Tagged Reality

Westworld – Season 1, Episode 4: “Dissonance Theory”

HBO’s Westworld
Season 1, Episode 4: “Dissonance Theory”
Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube)
Written by Ed Brubaker & Jonathan Nolan

* For a review of the previous episode, “The Stray” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Contrapasso” – click here
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Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is tinkering away at Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), as usual. She tells him that losing everyone she’s loved “hurts so badly.” She speaks of grief. As if she knows the feeling. Like instead of being a robot, she’s become human in her emotion. But it’s all a “scripted dialogue.”
Is the machinery at Westworld becoming more sentient than it ought to? One thing’s for sure: Dolores believes “there may be something wrong with this world,” like an evil lurks below it all. Then Lowe tells Dolores of a game called The Maze. He wants her to play. Apparently if she can play it and succeed, she may also find freedom.
And what exactly is the greater purpose of Westworld’s grand illusion? We know there are… levels. However, what does that mean, exactly?
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When Dolores wakes up on the plains of Sweetwater she’s with William (Jimmi Simpson), who last whisked her away from trouble in the previous episode. Back at the saloon, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) and Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan) chat while The Cure’s “A Forest” plays on the player piano. Really dig the song choices, especially how the fit in anachronistically with the Western setting. All of a sudden Maeve’s world goes funny. She sees blood all over Clementine. Then she’s on the floor. A man fires his gun into people around the saloon, over and over. The sick fantasy of a player enacted on the helpless hosts. Just another day in Sweetwater. Robot life. Afterwards, in come the cleanup team to get things sorted for the next team of players visiting the park.
Then Maeve snaps back. Everything is fine. Clementine’s still yammering on. Ah, the flashbacks of a previous day, a death some time before. But it’s set Maeve off and nothing is the same as it was before. She continually flashes back and forth between the present and those awful memories. So, she draws a picture of a man in a Hazmat-like suit. Before finding a bunch of similar drawings beneath a floorboard in her bedroom.
Out in the lab, Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) is running Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) over the violent malfunction of the stray from last episode. The one who smashed its own head in with a rock. Bernard drops by to check in. But it seems Theresa is taking over, sick of how things are going lately. Like any right-minded person, Elsie’s worried this problem is spreading like an infection through the hosts. And she airs those grievances to Bernard. He’s lost, though. Lost in the memory of his own loss, that of his boy. He is blinded by love and science at once and I don’t think he’s the best judge of who’s doing what right at the moment.

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William wants to take Dolores back to Sweetwater, while his buddy Logan (Ben Barnes) would rather kill her off. It’s only a game, right? In other parts of the world, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is trying to figure out “what this all means” and how the game is supposed to end. Again: what exactly is the whole purpose, the deeper meaning to everything? Well, The Man in Black and his hostage Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) run into Armistice (Ingrid BolsĂž Berdal) and her gang. He proceeds to kill a few of them, ingratiating himself to her company.
Poor Dolores, she looks adrift every time we see her. She wanders around in another little town. She meets a girl who draws a maze, like the one from the scalp we’ve seen, in the sand and then disappears. When Dolores is confronted by a man things get eerie. But William interrupts and everything goes back to normal. At least for the time being. Either way, Dolores is wary of her world more and more. “Sometimes I feel like somethings calling me, telling me theres a place for me somewhere beyond this,” she tells William.
Then she fades out. The moon becomes a light above her. She’s on the ground, corpse-like. Men in Hazmat-style suits are around her. And just as quickly William whisks her around in his arms, frightening her. Reality – whatever reality she exists in, I guess – is slipping.
We start to hear The Man in Black talk about Arnold. You remember him, right? The old partner of Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Once more, The Man in Black takes out that bloody scalp he procured in the first episode. Now he’s hoping to get help from Armistice in order to enact the next portion of his plan. Deliciously devilish. I still don’t think he’s an older version of William. I don’t see this as happening in two different eras. Could still find a surprise there, but I just can’t see that. Moreover, with the little trickles of information concerning Arnold, I feel like Dr. Ford has skeletons in his closet, and the Bad Dude in Black just may rip a few of those out into the daylight just yet. We do get a clue about Ed Harris’ character when another visitor at the park mentions his “foundation.” Interesting stuff.

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Armistice, The Man in Black, Lawrence, their crew, they head to a nearby prison. Black is tossed in alongside Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), as the police take Lawrence to the firing squad. Black plans on breaking Hector out. Outside, Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) approves some pyrotechnics. Oh, baby – the cell door gets blown open. So does one cop’s face, having taken a cigar off Black not expecting it to explode in his face. Literally. For the second time, The Man in Black saves Lawrence from an execution: “Motherrrfucker,” he exclaims upon rescue.
So what’s the next step for ole Black? Armistice tells him about Wyatt, one of the men who killed everybody in her town when she was younger. Maybe there’s another hunt together in their future.
More problems for Maeve. She sees a little girl from a Native American tribe drop a wooden toy. It’s shaped just like one of the suited men from her visions. Part of “their religion,” a man from town says.

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Outside, Bernard and Theresa talk about Westworld troubles. She has to meet with Dr. Ford because of his recent, troubling behaviour. The next morning she meets the eccentric man, he’s out watching equipment clearing out new space in the desert. All a part of his latest, massive narrative. Theresa worries it’ll take much longer than projected, and that it won’t do his “legacy” right. For his part, Ford believes she doesn’t exactly like being there at Westworld. She doesn’t particularly. Ford speaks of Arnold and his preference of the hosts over real people. He likewise remembers that Arnold went crazy. There are slight and plain warnings from the doctor: “Please, dont get in my way.”
On their adventure, Logan and William head into a gang’s hideout and start blasting. A huge gunfight erupts, as Logan has a laugh and William tries getting into it. Just like a damn video game come alive!
The Man in Black and Lawrence come across a mutilated body: Teddy Flood (James Marsden). He is in terrifying shape. All the fellas can do for him is cut him down.


Into Sweetwater rides Hector and Armistice. They unload their weapons and then their bullets into anybody nearby. Like it always is during this storyline. Into the saloon goes Hector until Maeve pulls a gun on him. Upstairs, she questions him about the drawings of the men in the Hazmat suits. “Native lore,” he tells her. She also tells him about having been shot. She wants to see if there’s anything inside her as evidence. When he won’t cut into her, Maeve does it herself. But Hector, he puts his hand in the wound to do some searching. Sure enough there is lead inside her belly.
What does this mean?” Hector asks.
That Im not crazy,” she replies. “And that none of this matters.” Right after, men burst through the door to gun Hector down.

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What a solid episode. The writing is insane! I love it. Such wonderful concepts and a lot of different angles, different characters. So many things happening.
Next episode is titled “Contrapasso” – will we learn more of Dr. Ford and his old pal Arnold?

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Berberian Sound Studio Gets to the Raw Core of Our Relationship with Horror

Berberian Sound Studio. 2013. Directed & Written by Peter Strickland.
Starring Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Guido Adorni, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Lara Parmiani, Chiara D’Anna, Jozef Cseres, & Pal Toth. UK Film Council/Film4/Warp X/ITV Yorkshire.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
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Peter Strickland is a director and writer filled with ingenuity. His films are odd, striking, intense. Only recently did I get the chance to view Katalin Varga, his first feature debut. I’d heard of it for a couple years, then was finally able to get hold of a copy. It is a tensely written ride into the darkness of grief; a low budget examination of what the past can do to mangle the present of a wounded person. Recently he directed and wrote an all-female film titled The Duke of Burgundy; I’ve put it to the Bechdel Test, it passed with flying colours.
Although before that Strickland moved on to this film, Berberian Sound Studio, a spectacular little movie that’s equal parts creepy and mesmerising. Each one of his directorial efforts looks different. Yet they’re all visually eye-catching, marked by a certain flair. This film calls to mind, obviously and deliberately, the giallo films of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, even some of the works of Lucio Fulci, among others. The film within a film itself is also a giallo. Therefore, the imagery and the sound design of Strickland’s work mimics those which came before, and creates a hypnotic sort of atmosphere. The perspective of the main characters becomes our perspective, as is the case in all good psychological pieces. Whereas the plot is slow burning, Strickland keeps the pace up by making things feel thrilling. Such a psychologically based piece of work can either go hard for drama, or turn itself towards being an outright thriller. Berberian Sound Studio finds a way to straddle the line, dosing us with lots of head-tripping atmosphere from imagery to sound, and further making the latter part of the plot just as exciting as it is strange. This could have become a mess. At times it feels incredibly energetic in a way that doesn’t help, but it does. Give it time. Once the finale rolls around all that madness comes to serve as an overall metaphor for the way we make and engage in horror movies, all through the perspective of a man actually working on one. The metafiction of Strickland’s writing increases the surreal feeling of the story, as well as allows us a look inside ourselves as purveyors and fans of the genre alike.
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Really dig the look at sound engineering for film, as well as a nice view into the world of the Foley artist, the ones who create that vivid world of sound behind the visuals of a film. All of this is unusual, simply due to the fact this is a view into the world of movies that we’ve rarely gotten over the years. Other than documentaries or featurettes on the Special Features of DVDs and Blu ray discs, you won’t see the Foley work of these sound wizards explored much through fictional stories. Outside of Blow Out, there are barely any movies I can think of that even touch the world of the sound effects artists and engineers. Giving us insight into the film industry is a fun way to make things even more metafictional than just the film-within-a-film aspect; we actually watch the Foley artists ripping, stabbing, smashing, punching fruits and vegetables and all kinds of objects in order to get the right sounds for the scenes. So right off the bat Strickland gives us something unique, a world that’s rarely ever understood by the general viewers who go to see movies (those of us who love film to death are already lovingly aware of the work that goes on behind-the-scenes to make cinema into what it is). Whether this succeeds in doing anything interesting for the movie as a whole, that is up to the viewer. Personally, there’s enough to at least be intriguing in that way that it’s a foreign job to most, and something that’s fun to watch. I’m still not sure if the pay off to the entire story is worth the journey. I do know the plot can sustain an audience’s interest with the story and its characters alone.
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The psychological angle of the screenplay is what gives us something different than the thriller elements of a movie like Blow Out, for instance. That was much more a full-blooded thriller. Strickland’s film is further in the realm of the psychological, the psychedelic, the full-on weird. And that’s just fine. The character of Gilderoy (Toby Jones) finds himself falling through the cracks of reality and fiction, which is precipitated by the headlong dive into sound work – creating these fake sounds for real actions onscreen, his own reality begins to slip away. Moreover, Gilderoy is squeamish, he didn’t expect to be doing a violent horror film, one calling for so many nasty sound effects. So his morality is tested, questioning our own as the viewer and whether watching this type of stuff is also doing some sort of damage, even at the most basic level. Or perhaps it’s a question of whether these types of films, the down and dirty horror, are truly only meant for some people. Regardless of what the main theme or question at hand is, Gilderoy’s psychological state is affected by this division in reality he faces whilst working on the gruesome sounds of the giallo film for which he’s been hired. And the further he gets into the film’s production the worse off his sanity becomes.
That brings me to Toby Jones. He is a fine, talented actor whose star has only begun to shine really bright in the past so many years. He’s been in all kinds of movies, though so many moviegoers probably wouldn’t recognise him in some of those roles. This is a performance of his that I love dearly. Jones has the typical sheepishness of some other characters he’s played. But he is more tortured than ever, gradually tumbling into another level of reality while trying to do his job, while the job only makes things worse. It’s a solid character and one that Jones latches onto. He makes us feel that this is a real man going through a genuine psychological break, away from home and feeling lonely, wanting to do the job he loves but finding it increasingly difficult with the psychological strain bearing down on him.
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Originally, I’d put this down as mediocre. Upon watching it the first time the whole thing didn’t catch me. Now, seeing Berberian Sound Studio for a second time, I feel this is much better than what I’d remembered. What I once found sloppy and a weak attempt at homage for the giallo films of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s actually a wonderful examination of the exploitation inherent in those movies, writer-director Peter Strickland opts to examine our relationship with horror and its often nasty imagery (and in this case, sound) and he tries to make us confront what sort of people we are when engaging in the act of viewing (or making) horror. Does it affect us? Is it really as innocent as we like to assume? I don’t believe horror affects us the way conservative minds might like to think. However, I do like exploring these types of ideas, and fictional stories are a way for us as a society to indulge those thoughts. Like good literature, film helps us understand and comprehend life, ourselves. This movie takes a sincere and eerie look at the effect movies can have on those making them, and in turn the audience that later watches them. Berberian Sound Studio is ripe with all kinds of beauty, darkness, excitement, and will bring you back to all those old giallo movies of the masters from decades prior. Love this movie and can’t believe I once thought this wasn’t any good. Just goes to show you, time is the measure of all things.

Barton Fink: Head in the Clouds, Feet in the Sand

Barton Fink. 1991. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, Steve Buscemi, Richard Portnow, & Christopher Murney. 20th Century Fox/Circle Films/Working Title Films.
Rated R. 116 minutes.
Comedy/Drama

★★★★★OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Coen Brothers are impressive for many reasons. Particularly for the fact they make these elaborate pictures, one might even call them extravagant, yet still they retain their uniquely creative independent spirit. Even in their more recent films in the past decade from No Country for Old Men to their latest Hail, Caesar! they somehow manage to keep their weird little hearts alive, no matter what the material. Then there’s the fact they’re usually tackling stories many others wouldn’t go near. Not for any controversy, nothing like that. Rather the Coens have a certain way of looking at the world, and so it’s only natural this bleeds into their work. I mean, who else would’ve done stories like The Big Lebowski or Fargo before these guys came along? Or told the stories of of movies such as Blood Simple., Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing?
That’s right. Nobody else.
So here we are at Barton Fink. An immediate aspect I love about this movie is the fact these writers (and good directors as this pair are they are most amazing in their abilities as writers) wrote a story about a writer. I’m always a sucker for literature or film about the art of writing, about the people that write the stories, so on. Ultimately, this movie concerns the life of a writer, and through a journey of magnificent hyperbole the eponymous Mr. Fink (John Turturro) we experience his combative writer’s block from one scene to the next, as Hollywood nearly eats him alive. Doesn’t hurt there are plenty of references to real life figures that serve as inspiration for Fink and others, including famous Southerner William Faulkner (my favourite author) and playwright Clifford Odets. Sure, this movie didn’t do well at the box office, but when has that ever mattered? Money isn’t quality. And perhaps part of that speaks to certain elements within the film itself. Nevertheless, this is an underrated film in general, as well as in the Coen Brothers’ overall filmography.
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Reality v. Fiction is a prominent part of the entire film. Mainly, the Coens place us in the headspace of Barton, in the realm of “the life of the mind” as Charlie (John Goodman) calls it. His major personal crisis has to do with that perceived need, or at least his want, to be in the realm of the common man. However, what Barton doesn’t face is the fact that, no matter how real your fiction gets it is always fiction. No matter how close to the common you get, soon as words hit the page and they’re only a representation of life then you’re always creating something, fictionalizing, you’re moving away from the truth. Just as Plato saw art as an imitation already twice removed, Barton will never be able to just get into that perspective of the common man. He is not a common man, definitely not after accepting a job in Hollywood writing motion pictures; it’s almost ironic then how he’s living in a shitty hotel, slumming it and trying to find that perspective when just working for a studio has already ensured he’s no longer common. Moving from Broadway to Hollywood is essentially going bigger, rather than smaller. So part of Barton’s entire journey is almost futile, or existentially frustrating, as it’s doomed from the start.
There are a few really great moments where satire is all but bursting right through the screen. One of my favourite scenes comes when Barton goes to see Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) at his sprawling mansion – Lou Breeze (Jon Polito) tries to pressure Barton into giving Mr. Lipnick information, lest he find himself out of work. Breeze tells Fink: “Right now the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” That’s such a perfect line in regards to how writers are treated, like a mill pumping out tangible product into the boss’ hands. Afterwards, this prompts Lipnick to send Breeze packing, then he gets down on his knees and literally kisses Barton’s foot, as a gesture of gratitude and an apology. It’s hilarious, and also poignant. This one scene alone displays the fake reverence and at once the very real disrespect many writers encounter while trying to practise their craft. There are many great scenes in a similar vein, this is just my favourite one and probably the most on-the-nose.
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Along the way, reality and fiction clash. All of a sudden, there’s a surreal quality to the film and Fink himself feels plunged inside a dream. There are echoes of themes to do with fascism and World War II, becoming even more clear later when we meet two detectives (they respectively have Italian and German surnames) and Charlie says a strange line directly related to WWII. So the surreal elements almost challenge you to look at the film either as a story about a writer and writing on the surface, or as a story with symbolism and thematic material lurking around every corner. Personally, I don’t feel the Coens intended this as a totally symbolic, metaphorical piece of cinema. Most of all, the themes tackled here have much to do with the distinctions between writers in the realm of Broadway and literary fiction and those that write for the movies. And not in any way are they trying to be negative, as the Coens themselves are indeed screenwriters. What they do successfully is examine the often fine line we as society demarcate between high and low culture. So, if we want to apply the concepts of literature to Barton Fink, I would suggest this as a post-modern story. Many aspects which define post-modern literature are the inclusion of both high and low culture, the looming spectre of WWII and more specifically the Holocaust, a shifting perspective or concept of identity, and more. All of which you’ll find throughout this amazing, dark comedic drama.
If you want, you could look at the entire film as symbolic. Or at least the latter half. Are Charlie and Barton the same person? In his quest to find the common man, did Barton create an entirely other self, one whom he could live through vicariously in order to create a story worthy of 1940s Hollywood? Who knows. Is Barton literally chained to a bed in a burning motel? Is he figuratively chained, stuck inside the burning house of his dilemma as a writer waiting to either escape or perish? “Sometimes it gets so hot I wanna crawl right out of my skin,” Charlie tells Barton. Much of this imagery, and Barton’s relationship with Charlie, has to do with the shifting identity Fink fights against. He is not sure who he is any more – a Broadway playwright or a big time Hollywood film writer. His personality has fractured, we see this early on even before the fire, as the wallpaper’s already begun to peel and curl up. These elements only intensify towards the end.
When Charlie bends the bars of the bed to free barton, this is the best indication of their being two parts of one personality. One side of Barton’s mind has freed the other, allowing it to continue on as it instead walks off into the fire. Better yet, more evidence to suggest Charlie isn’t altogether real is the box: before walking away he tells Barton he lied, the box does not belong to him. Therefore, the box has no rightful owner, at least not of which we’re aware. We can only assume the box is representative of an unknown possibility, almost like Schrödinger’s cat, very literally, but for the audience: there is either confirmation of Charlie’s character as real in that a head is in the box (highly unlikely to me as it would probably stink terribly with Barton lugging it around in that L.A. heat), or there is nothing significant in it and the box is a red herring, a confirmation that ultimately Charlie is a figment of ours and Barton’s imagination.
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Charlie: “I will show you the life of the mind
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John Turturro is one of the most slept on actors in the history of cinema. I’ll always stand by that fact. He is a man of many faces, often remembered for his funnier roles. And while Barton Fink is a comedic character in his own right, the meat of this role has to do with Turturro’s ability to portray a man whose life is falling apart. The meaning of his life – writing – is suddenly pulled into question, so every last element of what he sees as reality starts to sort of come loose. The very fabric of his being separates and gradually we fall down the rabbit hole right next to him. It isn’t easy for an actor to make psychological breakdowns feel and look entertaining. Turturro digs deep and brings his experiences as an actor to the part, as all artists know what it’s like to feel disconnected, worn out, blocked up. In the end, Barton is a complex character and we’ve never completely able to know if he’s a man with his head permanently in the clouds. Perhaps as he sits on the beach, admiring a woman uncannily similar to the picture hanging in his hotel room with his feet in the sand, Barton has come to realize – at the very least – that it’s all about perspective.
On the opposite side is John Goodman, a wonderful actor, too. He plays Charlie Meadows to perfection, giving him lots of likeable qualities and also making us aware that there’s something quirk about the man; we don’t find out exactly how much so until the end, when you can definitely start substituting crazy for quirky. There’s a danger to the character from minute one, but Goodman helps to keep us guessing. Roger Ebert made  good points about the theme of fascism against the backdrop of WWII and the Nazis, and that Charlie represents how easy it is for the common man to fall into madness, or almost worse into extremism – in this light, Goodman gives Charlie even creepier qualities. There’s no immediate sense of any extremism, though further we move through the plot it becomes clear Charlie is not whom he pretends to be, and this brings to mind the old sheep in wolves clothing adage. No matter how you interpret the film or the character, Goodman does well with Charlie as the sort of parallel extreme to Barton as a much more cautious, quiet type.
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This may be my personal favourite film from the Coen Brothers. It’s always hard to choose when filmmakers have such rich, diverse movies amongst their catalogue. Even with their signature and unmistakable style, the Coens always manage to create something new and intriguing each time out of the gate. Barton Fink is an enigma. Just as the film itself defies genre categorization (film noir/comedy/drama/surrealism/et cetera), the story defies one concrete explanation. I didn’t even bother getting into certain portions of the varying themes, as I’ve already run a long review. But there are so many elements at play throughout the film that you can’t definitively point to one thing and say WE FOUND IT. There are many things to enjoy and so many things to mull over, to ponder long after the credits roll and the experience is over. Whether you see this as symbolic film is not the point. The point is it gets you thinking and offers not just one idea, it allows us as an audience plenty of room to flesh out our individual experiences with the film and makes sure Barton Fink doesn’t only captivate you while the movie plays. No matter how you feel about this movie you’re bound to find something worth debating. And above all else, this is one of art’s main objectives.