Is there such a thing as cinematic perfection?

For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of film. It is only in recent years, however, that I have begun to regard and study it as an art form as well as a source of entertainment.

With this in mind – and as is the case with all of its forms – a piece of art derives its value from the perception of the individual, as exacerbated by the greater cultural mind. In essence, we each have our own opinions on art, while there is also usually a greater social perception of it in conjunction with our own personal view.

Just so with film. I do not claim that any one film is perfect (the definition of perfect relies on the abstract), but over the years there have been certain moments or scenes in films that have had a profound impact on me both emotionally and intellectually. In these scenes, all of the individual aspects of the medium (visuals, score, theme etc.) came together to form a greater whole. I will briefly explore three of these now.

 

The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – Promentory

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To my shame, I only saw this classic for the first time last year. While I thought it was a well-made film, I was not as blown away as I had expected to me, after hearing its praises sung over the years. However, my experience watching it was completely turned on its head as the conclusion played before my eyes. After rewatching and reflecting on this scene countless times since I first saw it, I think that it could be my favourite scene (in context – not standalone) in any film. Music plays such a huge part in filmmaking, and I think it is most easily apparent here. The score dominates the scene, and not intrusively.

The music directly reflects what is happening on screen. It is introduced upon the death of Heyward, and signifies the beginning of the film’s denouement. From then on, it cycles onwards, reflecting the seemingly endless chase up the promentory. Apart from some cries of anguish and a brief “Uncas!” from Hawkeye, the scene is entirely without dialogue, yet it is still the most attention-seizing part of the film. Upon noticing this, I concluded that this is exactly what film should be, and what individualises it as a medium. The manner in which the visuals, score, tension, and premise all acquiesce happens in such a way that is exclusive to the visual medium.

 

Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) – Luke vs. Vader

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While I prefer the duel in The Empire Strikes Back as a piece of storytelling and visual spectacle, I think this duel barely beats it simply because it so perfectly ties up the arcs of both Luke and Vader.

There is incredible visual storytelling going on here in Jedi through the characters’ actions that is sadly lacking in the overly-choreographed and instantly-gratifying duels of the prequels. Technically, this particular duel is an evolution of the one between the same characters in Empire.

Back then, Vader was merely toying with Luke and could have killed him at any moment. The fight began with Luke being hugely overconfident, and Vader brushing him aside while wielding his saber one-handed. After displaying the sheer power of the dark side and besting Luke both physically and spiritually, Vader offers him a place at his side. Luke, overconfident once more, attacks Vader again. He manages to get a lucky strike in, whereupon Vader immediately disarms and maims him. All of this is seen through the actions of both characters – there is no one explaining this to us in words.

In Jedi, Luke falls into the Emperor’s trap, just as he did into Vader’s in Empire. Both Vader and the Emperor constantly mock the stronger Luke in an attempt to force him to lash out and give in to his aggressiveness, thus shunting him towards the dark side. Luke resists everything, up until Vader threatens to turn Leia instead. Giving the Emperor exactly what he wants, Luke lashes out at Vader, overcommitting every one of his swings like a wild animal. He forces his father back as John William’s score haunts the scene, eventually battering Vader into submission and maiming him in a poetic mirroring of the conclusion of the Empire duel. It is only now that Luke realises he has ultimately lost, and it is only due to Vader’s last minute sacrifice that the good side eventually prevails. He may have lost his war against the Emperor, but he won his batlle against Vader, and that was enough to tip the scales. Again, all of this is told to us not through a character popping in to explain it, but through what we can pick up from how the scene plays out in front of us.

 

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – Ride of the Rohirrim

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I originally had this choice as Aragorn’s speech and his subsequent “For Frodo” moment, but due to a strong gut reaction, I changed it. While Aragorn’s speech may be more eloquent, heroic, and worthy of the ultimate end of this stunning quest, Théoden’s speech and the Ride of the Rohirrim stands out to me more for a very simple reason.

Théoden sees the hopelessness and death that awaits him and his people. He sees it and fully accepts that he is about to meet his end. However, after a brief hesitant moment, he becomes more kingly than he ever was, and embraces the fate before him. In perhaps the most spine-chilling scene in a film full of spine-chilling scenes, Théoden inspires his loyal subjects to go out screaming and fighting. They know that their deaths will not be remembered; there will be no one left to record and sing of their sacrifice. Even so, they charge.

Bernard Hill nails this scene, and I believe it is one of the most finely acted pieces in the trilogy. In part, it is this resolution of his incredible character arc that makes him my favourite secondary character in the series. The framing, lighting, acting, tone, and scoring all come together so well in this scene that it still has the same effect on me every time I see it. There’s something so humanly raw and moving about seeing these 6,000 riders repeatedly screaming “DEATH!” before charging headlong into hell.

 

It’s quite interesting to note that all three of my selections are the conclusions of the respective arcs of their central characters. I have a particular soft spot for music and scoring in film, and a technically average scene with above-average scoring will usually elevate the whole thing for me. While the three above examples all have incredible scoring, the more technical aspects are also of a high quality.

Finally, to directly address the title: no, I do not think there is such a thing as cinematic perfection. If there was, where could film possibly go from there? The very fact that I appreciate all three of these very different scenes for very different reasons suggests that there is not a single uniform “perfection”. However, even if cinematic perfection doesn’t exist, the catharsis evoked by these three brings them damn close.

My ongoing struggle with depression

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I was depressed and suicidal. It’s difficult to write those words (and even moreso to say them aloud), but there they are.

I resurrected this blog yesterday with my little thought piece on Ex Machina. As small and pretentious as this blog is, there are many unpublished drafts gathering dust, which I never planned to show the light of day. There is one such draft that I wrote on 28th November 2013 that I now wish to share. Looking at it two years on is interesting, because I’m not currently in that dark place, but I know it always looms just outside my grasp. There’s a very angry and childish tone in the piece below, one which I no longer subscribe to, but I’ve decided to leave the whole thing unaltered, so as to contrast the then and now more accurately.

I’m going to start this piece just as I intend to finish it; bluntly and without holding back. Anyone who fears a strong, honest, heartfelt, and most importantly, an experienced opinion, it might be best to turn back now.

Depression exists, as does suicide. Depression is a severe, debilitating mental disorder, and suicide is the act of killing oneself. I say this because both conditions have gained a taboo status over the years, and humanity has now reached a point at which it is simply ridiculous for either the privileged or the unfortunate to feel uneasy at the sound of a word.

DEPRESSION.

SUICIDE.

They exist.

I have always been a very introverted person. However, this aspect of my personality has not hindered the strength with which I hold opinions. If anything, it has augmented it. I have never been afraid to speak my mind, and it has brought me trouble more than once. I do acknowledge that subtlety and restraint are important facets to have, but at the same time, honesty with yourself trumps all.

I better get this over with early on, because it forms the basis of this entire piece. At the beginning of my teenage life, a variety of life-changing and unfortunate incidents occurred, the rumblings of which still form a large part of my family’s life today. I only mention this because it is the root of everything I am about to disclose. As a result of what happened (and what is still happening) a sickness manifested in me. Unlike normal sicknesses, this one isn’t obvious to the eye; in fact, it has no tangible physical symptoms at all. My sickness was depression, and it all came to a head last year.

Whatever happened in my life is irrelevant to the fact that this depression has damaged me greatly, and I am still recovering from it. It has defined me for most of my teenage and adult life, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have morbid thoughts every day. The fact is, it has become my reality. Yes, I am dealing with it now and I have had help from some amazing people I’m privileged to have met, but shades of it remain, and probably always will.

Last year, after my teaching placement in January (during which I discovered that teaching isn’t my path), something clicked in my head, without me knowing it. Usually when we say that something “clicked”, it’s a positive thing, but not this time. It’s as if my depression had managed to engulf my brain, like a shadow wrapping its tendrils around me, without me being aware. Whatever happened, I just didn’t have the strength to go back into college. Since I have started recovering, I have found myself able to explain a lot of things, but this is one of the most difficult. Despite attending my teaching placement appropriately and getting good feedback, my strength of will died upon its conclusion. I travelled from Wexford to Dublin each week with the intention of going to college, but I couldn’t. It’s not as if I’m a layabout (and I know for a fact that many people judge me as such) – in fact my school attendance was always close to perfect. Inexplicably, I was just mentally unable to face going into college and seeing people. Most mornings, I woke up on time. I showered and breakfasted, and was literally ready to go out the door. Instead, I turned around and went back to my room for another day of solitary confinement. This was my life for three months. I didn’t answer calls or texts from my friends, and on the rare occasion that I did, I lied and assured them that everything was fine and that I would come in. But I never did. I went home at the weekend and adopted a facade for my family, because I couldn’t bear to let them know that I had been reduced to this, that I had failed when so much counted on me. I was constantly locked in a struggle against myself, knowing that something was seriously wrong, but refusing to admit it to myself and stand up to it.

A lot of people incorrectly assume that depression is simply an elongated case of extreme sadness, and I don’t blame them; that is what it has been brushed off as for decades. I was deeply depressed for months, and I can safely say that no one got a sense that I was sad. In fact (and I’m writing from personal experience here), depressed people seem to be expert liars, and we can fake emotion perfectly. I was frighteningly depressed and on the very brink for three months, yet still I smiled and laughed, and a lot of the time it was genuine. This harkens back to what I said initially – that depression has no obvious physical manifestation, and one of the only ways to notice it in others is in their pattern of activity.

I deliberately left religion out of this piece, because for once in my college life, I want to remove these problems and proposed solutions from the bodies that claim them. No matter what anyone says, regardless of their faith or non-faith, spirituality is not the be ultimate solution. When attempting to deal with human problems, the solution is humanity, and anyone who thinks that saying a few prayers will solve anything as serious as this can fuck off. They don’t, and it’s delusional to think they do. The only way depression can be combatted is through human interaction and care, and I implore anyone who is reading this to take that into account, if nothing else.

I’m writing this piece not because I am someone, but because I’m not. For better or worse, it has become a recent trend in celebrity culture to come out and reveal that depression exists and has affected a lot of people. I’m not famous, and to the majority of the world, I don’t exist, just like that same majority of the world. For this reason, I’m laying myself bare. Depression doesn’t just affect people who are known to many. It can have an effect on anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. It is not exclusive to any one type of person, nor is it a sign of weakness, it just is.

It has been both difficult and refreshing to finally make everything clear like this. In opening myself up and leaving myself completely bare, it’s going to be excruciatingly hard to interact with others, knowing that they now also know. But I have set myself this challenge because I am now strong enough to fight my illness by myself. This wouldn’t have been possible without a small number of friends standing up and doing something about it. I never realised it before, but I am so lucky to have them. Without them, I mightn’t be here right now, and I certainly wouldn’t be writing this. Someone else might not be so lucky in having the luxury of having such friends. So, for that reason, I implore anyone still reading this with every shred of emotion still left in me to do the following. This time, don’t pray for us, don’t keep us in your thoughts. This time, talk to someone you otherwise wouldn’t have. This time, smile at someone when seeing them, whether you know them or not. This time, make a positive difference, however small, in someone’s life. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

That’s where my head was two years ago, after going through a horrible first half of 2013. My plan was to publish that piece, of course, and hope that in having other people read it, I could help bring transparency to the issue in some way. Ultimately, as is quite common in my life, I chickened out.

The reason I am publishing it now is quite simple. Since I wrote it, I  have gone through one and a half more bouts of depression (I’ll explain this below), and finally done something about it myself. Don’t get me wrong, help and support from others is a key ingredient in the long, hard path away from depression, but ultimately YOU have to make a change in your life to keep the sickness at bay.

The first whole bout came because I never did anything after writing the piece above. I had stopped attending lectures, and spent days inside my own head. Eventually, when my end of year exams came around, I couldn’t attend those either. I failed my third year. I had made laughable excuses to the college that my bus had been late, that I had been sick etc. I had also lied to my friends… and my parents. I have since reconciled with myself a lot of what I did, but it’s the constant lying to my parents that still haunts me the most. I have always been honest and caring with them, as they have been with me, and to find that this horrible sickness would have me act so uncharacteristically is terrifying.

But that’s what depression does. It changes you, and never for the better.

Above, I mentioned that you personally making a change in your life is a strong weapon against depression. I tried to do that by taking a year out of college to shake things up a bit. I got a retail job and worked for nine months. I wouldn’t say I loved the work, but the experience was helpful to my mental health in its own way, and I am thankful for that. During my time off, I redid my CAO and applied to an English and Film course in UCD, just to have another option on the table. I was offered a place on the course. But then I made my worst mistake. I went back to my old college. Those who know me know what college I went to, but as a courtesy I am leaving the name unmentioned. While the events that had occurred when I was younger were the root cause of my ongoing depression, that college was the gaping pit through which I constantly tumbled into it. While I had never been a very religious person, the attitude towards religion in that place turned me away from it forever. This negativity and pure disbelief at the skewed perspectives of some of the staff awoke a monster in me, and together with the depression, turned me into a jaded and deeply cynical person.

Anyway, I went back in September 2015. That was a mistake. This is where the half-bout comes into play. Not long after coming back, I began to feel depression’s same dark tendrils clawing their way back, intruding my thoughts. I endured for a time, but finally decided enough was enough. My year out had done a lot for my confidence, and provided me with the mental capability to do what I did next. I made my decision first, by myself, and then talked to my parents about it. They were fully supportive, and I treasure that. I dropped out of the college that had affected me so negatively. I now plan to get a job and actually begin that English and Film course. I think anyone who knows me will agree that it is far better suited to me than History and Religion.

If anyone has managed to make it to the end, well done. You’re either extremely patient, or there is actually something of quality in my writing for once. Either way, thank you, and I hope you take all of this into consideration. Depression is an ongoing problem, and one that has no single cure. It grows differently in different people, and conditions itself to different ways of life. People who suffer from depression are often insufferable themselves, and impossible to be around. I know I was, and all I can do is apologise to those people who I allowed my sickness to intrude on. I have burned many bridges in the last eleven years, and it still saddens me (but thankfully doesn’t depress me) to think about what I have thrown away due to this disease.

I tried talking, going to counselling, and other methods. These don’t work for everyone, and they only partially helped me. I am fully aware that depression will likely rear its ugly head at a later stage in my life. But the difference is, I have dealt with it before, and I will deal with it again. I am no longer afraid of it. I no longer wake up wanting to kill myself, and then cursing myself for not having the strength to actually follow through.

In many ways, I am now over depression. I can speak about it openly. Most people aren’t, and can’t. While it has changed me forever, it has also given me a new perspective on life and the world that I can now appreciate. I beg anyone who reads this to consider people in their lives who may have depression, and to talk to them about it. They will resist. Then they will resist again. Unfortunately, the only way to help is to cut through the bullshit, and assert that you’re going to help. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice our pride for someone else’s life. Is that so difficult?

“Ex Machina”, my favourite film of 2015

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I saw a lot of films in the last year, but nevertheless, this was an easy choice. Like everyone else, I have my interests and expectations, but also try to take each film as it comes and judge it on its own merits. For example, I am not a fan of the comedy or horror genres, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy comedy or horror films, or indeed films from another genre incorporating comedic or horror elements.

I had been aware of Ex Machina when it released earlier in the year, but for whatever reason I didn’t go to see it in the cinema. After that, I completely forgot about it. I was only reminded about it upon my preparation for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, during which I attempted to familiarise myself with the former projects of both cast and crew. As fate would have it, Oscar Isaac’s portfolio led me straight to Ex Machina, which also happens to star Domhnall Gleeson (with whom, as an Irishman, I am more familiar).

Generally, what appeals to me most in film is a set of three things: well-written and -acted characters; a simple, internally consistent story; and good cinematography. Of course, a decent score can elevate mediocrity to greatness, but music just falls short for me in importance compared to the aforementioned three elements. Ex Machina had all three.

Our three leads (in actuality, pretty much the whole cast minus Sonoya Mizuno) each give great performances. In the lead-up to Star Wars, a lot of people pointed specifically to this film as an example of what Oscar Isaac was capable of as an actor and why we should be excited with his casting. I now retroactively echo those sentiments. He is definitely the standout element of this film and gives the character of Nathan a complicated and understated menace, the likes of which we don’t see much in modern films. Domhnall Gleeson turned in a solid performance as Caleb, and it is nice to see him breaking the mould of his recent string of indie-esque films (Frank, also starring Michael Fassbender, is also a nice example of Gleeson’s acting capabilities). Alicia Vikander is great as Ava, and perfectly treads the “uncanny valley” we see mentioned more and more due to the advancement of special effects and such. She gives what is in my opinion the most grounded performance of an A.I. in any film I have yet seen. I don’t want to spoil any of the nuances in any of the performances, but trust me in saying that the performances are worth seeing.

I don’t want to say much about the specifics of the story, either, because I would encourage experiencing them for the first time in the film itself. However, I will say this: the story doesn’t attempt to be greater than the sum of its parts, but lets itself be told organically through both silent, reflective moments, and interactions between the three leads. As an aside, I also found it deeply ironic and a subtle nod to the film’s premise that the postmodern laboratory setting of the film is out in the middle of nowhere, encircled by the natural world. It’s quite meta without being heavy-handed.

I loved the muted, soft focus of the shots – they give the film a very distinct look, and enrich the muted sense of the location, and the tone and theme of the story. Rob Hardy lets many of the shots breathe, which is sadly lacking in the majority of modern big budget, popular films. Rather than simply being a window into the world of Ex Machina, Hardy’s cinematography is its own character, and plays an active part in informing the scene.

Of course, if I was to scrutinise, some of the science doesn’t hold up – but despite the subject matter dealing with artificial intelligence, the science of A.I. is not one of the driving components of the story. It instead provides a backdrop upon which a very human and introspective drama plays out. To briefly bring up Star Wars again, the original trilogy and now The Force Awakens both provide a similar example. Someone with even the most basic understanding of science can point out flaws in the logic of the Star Wars universe. But it doesn’t matter, because scientific consistency is not the point. The technological, galactic setting is just a backdrop for the story and characters, which is what Star Wars is all about. Just so with Ex Machina – if we substitute bioengineering and artificial intelligence in for lightsabers and Death Stars.

It is by no means a groundbreaking or particularly culturally relevant film, but that’s part of why I enjoyed it so much. Alex Garland showed admirable restraint with the subject matter, and as a result the film knows exactly what it is, never straying from that identity. Ex Machina is a down-to-earth, intelligent, well-made film with three stellar performances. I’d recommend it.