Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) comes across as William Burroughs’s take on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Like his fellow Canadian compatriot Cronenberg, Guy Maddin’s interests are also profane and experimental. Here, a star hockey player falls prey to amnesia and is manipulated into assassination. The details of the plot aren’t as interesting as what Maddin concocts with them. There’s a ghost, wax figures come to life, and a man, like Frankenstein, is haunted by a monstrosity—his own hands. Maddin shot Cowards Bend the Knee on Super-8mm and takes further steps to have the film mimic the aesthetics of the silent era, replete with intertitles and a higher FPS. Combined with its plot, Cowards Bend the Knee would be more appropriately described then as a nightmare rather than a dream. Neither the camera movement or editing (frankly, nothing in the film) adhere to conventional, aesthetic logic. Movements are repeated, the camera adopts a hurricane-like rhythm, and the image at times is slowed down. The result isn’t an assault on sensibilities so much as it is on reality, reveling in a darker truth otherwise ignored.
Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970) is a bait-and-switch of a film. Robert De Niro, in a proto-Travis Bickle role, plays Jon Rubin, an amateur photographer hired to take Rear Window (1954) style erotic photos of his neighbors. To explain any further, however, would spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, the script carries with it a sense of urgency that’s comedic, sexual and political. Many contemporary American films are desperate to establish a through-line from the country’s founding to now. Hi, Mom! does so in a manner that truly shows perhaps how little has changed. The film’s political topic isn’t focused on bureaucracy, but rather plays out on the societal level, where De Palma depicts the social relations in a rapidly changing and explosive downtown New York neighborhood, matched by DP Michael Chapman’s frenzied camera.
 No art is psychic, but a sub-plot in the film involves the accessibility of video-cameras for the home-market. New York, defined in the film by its dystopian, modernist architecture, becomes riddled with cameras, mimicking the development of every-day surveillance now common in urban areas.
Throughout Mamoru Oshii’s filmography there lies an interest in Japan’s political history. The end of World War II and its subsequent consequences serve as the nexus through which Oshii creates the alternate setting of his films. With Patlabor 2 (1993), Oshii questions the role of Japan’s military, the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF), during times of supposed peace. Patlabor 2’s action and historical backdrop suitably allow Oshii to examine the trauma caused by war not just on soldiers but citizens as well.
The story begins after the Yokohama Bay Bridge is destroyed in a missile attack seemingly launched by a JSDF plane. A black-sheep police-unit known as the SV2 are tasked with carrying out a covert investigation on the incident. Meanwhile, martial law is declared, and civil war threatens Japan as the JSDF and various politicians begin to fight amongst themselves in the ensuing panic and confusion.
More somber than its prequels—Patlabor 1, and the ten-episode OVA, Patlabor: Early Days—Patlabor 2 is a serious spin on the traditionally light-hearted series. Further distancing itself from the franchise is Patlabor 2’s set pieces which carry a more reflective atmosphere rather than one focused on action or comedy. A montage of Tokyo’s industrial landscape blanketed in gray clouds and dim sunlight provides the scenery for an argument on the merits of a just war versus an unjust peace.
Kenji Kawai’s ambient pieces here, and Kazunori Ito’s more philosophical writing arguably set the tone for Oshii’s future and more well-known cyberpunk work, Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Still, however, despite not dealing with cyborgs (although mechs are involved), Patlabor 2, like Ghost in the Shell, concerns itself with the cost of human life in an age defined by rapid advancements in the military-industrial complex
Like Andrei Rublev (1966) before it and The Sacrifice (1986) after it, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is a film about faith. What distinguishes Stalker from these two counterparts, however, is the lack of a miracle within the film’s narrative. Consequently, Stalker presents a much more bleak outlook on life. Yet, in the script’s dealing with anthropocentric issues, the lack of a miracle falls in line with the rest of the film. The story centers on the eponymous Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), a man who guides people through a paranormal area known as the “Zone.” At the center of the Zone lies the “Room” which is said to grant any person’s wish. The Stalker is hired by two clients—the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko)—to guide them to the Room. Despite its science-fiction trappings, Stalker is anything but the B-movie Soviet-film its plot sounds like. Rather, the film’s style follows the same poetic approach Tarkovsky had been known for previously. Stalker begins and ends in sepia-tone while its middle section is colored and filled with saturated greens and blues. Tarkovsky employs the Zone’s aural backdrop as a diegetic soundtrack. Both dialogue and silence are punctuated by the chirping of distant birds, the soft crunch of footsteps on grass, and the sound of water, whether its the sound of droplets leaking through a roof or a pool being disturbed by the trio’s movement. Nature is at the heart of Stalker on both a technical and thematic level. The Stalker decries the absence of God, and by extension, the industrial growth of Man. Detritus and decay pervade the Zone in the absence of human settlement, and so nature has reclaimed the area. Images of vines, grass, and weeds crawling over buildings, tanks, and telephone poles are littered throughout the film’s middle section. The Stalker deems his life a prison—colorless, drab, and silent. But upon arriving to the Zone, he greets the Earth in religious reverence as if finding freedom. But, this too will turn out to be its own prison. The Stalker places his faith in those he guides through the Zone, and the dialogue of the film devotes itself to exploring the nature of man. Of the many film posters for Stalker, one depicts the Writer wearing a crown of thorns, recalling the image of Jesus. The Stalker seeks such a figure, but by the film’s end can only exclaim, “My God, what kind of people are they?”