The Dreamers

Last night, I was privy to one of those ‘underground films’ that most ‘norms’ don’t really know about or ‘appreciate’. You know the type I mean, incredibly arty, metaphorical stuff that initially gives off the heady aroma of pretention. Oh and nudity; never forget nudity! As I searched for meaning among the mess, I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t such a revelatory film after all.

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It’s a film by old people for old people starring young people. The director is one Bernado Bertolucci, a stalwart of the industry who directed Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor to his credit. The film seems to assume a lot about its audience, specifically:

  • that they are aware of the many protests happening about what I deem to be ‘stuff’ in 1968 (I wasn’t);
  • that hippies at the time tried to protest with sex and drugs and things that, on the whole, don’t really help anyone (I sort of knew this);
  • that the audience themselves longed for this kind of free sex ideology (a much more complicated issue than I can explain between two parentheses).

The film casts us back to Paris, 1968 where the young American Matthew (Michael Pitt) discovers the twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) who invite him to stay with them. He discovers that they lead a very lackadaisical Bohemian lifestyle, for example, having no inhibitions about being nude in front of each other. The twins eventually accept him as ‘one of us’ – taking a quote from Freaks – and then they just seem to hang out. Matthew starts bonking Isabelle, as you’d expect, and Theo doesn’t seem too happy about this. When Theo bonks another girl, Isabelle and her gorgeous bosoms doesn’t like it either. Of course, this is displayed in an aesthetically pleasing yet morally ambiguous style, but to me it doesn’t carry much weight. To make reference to the title, it’s clear that the three of them are ‘dreaming’; they are woken up from their ‘dream world’ of sex and decadence when a brick is thrown through their window alerting them to the presence of a revolution going on outside. Though the two men had ideals of zero violence, Theo joins in the fray anyway because… I dunno, ’cause he wants to I suppose.

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It’s weird, because I don’t think the three of them seem to care about politics at all. They pretend to do so, but actually spend their whole day wrapped up in each other in their apartment being hippies. The twins lead a hedonistic lifestyle, but it’s all a sham; deep inside they realise that this is socially unacceptable behaviour. While Matthew is shy at first, he eventually becomes more of a hippy than either of them.

Why? Why are they doing this? To me it simply seems that they are trying to show off to each other that they are more pretentious and free-spirited than one-another which is hardly a desirable aspect of a person. In my mind, acting in this fashion may have been trendy in the late 60s but seems nonsensical now. Though having sex with Vesper Lynd and her giant areolas from Casino Royale seems desirable, most men understand that making love to a girl in front of her twin brother is just a little wrong. The reasons are too numerous to explain. Yet Matthew simply caves in to desire. Bertolucci seeks to explain that this kind of behaviour doesn’t get anybody anywhere. Umm, duh!

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This is why I think it’s a film aimed at old people. People who lived through this era when free sex seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately, it focuses too much on the positive aspects of having contact time with those pendulous bosoms, and not on the sane reasons for why most people don’t behave in such a fashion. It’s a reminder to hippies of days gone by why it would never have worked after all, but it means nothing in today’s society where people, on the whole, don’t just have sex when they feel like it. The lessons this film teach us are too obvious, and the characters that teach us are exactly the opposite of contemporary. However, Eva Green is pretty hot when she’s naked, which is more than enough reason to go and see this film.

The Room

Johnny stirred. He not only stirred his medium hot chocolate, like the ones made by Susan at the Double Rainbow café, but he also stirred from his Room. The Room was what Johnny called the private place in his head where he went to escape from the world; he could go there, and he would often have a good time, occasionally a bad time, but it was nonetheless a safe place. It wasn’t a room, it was THE Room.

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He was in fact in the middle of a business meeting at the bank he worked at in San Francisco. He had been musing to himself how ironic it was that, seven years ago, this very bank wouldn’t cash his $2,000 cheque on account of it being from an out-of-state bank. Now, they were discussing his very ideas that they had recently put into practice and which were continuing to save them bundles. “That’s life!” he thought happily to himself.

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Denny was snorting the lines of coke that Chris R had given him. Since the untimely death of his parents when he was 18, he had been consoling himself by the use of hard drugs, which he paid for with the money he swindled from his neighbours Johnny and Lisa, claiming it was for his tuition. Johnny had been inexplicably kind to Denny since picking him up from an orphanage, with the intent to adopt him. Denny didn’t care as he was getting a free apartment, free money and the chance to get close to the sensual Lisa, whose powerful lustre never seemed to diminish, despite those rather manly hands. Oh, how he wanted to kiss her and tell her that he loved her; she just looked so beautiful in a red dress. To make sure he didn’t appear to pose a threat, he had invented an imaginary girlfriend for himself, Elizabeth, to fool Johnny, but he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up appearances. After finishing the lines, he experienced the regular rush, the feeling of supremacy, the removal of the boundaries. “Maybe this time,” he thought, “Johnny and Lisa will have a threesome with me!”

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Claudette opened the letter, addressed to her from the hospital on Guerrero Street. “We are sorry to inform you…” Breast cancer. Brilliant. This was just what she needed while her brother Harold hassled her for a share of her house. Fifteen years ago, they’d agreed that the house had belonged to her, but now the value was going up and he was seeing dollar signs. At the same time her ex-husband Edward, a well-paid actor, had been discussing to the media about how she’d simply married him to take his money, and had never loved him at all. While he’d been devastated about the divorce, she’d simply written him off as a hateful man. On top of this, her daughter’s future husband, Johnny, had refused to help her friend, Shirley Hamilton, with the down payments towards her new house, saying it was an “awkward situation”. She’d always seen him as a son-in-law and was angered that he wouldn’t help what she saw as ‘family’. Her relationship with her sole daughter Lisa had been growing colder too, although she couldn’t put her finger on why. “Perhaps I ought to reveal that I never wanted to marry her father,” she wondered “before it’s all too late.” She hadn’t been happy since she’d married her first husband, and it didn’t look like things were going to get better.

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Peter moped around his apartment. He was a telemarketer, but was often mistaken for a psychologist, due to his impersonal demeanour, his ability to give bland, vague advice and his round spectacles. “I really ought to change these damn glasses,” he thought to himself. Despite telling people earnestly that he was just their friend, his ‘clients’ would never take the hint. His friends Mark and Johnny were completely under this illusion, but he was beginning to suspect that they were just teasing him. He wasn’t going to stand for it much longer, though. He decided that, if they made fun of him one more time, he’d leave San Francisco for good. At that moment, Johnny called him.

“Oh, hi, Peter!”

“Oh, hey, Johnny what’s up?” Peter replied.

“I need you to buy a new tux by Friday.”

“Why?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Seriously Johnny, what’s going on? These are tuxes we’re talking about?”

“You must be kidding, aren’t you? I’ll see you later. Bye!”

Johnny was actually riding the San Francisco cable car while he made the call; his white Mercedes was at the cleaners. He was feeling ecstatic and had decided to buy Lisa, his future wife, a little something on the way home. He treated her like a princess. He considered buying her a dozen red roses from Anniversary Flowers & Gifts, where he was their favourite customer – they used the petals for romantic, passionate, cheesy sex – but he realised they still had one more rose to go from the last dozen. Like a television falling out of a window it hit him: why not a new dress? He arrived at the entrance to a clothes store, and prepared for battle. In one quick flash, he opened the door, found a red dress that looked about the right size, walked up to the counter, asked the price, forked out the first note he found in his wallet, requested that they kept the change, greeted the store’s mascot chinchilla, and abruptly left. The girl behind the counter was still flabbergasted that he had paid for a $60 dress with a $100 bill. Johnny very much disliked being inside shops; he detested every minute of it, considering the act of browsing to be an “awkward situation”.

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Mark had also received a similar call from Johnny, his best friend. He stroked his thick, manly beard, pondering what the tuxedo might be for; while the tux would come in useful for Johnny and Lisa’s imminent wedding, Mark suspected that his best friend just wanted to try a new twist on the old ‘toss the American football’ game they had been playing so much recently. He had just allowed Lisa to come and clean his apartment; she was a woman after all, a woman who lived in the same building. He noticed her cornflower blue top and her jet black skirt with the dangerously high vent and at one point he could have sworn that he saw her wink at him. He thought of Betty, his girlfriend, and what she’d say if he knew there was an attractive woman in his apartment. It would inevitably end in another row, but then again, it always did. Why couldn’t she leave her stupid comments in her pocket? She wasn’t any good in bed; she was beautiful, but they had too many arguments. As far as he was concerned, she could drop off the earth; that was a promise. As Lisa turned to leave the apartment, she caught his eye and her hand brushed his. “What are you doing?” he asked, but she’d already left the room. He pondered whether women liked to cheat like guys do and came to the conclusion that women were either too smart, flat-out stupid or just evil.

Lisa felt embarrassed with herself; Mark hadn’t liked that. For weeks she had been trying to find ways of flirting with men, but to no avail. As nice as he was, Johnny was simply too boring for her; he planned to buy her a house for goodness’ sakes, how boring is that? She’d been together with him for over five years now; seven, to be precise. She remembered the day she met him: he was but a lowly busboy who greeted her whilst she sat and had her coffee at a local hotel. “Oh, hi, stranger,” he had inquired, “You have nice legs!” Charmed by his forwardness, she joked that he had nice pecs and agreed to go on a date with him, but was dismayed when she found she had to pay for dinner, Johnny complaining about some cheque that had bounced. Nevertheless, they had continued seeing each other, but life had fallen into a turgid cycle. “If he uses rose petals during sex one more time, I’m going to ditch this creep!” she muttered to herself.

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As she entered her apartment, her friends Mike and Michelle made their way out, apologetically. Chuckling to herself and considering the scent of chocolate and semen in the air, Lisa ignored once again the chore of replacing the default photos of cutlery that were in the frames on the side table. She noticed a letter of rejection on the floor from the IT company she’d applied for. “Due to your evident lack of experience…” Johnny was right; the computer business was too competitive. She moved to the kitchen to pour herself a large scotchka – scotch and vodka – before sitting back down in the living room.

As Johnny walked the remaining distance to his house, with the red dress in a leopard-skin-printed box in his left hand, he once again entered his Room. He thought of how wonderful his life was: he had a beautiful future wife, who he was to marry in just over a month – he made a mental note to look up the word for ‘future wife’; he had a bounteous job, and was sure he would get that promotion soon; he had a wonderful set of friends who would never betray him; and his imminent birthday was the cherry on top. How could anything go wrong? He opened the door to his apartment. “Hi, babe.”

Thus begins The Room, probably my favourite film of all time. It’s a film beyond words, yielding the highest praise whilst deserving the most vehement criticism. It’s a film so indisputably poor in its concept and execution that it becomes paradoxically more entertaining than it could have ever been otherwise. It’s an impeccable disasterpiece, with each minute as memorable and hilarious as the last, and it’s all from the genius/incompetence of one man: Tommy Wiseau.

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Wiseau is the film’s writer, director, producer, executive producer and lead actor, so almost every beautiful, flawed facet can be accredited to him. He paints an immersive parallel San Francisco, where the title of a movie can be entirely independent of its contents; where a daughter, upon hearing her mother has breast cancer, can simply brush it off, claiming “They’re curing lots of people every day.”; where, before a scene ends, at least half of the characters must leave the scene first; where it takes only a couple of minutes to bring a hardened criminal to the police station and walk back; where people throw American footballs from three feet apart, or in tuxedos; and where a man brutally shoving another person into a bin on account of him saying the word ‘underwear’ can possibly be seen as an accident.

The film follows Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) and Lisa (Juliette Danielle), the latter cold-heartedly cheating on her partner with his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero), and the former unable to process why his future wife has grown so cold to him. But this isn’t your average Hollywood linear story telling. Wiseau adds texture, cinematic gristle, by adding a load of random subplots that go nowhere, including themes of cancer, drugs and underwear. The film is captivating in its pointlessness. The audience cranes to hear every individual detail they can about, for example, the enigmatic Denny (Philip Haldiman), and are left to solve the myriad of unanswered questions that the film dishes out so generously. Additionally, upon each watch, new facets become apparent to the viewer, with subtle themes running throughout the piece becoming more visible and enjoyable. Perhaps there is real genius hidden within, although I doubt it.

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But it’s not just the film itself that causes so much mirth, but nearly everything to do with it as well. In an interview, Tommy Wiseau admitted that The Room was the result of almost 20 years of work. How ironic that, in the film, his character says to Denny “Don’t plan too much. It may not come out right.” Wiseau has also admitted to dishing out $6 million to fund this amazing shambles, with a sizeable proportion of the money going into a giant billboard of the man’s striking countenance. Arrested Development actor David Cross was intrigued by this. “Will Arnett and I would always see the billboard and be like, ‘What the fuck is that thing?'” Furthermore, Wiseau chose to shoot the film in its entirety using a regular 35mm camera and an expensive digital HD camera side by side, as he apparently had no idea which would give the best results. Worryingly, this could potentially lead to the release of the film in 3D.

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The DVD package itself is just as entertaining as the film. As if that magical number needed to be seen any more, the film is split into a staggering 42 scenes on the DVD. Some of these contain hilarious typos, such as #17 Chis-R and #21 “You are tearing me a part, Lisa!”, while some seem thematically identical, e.g. #4 Johnny and Lisa’s Love Scene and #13 Love Scene Between Johnny and Lisa. The blurb itself could have been written by a five year old, with the choice sentence being “You could be with your loving woman and all of a sudden BOOM! She’s in bed with your best friend or a family member.” Fact: Lisa doesn’t sleep with any of Johnny’s family members in this film.

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The fascinating six-minute interview with Tommy Wiseau reveals less about the film than it does about the psyche of the man himself. Under the assumption that he conducted this interview himself, it seems very strange that he’d choose to answer the negative questions such as “What do you think about the negative reviews and opinions about The Room?” and “Why are the characters playing football in tuxedos, and why just three feet apart?” Surely on this tack we could ask him “Why does nobody care about Claudette’s breast cancer?” or “Does Denny ever get repercussions from his drug abuse?”, but Wiseau doesn’t stray here. In fact, this is hardly the weirdest thing about the interview; even more strangely, he strongly edits the answers he gives, with noticeable cuts in between his sentences. Towards the end of the interview, he even starts dubbing himself. What is going on? Occasionally, his answers even seem to contradict themselves; when asked if The Room is for everyone, he says “Definitely not,” and then continues to recommend the film to all Americans, saying they should see it twice.

However, my favourite aspect of this movie is how it has brought me closer to the friends I have seen it with. The reason they put cringeworthy jokes in Christmas crackers is to bring the family closer together; if one person’s joke was better than another’s then there’d be an undesirable feeling of competition in the air. Also, even the best jokes can leave people alienated; what is funny to someone may not be funny to another. Similarly, anybody can dispute the quality of what is supposedly a ‘good film’, but nobody can deny the many flaws of The Room, and everybody arrives at the same conclusion. In this way, there’s always a sense of unity in the room when watching The Room. It’s this unity I have enjoyed twelve times over, either with close friends or in a hall full of so-called ‘Roomies’. These experiences amount to the best time I’ve ever had watching a movie, which is why it is probably my favourite film of all time.

The Hunger Games

On Wikipedia, there’s a massive paragraph in the article on Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games, arguing why it is not a Battle Royale rip-off. A quote from Collins suggests “I had never heard of that book or that author until my book was turned in. At that point, it was mentioned to me, and I asked my editor if I should read it. He said: ‘No, I don’t want that world in your head. Just continue with what you’re doing’.” Much as I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, I find it highly unlikely that she never once decided to do an Internet search of her chosen subject, which is essentially a load of dystopian teenagers fighting in a massive arena. Anyway, it’s a moot point as both films have now been made, and The Hunger Games simply wilts in the wake of it’s awesome oriental predecessor.

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While the main plot is the same, the set-up is a bit different, and much more boring. We follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a rather intense and unfriendly girl who is good at hunting. We’re in a dystopian future where, every year, a reality show called The Hunger Games is broadcast to the nation for entertainment. No points for guessing what happens in these ‘Games’. Katniss volunteers herself for them after her younger sister is chosen.

Now, the comparisons can begin. When I watched the film, I thought that this was a Hollywood remake of Battle Royale gone wrong. Even though I know that the films supposedly have nothing to do with each other, I can’t help comparing them. For one thing, whilst the action in Battle Royale starts after about twenty minutes – and before that there’s a gritty murder and other exciting stuff – we have to wait an excruciating 65 minutes before the start of the so-called Hunger Games. What happens before then? Some reality TV shit. Contestants meet with an annoying blue-haired version of whatever Dara O’Briain is to The Apprentice. Katniss isn’t nice to people. Whoop-de-fucking-do. GET ON WITH IT!

And then, when the games start, they aren’t that good anyway. The problem with this film is that it takes itself far too seriously. In Battle Royale they got the tone just right. The idea of teenagers killing each other because some authority says so is quite ridiculous, so those Japanese producers made a ridiculous movie. The sombre tones and grim feel of this movie is aggravating, not least because the characters aren’t that interesting to begin with. The movie ends with the two lead characters simply winning the contest. That’s it? They win? How awfully predictable. I was hoping for a bit more than that, Collins. For a far more interesting ending, see Battle Royale.

I simply don’t rate this movie whatsoever. The idea is interesting, but is executed in such a dull fashion that I gave up paying attention before the Games had even begun. Battle Royale is where it’s at. End of.

Battle Royale

I like Japan. I’m not Nippon crazy or anything, but I do have a healthy respect for the country that has given us PlayStations, sushi and such wonderful films as Seven Samurai and Grave of the Fireflies. I also like Japan because from a Western outlook, it seems completely nutty; let’s not forget TV shows like Takeshi’s Castle, Pitagora Suichi, or that prank show where they pretended to murder a businessman’s friends in front of him for laughs. Indeed, it takes a fuming white guy on the Internet to remind us that actually Japan isn’t really that weird. Nevertheless, further evidence of Japan’s idiosyncrasies comes in the form of Battle Royale, the film based on the book by Koushun Takami.

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Set in a dystopian future, 42 schoolchildren, who are supposedly on a school trip, are kidnapped and knocked out. When they wake up, they have radio controlled bracelets around their necks and are in a classroom. An angry man with the demeanour of an army general walks into the room and explains to the students that they are part of a scheme called Battle Royale to select the strongest person in the room via a deathmatch. Each student is given a backpack containing a random item ranging from deadly machine guns to useless coat hangers. The neck bracelets can be detonated at any time, instantly killing the wearer. The ‘teacher’ hears a student whispering and throws a knife right into her skull, killing her. “Girl #18 Fujiyoshi – dead, 41 to go” read the Japanese subtitles. And so the battle begins!

Bluntly put, it’s a visceral action film, but with tremendous creativity, and many different styles of action. Explosions, martial arts and weapon fights are all embraced in this spectacular film. After every fight scene the names of those dead are listed, explaining how many contestants are left. None of the contestants’ deaths are unaccounted for, and most have their own individual story. It’s well put together and keeps momentum throughout. A very fun and memorable movie.

(500) Days of Summer

As Tommy Wiseau once said, entertainment is a process of learning, and to me, learning comes in many different forms, even if it’s learning that you didn’t know as much about a subject as you thought you did. (500) Days of Summer purports not to be a love story, but a story about love. The thing that makes it stand out from other so-called ‘love stories’ is that it doesn’t merely show two individuals finding each other and living happily ever after, but instead deconstructs what is, from outward appearances, a perfectly normal relationship. I don’t think many people can claim to be an authority on love or relationships in many different ways, and to see how ideologies of relationships can contrast is not only interesting but highly thought-provoking. At many points during this film, there were scenes that seemed to correspond to my own personal life, or the life of a friend. I too know someone who was rejected, with the rejecter claiming they weren’t interested in relationships only to get engaged weeks later.

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Our protagonist is Tom, played by the marvellous Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor who continues to grow on me. In this film, I can personally relate to him very well; he has low self confidence, he believes that love is a real thing that will happen to him one day and he falls for women too quickly. The romantic interest is Summer, played by the ravishing Zooey Deschanel. I dislike when films choose beautiful actresses to play the roles of supposedly ordinary-looking women, as it just doesn’t fit – I’m looking at you, Anne Hathaway in One Day. This film gets it right; Summer is a very beautiful girl, who gets a short intro saying how she turns heads on buses and gets better deals on apartments based on her looks. As a result, she is more confident and cocky than girls you might usually meet, but not to the point of being bitchy. She doesn’t believe in love, and just sees relationships as things that happen without much meaning. It’s this dichotomy that really drives the film philosophically. Can either of them be right? Are they both right?

Let’s face it, romance in films is shit. How many times have you seen the formula: guy meets girl; guy falls in love with girl; guy eventually gets girl (after some possible troubles); the end? What about when an action film randomly ends with the male and female leads kissing, without their having ever mentioned any desire to each other beforehand? It’s rather demoralising to see film character after film character have their way, making my romantic endeavours seem rather puny in comparison. It’s a good thing I don’t pay that much attention to what films tell me then. Still, it’s refreshing to see, in (500) Days, a relationship whose ideals don’t match up to those imposed by countless Hollywood writers. For example, when a lout hits on Summer in a bar, Tom feels compelled to stand up and deliver a fist right to his face. Contrary to expectation, Summer is not only nonplussed, but actually disappointed in Tom for doing so. Her reasons are multifarious, but aren’t unclear. It’s great to see a more realistic reaction to the situation than just pointless crowd-pleasing sex. Speaking of sex, there is a amazing musical scene set the day after Tom first makes love to Summer, replete with dancing pedestrians and animated bird. Having been there myself, I can easily relate to that sense of elation and say that I felt the same way too. Good on you, movie!

Nevertheless, one of the main aspects of the movie is that the two break up, an act they show near the beginning of the film, which occurs somewhere between Day 282 and Day 290. It’s pretty raw, but seems just as ordinary as any other break-up, especially when we haven’t seen what’s come before. Nevertheless, throughout the movie, Tom fumes at having been dumped, believing that she was the one. He coincidentally meets her again, and realises he still has a connection with her, and she invites him to a party. In an amazingly well-put-together scene, the film shows the universe of Tom’s expectation alongside the reality of the party. No points for guessing which one has the ‘better’ outcome. Though from outward appearances it may seem gimmicky, it again corresponds to aspects of my life, and hence makes complete sense.

The final scene containing the two characters happens after Summer gets married. Ever felt afraid of running into your ex? The conversation naturally drifts into Tom saying that he doesn’t understand how Summer can suddenly get married, when she broke up with Tom for not believing in love and relationships. Incredibly, and satisfyingly, her answers are exactly the same sort of bullshit that I’ve heard from other people when trying to explain their reasons for leaving: “It’s not you it’s me,” “It just happened” etc. If the excuses made sense, it wouldn’t be realistic. Incredibly though, the dichotomy of the ideology of love has been completely reversed. Summer now believes in fate and love, while Tom has become disenfranchised. Excellent. I will admit that the couple’s very last exchange brought to the verge of tears, simply because they said it so truthfully and selflessly, a true act of humanity.

Unfortunately, the scene after that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, although I do understand the decision to put it in. By this point, the audience are aware that there is no redemption for Tom and Summer, which is how it should be. Relationships don’t always work out. Nevertheless, the next scene sees Tom asking out a new girl, coincidentally called Autumn, as the days counter reverts from 500 back to 1. The scene suggests that Tom can only finally get over Summer by finding a new girl, which isn’t always an option in reality. If I could magically find a new girl, that’d be amazing, but realistically, I have to look for other ways to cope. I personally would have liked to see Tom consoling himself by telling himself once and for all that Summer is not a necessary part of his life, and that singledom is a viable option. But that wouldn’t be ‘happy’, would it?!

All in all, I found this to be a once-in-a-blue-moon interesting and thought-provoking romance film. In a sadistic way, I prefer seeing onscreen breakups to onscreen romantic bliss, if only because there is usually a lot more of one than the other. This is a film I could take ideas away from and challenge my own perception of what makes a relationship. It’s a one-sided film, with everything seen from Tom’s point of view; I’d quite like to see a companion piece, to fully understand just how Summer sees the whole thing, and maybe her ‘bullshit’ replies would finally make more sense. These two pieces together could unlock a wealth of philosophical insights into love and relationships, but alas, we merely see the one side here. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this film very much; the ability to compare a Hollywood film with my own life is rare but useful. Thank you very much Emma for the recommendation!

The Elephant Man

While I continue on the topic of freaks, it’s worthwhile mentioning The Elephant Man, David Lynch’s biopic of Joseph Merrick – referred to as John Merrick in the film – who was arguably the most famous freak in history. With massive deformities occurring nearly everywhere on his body, Merrick was doomed to live a very abnormal life, but Lynch brings some hope into the despair.

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Unlike Freaks, where the presence of so-called ‘freaks’ are displayed unashamedly from the start, Lynch decides to take care when revealing the titular character, only showing his mask or his shadow at first. We wonder if he’s so disfigured in his appearance that it would be sickening to see him. However, when we do finally see him, there’s no dramatic music, just the man himself. It wasn’t that horrible after all, and we completely lose our prejudice that Merrick is anything other than a harmless person with a terrible deformity. It’s a great reveal.

The film seems Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) take Merrick (John Hurt) from the circus, where he is mistreated by his manager Bytes (Freddie Jones), so that he can be examined and lead a better life. His life on the whole gets better, but he is incessantly troubled by prejudice and people who simply do not understand him. Throughout, Merrick remains a meek and kind individual, a perfect gentleman, which is staggering when you factor in  what he’s been through. At one point, Treves asks himself whether he is a good man, as he believes he has merely brought Merrick out of the streets to be paraded in front of scientists and the high-life, a higher form of circus perhaps. However, the question is quickly dismissed, ending an interesting line of thought in the film.

Satisfyingly, Lynch draws from his previous film, Eraserhead, for inspiration. The similarities cannot be denied: both are shot in black and white, although in the case of The Elephant Man I wonder if this was done to help the illusion of John Hurt’s extensive make-up. The industrial backdrop of Victorian-era Britain is undeniably similar to Eraserhead also. Occasionally, there is an intense ambient industrial backdrop too. However, to say the two films were alike would be utterly fallacious.

The Elephant Man was by all means a good film, although I felt that its messages of humanity seemed a bit obvious. The only interesting question was that posed in the middle of the film by Treves, but that didn’t seem to get much of a look-in. I find it interesting that the posters make it look like a horror film, as The Elephant Man is anything but. Definitely not as good as Eraserhead, but certainly a lot more accessible!

Freaks

Before I continue my discussion on David Lynch, I thought we’d take a step back to the Thirties with one of the weirdest, darkest and most controversial films I’ve seen. It’s so controversial that the version I saw had 26 minutes cut out. It’s Freaks by director Tod Browning, and a movie I am never likely to forget.

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The film is set in a circus, where a trapeze artist by the name of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) marries a sideshow midget, Hans (Harry Earles), after realising he has a large inheritance. She cheats on him and generally mocks him until the so-called ‘freaks’ get their own back. The unique feature of this early movie is that Tod Browning decided to enlist people with actual deformities to act as the ‘freaks’ rather than using costumes and make up. Examples of ‘freaks’ are the midgets, who look like children despite being roughly 30; the pinheads; Siamese twins; Josephine Joseph, the half woman half man; Peter Robinson, the human skeleton; Elizabeth Green, the stork woman; and last but not least, Prince Randian, the human torsos. Totally limbless, he has an excellent scene where he lights a cigarette entirely using his mouth, as you can see below.

Of course, the film caused quite a scandal in its time, with one woman complaining that the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage. In today’s enlightened times however, we can afford to reassess this largely misunderstood work. It’s certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing film, and it is rather morally ambiguous – the freaks turn Cleopatra into a grotesque ‘human duck’ by the end. But it does highlight forms of discrimination and challenges the audience to think about how we perceive people with gross deformities – that’s ‘gross’ as in large, not as in disgusting. Tod Browning was very forward thinking to have placed these individuals in his film, ahead of so-called ‘normal’ people as this really makes the film even more powerful and justifiable. The very fact that the audience of the Thirties couldn’t handle the film shows just how much it needed to be made.

The saving grace of this peculiar and occasionally rather amateur film is that it is not exploitative, but rather empowering. If you feel queasy seeing a person with microcephalia, then this movie leads you to ask yourself why. For a Thirties movie, it was actually rather ahead of its time.