Elevation and Contemplation

Cinema has had to fight for its place as an art form. Back in its Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès origins it was seen as a trickery, as an intriguing way to manipulate light. Little clips were shown at the theatre interspersed with song and dance. If you wanted to elevate the soul or reflect on man and nature you would head to the Louvre and Orsay on the banks of the Seine and not to these idiosyncratic inventors stitching together film. Cinema has evolved and accommodates a wide range of story and emotion that has the ability to profoundly touch what it means to be alive.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Silence. Each take you away to another world, unforgiving in its most troubling moments yet often uplifting.

[v minor spoilers below]

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Seb and Mia

La La Land by Damien Chazelle is the easiest to recommend. It is full of joy while tackling questions about aspiration and love. 

- Is persistence despite continual failure wise? 

- Is being successful at a compromise better than failing at an ideal? 

- What if our dream is not what we thought it was? 

- What if love gets in the way of what we want to do?

There are no clear answers, it’s just a story of two people trying to figure it. Reminiscent of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort except with a deeper focus of character and purpose. It’s a truly special film and one that will stay with you for a while. It’s a musical and its songs have a simple elegance about them. The last musical to get Oscar attention, Les Miserables, has a notably booming soundtrack. I remember my inebriated student friends from first year passionately singing red and black, viewing it as the only fitting way to end a night out; La La Land is unlikely to get similar treatment but its soundtrack is just as worthy of attention. It beautifully catches the hope, sorrow and nostalgia of Seb and Mia and will likely continue live on in your Spotify playlist.

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Andrew Garfield (left) as Rodriguez

Silence by Martin Scorsese is a difficult film to watch. It is long, slow and is often distressing. It examines authenticity and challenges the relationship between faith and how we live our lives. I found it a rewarding experience, a film that asks questions we don’t want to face and shows the world in all its complexity.

Andrew Garfield is phenomenal, he prepared deeply for the role and developed an expression of faith that continues beyond his portrayal of Rodriguez. In Silence, Rodriguez’s beliefs of truth and beauty resulted in immense suffering for the people he encountered. Reconciling this perceived injustice with the purpose he came to Japan with stretches his identity to the limit. Persecution on this scale is thankfully rarer today yet beliefs on identity and what it means to be authentic are questions which still demand an answer. Silence is an important film and one in which there is much to take away.

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Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler

Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan is a poignant reflection of a man reconciling his past with his new responsibilities. It’s a deeply affecting film and it took me a few hours to recover after leaving the cinema. Casey Affleck plays the isolated Lee Chandler who is suddenly thrust back into his 16 year old nephew Patrick’s life. We see flashbacks of a gregarious Lee which is juxtaposed by the present day Patrick who is juggling two girlfriends, hockey practice and his band. Present day Lee is withdrawn and is struggling to navigate a life in Manchester that he had deliberately removed himself from.

This is a powerful film that in different ways to La La Land and Silence challenges what it is to have an identity. Is it something that is fluid or is it permanently marked by the past? If challenges are presented by external circumstance in La La Land, by the deliberate will of others in Silence, then much of the condemnation in Manchester originates from within Lee himself. Manchester by the Sea is a film that recognises that life isn’t easy and sometimes there’s no following value statement on that, it’s just how things sometimes work out.

All three are still out in Cinema (Jan 2017) and I’d recommend catching them in their full big screen glory.