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exponentiation ezine: issue [4.0:culture]

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Cinema:

Even Dwarfs Started Small (dir. Werner Herzog 1970 B&W 35mm. 96 min.)

German New-Wave director Werner Herzog's comedy of the absurd proceeds from the simplest of premises: Eight wards from an isolated reformatory have rebelled against their head counselor and proceed to wreak havoc on the building's grounds. With one catch; each stands no higher than 4 feet tall. The context of this element is decisive: The group is not interned because they are dwarfs. Awkwardly, they are not even supposed to be viewed as such; the entire cast, not just our rabble-rousers, is Lilliputian --completely out of scale with the material world around them. With this metaphor the film breaks from similar ventures like Todd Browning's "Freaks" to offer a prescient subtext to the debauched antics of its characters; whose struggle to attain independence ultimately collapses through base desires and interpretations of power.

Their tale begins in a chaos we're led to believe continues long after the camera stops. A mob scuffles with comedic impotence to free one of their own from the head-counselor's grasp. These efforts fail as their comrade is seized and then tied to chair in a prison cell/office occupied by only himself and the counselor for the duration of the film. The inmates, four male, four female are sick of their regimental lives. Sick of the health drills, powdered milk, grooming the animals, "sick of mother nature". Now free, they wander around the complex, set on a desolate island capped by a distant volcano. Chastising one another as cowards while scrambling for a new course of action -- possibly deserting the area, the question arises, "Where would we go?" The greater idea of imprisonment is now primed for exploration through the remainder of the narrative. As the mania unfolds, the troupe will uproot the island's palm trees, slaughter a pig, set fire to the gardens, crucify a pet monkey, display a box of insects dressed as a wedding party and almost make it through a traditional family dinner ("your knife on the right, fork on the left"). While in between, blissfully rummaging through porno mags and parading on top of motorcycles in grotesque and hilarious parody of modern archetypes. The latter half of these offenses is the most poignant, exhibiting a ferocious cynicism of revolt still relevant today: that those seeking to overthrow the world in which they find themselves, ultimately do so through a deranged imitation of their masters.

An oft-repeated excuse for the pillaging of New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina was that it was a way to "get-back" at the system. In a culture that presents material wealth as the apex of living, naturally the effect of "getting back" and by extension, assuming power, will be translated by some into crates of plastic, electronic equipment, guns and lots of beer, even as life itself is washed away. The future lost in the Lethe, the natural order of the world is magnified: People survive at the expense of one another. And so too, in one of "Dwarfs..." most stunning sequences, the gang happens upon a garage and at once hot-wires the car inside with the intention to finally ride off into town. For the next fifteen minutes, the automobile, without passengers, will drive itself in a circle on the lot (a chaotic theme central to the conclusions of other Herzog films like "Strozeck" and "Aguirre: The Wrath of God") before being shoved into one of the island's volcanic pits. Finally consumed by the situation, the counselor apparently murders his captive soon after emptying the contents of the office onto the roof-top, while shouting that he needs room! He will eventually escape and flee into the desert, provoking arguments with desiccate trees upon his exit; his former responsibilities continuing their revenge against the earth. In one of the greatest non-resolutions in history, the film ends with the gang's "leader" laughing hysterically at a camel shitting in front of him.

Not a political film per-se, "Even Dwarfs Started Small" was initially pegged as fascist cinema due to it's depicting such a failed uprising during the era of student revolutions and the Vietnam War. To this, not much more can be speculated as to the direct motivation for the film, which is, all told, shot brilliantly through the kinetic lens of camera-man Thomas Mauch. The shocks contained in "Even Dwarfs" have not worn over time because in them are the deeper insights to our mismanagement of civilization; seen as caution for the future, seemingly eternal. Although Herzog would later agree with his critics dismal view while expressing his own distaste for the socialist ideology at the time (though denying it as any kind of political statement) he would suggest, rather ironically, that what takes place in the film is not an actual defeat because, after all, "they're happy". Further underlining the unreason and perversion of this context, he noted that, had he returned weeks later to the spot of filming, "...they would still be there, the midget laughing away."*

*Herzog on Herzog. Edited by Paul Cronin: Faber and Faber, 2002 - Smog

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Throne of Blood (dir. Akira Kurosawa 1957)

Throne of Blood is a generally regarded as the best screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth and it is one of the greatest literature to film adaptations ever accomplished. The film is a Japanese take on the classic Shakespearean tale of madness, deceit, fate and betrayal.

From the original Japanese title of Kumonosu j, the title translates to "Cobweb Castle" as opposed to the American version of the film known as Throne of Blood. Both titles are fitting, but Cobweb Castle reaches into the heart of the film more than Throne of Blood does as this epic Kurosawa film is filled with webs of deceit and filaments of fate, which are strung out in a divine pattern.

Throne of Blood takes place in feudal Japan and follows the legacy of two feudal lords as they see a prophecy fulfilled which was given to them by a spirit in the woods. One of them, Taketori Washizu (the Macbeth character), is foretold that he will assume the throne as Emperor and the other, Yoshiaki Miki, is foretold that he will be the father of the line of the Emperor's who will come after Washizu. Both men discuss the meaning of the prophecy given to them and shun it off as lunacy, until the Emperor promotes them to higher positions upon their arrival back to the castle, which was prophesized by the spirit in the woods. This begins the fall into self-fulfilling prophecy, betrayal and deceit.

Kurosawa adds a slightly different touch to the Macbeth equivalent character of Taketori Washizu by making his ambitions for power very subtle in the beginning of the story. Through the first quarter of the story Washizu remains loyal to the Emperor and denies that he wishes to become Emperor himself. However his wife is cold, cunning and hungry for power and decides to use Washizu as her vehicle to obtain her own personal lusts. She is perhaps the vilest and most devious character in Throne of Blood - stoic in her expressions and cold hearted in her calculations. She, in essence, begins the long sequence of betrayal and deception by manipulating Washizu to kill the Emperor and take the throne. In doing so she betrays both her husband and the Emperor in favor of her own lusts.

The Macbeth character of Washizu resists disobedience more than Shakespeare's Macbeth. This is a strikingly Japanese element in Kurosawas story that is played masterfully to the point that it adds a whole other realm of complexity and depth of the character of Washizu as it exposes him as a man with hidden desires that even he denies or does not fully accept. It takes strong manipulation from Washizu's wife before his inner lusts for power really start to take bloom. Once Washizu is manipulated into killing the Emperor backstabbing, deceit and madness takes full stride in Throne of Blood and the pace and intensity of the film increases.

Friends turn their backs on each other, paranoia and madness causes massive blood shed inside the castle, Washizu begins to become tortured by the deeds he has committed and eventually the fates come to collect their hand as the power of Washzu's meets a fatal and tragic end. The final moments in Washizu's kingdom are some of the most powerful and stunning scenes put to film.

The laying of webs for other victims backfires on the spider when they become so greedy and zealous that they lay so many webs that they entangle themselves in a corner and suffocate. This is what happens to many of the characters in Throne of Blood. Their selfish ambitions become their own undoing and the trail of backstabbing eventually lands a knife right in their own back, where it belongs. The destructive nature of selfish ambition is one of the biggest themes that Throne of Blood spends time probing, along with the nature of fate and destiny.

Characters plot their own futures and seek to solidify their power through deception as the film progresses forward. The lords abuse their power and begin to plot against those around them in order to fulfill some aspects of the prophecy that suit them and prevent others which do not. The film brings into question the nature of fate and destiny as the characters have fate thrust upon them and at the same time self-fulfill many of the aspects of the prophecy. The nature of fate in the context of Throne of Blood is highly paradoxical and full of irony.

Tragedy. Melancholy. Fighting the currents of fate. Descending into madness. All of these are ripe in Throne of Blood. One of the great achievements of this film is that it manages to capture the spirit of its source and it does so precisely because it was not trying to be the source. Throne of Blood does not attempt to be a Shakespearean play played out on the screen, it instead seeks to be a Shakespearean tragedy interpreted into the language of film. As such it takes full advantage of the language that is unique to film: visuals, expressions, landscapes, atmospheres, silence, symbols and music. What has been a fatal flaw to many other Shakespeare to screen adaptations is that they have tried to be a play on the screen and as such they have neglected the unique language of film.

Perhaps one of the greatest Shakespeare to screen adaptations came from Japan due to the fact that the language barrier was broken and the Japanese did not feel obligated to live up to the exact words and formulations of a western literary giant. Kurosawa, by turning the symbols and themes of Macbeth into a uniquely Japanese context managed to liberate the themes of the Shakespearean tragedy from the over powering mythos of the western conception of Shakespeare and as a result he did the film, the topics and the themes the greatest of services. - phantasm

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