Thirtyframesasecond

November 24, 2008

Exotica

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:31 am
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Canada

Director: Atom Egoyan

103 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

‘Exotica’ features a non-linear narrative, including flashbacks. A series of characters’ lives are interconnected through the Exotica gentleman’s club. Thomas, a gay pet shop owner, smuggles eggs by endangered species into the country. Christina is a young dancer at the Exotica. She is the preferred personal dancer of Francis, a troubled middle aged man whose mind is not on sex but on something more substantial. Christina’s ex-lover Eric is the club’s DJ, who is clearly not happy with the end of their relationship and jealously watches Christina’s dances with her clients.

Francis, a tax auditor investigates Thomas’s accounts, realising that he oversees a smuggling operation. Eric convinces Francis to touch Christina, even though this is against the policy of the club, and when Francis does so, Eric throws him out. Francis offers to overlook Thomas’s smuggling if he visits Exotica to speak to Christina and assist him killing Eric. Francis’s final showdown with Eric reveals the relationship between the characters that had been increasingly suggested. Christina was Francis’s babysitter a few years before. Francis knew she had problems at home and has looked out for her ever since. Francis’s unfaithful wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, found by Christina and Eric who had just met. Francis and Eric embrace in mutual empathy.

Review

Nominated for the Palme D’Or in 1994, where Egoyan won the FIPRESCI prize, ‘Exotica’ remains the director’s most acclaimed film and perhaps the best and most subtle examination of the themes which many of Egoyan’s films have concentrated upon, including sexual fantasy and sensuality, obsession and melancholy, and trauma and healing.

One of the strengths of ‘Exotica’ is Egoyan’s confident use of non-linear narrative, a device which can be self-indulgent and risky, but in the case of ‘Exotica’, it does not just work but is absolutely necessary. As ‘Exotica’ begins and progresses, the relationships between Francis, Christina and Eric become more apparent, partly due to the use of flashback, and only in the final scenes are these relationships fully realised and explained. Since Egoyan provides information gradually, we ask ourselves various questions about the motives of the film’s protagonists, and then we must continually revise our assumptions and judgements about them. Most notably, we are continually considering what the relationship between Christina and Francis is. It clearly is not sexual, more a mutual understanding but it later becomes apparent, and this relationship inparticular highlights how successfully Egoyan manages his labyrinth narrative. Interweaving narratives are nothing new in cinema; jumping from one character to another, from one location to another, but ‘Exotica’ uses this structure as the means to sense the urgency of its characters and the circumstances that create the ‘present’.

This technique also allows Egoyan to explore the issue of memory, one of the key themes of the film. Flashbacks frequently occur during ‘present’ conversations between characters. For instance, one scene involving Eric and Christina cuts to their first meeting a few years ago, and the conversation from the first meeting overlaps into the present scene. Francis in particular is haunted by memory; his rememberance of his family and past life is solely demonstrated by home movie footage of his wife and daughter during happier times, and this scene juxtaposes with the present increasingly more as the film progresses, culminating in the scene being revealed as it really took place.

Egoyan also uses his camera in interesting ways to further enhance his ideas. The first time we see the Exotica nightclub is with an extend tracking shot from the rear of the nightclub to the centre stage, revealing a lurid and ornate environment. The scenes within Exotica uses a roaming camera on most instances; certainly more so than the more conventional use of camera movement outside of the nightclub. Exotica is the place where these characters all connect, less so in the ‘outside world’. Equally intriguing are the camera angles he uses within the nightclub to demonstrate the tense relationship between ex-lovers Eric and Christina. Eric intensely observes Christina’s dances for her clients, and these are usually shown from a bird’s eye view so to speak, to reflect Eric’s jealous gaze.

For a film set in a strip club, complete with nude dancing, there’s a fiercely unerotic undercurrent to the film. ‘Exotica’ is too concerned with the melancholy and trauma of its protagonists to offer cheap sexual thrills. Christina’s dancing is soundtracked by Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’, a curious selection of music. As Eric suggests, the Exotica nightclub is therapy, it heals. Francis’s need to visit the nightclub is not motivated by sexual interest, but the bond that emerges between him and Christina, which is revealed to us as a paternal protection when it is implied that Christina had problems at home. In the aftermath of his tragic loss, this bond is all he has – note how paying Christina to dance for him echoes the fact she used to babysit for him. For Francis, maybe this arrangement is an act of continuity after tragedy or a memory he can maintain from before his world fell apart.

‘Exotica’ is an esoteric thriller, encompassing adult themes that Egoyan has spent his entire directorial career investigating, and the results are incredibly moving and effective. The film inhabits its own universe, exemplified by the eponymous nightclub, rather than existing as an exercise in realism. There is a distinct dream-like feel to ‘Exotica’, the world where these damaged individuals live, the only place where they can confront or resolve their demons. Egoyan’s form of storytelling allows the characters and their respective stories to develop and his resolution of their mutual dependency seems genuine. ‘Exotica’ though is a film that rightfully leaves just as many questions unanswered as it seeks to answer.

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November 18, 2008

Waltz with Bashir

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:01 am
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Israel/Germany/France

Director: Ari Folman

90 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Boaz tells his friend Ari, a filmmaker, of a recurring nightmare he has. 26 bloodthirsty dogs wait ominously at the door of his apartment. Boaz suspects it reflects his experiences of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war and the memories he has repressed. Unable to kill any Palestinians, he killed the same number of dogs that patrolled the village. Ari himself has repressed memories of this war, but one memory of the Sabra and Shatila massacres becomes increasingly clear. By speaking to Boaz and other interviewees, he tries to remember his own experiences of the conflict. These include Carmi, whose promising future was interrupted war, Roni who was the only survivor of a Palestinian attack on his regiment and now struggles with the guilt and Frenkel, who took the attack to the enemy when surrounded, literally dancing around bullets as if in a trance. These men all have their own traumatic experiences of the conflict. Through these discussions, and also those with psychologists and journalists, Ari begins to recover his memories, realising the most prominent of those referred to the masscare of Palestinians by Phalangists. Then Folman cuts to real documentary footage of the aftermath of the massacre.

Review

‘Waltz with Bashir’ was a rare animated nominee for the Palme D’Or this year. Although it eventually lost out on the main prize to ‘The Class’, it was nevertheless one of the most discussed films at the festival, and already looks to be a contender for inclusion in the Best Foreign Language film at 2009’s Academy Awards. Described by the director as an “animated documentary”, it examines real people and real events during a particularly turbulent time in the Middle East region; the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

A provocative film about war and post-traumatic disorder, it reveals, if not Israel co-operation in the massacre of Palestinians by the Phalangists in Lebanon, then Israeli passivity, standing by whilst the atrocities occured. The collective amnesia of a number of characters involved in the conflict could act as a simple metaphor for the collective amnesia of the Israeli nation, an unwillingness to recall or accept responsibility for their involvement. The individuals involved in the conflict are either consciously or subconsciously in denial about what took place, and discussing their memories and trying to unpick them becomes a cathartic experience. Folman, for instance, may not have been physically involved, but still feels part of the massacre and has deep feelings of guilt. The honesty of Folman in trying to investigate an unsavoury moment in his nation’s history should be applauded in one respect; it is far closer to the bone that one might have expected, but on the other hand ‘Waltz with Bashir’ might lend itself to accusations of being overly self-indulgent, with individuals trying to exonerate themselves from their role in a shocking event rather than investigating how it happened or why it happened on any deeper level. Moreover, the event is shown solely from the Israeli perspective. This is not an even-handed account. Palestinians are faceless and nameless enemies, seldom shown as human beings, but cannon-fodder during war, whether dead or alive. Folman would rightfully respond that his film is his personal experience of war, therefore it is only natural that it would focus on events and people he knew, but the ignorance of the wider political context is of concern.

Folman could have produced ‘Waltz with Bashir’ as a straight-forward documentary, complete with discussions with interviewees. The issue with using animation techniques is that when he reveals atrocities, they become less potent and shocking because they lose their sense of realism, lessening their physical and emotional impact upon the viewer. However, animation allows Folman to use his imagination to greater effect and create a surreal and expressionist environment, giving the impression of “war as hell”. The opening scene of Boaz’s recurring nightmare sets the tone. Certainly one could not imagine a more natural representation of this. There is also Folman’s own recurring nightmare; of he and two others emerging naked from the sea, with a sky coloured a dark and ominious yellow. These hallucinatory images remain implanted in one’s memory long after the film has finished, though this is more likely because of the imaginative use of animated techniques, somewhat similar visually to the work of Richard Linklater on ‘Waking Life’ (though there was no rotoscoping involved) and with the influence of graphic novels, rather than because of the content of them.

Also intriguing is the use of sound in the film. It is par for the course that directors making war films utilise a pop music soundtrack and Folman indeed does this, but it is interesting what kind of soundtrack he gives his film. There is ‘Enola Gay’, the OMD single which referred to the bomber which launched the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima (this is surely not a coincidence), as well as more overt Israeli propaganda pop music, including ‘Lebanon’ and ‘Beirut’, both of which fully endorse the invasion. Folman’s comments upon the use of popular culture to encourage support for conflict and also to reflect it is especially insightful. No doubt these songs would have been broadcast during the conflict and continued to exacerbate divisions between Israel and its neighbours.

Folman’s final 50 second sequence will be seen either as immensely powerful or rather shameless, as he cuts to real documentary footage of the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Since he has only shown us the conflict through the perspective of surreal animation techniques, creating a detachment between himself and what took place, it is questionable whether Folman has earned the right to show us the full, naked horrors of the massacres in the flesh. Folman has left himself open to accusations of exploiting this footage somewhat. Whatever one’s reservations about ‘Waltz with Bashir’, and it is fair to say that it certainly has its drawbacks; it is one-sided and has little in the way of political context, it is a visually inventive film that deals with trauma, guilt and memory and admits a nation’s participation during a shocking event.

November 13, 2008

The Cow

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:01 am
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Iran

Director: Dariush Mehrjui

105 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Iran, the 1960s. Masht Hassan owns the only cow in his village, which affords him importance and prestige. Married but without children, Hassan treats the cow as if it were his child, constantly tending to it and even sleeping in the same barn some nights. This tight-knit village is concerned about the inhabitants of a neighbouring village, the Boulouris, who they suspect of wanting to do harm to the cow and the village itself. One morning, Hassan leaves the village on business. His wife then finds the cow dead in the barn. The villagers are grief stricken and suspect the Boulouris of foul play. Knowing that Hassan will be devastated, they concoct a lie; to tell Hassan that his cow has strayed. The villagers then bury the cow, then tie up the local simpleton whom they suspect will tell the truth.

Hassan returns, but doubts the accuracy of the explanation the villagers have devised – he knows his cow would not stray. Distraught, Hassan begins to adopt mannerisms similar to that of a cow; mooing, sleeping in the barn, chewing hay and so on. During this descent into madness, he comes to believe he is Hassan’s cow, not Hassan himself. The villagers are at a loss of what to do next as his situation is badly deteriorating. Hassan is taken to the nearest hospital, dragged like an animal, and when he resists, he is beaten like an animal until he finally dies.

Review

‘The Cow’ is considered a landmark in Iranian cinema. It was certainly the first Iranian film to grab the attention of Western critics and inspired a new era in Iranian film-making. That said, it was officially disapproved of by the reigning Shah at the time, because of concerns that it depicted Iranian village life as backwards and unadvanced. ‘The Cow’ later received an unlikely admirer later in the form of Ayatollah Khomeini, who recognised its accurate portrayal of life in Iran, and it was this admiration that arguably allowed Iranian cinema to continue after the 1979 revolution, rather than be banned outright.

Only the second film by a then 28 year old director, ‘The Cow’ is a remarkably mature piece of work, heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realists who themselves received the film warmly at the 1971 Venice Film Festival. Starting with a basic premise, albeit one that was reportedly inspired by fact; the Samanid prince Nooh ibn Mansur apparently once believed himself to be a cow, Mehrjui makes the most of this, expanding it to incorporate an impartial examination of contemporary village life in Iran; the insular nature of these villages, their fear of outsiders and neighbouring villages, but also their sense of togetherness during crises. The threat to the village from the Boulouris could be real or imagined. Mehrjui leaves it largely to our imagination through the ominous appearances of them upon the hills overlooking the village and the dazzling night sequences where the two villages seem to raid each other. Certainly any disaster that befalls the village is immediately blamed upon their neighbours, suggesting that its insular nature has its negative connotations. Regardless of which view one subscribes to; the Shah’s or the Ayatollah’s, ‘The Cow’ represents a realistic depiction in both its good and less good dimensions.

The eponymous cow itself could be seen as a metaphor for Hassan’s own sense of self-respect and importance, and in the absence of the cow, this is immediately stripped from him. This brings to mind Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924), in which Emil Jannings’ doorman loses his sense of purpose when retired from his position as a hotel doorman, and specifically the loss of the appropriate coat, his badge of pride. Like this doorman, Hassan descends into madness upon losing this self-respect, which manifests itself in Hassan adopting the behaviour of his cow, then assuming its identity – “I’m not Hassan, I’m Hassan’s cow”. Perhaps more disturbing than Hassan’s change of identity is how once the community finds itself unable to address it, it becomes to accept Hassan’s delusion. This frustration culminates in the film’s final devastating scenes, during which one villager beats Hassan – “get going you beast”, as if he is the cow he believes himself to be. Like a disrespectful or lame animal, Hassan is then beaten until he can take no more. The village’s togetherness is also built on a level of lies of self-deception and Hassan is the ultimate victim of this facade.

The success of ‘The Cow’ partly depends on the astonishing central performance of Ezzatolah Entezami as Hassan, who convinces throughout in his transformation from doting cow-owner to a broken man who no longer knows who he is. Mehrjui offers great insight into the dynamics of the village in question; how it remains self-sufficient but questions its level of tolerance, and also uses the correct camera techniques for the situation; close-ups on faces and long shots when observing the village from an objective distance. Otherwise, Mehrjui presents ‘The Cow’ in standard neo-realist fashion; nothing ground-breaking aesthetically, but then there is no requirement for him to do anything beyond presenting events as they are, as they occur. Mehrjui has continued to make films in the following forty years or so, but none of his subsequent films has achieved the recognition and acclaim that ‘The Cow’ has. Iranian film-making of the previous two decades, personified by Kiarostami and the Makhmalbaf dynasty owes everything to the films of Mehrjui because who knows whether there would even be such a hospitable climate to film-making without it?

November 6, 2008

Man of Iron

Poland

Director: Andrzej Wajda

153 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Gdansk, Poland, the early 1980s. Winkel, an alcoholic journalist is assigned to report upon the strikes by workers at the Gdansk shipyards, and to specifically undermine the efforts of these workers as they protest for fairness, justice and independent unions. The main focus of his report should be Maciej, the son of Matuesz, the shock-worker hero of ‘Man of Marble’. Through conversations with those who know Maciej, including a former university classmate and his imprisoned wife, Winkel learns about Maciej’s past – his disputes with his father during the student protests of 1968, his arrest and breakdown, how he found work at the shipyards and the role he now plays in the Solidarity movement.

The more Winkel learns about Maciej and the workers at the shipyards, the more he loses faith with his assignment and begins to sympathise with workers’ demands. He delays his report, though this fools no-one, and he is reminded of an accident he caused through drink-driving years ago, which is used as emotional blackmail to produce the report that is required. ‘Man of Iron’ concludes with documentary footage of the successful negotiations between the state and the Solidarity movement, from which they received their demands. Maciej then lights a candle at the spot where his father was murdered by the police a decade before.

Review

Although Wajda is best known for his war trilogy of the 1950s (‘A Generation’, ‘Kanal’ and ‘Ashes and Diamonds’), his most historically important work emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with a loose Polish film movement known as “the cinema of moral anxiety”, which was intended to awaken the public consciousness and depict life in Poland as it really was and not reiterate Communist propaganda. This also includes the work of Kieslowski, Holland and Zanussi and flourished during a brief artistic thaw. Wajda maintains that he never set out to make a sequel to ‘Man of Marble’, his 1977 film which focused on the making of a myth about a shock-worker “hero” and the reality behind this. He was encouraged to do so by the shipyard workers themselves, and given that the eponymous hero of ‘Man of Marble’ died at the Gdansk shipyard, there was an opportunity for a seamless transition between the two films.

‘Man of Iron’ almost acts as a documentary of the time. Unknown to Wajda when he began the film, the pace of history was to be quick and the production had to follow, capturing these historic events as they occurred before the introduction of martial law at the end of 1981, which interrupted Wajda’s domestic filmmaking output. Much like ‘Man of Marble’, it weaves between fact actual documentary footage and fact-based fiction (as Wajda notes in his prologue, these are fictitious characters but the situation is real), and both films use an Citizen Kane-esque template of a journalist discovering and charting the biography of a man who has fallen into obscurity (though of course Maciej is at the centre stage of history in the making). In both Wajda films, journalists are assigned to undertake a rudimentary assignment, to either rescue a former hero from obscurity or to disgrace his shipyard worker son, but both journalists discover that there is more to meet the eye than as initially appears. The shipyard workers of Gdansk are not the troublemaking agitators in the pay of international organisations as the regime would portray them, but looking only for fairness and justice. Since the pasts of both Mateusz and Maciej are constructed from how others remember them, there is a question of how reliable accounts are since not everyone has correct and proper motives. Wajda reaffirms to us that memories are not necessarily the truth, but just a version of it.

Much like ‘Man of Marble’, there is an examination of how valid documentary footage is, but also how use and control of the media, which is in the hands of the state, can be used again to depict a version of the truth that is satisfactory to it. Since ‘Man of Iron’ partly continues the ending of ‘Man of Marble’, Wajda reveals that Agniezka’s film about Mateusz was taken away from her because it discovered truths not palatable to the regime. When the authorities discover Winkel is stalling on his own film when he claims it is not finished, he is told that “editing’s not your job”. Therefore it does not really matter what Winkel hands in, it will inevitably be tailored to what was originally intended. Media is able to be manipulated though Wajda reveals at the start of the film that it was possible to slip subversive elements through which the authorities might not pick up on. This reflects the slight thaw of the era before martial law was introduced.

Although ‘Man of Iron’ was not originally conceived as a document of historical events, certainly by the time it reached Cannes in the Summer of 1981, that is how it would forever be remembered as it coincided with the rapid course of history in Wajda’s native Poland. Maciej himself should possibly be seen as a representation of Lech Walesa, who appears in the film blessing the marriage of Maciej and Agniezka (“I trust you will be a democratic couple”) and remains the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to feature in a Palme D’Or winning film. Interestingly, Wajda reveals how religion played an active role in the daily lives of most Polish, despite Communism being a secular ideology. The Catholic church was deeply involved in the rise of Solidarity, shown in numerous scenes where the shipyard workers pray. Wajda reveals the insecurity of the Communist regime in Poland and how of all the countries in Eastern Europe it was most susceptible. ‘Man of Iron’ remains an important film, a document of a declining regime and the collective action that accelerated it, but also an example of the clever interweaving of documentary footage and fiction to represent a historical significant set of events.

November 5, 2008

Shock Corridor

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 5:49 pm
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USA

Director: Samuel Fuller

101 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

The United States, the 1960s. Johnny Barrett is a journalist investigating a recent murder at an asylum. To solve the case, he intends to have himself sent to this asylum by falsely claiming to be mentally ill, specifically harbouring incestuous desires for his sister. His girlfriend, reluctantly posing as his sister, is appalled by this idea. However Barrett’s editors approve and Barrett himself hopes to win a Pulitzer Prize if he succeeds.

Barrett attempts to discuss the murder with the three witnesses during their rare moments of lucidity, but is frequently thwarted in his efforts. The longer the case takes to solve, the greater the risks to Barrett’s own mental health. Although he has always been quietly jealous about his girlfriend’s occupation as an exotic dancer, this jealousy now becomes more outward, and coupled with his supposed incest, results in Barrett requiring medication and ultimately electric shock treatment. Barrett is now engaged in a race against time; not just to solve the crime but also to save his sanity. When he eventually discovers the identity of the murderer to be Wilkes, one of the asylum attendants, he fights him to force a confession. Barrett is released and receives a Pulitzer Prize but is now a catatonic schizophrenic, an “insane mute”, and his success has come at a great price.

Review

Fuller was not a director admired or appreciated so much during his time, considered little more than a maker of primitive genre films. It was only in the late 1960s with the influence of French critics particularly, that his reputation has been rehabilitated. Fuller famously made a cameo in Godard’s ‘Pierrot Le Fou’, describing the essence of cinema in a particularly well-known scene with Jean-Paul Belmondo. ‘Shock Corridor’ is an important example of the Fuller canon and style; sensationalist, which is apt considering Fuller’s past as a tabloid reporter, energetically simple and making the most of limited resources and a compassion for social outsiders.

Traditional Fuller heroes and heroines are pimps, thieves, prostitutes or orphans – various victims of injustice. In ‘Shock Corridor’, it is doubtful that Fuller empathises as much with his main protagonist, a vain journalist, as he does Cathy, his girlfriend who reluctantly poses as his sister, who dances for a living, or the various patients of the asylum, none of whom can be responsible for their actions but are bestowed great humanity nonetheless because of the various traumas that have caused their afflictions. It is perhaps Barrett’s vanity that inspires the quotation by Euripides that appears on the film’s opening credits; “whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad”. Fuller sees his protagonist’s aims as reckless and foolish. Risking one’s mind to win a Pulitzer Prize is not noble; nor is it about obtaining justice for the death of Sloan, one of the patients; it is purely to satisfy one man’s ego. There are also the moral issues of faking incest, encouraged by Barrett’s editors who are only interested in what makes good copy. Barrett perhaps pays the full price for his and his editors’ greed and arrogance.

Although Fuller has been dismissed in the past as a primitive filmmaker, ‘Shock Corridor’ repudiates this claim, demonstrating a great degree of technical artistry, specifically in how Fuller portrays Barrett’s declining mental faculties. His jealousy towards Cathy’s job as an exotic dancer, where other men covet her, had been kept under control before, but now explodes whilst he is in the asylum. Barrett dreams of Cathy taunting him about this, with an image of a dancing Cathy superimposed upon the screen, whilst Barrett tosses and turns in his sleep. His sexual neuroses are further confirmed in two astonishing scenes; one in which he is surrounded and assaulted by a number of nymphomaniacs and also when Cathy kisses him during a visit, and Barrett recoils as if he truly believes Cathy to be his sister. There is a high use of voiceover generally to reveal memories and previous information about the film’s protagonists, as well as cuts between colour and black and white when the three witnesses in particular speak to Barrett during their moments of lucidity; a simple and effective equation between colour and sanity.

Stanley Cortez, the director of photography on Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ and Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ utilises his talents to full effect for ‘Shock Corridor’. Amongst the many impressive flourishes of cinematography include the opening scene, starting with a small circular shot, which then expands to encompass the entire screen, revealing the asylum corridors. This scene will be repeated as the final shot. The first instance we see Cathy dancing, Cortez starts with an intense close-up, perhaps to reflect her traumatised state of mind (having been asked to falsify incest charges), then zooms out before returning with another close-up to accompany a voiceover of memories and conversations with Barrett.

‘Shock Corridor’ was one of Fuller’s last Hollywood films before his self-imposed exile, which would last more than a decade before returning to make ‘The Big Red One’ and later ‘White Dog’. It is certainly an excessive and shocking film in many respects; consider the traumas of the main inmates – a Communist who thinks he is a Civil War general, a scientist who worked on the development of atomic weapons but has now regressed to the mindset of a child or a black student who believes he is a White supremacist and hunts down any black inmates. The original premise requires a suspension of disbelief and the viewer needs to accept the limits of this sensationalist melodrama. However ‘Shock Corridor’ is a genuinely affecting and insightful film, exploring issues regarding mental health and neuroses with a great amount of empathy and it is certainly difficult to imagine the cinematic adaptation of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’ without it.

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