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Film Festival Day 16, 09/08/2014

One of the things that the various doppelganger movies made me think about is the fact that my internal picture of myself is not very closely aligned with what I actually look like; if I saw my double, I might not recognize him.  I mean, in my mind’s eye, I’m the same shape I was in my mid-twenties… which was not in shape, you understand, but the silhouette was quite different.  On the other hand, I daresay I’d find myself annoying if I met myself — there are no flaws as annoying as our own flaws reflected in other people.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Someone with the with the flaw of “constantly trying to stab people in the face” would probably be more annoying than all of my current flaws.

I hope.

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I am in sympathy with the general message behind Alphabet, that excessive testing and training tends to dull the love of learning, rather than increase it, and that any system that trades high performance for increased student suicides is doing something wrong. (Their example country was China; I am surprised, given their one-child policy, that there is not more of an outcry about this.)  Preschools giving out homework, kids envying parents because the parents got to watch TV and sleep in when weekends roll around… these are clear signals that something isn’t right.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that I am completely on board with some of the other messages of the film.  For example, I’m glad that the man who had no formal schooling (neither mainstream nor homeschooling) was able to get so much out of the experience, but when he talked about learning about electromagnets by taking about his electric train, and reading things in his mother’s encyclopedia, it caused me to wonder how this was meant to work for kids who don’t have trains or encyclopedias lying around the house.  How can basically artisanal learning/teaching techniques be scaled up to work for lots of people, rather than for one or two?

While I remember enjoying most tests, I think that those who decry the movement away from competition in schools (and some of the attempts to do so) are suffering from a fundamental paradigm mistake.  It’s not the case that you cheapen victory by giving everyone a “you tried” medal — it’s that sometimes, “victory” is the wrong model for what you’re trying to do.  You don’t “win” at painting, you paint, and you don’t have to paint with a goal in mind for painting to be fun and worthwhile.

So… plenty of stuff to think about, but I didn’t entirely agree with it.

* * *

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet wasn’t what I was expecting, in a good way.  From the style of the images, I was expecting something quirky and light, something aimed at a younger audience, along the lines of, say, Matilda.  It was certainly something quirky, but I found it a lot more textured than I expected, with a lot more going on — more Moonrise Kingdom than Fantastic Mr Fox, to pick two Wes Anderson movies at random.

I liked the way it used 3D; I liked its depiction of the parent’s relationship; and I liked all the little moments that weren’t over-used. For example, the use of quick scenes to externalize internal conflicts — at one point, we see T.S. imagining himself at a literal crossroads, with signs pointing to “The Prairie of Truth” and “The Mountains of Lies”.  The father is a cowboy, taciturn but not menacing; the mother is a entomologist, living in her head but still making sure everyone is at the table for dinner.  And there were all the little touches, like the talk-show host that brings out the perpetual motion machine for the studio audience to see, and then offhandedly signals someone to stop it.

It was fun, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

* * *

When you realize that Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast was made in 1946, it’s quite astonishing; he makes excellent use of a whole toolbox of cinematic tricks to bring the magic of the Beast’s situation to life.  The acting is still more theatrical than cinematic, but that’s appropriate for the story they want to tell; and the arms strewn throughout the Beast’s castle, holding candlesticks that light themselves or drawing back curtains, give the setting an appropriately unsettling air.  And some neat teleportation, and flying off into the clouds, and… all sorts of neat stuff.

The brother of the three sisters is an odd addition, in that the dialogue sometimes seems to forget he exists.  I mean, he serves the role of heightening the stakes for their father (by having gambling debts), and allows the Gaston-a-like to have a reason to be hanging around the family, as well as being the way that the greedy sisters can be mocked; but he is more like a Greek chorus than a character.

But then you get Beauty saying to the Beast: “I don’t mind being afraid — if it’s with you.”  Aces!

Later that night, I got to have an interesting discussion with some smart people (Morgue and Jack, among others) about whether it was possible to have the Beauty and the Beast story done in a non-problematic way.  I mean, there is a valuable point in there about not taking others at face value; but how do you disentangle it from the whole Stockholm syndrome aspect?  Can you make sure there’s a strong “you don’t have to put up with his bullshit” message, but still keep the story?  I mean, there are some obvious things — it feels like the reason that Beauty has to stay has to be external to the Beast, otherwise that’s a piece of dickery that may be insurmountable.  It’s something I might pick away at.

I liked the film, but I think I’d have to be in a very particular mood to watch it again.

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I have to learn that when the website calls a film “darkly funny”, they mean “there are some bits where you’ll laugh, but mostly it’s depressing”.

Leviathan was very, very Russian.  “You should drink less,” says one character solemnly; and then she refills his glass with vodka.  Or bringing portraits of former Russian leaders to a shooting party as targets — but no-one too recent, since they need time to “mature”.  Or the husband, when asked whether he’s sober enough to drive, declaring, “Of course!  I’m a traffic cop!”

But also because of the local politician with the police and judges in his pocket, sneering at the little people who he describes are weevils, furious that they have the temerity to temporarily frustrate his plans.  And the lawyers and judges, quick to rattle off chapter and verse of Russian law, even though it becomes apparent that it only has force when it is convenient for those in power.  And the ambiguous position of the Russian Orthodox church, counseling both sides… with the little person told to take comfort in the story of Job, while the politician is treated to a lavish meal and hand-held.  Or simply the run-down state of the village, from the rotting ships to the crumbling buildings.

The film-maker is angry at the state of Russia today, and reasonably so.  This does not make for a cheerful film.

I liked it, but I’m not sure I enjoyed it.

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I didn’t see It Follows.  I went to a triple 40th birthday party instead. 🙂

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