Archive for the ‘author Aaron West’ Category

When I think back to the many conversations I had with Allan about film, I think most fondly about our discussions about the French 1930s. We both shared an affinity for the period, and we had remarkably similar tastes and shared some favorite filmmakers. Of course Renoir was a typical topic, especially when it was announced the La Chienne would be joining the Criterion Collection, but our conversations seemed to gravitate more to the obscure. Julien Duvivier was the director that came up the most.

It is no secret among friends that Allan was often critical of The Criterion Collection. He was a champion of obscure filmmakers that might not be popular with the mainstream (unlike Renoir), and felt that Criterion sat on the rights of quality films because there would not be an audience. He had a good argument, one in which I could not altogether defend, but he also gave praise when needed. When Criterion announced that they were releasing the Eclipse Set, Duvivier in the 1930s, he was elated. He knew these four films and credited Criterion for bringing attention to a nearly forgotten director, with selections that were near his career peak.

My first experience with Duvivier was years ago when I saw La Belle Equipe on a YouTube stream (since removed). I later saw Un Carnet du Bal, again online through a stream (also removed), and finally saw his most celebrated noir and realist classic, Pépé le Moko on Criterion disc. With all three, I was enraptured by the richly drawn characters, the fantastic performances from stars like Jean Gabin and Harry Baur, and the use of surreal film language to punctuate such brilliantly romantic and often tragic tales. Why this filmmaker was not considered to be near the top of the decade was mind boggling, and why his work was largely unavailable was frustrating. (more…)

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by Aaron West

2004. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Directed by Michel Gondry

It seems like yesterday when I first read the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind script. Charlie Kaufman was the “it” screenwriter, having just been won over the indie world for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. As impressive as that script had been, I was assured by a cinephile friend that Sunshine was even better. I remember starting the script late at night, planning on finishing the following day. I was enraptured. Several hours later, the script was finished, and my mind was blown. I immediately considered it to be one of the finest scripts I’d ever read. I also considered it to be so high concept that it would be nearly unfilmable.

Fortunately Gondry and his stellar cast were up to the task at capturing the essence of such brilliant writing. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet embodied both the magnetic romanticism and also the tortuous misery they created for each other. We can understand why they loved and why they hated each other, why they would want to literally erase the memory of one another, and why they may fight to keep those precious memories intact.

In this countdown, we have talked about a wide range of science fiction films, with some that use it as a means of explaining a world philosophy, and other, lighter-fare that perhaps explores a foreign world or tries to withstand the attacks of a gigantic, scientifically mutated monster. Sunshine is unquestionably science fiction, but is also a bit of an outlier when compared with many of the films on this list. It more closely resembles a romantic drama, yet fits with the genre due to the clever concept. The science is a technology that may on the surface sound reasonable today – we can all wrap our brains around the idea of deleting something with a computer. (more…)

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Fantastic Planet

by Aaron West

1984. Written by Roland Topor, Stefan Wul, and René Laloux. Directed by René Laloux.

Animation is a common medium for science fiction films (as evident from this countdown) primarily because it allows filmmakers to create worlds without the constraints of budget and effects. This entry introduces an entirely different type of animation, a sort of psycho-surrealism in René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, which is comparatively abstract, unquestionably innovative, unique, dense, but eminently watchable.

There are two races in Fantastic Planet. The Draags are giant blue aliens living on the planet Ygam. Oms are humans, miniature by comparison, that also inhabit the planet. An infant Om brutally loses his mother at the hand of some Draag children, and he finds himself kept within the family as a pet. He is named Terr and is cherished by Tiva, his “owner.” He ages one year for every week of a Draag’s life, so he is soon aging into adolescence and adulthood, assimilating into Draag culture. Eventually, armed with an abundance of Draag knowledge, he escapes and settles among a group of Om dissidents. His experience proves valuable and he quickly proves his worth.

The time period in which Fantastic Planet originated is essential. Produced in the early 1970s, it is rooted in the May 1968 events in France and the subsequent navel-gazing that followed. This was a free period for young French, similar to the hippie movement in America, but perhaps a little more intellectual and leftist. There was certainly some drug use, and Fantastic Planet is known not only as a deep intellectual endeavor, but also a psychedelic experience. However artistic, the impact while under the influence has certainly contributed to its cult following.

The project originates in the artwork of Roland Topor, who was also the film’s production designer, co-writer, and creator. The animation is hand-drawn by Topor and roughly 25 other artists, many of who were experienced with Czech animation. As the first French animation feature since 1953, the project relied heavily on the Czech animation tradition and probably would not have been made without their assistance. Their aesthetic blends well with Topor’s style of art, which is at once intellectual, incendiary, and simply random. Even if the film is Topor’s brainchild, René Laloux was the force that saw the project to fruition. Even Topor credits the director with realizing his vision, and without the talented animator, the project would have never achieved a release. As Topor says in one of the Criterion supplements, it was Laloux that did the heavy lifting. (more…)

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by Aaron West

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Zéro de conduite is the most fully revealed of Vigo’s “social cinema.” Even though his anarchist politics were complicated, Zéro de conduite helps clear them up. In some respects it is a blueprint for exactly the type of anarchic revolution that Vigo longed for, yet it takes place in the unlikely setting of a young boy’s school.

The children in the boy’s home are characters that many can relate to. They push the boundaries of authority, and try to get away with whatever they can. They are into hijinx, practical jokes, and overall misbehavior. They are not a peaceful bunch, and they give it to their teachers at every opportunity, whether to their face or behind their backs. The only exception is Monsieur Huguet, who they find as an ally and a character that understands them.

The other teachers are impatient for any mischievousness, and they rule with an iron fist. “Zero for Conduct” is the punishment for any transgression. It means that they are not given their freedom on Sundays to visit family or friends, and instead are required to stay in school at detention. Furthermore, the teachers dole out the punishment arbitrarily and unfairly. Vigo is intending to portray this as a totalitarian state where the lower class’ (or children’s) rights are being impeded.

The children may be the goats, but they also get to be the heroes. With some assistance from the friendly teacher, they lay out plans for rebellion. The planning is carefully orchestrated and is not put into action until the authority tries to compromise one of the oppressed. It begins with an expletive, continues with a rowdy food fight, and the revolt is in progress. The children hoist their flag and march with exaltation. The sense of freedom and liberation is palpable, just as Vigo expects that it would be in reality. Even though the film is of revolution, it is combined with the exuberance of childhood merrymaking. (more…)

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by Aaron West

yi yi - child photo

The term “family epic” is not often used to describe a film, not even an art film (at least not post-Ozu). There are plenty of lengthy films about families, but few that are grandiose to share a descriptor with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia. Yi Yi is indeed a family epic film. This is not just because it has a three-hour running time, but rather because it successfully captures the scale of a multi-generation family. Instead of telling a lengthy narrative through the generations, it reveals enough about the characters in the present, by exploring them through a single, binding experience, that it is just as effective.

I chose Yi Yi as my top film for the Wonders of the Dark Childhood and Adolescence poll. This choice may seem peculiar because the film features so many characters from the family, most of whom are adults, that the children are not given the most screen time. In fact, if you were to pick a protagonist, it would probably be NJ, the father figure. However, the children’s experiences mirror and elucidate the actions of the adults, and they flesh out the characters. The children, through their innocence and naivety, also interpreted the events with a perspective that the adults are incapable of, and sometimes their silly inquiries are prescient.

Yang-Yang asks his father, “Daddy, can we only know half the truth? I can only see what’s in front and not what’s behind.” This may seem like a simple, naive question, but it speaks to how humans tend to only look forwards and not backwards. The adults in the film are reticent to look backward, yet the children experience things that the adults have also experienced. In other words that Yang-Yang might understand, if the adults could see what is in front of the children, they might see what is behind their own view. (more…)

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my life as a dog - the group

By Aaron West

(This article discusses plot points from the film that some might consider spoilers.)

Coming of age stories do not necessarily need to fit into the carefully crafted formula that has been repeated ad nauseum over the last few decades. More often than not, when they deviate from that formula, they can catch honest moments and inject personality into their work. Many of the titles thus far on this list have been the films that break these constraints. I consider My Life as a Dog to be one of these films, but the power is not in it being bold and experimental, but in being subtle and identifiable.

Many children experience hardship, although few suffer nearly the lengths that Ingemar does. The way children deal with hardship is perplexing. Their minds have often not developed or mature enough to handle it well, and as a result they experience denial, cling to a myth, or minimize their misery by comparing their own lives to those much worse. This is the route that Ingemar takes, and he does so in the form of a dog. This materializes in his ruminations about Laika, the space dog that suffered to sacrifice for mankind. It also materializes with Sickan, his lovable canine companion that he is forced to abandon. Finally, it materializes with his own behavior. Rather than face the reality of his emotions, he behaves as if he is a dog. It is not apparent whether he is embodying Laika, Sickan or both, but he is clearly trying to leave Ingemar and his misfortune behind. (more…)

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friends house

by Aaron West

Abbas Kiarostami’s introduction to the (unofficial) Koker Trilogy, Where is my Friend’s House? (also referred to as Where the the Friend’s Home? is a story of a moral journey. It parallels with one of Kiarostami’s better known films, A Taste of Cherry because they both portray the protagonist on different and morally contrasting quests. In Cherry, Mr. Badil is intent on finding someone to commit an act that may go against his morals, even if it might mean peace and an end to a man’s misery. Few wish to assist him in this act. Conversely, Ahmed, is on a journey to save his friend from suffering consequences for a mistake that Ahmed made.

Ahmed is reprimanded at school by a strict teacher for using the wrong type of paper for his homework and threatened with expulsion. While helping his friend, Nematzedeh, pick up their books, he accidentally ends up with his notebook. Having felt the pressures at school of turning in the wrong homework, Ahmed does the right thing and searches for his friend to return his notebook. The only problem is he does not know where this friend lives, only that he lives in Poshteh, which is a long ways from the school. He decides to spend his evening searching for this friend in order to return the notebook, hoping that he will find help along the way to direct him to his friend’s house.

Both films show the protagonist traveling back and forth along familiar terrain. Through the journey, they meet many individuals whose assistance they want to recruit in carrying out their task. In Cherry, it is to end one’s life; in Friend, it is to save another’s skin. Ahmed, however benevolent, is naive and confused, even lost for much of the time He is a child and helpless to find his friend without the assistance of others. The adult is self-assured, committed to the task at hand, but he also requires others to carry out his task. The child pleads for the assistance of the adults, appealing towards their good nature to help a child with a predicament, whereas the adult tries to manipulate people to do something contrary to what they believe is right with the promise of financial recompense. (more…)

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