Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hard to be a God (2015)

On paper, Hard to be a God is not a movie that's terribly complicated from a narrative standpoint (the gist is that scientists travel to an alien planet that is intellectually inferior to earth and is set on remaining so), but you'd also be hard-pressed to find someone who's fully in tune with the goings on of its plot from start to finish. This is partly because director Aleksei German (who died just before post-production was complete, a shame considering this was a project he'd been trying to passionately get made his entire career) isn't very considerate when it comes to the extent his audience might be able to make sense of what's happening, and also because the pure scope of his vision and the brutality and nastiness in it ultimately takes precedence over any narrative coherence. And because, as I mentioned, this isn't at the end of the day a very complex narrative, you get the sense that the look and feel of the film is what German wanted his audience to really take away from it. 

If we can't quite make sense of the story the film is telling, it's partly because the ugliness of this world we're in muddies up what were probably fairly basic plot machinations in the script and the Arkady and Boris Strugatsky novel from which it's based. Depending on what you want out of a movie, this is arguably one of the most astounding things a film can do: fill the screen with so much mud, shit, blood, guts, and general muck that we're simply overwhelmed by the ghastly yet astounding vision at hand that any semblance of narrative structure or cohesion is undermined by the director's unreal commitment to the environment he's operating in. 

Another difficult aspect of the movie when it comes to making sense of what's actually going on is the fact that there's so much dialogue to deal with. There are scenes aplenty where German packs several characters into the frame (his camera not focused on anyone in particular) with many of them talking whilst doing other nasty things. Much of the dialogue is senseless blabbing, and that, coupled with the occasional lines of important exposition, the fact a lot of the scenes are murky, rainy, and low lit, and that it can be hard to differentiate between characters because their faces are often covered in gunk, makes the scenes difficult to make sense of and/or organize in any coherent fashion. At one point, the protagonist, one of the scientists sent to this planet from earth who has been defied by the people there, says to another character: "I'm speaking to you, but that doesn't meant we're having a conversation." And that's sort of how a lot of the dialogue works: there's lots of words spoken, but it's hard to tell which ones really matter.

And that, I think, is sort of the whole point. This is ultimately a movie about ugliness, about how circumstance (in this case, poor conditions, innate selfishness/cruelty, and intellectual sterility ) coupled with a faulty notion of order leads to a savage kind of disorder where any idea that creatures can get along peacefully seems impossible.

This is a behemoth of a movie, and the story told is one I can only possibly imagine wrought through film. I haven't read the novel and don't plan to. How could it possibly live up to the grotesque vision German has created, one in which images of crude, violent, and downright disturbing things would only grow tedious on the page, but when writ large on a massive canvas with grand sets and actors, becomes sort of thrilling? What terrible thing will we be shown next? Not exactly a feel-good experience, and certainly only fitting when a precise mood-one in which a desire to see just what a grand vision of ugliness might actually mean-strikes. 

I've intentionally avoided any concrete description of what's at play in Hard to Be a God, partly because I'm still trying to sort through the movie myself in whatever way I can, and also because it is one of those movies, like Mad Max: Fury Road, where the inexplicable power of the images largely negates any value in describing them. 

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