The Strange Case of Ballerina/Leap

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for a charming-looking animation called Ballerina. It seemed to be about a young French girl called Felicie who dreamed of being a dancer and went through all the trials and tribulations you’d expect an aspiring young member of that profession to go through. I decided I wanted to see the film, either at the cinema or on DVD and went about the rest of my day.

A little while after that, I saw a poster for a film that looked almost exactly the same as Ballerina but had a different title. This one was called Leap! and the focus no longer seemed to be on Felicie, but the male lead, who, despite his small cameo in the trailer I saw, was front and centre on this poster, sweeping across frame with a pair of wooden wings on his back and the young girl in his arms. This is, in fairness, the same as the French poster (or one of them, here’s a more ballerina-y alternative), but the change of title shifts the entire dynamic. No longer does Felicie seem in control – it seems like she’s being saved as part of some superheroic act on the part of the boy.

As I often do, I had a little moan about this on social media, and did the same today when I spotted an EW story announcing that Kate McKinnon (who, sidenote, is obviously brilliant) had been cast as one of the stars. This in itself is a bizarre situation, as the film (a French Canadian production but in the English language) has already been released in the UK with one set of actors and now seems to be being re-cast for its US release. An odd situation likely driven by a confusion on the part of The Weinstein Company (distributors in the US) as to how to sell the film.

As this is a thorny issue, I want to point out a few things before I get to the main point. I’m not saying that boys can’t or won’t watch a film about a dancer or that boys and men can’t be dancers. As someone who loves musicals and knows every word of every Disney Princess song ever written, I’d positively encourage it. Nor am I saying that a girl can’t or won’t watch a film about a boy with wings saving a girl. The huge female fanbase the Marvel films have proves that the barriers between what we consider ‘a boys’ film’ and what we consider ‘a girls’ film’ are blurring more and more with each year. And that is a very good thing indeed.

However, what I am saying is that it’s important for young girls to see themselves reflected on screen and that a film about a young girl should be marketed as such. Ballerina is a small animation from a little-known foreign studio. Few people are going to actively seek it out, so it relies on the marketing more than many other animations. If a girl goes to the cinema one day and wants to see a film that will speak to her, she’d likely be more won over by Ballerina than Leap!. By skewing so much at young boys, the marketing is creating a barrier between the film and its intended audience – and that’s a real shame for a film that looks like it has the potential to inspire and empower.

What’s more, it sends out an appalling message. “Sorry girls,” the poster for Leap! seems to say. “You and your interests aren’t good enough. Girls and dancing don’t make money. Boys and heroic antics do.” This is a very important issue and one that struck me when I went to a Women in Film panel at a local film festival a few weeks ago. On this panel was director Bronwen Hughes, whose movies include 1996’s Harriet the Spy. She recounted the story of a marketing meeting for the film, where she was told that Harriet would receive a lower marketing budget than a similarly themed film featuring a boy. The reason? Films with boys do better at the box office.

Of course, as Hughes pointed out, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Give a film about a girl less marketing clout and it’ll obviously fare less well at the box office. How can it possibly do anything else? If the boy film is shouting about its existence while the girl film is having to make do with a broken whisper, then it’s perfectly obvious that the boy film will make more money.

By turning Ballerina into Leap!, the film’s marketing brains are playing into that wrong-headed thinking and making it harder for films about young girls for young girls to find their audience and make money. So ultimately we’re going to see less of those films and young girls will struggle to find films that speak to them and their experiences directly. In an age where Rey and Jyn Erso are taking on Empires that’s – gladly – slightly less of an issue than it’s been in the past, but by the same token, it makes the Ballerina/Leap! switch more baffling.

Girls shouldn’t have to seek films like Ballerina out, and films like Ballerina shouldn’t have to morph into something entirely different to reach those girls. The world is changing, and movie marketing needs to replace its outmoded thinking and move with it. Otherwise it won’t be Felicie who needs someone to swoop in and save her; it’ll be the marketers.

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Lego Batman and the De-Toxification of the Dark Knight

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It’s one of the great cinematic quirks of the last few years that The Lego Movie delivered a superior take on Batman than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. With his kickass songs and almighty subwoofers (“listen to ’em bark!”), The Dark Knight did more than just steal every scene he appeared in; he represented something that few seem willing to admit: that Batman’s actually a fairly pathetic and laughable character. More than that, he’s perhaps even a slightly toxic one. Someone we should pity and help rather than aspire to be.

The Lego Batman Movie expands upon this idea, bringing in Batman’s wider cast of supporting characters (including a wonderfully wide-eyed Robin and an older, race-bent Barbara Gordon) to underline the inherent contradiction at the heart of the character: we all think of Batman as cool, but would anyone actually want to be him? Lonely, cut adrift from the rest of the world, haunted by a past he can never change and is forced to live through over and over again. Doesn’t sound cool to me. It sounds like a living hell.

Of course, maybe that’s the point. Popular thinking about the Dark Knight is that he’s as psychotic as his villains, a hero who needs to descend into the madness to beat it. It’s a nice concept, but it’s simply not true and The Lego Batman Movie brilliantly punctures it throughout (especially in the third act). Batman may dress like a bad guy and he may even sometimes act like one, but he’s not a psychopath. In every incarnation, and especially here, he’s a fundamentally decent guy who just can’t deal with his emotions and doesn’t know how to deal with people. So he does good things in a stupid way, like visiting an orphanage (a good thing) and shooting the kids with a merchandise gun (a stupid way).

We laugh at this, but we’re not laughing at Batman. We empathise with him because the film allows us to understand his pain. In the first act, we see him foiling a dastardly plot and going home to Wayne Manor (which is literally on an island because this Batman puts the b in subtle). Here, he lives in isolation, trekking through cavernous halls, eating microwave-heated Lobster Thermidor in his empty pool, and watching Jerry Maguire alone. Cameron Crowe’s film is, we’re told later, one of a number of soppy romantic comedies The Caped Crusader owns, because of course it is. He can’t build the relationships he needs, so he lives vicariously through film and when he meets someone he might actually like (Barbara), he experiences it like something from a film – in slow motion and set to the sounds of Cutting Crew’s power ballad ‘(I Just) Died in Your Arms’.

It doesn’t stop with love. Cut off from the world, Batman’s learned all he knows about every part of life through TV and film. Everything he considers cool looks like something from MTV circa 1998, or some terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger film from the same period. He does everything alone because, well, that’s what all tough guy heroes do, and Lego Batman is most certainly a tough guy. He’s doesn’t need any relationships because, pfft, relationships are for wimps. He can’t help it: he’s been forced into a bubble where subwoofers and rock-hard abs are the height of living, and dressing as a bat is the only way to engage with people and win their affection.

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This doesn’t sound like a hero does it?  Yet, we accept this ‘darkness, no parents’ vision of Batman as not only the defining take on Batman, but the greatest superhero of all time. And it’s kinda unsettling.

As a teenager I, like many teenage boys, much preferred Batman to Superman. Batman was cool and edgy; Superman was just an overgrown boy scout. But as I grew older, I got tired of Batman. Sure he’s still a great character and in the right writer’s hands can be a fascinating one, but the edginess that became synonymous with the character after Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: Year One’/’The Dark Knight Returns’ double-header seemed less interesting to me. Superman, meanwhile, became much more interesting. While Batman got stuck in brooding loneliness, Superman seemed a much more compelling, and crucially much healthier, exploration of heroism and how to be good in a bad world. That’s not boring – it’s one of the most important lessons we can learn.

Now, I’m not going to claim that Miller’s take on Batman is the wrong take, and nor am I going to say that darker versions of superheroes are bad things. Neither of those things are true. However, fandom’s obsession with Dark Batman seems genuinely damaging. If Batman’s cool because he’s brooding, dresses in black, and stalks the streets at night beating up bad guys isn’t that… well… kinda sad. Isn’t that a distinctly counter-productive thing to say.  Especially for a character who’s, first and foremost, aimed at children. “Hey kids, ever had something bad happen? Well, here’s an idea: don’t try to positively move on from it. Let it fester inside you until you can only express it through punches.”

Folks: this isn’t cool. Living in a massive mansion alone isn’t cool. Not dealing with your problems isn’t cool. Being a perpetually angry night-stalking vigilante isn’t cool. I appreciate I sound like a crappy guidance counsellor here, but honestly, Batman isn’t cool. He’s tragic and you really shouldn’t want to be him. That suit is Bruce Wayne’s therapy. But successful therapy comes to an end, or if it continues indefinitely, it does so with clear improvement and actionable help. It doesn’t keep the patient locked in an endless state of counselling with no hint of escape. That’s where Batman is, and where nobody else, nobody real, should ever want to be.

So teens who love Batman, go see The Lego Batman Movie. Parents with children who love Batman, go see The Lego Batman Movie. Laugh at the funny bits, get excited about the exciting bits, and cry at the sad bits (I have absolutely no shame in admitting that I cried during this film). And then genuinely think about which vision of Batman you want to be. The one microwaving lobster thermidor alone because he can’t deal with his endless grief. Or the one doing good with his mates because he’s finally accepted his emotions and let people in. You can be the second one and still be cool. Because no matter how in touch with his emotions he is, Batman’s always gonna have those subwoofers and they’re always gonna really bark.

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Panic on the Fourth of July: Spielberg’s America

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In this article, originally posted on From Director Steven Spielberg, I take a look at Spielberg’s complex portrait of America, which strives for hope but expresses a deep sense of anxiety at corruption, masculinity, and political process gone wrong. 

Steven Spielberg delivers one of his most damning indictments of the American psyche in his anarchic Second World War comedy 1941. The film, which depicts the chaos of an anticipated Japanese attack on Hollywood in the wake of Pearl Harbor, is a mess of wild set pieces, juvenile jokes, and teenage bawdiness that only occasionally rises its head of the parapet of brilliance. But when it does, it homes in on an anxiety around the American identity that Spielberg repeatedly returns to and which rings true as clearly today as it did at the end of a decade shattered by Watergate and Vietnam.

One such moment is, typically for a film of cartoonish insanity, a song and dance scene (1941, it should be noted, is not a musical). Taking place at a dance competition, the sequence finds our hero Wally attempting to dance with the girl of his dreams, Betty. He’s been practicising for weeks, aiming to impress Betty with his moves and win her heart. Trouble is, he has a rival. Military jerk Stretch also has his eye on Betty, and he and Wally come to blows in a balletic sequence that features some stunning choreography and beautifully fluid, energetic camerawork. It would go on to inspire the more famous Anything Goes sequence that opens Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and remains one of the most expressive scenes of Spielberg’s career.

But at the centre of this display of grace and beauty is a tale of American bullying, the betrayal of the little guy, and the destruction of the American Dream. Wally has pulled himself up by his bootlaces by learning to dance.. There’s creation there, a sense that he’s made something of himself through hard work and endeavour. With Stretch, however, there’s only destruction and a sense of entitlement. He’s strong and masculine. He’s in the army. He deserves Betty and should simply be given her heart, not have to win it. This attitude finally catches up with Wally by the sequence’s close where, having been thoroughly humiliated, Stretch traps Wally, winds up a punch and knocks him out. Underlining his political point, Spielberg uses a point of view shot from Wally’s perspective and frames Stretch against a neon-lit American flag as he delivers the blow.

Arrogance and brutality. This is the America of Spielberg’s early career: the little guy is crushed and authority figures bully their way to success. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even E.T. follow suit. Think of authority figures in these films: the mayor in Jaws, the government officials of Close Encounters and Raiders, the hazmat suited goons trampling through Elliott’s home in E.T.. Spielberg either turns these characters into the bad guys, or depicts them as being as morally duplicitous as the bad guys. The “top men” we’re told about at the end of Raiders are unlikely to be as bad as Belloq and co., but can they truly be trusted with the Ark? Are they really going to keep that source of unspeakable power safe?

Spielberg’s uncertainty with figures of American authority stems (as much of his thematic make-up does) from childhood. As a kid, he grew up an isolated outsider: the victim of anti-Semitic abuse and general bullying. America was a land that promised much, a country his grandparents spoke of with reverence where, in the allegorical words of the Amblin-produced An American Tail, there were “no cats”. Yet the reality was very different. In his Spielberg biography, Joseph McBride writes:

“Spielberg has recalled that he was tormented in high school by a bully who ‘made anti-Semitic slurs’ and enjoyed pushing him around. The bully would shove his face into the drinking fountain between classes and bloody his nose during football games in physical education. The most frightening incident came with the boy tossed a cherry bomb at Steven while he was sitting on the toilet in the school lavatory; Steven barely escaped injury.” (McBride, 96).

If the films of the 70s and early 80s were essentially bully films, Spielberg’s range expanded as his career developed. We still get some American bullies (Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but as the 80s turned into the 90s, there’s something more complex about Spielberg’s authority figures. 1987’s Empire of the Sun and the 1993 duo of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List delivered compelling and ambiguous characters in the shape of Basie, John Hammond and Oskar Schindler. While only Basie is actually American, all three characters represent American values: Capitalism gone awry and the pursuit of money unchecked by responsibility. They’re all charismatic presences and they all commit great acts of evil as well as acts of good. Basie stands apart from Hammond and Schindler as he ends Empire of the Sun by killing a child, while Hammond and Schindler see the error of their ways. But neither can be described as heroic, neither truly escape the shadow of their dubious earlier actions.

This approach informs even those characters who Spielberg clearly marks as heroes. Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, for example, is undoubtedly a good man, treating his troops with respect and going about his task with dignity and honour. He’s a classic Spielberg/Tom Hanks American Everyman, but the war brings him into conflict with his morality. He has to make tough calls and negotiate situations where there’s no ‘right answer’. Against this backdrop, Spielberg asks what we can do to stay good and maintain our morality. “Earn it,” Miller tells Ryan with his dying breath. By living good lives, the film says, we can honour the literal and moral sacrifice of those like Miller who ultimately couldn’t. But as the film closes on the sight of an American flag, fluttering in the breeze and faded against the light of a piercing white sun, Spielberg suggests we’re failing. America isn’t ‘earning it’.

Such darkness continued into the first decade of the new Millennium. The focus remains on what good people can do in bad times, but the films that constitute Spielberg’s Noughties output represents some of the most ambiguous, and – in the opinion of this writer – best work of his career. The vision of America Spielberg projects in these films is riddled with anxiety as good men do terrible things, authority figures abuse their power and human life is discarded like trash. Dr Hobby of A.I. and John Anderton of Minority Report wilfully play God, Frank Dixon in The Terminal treats Viktor like an animal in order to win a promotion, and Ray Ferrier kills a man in order to protect his child in War of the Worlds. It’s telling that in this period, Spielberg cast Tom Cruise twice, and turned this icon of American manhood into a monster, once emotionally (in War of the Worlds), once literally by literally mutilating his face (in Minority Report).

His own American icon – Indiana Jones – didn’t get out of this dark decade unscathed either. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy’s out of touch with a world torn apart by paranoia. In one of the film’s most fascinating sequences he’s questioned by the FBI and openly accused of colluding with Soviet forces. His war record and the incredible heroism of his past are barely considered: the very concepts of heroism and goodness have lost their currency in a paranoid world where authority figures suspect everyone. The question that permeates the film is: how can one do the right thing when the right thing doesn’t seem to exist any more? By having the extradimensional beings – who the film builds as a metaphor for knowledge – depart at the end, Spielberg brings his decade of darkness to a close by lamenting the loss of wisdom and the virtue that brings.

Such moments lend a sense of sadness and regret to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that’s continued through to Spielberg’s most recent films. His first movie to deal directly with the machinery of politics, Lincoln finds Spielberg zeroing in on one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived, but shows him having to bend the system and essentially commit illegal acts to bring in laws that ensure fundamental human rights. Made in the middle of the Obama era, it’s aware of the unending need for progress and the things that stand in the way of it, and asks how morality can win when certain figures of authority stand in its way.

Bridge of Spies acts as a sister film to Lincoln and finds another great America, James Donovan, repeating the President’s actions: bending the law, going rogue, and employing “lawyers dodges” in order to secure basic human rights. Both films were criticised for being too idealistic; old-fashioned throwbacks that painted complex subject matter with broad strokes and a limited palette. Whether you agree with that or not, the ultimate moral of these films hardly waves the flag for justice in the States. American democracy is fundamentally broken, they tell us, and the only way to fix it is to work outside of its strictures and essentially break it all over again.

Is that morality? Does the end justify the means? Spielberg’s great success with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies is to show American justice as a living organism, always changing – both for good and bad.  And with one of the final shots of the latter, he shows just how delicate the balance is. Donovan rides home on the train, his job done after recovering Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets. He looks out of the window, seeing boys in their gardens climbing over the fences. It reminds him (and us) of East Berlin, where innocent people risked their lives trying to climb the Wall and secure their freedom. It’s a beautifully Spielbergian image – innocence and darkness combined to make an ambiguous and unsettling point: that America, like all democracies, is always just a breath away from falling into corruption.

Spielberg has evolved from an angry young man railing at the bullies of America to an introspective middle-aged father wondering about his place in the system and finally become an elder statesman, looking back and telling stories about the triumphs of America’s past. As he finds hope in history, he also expresses an anxiety about the future. What will happen when the Lincolns and the Donovans fade, he asks. What will happen when someone arrives to bend the law for his own good rather than the common good? We may be about to find out…

Conflict and Compromise in La La Land

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Spoilers for La La Land. Don’t read this piece until you’ve seen the film.

The cinematic musical is a medium of grand emotions and even grander visuals. Everything is heightened. Colours are brighter, sets are larger, emotions are wild, untamed, and only suitably expressed through spontaneous song and dance. La La Land, Hollywood’s latest attempt to revive the genre,  is no different. The film ends with a glorious, bittersweet sweep through unreality, and when our two lovers fall for each other, they do so while floating on air at Griffiths Observatory.

Yet the film has an organic feel that many classic Hollywood musicals don’t. While the cinematography adds a dreamy sheen to almost every scene, director Damien Chazelle shoots in real locations, lending the film a compelling tension between reality and fantasy. This tension is echoed by the script, which uses the improvisational nature of jazz as a metaphor for life and love. “It’s conflict, it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting,” Ryan Gosling’s frustrated jazz musician Seb tells aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone).

As these characters progress through the film they too have to battle conflict and compromise. They love each other, but they also have very firm dreams that take them in different directions, sometimes coming into conflict with their principles, sometimes having to compromise their lives together. Mia refuses to join Seb on tour after he joins a successful band; Seb is so busy with the band that he misses Mia’s one-woman show. They eventually split, form separate lives, and in a heartbreaking finale meet each other again five years in the future, Chazelle taking us through a gloriously artificial vision of what their life could have been together.

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Such sequences are common in traditional Hollywood musicals. Gene Kelly had a particular fondness, using them to dramatise a Dancing Cavalier sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and a dream sequence in An American in Paris. They’re both moments of artifice, with the false sets heightening this sense of constructed reality. La La Land‘s artifice in this epilogue sequence does the same; this isn’t a dream sequence, but it is a vision of what could have been. Seb and Mia’s life together has slipped from sight, and all they have now is an illusion of their love.

What adds extra resonance to the sequence though is how the banality of what we see clashes with the way it’s being seen. The visuals may be artificial and exuberant, but the story is one of tough, everyday choices being made in a slightly different way than they did in the story we’ve just watched. Seb never joins the band, he goes with Mia when she gets her acting gig in Paris, they get married, and have a child together. The compromises they could only make for their dreams, they now make for each other and so they end up together.

Few of us will ever have to decide whether to join a band or take an acting job in Paris, but we make similar decisions all the time. Do we take that job that means a two hour commute and less time with the family? Do we stay true for our dreams regardless of the security they do or don’t offer? Do we chase love or a career? By juxtaposing such everyday choices against such exotic visuals, La La Land succeeds in creating a profound melancholy. These decisions, the film says, may seem pedestrian, but ultimately they have grand consequences, deciding who we are, what we become, and whether or not we end up dancing in thin air with the love of our life.

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Movement and Musicals in Gypsy’s ‘All I Need is the Girl’

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The musical is one of cinema’s great expressionist genres. Character and emotion aren’t portrayed just through narrative and dialogue in these films, but through song, dance, and colour. The genre’s about taking the figurative and making it literal, about showing Gene Kelly’s joy at saving The Duelling Cavalier by having him splash about in all those puddles. It is, in other words, a genre of movement: of the mouth, of the body, of the soul.

Conversely, this focus on movement can also exist in the absence of movement, as a number from Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 adaptation of Gypsy proves. Focusing on a shy young woman named Louise (played beautifully by Natalie Wood), the film follow her transformation from struggling vaudeville entertainer into burlesque sensation. Along the way, she falls out with her mother and sees her sister elope with Tulsa, a handsome young dancer who plays a part in the vaudeville act. Before then, however, he and Louise share a song and dance sequence, and it’s this that I want to concentrate on here.

‘All I Need Is The Girl’ is Tulsa’s big scene as he confides to Louise his plans to form his own act. He’s got everything planned out, he just needs a partner to join him.  He shows Louise some of the steps and, of course, she eventually starts dancing too. But what truly makes the moment work is everything Natalie Wood does (and does not do) before she starts dancing.

Watch Wood carefully during the first three quarters of this sequence. She’s sat down through most of it, not doing very much at all, but that’s the point. As Tulsa warms up, she sits almost motionless, her hands together and placed between her legs. She’s utterly insular, unable to even open out her body, never mind her heart and soul enough to dance the way Tulsa is.

But she wants to, and Wood tells us that through the smallness of her movement. Watch her tilt her head at the 1:05 mark, gently moving it as she falls under the spell of this song. She’s hanging on Tulsa’s every word, desperate to be the girl he needs, not necessarily because she wants to be his girlfriend, but because she wants the kind of confidence he has, she longs for the kind of love and excitement he’s talking about.

As Tulsa’s routine becomes more complex, the camera strays away from Wood, but you never forget she’s there (she is, after all, who Tulsa’s performing too) and you wish LeRoy would return to her more often, so magnetic is her quiet. Then finally, at 2:40, she moves, standing up as Tulsa imagines the girl of his dreams appearing. He talks of taking the girl’s hand and – crushingly – Louise, stood behind him, raises her hand, almost apologetically, in answer. She reaches out to him, moving her arm just a little bit, and tilts her head again, watching Tulsa intently.

The yearning in this small moment, in these invisible movements, is almost unbearable. He longs for a partner, she longs for a partner; he’s stood with his back to her, she can barely muster the confidence to reach out to him. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and it gets more crushing as Tulsa dances with his invisible partner while Louise, still behind him, sways gently along to the music. If only she could break out of her cage and fill in the role.

This being a musical number she eventually does, of course, and it’s a majestic, stirring moment of bravery and self-realisation. But it’s sold through the build-up: the slow, quiet yearning Wood shows us by not moving. The musical may be a great expressionist genre, but so often expression is about what we don’t say, as well as what we do. And by not singing, not dancing, not moving, Wood expresses with silence as much as the greatest of Hollywood’s musical stars do with their most elaborate routines.

Essay: Empire of the Sun and Spielberg’s Death of Identity

empire-of_-the_-sun_-1987Empire Of The Sun has been called Steven Spielberg’s ‘death of innocence’ film, but that description doesn’t quite capture the true desolation of what remains the director’s bleakest, most hopeless work.

An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s same-titled autobiographical novel, the film breaks the rules of biopics and historical epics by shrouding in mystery the very subject it should be illuminating. In doing so, it emerges as a complex and rewarding piece of drama that’s as much about the death of identity as the death of innocence. Beginning with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 and concluding with the atomic attack on Nagasaki four years later, Empire Of The Sun focuses on the story of Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a British boy brought up in China and living in a state of cultural confusion

The opening scene sees him singing Welsh hymn Suo Gân in a Chinese church decorated to resemble a British one, while later he strays from a costume party dressed flamboyantly as Sinbad and stumbles across a battalion of Japanese soldiers. These moments, with their stark visual contrasts and distant framing, serve to isolate Jamie from his surroundings, the audience and his own sense of self. As is typical of his film-making, Spielberg links Jamie’s fractured identity to his lack of a reliable father figure. John Graham (Rupert Frazer) is a negligent parent who seems more concerned with his golf swing than his son.

A rich businessman, he attends the costume party dressed as a pirate but his plunder stands for nothing when he and his wife are separated from Jamie during the occupation of Shanghai. When Jamie returns home hoping to find them, all he discovers in this once opulent abode is scattered talcum powder scarred by clinging finger prints and imposing boots marks – ghostly indicators of the violence that has poisoned his life. Such scenes inspired critic Andrew M. Gordon to refer to Empire Of The Sun as “a child’s dream of war” and this is evident in the writing as much as Spielberg’s imagery. Tom Stoppard’s masterful script is a typically postmodern effort from the author, playing with cinematic form and asking the audience to consider the film as a piece of fiction, born from Jamie’s imagination as much as his reality.

This sense of fantasy comforts the boy and when the film moves to its primary location, the Suzhou Creek Internment Camp, he conjures two flawed father figures to replace the one he’s lost. American ship steward Basie (John Malkovich) is the first and the most post-modern. Almost identical to a character on a comic book Jamie carries with him, Basie is literally a fantasy come to life and his survivalist, something-from-nothing spirit makes him an embodiment of the American Dream and an immediate hero to Jamie. But Basie is a dark twist on American endeavour who reduces life to dollars and cents.

Seeing the boy as an asset, he takes ownership by renaming him Jim (“a new name for a new life”) and tries to trade him to anyone who needs a labourer. “Buying and selling,” he says triumphantly, “you know: life!” British doctor Rawlins (Nigel Havers) is the second father figure. A refined British ideal of heroism, he nurtures Jim by maintaining his education and teaching him moral responsibility. He’s a good man and a better role model than Basie, but like Jim’s father, he’s clueless about the Eastern culture he lives in.

When the camp’s commanding officer, Sgt Nagata (Masatô Ibu), arrives to destroy Rawlins’ hospital in retaliation to American bombing, the doctor fights back, leading to further violence that only ceases when Jim bows to Nagata, showing him the proper cultural respect. The moment muddies Jim’s identity further, with Spielberg highlighting the positive elements of his cultural confusion. Unlike everyone else, Jim can connect with other nationalities and rejects the good/evil binary that war has forced upon him. He makes friends with a Japanese boy (Takatarô Kataoka) and repeatedly associates Japanese pilots with the sun, a key Spielbergian signifier of truth.

The Japanese are human beings, not ‘the enemy’, and the warmth Jim has towards them suggests he could grow up to become a better man than all the fathers he aspires to, one with more compassion than John and Basie, and more cultural understanding than Rawlins. It’s an identity that’s never allowed to take shape though. War catches up with Jim when American planes bomb Suzhou Creek in one of the film’s defining sequences. Amongst the madness, Spielberg focuses on one pilot as he swoops past. Shot in slow-motion, the pilot waves triumphantly to Jim, forcing him to identify with American heroism again. Unsure of who to idolise, which identity to try to become, Jim finally breaks down and reveals he can no longer remember what his parents look like.

He’s morphed so much, retreated so far into false notions of heroism, nationality and identity, that there is no real, true Jamie Graham any more. This is brought into literal truth in the film’s closing scene, which reunites Jim with his parents in a Shanghai orphanage. A grey-faced Jim stands in the middle of a crowd of children seeming disinterested and hopeless. Spielberg’s camera moves uncertainly across the children and when Jim enters the frame we struggle to recognise him, despite having spent two-and-a-half hours with him. His parents are the same and similarly he fails to acknowledge them.

When Mrs Graham finally realises this broken boy is her son, they embrace, but it’s a hardly a happy ending. Jim stares over his mother’s shoulder with glassy eyes that tremble with tears and confusion. Spielberg cuts to a shot of a celebrating Shanghai and then to one of Jim’s suitcase containing all his belongings, floating in a river.

The child Jamie is dead and the adult Jim never got a chance to live. What then will become of the shell that remains?

Essay: Indiana Jones and the Power of Film

coj9ommukaaj_laIt’s a common misconception that Steven Spielberg first confronted his Jewish heritage and the tragedy that goes with it in Schindler’s List (1993). The truth, however, is a little more complex. His Holocaust drama may be his most explicit depiction of his ancestry to date, but traces of its impact on Spielberg’s life can be seen in many of his early films, including the first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).

Made at the start of a decade of tremendous personal and professional change for Spielberg (who became a father and a husband, and made his first drama during the 80s), Raiders is an ostensibly light-hearted romp inspired by the escapist adventures of its director’s youth. With its rousing theme tune, breathless set-pieces and charming lead performance from Harrison Ford, it deliverS what remains one of modern cinema’s most enduring blockbusters.

And yet, Raiders is a surprisingly violent yarn. Its heroic leads (Indy and Karen Allen’s Marion) kill 23 people between them and 63 are slain all in all. Indy shoots an Arab swordsman in cold blood, watches as a pilot is mangled by one of his plane’s propellers, and pummels and runs down a Nazi soldier as they battle for control of a runaway truck.

Such scenes are surprising coming from a man who’d found such success in suggesting threat rather than explicitly showing it in Jaws (1975) and who would go on to make E.T. (1982), and they drew stern criticism.

The film’s writer, Lawrence Kasdan, has described the swordsman sequence as “brutal”, while in his biography of Spielberg, writer Joseph McBride argues that the film’s violence is “exploited for purely visceral thrills…[and] presented in a winking tongue-in-cheek style to anesthetise the audience’s moral sense.”

While McBride goes too far in suggesting the film anesthetises the audience’s morality, the “winking tongue-in-cheek style” is certainly clear and it’s out in force in the climactic scene. Having failed to wrestle the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, Indy and Marion find themselves on a secret island hideout where Indy’s rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), Nazi commander Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) and henchman Toht (Ronald Lacy) begin a ceremony that will open the artefact.

The scene ends, of course, with the three men suffering deaths so over-the-top that Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones – who acted as visual consultant on Raiders‘ predecessor 1941 (1979) – would have taken pause. But dismissing the film for its cartoonish violence is somewhat missing the point. Raiders is a revenge movie and its director’s anger is generated from the passion of a man looking to exorcise the ghosts of a childhood spent at the mercy of bullies.

Growing up in five different towns, the young Spielberg found settling difficult and his awkwardness made him easy prey for other kids. Some of the resulting taunting took the form of anti-Semitism and he later described his experiences in Saratoga, California, where he finished his high school education, as “Hell on Earth”.

His mistreatment was by no means exclusive to Saratoga, though. Throughout his childhood, Spielberg had to endure repeated bullying. He was mocked because he didn’t celebrate Christmas and would hear kids coughing ‘Jew!’ as they walked past him. “I felt as alien as I have ever felt in my life,” he confessed during publicity for Schindler’s List. “It caused me great fear and an equal amount of shame.”

Spielberg was also made aware of his heritage through the Holocaust stories he’d hear from relatives and the elderly students in his grandmother’s English classes. One showed him the numbers that had been tattooed onto his arm at Auschwitz, while his mother Leah told him about a woman who was so panicked by a Nazi soldier’s threat to chop of her finger so he could claim the ring stuck on it that the ring eventually slipped off.

“It just freaked me out, I’m sure it affected Steven,” Leah has explained. “Some of the stories were so horrible that there was almost a movie-like quality to them.”

It’s fitting then, that Spielberg would learn to master his feelings of persecution through a movie. Made in 1961 while the director was still at school, Escape To Nowhere is a war film that starred one of Spielberg’s bullies in a primary role. After a rocky start, their relationship began to shift and suddenly wimpy Spielberg was transformed in Director Spielberg and in that position he could boss his actor around.

“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him,” Spielberg would later say. “But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words. I used a camera, and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-inspection and self- expression it is…I had learned that film was power.”

It’s a lesson Spielberg has exercised throughout his career. Whether it’s the theatricality of Hook (1991), the blockbuster meta-textuality of the Jurassic Park films (1993 and 1997) or the self-aware artifice of Catch Me If You Can (2003), Spielberg films are, as Empire Of The Sun (1987) screenwriter Tom Stoppard noted, “’about’ cinema before they are about anything else”. Even his more serious efforts feature movie references, most recently War Horse (2011), which finishes with a prolonged nod to Gone With The Wind (1939).

The climactic scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark is no different. The island that Indy and Marion are taken to is littered with cameras and lights, and an army of soldiers are on hand to operate them. With Belloq, Toht and Dietrich standing at the head of the stage, the scene is like a movie set, the three men the actors, the soldiers the behind-the-scenes crew. Tied up, Indy and Marion can only watch and so represent the audience. All that’s needed is the star attraction.

When it finally does arrive, it manifests itself through technology. A generator explodes; setting off a chain reaction that sends sparks across the lights and all the soldiers’ guns. The scene falls dark and quiet. John Williams’s mysterious Ark theme begins on the soundtrack and slowly white-blue light emerges.

The spirits of the Ark seem benevolent at first, celestial streams of light dancing around the men in a display of typically Spielbergian wonder. It’s the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and the audience is primed for life-affirming spectacle.

But the mood soon changes. One of the spirits flies up to the three men, craning its neck to look directly at them. Spielberg shoots this moment from the men’s point of view, the spirit looking at the camera, through to the audience. Slowly, the benign face turns into a malevolent skull that screams piercingly. Vengeance is at hand.

An orange light pours from the Ark, smothering Belloq’s head and projecting out across the soldiers. It impales all the soldiers, including – significantly – the one operating the camera, and finally returns to Belloq, Toht and Dietrich, the latter two’s faces melting, the former’s head exploding. A great purging fire covers the base, incinerating any Nazis left standing.

Indy and Marion have survived, but their place as the audience has changed. Realising the threat, the pair had closed their eyes before the spirits appeared, thus saving themselves from the Nazis’ fate. The Ark, like film, is power and those who look upon it must do so with the proper reverence – or suffer the consequences.

Spielberg would return to Indiana Jones in Temple Of Doom (1984), removing the Nazis’ disrespect and replacing it with Indy’s own arrogant search for “fortune and glory”, and again in The Last Crusade (1989), which brought the Nazis back and punished a Belloq substitute (Julian Glover’s egotistical Donovan) with a similarly nasty fate for his pursuit of the Holy Grail.

The films are often dismissed as Spielberg’s most impersonal efforts and, co-created as they are with George Lucas, perhaps that’s true. But regardless of authorship, the Indiana Jones franchise provided Spielberg with an important bridge between the popcorn entertainment he excelled at in the 70s and the serious-minded drama he’d produce in the 90s.

Film was power, Raiders had helped him prove. Now it was time to turn its might onto reality.