ROAR – Review

roar

From its trailer alone it might be easy to draw the conclusion that the story surrounding the production of ROAR (1981) is more interesting than the movie itself. An eleven year project from Noel Marshall which involved his then wife Tippi Hedren and their children, filmed amongst a real menagerie of free roaming lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars in Africa during a period when Hedren and her family bred and lived with fully grown lions as a domestic pets. Seventy members of the cast and crew were injured during its making, in one instance resulting in facial reconstructive surgery for Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, and so it has now become notorious as one of the most dangerous film productions in history. It is an unprecedented film relic whose mythology runs the risk of overshadowing the film itself.

If you harbour that view, the likelihood of it changing whilst watching ROAR will probably depend on the crowd, venue and alcohol consumption you saw it under. There is little plot to discuss or dissect, and all the talking points are really the spectacle of watching the insane stunts being acted out on screen. Watching it alone would likely diminish the absurdity of the events, which have their greatest impact on a room full of like-minded and giggly people, so it is with some efficient brevity that the film comes with a strong recommendation as a cinema experience/ party piece.

Noel Marshall plays Hank, a zoologist with apparently zero faults living out on an African ranch full of free roaming wild animals (some of which are not indigenous, which raises an eyebrow). Hank is awaiting the arrival of his family, played by Marshall’s then real family of wife Hedren and their respective children, who have made the journey out to live with Hank. But when Hank gets stranded fending off poachers, Hedren and the family arrive at the ranch and are unwittingly trapped in the middle of a home invasion from a pack of vicious predators. The story is really only there as a loose framework for the chaotic set pieces of the cast being continuously chased and mauled by real untamed animals, so, despite the blatantly recycled scenes and a water-treading narrative, the reminder of ‘wow, they really did that’ constantly reinvigorates what is on screen.

Shear entertainment value aside though, it is difficult to tell if the incredible, nerve-wracking laughs in ROAR are drawn from an ironic, so-bad-it’s-good, viewing mentality or one which actually falls in line with Noel Marshall’s sincere vision of the film. To add to the insanity of its premise, structurally the film appears to have been pulled in three very different directions at once. The bookends of the film bash the audience over the head with a ludicrously naïve, new age hippie philosophy of man and animals co-existing in harmony – set to the song Here We Are In Eden by Robert Florczack. But conversely, the main bulk of the film sees Hedren and the gang desperately attempting to flee the enormous jaws of some of natures deadliest creatures (the story of the film’s production itself completely obliterates any message of harmony!).

The juxtaposition of these two contrasting tones in a better handled film could conceivably be melded into a critique of man’s eagerness to anthropomorphise the animal kingdom and the wilful blindness of what Herzog calls “the overwhelming indifference of nature”. But, just to add more confusion to the mix, the film is also interspersed with skits of animals-do-the-funniest-things levels of shenanigans, such as lions skateboarding, talking, piling comically into frame, licking honey off of actors’ faces and adorable tiny cubs attempting to roar. All these, hilarious as they are, are peppered throughout the film in a way that creates a nightmarish Disney fever dream and really appears to suggests a lack of any structural understanding or focused direction from Marshall.

And yet its precisely this friction between three completely different tones which gives ROAR the bulk of its appeal. As a whole, the film is bizarrely schizophrenic, but taken in isolated scenes, which given the lack of narrative is very easy to do, there are some perfectly executed comedy sequences (through no fault of anyone involved) which are difficult to imagine being included in the film without a knowing smile from someone in the editing staff. The two which stand out the most are, as you might expect, down to the comically coincidental timing from the cast of animals. The first is just as Hank says to his friend Mativo: “The cats just get a little excited-” before getting brutally tackled and piled upon by five fully grown lionesses. The second is as Hedren and her family attempt to escape the ranch by boat, but as they cautiously attempt to row away from shore they are repeatedly pulled back in by a lion lazily pawing at the boat like a cat playing with a ball of twine.

The absurd humour in these scenes derives not only from the apparent danger of everybody involved but from just how far removed the animals are from all direction the film might have tried to take. At the beginning of the film, credit is given to the animals for their contribution to the directing and writing, as the crew had to simply “let them do what they want”. The film very much feels true to this sentiment. Watching a pack of lions sabotage a scene paradoxically only further enriches the experience of ROAR, though not necessarily in the way it was intended. Compared to something like Born Free, the amusement from watching ROAR is not marvelling at how they managed to train wild animals to act but instead recoiling in shock that they literally walked into a lion’s den and managed to somehow make a film around it.

Dan Noall, September 2015

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Review: While We’re Young

while_we're_young

It is a continuing mark of achievement throughout Noah Baumbach’s career that he is able to craft the most likable of unlikeable characters. The problems of intellectual, white, upper-middle class culturists strikes on paper like the stuff of indie-movie parody, and yet his portrayal of these archetypes seldom becomes eye-rolling. Perhaps unlike other indie dramas Baumbach’s characters are rarely stuck so deep in the kind of philosophical ennui that becomes cringingly self-important in movies like Garden State (2004) or Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011). A handling which has carried over from his previous tragi-comedy Frances Ha (2012) into his latest feature, While We’re Young.

But if Frances Ha celebrated the exuberant aimlessness that comes with youth, then While We’re Young certainly advocates the wisdom which comes with age, though the coming to terms of which is a turbulence of denial and bargaining before finally reaching acceptance. Straight away Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Watts) are introduced as a couple passing un-dramatically into the realms of middle age, but who’s choice or inability to bear children has segregated them empathetically from their peers. In the opening scene they dangle awkwardly over their friends’ crying child, unable to recite fairy tales properly, demonstrating their indifference to be a part of that lifestyle.

We are then given indication that while their friends have progressed into parenthood, the two have remained stuck in a rut of routine for the last decade. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who’s on-going lengthy, uncompromising project has lasted eight years without completion. The time seems to have passed them by so quickly but now suddenly warrants some dramatic change in their lives which they have been unable to realise. And like any couple facing age their reminiscence evokes a happier time in their youth.

It is this mixture of regret and directionless un-fulfilment that leads the bulk of film’s story. While giving a lecture Josh is befriended by the much younger twenty-something couple of Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried), and after several bizarre and trendy double dates the four become close friends. For Josh and Cornelia, this offers a surrogated return to their own youth and rekindled romance whilst dipping a toe into the young hipsters’ lifestyle. Josh speaks of them: “I like how enthusiastic they are about everything.” But as things progress and Jamie’s own ambitions of becoming a documentary filmmaker takes precedence over Josh’s, it becomes questionable to him whether their friendship was only ever a segue to reach Cornelia’s father, a cinéma-vérité documentarian of the old school.

The fact that vérité documentarians of the ilk of Wiseman and the Maysles were once considered the ‘new school’ is one of many illustrations of generational divide within the film, which ultimately seems to fuel Josh and Cornelia’s strive for console in their alienation and aging. And while the coming-of-middle-age drama is subgenre well established in modern filmmaking (This Is 40 [2012], Friends With Kids [2011]), here Baumbach directly contrasts his older characters with their younger counterparts, playing for comedy the hipsters’ preference for retro-analogue dead formats and the older two’s admirably competent adoption of modern digital services. Though they are well adjusted to using Netflix, smartphones and mp3s, connecting with the younger generation causes Josh and Cornelia to revisit all the things they thought were long obsolete. Jamie and Darby’s vinyl collection, VHS tapes, typewriters and preference of memory over search engines links Josh and Cornelia not only to more enthused version of themselves but to a specific era which they perhaps secretly wish to return to.

But this is not without its consequences. Jamie and Darby are so eclectic in their tastes and interests that it is easy to be taken in by their charm and enthusiasm for everything, but the fallout from this is that it is difficult to get a bearing on any of their moral compasses or political ideals (the revealing of Jamie’s dubious documentary ethics is particularly telling of how unknowable they are). They exist in a kind of bricolage limbo, making everything, listening to everything, appropriating adverts long before their time, to the point where their diverse interests are less charmingly extensive and more deceptively intangible. To Josh and Cornelia, getting married was the beginning of the rest of their lives. To Jamie and Darby, it is just another thing that they did.

This divide begins to create problems as it becomes clear throughout the film that Josh and Cornelia are stuck in an arrested state between two milestones: carefree youth and responsible adulthood, not wholly a part of either. Though Cornelia feels suffocated attending a baby dance class with her recent-mother friends, Josh also fails to keep up riding a fixy bike with Jamie without putting his back out. They struggle between an impossibility to revisit the past and an un-enthusiasm to move into the future.

When mid-way through at the point following a ridiculous ayahuasca party the film appears to be setting up a progression of maturity for Josh and Cornelia, though the movement into the final act feels less like a coming-to-terms with age and more of a bitter finger wagging as the adults teach the wiper-snappers a thing or two. What is possibly the weakest point of the film comes at the very end. References are made multiple times throughout that not only are Josh and Cornelia ill-suited to having children but that doing so would be little other than a faint attempt to fix their marriage. Their decision to follow suit of their peers and have a child regardless feels a little like a discounting of the film’s message of finding contentment with age outside of society driven milestone expectations, and instead seems to endorses parenthood as a cure for all ailments in both relationships and egos.

Man As Machine vs. Machine As Man: A Short Examination Of The Changing Tropes Of Science Fiction

man as machine vs machine as man

From the early era of silent cinema to modern day blockbusters, science fiction has been fascinated and torn between exploring the boundaries and distinctions of what it means to be human, or, in the broadest of definitions, alive. It is an elusive question, rhetoric in the sense that it can never be definitively answered, but the approaches taken toward it offer a reflection on humankind’s changing and prevailing attitudes towards its own advancements in science and technology throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century.

The most telling tropes of the genre are the two opposing tales of cyborgs and artificial intelligence. The former, an amalgamation of both organic and biometric material, often starting out purely human before being fused with mechanised replacements for limbs and organs. The later, the transcendence from inanimate machine to sentient-like consciousness. Both of these approach the question of what it means to be human, but each tackle it from different perspectives. One asks at what point do you cease to be human, the other asks at what point do you start.

Films depicting the change from human to robotic often approach computerised augmentations as a means of demoralising or dehumanising its subject, exploring how much of a man really remains as parts are removed and robotic ones replaced. Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) shows a charismatic family man transformed into a cold and calculating cyborg, but traces of Murphy’s mannerisms, catchphrases and memories still remain in his semi-living body. The film chronicles the regaining of his humanity and identity but it is a mixed victory, as ultimately something irretrievable has already been lost; referring to his former self in the third person and divulging on the topic of his wife and child: “I can feel them, but I can’t remember them”.

Darth Vader too, a man corrupted, destroyed, but rebuilt into a suit which is the only thing keeping him alive. He has even been re-branded, taking on a new name and identity. While the all black design and expressionless mask gives visual indication of his corruption, it is Ben Kenobi’s reminiscence that “the good man who was your father was destroyed” which suggests that Vader’s metamorphosis from man to part-machine has diminished the qualities which made him human. Little of the man he once was is present even underneath the suit, salvaging only a fleeting glimpse of his former self during his redemption.

The underpinning fear throughout these examples is that technology has the capacity to literally overwhelm us from the outside in. Whereas today the public attention given to new technologies seems more focused on the commercial and the medical, throughout the twentieth century the paranoia surrounding the surge of scientific breakthroughs seems tied to their potential for military gain. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the looming nuclear threat of the Cold War throughout the later half of the century ensured the dawning of a new age. Not only did these weapons possesses new untold direct destruction, but the detachment possible from their utilisation (the simplistic ‘big red button’ being a recurring emblem for annihilation) meant also a damaging of morality to those wielding them. In reality it is possible to fall in this way into a corrupt perspective of the world governed by ones and zeros, so in film the allegory is of man psychically engulfed by machines of his own making. Living in the prospective shadow of nuclear warfare reflects in film that perhaps humanity’s greatest fear is its own work.

Even more prevalent throughout cinema, and perhaps more telling of social attitudes throughout its lifetime, is the concern that as technology advances it has the power to become independent, to mimic human thoughts, emotions and actions to the point where they are indistinguishable from, or even surpass, humans’.

The tale of artificial intelligence is often one which examines the fundamental makings of human consciousness and how they can, or cannot, be reproduced. In Blade Runner (1982), the replicants are driven by their fear of death, that primal evolutionary trait present in all organic life forms. They are not alive in the strictest sense but their reactions to their environments and situations are authentic, learning and adapting and even begging for empathy. Are these the makings of human life? Despite their striking resemblance, the replicants seem to lack something indescribable, unknowable but essential to traditional human behaviour. Perhaps like those androids existing in the dip of the uncanny valley, their features and actions are faultless and yet something remains completely absent. Arguably, the replicants in Blade Runner never wish to be any more human than what they already are, only to live longer. Don’t we all.

But Blade Runner is something of an anomaly in the history of film. Artificial intelligence is usually approached as a Pinocchio-esque retelling of transformation from robotic to ‘real’, exploring where the line which distinguishes the two lies. The most blatant example of this being Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), which tackles this with a literal insertion of the Pinocchio fairy-tale into the story. We could look back further at the Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz (1939), set on obtaining a heart of all things, the organ colloquially regarded as the source of all loving emotions. Or even further back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), where the Machine Man is transformed into an imitation of Maria which proves to be initially indistinguishable from her legitimate counterpart.

Metropolis (1927), dir Fritz Lang

Metropolis (1927), dir Fritz Lang

While the cyborg trope has fallen out of fashion somewhat in the last decade or so of film, artificial intelligence has consistently held its ground. Perhaps technology now feels less like an intrusion on, or an extension of, our lives and instead an entire entity itself. This would certainly explain why themes of the ‘singularity’ remain prevalent throughout modern filmmaking. Her (2013), Transcendence (2014), Chappie (2015), Ex Machina (2015), these films deviate somewhat from the Pinocchio formula and instead seem more akin to a Frankenstein’s monster; human made artificial life which go beyond their creators’ expectations and take on an identity wholly unforeseen. Perhaps now the fear is no longer that our creations will corrupt us but that they will surpass us altogether.

We can already see these forebodings begin to take shape in reality as consumers of modern technologies. Personal devices have become an enigma. What is going on inside that impenetrable, reflective black smartphone, behind those email and social media accounts? What data are they gathering, to what end, and who are they it sending it to? There are processes going on behind the surface level of interaction consumers have with these devices and applications. To discover that even televisions are capable of gathering data without our knowing (source), like Robocop, it often feels like there are hidden directives built into commercial technology. Revelations on the NSA and intrusive data gathering suggests that in a way these devices have already adopted the most negative of human traits – the ability to hold secrets, harbour their own judgements and whisper about us behind our backs.

Dan Noall – 2015

Missing Numbers: A Look Into Video Game Speedruns

missing numbers: a look into video game speedruns

Video games are an entirely unique form of entertainment compared to their (somewhat misguided) aspired peers film and television in that their content unveils exclusively at the behest of the player’s level of interaction and skill with the game itself. I.e. the only way to experience the next level is to complete the current one. Even sandbox games are tied (to some degree) to an unalterable linear sequence of events, the bare minimum being that a game has to be started in order to be finished. This may seem self explanatory but it is a novelty completely absent from other forms of media. A book can be read from back to front if the reader so desired, a DVD fast forwarded, a TV show flipped between other channels. There is no doing this with video games. By their very nature, the only way to reach the end is for the player to start from the beginning. Inputs, reactions, more inputs.

With this in mind, it seems inevitable that groups have emerged dedicated to completing games as fast as humanly possible, testing and showcasing their reflexes, knowledge and all round speed. Speedrunning is a form of video game interaction with self-imposed conditions and goals, cutting down how much of the game is actually played to extreme degrees in order to achieve the fastest play time possible. While the overall objective of start-to-finish is still present, the content of the game is whittled away as bugs and gaps in code, gone unnoticed or ignored during the game’s development, are found, researched and exploited by players to skip over portions of otherwise mandatory gameplay. Speedrunning prevents games from ever becoming fixed texts, and instead opens up many new possibilities, dictated by the player, not the creator, to how and why a game is played.

There is an interaction occurring with the game beneath its surface level. Delving into the game’s code, finding hidden connections between parts of the game and triggering these via a kind of in-game hacking – a sequence of algorithmic inputs that confuse the game and jump the player through in-game space and time. Discovering and accomplishing these stunts becomes a collaboration between a technical understanding of computing code and pixel precision accuracy in a player’s reflexes – a frame or two late and the warp gate is missed, and the entire run goes to waste. Finding these shortcuts is one accomplishment, executing them is quite another.

There is perhaps no better example of this than the Ocarina Of Time speedrun by Cosmo. Every detail and action of this playthrough has been optimised for speed, with not one second wasted. Starting straight away with the game itself, the Chinese version is favoured for its faster text and less lag between dialogue boxes. Link moves backwards as it is quicker than moving forwards, items are bought in specific orders to account for animation and explanation text, and a game reset is used to transport quickly back to Kokiri Forest rather than walking. All of these micro-details though are in service of executing glitches which are far more groundbreaking in their scope. The biggest and most time condensing of these is the Wrong Warp glitch, allowing Link to transport from Inside the Deku Tree straight to the collapsing castle sequence at the end of the game, post-fight with Ganondorf.

 

There is evidence here of just how greatly speedrunning distinguishes itself from other forms of playthrough as a player driven approach to gaming as appose to following developers’ intentions. During the collapsing castle sequence, Cosmo performs the Void Warp glitch to send him at sudden speed down the castle, but executing this glitch requires rolling into a falling rock at precisely the right moment. Falling rocks are deployed throughout the game as nothing but an obstacle and a health threatening hindrance, meant to be avoided at all costs. Yet here we see a player flying in the face of the developers and actively trying to encounter one to their advantage. This act might not seem all that defiant given that it is a game and so gives the player free choice to make those decisions anyway, but the significance is in the difference between intention and interaction. Approached with a different mind-set and desired accomplishment, an obstacle suddenly becomes a tool. Something potentially un-forecast (even completely unpredictable) by programmers and developers, as nothing directly accessible within the game indicates the possibility of this stunt; its discovery and utilisation is entirely down to the pursuit of the player.

It is often this particular era of video games, past the time and console-generation boundary to be considered ‘retro’, that gather the most interest from audiences online. Partly for the obvious nostalgic value, but also for their everlasting difficulty. Ocarina Of Time is regarded as a classic, a game residing in countless top tens, and part of the reason for that is the affection gamers attach to the achievement felt for having beaten it. Watching what took casual players countless frustrating hours to beat in their youth being boiled down into a single eighteen minute seamless, seemingly effortless, motion can be mind blowing. And how fitting that Cosmo’s run neatly finds a way to connect the very first boss in the game to the very last, linking the start and end of the game together and leaving almost everything in-between completely washed out. All of the items, the missteps, the backtracking, the puzzles, the bosses, the water dungeon, all of it bypassed as though completely irrelevant. And to think that the whole time an entire conspiracy of secret interlinking networks was hiding just beneath the game’s surface.

But what happens when these bugs are performed to the point of desaturation and cease to be engaging? Then speedrunning can take on new challenges which enter into an altering of the way the game is psychically controlled.

One of the many sponsored speedruns to take place at AGDQ 2014 was Peaches_’s one handed playthrough of Super Mario 64. Discovering it was possible to still play the game whilst suffering from a broken wrist, Peaches_ started attempting to one hand speedrun Mario 64 only as a passing interest.

 

The playthrough is not flawless, compared with Cosmo’s Ocarina run, and indeed Peaches_ admits that there are far quicker ways to achieve (even bypass) what he is doing, but the added gimmick of a self-imposed handicap demonstrates an impressive level of skill, compensating for the lack of a second hand to control with, and creates a different kind of challenge for the whole run. His controlling of Mario is so fluid it is easy to forget he is playing one handed. There exists an entire artillery of Mario 64 glitches that enable a multitude of variations to finish the game (source), from gathering all 120 stars to no stars at all, but what makes this variant especially interesting is that there is a manipulation occurring of both the game world and the real world.

The use of such glitches described above are a hot topic amongst speedrunning audiences. While they are the quickest means to beat the game, many see their use as cheating or going against the game’s original intention. These opinions primarily come from comment sections on videos similar to the ones above.

Note: these comments are taken from different videos

Note: these comments are taken from different videos

Speed Demos Archive have an excellent rebuttal against this attitude, pointing out that going against the ‘spirit’ and original intention of a game have nothing to do with optimising it for its fastest possible completion:

Many viewers have an expectation that speedruns clear the game using only the tools intentionally given by the developers. This is an explicit constraint on the run brought on by an internal perception of the game. This by itself is not inherently wrong or incorrect, but it is based on an attachment to the game. Speedruns in the unconstrained case are separated from this in that the game itself is no longer regarded as a game, but is instead the medium. The “game” then becomes the optimization problem, while the medium is just a set of implicit constraints. In this sense, there is no such thing as a glitch, provided that nothing external to the medium impacts it.” (source)

So from this it is possible to see that speedrunners cease to view games in their conventional sense and instead as an entirely different puzzle approached by laws all unto themselves, an optimisation problem whereby anything which is directly accessible within the game’s code is fair play. After all, the examples above contain no external forces on them other than a well equipped player. There are no Game Genies used beforehand, nor are they tool assisted (TAS) which would allow inputs exceeding human limitations of reflex and speed. These variations on speedrunning do exist, but the distinction between them and standard speedruns (RTA) is significant, as TAS runs demonstrate the possibilities of removing human error while RTA runs are a demonstration of a player’s skill and direct interaction with the game (source).

While fans of a game can have disparaging attitudes towards its speedrunning, what of the reaction from the developers who made it to begin with? Watching one’s work being torn from the seams, skipped and misused in one fell blow must be a strange and unsettling experience.

To explore this, the team Double Fine recently sat down with speedrunner SMK as he demonstrated a speedrun of their game Pyschonauts in just under an hour. SMK was a pioneer in finding many of the bugs used to achieve the current world record, and his display of these in the web series Devs Play was the first time many of the developers had seen them in action. While they take what is essentially the breaking of their game in good humour, it is clear that they are taken aback with some of the tricks SMK uses to speed through levels, pass through walls and, most surprisingly, use a glitch in the animation to make Raz fly.

 

Again, SMK reinforces the point in his introduction interview that in order to find these bugs a player has to go against gaming conventions and all original intention: “think about everything the developers wanted you to do, and do anything but exactly that”. Developers work for years to attempt to create a seamless experience, weaving both gameplay and narrative into unison. So does speedrunning disrespect, or at the very least diminish, the hard work and intentions of the games’ development teams?

Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine, at least, seems not to feel that way. Commenting on SMK’s speedun: “How could someone not like someone finding a new way to enjoy the game… by showing your failures.” This comedic, self deprecating attitude is positive to see from game developers, because the revisiting of games in such a way results in a near constant unearthing of new secrets from titles more than twenty years old. The Super Mario World world record was recently beaten using a glitch discovered only recently and never before performed on a console version of the game (source). For a game released in 1990, this is a perfect example of how speedrunning can enrich and greatly lengthen a game’s replay value. As these games continue to surprise and engage players in such a way, perhaps they will never lose their appeal to be revisited.

– Dan Noall 2015

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

A great deal of effort seems to have been dedicated to unravelling the plot to Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature. By some duality of design it seems to actively try to confuse to the point of incoherence while still enticing viewers to pick it apart and piece it together. If this is not its intent then perhaps this is a result of Anderson’s reputation. Since reaching a level of storytelling maturity with both There Will Be Blood and The Master, the critical acclaim surrounding Anderson’s films has deservedly elevated them to the level of film texts as well as pieces of entertainment, ranking him alongside Kubrick, Altman and Malick as one of the highest examples of American auteurs. And while this means his films certainly deserve a high level of viewing attention, it also acts as something of a hindrance when attempting to make sense of a nonsensical film.

The plot, as best can be made of it, is a fairly faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. We follow the Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), a mixed up pothead private eye who is sent on the trail of a mystery by his ‘ex-old lady’ Shasta (Katherine Waterston) involving her current billionaire boyfriend and his wife’s plot to incarcerate him in a mental institution in order to get at his wealth. This fairly tight set-up proves only to be the jumping board though into an ensuing cavalcade of bizarre encounters with even more bizarre and eccentric characters: from outlaws to law men. Doc winds caught between drug smugglers, anti-subversive groups, shady FBI operations, nemesis cops and various femme fatales. All the while constantly playing catch up with their intertwining involvement with each other.

If all of this sounds like a return to the exuberance of Anderson’s earlier ensemble pieces, à la Boogie Nights, well, it is and it isn’t. The change in tone in Anderson’s work after the five year gap between Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood is undeniable, and his career can very much be split into two distinct halves, which leaves Inherent Vice sat uncomfortably somewhere in-between. It seems to attempt a return to the liveliness of his earlier work while holding onto the maturity of execution he has harnessed in the later. The genuinely funny comedy sequences play out between slow burning conversations and delicate scene pacing. One moment the Doc is getting knocked out by an anonymous baton emerging cartoonishly out of frame, the next he is meeting in an atmospheric smoke filled dockyard to learn more of the mysterious boat/ dentist tax shelter/ Indochinese triad-like entity known as the Golden Fang, accomplished all in one long hovering shot.

Simultaneously enjoyable and distracting, this rather awkward combination of tones could be interpreted as a fitting representation of the period in which the story is set and, potentially, what the film attempts to work into its overall thematic statement. Set at the tail end of the 60’s, the Hippie Revolution dying, the story inhabits a world moving awkwardly from one era into the next. The big comedown after the protests of ‘68 sobered up the youth of America, who found the world was more confusing and nuanced than their goals could ever have hoped to rectify. There are snitches hiding in political activist groups, elusive drug cartels, real estate tycoons wanting to become Nazis, actors suspiciously shifting in attitudes towards communism, contracted killers carrying out the dirty work of the law. All of it somehow connecting into one Hippie nightmare of mass conspiracy.

There are even references to the Manson murders, which, along with the violent outbreak at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont 1969, helped to nail shut the coffin on the dreams of peace and love prevailing throughout the ‘60s and woke America’s counter-culture up to the futility of fighting against the confusing terror which was lurking all around. Nothing makes any sense – to the characters or to us.

At the centre of it all is Doc, a relic of an age fast departing, still clinging to his lifestyle of long unkempt hair and continual dose of narcotics, trying to make sense of the things going on around him. Even he needs to physically map out the vast band of characters in the film and their involvement with each other, as well might the audience. The film is confusing almost to the point of farce, but it is conceivably done so by design.

Whether or not Inherent Vice deserves to be treated as an auteurist text (whether it even desires it) is up for debate. There is certainly something tantalising enough beneath the surface to scratch away at, but it feels more in service of an enjoyable Labowski-esque caper as oppose to anything which tries to invoke any deep reflection after leaving the theatre.

– Dan Noall, 2015

Fire & Bach: A Video Essay On Andrei Tarkovsky

 
During his time, Tarkovsky was very much aware of film still being a young artform. In an attempt to ennoble it, he filled his films with citations from the Renaissance – both visual and auditory. Paintings appear all over his films: Hunters In The Snow is shown in both Solaris and Mirror, Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse in Ivan’s Childhood, the icons of Andrei Rublev. So too is classical music used: most notably Bach, of whom Tarkovsky was a great fan (‘Andrei Tarkovsky’, Sean Martin, p. 1926). The theme to Solaris is a reworking of part of Ich ruf’ zu, Herr Jesu Christ by Edward Artemiev, and his final film, The Sacrifice, uses a section from Matthäus Passion. Interestingly, the latter can be heard being briefly whistled by the Writer at one point during Stalker.

Despite his striking visual language, Tarkovsky was never interested in symbolism in his films. “Why the repeated images of wind, fire and water? I really don’t know how to deal with such questions.” (Tarkovsky: Films, Stills, Polaroids & Writings, p. 31). But just as The Zone carries with it a weight of deeper meaning just by its very conception, perhaps so too do these elemental images. Particularly fire, which seems to swell, shrink and alter in purpose over the course of his work. At times a beacon of warmth, or an instrument of prayer, and at others a force of destruction and chaos. The film which seems to capture all of these is Nostalgia, which contains contrasting sequences of both a single humble candle and a crazed protester setting himself alight.

Parody As Prophecy

Parody As Prophecy

In the first episode of I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002), during a dinner meeting with the commissioning editor of the BBC, there is a scene where a creatively bereft Alan desperately clutches at straws to get back on TV by suggesting a string of bizarre, attention grabbing programme titles:

Cooking In Prison. Youth Hosteling with Chris Eubank. Monkey Tennis… Look if you don’t do it, Sky will.
(A Room With An Alan, 1997)

“Monkey Tennis” has since seeped its way into pop-cultural jargon to comically refer to the lowest common denominator of TV programming. It is a concept so ridiculous it achieves its level of satire perfectly because it always hovers just past the line of believability. But, whether the idea was arrived at independently of anyone on the development team having seen Alan Partridge or not, 2012 saw an actual cooking show set in prison reach the screens of Channel 4 – Gordon Ramsey’s Cooking Behind Bars. Fifteen years after the joke was made, it would appear Alan Partridge’s absurd joke managed to enter the straight-faced realms of reality. This is just one instance of what has become a growing phenomenon of satire from the past gaining a kind of prophetic quality with age, becoming unsettling foreshadowers of the future of modern culture. In their time they seemed absurd, but examining them retrospectively suggests that the trajectory of modern culture was fated for their fulfilment.

Alan Partridge first appeared on the radio news parody show On The Hour (1991-1992), the start of a long line of endeavours co-creator Chris Morris took into deriding the way news was presented. The concept eventually made its way onto television in the form of both The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997-2001). Visual gags about the news ensued, chiefly criticising the news’ use of, and over-dependency on, garish graphics by taking them to their comically ridiculous extreme. From the overly epic opening titles to the convoluted and illogical statistics graphics, Brass Eye in particular was focused at deriding news programming’s incessant pandering to audiences through their use of flashy visuals substituted for straightforward content and facts.

 

Although Brass Eye was cancelled in 2001, the level of absurdity of actual news graphics seemed to develop far beyond that of the satire itself. As Charlie Brooker points out in the Screenwipe (2006-2008) clip below, they are a bombastic art form that “actively distract you from the information they’re supposed to convey.” Looking at the CGI helicopter floating in front of Jeremy Thompson in 2008, it makes a graph composed out of foxes heads on sticks from 1997 seem less absurd than it should.

 

The mention of Charlie Brooker leads us to further examples of this phenomenon. Morris was joint scriptwriter with Brooker on the severely underappreciated comedy Nathan Barley (2005), which aimed to satirize the culture surrounding the media industry but now almost looks like a blueprint for the rise of hipster culture and social obsessiveness over the cutting edge. “It’s been out for three weeks in Japan. Where’s yours?” Barely says of his new phone, the Wasp T12, which has both a camera and primitive music ‘app’ function, a full two years before the iPhone revolution. The stupid fashion senses now seem closer to mirroring rather than exaggerating the ‘uniform individuality’ of styles typically found with inner city anti-conforming creative types.

left: a hipster, right: screenshot from Nathan Barley.

left: a hipster, right: screenshot from Nathan Barley

Ten years on so much of Nathan Barley seems commonplace its difficult to distinguish the show’s inventions from the already existent without a timeline of technological advancements. Barely is a self obsessed “media node” who delivers a regular video blog to his website, trashbat.co.ck, predating YouTube and ultimately predicting an entire online culture of ‘Youtubers’ who gather enormous followings just through speaking to camera (Pewdiepie, Jenna Marbles etc). Brooker has gone on record explaining that it was Morris who was insistent to include this aspect of the show, which, along with his involvement in Brass Eye, suggests that he may inadvertently hold the ability to tap into a forecast of cultural change (source).

When faced with these examples it is difficult to put away the famous quote by Marx in reference to history repeating itself: “first as tragedy then as farce” (Karl Marx: Selected Works, vol. 2, 1942). But it would appear that these two states have the ability to reverse in their occurrence. Here we first have the farce, then the tragedy is in its fulfilment within reality.

An interesting comparison to draw on this phenomenon is with the genre of science fiction. Sci-fi has a long history of accurately predicting the future, be it the video calls from Metropolis (1927), earphones described in Fahrenheit 451 (1953), wireless earpieces from Star Trek (1966), the personalised adverts in Minority Report (2002) or the multitude of predictions made by Arthur C Clarke (source).

The differences between satire and science fiction are obvious, but boiled down to their elements they bare the same core intention: to use exaggerated forms of reality to comment upon the everyday. It is one of the many great virtues of fiction: to tell lies in order to tell the truth. But whereas science fiction often aims to project forward and thereby makes estimations on technological and social advancements, satire seeks to ridicule the present with a ludicrous version of it. Brass Eye (1997-2001), The Thick Of It (2005-2012), Not The Nine O Clock News (1979-1982), Yes Minister (1980-1988), all of them are grounded in the (then) present day, amplifying elements to ludicrous extremes in order to expose and mock them.

This is where the depression lies. Seeing as the act of satire is to raise elements of reality to comical levels, the act of it coming true bares so many more distressing implications than that of science fiction. When the bizarreness of reality surpasses that of its own satire, it not only suggests a further demise of those elements originally mocked but it also suggests a demise in the quality of satire itself. Charlie Brooker’s very first project, the website TV Go Home, which listed a fake TV programme schedule, came to an end when Brooker saw the legitimate show Touch The Truck (2001), a game show where a group of contestants sought to win a truck by attempting to keep their hand on it the longest. Brooker has stated that television at that point had become far more bizarre than anything he could imagine to ridicule it, and so felt it was time to stop (source). Indeed, when the most ludicrous form of something already exists, what reason is there to mock it? Its mere existence is the mockery, one need only to point at it and the goals of satire have been hollowly achieved.

Perhaps a ‘futureproof’ approach to satirise the present day is to blend both comedy and science fiction together. By looking back from a contrived futuristic standpoint it is possible to comment on the modern day through a ludicrous writing of human history. Futurama (1999-2013) was one of the best at handling this, the episode with a robotic reincarnation of Richard Nixon running as president being one of the most prominent examples. But Armando Iannucci’s short lived show Time Trumpet (2006) is another great example of the direction more comedy could take.

The show is set in the year 2031 and is formatted as an in-depth look back at early 21st century, with testimonial interviews from celebrities recalling some of the bizarre events which took place. The tone carries an influence of Brass Eye in that the jokes are in the extreme absurdity of the situations described, but holds the added asset of fake hindsight to summarise the (actual) present day era.

Just as we now are able to use hindsight to collect a group of events and social changes into a decade with a distinct ‘feel’ to it (60’s – sexual liberation and the summer of love, 80’s – baby boom and poodle rock etc.), Iannucci was able to summarise the first decade of the twenty first century while it was still playing out. And the contrived testimonies relayed to the camera in the clip below paint the decade very much for what it was – a turbulent, paranoid and confused time where extremes of terrorism and political correctness clashed into a massive an ridiculous mess.

 

But even this extreme is not a failsafe. These coincidences of fiction and reality are merely that – unknowable in their true origin and only quantifiable after the fact. Who could predict the next ‘Cooking In Prison’? To us these concepts remain amusingly implausible until the moment they exist. If parody can be embedded with prophecy then it is certainly written in an elusive and unrecognisable print.

Daniel Noall (2015)