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Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 26 December 2016 09:30 (A review of Fool's Fire)

Produced as a part of PBS’ American Playhouse, an independent producer of high-quality television films for first-time filmmakers, Fool’s Fire is something of Julie Taymor’s entire career in microcosm. There’s an obsession with using puppetry and masks, the ostentatious imagery, the general sense of artistry that borders on the pretentious and imaginative.  There’s also that bubbling sense of aggressive adaptations, a sense that everything must be included and played for maximum effect when something smaller would clearly do.


Based on the Edgar Allen Poe story “Hop-Frog,” with the poems “The Bells” and “A Dream Within a Dream” thrown in for good measure, Taymor uses eccentric techniques to create a work of abstract wonder. Sometimes Fool’s Fire is filled with too much wonder, and it tiptoes into esoteric territories of beautiful images and hypnotic costuming proving too much of a muchness. There can be such a thing as overly designing a film.


The basic story of “Hop-Frog” is followed very closely, with relatively little added or removed, including the horrifying denouement where the hero completes his transformation from victim to avenger. The choice to leave Michael J. Anderson and Mireille Mosse uncovered by masks or elaborate makeup and the rest of the players as asymmetrical puppets forces us into identification with them and their suffering. It’s a unique and creative choice, like many of Taymor’s, and it pays off well in the end.


Although other choices are slightly bewildering, like having Trippetta forced to live in a birdcage or having her recite “A Dream Within a Dream.” These moments feel like unnecessary distractions or too heavy-handed in the point Taymor is trying to make about prejudice. I doubt anyone would ever accuse Taymor of being prosaic, but sometimes dialing it back just a little will do wonders for the bigger moments. Fool’s Fire is perhaps too overstuffed with incident and imagery causing a strange cancellation effect, as the smaller moments feel too slumberous and the larger ones start feeling too theatrically synthetic. There’s a lot that’s tremendously good about Fool’s Fire, but it also presents the weaknesses of Taymor’s filmmaking style. In the end, Fool’s Fire is something of its creator’s brain exploding across the celluloid, and it is magnificent and convoluted to watch.

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Winnie Mandela

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 15 December 2016 03:25 (A review of Winnie Mandela)

Winnie Mandela tries to have it both ways as a conventional biopic and as a warts-and-all glimpse into a contentious figure, but it fails at being both by never digging deep into the material. It’s all handsome surfaces, Clint Eastwood style cinematography (so much blue filter), and a solid lead performance from Jennifer Hudson in service of an awkward final product. The tonal shifts are jarring, and the script is a succession of events with little that comes before or after anyone scene that figures prominently shortly thereafter.


Though it is a fascinating mess to watch. For a film dubbed Winnie Mandela, the first half of the film sure is devoted primarily to Nelson Mandela. It would be impossible to make a movie about either figure without the other appearing in a centralized role, but Winnie is shoved to the side for large chunks of time despite being the title character. This isn’t just a travesty for how it sidelines Jennifer Hudson’s strong performance, but it makes us focus in on Terrence Howard’s anemic one. Howard is a fine actor, but he doesn’t have the gravitas that Idris Elba and Morgan Freeman brought to the same role.


Even worse is how the film can’t make up its mind about what it wants to say about Winnie Mandela. Racism was an all-consuming, all-encompassing problem with Apartheid era South Africa, but Winnie Mandela gives us Elias Koteas as the face of it and makes him a poorly written grotesque caricature. Then there’s the problem with Winnie’s transition from non-violent protest to necklacing and operating a roving band of thugs, it just happens. The complexity and continued political and social relevance of the themes and lives at play here are smothered and smoothed flat to fit into neat check-boxes.


The one time Winnie Mandela rises to the material is the mid-section where she is placed in solitary confinement. She refuses to break down, becomes defiant, and begins singing to herself and befriending the ants in her cell in order to keep her sanity. It’s a moment where the film roars loudly when so much of it is a dry, basic history lesson completely lacking in nuance. Hudson not only proves that her Oscar winning work in Dreamgirls was no fluke in this section, but that she’s wasted potential in a few of her most recent film roles. Watch the film for her, but be prepared for a film that dresses up its leading actress and then gives her nowhere to go.

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Testament of Orpheus

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 14 December 2016 04:31 (A review of Testament of Orpheus)

A culmination of sorts of an artistic life, and the most deeply personal and revealing film that Jean Cocteau ever made. Testament of Orpheus is the final film in his Orphic trilogy, only this time Cocteau is Orpheus and the underworld is his own mind as we examine both the birthplace of his creativity and his memories. It’s nearly impossible to discuss the film on its own as so much of it depends on a familiarity not only with Orpheus, but with Cocteau’s entire body of work, including the films and paintings.


Testament of Orpheus begins with the concluding scenes of Orpheus, where death (Maria Casares) and Heurtebise (Francois Perier) carted off while Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe) watches on helplessly. Right after this, Cocteau appears and begins speaking directly through the camera to the audience. This will be the primary mode of the film, hallucinatory images surrounded by Cocteau’s musings about his life, art, and the reflexive introspection. Some may find this self-indulgent and precocious, but I found his collage of surreal images, poetic musings, and the ethereal score by an enthralling, entertaining cinematic hodge-podge.


But Orpheus isn’t the lone film that Cocteau cannibalizes here. His short documentary, La Villa Santo Sospir, gets threaded back through this tone poem. Not only do we glimpse many of the paintings he displayed there, but a section of the film uses that villa as a shooting location. Once again Cocteau destroys and reassembles a flower, and the effect is not diluted here. If anything, given the context of the film, the artist-as-God symbolism of that image hits just a bit harder. Eventually the flower will become a reoccurring motif throughout the film, but that first sequence is still powerful for the pureness of Cocteau’s aesthetic it displays.


As a self-made elegy, Cocteau could have not conjured up a better farewell. A few years after making this Cocteau would die from a heart-attack, and he frequently wanders the frame with a placid face, one that reads as a man making peace with the life he’s about to leave. Cocteau seems possessed with death and decay, with where our legacies will leave us, and how art grants its creator immortality. That last point would seem irksome from another artist, but Cocteau blessed the world a small number of films, many of them among the greatest works of cinematic art, and the point seems valid.


There’s also the behind-the-scenes drama where Cocteau was desperate to make a final grand artistic statement and he had trouble finding the funds. The younger generation of film-makers that named him as an influence came to his rescue, primarily Francois Truffaut who donated money earned from The 400 Blows to this project as a thank you. Cocteau also brought along his longtime muse/lover Jean Marais for a brief cameo, close friends like Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso show up, and his current lover, Dermithe, guides him through a vast chunk of the film, working as both soothing spirit guide and the luscious personification of death.


Do I know exactly what all of these elusive images and epigrammatic phrases mean? No, but the film functions as a dizzying series of moving hieroglyphics that one will either groove along with or keep at an arm’s length. I found it absorbing for what it reveals about Cocteau as a human, his deep belief in these musings and the transportive power of art and ideas, his confrontations with his creators and how they rebel against their creator, and his personal style of painting and drawing.


If you chose to merely look at Testament on a surface level, there’s plenty of off kilter beauty to keep you engaged. But I suggest trying to dig through the rubble, as there’s plenty of meanings to be mined from this material. Cocteau clearly doesn’t want to lead you to any one solid conclusion, but present a wide platter of ideas and loaded symbolism for you to wrestle with. This last will functions as much as a mirror to Cocteau as it does for the audience. Cocteau’s particular brand of whimsy would disappear with his passing in 1963, but we’ll always have his essential films to return to.


I love getting lost in Cocteau’s world of make-believe, of smoke and mirrors, of grand pronouncements and sumptuous imagery. To dub Testament of Orpheus as self-indulgent would not be an incorrect assessment, but it somehow feels like it’s missing the mark. The logical progression of Cocteau’s work would lead us to the artist himself taking the center stage at some point, and there’s no more fitting a moment than his final work. It’s a surreal film, a chance for Cocteau to enthrall us once more, and a fitting tribute to a landmark career all at once. Even with all of its faults, I cannot deem Testament of Orpheus as anything less than an essential viewing experience.

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8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 12 December 2016 04:20 (A review of 8 X 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements)

A collaboration between Hans Richter, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Cocteau, 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements is a quirky, avant-garde glimpse of a bunch of premiere artists having a lark. Shame that they didn’t invite the audience along with them. The title reveals the structure, a chessboard is arranged 8 squares high and 8 squares long, and so the film is broken into eight vignettes of surreal nonsense.


With the pedigree involved 8 x 8 has a few moments of sublime incoherence, but much of it is baffling and tiresome. The most cringe-worthy segment of the film is the score which pounds throughout, frequently clownish and overly intrusive. While the film may be a series of images that vary in interest with no uniform style, this score never marries to any of the images and undermines a few of them. Case in point, a king, queen, and knight run about the woods battling each other, and a subpar Renaissance Fair song thunders in the background.


Despite being of only mild interest as a complete work, 8 x 8 is still worth watching only for the top-shelf names attached to it. It was intended as a fairy tale for grown-ups, made up of equal parts Lewis Carroll and Sigmund Freud (according to Richter and the opening prologue), and even when it proves impenetrable it’s still intoxicating in some strange way.

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La Villa Santo Sospir

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 11 December 2016 07:22 (A review of La villa Santo Sospir)

A 16mm documentary of sorts made by Jean Cocteau at the titular villa, a vacation spot that would eventually feature prominently in his Testament of Orpheus, that surface textures is all about his “tattooing” of the walls but actually provides a glimpse into his artistry and process. Many of Cocteau’s works contained this aura of autobiography and self-reflection on art and how it is made, but La Villa Santo Sospir is nakedly about these subjects.


The blurred line between artifice and reality was a popular conceptual ideal for Cocteau, and that gets the full workout here. Most notably, there is an extended sequence where Cocteau restores several destroyed flowers to their original vibrancy and beauty by running the film of their destruction backwards. The artist is breathing life into dead things, creating an experience from a mere idea, and this section is possibly the best, simplest demonstration of the wondrous and dream-like beauty of Cocteau’s film work.


The best reason to watch this film is to see the variety of paintings and drawings that Cocteau produced at the villa. Not only did he “tattoo” the walls with a series of images that dip into the religious and mythological, and the space between them, but we also see various canvas paintings that he produced. The myth of Orpheus was a consistent obsession, and there’s no less than five or six paintings detailing the myth here. A personal favorite is Orpheus’ head resting upon his lyre.  


Thirty-seven minutes is a tad self-indulgent for this material, but Cocteau keeps it mostly light and ever moving. There’s a few detours into pretentious artistic musings, but it’s hard to be mad at them. They reveal many personal eccentricities and artistic themes from one of the great creative polymaths of the 20th century. La Villa Santo Sospir is as essential a viewing experience as any of Cocteau’s other films, all the more so for how limited a number of films he directed between 1930 and 1959.

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Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 11 December 2016 07:22 (A review of Orpheus)

“A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place.”


So says Jean Cocteau in a written prologue for his most direct wrestling with the Orpheus myth. Here, he makes not only edits and additions, but entirely new wrinkles and full scale revisions to the myth, these add layers of strangeness, poignancy, and the hint of autobiography. It towers over other fantasy films for the ways it grounds these elements in a solid structure. Cocteau managed to make something that was not only a personally revealing art film, but also a raucous piece of pop entertainment.


Orpheus reconfigures its narrative from a story about a musician seducing the gods with his art into the story of a poet chasing his inspiration in the face of popularity, a eternally petulant teenager that becomes enamored with the idea of death’s obsession with him as much as he is with his art, his image, and his dwindling inspiration. Cocteau was clearly working through, and poking fun, at some of his own failings and egocentric personality defects here. Orpheus could easily stand in for the artist, a man driven to near insanity to chase his creative expression at the clear detriment of those closest to him, with Eurydice here cast as an amalgam of every long-suffering wife of a great man.


This mid-point of the Orphic trilogy follows our modern-age poet (well, modern-age for 1949 France) as he meets the sleek personification of death, follows her into her realm, comes back to ours, and begins chasing rabbit holes looking for her and her strange realm once more. The bones of the Greek myth are all there, but they play now in starkly different beats and to different ends. Cocteau was quite possibly cinema’s greatest interpreter and exploiter of mythologies, using them to explore our collective psyches and as excuses for knockout visual trickery.


The love story between Orpheus and Eurydice is there, but it’s expanded to an continually shifting geometric pattern, something far beyond a love triangle. There’s Orpheus and death, Eurydice and Heurtebise, death’s chauffer, and the conflict between Orpheus and Cegeste, a youthful poet that is an object of jealousy for Orpheus whose premature death is the catalyst for all of these events. Orpheus descends into the abyss, returns, and spends a great deal of time trying to return. His eventual return is both for Eurydice and for death, for a chance to gain some of the divine inspiration he witnessed, and the slow dawning horror of what he has allowed to transpire.


But it wouldn’t be a Cocteau film without a healthy dose of visual wonderment. Cocteau keeps the reality of the corporeal realm solidly melodramatic, with any supernatural occurrences clearly called out for their aberrations in the docility of domesticity. It is when we escape into the Zone that things go completely bonkers. The Zone is filmed in the bombed out ruins of France, a smart enough visual cue, and Cocteau has made no effort to clean up any of the ruins so the interiors of the buildings are eternally dilapidating and a stench of rot and decay. In one scene, Orpheus and Heurtebise crawl along the sides of a building only for Orpheus to be whisked along the side into the oblivion that waits.


Unlike Beauty and the Beast, which parading a continually series of visual tricks, smokes, ornate costuming, and stealth carnality, Orpheus is obsessed with a pervading of impending tragedy. The Zone could easily be read as an existential wonderland, a place where an artist could find eternal inspiration and eternal damnation in equal doses, or as one long elaborate metaphor for Cocteau’s opium addiction, or maybe it’s just his film’s variation of the underworld. Orpheus invites any of these readings, and each of them has a valid argument depending on deep you want to excavate the material and its echoes to Cocteau’s own life.


This pervading sense of tragedy extends beyond Orpheus and Eurydice, who end up getting their happily ever after here, but to death and Heurtebise, who sacrifice themselves to set things right. Despite giving our two main lovers as happy ending, this doesn’t translate to the rest of Orpheus. This ends the film with something that feels closer a flustered mixture of emotions. It’s elusive and exciting precisely because it refuses to wrap things up with a proudly declarative ending, much like Beauty and the Beast’s puzzling journey to a castle in the clouds.


Cocteau’s personality and obsession are woven into the fabric of Orpheus and his ensembles of actors play their parts beautifully to expand upon this journey into self-destruction. Jean Marais’ Orpheus is the poet-as-rock star, the idol of a gaggle of giddy teenage girls, and a man stuck in permanent teenage emotionality. He seems capable of only one feeling at the time, and it is at its largest volume of feeling at that given time. For instance, as Eurydice dies, Orpheus is perturbed that he’s being interrupted from his important work, then he’s disgusted with what he has allowed to play out, then possessed with the idea of return to the Zone to right things. Marais’ Orpheus is how deftly played and wonderfully played as his Beast.


Marie Dea plays Eurydice as the exemplary supportive, long-suffering wife, as if she knows she’s always be the second choice to his art and career. She puts up with Orpheus’ mercurial moods, his descents into callous and cold behavior, and forces him to glance upon as an act of self-sacrifice and love. While Maria Casares portrays death as an ice queen slowly thawing, she is a dominating and haunting presence. Some find her performance wooden or lacking in some way, but I find her a coiled figure that wanders around the outskirts of the frame even when she is not present, always ready to descend on our characters and turn them into her playthings on a whim. She has a fun chemistry with Francois Perier as Heurtebise. She titters on the brink of appearing as fetishistic figurehead while he plays the emotionless straight man to her diva tantrums.


Orpheus entwines between melodramatic love and inky desiccation, between reality and a heightened fever-dream, between autobiography and classical mythology. Only an artist as expansive and poetic as Cocteau could look at the myth and see it as a defining archetype to build a career. This is equally as potent as his prior Beauty and the Beast, and no less of a great, towering achievement.  

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The Eagle with Two Heads

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 9 December 2016 05:25 (A review of L'Aigle à deux têtes)

After the storied highs and artistically daring work of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau’s follow-up is something of a drastic comedown and a minor work. It’s the odd man out in his small canon. There’s no flights of poetic lyricism, no smoke-and-mirrors special effects that enchant with their hands-on approach. It’s a claustrophobic and stage-bound film, and incapable of removing itself from its origins.


There’s a strong sense of romanticism here, like many of Cocteau’s films, in the traditional sense. Not only is it sweepingly emotional, with melodramatics that thunder from the mountaintop, but there’s a potent sense of tragedy and danger lurking around. This is romanticism in a literary sense, with the emotionally turmoil reflected in the weather, atmospheric castle, and baroque clothing that swallows up the cloistered characters.


Even better is how effective the two leads are in engaging in their dance with love and death. Jean Marais again does multiple parts, but this time one of them is a spectral role that is only mentioned and felt but never seen. The late king and his poetic anarchist bear a striking resemblance to each other, one of these roles is only glimpsed in paintings that lurk in the background. The king haunts everything in the castle walls, and Marais’ poet occasionally seems possessed by his spirit.


But The Eagle with Two Heads is a clear showcase for Edwige Feuillère as the doomed Queen. She delivers a twenty-minute monologue to a mute Marais that is just astounding for the sheer emotional control and dexterity she brings to the material. She manipulates the actions with subtle control, and navigates the elevated quality of Cocteau’s cinema with ease and comfort. There’s a scene where she’s dressed like a fairy queen come to vivid life with stars placed in her flowing hair. It’s a damn shame that Feuillère never worked with Cocteau again in another film.


For all of the sustained atmosphere and wonderful acting from the leads, The Eagle with Two Heads doesn’t add up to very much in the long run. The queen and the poet bicker, fall in love, and drive each other towards inevitable tragedy. This tragedy is a mythology of their own making, a meeting of the bourgeoisie and the rebel to dance with death. It’s very French, enchanting in its own way, but slightly formulaic in its court-bound intrigue. It’s a little shocking to see Cocteau go so routine with his material even if its deeper implications and meanings are baffling among all of the fluttering and loud emotional proclamations.

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Beauty and the Beast

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 9 December 2016 03:03 (A review of Beauty and the Beast)

If adversity and strife make for great art, then that perfectly explains why Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is one of the towering greats of cinema. As the rubble and dust settled from WWII, Cocteau created this pristine and immaculate piece of fantasy cinema to rouse the collective spirit of the country, spurred on by the encouragements of his muse and lover Jean Marais. The film stock was hard to come by, causing certain scenes to look rougher than others were while maintaining the dream-like disorientation that permeates throughout. Cloth was harder to find, and several morning the crew and cast would go to set to find the bed sheets stolen overnight. And Jean Cocteau was gravely ill midway through production, and his condition required continuous breaks to take painful injections.


Now watch the film again and look for where the bleeding sutures from these tears in production show. You can’t find them, but you will find a movie of uncompromising beauty, grace, imagination, and poetry. Beauty and the Beast is equally soulful and fragile, ephemeral and tactile.


The film opens up with Cocteau, stars Jean Marais and Josette Day writing their names on a chalkboard, announcing a certain level of self-reflection and theater at play here. Then Cocteau breaks down the fourth wall further with a written prologue by imploring the audience directly to suspend their cynicism and open their minds to a child-like sense of belief and wonder. Beauty and the Beast is perhaps the most revealing and personal of Cocteau’s handful of films.


Cocteau was an artistic polymath, with a dizzying number of novels, poems, plays, librettos, drawings, and paintings created by him. He is best remembered for his films and this one in particular. By tapping into the sexuality in the fairy tale, and his own queerness in a roundabout way, Cocteau created the greatest film interpretation of a fairy tale and the definitive example of a monster-in-love.


The frustrations of repressed love are palpable in the Beast’s earliest interactions with Beauty. He carries her across the threshold, places her in her bed, and she recoils in terror when she first sees him. Humiliated, as he often will be in these early awkward romantic encounters, he turns from her and demands that she never look him in the eyes. These failed attempts at coitus come to a head when Beauty decides to take a stroll with the Beast in the woods, and the scene of him drinking from her hands is achingly romantic and erotically charged. Name me one queer kid who won’t identify with the abject terror Beauty and the Beast demonstrates in its earlier scenes at burgeoning sexuality and its confusion (Beauty’s bed in Beast’s castle opens up its own sheets, and she flees in terror/horror before fainting).


Yet it wasn’t just his own queerness that Cocteau tapped into here, but the scarred psyche of all of France. Beauty’s home life, a wasting bourgeoisie with a dying patriarch and divided loyalty within its unit, can be read as writ large of France’s immediate national id in the wake of the Nazi Occupation. The happy ending of Beauty and the Beast doesn’t declare itself with a strong period, but a more wistful ellipsis. Beauty’s disappointment in the Beast’s transformation from leonine to handsome prince is unmistakable, and this ending while optimistic is not declarative or definitive in any way.


It taps into much of Cocteau’s work, a deep love of the artifice and aestheticism. Surface textures, ornate costuming, proudly arcane special effects, and a pervading sense of romanticism merge with the ways he contorts our expectations. We expect Beauty to be an ethereal creature, one defined by her goodness and self-sacrifice, but Josette Day plays her with subtler shadings. Day excavates a dancer’s grace in Beauty’s movements even when she performs mundane tasks, and a weakness that borders on the hermetic. She’s doomed to a life of servitude towards her vain sisters, ineffectual father, lout brother, and the aggressive romantic advances of his best friend (Jean Marais, in one of his three roles). Day’s transformation from this oppressed creature to romantic figure is startling when you think about the trajectory of the character, but she does it with tremendous ease that you never see her sweat.


But this is as much Jean Marais’ masterpiece as Cocteau’s, and Marais plays his triple role with grace and confidence. He’s a portrait of toxic masculine aggression as Avenant, the beautiful but morally and emotionally empty friend of her brother’s. He’s poised and regal as the handsome prince with his stiff body carriage and posh manners. Yet these two performances are mere adornments to his work as the Beast, one of cinema’s greatest and most essential performances. His Beast is eternally at war with the regal prince trapped inside and the predatory exterior. The makeup job on him is extraordinary, but it’s the way that it frames and highlights his eyes that truly makes it special. Marais’ eyes are his primary means of expression for a long time, along with his hands that frequently signal his suppressed rages or demonstrate an uncommon grace. Beauty and the Beast is made-up of several great artists bringing their highest operating levels to this project, and Marais’ gesticulations, wounded eyes, and erotic screen presence cannot be praised enough here.


And if Beauty and the Beast is best remembered for anything, it’s the never-ending cascade of surreal, painterly images of magical occurrences. The Blood of a Poet had a few of these, but nothing prepares for the transportive powers of Beauty and the Beast’s sequences. There’s the scene where Beauty cries diamonds, one where she emerges from a wall after putting on a magical glove, she floats above the ground in Beast’s castle, and in yet another her clothing transforms from plainclothes to an elaborate gown by entering a doorway. This is but a handful of them, and sights that are even more wondrous as the film goes on. I’m quite fond of the quick glance of spilled pearls creating an elaborate jewel in the Beast’s palm myself.


If only more fantasy films would borrow the lyrical, imaginative tone on display here. It never shies away from the darker elements at play in the fairy tale, and it takes great relish in examining what we desire and fear. It’s romantic, it’s mature in its emotional life, it has an indomitable ability to make the fantastical feel as real as the poverty of its earliest scenes. Fuck Disney, Beauty and the Beast is the definitive film document of a fairy tale, and as close to cinematic nirvana as we can get. 

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The Blood of a Poet

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 7 December 2016 07:26 (A review of The Blood of a Poet)

The Blood of a Poet is surreal, artistic film that moves and breathes like a piece of diegetic poetry and synthesizes mythology. The film builds itself around an artist’s creativity and the myth of Orpheus, chops itself into four chapters, and a series of oneiric images add disorientating flavor. This film may lack the anchor that later Jean Cocteau films like Beauty and the Beast would contain to provide a grounding reason for the hallucinatory and beautiful images, but it’s still a knockout of a debut.


At times it can feel as though the images are a flurry of strangeness that signify nothing so much as mere peculiarities, but that is a surface reaction to the film. Yes, sometimes the images and their connection to the loosely defined narrative are incomprehensible to anyone but Cocteau, but I wouldn’t trade their strange beauty for anything else. Much of The Blood of a Poet is circular in its logic and storytelling devices creating a closed circuit of logic in its feverish ramblings of divine inspiration and madness.


The first section concerns the artist trying to erase a drawing, only to find the mouth he’s erased affixed to his hand. He then transfers this mouth to a statue in his room, and the statue compels him to enter a mirror. Once in the mirror, things go even more topsy-turvy as the crawls across the doorways and peaks in on various odd happenings in different rooms. This underworld compounds an ever escalating series of weird events to increasingly unhinged and dream-like images. Somewhere along the way it all makes an odd sense as you watch, but it’s near incomprehensible to adequately describe to someone else. This is its own type of virtue and beauty.


I gleam the interior struggle to create art and bits and pieces of the Orphic myth, a story that would possess Cocteau enough to create a trilogy around it. This sense of mystery will either wrap around in comfortingly beguiling terms, or keep you at an arm’s length in intellectual frustration. This is a weird film with relatively few straight scenes, and possibly the most avant-garde of his films without a strong tether to a more coherent through line. The Blood of a Poet is deeply unusual, but it’s staggeringly gorgeous and a clear glimpse into Cocteau’s psyche. He paints with off-kilter images, light, and Enrique Rivero’s sensual body and expressive face. It is an imperfect viewing experience, but no less essential for these hindrances.

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Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 6 December 2016 10:15 (A review of Moonlight)

Moonlight is a prime example of the ephemeral and indefinable qualities of “it.” Here is a deeply personal story, sometimes achingly and uncomfortably so about one man’s defining and altering experiences across three different points. It’s just the personal empathy and emotional investment that Moonlight commands of us, but the vibrant direction of Barry Jenkins that makes this such a transforming cinematic experience. Moonlight is what I want more of cinema to aspire to be.


The narrative is fairly slight, but this is not a bad thing. So films are epic tomes of dense plotted incidence, and others are finely detailed character portraits. Moonlight is very much the latter with its trio of performances as the central character, Chiron. I’m not sure which one of the three actors inhabited the role first, but all three of them exhibit the same learned postures and expressive eyes. Chiron is a quiet character, deeply withdrawn and prone to moments of silence where we can only gauge his emotional reactions through the way his shoulders slump, or his eyes plead. This specificity of character is written into the narrative, and Chiron’s emotional and sexual awakenings feel like a lived in truth.


Even better is the ensemble of actors, led by the three people playing Chiron. Alex Hibbert is first as a shy kid, then Ashton Sanders as an awkward teenager, and finally Trevante Rhodes as a wounded adult. Hibbert gets the least amount of dialog and business to do, with much of his performance being merely reactive to the chaos surrounding him, but he’s a knockout. His face contains depths of pain and longing that only deepen the character as it’s passed along and the others borrow this body language. Sanders adds a simmering rage that threatens to explode into violence at any minute, and does as the second section wraps up. Then Rhodes adds more complexity to the character by turning these things into masks for a vulnerable core, and expressing a hesitancy that cracks apart his gruff exterior. He interacts with André Holland beautifully, but Rhodes’ best scene is quite possibly the reactive one where Naomie Harris’ mother apologizes for putting him through a never-ending series of horrors and he softly cries before telling her that she has his forgiveness.


Moonlight is made up of these kind of quiet interactions between characters, and several of them are haunting in how real they feel. Moonlight’s three section focus in on Chiron’s relationships with two people in his life: his abusive, drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and school age friend Kevin (also played by three actors, but most effectively by André Holland as an adult). Many of the scenes involving Harris’ Paula struck something very deep within me, a sense of shared pain and history with this character that felt accurate in its small details. The glimpses of objects and interactions among adults that don’t make sense entirely to your youthful gaze, the sense of emotional indifference or downright hostility from a parent that is entirely misplaced on their part, the deep feeling of being collateral damage in their self-destruction. Moonlight was oddly a soulful affirmation of past traumas in giving life to these shared experiences between myself and Chiron. It was as if someone saw us and what we had endured.


Everyone speaks about Moonlight as a gay drama, and it is, make no mistake. But that tidily fits it into too specific a box, the same way that dubbing it a black or urban drama does as well. This is absolutely revolutionary for the simple fact that it gives voice and presence to queer people to often ignored by the wider media, but this is a towering achievement to the complexity of humanity. There’s no soothing balm here like there would be in something like The Help or Dallas Buyers Club, but there is a shared truth in Chiron’s quest for wholeness and to be seen. This is the type of film that I want to see sweep up Oscars by the armful. None of this is to argue that Moonlight’s blackness and queerness are inessential to the narrative, for they very much are, but an argument that someone who would potentially be wary of a film about those things should rethink that idiotic stance. Moonlight takes pieces of all of those film styles, and twist them around so that the souls of its characters are naked and porous for our understanding.  


The greatness of Moonlight can be neatly traced to the final section’s long scene of re-connection between Kevin and Chiron. This is not an ending for either of them, but an arrival. After the heartbreak, anger, and pathos of the first two segments, this third one is a cleansing baptism and rebirth for both men. Chiron, in particular, finally begins stepping into his authentic self and emotional maturity, perhaps finally going about finally putting his emotional truths forward and gaining perspective on his wants and needs. This last section is also a marked departure from the rest of the film, which was kinetic and chaotic portraits of faces, lights, and music. This last section is more straightforward formalism with a pervading sense of calm, and this is necessary to really underscore the point of re-connection, forgiveness, and awakening.

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