It’s been a busy month for me and a quiet one for Vision Thing. Regular content will resume in the new year, I promise. 2016 was a bad time for pretty much everything bar cinema – here’s a short list of ten films that really did it for me, an extension of a top five I did over at The Movie Bit. Shamefully, I’m yet to see Creepy, American Honey, The Handmaiden, Manchester by The Sea and a bunch of others, so this list is by no means complete!
The hole… deep and dark… its darkness has lasted since ancient times…
With these cryptic, dreadful words, we are introduced to the isolated, morally abandoned realm of Onibaba (1964), written and directed by Kaneto Shindo. Existing somewhere in between period drama and nightmarish folk-horror, Onibaba tells a chilling, sensual tale of loss and desire, mining the depths of necessary, opportunistic inhumanity. Set somewhere in rural Japan during the mid-14th century, a period of civil war, Onibaba demonstrates the effects of conflict on the moral fibre of those struggling to exist outside of battle. Through the fog of war, the whole world becomes a purgatory; a “hell for sinners.” With this expertly crafted, relentlessly bleak little story, Kaneto Shindo charts a descent further into that moral abyss.
With an assemblage of beautiful, 16mm documentary footage and hyper-real fictional segments, first-time Belgian director Pieter-Jan De Pue crafts an ethereal and compelling meditation on the relationship between war, landscape and those that inhabit it. Assembled from footage collected over seven years De Pue spent working as a photographer for the International Red Cross, The Land of The Enlightened is more intimate and lyrical than other documentaries to have breached the Afghan conflicts. Indeed, the extremes of war in ‘God’s garden’ encourage a certain bombastic approach, one that many filmmakers have been drawn to. Taking a more dreamy, romantic route, De Pue’s didactic intent in somewhat obscured beneath layers of docu-fiction hybridity. However, in switching between the staged narrative of a group of young teenage boys living in a former Soviet outpost in the Pamir Mountains and the daily routine of life in a joint American-Afghani military base, De Pue demonstrates the fundamental commerce of conflict: the exchange between a transient invading force and the impacted national landscape.
In one of the ten chapters of Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of The Connected World, a bereaved mother asserts her belief in the demonic power of the Internet. Following the death of her daughter in a car accident, the family was plagued with ceaseless emails containing horrific images of the girl’s corpse. Now, the mother condemns the Internet as “the manifestation of the antichrist” – “the spirit of evil” running through everyone on earth. Later in the film, scientists speak of a sentient “intellectual Internet” – our soul companion in a future without the need for human interaction. Naturally, Herzog’s camera avoids all moral judgment; each idea, one biblically fatalistic, the other atypically utopian, is given equal credence.
This article was originally featured back in issue 2. You can pick up a physical copy here.
“Why would anyone watch a scum-show like Videodrome?” Well into Cronenberg’s head-trip narrative, James Woods’s Max Renn is asked this very question. The director, however, squares this directly at the spectator. Videodrome is a feast for the eyes and a trauma for the brain, and, much like other Cronenberg films such as Naked Lunch, Crash and Existenz, the power of this trauma lies in the initial generic set up and the consequential audience expectation. Videodrome comes wrapped as an erotic thriller – an admittedly deviant one, to be fair, but a conventional set up all the same. Soon after, all generic conventions are dismissed. Each irrational narrative twist obliterates any sense of developing comprehension, as a question presents itself to us again, and again, “what is this – and why am I watching it?”
If there’s one thing that definitively separates 1989’s Santa Sangre from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s earlier fever dreams, it’s a degree of narrative coherence. This doesn’t necessarily make it any better – indeed, were you to ask me to single out the director’s greatest film from his notable works (this, alongside 1970’s El Topo and 1973’s The Holy Mountain), I’d be ruminating on the merits of each for days. Each is a vastly different beast, tenuously linked to the last via the director’s signature way-out symbolism, penchant for bizarre, grandiose sets and fascination with religious mysticism. With each, Jodorowsky is intent on destruction: seeking to break a culture of taboos, to shatter the conventions of classic narrative and attack the self-destructive greed of capitalist society and dominant religion.
Often the best science fiction is that which leaves you feeling like a depressingly insignificant speck in the limitless expanse of known and unknown space. The sensation, teetering on a knife-edge between wonder and despair, is like no other – ecstasy and agony rolled in to one. Recently, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar tackled the vastness of space with considerable humanity and depth – that is, before its all-too-humanising conclusion brought everything back home. While Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is similarly not without its flaws, its brilliance rests in the ability to render one incapable and insignificant in a vast, limitless universe of knowledge and experience.
Caught on tape by the kidnapped South Korean actress, Choi Eun-Hee, Kim Jong-il complains light-heartedly about the low quality of North Korean cinema. “All our films have crying scenes,” he jokes with Choi and her husband/fellow captive, director Shin Sang-ok, “this isn’t a funeral is it?” What is most distressing about this exchange, beyond the very fact that we are listening to a genuine recording of the seldom-heard dictator, is Kim’s jovial nature: the smooth, polite, socially adept manner in which he engages his prisoners. To Kim, they are friends, fellow artistic intellectuals – they are anything but two prisoners, forced into conversation with the despot after years of detention. The Kim we hear in this opening sequence is a far cry from the silent, brooding, monomaniacal dictator that the world has observed from afar; there is something intensely jarring about that.
Phantasm: Ravager, the fifth instalment in Don Coscarelli’s intermittent franchise, is about as heart-warming as a no-budget horror sequel can get. It maintains the series’ logic defying, incoherent, trans-dimensional lore, twisting the story with multiple timelines for a kind of post-apocalyptic spin. Ravager nods its head so relentlessly to instalments gone by that it feels like a stampede down memory lane – nearly every character from the series’ past is shoehorned in somewhere or other, whether it makes sense or otherwise. Despite all its frantic incoherence, then, there’s something charming, even loveable about Ravager. Newcomers to the series will be hopelessly lost; long time followers should relish in the nostalgic insanity.
In his unusual, unsettling and often utterly brilliant new documentary, Kate Plays Christine, director Robert Green explores a number of disparate yet flexible layers of reality and fiction. As much as this is a documentary about the tragic on-air suicide of American news reporter Christine Chubbuck, it is about the processes and pains of performance and the inherent sadism in spectatorship.