n Skeptiese hoop, ‘n ding wat ek hier besef die naweek van Sy dood, is dat as ek nog so sal sit en tittewy, dan gaan my antwoord weer weg loop.

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Chinatown by Roman Polanski – a viewing of the ending

The most striking scene of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was to me, at its end. In this last scene, Polanski and his actors make us feel as if we’ve stumbled onto a real crime scene. The dark streets and flickering lights serve as a reminder of the sinister stories the film has acquainted us with, and the cramp gathering of the characters under the only light puts us in an uncomfortable state of expectation. Then we observe everything from eye level, with a few sudden movements yet no close-ups, simulating the vision of somebody on scene. A few over-the-shoulder and head shots puts us in the crowd. Part of the audience, waiting to see the films climax.

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Jake, the audiences protagonist, is put outside the dominant position that a film’s hero is normally expected to hold, and is not allowed a successful conclusion. He is forced to betray the woman he wanted to save, and even his attempts at reasoning with the policemen, as a legitimate private investigator, is simply ignored. Because Jake is never given a chance to speak, and because Cross, the villain, keeps composure so well, and is headed by the authorities, we as an audience are pulled away from identification with Jake, and is instead put in a position to see things from the viewpoint of Cross, the embodiment of corrupt social structures.

Cross is more desperate in this scene, than at any other part of the film. Even whilst talking to Escobar, he is constantly looking for a sign of Evelyn and Katherine. But when they are found Cross never raises his voice to Evelyn, even when she shoots him in the arm, he knows he doesn’t have to. He tells Evelyn that the best way to keep him from getting Katherine is to murder him, but this is something never delivered upon. Rather, the scene closes with Cross taking Katherine away, getting the prize and conclusion that is usually reserved for our protagonist.

The way Cross succeeds in the end, is probably saddest part of the film. Escobar lifts his weapon to shoot at the retreating car, and Jake, in a final attempt to regain control, wrestles with the Escobar, but Jakes call was once again a mistake, as Escobar only aimed at the wheels, and once they were occupied in the shuffle, Loach stepped in and actually aimed directly at the car. Jakes mistake in judgement is evident only moments later. The long sound of the horn preparing us for the inevitable news, just like that other night outside her safe house, but this time she is dead, Loach has shot her. The image of her gaping wound is the final sign, this film does not conclude as we hoped.

The closing imagery, the death of innocence. Evelyn has been shot through her blemished eye, the legacy her father left her. Cross changes from villain to lamenting father and caring “granddad” and takes Katherine away. The future is his, LA, and his Katherine. There is no one left to oppose him. Even Escobar still misjudges what has happened. He lets the villain and killer go, and accepts Evelyn’s death as an accident, killed while attempting an escape.

Jake finally knows what’s going on, but it’s pointless. He can’t speak to anybody, it doesn’t matter. He has been a witness to the ignorance of evil, and the death it resulted in. Once again his attempts to save his love has instead lead to her death. He looks blankly at Evelyn’s corpse, his emotions held back, theres no point in showing them. Jake remembers the DA’s words: “Do as little as possible”, but only now it makes sense to him.

Walsh’s tries to comfort Jake by saying “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” But Walsh doesn’t understand, doesn’t know the meaning of what he’s just experienced. He tries to justify the tragedy of what happened literally; Because they were really in Chinatown. But Jake now understands, the evil work of Cross, and Evelyn’s tragic past did not happen in Chinatown, but in the most respectable areas of the City. Jake now sees that Chinatown is a metaphor of the whole world, a world as hard to understand, and desperate as the Asians living in Chinatown. He now understands why life with as little pain and suffering as possible, is a life where you “do as little as possible”. Polanski made a rather hopeless, and cynical film with Chinatown, but even if we choose to live a life of hope and aspirations, it’s worth it to know that life can sometimes throw us around, just as with Jake. And thus, this film, this ending scene, and it’s lessons, will stick with me, until I visit my Chinatown.

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