Werner Herzog once referred to “Lessons of Darkness” as a science fiction film, and I can see why. The hellish landscapes of pitch-black oil fields interrupted by fountains of fire look like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic future where man orchestrated his own demise. Strangely enough, the subject matter is not that far off; the film documents the death of a city in a world where humanity ceases to exist.
It starts with an aerial shot of a city in Kuwait; the words that Herzog chooses to say over his footage sets up the rest of the film masterfully. “Something is looming over this city, the city that will soon be laid waste by war. Now it is still alive, biting its time; nobody has yet begun to suspect the impending doom.” What a way to start a documentary, it instantly puts you at a time and place. At first, it felt like I was looking at a city not unlike the one I live in, but after that opening statement, I realized the significance of what I was seeing. I was looking at the rare footage of city that is no more, a city that got wiped off the face of the Earth.
What follows cannot be described, it has to be seen to be believed. The visuals here pack the grandiosity of anything we’ve seen in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The only difference is, this is real, and it’s not outer space, it’s the tip of the Persian Gulf. “Lessons of Darkness” is a symphony of light and shadow, an operatic vision filled with nightmarish visuals that look like paintings of another distant planet. This is the most well-photographed anti-war film I have ever seen; nothing else compares.
Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” is a documentary that has been imitated countless times but never surpassed, and maybe never quite equaled either. Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of this important piece of filmmaking, went on to direct his own films like “Baraka” and “Samsara”, but for some reason they lacked the philosophical depth that a mind like Godfrey Reggio brought to the table. “Koyaanisqatsi” is more than just a series of breathtaking images stitched up together; it feels like a poetic visual essay. There’s a message behind all the beautiful imagery and it is conveyed without uttering a single word of dialogue. Our first clue is the title, a Hopi Indian word that translates to “a way of life that calls for another way of living.”
Reggio does not spoon-feed anything, the viewer is required to think for himself. It is only when you attempt to connect the dots or the relation between one shot and the other, that you start to grasp the film’s meaning. For example, we see a top view shot of a city, the grid is made of streets, building blocks, and cars moving around in fast motion. The film then cuts to a computer chip, and you get it instantly. We have enclosed ourselves in an artificial environment that has replaced the natural world as a setting. Nature has been reduced to a resource that fuels this machine we’re trapped in.
What Godfrey Reggio achieves in this film is truly miraculous. The first time I watched it, it felt like Morpheus was awakening me to the reality of the world we live in. Reggio captures the world from new angles, and it almost feels like you’re looking at things for the very first time. You start to see the world like you’ve never seen it before. You look at a supermarket and you see consumerism encapsulated within a single shot because of the way it is framed. And there’s nothing quite as powerful as hearing Philip Glass’ haunting score kick in at key moments to really punctuate a point. This exemplary work of pure cinema relies on nothing but sight and sound to deliver its powerful message. “Koyaanisqatsi” is one of the most eye-opening works of art created in the late 20th century.
Our days are filled with simple little interactions with complete strangers, a nod at someone passing by, a sympathetic look towards someone you may never see again, a shared smirk with some random bystander. These short-lived moments may signify the smallest measurable unit of human connection, but occasionally, they can trigger an avalanche of emotions.
In Steve McQueen’s “Shame”, Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict roaming around the city in search for anything that will quench his sexual desires. In this scene, his exchange with a random subway rider exemplifies such an encounter. What starts as a flirtatious glance between two strangers quickly escalates into much more.
The undercurrent of boiling sexual tension and chemistry captured by both actors in such a brief moment is nothing short of remarkable. By “reacting” to one another rather than acting towards one another, they appear completely lost in the moment. We witness a wordless ballet of glances; every glimpse, peek, and subtle move reveals so much of what they’re feeling.
Notice the girl trying to remove her wedding ring as she crosses her legs; the ring gets stuck, and there’s a slow shift in momentum. Her emotions switch from arousal to shame in mere seconds. Steve McQueen’s painful cinematic display of loneliness in the city features acting of the highest caliber.
Few films have captured the difficulty of growing up like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Where is the Friend’s House”. In this underseen Iranian masterpiece, Babek Ahmed Poor plays an eight-year-old schoolboy running around a neighbouring village in search for his classmate’s home to return a notebook. Although, very little takes place in terms of plot, Kiarostami doesn’t use the medium as a means to tell a story, but to capture the essence of childhood.
“Where is the Friend’s House” induces a kind of nostalgic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details. You recognize the sound of wind as it whistles outside while the kid finishes his homework before bedtime; you recall the feeling of impending doom as the teacher looms over his desk. The film feels so uniquely atmospheric due to the director’s signature documentary style of neorealist filmmaking. You get completely soaked into the experience of living at the worn-out, yet beautifully structured villages of Iran.
I can’t think of many films that looked and felt so real. The characters in this village always seem to be talking over one another. It’s like they live in a world where people talk but don’t communicate. We hear characters repeat phrases over and over again in desperate attempts to let their words pierce through side conversations. The dialogue here doesn’t feel scripted or deliberately improvised, it feels like the real thing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Kiarostami paints a profound picture of younger and older generations, and their complete disinterest in understanding one another. This cinematic poem will bring a smile to the most reserved individual.
Yasujiro Ozu expressed grand philosophical ideas through little moments of everyday life. He is in my humble opinion, the most sensitive and disciplined director to ever hold a camera. Ozu disregarded how the rest of the world shot films and created his own cinematic language. He broke every rule there was and did it the most subtle way possible. Ozu’s films exercised the most discreet rebellion against cinematic norm.
Widely considered as the most Japanese of all film directors, his films feature no heroes or villains. We simply witness life in motion. When we arrive at a significant moment, Ozu would cut to “pillow shots” or perfectly composed shots of landscapes, street signs, or inanimate objects. The idea was to give viewers room to breathe, or provide them with the time to contemplate what they had just seen.
I think the awareness of how little of the world we’ll experience is what really drew me towards cinema. Films were like gateways to other worlds, and there’s no world I would rather visit than one directed by master Ozu. In a span of two hours, you experience a lifetime. You go through a stranger’s life journey with all its turbulences and unique epiphanies. And then it hits you, the realization that each and every one of us is living a life as vivid as complex as the other. The sublime cinema of Yasujiro Ozu transcends life on this planet.
Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” is a delicate masterpiece about self-reflection and the little things that make life worth living. Yang orchestrated an ensemble of social scenes that literally feature “reflection shots” of his characters. At times, you can see their reflection on windows, mirrors, or polished surfaces, but beneath the surface we see much more, we see characters undergoing inner-change as they go through the unavoidable randomness of life.
In one scene, a character asks a simple question: “Every day in life is a first time. We never live the same day twice. We’re never afraid of getting up every morning. Why?” With a career spanning two decades, Yang has graced us with a thought-provoking film about the uncertainties awaiting us in the span of a lifetime. If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that the most unexpected discoveries await us in the sphere of time.
“Yi Yi” is structured in a way that resembles the cycle of life itself; it starts with a wedding and ends with a funeral. The one thing that always catches me by surprise is how the scenes unfold in a very natural way. We are not fed moments, we arrive to them the same way we reach and attain realizations in our own lives. Yang doesn’t try to convey an idea to the audience, he simply lets you observe it. Once you assess what you have seen, you start appreciating the subtlety of a master in complete control of his craft.
In a small town called Canoa, a corrupt power-hungry priest uses fear to brainwash the inhabitants’ minds. When he starts becoming insecure about his position, the priest uses paranoia to turn the townspeople into mindless lunatics who would do anything to protect an already miserable way of life. This brutal film, which is based on a true story, is a complex psychological study of group hysteria, mob mentality, and religious fanaticism.
Felipe Cazals created an absolutely terrifying piece of filmmaking. What is so disturbing about this film is that this sort of thing happens all the time, particularly in areas with poor education and a lack of proper schooling. People with authority often use religion to stir uneducated minds into bloodthirsty barbarity. “Canoa: A Shameful Memory” is unsettling for what it says about ‘thought as a virus’, and how when people are quick to pass judgment, the outcome can be utterly horrifying.