“Remember what Mr. Halloran said…”

This is probably my favourite moment in a film full of unforgettable, classic scenes. Little Danny has just encountered the Grady girls for the second time, and seen the horrifying evidence of their fate. We cut to the rear view of his tricycle in the hallway, now empty and bloodless once more, and then back to his face. His voice quavers. “Tony… I’m scared…” (More so than in any other scene in the film, Danny is acting as a sort of audience surrogate and spokespiece. We’re scared too, kid.) And then “Tony” responds:

It’s just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn’t real.

I love the idea of the Overlook Hotel apparitions being comparable to “pictures in a book” – or, to take the analogy to an even more self-referential level, to frames in a film. One of the great things about The Shining is how ambiguous the film is about whether the eerie goings on are inherent to the house in how it has retained shadows and echoes of its disturbing past, or whether it’s primarily in the heads of the tense and isolated Torrance family. But what is quite clear is that the two girls, the blood in the elevator, the inhabitant of room 237, etc. are just harkening back to past traumas (whether literally, in the case of the Gradys, or more metaphorically). They’re only images, and in a physical sense, they’re harmless.

And yet we don’t cut to the “Monday” title card right after Tony speaks. “It isn’t real”. But the look on that Danny gives the camera for the next three seconds is anything but reassured: He understands the nature of what he’s seen, but on some instinctual level, this five-year-old child also knows that even images, thoughts, and memories have deep implications and great power. What he’s seen may not be real, but his fear certainly is. Very few of Kubrick’s decisions, whether visual or editorial, are random or without significance. These three seconds serve to show us how Danny feels, but they also provide the scene with its deepest meaning. Danny’s expression completes the idea of which Tony’s line was only the first half.

I’m reminded of a line from another Kubrick film, courtesy of Anthony Burgess. In A Clockwork Orange, while Alex undergoes the Ludovico technique, Malcolm McDowell’s calm, literary voiceover tells us that “it’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” And albeit with a slightly different meaning, David Cronenberg said something similar in Videodrome: “Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

A film does not tell the factual truth. A film does not depict events in the way we physically experience them. In these respects, a film is not “real”. The Shining is a work of fiction. But, like all the greatest stories and works of art in any medium, The Shining frightens us, intrigues us, engages us, and moves us. If fictional, “unreal” things have no relavence and  cannot affect us, than why tell stories at all?

Through this line and Danny’s reaction to it, Stanley Kubrick is acknowledging the artifice of fiction while simultaneously demonstrating its power. It is a beautiful little piece of self-reflexive commentry on what the audience experiences when we watch a film like this one. And on a very basic level, what Kubrick is communicating so simply and concisely is the idea behind the functionality and purpose of not only horror cinema, but of all art.

A very appropriate response.


a few closing notes, something I’ll probably start including at the end of my shorter essays: 

- I just love Danny Torrance so much. He’s such a sweet, tragic, unsettling character. And Danny Lloyd’s focused, intense, natural performance is even more impressive when you take into account that he didn’t really know what was going on. He didn’t even know he had made a horror film for a good ten years after production. My interest in the children of cinema isn’t so much a soft spot as it is a very intense, specific focus – I know that I want to work with kid as a filmmaker. Danny is one of my favourite examples of a compelling character created by a young actor who was still sheltered from the more disturbing aspects of the story he was helping to tell.

– A recent child performance that brought Danny Lloyd to mind is Pierce Gagnon in Rian Johnson’s Looper. (Which you should all see if you haven’t, by the way, because it’s awesome.) As Cid, Pierce had a similar intense, focused, emotive presence. There aren’t that many characters so young who are so convincingly eerie yet so genuinely unaffected and childlike.  I really hope Gagnon continues acting, unlike Lloyd, because I want to see kids like him (and adults too, for that matter!) in the movies. Plus, doesn’t the 3′ 10″ height on his IMDB profile just melt your heart? 

- I was prompted to write this post because I’m going to a 35mm screening of The Shining tomorrow night. Being near a rep cinema at the end of October is a wonderful thing. It’s my very first time seeing a Stanley Kubrick film in its natural, intended environment (hey, I was born in 1995!). Needless to say, I am SO excited.

– If you, like me, find detailed, thoughtful, scholarly deconstruction of The Shining to be the most fascinating thing EVER, you should check out Rob Ager’s 21-chapter analysis. I stumbled upon it by accident a while ago and devoured it in one night. I don’t neccessarily buy every single one of his interpretations – or rather, I don’t think his interpretations are the only valid reading of the film – but they’re all very logically,  convincingly presented. (He does not bring up the infamous moon landing conspiracy, as far as I recall!) And many of his observations and deductions made me look at the film with an even deeper understanding and appreciation for what Kubrick and his team created.

“Is your green army jacket the only thing keeping you warm tonight?”

I don’t know about you, but as cinema steadily extends its tendrils into every aspect of my life, I find myself looking to movies for fashion inspiration more and more. A lot of my favourite clothing – or, let’s be honest, the clothing I’d wear if I had unlimited money with which to pay for it – reminds me of my favourite films. I know a lot more about film than I do about fashion, but to me, fashion seems to be an art that’s constantly drawing inspiration from various sources, and cross-referencing, collaging, combining, and re-inventing. And clothing in movies is more exciting and inspiring for me than clothing seen on the street or in a magazine. Maybe it’s because the films I love and why I love them are such an important part of my life and identity, or maybe it’s because film is an art form populated by individuals with inner conflicts and attitudes and personal narratives…

Take, for instance, one of my personal favourite wardrobe staples, the striped sweater. When you look to art and pop culture for style inspiration, it’s not just a striped sweater… it could be a 1960′s Parisian enchantress – Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle or Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, or it could be Freddy Krueger, or Bob Dylan circa 1965, or perhaps Bert and Ernie. It’s a piece of clothing that looks cool on you, but also comes with a history, a catalogue of moods and stories for you to draw from, if you wish.

Fashion icons, definitely.

It’s not about transforming into someone else, at an entertainment convention or the midnight release of the next Harry Potter or on Halloween or any other time you might put together a precise and elaborate costume. And it’s not the same as referencing something you love with your clothing, as is the case with my brother’s Los Pollos Hermanos t-shirt or the Gonzo pin on my backpack. When you look to the movies or television for style inspiration and pick out pieces with a character in mind, you’re taking whatever it is that attracts you to that story or that individual – whether it’s the facets of their character or narrative that you relate to or find compelling, your nostalgic or specific attatchment to the work itself and the circumstances you saw it in, or a purely aesthetic enjoyment of the look and its connotations – and genuinely making it your own.

Rookie Mag has a delightful recurring column called “Secret Style Icon”, in which they take musicians or vintage celebrities or girls from Terrence Malick films, and talk about how their outfits have influenced their own fashion choices, complete with handy guides for where to start accumulating similar pieces yourself. (Quite a few of their other fashion-related articles reference movies, too, since these girls totally understand me.) There’s a key word here that I think is especially important when it comes to this habit of emulating cinema in your clothing – secret. You’re not walking down the street announcing that you watch such-and-such a television show or relate to such-such-a-character the way you might at a costume party. The inspiration you’ve drawn and the specific icon you’re emulating is a private affair, something you can smile to yourself about or an aesthetic or attitude you can feel connected to throughout the day. If you dress a bit like Enid Coleslaw, the average passer-by won’t see a girl who likes Daniel Clowes/Terry Zwigoff/youthful idealism crushed by disillusionment. They’ll just see a girl in a collared shirt and Doc Martens, whatever that might mean to them. In these days in which it’s become customary to share every minutiae about yourself through technology and social networking, I really appreciate the idea that what you love is part of you, whether other people know it or not.

Thora Birch in Ghost World (2001)

Alright, my spiel is over. The specific reason I wanted to write this post is because this week, I finally bought an authentic Vietnam army jacket at a surplus store. It was a pretty exciting day, let me tell you. I’ve long been entranced with the the re-appropriation military garments in a peaceful and slightly rebellious context. (I know, it’s 2012, and various subcultures have been doing this for decades and decades. That doesn’t mean I can’t still appreciate the idea!) I’ll readily admit that the primary reason I like this look is the influence various movies have had over me. And so here are my favourite green-jacketed misfits, outcasts, and upstarts of pop culture…

5. Mathilda

Natalie Portman in Léon/The Professional (1994)

This is one of my favourite, FAVOURITE movies ever and if you want to be my best friend you should probably get yourself to the video store (or Netflix? or the pirating website of your choice?) and watch it. It’s a modern fairy-tale set in 90′s New York City, about the reluctant partnership-turned-unconventional-yet-deeply touching friendship of a lonely and sweet-natured Italian hit-man named Leon and a lonely and precocious 12-year-old orphan named Mathilda. When her family is killed by a pill-popping, crooked cop – played by Gary Oldman at his most completely deranged and utterly fabulous – she enlists the help of this reclusive neighbor to teach her his trade so she can get revenge. The story might be over-the-top, but the bond between these two odd people is very believable. I think what makes The Professional work so well is this juxtaposition of shocking violence and uncomfortable themes with unabashed sentimentality. It all somehow balances out to create a touching and amusing story which still has an edge to it. The blood might be the right colour and the apartment interiors might feature an aesthetic of natural light and chipped plaster, but you’re not really supposed to examine the real-world implications of what’s happening on-screen It’s just a movie, in the fullest sense of the phrase, and I love it with my whole heart for that very reason.

But I’m rambling a bit, as I often do when I begin writing about my favourite films. Little Mathilda wears one of the coolest and most memorable wardrobes I’ve seen. Her striped v-neck, leather boots, floral skirt, and white crocheted cardigan that she wears on a cycle throughout the movie all look like items a kid like her would legitimately pick up at a Salvation Army and wear on the street. What really makes her clothing so distinctive is how she carries herself in them – this strange and somehow adorable mix of aggression, aloofness and naivete. (I have a homemade black smiling-sun choker that I wear sometimes when I want to channel her.) Her green army jacket is actually the bomber style, but it’s close enough to what I’m talking about – and as a character, she’s important enough to me – that I think she deserves a place on this list.

4. Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller

Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse Now (1979), dir. Francis Ford Coppola

I wanted to include a character from one film actually set in the Vietnam war, and I was torn between Joker from Full Metal Jacket and Tyrone. In the end, despite Joker’s sardonic commentary on the horrors he’s surrounded by and the terrible actions that he himself is implicated in, despite his fascination with the Jungian duality of man represented by the peace symbol on his jacket and “born to kill” on his helmet… I had to pick Tyrone.

He’s far more a boy than a man, a constant reminder of how the lumbering, merciless machine of war picks up and crushes everything in its path. War takes youth and innocence and corrupts before destroying. Tyrone’s only seventeen, my age. (In an oddly fitting instance of life imitating art, Laurence Fishburne was only fourteen when he got the part – he had to lie about how old he was to Coppola the way Tyrone would have had to lie to be sent overseas.) He wears dark glasses and a bandana tied around his forehead, he’s cocky and eager to prove himself, and he reads letters from his mother in the Bronx. I’m getting upset just thinking about it. He’s shot down on the boat by an enemy on shore that we can’t even see. It’s interesting that we’re reminded of just how young he is when he takes off the green and is bare-chested – in the jacket, he’s just another expendable soldier.

3. Ramona Flowers

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), dir. Edgar Wright

I’m including Ramona because of the combination of the coat she’s wearing at the party where Scott meets her in the flesh, and the olive-green dress she wears to the Clash at Demonhead show, at Pizza Pizza, and at the after-party where she fights Roxie. (No, I didn’t need to look any of that up. Yes, I’ve seen the movie more than eight times. What of it?) Ramona’s interesting because, from Scott’s perspective, we’re supposed to think of her as so cool, yet we’re also given more even-handed and mature insight into her own experiences as a person. You get the sense that she doesn’t really perceive herself to be as hip as everyone seems to think she is. Her shifting hair-color is a reflection of her mood and her fickleness more than an attempt at drawing eyes. She seems far more perturbed and confused than flattered when Knives imitates her style. To Scott, she’s literally the girl of his dreams, a prize worth fighting for (again… and again… and again…) But to herself, she’s an outsider, she has as much trouble making relationships work as she does in finding legitimately nice/not evil partners, who’s “dabbled in being a bitch”and who seems to cause hurt feelings and violent conflict wherever she goes. She’s such a cool girl, but she’s an insecure and self-deprecating cool girl. She’s a great character – I love that Bryan Lee O’Malley (and Edgar Wright, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) managed to create a central love interest that acknowledges and then rejects the incredibly annoying and reductive Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope. Plus, her tough-girl fashion style is fantastic – hence her placement on this list.

2. Lindsay Weir

Linda Cardellini in Freaks and Geeks (1999), created by Judd Appatow

The only way I could be more similar to Lindsay is if I was born in 1964, or perhaps if I got to be best friends with James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen. The green army jacket she always has draped around her petite sixteen-year-old represents quite a bit, to her personally and in the context of the show. It’s a kind of armor against both the neatly organized suburban world of her parents and the clique-ish and false world of her high-school peers that she’s finding increasingly frustrating. It’s her angst, a symbol of her decidedly changed identity, and also a way for an insecure and self-conscious girl to fit in with her new slacker-burnout friends. Lindsay owns her dad’s old jacket and makes it an extension of herself. I love Lindsay - Freaks and Geeks is one of the most honest fictional depictions of high school ever made, and a lot of that is due to how a real a person she comes across as. She approaches almost everything with a kind of reluctance and uncertainty, she’s angry and awkward but also intelligent and genuinely good-hearted. When I wear my jacket and look like her, it’s not so much an emulation as it is an admission of our kinship.

1. Travis Bickle

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), dir. Martin Scorsese

Undoubtedly the most iconic owner of a green army jacket in cinema history. (I can actually trace my own desire to get one directly to the day I first saw this film.) Taxi Driver is a film about many things, but an important subtext is how war can destroy a human psyche. It was made and set in New York city directly after the Vietnam war. The war weighs heavily on the consciousness of the film’s protagonist, and is thus inevitably on the mind of the viewer.

Travis is a young veteran, a former U.S. Marine who’s back home on honourable discharge. He can’t sleep, he’s taking various pills constantly, and he’s unable to reintegrate into society or to empathize with other people on a basic, normal level. He’s weighed down by  the ugliness he sees in the streets he drives through, and a rejection caused by his caustic cluelessness and maladjustment leads him to elect himself for a higher purpose. (I find it fascinating that he recruits himself to eliminate a very visible evil close to home, when in the past he was presumably recruited to fight unseen enemy forces far away. Interesting implied parallelism, Mr. Schrader.) He wears his jacket at nighttime on his route, as he sits alone in seedy theatres, as he walks the streets, as he attempts assassination. The only scenes in which he’s seen without it, as far as I can remember, are when he’s training in his apartment… and when he’s trying to woo the angelic Betsy as an ordinary man in a blazer and pleat-front khakis.

There’s very little verbal or otherwise direct discussion of his military past or the source of his PTSD and violent urges in the film – instead, his green jacket serves as an external indicator of the man within. The badges and patches on his arm and chest and the “BICKLE” stencilled on his back are a silent reminder of where Travis has come from, while the weapons concealed beneath the jacket and inside the heavy boots tell us what he’s capable of.

TIFF 2012

The Toronto International Film Festival began yesterday. For the next week and a half, I have to endure the knowledge that almost all of my favorite filmmakers and actors and almost all of the most exciting new movies are just a six-hour drive and several thousand dollars in exclusive festival passes and screening tickets away… just out of reach enough to be truly frustrating. But rather than focus on how much I wish I was in Toronto right now, instead, I’m focusing on the positives – that this festival confirms the existence and close proximity of a lot of fantastic film projects that have hitherto only existed for me in the form of brief press releases and the occasional set photo. And so I’m going to present to all of you the 15 films screening at TIFF that I’m looking forward to seeing. Out of this year’s lineup, these are the features that most intrigue, entrance, and excite me.

Antiviral, dir. Brandon Cronenberg

I love good dystopic premises, especially when they’re daring and timely and cynical. This film is about a future in which the public’s obsession with celebrity is so out-of-control that there’s a whole industry that injects clients with diseased matter harvested from the famous to create a “biological communion”. DUDE. It’s also the debut film from Brandon Cronenberg, and while it’s very clear that he shares his father’s fondness for gruesome satire, I’m very interested to see if he has his own distinct talents and voice as a filmmaker.

Byzantium, dir. Neil Jordan

Vampire films can go in any number of possible directions. Serious and artful, serious and deriviative, ridiculous and clever, ridiculous and dull, etc. My interest in this project is mostly due to Saoirse Ronan’s involvement, since I absolutely love her acting. The mother-daughter dynamic also sounds quite promising. Even if it’s more The Lost Boys than Let the Right One In, I hope it ends up being an engaging combination of elements. (Side note: Twilight notwithstanding, there is clearly still hope for the vampire sub-genre, since Jim Jarmusch is making a film within it…)

Amour, dir. Michael Haneke

This film made a huge impression at Cannes, and while I admit the story of an elderly couple contemplating mortality isn’t neccessarily the most relavent to my 17-year-old experience, I’m interested to see it. Haneke is a very talented filmmaker and it’s exciting that he’s exploring his more humane and compassionate side.

Ginger and Rosa, dir. Sally Potter

1960′s British setting + exploration of young female friendship + Elle Fanning + personal stories and experiences as a reflection and representation of a greater cultural context = Talia is very, very motivated to give your movie a chance.

Stories We Tell‘s director Sarah Polley

Probably the most distinctly Canadian film on this list, as Sarah Polley’s first foray into the documentary involves her own family history. She’s an extremely talented young filmmaker with a sincere and thoughtful vision. This should be good.

Seven Psychopaths, dir. Martin McDonagh

Really awesome ensemble cast, very funny trailer. In Bruges was a sort of existential crime dramedy, a bizarre blend of dark comedy and introspective, brutal drama. It’s not clear whether the tone we’ll get with Martin McDonagh’s follow-up, but that’s part of what makes me anticipate it. The screenwriter element and the self-aware title promises a meta-level. And I’m not one with the willpower or cynicism to resist a film whose premise involves a spoiled Shih Tzu kidnapped by gangsters.

Argo, dir. Ben Affleck

Sure, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Ben Affleck’s previous movies. But this is about an elaborate, desperate scheme to use filmmaking to save lives during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. That is a fantastic premise. And based on reactions to the film so far, it’s going to be intense and suspenseful and satirical and something we really shouldn’t miss. And Bryan Cranston’s in this movie, guys. Bryan Cranston.

The Place Beyond the Pines, dir. Derek Cianfrance

I don’t know that much about this movie, other than it’s a crime drama with motorbikes, a young man self-justifying crime with good intentions, and… pine trees? I do know that director Derek Cianfrance works really well with Ryan Gosling. Their first film together was Blue Valentine, a doomed love story with a non-linear narrative construction and filled with lovely images, aching sincerity, and brutal emotional and physical honesty. I’m extremely eager to see what this guy can do with a different sort of story. Plus, how can you not love Gosling’s new look for the film? I want a pair of skull-and-crossbones pyjama pants to pair with a red leather jacket.

Smashed, dir. James Ponsoldt

The performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul look really great. Films about addiction and damaged relationships are never easy to watch, but then again, I’m not really the sort of viewer who lets that intimidate her…

Room 237, dir. Rodney Ascher

I’m not sure what I’m more excited to see: carefully constructed deductions about The Shining‘s subtext that I’m already familiar with and agree with fulheartedly, or bizarre conspiracy theories by obsessives who’ve put more time and thought into the details and possible correlations than even Stanley Kubrick ever did.

What Maisie Knew, dir. Scott McGehee

Julianne Moore is one of my favourite actresses. But what draws me most to this film is its premise, exploring a theme that’s extremely fascinating to me on both a narratological and personal level – young children, aware of more than they’re given credit for, observing and assessing the adult world they’re implicated in. It’s a modern adaptation of a Henry James novel with the same title, that I’m a little embarrassed I haven’t read yet. I need to get to a library.

Anna Karenina, dir. Joe Wright

I admit I haven’t read Tolstoy’s novel yet, either – it’s sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for a day when I’m ready to tackle something daunting. But I can’t think of too many modern directors who have such visual panache and a such a keen appreciation for the purely aesthetic as Joe Wright. I’d call his sensibilities as a filmmaker painterly, but his compositions aren’t static in their beauty, they’re full of life and soaring movement and yearning emotion. Atonement remains one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It was great to see Wright go in a different direction with Hanna, and that violent pop-art fairytale is one of my absolute favourite films from last year. But his return to period pieces looks like it’ll be intoxicating.

Rebelle, dir. Kim Nguyen

I didn’t even know about this film until I saw the trailer at my local rep cinema, and it absolutely floored me. The cinematography looks stunning, the subject matter harrowing yet essential. The authenticity of Kim Nguyen’s approach (filming in the Congo, spending ten years collecting narratives from actual child soldiers), etc., as well as what I’ve seen and read about the film, leads me to hope that his story of this young girl forced into a horrific lifestyle is a personal, thoughtful account that couldn’t be farther away from the presumption and ulterior motives of “Kony 2012″ faux-activism. I have a feeling that this film will be an incredibly, genuinely moving experience. The fact that this filmmaker is from Montreal is another personal motivator for me – really good Canadian cinema that makes an impact makes me proud.

Looper, dir. Rian Johnson

This is definitely the 2012 film that I’ve always been most excited for. I think Rian Johnson is an ingenious filmmaker, for a lot of reasons, particularly his ability to work within in the confines of a genre and tell stories that look and feel completely fresh, and his innate sense of the rhythm of image, sound and movement. He’s a very intelligent writer, too, and it’s hard to put my finger exactly on why the atmosphere and location of his films appeals to me so much, but I just adore their look. Brick is one of my favorite movies of all time, The Brothers Bloom was clever and fun and gets better upon ever re-watch. And now he’s making a time-travel movie! There are a few things, other than my love of the director and his style, that make this a tremendously exciting film. For one, it’s a story whose premise is dependent on future technological developments, but the majority of the action is set in the premise. This neatly avoids any Back the Future 2 goofiness, sure, but it also lends the film a roughness and realness (dare I say “grit”?) in a very organic way. Every time-travel movie needs a distinct high-concept premise, sure, but I’m beyond confident that the way this movie will explore its premise will be both thought-provoking and exciting, not gimmicky in the slightest. Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s probably my favorite young contemporary actor, for a lot of reasons, and while I maintain that his body of work already exhibits a huge versatility, this performance is going to be literally transformative. I’m so excited for this movie that I could go on for paragraphs, but I suppose I should save it all for when I’ve actually seen the film and have even more to say.

The Master, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Where do I even begin? It’s the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson (or PTA, as us film-lovers affectionally call him), and the very existance of a new film from the man who made Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood is cause for celebration in the streets, as far as I’m concerned. On paper, this film is about the founding of Scientology. But I don’t think that Anderson’s been so consistently, deliberately vague about the film’s historicity out of mere coyness. The establishment of a specific religious cult will form the setting and subtext, whereas what we might call subtext in another filmmmaker’s work will be the real focus of the film. I can’t wait to see him take that same sensation of aggressively odd atmosphere and inexplicable dread that made There Will Be Blood so brilliant and apply it to a tale of corruption and charisma and the power behind religion structures and the search for identity in a post-war world. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman both look hypnotic and terrifying. It’s going to be SO GOOD. And I might as well call it now – it will feature the most unbearably beautiful, precise, and masterful cinematography of any movie this year. The only thing that’s detracting from my thrilled and feverish anticipation is the sad fact that I won’t be able to see the film projected in 70mm in my city.

Same here, man. Same here.

“Everything begins and ends at precisely the right time and place.”

Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), dir. Peter Weir

This film is delicate, lovely, and mysteriously elusive. It is also, without a doubt, one of the eeriest, most frightening films I have ever seen. Its premise is simple – on Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of Australian schoolgirls enjoy a day trip to a local “geological marvel”. Three of the girls and their teacher climb the rock and disappear forever. In the aftermath of the tragedy, those affected search for answers.

On paper, so to speak, the film’s imagery and tone might seem in line with other so-called period pieces. Beautiful, virginal adolescents in frilly white frocks. Gently swelling classical music. Natural light, a soft colour palette.  The cinematography is incredibly skillful – careful compositions and slow pans that are artful without being distracting.

But there are a few moments in which this thick, dreamlike and deceptive calm is ruptured. These moments are extremely jarring, and are the closest the film ever gets to the “horror” classification which has sometimes been given to it. The truth is that this film is impossible to classify or pigeonhole neatly into a certain genre.

Yet the calm can be frightening as well. The rock itself is a presence that looms over the countryside and over the film, silent and massive and unmoving, yet weirdly sentient… the volcanic formations, the crevices, and the crags seem to gaze right back at the girls, at the camera, and at us.

In part what is so fascinating about Hanging Rock is the way the girls, with their delicately civilized loveliness, contrast with the primal, ancient, untamed, sublime beauty of the rock itself. They’re people who are unsuited to their surroundings on an essential level.

In the wake of the disappearance, we spend time with the girls’ peers, their teachers, and others in their lives, as the event weighs down upon the community. Michael, the wealthy young man who becomes obsessed with the vanished girls after a chance encounter on the Rock on the day of the picnic; little Edith, the “dumpy” younger classmate who is so overcome by an incomprehensible terror that she leaves the three and runs screaming down the rock; Mrs. Appleyard, the prim, cruel headmistress who seems to care more about her school’s reputation and the preservation of propriety than for the fate of her students; poor, sad, abused Sara, the orphan girl who serves as a sort of school scapegoat… these are characters every bit as memorable and haunting as doomed Miranda and her two companions.

The mystery is never solved, but that’s as it should be. There is something so much more terrifying about the absolutely unknown – something unexplainable by either science or the supernatural – than in any story of kidnapping, murder, rape or tragic accident. The clues and symbols add up, not into a solved puzzle, but into something more abstract…

Picnic at Hanging Rock leaves you with a feeling that is as difficult to describe as it is impossible to shake. It is profoundly unsettling, but there is also a kind of sweetness to the haunting grief it evokes. What’s really remarkable is that it is impossible to directly trace the source of the feeling of unease experienced from the opening shot to the closing credits. You can’t point to a certain shot or bit of music or cryptic phrase as the reason for the strange feeling. In that way, the film truly transcends the sum of its parts. I look forward to revisiting the film as an adult – I feel that it’s the kind that reveals different things as you grow and change.

It’s tempting to scour the film for clues and to analyze the subtext to find some clear message – certainly, themes of budding sexual desire, fascination, prim society, and the civilized fear of the wild and unknown are hinted at, and often present. But I think such a clinical evaluation would be doing it a disservice. The way the the film deliberately avoids providing clear and easy answers is an essential part of the experience. By telling a mystery story without resolution and creating such a powerful yet inexplicable response in the viewer, Peter Weir elevates his tale into the realm of the allegorical.

Here are images from the film.

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I’m the hero of this story, I don’t need to be saved

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

There’s a lot in Moonrise Kingdom that I could choose to write about, but there is one scene in particular that has lingered in my mind over the past few weeks. During one of Sam and Suzy’s wilderness heart-to-hearts, they’re talking about the loss of Sam’s parents. Suzy reveals a secret dream. “I’ve always wanted to be an orphan”, she announces with naïve sincerity. “Most of my favourite characters are. I think your lives are more special.” Sam regards her gravely through his dark-rimmed glasses. “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

This has got to be one of the greatest exchanges that Wes Anderson has ever written. On the surface, it has all the wry humor and endearing bluntness that characterizes much of his dialogue. But like the best of his writing, it is also very revealing on an emotional level. Sam knows that real orphanhood is lonely and painful, but in her innocence, Suzy has been beguiled by an overused fictional trope – the glamorous independence of the orphan girls in her young-adult fantasy library books.

The tendency that Suzy reveals in this exchange is one that is easy to identify in literally all of Wes Anderson’s previous work. Since the late nineties, he has specialized in portraying precocious, alienated children and the melancholy, maladjusted adults they become. These characters in his films are all extremely self-aware. This trait can take the form of deadpan pontificating á la Max Fischer (“Yes, but I’ve been at sea for a long time…”), or of a painful knowledge of their own emotional states. This self-awareness also extends to the stories they’re in – or rather, to the stories they aspire to live.

Suzy’s longing for orphanhood places her in the good company of virtually all of Wes Anderson’s previous protagonists. They share a desire for the adventurous, special, fantastical – they desperately long to transcend the mundane, to be the sort of person that books are written about.  Wes Anderson’s characters are players in the elaborately constructed tableaus that the filmmaker has designed. But on a diagetic level, they are also more than pieces. They’re sentient – they feel as though they’re without a story, without grander characteristics, and so they must take the initiative to place themselves into narratives that, within the world of the film, are very much of their own construction.

(It’s interesting to note that Suzy is by far the youngest to exhibit what I like to call Storybook Hero Syndrome. The majority of the culprits are well into adulthood. But this isn’t surprising – Wes Anderson’s grownups are frequently far more childish than his children.)

Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket (1996)

It’s fitting that the first example of this can be found in Wes Anderson’s first film. In Bottle Rocket, a young-ish man named Dignan convinces his friends Anthony and Bob to join him in an elaborate plan to become robbers. From the film’s first scene, he’s completely committed to the fantastic narrative he’s molding his life around – for instance, although Anthony is free to leave the hospital he’s checked himself into at any time, he has to depart through the window and climb down the sheets he’s tied together to play along with Dignan’s elaborate escape plan. It’s also very telling that Anthony is in the hospital because he has been driven to the point of anxiety and “exhaustion” by the simple choices presented to him in his mundane life. The guys try to become criminals in an attempt to assuage their 90′s suburban ennui.

In Rushmore, the Storybook Hero Syndrome is a little less obvious, but definitely present. Max Fischer is a boy who has embraced the role he’s constructed for himself to the fullest, but his commitment to “putting on plays and starting up clubs”, to being the leader and mastermind behind every conceivable extra-curricular, has the unforeseen consequence of alienating those nearest to him. His illusions of grandeur in the form of a giant aquarium get him expelled from his beloved school. And in his relationship/one-sided romance with the kind, widowed teacher Rosemary, he’s fighting for an imagined goal that has to remain vague and undefined even to himself in order to maintain the illusion.

He’s an imaginative and sometimes slightly delusional fifteen-year-old, but his (mel0)dramatization of the situations in his life to grant himself a sense of self-importance is somehow understandable. This could be said about all the characters I’m discussing, but there’s something about Max that makes him endearing and his delusional foibles sweet even in his most stubborn moments. (Maybe that’s just my very emotionally biased opinion, though – Rushmore isn’t just my favourite of Wes’s films, it’s the movie that’s closest to my heart and probably my favourite of all time, were it even possible to pick such a thing.) At any rate, there’s one image from the film in particular that sums up for me how Max fits into this pattern I’m seeking to identify:

Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore (1998)

He’s just been arrested, and as the stoic policemen escort him through the station, he grimaces and sneers with the defiance of a hardened criminal. In reality, he’s a just kid (“5’2, brown hair, oval face”) who’s been reported for cutting the brake lines on his rival’s car. It’s a hilarious image, but it rings true because it’s evident that Max takes the war of sabotage he’s engaged in and these legal consequences – as he does everything in his life -very, very seriously.

His worst fault  - one that he in many ways overcomes – is that he’s too self-aware and not sensitive enough to others, and his worst mistake is failing to put his role and world at Rushmore and his relationship with Rosemary in the proper perspective. But the narrative he aspires to is perhaps the most achievable of any on his list – he is a genuinely gifted, talented kid withnatural leadership skills. And he does eventually build that aquarium.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, the self-created narrative in question can be distilled to the three words that grace the cover of Etheline Tenenbaum’s memoir. But the character who longs for specialness, for his own story, isn’t sitting at that table facing the reporters. In this case, our would-be Storybook Hero is drug-addicted author Eli Cash (played by Owen Wilson), their neighbour and Richie’s best friend from childhood. This “family of geniuses” is a myth that is constructed and polished by the Tenenbaums during the siblings’ youth, yet still wholeheartedly believed by Eli as an adult, even after the three child geniuses have become depressed and disillusioned adults who’ve apparently wasted their “potential”.

“The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. “Vámonos, amigos,” he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.”

Eli exhibits additional willful confusion about reality in the film. He dresses like a character from one of his ridiculous Western novels and is seldom seen without a ten-gallon cowboy hat. Near the end of the film, when he takes mescaline and ends up killing the faithful dog Buckley, he’s adorned himself in an approximation of Native American warpaint. “I need help”, he murmurs as he gazes up at the sky, flat on his back beside the fuming Chas. It’s a sad moment and a sincere one – Eli’s self-awareness has finally taken the form of an admission of what he really needs. What he wants for his entire life – “to be a Tenenbaum” – is something that even the family’s patriarch admits to having never felt.

Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

In The Life Aquatic, the protagonist’s efforts to place himself at the centre of an extraordinary narrative is the primary theme of the film. Steve Zissou is an oceanographer who stars in self-produced and directed documentary adventures about his work. He’s a meticulous creative dictator who expends much effort in ensuring his own cult following. The whimsical details of his research vessel, the matching red knit caps and pale blue outfits of his crew – everything’s been orchestrated and carefully arranged to create a distinctive image. Zissou has become so consumed by his own created persona that audiences question his sincerity in even his most real and painful moments: the film opens with the presentation of his latest documentary, which concludes with a tragic death-by-leopard-shark of his best friend and creative/research partner Esteban. The audience is so accustomed to the clearly staged mannerisms of his films that they question whether the death is real or merely a stunt for dramatic flare. (In the film in question, Zissou does pause his shouting to ask his cameraman if he’s rolling before breaking the terrible news.)

“I dropped my camera… why are they laughing?”

The emotional heart of this movie is the strained and strange relationship between Steve Zissou and Kingsley, his long-lost son. When Zissou allows Kingsley to join the crew for the revenge mission to find the shark, it’s questionable whether he really wants to bond with the man who may be his biological child, or whether he wants to add some personal interest to the adventure for the cameras. At one point, his treatment of Kingsley causes him to exclaim “You don’t know me, you don’t want to know me… I’m just a character in your stupid film!” Further evidence of Zissou’s detrimental commitment to his manufactured persona and story can be seen in his interactions with Cate Blanchett’s pregnant British journalist. At first, he fights with her as she works on her piece, angry at how she’s representin him. But near the end of the film, he reaches a sort of acceptance that his image has to be accurate to his real character: “I mean, obviously people are going to think I’m a showboat, and a little bit of a prick. But then I thought… that’s me. I said those things, I did those things. I can live with that.”

Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

The Darjeeling Limited gives us a character who, like Steve Zissou, has taken an extra step to place himself within a narrative. Jack Whitman, the youngest of three brothers on a train trip across India, writes short stories directly based on his own life experiences. (But whenever he shows his siblings what he’s written, he’s quick to insist that “all the characters are fictional!”) Out of all the character I mention in this essay, the Whitman brothers are perhaps the most self-aware. They’re constantly analyzing the trust and communication (or lack thereof) displayed in their relationships with each other. Their stated, completely unironic purpose for the trip is a “spiritual journey of self-discovery”. Francis is particular demonstrates a stubborn commitment to his own travel itinerary and idealistic goals for the trip, which definitely equates him with the other lovers of self-made narratives in Wes Anderson’s other films.

“I guess I’ve still got a lot of healing to do.”

Of course, all these fantasies that this array of characters long to live in and the narratives that they attempt to place themselves into come with a full share of hurt and confusion. But in Wes Anderson’s worldview, healing and contentment can be found not through a fictitious narrative, but through the real individuals who populate it. Dignan’s criminal aspirations may be the naïvete he needs to cope with his imprisonment, but Anthony is far more at ease when he’s fallen in love with a Peruvian hotel maid than he’s felt in his life hitherto.  Max’s elaborate plans, clubs, organizations, activities, and creative exploits come to fruition at the end of Rushmore when he works to heal his friends rather than impress them. When the myth of the Family of Geniuses has been erased by “two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster”, all that’s left of the Tenenbaums are a group of talented and troubled people who have to find catharsis through their relationships with each other. And Eli doesn’t need to be part of their famous and troubled clan, he needs to get his own life together. Zissou doesn’t destroy the shark, with dynamite or otherwise – it turns out that a (tragically brief) relationship with his abandoned son and a nonviolent, Sigur-Ros-accompanied sighting of the beast is what he really needed to reach a kind of acceptance of what happened to poor Esteban. The Whitman brothers stop feeling sorry for themselves (“It’s not very attractive”) and manage to move forward once they abandon their laminated itinerary and stop hauling around their dead father’s (literal) baggage. Sam and Suzy are happiest once the complications of their adventure as star-crossed lovers-on-the-run have been resolved. Suzy doesn’t need to lose her family and become “special”, Sam needs to gain a family.

(Side note: Bonding in Wes’ films is almost always achieved through shared trauma or mutual emotional issues: Max’s “I guess we both have dead people in our families” to Rosemary, Chas Tenenbaum’s “I’m widower myself” to his mother’s new husband Henry, the Whitman brothers’ mourning over their father and anger over their mother’s abandonment. Sam and Suzy’s closeness is perhaps the ultimate realization of this tendency – their connection is so electric because they share a pubescent wanderlust, but also because they’re both lonely children who’ve been deemed “emotionally disturbed” by their guardians and peers.)

At twelve and twelve, they’re the youngest of Wes Anderson’s protagonists to date, and their catharsis at the end of the film is the most purely hopeful. Yet their attitude towards nostalgia is also far more mature than that exhibited by any of the adults in the Anderson canon. Their private cove in which they spend an idyllic day and night together is wiped off the map by the film’s climactic storm, but it’s not implied that they’ll spend their next few years mourning  over the narrative they were once the heros of, or pining for the elusive glory days they’ve left behind. They’ll treasure the memory of Moonrise Kingdom, immortalized in Sam’s painting, and all that it represents for them. But they live in the present, and treasure their time together – after all, that’s what made the secret cove special in the first place.

The accusation of insincerity and detachment that’s frequently leveled at Wes Anderson is one that makes little sense to me. It’s true that his films are so impeccably composed and obsessively detailed that it’s easy to get lost in the color and texture of the set pieces and background. But it’s also very apparent to me that, while he evidently loves the music and the wallpaper and the family portraits and the punctuality badges and the belt buckles and the stuffed javelinas, he loves the people he understands and the characters he creates even more. This repeated theme of relationships over narrative as the source of catharsis is evidence of what I love the most about these movies. The catalogue of distinctive stylism doesn’t distract from the emotional core. ( And “contrived” as a criticism loses its weight when the characters of the film in question are constantly, intentionally contriving.) Such complete immersion into the precisely paletted, symmetrically framed world that the characters live in aids us in our understanding of who they are. The aesthetics, whimsy, and self-aware plotting of a Wes Anderson film convey its beating heart.

“I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum…”

… although a Fischer, a Zissou, a Whitman, or a Bishop would more than suffice.

Last night, I went to see Moonrise Kingdom. I’ll be writing about the film in the near future – probably in great depth, given how much I adored it. For now, here’s me and my family channeling Wes Anderson characters. Yes, I pretended our walk to the cinema was in slow motion.

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I’ll leave it to you to imagine (or supply) the British Invasion tune that clearly ought to be playing in the background. To be honest, I’m a little bit sad that sitting in the cinema in a vintage collared minidress is as close as I’ll ever get to actually living inside the world of Wes’ movies.

Top Ten Criterions #9: The Red Shoes

THE RED SHOES (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

I first discovered The Red Shoes when I was watching all the films that had been cited as influences on Black Swan, a very satisfying movie marathon that also included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Red Shoes  was made more than sixty years ago, but it remains one of the most visually striking, overwhelmingly beautiful films about art ever created.

Moira Shearer as Victoria Page.

The plot itself is simple, the plot of a fairytale – a parable, even. Vicky is a beautiful, talented young ballerina who stars in a ballet production of the titular story by Hans Christian Anderson. She finds herself faced with a choice – between her dancing career and the charismatic, ambitious director who discovered her talent, or the young composer she has grown to love.

“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Her own life, predictably enough, reflects the story she dances on the stage: Her red ballet shoes betray her only when love threatens to tear them apart. Just like in the fairy tale, once she puts them on (in other words, dedicates her life to art), she cannot take them off. The Red Shoes features a self-reflective narrative and is about the dangerous, obsessive totality of artistic dedication. It shows us how difficult it is for one girl to have two lives, however beautiful both love and art can be.

“…not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

But what makes The Red Shoes such an exultant experience is that it is a celebration of ballet and of cinema far more than it is a cautionary tale. The famous, prolonged dance scene is gorgeous and striking, and it had such an impact on me because it makes such incredibly effective use of it its medium. The sequence features cinematography and editing that offers a far more complete sense of what ballet is than it is possible to receive while sitting in front of a stage. The camera alternates between three perspectives. First, that of the audience – this is view of ballet that we are all familiar with. Then, Vicky’s own perspective – a rhythmically spinning, blurred view of not much at all. But the third view is, to me, the most important. It is too close, and the camera’s movement is too much of a dance itself to be something you could see while watching a ballet in person. And the images are too hallucinatory, too magical – they present our eyes and our hearts with what ballet suggests. It’s way of looking at ballet that is only possible in the movies.

Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

During the ballet of the Red Shoes itself, we are transported into a world which exists only in our heads, the world which the music and the movement and the costumes are supposed to conjure for us, purely and directly visualized in film. It’s seamlessly fantastical, a beautiful whirling vision of color and imagination and tragedy. At the very end of the ballet, the vision fades and we are shown again what the captivated audience in the auditorium sees, and then an angle from backstage. And after the applause and bow, the stark cement world of the dancers’ practice room seems cold and bare compared to the lovely visions that we have been privy to.

This movie does what all cinema should aspire to but only the best films achieve: it gave us a vision of life and art that literally only the camera can provide.