Silence (1971), dir. Shinoda Masahiro


Perhaps the most striking and memorable works of the Japanese New Wave dealt with modern society – formal experimentation, sexual liberation, gun-toting yakuza, but often these films focused upon Japan’s history, at the crossroads between feudalism, military imperialism, American occupation and technological modernity that have shaped Japan so profoundly in the past six decades. Adapted from Endō Shūsaku’s 1966 novel, Shinoda’s version of Silence differs most notably from Scorsese’s magnum opus in its sense of timing. Released five years after the novel’s publication and during Endō’s lifetime, Scorsese was instead involved in pre-production for two-and-a-half decades, refining each element alongside his most trusted collaborators, screenwriter Jay Cocks and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Alongside their joint affiliation to major cinematic movements (Japanese New Wave, New Hollywood), both directors worked within major national studios (Toho, Paramount) to bring their work to the screen. Shinoda doesn’t approach Silence with the theological and Catholic underpinning that made Scorsese’s film a sermon in the most positive way, placing the viewer within the depths of spiritual meditation on this world, faith and the next world.

Japanese cinema, before and since Rashōmon (1950), has been impacted by its perception both domestically and abroad and encouraging cultural dialogue, placing Silence in an interesting position with its exploration of cultural conflict with Buddhism, the homogenisation of western values and moral authority. Shinoda places audience identification within the plight and suffering of the Japanese people, highlighting the true brutality of religious repression: bodies drowning, horses marching upon heads buried in the sand, mass executions. We shift between scenes spoken in Shinoda’s native Japanese, overdubbed dialogue and exchanges spoken in English within the priests’ private company (with Japanese subtitles embedded within the bottom of the frame). The decision to cast Ferreira (Tamba Tetsurō) in ‘whiteface’ might seem ill conceived, but it becomes a visual representation of these ethnic and religious conflicts: a white European from Portugal, taking the name and wife of a Japanese man, literally taking a Japanese body and replacing it with whiteness; Shinoda does not need to be literal.

Although unable to display wide expanses of nature as cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto achieved so wonderfully in Scorsese’s film, in the tighter 1:33.1 frame (following a long tradition of Japanese cinema) many of Scorsese’s best elements are present through Miyagawa Kazuo’s wonderful cinematography of landscapes, sunsets and found and painted objects. Combined with stretches of meditative scenes, montages and juxtaposing Takemitsu Tōru’s violent, contradictory music against the natural soundscape, Shinoda pushes a more experimental dimension, as though the radicalism of the 1960s is not so far apart from the shogunate. Just as the Bible can have multiple texts with no definitive version (the King James, the American International, its original language and stories), so too can these alternative versions of Silence co-exist: on screen, in imagination and in prose. (Scorsese even lifts his film’s logo and typography from Shinoda’s Silence.) Between Japanese and English, Shinoda and Scorsese, sentences and images convey the same meaning but in different ways. Not all of the performances are perfect, but it is nonetheless visually striking.

Polytechnique (2009), dir. Denis Villeneuve

Bowling for Columbine (2002) seems to suggest that mass shootings and gun deaths are a uniquely American problem: Canada is a land of safety, with doors left unlocked inviting neighbours and strangers in, background checks and legislation. But these differences in scale do not prevent mass shootings (and particularly school shootings) from being a global problem. Whether a generation of schoolchildren growing up in fear or a minor exception, this does not take away the power and the tragedy of this violence. Indeed, I first learned about the 1989 Montreal massacre that is depicted in Polytechnique after yet another act of white male misogyny back in April after the “incel” motivated violence in Toronto. However, our understanding of “incels” emerge from an act of misogyny in itself, as Farah Mustafa and Mari Ramsawakh stress in the Toronto based publication Nuance, focused on immigrant voices around sexual health. As Mustafa and Ramsawakh write, the term ‘involuntarily celibate’ was coined by a woman addressing gender and mental illness; the concept of “incel” has instead been corrupted to ignore the “disabled”, “racialized”, “infantilized”, and “desexualized” “marginalized groups” that “don’t threaten violence when their needs aren’t met”; instead, the white male community of “incels” use their “lack of sexual experience” as a “flimsy excuse to uphold the patriarchy and perpetuate misogyny”.

The school shooting genre of cinema might be a small and under acknowledged unifying theme, it has many different incarnations. In Rudderless (2014), the background to our characters’ situation is framed through a difficult-to-process opening, staging a campus shooting before depicting a process of mourning. Ultimately, we cannot detach the reality of mass shootings from how this violence is represented, and how much of a fine line must be taken. Perhaps the most notable is Elephant(2003), named after the even more traumatising (and less humanising) IRA-themed Elephant (1989), a film that continues to scare me. If you find Van Sant’s Elephant voyeuristic and insensitive, Polytechnique will not solve that.

But Villeneuve has some strengths that might be in Polytechnique’s favour. His use of monochrome allows for a degree of visual separation from the reality of events. Brown, desaturated blood allowed Taxi Driver (1976) to pass the MPAA; here, the black, monochrome blood is arguably more effective than red blood, shifting from an overwhelming, fetishistic visual spectacle into cold reality: the violence and the mourning are a blackness. In Montreal’s cold and constant snow, so influential to the visuals of the dystopian Blade Runner 2049 (2017), there’s a contrast of whiteness in the falling snow and rooftops. Monochrome emphasises the film’s nature as an intimate character drama. The text in the opening and closing is genuinely respectful, acknowledging these characters are fictional; in the closing credits, each name is allowed a memoriam, slowly fading between each so no name escapes a person’s memory. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like for a survivor or a relative watching their reality played out on screen.

The complex structuring device isn’t unfamiliar to the manipulation of narrative time in Arrival (2016), or the shifting points of view in Elephant. Villeneuve allows us to confront these events from two points of view, without pathologising the life of the shooter. Instead, Polytechnique allows us to experience the trauma and mourning of violence as powerfully as Villeneuve achieves in Prisoners, witnessing consequences and aftereffects, but also the hope of a new and better generation. The focus on female engineering students acts as a thematic precursor to Villeneuve’s continued focus on female protagonists in positions of power in Sicario (2015) and Arrival, allowing us to witness the pressures of misogyny that women face, ignored by the shooter’s incoherent diatribe against feminism and women overtaking male positions of power. In a job interview, an employer suggests women must be in lower, less qualified positions with fewer hours to facilitate childbirth. We see how soul crushing and demoralising that assumption is. By the conclusion, we move through mourning into maternity without sacrificing workplace gender parity. Actions within the narrative reflect the difficult relationship between male and female identity: as the classroom is divided into two, between men and women (a practice often carried out by teachers, reflecting the negative roots of fundamentally gendered society), the inaction of men speaks volumes. No man, not even the professor, is willing to risk or sacrifice their lives to save their female classmates; it is easier to run away, with the shooter allowing male students leniency and a chance to leave. Administration, even a security guard, denies the possibility of this reality, assuming the incident to be a joke. The toxic ideology of a woman’s subservience is a recurring ideology, whether manifesting in (physical) violence or in violent words. Women become a sexual necessity, no matter how unattractive misogyny is; the price is a series of lifeless bodies without erotic dimension. Feminism becomes a slur: even at gunshot, in their last words, the girls deny being feminists, just wanting to live their lives. As Mustafa and Ramsawakh argue, the “ideology” and “violence” of misogyny is “terroristic”, despite fitting outside “our legal definitions of terrorism”.

There’s tenseness throughout, even when reading notes in the college library, listening to Tainted Love (1981) and The Safety Dance (1982) through the boombox, or photocopying lecture notes. Villeneuve is a highly visual director, but character and scenario remain imbued with substance behind those visuals. As one of his final French language works – Polytechnique would be followed by Incendies (2010) – Polytechnique is an important film, imbued within the distinct filmmaking processes of Quebecois film culture – a grant-based government focus on cultural products and the provincial language. But Canada never leaves Villeneuve’s works, from the focus on national borders (Mexico in Sicario, Montana in Arrival, filmed in Montreal), or the landscapes and isolation of Prisoners.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), dir. Wes Craven

I feel a little sad for Wes Craven. His genuine importance in developing horror feels overshadowed by the self-reflexive (not merely satirical or parodic) strategies of Scream (1996), where Craven was already building upon the same divisions of reality and fiction to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in New Nightmare (1994), and the enduring, complex legacy of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). His major works have been swallowed by inferior remakes using their name capital, including The Hills Have Eyes (2006), The Last House on the Left (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).

With a franchise and a fan following behind it, it can be difficult to consider this initial film as an independent entity, outside of the queer, supernatural, or maternal places it would move towards, including a crossover with the Friday the 13th franchise (1980-2009) in Freddy vs. Jason (2003), only a year prior to Alien vs. Predator (2004). New Line, although now subsumed into the infrastructure of Warner Bros. (thanks to the success of The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) franchise), built its identity through horror films like Elm Street, an identity still alluded to by It: Chapter One (2017), Itself an 80s set horror film dealing with the intelligence (and darkness) of pubescent children and the parents that underestimate them.

Before I saw this film, I was still terrified by its concept: listening toNow Playing’s retrospective series on the films back in 2010 when I was too young to process it, the concept of teenagers being able to die in their sleep terrified me as I listened to podcasts to fall asleep each night. The inspiration behind the film – refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam dying in their sleep – touches upon the serious trauma childhood loss and separation creates. But I only had the framework to view these nightmares from a white perspective – trauma that seemed inexplicable, not connected to war and immigration.

Approaching it now, my fears are different. I sleep as anxiety engulfs me; I tell myself I want to die, but sleep becomes my last refuge to save myself from myself, until morning passes. As I shifted onto antidepressants, my nightmares became vivid and real. In one dream, I detached myself from my body and became a ghost. In another, a friend became a victim of transphobic abuse. Dreams might be a nonsense mush hallucination of brain activity and memory, but boundaries blur. Dreams reflect anxieties and inform present reality. As I move through my memories, I question: did this event happen in reality, or within a dream? In dreams, the plausible vanishes: I fuck people I would never fuck; the deceased are resurrected; I watch movies in a cinema, making me question whether I still have any grip on reality. Once, I sat inside a crashing plane, praying to God in a final plea of hope, colliding with the cityscape – and my death – waking up as the impact hit. I dream of lost friendships and exes; awake, I convince myself to send another message and rekindle that connection. Dreaming of high school and university, my anxiety encroaches upon my waking life, questioning the past and direction of my life. Because it was in a dream, it has to mean something, right? Often, it can be predictive, mirroring an event that will later take place.

The mystery of consciousness has no boundaries, grounded in selfhood, individual interpretation and views of the world; my internal thought process merges into real conversations, as a thread in my own head carries on into the material world. My sleep lacks coherence, merging between nighttime hours as others sleep. As I dissociate, the world becomes a dream; there is no reality as I stare blankly, my thoughts and anxieties and doubts becoming louder than the material world and material people in front of me. I say words to people, before my memory retreats, or my sense as a material being speaking to another human retreats; my learned human actions wash away into impulses.

Film is both illusion and dream. To follow the thought of the Frankfurt School (and particularly Siegfried Kracauer), the function of cinema depends upon the dreams of a reality yet to come and a collective unconscious. As I watch A Nightmare on Elm Street on FilmStruck, immersed in its narrative, I become aware of the frame around it, as my iPad screen becomes more real than the film upon its illuminated surface. Wes Craven, having died in 2015, no longer dreams, or indeed lives, exempt from the anxieties that A Nightmare on Elm Street brings to life. As in The Tempest (1611), each life of dreams is “rounded with a sleep”. The nursery rhymes of Row, Row, Row Your Boat might for some represent the bliss of the natural world, but it is for me a scream of existential dread: moving through the stream of existence within the vessel of my body, each passing day an incomprehensible dream: “life is but a dream” is a genuine fear. A Nightmare on Elm Street is wise to invoke experiences extending beyond the horror of a murderer and the scream of nightmares, but reflecting a universal phenomenon. Friday the 13th needs at least a familiarity with summer camp; A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t even need familiarity with white suburban America, but with the human condition. The concept of Krueger in Elm Street may be a fantasy, but it is never preposterous. 

I remember my earliest encounter with existential dread in sleep: a ten year old child, waking in the middle of the night to the appearance of my parents, finally aware of my body and my mortality. David Lynch might hold the cards for depicting cinema as a dream, but these dreams are not uncommon to Richard Linklater (Waking Life (2001)), Kurosawa (Dreams (1990)), and, indeed, Wes Craven. Dreams can often be used as a lazy narrative device, or as a means of facilitating the fantasy wordbuilding of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) across film, novels, television, and other adaptations. Nightmare is different.

The sense of home invasion that penetrated the walls in Halloween (1978) and its divisions and boundaries are extended by Nightmare. The dreams of A Nightmare on Elm Street are foregrounded within a connection to another plane of reality (bodies and corpses sinking into beds, time reversing and shifting): the sins of the mother (not father) against the generational legacy of paedophilic abuser Fred Krueger is carried through the unconscious that places a connection between mother and daughter. These states of avoiding sleep are familiar to any student: days long all-nighters, watching television as a midnight distraction, falling asleep without intending to, drinking copious amounts of coffee. Often, Craven is on point with his use of comedy: coffee might be confiscated away, but of course there is another pot already brewed in preparation.

Elm Street has been read through a Final Girl lens, but it’s important to stress the teenage (female) empowerment that never feels false. Never doubt your children; never doubt the neighbourhood’s kids; allow agency outside of the bars that are meant to protect you, and outside of school; trust they are truthful. Part of this film involves repeated periods of mourning and understanding complexity, and coming to terms with independence from a relationship with a boyfriend. Periods of sadness (murderous boyfriends, prison suicide) involve a sense of knowing a truth imperceptible to adult lives. Whether in its boiler rooms or bedrooms, A Nightmare on Elm Street generates real fear as one of the scariest films ever made.