Friday, 28 January 2011

Dancer in the Sun

As a first timer at the Sundance Film Festival, I must make several observations about the festival in comparison with other similar events that I have attended in the past few years (most notably Festival de Cannes).

1. The organisation of the festival struck me as absolutely brilliantly planned and executed. As the main venues were spread across Park City the shuttle buses were provided as a form of free transportation for the movie goers. The buses were running every 5-10 minutes, (apart from one day when the city was snowed in and I had to actually wait for the bus around 15 mins. scandalous, right?) the system that the festival has in place worked top notch. Although I do admit I'd rather want the venues within walking distance, but then the unusual location and set up of the festival is partially responsible for its charming atmosphere.

2. Programming of the festival - the programmers of the festival really know their craft; there were multiple screenings of the most interesting positions and one could always plan the festival in a way to watch 90% of the films that they were interested in.

3. Access to the screenings/ size of the venues - I bought a number of tickets through my purchase time slot, as I was a bit scared that once a screening was sold out on the website there might be no chance of getting into some of the films. I couldn't be more wrong. As was proven time and time again, there were always tickets available to the screenings; one only had to be a bit assertive in finding them. There are two ways to go about this: the first one is really conventional and requires good organisational skills. You must show up at the venue 2 hours before the screening to acquire a waiting list queue number and then come back at least 30 mins before the film to stand in line on a standby basis. The other way, which proves to be much quicker, more productive and fun is rather spontaneous. You show up at the venue any time before the film is due to start and ask people who are attending the screening if they have any extra tickets that they would wish to give away or sell. It is recommended to bring a sign indicating that you require tickets for the screening - it will save you a lot of talking and make you visible to anyone who wants to share their tickets. Out of 20 screenings I have attempted to get into, there was only one that I didn't get tickets for, and 4 of them I got into for free. Brilliant fun!

4. The films are what the festival is really about - even though the festival itself was truly a unique experience, the films unfortunately turned out to be a huge disappointment. After last year's brilliant films showcased at Sundance including ‘I Am Love' and 'Exit Through The Gift Shop', this year's line up certainly had a lot to live up to. Out of the 19 films that I watched, only two or three made a positive impression on me - the rest turned out to be either mediocre or simply unwatchable. But more about this later.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Ten Favourite Films of 2010

1. I am love (Io sono l'amore) dir. Luca Guadagnino

2. Kaboom dir. Gregg Araki

3. Dogtooth (Kynodontas) dir. Giorgos Lanthimos

4. Leap year (Ano Bisiesto) dir. Michael Rowe

5. Love Like Poison (Un Poisant Violent) dir. Katell Quillevere

6. Heartbeats (Les Amours Imaginaries) dir. Xavier Dolan

7. On Tour (Tournee) dir. Mathieu Amalric

8. Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, dupa craciun) dir. Radu Muntean

9. Exit Through The Gift Shop dir. Banksy

10. Black Swan dir. Darren Aronofsky 

Monday, 3 January 2011

TRON: Review

Watching TRON: Legacy is like conducting  an anthropological investigation of pop culture as the film turns out to be a very interesting hybrid of themes nostalgically recalling the glorious 80’s and a very 2010 (or should I say 2011) spectacle of sounds and visuals. The moment the film begins the audience is bombarded by the synthetic sounds of the Disco Era and it is indeed the audible experience that becomes the most memorable part of the film. The design of the film is also note-worthy – it certainly resembles the aesthetical approach taken by the film's predecessor – Tron (1982), but the costumes are upgraded into sleek and sexy muscle enhancements. The costumes even though weigh in on the original designs introduced by the original movie from the 80’s, are a bit more cautious about avoiding any sexual ambiguity (with the exception of Zuse probably). The distinction between male and female is quite clearly drawn by not only exposing particular body parts but also by a very clear role played by each gender's representatives in the story. At the centre of the plot stands Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an old patriarch, a father who disappears into a cyber reality where he is to create some wise programmes that will cure all problems troubling humanity. He is followed by his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) who is driven by a deep desire to get to know his father and follows his steps of wisdom. Sam exemplifies the willingness to sacrifice everything he has and finish the master plan imposed by his father, exemplifying by that some serious Jesus-like qualities. The duo is then joined by a female companion Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who is chosen by the patriarch to be granted a passage from the cyber world into the realms of Earth. But before the trinity leaves the cybernetic space they must face Clu (digitalised Jeff Bridges, almost believable) - a clone of Kevin who rebelled against him, as the film's jargon notes, 'many cycles ago' and builds an army of reproduced old programmes who will destroy the Creator's, as they call Kevin, world. All of this is just too similar to the Biblical mythology of God and Devil fighting over the salvation of human kind. Clu, just like Lucifer in the Biblical myth, was the wisest of the beings that the Creator has produced and as he was consumed by pride and jealousy, he decided to challenge the authority of the Creator. If the clunky script where every emotion or action needs to be reinforced by clear statements said out loud by each character was not clear enough about its intention to portray a battle between good and evil, the film’s creators prepared a set of aesthetics that will make any moral distinction childishly simple. The film embraces the light blue colours to symbolise the ‘good’ characters and juxtaposes them with diabolical red/orange colours surrounding the evil forces. It's all a bit too obvious and predictable, which is very sad because judging by the film's nostalgic look into the classic sci-fi sight and sound of the 80's, likes of THX-1138 and Blade Runner, not to mention the film's own predecessor, TRON: Legacy had a potential to become something truly unique but its stale script fails to achieve anything else than mediocre. The only entertaining character showcased in the film is Zuse, played formidably by Michael Sheen, whose sense of irony and sarcasm turns his cheesy lines into an outburst of humour and self-pity. I would not want to watch this film again, but will definitely listen to its soundtrack and look forward to Academy Awards hoping that the Daft Punk's ambitious re-enactment of the 80's will be granted an Oscar.

TV review: On cyborgs and gender roles

“In general, science fiction has always appealed more to men than women,” reads Encyclopaedia of library and information science. The subject of gender divide in science fiction always fascinated scholars who tried to understand what makes the genre appealing to different people. The main focus of these studies was concerned with the depiction of sexes within the science fiction stories. Later on it expanded to provide information on what men and women found attractive in these stories and how writing from authors of different genders depicted attributes of the genre in entirely different ways. It is argued that science fiction is the genre that marks the human psyche of the 20th century. Therefore by looking at the evolution of the genre, we might be able to understand the social changes that made our world what it is today.

Arthur S. Barron in his essay Why do scientists read science fiction? points out a couple of reasons why men might be attracted to the genre much more than women. He argues that the biggest disadvantage of the genre is that it can be found attractive to the reader only viewed as sociologically involved. It lacks any insight into human emotion or motivation from the literary point of view. But it is the glamorisation of the scientist that wins the hearts of men. “Like other conventional heroes,” writes Barron, “the scientist-hero senses danger with great courage, confronts obvious evil and conquers it, and enjoys the attention of several beautiful women.” The absence of romance and emotional involvement leaves women stranded from the genre and makes it reasonably difficult for them to buy into the seemingly shallow stories. As a result, the marginalisation of the women characters as intellectually unequal to men forced some authors to create an alternative, perhaps improving the storytelling and the genre’s objectives to make them more attractive to both sexes.

The creation of cyborgs – half-machine half-human has elevated the dispute over the role of gender to a very unique theme attributed distinctively to science fiction. “Cyborg imagery seems liberatory,” argue the authors in Science, technology and society: a sociological approach, “because cyborgs can refuse to be either human or machine, and can choose their identities and components.” Authors have used cyborgs extensively to attribute human qualities to machines and vice versa. It is the unique versatility of cyborgs that allowed the science fiction artists to discuss the subject of what makes us human in depth and address some difficult social issues without being too blunt. In the modern age of media superiority, science fiction and its use of cyborgs continues to fearlessly break the taboos of race and gender politics. As the examples listed below will attempt to prove, the sci-fi genre’s constant stare into the future helps us understand where our society stands at the moment and what issues need to be addressed to fight inequality in today’s world.

One of the most recent achievements in television drama entitled Battlestar Galactica (BSG, 2004-2009) has been reported to be probably the most exceptional piece of science fiction produced by a television network. Its colossal story arc spins with an insightful drama about the human condition and tries to answer some of the most difficult questions about the future of our society. The basic premise of the show is very simple, and one might say not that original. It is about humans who create machines that rebel against them. But the story expands with each episode revealing more and more shocking revelations about both sides of the conflict. The machines, called Cylons want to fulfil their desire to evolve. Through evolution they want to become superior to their makers. They create a new type of Cylon: a machine that looks and feels exactly like a human. These new Cylons hatch a plan and at the very start of the series, nuke the human civilisation to the point that there are only 50,000 humans left.

The show portrays strong female characters on both sides of the conflict. The first human Cylon that the audience is being introduced to is a beautiful blond femme fatale named “Six”, whose sex-appeal serves to deceive the humans that she encounters on her journey. The way the cyborg is presented to us relates to some very old-fashioned ideas science fiction has at its core. The beautiful woman seems to be fascinated with a scientist who holds the key to human survival. The portrait of the scientist in BSG relates to what was written by Barron. The scientist’s intellect attracts a beautiful woman and transforms him into a much more interesting being than what he could possibly otherwise. But BSG is not trying to perpetuate old stereotypes of science fiction drama; quite frankly it’s trying to break away from them. As previously mentioned, BSG presents some other very strong female characters, and apart from the beautiful Six, the story introduces us to some other women Cylons who strike with glamour and intellect, but also human empathy and wisdom.

What about male Cylons? Is their agenda any different from the one held by their female counterparts? The show is trying to escape from the general male domination of the science fiction drama that set the standards in the past. The Cylons are presented as a collection of mixed sexes to highlight the universality of their fight. The Cylons are declaring war as revenge for the maltreatment they had to suffer in the past. This introduces a very stimulating dichotomy, letting the viewer decide whom to support in the conflict.

Cylons don’t define themselves on sexual grounds. Their idea of evolution is to be equal to one another and that is thought to make them better than their human opponents, who at various points in the series declared martial law. Yet the conflicts presented in BSG are allegories which can be interpreted on many grounds – one could be understood directly as a military conflict, but it could as well be a metaphor for sexual injustice.
Towards the end of the story, the Cylon cohesion splinters, and about half of the Cylons form an alliance with the human military, much to the dismay of many of the civilians. However over time they learn how to relate to each other and resolve their issues by putting their pain behind them and starting a new chapter of peace with one another. The show produces its own universal solution to resolving conflicts, and uses the image of cyborgs as a metaphor of the oppressed who learn how to forgive. In the end, it is shown that humans and Cylons have a symbiotic relationship; one could not survive without the other. That this happens only after the human/Cylon alliance nukes the other Cylon faction into oblivion is perhaps a foreboding warning for our own time.

BSG was not the only show that appeared on TV screens in recent years to redesign the old fashioned concepts in sci-fi storytelling. Dollhouse created by Joss Whedon is a masterful mixture of some familiar ideas with exceptional narration and plot entanglement. The story of people who are programmed to be someone else has been used many times in the past. What is very special about Whedon’s reinvention of the concept is his powerful dramatisation and character development. His ways of approaching the subject feel very fresh and tend to surprise the viewer with every episode. The main theme of the show deals with the possibilities of the human brain – the subconscious abilities to adapt different skills and personalities in a matter of a single click. ‘Dollhouse’ is a hidden place where people have technology embedded into their brain, and are being wiped of their memories, ready for a new persona. In other words, a doll – a state of being that truly exemplifies the term ‘tabulsa rasa’. Then, through their use of the same technology, the dolls can become people who are used for different assignments. Many of the assignments involve sexual or emotional engagement; therefore the dolls must be very physically attractive. More than this, they can actually be ‘uploaded’ with the persona of – for example – a spouse long dead, and in this way they are programmed not only to care and satisfy the person to whom they’ve been assigned, but in some cases they truly are someone who actually loves them.

The role of the scientist in Dollhouse once again goes through a peculiar make-over, which is very typical for sci-fi genre. The scientist is not only glamorised, but is given god-like qualities to create new lives and satisfy everyone’s deepest needs. The humans that are to become dolls themselves are selected on sexual criteria; every one of them needs to be sexually appealing in order to be able to serve every potential desire. Just like in the case of BSG, the cyborgs of Dollhouse symbolise the oppressed. They are treated as sub-human. They are empty shells whose only role is to serve. Yet as the show progresses, there are a smattering of individual “dolls” that prove to be something more than mindless automatons. The main character of the show, nicknamed Echo, develops a personality of her very own and eventually emerges as a person with almost god-like abilities. Her unique brain adapts to the artificially engineered structure implanted by the scientists and evolves into something spectacular. The woman is superior to all other dolls and goes beyond the capabilities of the scientists themselves. This strong representation of a female character certainly challenges some of our societal bias. The woman symbolises the strong, relentless spirit of the female psyche. She serves as an antonym of the way her gender is portrayed in normal life: as weaker and in need of protection. Echo is reluctant and disobedient. She is a heroine few men would be able to compete with.

To contrast with Whedon’s praise to the feminine with his cyborg Echo, we should refer to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) whose central themes revolve around the main character’s masculinity. Rick Deckard is the film’s hero and is hired to chase down three “replicants” – cyborg slaves who escaped a distant colony and then hide somewhere on Earth. The humanoids that look exactly like humans are to be recognised by their inability to show any empathetic emotions. During his investigation Deckard learns that the cyborgs can exemplify human responses that many actual humans would be deficient in. Regardless of the many doubts that the man is faced with, he accomplishes his task and kills the escapees even though his blind devotion to the task almost destroys him. He finds out he might be a cyborg himself but his life is saved by a trusting replicant woman who shows a level of devotion that he has never recognised in any human being.
Why Blade Runner’s masculine point of view is so important in contrasting it with BSG and Dollhouse? Simply because it is so different. The future that Scott predicts in his film is less hopeful for the mankind. Deckard’s search for integrity reveals his inability to understand the world he lives in. He trusts unquestionably in what the Tyrell Corporation tells him and seems to be at odds with the facts he discovers on his journey. He is shocked to find out that the cyborgs are more human than humans themselves, and becomes emotionally lost when he learns how important the female cyborg is to him. The film concludes that no matter how great humanity might think about itself, it is far from perfection. The cyborgs represent the abuse through which human tyranny conquers the planet. The character of Deckard is presented in relation to Rachel – a humanoid he falls in love with. Unlike him, Rachel very quickly adapts to the situation and accepts who she is making Deckard’s boyish fight with his identity seem fruitless. If one was to conclude the portrait of genders by looking at their representations in Blade Runner, the manhood would be seen as insufferable and pitiful. Blade Runner by accepting Deckard’s point of view loses much of positivity represented by characters like Rachel. The film is sad and gloomy, just like the masculine particle of the sci-fi universe.

Science fiction certainly plays important role in challenging conventional gender roles as the genre very often appears to be playful with the concepts. The creation of the cyborg allows the authors to unleash their imagination and embody the creature with anything they like. From the empathy and wisdom like in BSG, through sex-appeal in Dollhouse, to sadness and confusion presented in Blade Runner. The utopian and dystopian visions of the future worlds express the desire for change and make the character of cyborg a key element to that process. Defining the role of a specific gender play secondary role, if any role at all. The characters presented in the examples prove that the definition of masculine or feminine changes completely once applied to the cyborgs. Women are strong and independent, men weak and bewildered. The challenge of such definitions is what makes the modern science fiction a genre of impressive complexity and insight into our social identity. However, it is the emotional engagement that the science fiction brings what captures our hearts and minds and to that we are and always will be equal regardless to our sexual characteristics.           

Retrospective: Godard's point of view

“Photography is truth”, argues Jean Luc Godard in his Le Petit Soldat (1963), “and the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”. The search for truth is central to the work of theorists associated with the creation of auteur cinema in the post-war France. Jean Luc Godard and other film critics standing behind the creation of La Nouvelle Vague, The French New Wave movement, tried to redefine the role of the film director as the author. Through a very detailed research of American films which flooded French cinemas in 1950’s and 60’s the new generation of French directors started to rediscover possibilities of cinematic experience as a form of art. Their search for truth was a search for their own identity in the cinematic universe; it was a search for alternatives to the Hollywood industrialised standards of creating films and defining what we nowadays recognise as “European cinema”. 

Knowing how Godard and his affiliates came to be the founders of the French New Wave is to understand the essence of the movement and its primary objectives. Almost all of the authors whom we now know as the most prominent French directors of the post-war era started their careers by actively writing on film. Possibly the most important and influential figure of the times was Andre Bazin who according to David Sterritt “had invested much of his critical capital in the idea that realism is the essence of cinema”. Bazin who at the time was the editor of Cahiers du Cinema gathered a group of passionate people who shared his view and saw cinema as much more than an ephemeral form of entertainment. As Godard stated in one of his essays, films by Dreyer or Gance were never considered equal to the writings of Kleist or Goethe and such disregard to cinema needed to be changed. The people associated with the Cahiers scene have investigated for many years how the cinema industry worked. They ignited a very interesting rhetoric among the cinema-oriented theorists and begun to turn their ideas into practical use with an extremely successfully effect. The originators of the French New Wave first learned to understand how cinema operates in its economical and aesthetical methodology and then defined the possible solutions to the issues they encountered. While writing for Cahiers they gradually expanded their diagnosis of what was wrong with the cinema at the time and provided their auteur theory as the definite solution. The French New Wave was supposed to serve as a cure to the misconduct of the cinematic spectrum by Hollywood producers. Following Bazin’s desire to reflect on reality as closely as possible Godard began directing his intense dramas that were considerably cheap to make and allowed him to take enormous risks and divert the popular trends in filmmaking.

The creation of the auteur in the cinematic universe meant a drastic change in the way films were regarded by the audience. After the war ended the French cinema experienced a torrent of numerous films brought from America which were previously unknown to the French viewers as they have been proscribed during the German occupation of France in the Second World War. The Cahiers group argued “that just because American directors had little or no say over any of the production process bar the staging of the shots, this did not mean that they could not attain auteur status”. The conclusion of the debate over the role of an author in the production process defined the film director as the only person who should take full credit for the outcome of a film – either its success or failure. This complimented a theory created by another thinker Alexandre Astruc who claimed that the director is a writer and the camera is his pen. 

Godard very rigorously started proving his theories by making films independently and completely according to his own vision. His first major success called A bout de Souffle (1960) broke every possible convention that was dominating at the time and turned it into an insightful, personal drama about a young couple struggling through the merits of their relationship. The film can be seen as a romantic performance, a gangster piece, film noir or a feminist film. The director mixes together different conventions and ideas and while doing so stays very focused and devoted to the characters he portrays. The Bazin’s realism “as the essence of cinema” is vigorously preserved in Godard’s film and becomes one of the main reasons for the movie’s success. “A Bout refrained from the decade’s tendency to diagnose the generational malaise”, argues Weiner in her Enfent Terribles. The film more than anything else gives us an ironically distant portrait of the young generation obsessed with automobiles but abstains from a tragic tone represented in other contemporary films taking upon such subjects. The film is a reflection of Godard’s own fascination with youth and the times of cultural change of the 1950’s. The dramatic outline of the story could not be possible if the film was produced within the American studio system and that difference is underlined multiple times throughout the movie.
Given the huge commercial success of the film Godard was convinced that the cinema of the auteur had its demand and the audience needed a personal point of view on social and cultural issues troubling the nation. Another great example of Godard’s art house cinema is Vivre sa vie (1962) which was yet another huge success in portraying an intense story while utilising some ingenious and innovative aesthetical choices. The movie contains of 12 “tableaux” – a series of unconnected instalments, each presented with a short introduction. The film is very original in its choice of character - a Persian woman who unwillingly descents into prostitution. Not only is the main character a racial minority but her social and economical status is not considered to be a popular choice for a subject either. The film surprises the viewers by its unusual execution of the storyline. The 12 episodes explore different aspects and situations of the main character’s life and are directed in an almost theatrical Brechtian style. The director portrays his muse quite thoroughly but tears her story apart into small pieces to allow the audience separate themselves from the woman and analyse the story presented in the film. Vivre sa vie is very socially involved as it presents the woman’s economical disadvantages with detailed precision and examines the consequences of such difficulties.

The mise-en-scene is also very unusual – there are characters whose faces we never see, voice-over like sequences with people talking from behind the shot and takes of the backs of people’s heads. Godard takes full advantage of the liberty independent funding gives him. He experiments with every aspect of cinematography and sound to emphasise on his character’s emotional state of being. Also, by the time Vivre sa vie was released Godard’s name became quite famous and the unexpected way of filming was something the audience desired – it became a trademark carried with Godard’s name. His very distinctive style adopted many theories in projecting his vision of auteurism: post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism and deconstruction. The inter-textuality of Vivre sa vie is yet another step in defining the role of the auteur in film and how his function affects the ideological context of the piece. 

Godard’s films happen to be made in a very interesting period when political instability takes its peak and revolutionary tensions shake the nation. The political apprehension of the mid-1960’s emerged as America went to war with Vietnam, Russia begun its cold war with the West and Chinese Cultural Revolution dictated the rhythm in the Far East. There was an increasing tension between the public sector and the French government resulting with student riots in May of 1968.  The cinema of the 60’s reflects on these social tendencies and helps give the audience a personal insight into these problems.

Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) is one of his most politically charged pieces, concerned with national identity and personal freedom of expression. The film utilises very raw stylistic features sketching an ambiguous portrait of the generation of young people who are faced with the issues of 1960’s politics. It is hard to say where Godard’s opinion on revolutionary movements stands as he gives no definitive answer to a matter of plotting a terrorist attack as a possible solution. What the director certainly puts emphasis on is the freedom to discuss and express someone’s opinion. The moment the class is over the dream of revolution ends – in a way Godard wants to tell us that his film probably won’t change anything, but it is important just by raising awareness of the issues it touches upon.

In terms of directing political dramas the creative independence is an enormously important part in delivering the director’s thought truthfully and believably. In La Chinoise Godard once more refuses to submit himself to any clear type of genre or cinematic convention. He expresses his political uncertainties both through his text and trough the aesthetical semiotics of his piece. The rough way in which he presents his film tells us more about the difficult times he had to live in than anything else. Similar freedom of expression would not be possible in the American studio system as the mainstream cinema rarely takes high risks of presenting political dramas on the screen because of their unpopularity among masses. Godard proved that there is a way of making an extremely political piece of filmmaking without having to compromise its entertainment values. 

The search for truth twenty four times per second seems like an enormous challenge, but Godard demonstrates that it can certainly be done in a big style. Each of his films is giving us truth about the author himself as well as about his country. The cinema of auteur gives us an incredible insight into the nation’s state of mind, their political and social dilemmas, general outlook on reality. Godard’s reach portfolio of film subjects varies from small relationship dramas to great masterpieces combining elements of different genres and styles into an amalgamation of multi-layered inter-textual pieces. The director’s refusal to fall into a single genre helped define the post-war European cinema as a cinema of personal experiences and create an alternative to the simplistic storytelling of Hollywood productions. Thanks to the Cahiers group the cinema was elevated from the meaningless entertainment to an intellectually challenging form of art.   

Retrospective: "Festen" and other creations of Dogme 95

 “Was it a new style? Was it a joke?” asks Birger Langjaer in his article “What was Dogme 95?”, “Was it a new movement, a turning point for Danish cinema and a lesson to learn for European cinemas? Or was it all or neither of these things?” Dogme 95 was a cinematic manifesto created in 1995 by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg that demanded a completely new perspective on the cinematic spectrum, challenging the established conventions and looking for new ways of expression. The manifesto demanded from the collaborating directors submitting to the Vow of Chastity – ten dogmatic rules by which films were meant to be made in order to restore the transparency of filmmaking. The search for ‘purity’ emerged as the key point of the manifesto. According to Trier and Vinterberg the cinema has died and a very radical change was needed to resuscitate the experience. Following this logic films should not be considered as pieces of work and a name of director should be removed from the credits completely as he is no longer an artist. Films should serve only one purpose:  to portray the characters truthfully and make the audience involved with the characters’ lives.  

The restrictions of Dogme 95 outlined in its ten rules under the Vow of Chastity are a set of aesthetic canon that determine a certain style, that is, a return to an unsophisticated form of film art or a kind of reverse aesthetic. The ten rules are thought to be a guideline of how the films should be made rather than tell the creators how they should look. The restrictions of form were meant to embrace the freedom of story development as the manifesto very clearly tackled not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of the production. Dogme 95 very plainly stated its status as a response to the wrong-doings of the Hollywood mainstream cinema and the bourgeoisie avant-garde of the French New Wave.

Throughout the cinema history European and Hollywood cinemas grew apart and are seen up to this day as separate things. According to Bordwell the distinction between two cinemas emerges from the difference between classical narration and art cinema narration. Most critics see Dogme 95 as an art house cinema and there is some truth to it. But European cinema, in general, is much more than only art cinema. According to Langjaer “European cinema can be considered as consisting of three major forms or modes of film-making: genre movies, art cinema and realism.”

A genre movie in its narrative form is often described in terms of classical Hollywood cinema. Its main characteristic is a well established protagonist who strives to accomplish a certain goal – solving a case (crime), finding love (romance) or confronting a killer (thriller). The main character overcomes all obstacles and answers the main questions presented in the story. A genre movie through its narrative devices provides some sense of closure.  To contrast with this Hollywood model, we find the European art cinema. It is characterised by more complex and ambiguous characters often in search of a goal. The casualty between situation and action often becomes internalised as to make the drama psychological or more existential. Protagonists try to deal with problems without any clear-cut action in the outer world to solve it and this often leads to open endings. Realism is a mainstream film practice in European cinema which after 1960’s switched from portraying social problems and focused on personal and inner observations. It has the accessibility of the genre film but favours characterisation of persons, places and conflict over action which often leads to endings in between classical closure and art cinema indeterminacy.

The diversity of style, genre and narrative are all present in Dogme and merge into a hybrid of a convention of itself. Many critics often talk about Dogme as a stylistic feature and the so-called ‘Dogme-style’ refers to nothing else but the crossbreed of established forms and conventions. The manifesto tries to purposefully deviate from the traditional norms of Hollywood filmmaking.  The Decalogue forbids any ‘superficial action’ (no murders or guns may be involved) or clarifying a specific genre. It calls for ambiguity within the aesthetical set of norms listed in the Vows of Chastity. It calls for merging different forms of film-making together and as shown by the following example, the Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen, the manifesto is very successful in achieving its goals.

As argued by Palle Schnatz Laurdisen, Festen combines a classical narrative with an innovative style. If so, where does it leave the style of the film? Is the style an additional feature of the film, making it look like an art cinema when it isn’t so? The opening scenes present the aesthetical landscape that thrives throughout the film: the shots are moving and shaky, the light changes during cuts and the 180 degree rule virtually doesn’t exist as the cuts go through a random selection of angles and points of view. But there is more to Festen than just the dynamic of its editing. As the film focuses on the characters it plays with different conventions and styles, adding layers upon layers to already rich portfolio of ideas. Every main character presented in the film carries their own storyline followed by a different set of aesthetical choices. There is the old-fashioned naturalism in the story of Christian, a suspenseful detective and ghost story when presenting Helene and social comedy with Michael. These changes in genre on a scene-by-scene level go hand in hand with changes in style on a scene-by-scene level. Thus, the style appears to be both varied and highly motivated in relation to genre and story-content.

Yet what is the significance of Dogme 95 in European tradition of film-making? As mentioned before, the manifesto not only challenged the Hollywood dominance in the European market but also questioned the significance of such important movements as the French New Wave. The declaration of the manifesto states that “DOGMA 95 has the expressed goal of countering “certain tendencies” in the cinema today”. The ‘certain tendencies’ referring of course to Fran├žois Truffaut’s very own manifesto called “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” which was the foundation of the auteur cinema treating about the importance of the film director as the author. Having in consideration that the auteur cinema constitutes the signature tendency of the post-war European cinema, it can be argued that at large the cinema d’auteur is what we nowadays recognise as European cinema. The audacity in which Trier and Vinterberg refuse adopting the auteur theory in constructing their manifesto is most certainly astonishing. Not only the manifesto aims at the Hollywood domination in European cinema but renders itself as a completely separate form from what was considered European up to this date.  Yvonne Tasker calls it a “formal and thematic provocation” and righteously so
. ‘Provocation’ is the key word describing not only the Dogme manifesto but the filmography of the main force behind the Vow of Chastity – Lars von Trier.  The director made his career on reinventing and rediscovering different concepts of filmmaking and storytelling and very possibly the masterful use of provocation is his greatest legacy.

Trier and Vinterberg embrace the pop culture and take full advantage of the opportunity the digital media gives them – to get closer to another person than it was ever done before. The size of a digital camera secures mobility and accessibility justifying the manifesto’s declaration of the hand-held shooting style, use on the set sound only and forbidding any geographical and temporal alienation. Dogme 95 is meant to be fresh and contemporary and in the historical context of European cinema, playful with conventions and refreshing.  Dogme 95 is mostly viewed as an artistic movement and its artistic values are the most significant in the context of European cinema.

Just by looking at some of the Dogme films, e.g. Festen, The Idiots, The King Is Alive and Truly Human, realising their artistic aspects becomes very obvious. All of these films conceive of art narration in very different ways; Festen is a playful display of a pre-modernist form, the theatre of naturalism including more symbolic elements. The Idiots is most certainly closer to avant-garde cinema than art cinema but in certain aspects it remains within the artistic borders. The King Is Alive is the only full-blooded art film that strives for ambiguity and symbolism and does so by excessive stylistic means. And Truly Human has a non-naturalistic premise (the fantastic) that makes it an allegorical tale in contemporary and otherwise realistic setting. Besides shared set of aesthetics dictated by the manifesto all of the above films in some respect rely on the tradition of realism. Realism is sort of a middle field, a balancing point that combines the felt deepness of the art cinema with the accessibility of the genre film. One might say that many of the Dogme films revitalise the tradition of realism.  

In the opening paragraph Birger Langjaer refers to Dogme 95 in past tense and does so for a reason. As provocative and powerful as it might seem, Dogme was rather short-lived. All of the directors that were involved with the manifesto turned their backs on the Vows of Chastity after a while and switched to more conventional ways of filmmaking. Trier after directing his Dogme-style musical Dancer in the Dark ended his romance with the digital camera and began shooting his Brecht-inspired theatre on the big screen with Dogville being the first instalment of his U.S.A. Trilogy. Vinterberg abandoned cinema altogether and focused on some smaller TV productions. The manifesto died but its legacy lives on. It provided platform for many European countries to produce a piece of cinematography that did not require a huge budget but was just as satisfying as any other European film. As to challenging the tendencies brought by the Hollywood conventional narrative, Dogme justified the oddity of avant-garde in a completely new dimension. But most of all showed what it takes to make a film.   

And Everything Goes Kaboom!

In her book Sexual Politics, Kate Millett, an American feminist writer and activist presents a very comprehensive analysis of a conflict between the biological and psychological understanding of the concept of sexual identity. Millett argues that patriarchy’s biological foundations are extremely apprehensive and have to be reinforced by a process of ‘socialisation’, whereby the established norms of sexual identity are transferred into a young mind. She concludes that, “Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different.” The perception of masculinity and femininity is designed to perform specific roles in our society and any form of deviation from these roles is looked at as sinister and threatening to the social power structure that has been in place for generations. 

Gregg Araki’s filmography, which makes human sexuality and gender roles its main theme, might be looked at as an extension to Millett’s analysis. Queer fiction was always closely associated with feminist theory, as it provides fresh re-assessment of sexual identity and politics surrounding gender division. Through his films, Araki makes a clear statement that he refuses to accept the norms which are passed on to us by the previous generation. He re-evaluates the male and female life experiences mentioned in Millett’s book and rejects the conventional understanding of masculine and feminine attributes. In the early 90’s Araki’s films like The Living End (1992) and The Doom Generation (1995) set the tone for the director’s counter-Hollywood filmmaking. With their very refreshing storytelling and a retro set of aesthetics his movies were able to present an alternative way to filter anger and frustration through a camera lens. 

The socio-cultural and political climate that attributed to Araki’s success in the 90’s is very similar to what was happening in America in recent years. When The Living Endpremiered in 1992 the country was troubled by the post-Bush era downturn in economics and wide-spread homophobia. There is a parallel between the social discontent of the early 90’s and the events preceding the premiere of Araki’s latest film Kaboom (2010). One could draw a conclusion that the two films might share the same level of rebellious black humour or at least maintain similar cultural sensibility. Yet it appears that eighteen years after making The Living End Araki loses interest in being involved in a political battle against the patriarchal system which used to be the major drive of his films. In Kaboom, Araki could have expressed his concerns about the future, but instead the film focuses on an examination of youth and the joyous excitement surrounding the first sexual experiences. 

Kaboom operates in a universe of its own. Any political drama that takes place in the film is a far-fetched fantasy that aims to entertain and escalate the thrill of the plot which has the feel of a cheap pulp novel. The main character Smith’s (Thomas Dekker) seemingly normal life revolves around sexual fantasies about his dorm roommate Thor (Chris Zylka), having sex with randomly met girls or boys and spending most of his free time with his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett). Things start getting complicated when he accidentally witnesses the murder of a red-haired girl on a campus lawn. At the same time, Stella becomes sexually involved with a witch and an odd set of random events unveils a secret society which aims to turn the whole world into ashes. Araki is known for incorporating surreal elements into his otherwise realist dramas. The themes of sex, violence and American pop culture are reoccurring elements in all of his films but are used for different purposes depending on the subject of the film. With KaboomAraki multiplies unexpected plot twists and integrates threads of a fantasy world in order to achieve an expressionist image of a young person at the brink of adulthood. The film in a very poignant and poetic way highlights the sexual and emotional freedoms of the ensemble of young characters which is especially true for Smith and Stella. Yet the film avoids being too self-involved and rather than focusing on the emotional state of its characters it creates an emotive picture which inspires the audience to take their own trip down memory lane.

By relying completely on digital technology, Araki’s Kaboom escalates a well exercised set of retro aesthetics into a new level of distinctiveness. The manipulation of colour is vividly and neatly executed. This is especially true in the sequences presenting paranormal activity and during Smith’s dream scenes. While the aesthetics do not quite achieve the same level of visual originality as films produced with the Dogme 95 manifesto, they definitely deviate from any established norms currently dominating indie cinema. While Kaboom benefits from its low budget digital look, its cinemascope format suggests that the film imagines itself to be a studio production. The editing transitions between scenes use popular digital effects known to most any camcorder user. Very often the screen breaks into small glass-like pieces or zooms into view in a corny swirl. These types of transitions as well as other digital effects help Araki provide comic relief and at the same time add unusual visual texture and rhythm to an already odd plot.

The story similarly to the aesthetics makes unexpected and innovative transitions. It starts off as a teenage comedy, presenting Smith and Stella’s lives as fuelled by alcohol and random sexual affairs. But the moment Smith witnesses a murder another genre tries to creep into the seemingly established plot. However it does not even end there as the film in its development integrates genres and sub-genres like family drama, fantasy, and sci-fi and ends on a strong note with a Le Carre-like conspiracy drama. The wealth of the narrative layers in which Araki dressed up Kaboom is yet another device used to great effect to showcase the feelings of excitement and insecurity so often experienced in our youth. 

Michael Atkinson in his article “Unsafe Sex” wrote about one of the earlier Araki’s filmsNowhere (1997) with the following statement: “The soap-operatic narrative contains all the usual elements of apocalyptic teendom: sexual violence, suicidal junkiehood, nihilism, disconnected adults, aliens, tortured narcissism.” As mentioned before, Araki doesn’t demonstrate the same socio-political interest with Kaboom as he did with his previous films. Yet based on the example of Nowhere we can see that the director keeps re-using the same themes and plot devices. Would this suggest that Araki has continued to be discontent with established social norms? Or quite the opposite – so much has changed that the same arguments he once used to interrogate and criticise can now be applied solely for the pleasure of entertainment? 

Socio-political context is very hard to define in Kaboom; the film presents his homosexual characters on an equal or even superior basis to their heterosexual counterparts. Homosexual tendencies are seen in the film as liberating and empowering. The social divide between people of different sexual orientations which troubles Araki’s earlier films is virtually non-existent in his newest flick. On the other hand none of the characters (except perhaps Stella) finds it easy to define themselves as homo- or heterosexual. They prefer to stay away from accepting a definitive label and enrich their sexual life with a variety of partners of both sexes. However when it comes to certain characters’ bisexual identities there is a sense of division – some of the characters like Smith take a lot of pride in being versatile, but there are people like Rex (Andy Fisher-Price) and Milo (Carlo Mendez) who enjoy their homosexual experiences yet try to keep them secret. Araki puts a lot of emphasis on the sexual liberation or confusion as a period purposefully attributed to the age of late teens. It’s a time of experimentation and according to Araki it is an important process on the path to self-discovery. 

The murder intrigue enriches the narrative with a series of unexpected plot twists which builds to a grotesque political drama about a secret society trying to annihilate the entire world in order to build a new utopian society. Through a series of sequences happening within Smith’s dreams Kaboom makes a thematic transition from a sex comedy to a bizarre thriller. In the past Araki integrated thriller-like elements into his film in order to utilise violence as a way to make a socio-political statement. In The Doom Generation heads and limbs that are accidentally cut off a number of male characters throughout the film are juxtaposed with a terrifyingly realistic murder scene of a character that is thought to have bisexual tendencies. Araki presents a society troubled by condemnation from conservative religious and social standards and metaphorically alludes to a harsh reality lived by non-heterosexual individuals. In Kaboom however the dramatic events taking place at the end are so disengaged from the parts of the film presenting the character’s day to day life that any kind of parallel meaning is virtually non-existent. It is the pacing of the film and its overall composition that achieves symbolic significance. While the film plays heavily with a multitude of genres, it ends with a serious warning that too much self-indulgence can be poisonous. In fact, the ending may seem grotesque considering the level of destruction which is displayed, but it serves as a wake-up call after the hedonistically entertaining hour and a half. 

From the moment Kaboom premiered earlier this year in Cannes, the reception has been nothing but positive. However similarly to Araki’s other films, Kaboom is having problems acquiring a major international release. When The Living End was released in the USA it was seen as obscene and controversial. The so called New Queer Cinema which included films like Poison (1991) by Todd Haynes and Swoon (1992) by Tom Kalin, presented not only homosexual characters as positive, but morally superior to their heterosexual counterparts (Benshoff and Griffin, 2004). The films made within the school of New Queer Cinema very often gained provocative publicity. This can be seen by using Haynes’s Poison as an example. Poison was attacked by the religious right who claimed that the National Endowment of Arts (NEA) illegally awarded Haynes with a fund to make this provocative film. Yet the festivals like the Sundance Film Festival, where Independent American Cinema takes main stage proved that there is a market for these films which we can attribute to the public’s desire see the subject of human sexuality from a different perspective. 

Kaboom however drifts away from the standardised definition of New Queer Cinema as the film expresses much less political stigma imposed on its homosexual characters. Although sexual experiences are still at the heart of Araki’s new film, the division between the hetero and homosexual identities are blurred and the two seem to operate in an almost idyllic harmony. But perhaps it isn’t Araki who is trying to break from the classic concept of New Queer Cinema. Instead it could be the model itself which has changed so much that a certain re-evaluation of the industrial norms is necessary. Looking at some of the recent titles coming out from directors who are considered to be part of the elite of Queer Cinema, one can draw an obvious conclusion that these films operate with a very complex dynamic as they become less and less didactic as compared to their precursors from the 90’s. John Cameron Mitchell’sShortbus (2006), Cheryl Dunye’s Stranger Inside (2001) and Todd Verow’s Between Something and Nothing (2008) serve as perfect examples of the constant transformation of Gay Cinema. However successful in re-establishing the format and meaning of New Queer Cinema, Kaboom still remains an independent project and its success is heavily dependent on art-house cinema distribution just like most all of Araki’s previous projects. 

Kaboom operates with such high levels of moral and sexual ambiguity that it might seem even more threatening for the mainstream media than any of his previous films. Kaboom reassesses the division between the biological and psychological understanding of sexual identity mentioned by Kate Millett in her Sexual Identity. The only place in the film where the patriarchal system is still thriving is within a religious organisation. The cult recognises how far the poisonous effects of patriarchal destabilisation have progressed in society and tries to re-establish these norms by imposing its dogmatic beliefs on everybody else. He concludes the film in a similar way Millett concludes Sexual Politics – the patriarchy’s chief institution is the traditional family and these foundations need to be restructured in order to build a better, more equal society. Araki’s film instils an ominous thought in our mind that no matter how much social progress is made that it can easily be destroyed by the few in power who want things to remain the way they are.