Monthly Archives: January 2015

Ben-Hur – 1959

To celebrate two years of reviewing as many films as I possibly can and sharing them with you, the internet, I will today be reviewing a film worthy of such an honour and many more: Ben-Hur.

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The most expensive film ever made at the time of release, (as the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur was at its time), William Wyler’s 1959 Ben-Hur is a timeless biblical epic. Yet I would postulate that the great success of Ben-Hur lies rather in its secularity, despite being one of the few films blessed by the Vatican. The story of Ben-Hur is not taken from the Bible and so cannot cross into misinterpretation or blasphemy. Jesus himself, despite having a palpable presence and importance in terms of plot is barely seen. He is, as he is for a modern audience, a silent symbol of peace and hope supported by word-of-mouth.

The comparison between the life of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston giving a virtuoso performance) and that of Jesus Christ is implicit in the narrative despite the sparse presence of Jesus. The audience is meant to draw the links themselves. Judah’s passionate desire for the liberation of the Jewish people certainly places him in the same league as Moses and Jesus in terms of motivation. His persecution at the hands of Romans who believe themselves to be superior to the Jewish inhabitants certainly strikes a few more ancient and modern notes. The difference between the story of Judah and that of Jesus is that Judah is not divine. He, naturally, is drawn to revenge and hatred after his ordeals, even losing his faith in God. He is human, like us and no one, not even Jesus and those following Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness blame him. Errare humanum est. Biblically speaking, Judah is a sinner who has turned away from love in his quest for revenge, even if the revenge was fuelled by love, and he is waiting to be saved by Jesus, who suffers without turning to hatred. As such the protagonist is not a Christian figure, nor is he a role model. He is an everyman, dealing with his own issues and seeking repose in faith as the audience might.

The production of this film is so legendary that it’s almost surprising while you watch the film how intimate it feels. The conflicts are not the conflicts of nations, rather they are the arguments between old friends, slaves and masters and even lovers played out by chance on a grand scale. What elevates this film is that every action set piece has higher, non-related motivations. A James Bond car chase has the motivation of escape or capture and maybe life and death, but these are the inherent motivations of a chase, the objectives could not be reached in any other way. Whereas the Ben-Hur chariot race would still be a beautiful set piece and an exciting spectacle, regardless of the character’s motivations, yet the script is woven in such a way that this race is the dramatic climax of Judah Ben-Hur’s life. Yet given that he is playing not for the title but for dignity and revenge it could be just as easily envisaged as a fencing match or a game of chess. His motivations are those of classical tragic conflict. He’s an Odysseus-figure returning to his family and lost love. Jesus is just the deus ex machina leading to his happy ending in the face of despair.

  •  Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5
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Exit Through the Gift Shop – 2010

I love when a film that I always intended to watch gets bumped up my list by a particularly interesting conversation. It’s even better when the film turns out to be totally worth the watch.

2010 Exit through the gift shop (Banksy art) 07Most people I’d heard talk about this film made it seem like some kind of documentary-thriller where Banksy magically turns the tables on a filmmaker and comes out as even cooler than anyone thought he was when he went in. I guess that’s the cult of Banksy speaking, because this film really seems to, if anything make Banksy out as a bit of a fool.

There has of course, given the anonymity of Banksy and the strangeness of the story, been a lot of debate as to whether the whole film is another elaborate hoax. Whether the protagonist is actually Banksy all along or whether any of this actually happened. The arguments for none of it ever happening seem meagre, after all someone was genuinely filming street artists for over ten years. I’m not sure it entirely matters who was filming and I intend to review the film as it presents itself, as truth.

The film follows Thierry Guetta, an enigmatic French second hand clothes seller turned videographer. I don’t say filmmaker because his filming is a habit, a compulsion to record, more than any instinct to create. This man happens to be the cousin of Space Invader, the Parisian street artist and so in his obsessive quest to record and document his own life he winds up filming street art, meeting new street artists and still filming. Eventually he becomes their accomplice and is recording reactions to pieces that the artist themselves would never see. Here the film, being directed by Banksy, takes a turn for the hero-worshipping. The voiceover and editing seem very keen to insist that Guetta was on a hunt for Banksy in order to film him too. Guetta himself is without a doubt interested but seems so wrapped up in his own quest for validation and a continued permission to keep filming that he could have continued for years non-plussed had Banksy not just walked into his life and lens.

Guetta is, as Banksy states, far more interesting as a subject than any plain documentary on street art. He spent years lying to numerous high-profile street artists about a non-existent documentary he was making just to continue filming. The shots of tapes in his house show the terrifying consequences of his obsession. Boxes and boxes of tape, most of it unlabelled, containing years of his life and key moments in the history of an art movement potentially never to be found again. When Banksy takes over these archives he patronisingly tells Guetta to try some art himself. So here are our two protagonists, the hooded man who is our director and the cameraman turned subject.

Guetta takes Banksy’s advice as an order and sets off to become a street artist in his own right. His approach is to take everything he had seen his friends do but to do it bigger and better. His work is at best derivative but through manipulation and clever marketing his Warhol meets Banksy ripoffs become a huge success. Many criticise him for not making the works himself, for having the idea and handing it over to his team of employees, yet earlier we saw Banksy’s crew deconstructing a phone box and no one is throwing the same criticisms at him. Indeed, this system only serves as an argument for the place of Mister Brainwash (Guetta’s adopted street art name) within the art world. After all, Rubens didn’t paint everything himself. He sketched a structure then retouched and signed the painting his apprentices made. Was he any less of an artist?

The film Banksy produces, the film we are watching is undoubtedly the street art documentary Banksy always dreamed of. Of course, he is as a result the star and most interesting street artist that has ever lived: things must always be taken with a small pinch of salt. Strangely, many of the criticisms levelled at Mister Brainwash can equally be levelled at Banksy. He complains that MBW (Mister Brainwash) never had to find his feet as an artist, never had the years of hard graft, but where is his hard graft as a filmmaker? He’s taken ten years of someone else’s footage, slapped his own very marketable name on it and sold it to the masses. Besides, does it matter how long it takes to “find a voice”, or is that just Banksy the snob speaking, hoping that no one realises that he’s as big a scam as MBW? In the end if this buffoon of a man can become a world famous street artist overnight how can Banksy rebuff the “anyone can do that” criticisms?

This isn’t just a documentary about street art. It’s about all art, the right to create, the boundaries placed on creativity by “intellectual property”. It’s a film about artists, how we’ll never really know if they were really inspired or mad or who was ever pulling the strings. That’s for them to know or not know in their thefts and manipulations, all we can do is consume what they give us and exit through the gift shop.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            3/5
  • Intellectual:     5/5

The Wind Rises – 2014

TheWindRises_UKTrailerThe Wind Rises was blown in from Japan with cries of the sad end of an era, this being Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. I myself was not a fan of the Studio Ghibli films and while this may seem both unlikely and shockingly close to heresy for someone who loves animation as a genre I stand by my opinion. In fact what interested me most about this film was the disappointment I heard from long-time Ghibli fans about the lack of whimsy and magic – precisely something that had always bothered me about Ghibli.

It’s true, The Wind Rises is an historical drama and not at all the cutesy fairytale fare the studio has been peddling recently. It’s as if Miyazaki finally had the freedom to make a true, serious film after a life confined to the kids’ table. Elements of this fantasy style remain in dream sequences but the pastel-coloured madness is confined and contrasted to a much bleaker story of Japan in crisis. There’s a subtlety in this film that has seemed absent from some of the more recent Ghibli films like Ponyo and Arrietty. Even the skill of the animation to portray shortsightedness onscreen is laudable.

Miyazaki does well to distance himself from the politics of the situation, after all this could be seen as a war film, with the majority of the action taking place around the design of the Japanese fighter planes. Furthermore he places his protagonists in the Great Kanto Earthquake and the tuberculosis epidemic. It’s hard to imagine how a film can remain neutral and universally acceptable with these reference points. However Miyazaki’s angle is far more from the aesthetic and technical perspective. Better yet he stays in an individual and human experience, a human who has a higher purpose than to involve himself in such issues too deeply. Through Jiro Miyazaki explores the difficulty of genius, the art of mathematics and the eternal obsession that ambition creates. After all, if, as the film proclaims, you only have ten years of creativity, what is the sense in spending it doing anything but creating? There are moments where the film gets bogged down in a little too much technical detail for those of us who are unfamiliar and indifferent to riveting techniques but these are few and far between. The rest of the film leaves no room for boredom with its swells of music and elegant animation.

The title is taken from a poem by Paul Valery, a call to arms to live, to create in the face of death. The film also delivers just that with great aplomb. It’s a love story, but in the end the love of earthly things, even his wife is not enough for Jiro, an aeronautical engineer. His calling is creation and the immortality that comes with creating beauty. He neglects his sister throughout his whole life and, despite being a kind and generous man, never ceases to spend more time with his aeroplanes than with his dying wife. For Jiro everything in life fades, the cities can be destroyed, peace and war circle on and those you love die. The only constant is the dream that he tries to live, since the only time when the dreams can fade away is when the dreamer is no longer around to dream them.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5