According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to describe a book or film or life situation as Kafkaesquerelates to:
“Franz Kafka (1883-1924) – a Czech-born German-language writer whose surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century. Kafka’s work is characterized by nightmarish settings in which characters are crushed by nonsensical, blind authority. Thus, the word Kafkaesque is often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.”
Moreover, it especially relates to characters and events which could be described as:
“. . . relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings, especially having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.”
Such narratives are abundant throughout cinema history and in this occasional strand I would like to suggest six of the best films which could be described as ‘Kafkaesque.’ Interestingly, I have not selected the purer surrealist work of say David Lynch or Luis Bunuel, but concentrated on films dominated by characters utterly lost to a nightmarish fate, bureaucracy or a scenario entirely not of their making. I guess one could draw parallels with the world’s current situation in regard to COVID-19, as many of us have found ourselves powerless and at the mercy of bureaucracy, sickness and unknown external forces. However, I am not going to dwell on that; just keep going and hope we all get through safely to the other side of it.
Original songs by: Glenn Hansard, Marketa Irglova and Interference.
Cinematography: Tim Fleming
**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****
I am not sure why I missed this film first time around, however, it’s most likely due to prior prejudices against musical or music-based films. Yet, since I married in 2016, I have began to watch and enjoy more musicals. This is mainly due to my wife being a massive fan of musical cinema and theatre. While it’s still not necessarily my favourite genre, every now and then an utter gem of a musical will emerge. John Carney’s beautifully moving love story between a hoover repair guy and a flower-selling girl, Once (2007), is certainly one of those.
John Carney is an honest filmmaker who is attracted to outsiders and people with real emotional turmoil. They tend to be at crossroads in their lives and are struggling either with their dreams or their relationships. He also loves musicians, flaws and all. In Begin Again (2013), a washed-up musical executive, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, meets unhappy singer-songwriter, Keira Knightley and their first-world romance is played out to bittersweet consequences. Similarly, in Sing Street (2016), a troubled teenager comes of age through his 1980’s pop band and bittersweet romance with a rebellious and equally-troubled schoolgirl. Notice a pattern? Well, this style of music, gritty city backdrops and salty romances were established in Carney’s breakout hit, Once (2007).
Made for a ridiculously low budget of around $150,000, this ultra-realistic musical contains songs that burst with love and pain from the characters of Guy (Glenn Hansard) and Girl (Marketa Irglova). The two meet and connect, but this is no conventional romance as they both have powerful emotional histories between them. It’s the beautiful music and their authentic dialogue exchanges which drive the story. Hansard’s singing and guitar playing are so powerful and moving. Their duet in the music shop of the song, Falling Slowly is a tour-de-force. I was not surprised when I saw it had won the Oscar for best original film. Overall, Once (2007) is a surprisingly brilliant no-budget feature, shot on the streets of Dublin, which deservedly became a big hit.
Produced by: Kitty Green, James Schamus, Scott Macauley, P. Jennifer Dana, Ross Jacobson
Cinematography: Michael Latham
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Mackenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Noah Robbins etc.
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Having worked initially in the documentary genre, Kitty Green now presents her first fictional film, The Assistant (2019), with the ever-impressive Julia Garner in the lead. Garner portrays the titular assistant, Jane, a PA in an unnamed New York based film production company. However, while the characters may be fictional, the events reflected are very much based in reality, as the film explores endemic sexism within the film industry and office workplaces more generally. This isn’t a sensationalist #MeToo expose or revenge story, but rather a subtle narrative which conveys it’s criticisms with hushed and damning power.
The film is structured over one day. I’m a big fan of such a convention and wrote about the positives of single day narratives here. Anyway, The Assistant (2019), begins with Jane first in the office, and ends with her being one of the last there at night. In the middle we get a succession of expertly composed scenes which find Jane working for a big-shot movie producer. The fact that we never see him, but hear him and experience the aftermath of his behaviour through Jane is an ingenious concept. By showing rather telling us directly about his covert sexist exploitation, one is truly brought into Jane’s painful situation. She is told she is lucky to have this job and it presents a great opportunity to eventually become a film producer. Yet, to do so requires her to turn a blind eye to events which other employees horrifically consider to be the norm in a media company.
Weinstein’s name is never mentioned. It doesn’t have to be. He is the sexual predator in the room and probably among many film producers who have utilised the casting couch to have their disgusting way with budding actors and actresses. That is why Kitty Green deserves so much praise because she chose a directorial style that really works for the story. Green and her cinematographer suck all of the colour out of the film industry, making it grey and beige and stark and unglamorous. Via the character of Jane, and Garner’s exquisitely reserved performance, we learn that such bullying cultures exist, and the character must choose to accept it or move on. Garner’s scene with the HR Executive, played by Matthew Macfadyen, is superb in conveying the difficult choice Jane faces.
Lastly, as well as making important points about the patriarchal corruption within the film industry, I enjoyed that it also captured the repetitive nature of administration work. Photocopiers hum, phones ring, paper flaps, printers and faxes whir, while florescent strip lights glow amidst the drudge of the daily office grind. Jane is a prisoner within a myriad of shadowy walls and filing cabinets. Further, Jane is also torn between being a just person and following her dream of working in the movies. But, at the end of another exceptionally exhausting day, that dream is soured by the insidious lust of human behaviour. Thus, The Assistant (2019) asks, will things ever change? Go watch it and decide if you think they will.
Writer(s): William Bridges, Kate Trefey, Paul Dichter, Curtis Gwinn
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Maya Hawke, Cara Buono, Joe Keery, Cary Elwes and many, many more.
Number of episodes: 8
Original Network: Netflix
**CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS**
When Season 1 was released, Netflix’s phenomenally popular sci-fi-rites-of-passage-comedy-adventure-drama proved an excellent nostalgia-fest. Indeed, it evoked the 1980’s perfectly in design, sound and look, wearing Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter and George Lucas influences, not so much on its sleeve, but as a whole darned fashion show.
Written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, it centred on the search for a missing child in (where else) Indiana, an ultra-dimensional netherworld and a telekinetic kid called Eleven, who’s on the run from a nefarious US Government facility. Archetypal characters such as embittered drunken cop (David Harbour), distraught nutty mother (Winona Ryder), Gooniesque geeky teens all try and track down their missing friend during eight episodes containing weird and monstrous moments throughout.
I thought Season 1, while full of great design, style, suspense and mystery, was over-rated. It was still a fine work of entertainment but I found the story seriously padded out and stretched. While Season 2 is more generic it was a marked improvement as we got more pace and action. Season 3, though, is even better in terms of story-lines, pace and humour. Some may lament the move away from the mystery and darkness of Season 1, but Season 3’s humour, action and romantic sub-plots are turned right up to Eleven (pun intended).
Furthermore, amidst all the teenage romance crap, there is some fantastic gore and visceral monster goo on show. The Mind Flayer nemesis is an absolutely fearsome creature creation and way more convincing than the cartoon Russians. So, overall, I think this was my favourite season as it didn’t take itself too seriously. It just went for pure adrenaline and mind-bending chases and fights throughout. I didn’t even mind the John Hughes-style soppy romances.
Lastly, Season 3 isn’t perfect as it often verged on parody. This is notable in Episode 8, where we get a viral-bait version of The Never Ending Story (1984) theme song. Quite frankly, it was tonally inappropriate given the kids were being hunted down by Russian soldiers and an inter-dimensional monster at the time. Aside from this crime against genre occurring Season 3 is great because it featured a cavalcade of film references and homages. Well, let’s be honest, they basically stole a load of ideas from other movies.
So, rather than do a traditional review I will mark Stranger Things (2019) – Season 3, and then pick a TOP TEN movie homages or steals that featured prominently as a fun meta-bingo review. Obviously, I’ve probably missed loads out, so, if you care, let me know which ones.
Mark: 9 out of 11
TOP TEN META-REFERENCES IN STRANGER THINGS (2019)
RUSSIAN BADDIE — THE TERMINATOR (1984)
BILLY AND TOWNSFOLK ‘DOUBLES’ — INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956 / 1978)
THE MIND FLAYER – THE BLOB (1958) / ALIEN (1979) / THE THING (1982) / TREMORS (1990)
STEVE AND ROBIN’S “WILL THEY, WON’T THEY ROMANCE?” — ANY JOHN HUGHES FILM!
THE BLACK WATER VOID – UNDER THE SKIN (2013)
USA VERSUS RUSSIA — RED DAWN (1984), RAMBO 2 (1985) & ANY COLD WAR FILM!
BILLY’S DREAMS — DREAMSCAPE (1984) / NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
ELEVEN’S TELEKINETIC POWERS — CARRIE (1976), THE FURY (1978) & SCANNERS (1981) ETC. . .
KIDS ON A MISSION TO SAVE THE TOWN/WORLD (AGAIN) — THE GOONIES (1985)
FANTASY OLDER WOMEN DYNAMIC — RISKY BUSINESS (1983) / WEIRD SCIENCE (1985)