Three takes on laws, by Akira Kurosawa, The Prodigy, and Aleister Crowley
Rashomon breaks cinematic laws in a tale about the limits of law
Truth and justice are admired in our modern, ethics-based society, but sometimes laws have to be broken.
When it comes to moviemaking, the conventions set down by cinema's forefathers aren't always meant to be followed - despite what film professors will tell you. Visionary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa knew this when he conceived Rashomon, his breakthrough 1950 film that put him on the world circuit.
In feudal Japan, a gruesome murder has taken place: a fallen samurai has been found in a dark, gloomy forest. At the murder trial, four testimonies are heard: that of the bandit who confesses to killing the samurai; that of the samurai's white-veiled widow who insists she was raped; that of the deceased samurai, summoned by a medium; and that of a seemingly impartial witness to the events.
All accounts follow a strikingly similar path, but each story differs in the whodunit details. And as the tales are told again and again, the film begins to play out like a backwards courtroom drama, where each testimony only serves to see the truth retreat further from view.
Rashomon's innovative four-person flashback structure might be greatly admired among film critic circles, but more impressive was the way Kurosawa brought the audience's subjective viewpoints into play. Taking inspiration from two early 20th-century short stories, the director infused the film with then-exceptional melding of Eastern and Western philosophies, both inside the cinema and out.
Through the Western-tinged examples of ethical courts of law, alongside a Hollywood-like aesthetic of shadowy visuals and urgent editing, Kurosawa opened up Japanese films to the greater intellectual world, where cinema was starting to be seen as a medium of ideas and values.
Through his probing of Eastern "laws" such as karma and fate, he infused the film with a thoroughly pessimistic moral tone in which deceit, ego and vanity rendered the law meaningless and truth inconsequential.
As we follow each tale, we are drawn into the proceedings: a sense of cynicism and distrust creeps in; our beliefs, perceptions and life experiences make us question not only the film's true answers, but that of our existence.
Rashomon is bleaker than most of Kurosawa's films and far from the jovial spirit that infused his later, "more appreciated" works such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. But it's arguably his most groundbreaking picture and as radical as they came during the early 1950s, all but foretelling the austere zeitgeist that would rule over cinema over the next three decades.
Where would, for example, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo be without it, or Federico Fellini's 8½? Through its structure, philosophy and aesthetics, Rashomon reveals the ways a court of law can be deceived, the means whereby moral fibre can be bent - and how cinematic laws can be broken.
Rashomon Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori Director: Akira Kurosawa
Their Law was The Prodigy's pummelling protest song
Thirty years ago this month, police clashed with hundreds of gypsies and New Age travellers in one of recent British history's most brutal civil confrontations. Almost 600 people were arrested in what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield, a swoop on the so-called Peace Convoy of caravans, lorries and buses full of modern-day hippies that had been trying to set up a free music festival at Stonehenge in rural Wiltshire.
The government of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher sparked an outcry among civil rights campaigners when it came up with a series of draconian laws to curb similar gatherings.
When that bureaucracy five years later came up against hordes of house music fans at huge illegal raves, the response from the blissed-out dance freaks was not so violent: they responded with music.
Their Law, the stand-out track from The Prodigy's sophomore album "Music for the Jilted Generation", is a pummelling tour de force, a guitar- and samples-driven denigration of the government's bid to strengthen the prohibitions that emerged from the 1985 carnage in Wiltshire. The song raised a middle finger to the Criminal Justice Bill.
Under its terms, the bill proposed the prevention of gatherings of people to listen to music without prior consent from the authorities. Ludicrously, it even sought to give rave music a statutory definition - that which "includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats".
At the time, The Prodigy were in the ascendant, the emerging rock star wing of the mushrooming electronic movement. The techno giants had risen up through the early rave scene, based in rural Essex on the edge of the London orbital motorway that was the locus of many of the outdoor parties.
The band members - Liam Howlett, Keith Flint, Maxim Reality and Leeroy Thornhill - were intrinsically associated with the scene, either dancing or DJing at parties in and around London. The threat to the rave and club scene posed by the bill was great and gave rise to the Advance Party, a politicised group of sound systems and civil libertarians who organised protests against its adoption.
The campaign was ratcheted up when police raided a rave in Castle Morton in the English Midlands in May 1991. The 40,000 people gathered there refused to move, and as a result of authority pressure defiantly kept the party going for the best part of a week.
The embarrassment of officers being defied in a stand-off by partygoers was the final straw for the government.
Two years later, the bill became the Criminal Justice Act. And The Prodigy took the protest to the recording studio.
"Music for the Jilted Generation" has often been cited as the album that took techno from the underground to the stadium. But more importantly it represents one of the last times in pop culture that high-profile musicians used their position to make a political point.
In the liner notes, the band included a call to arms: "How can the government stop young people having a good time? Fight this bo****ks."
Sadly, the bo****ks continues and the fight goes on.
Music for the Jilted Generation The Prodigy (XL/Mute)
The Book of the Law: tenets of a new religion
Uber-eccentric English occultist, poet, painter, author and accomplished mountaineer Aleister Crowley claimed he put his Liber AL vel Legis - The Book of the Law - to paper over just three days in April 1904. What's more, he asserted that he had worked only between the hours of noon and 1pm.
The infamous book for which Crowley, considered to be one of the founding fathers of what we now call "new age", is best remembered was written - or so the legend goes - in a Cairo flat where he and his wife had holed up while on their honeymoon. Claiming to be a prince and princess, the offbeat couple had rented the apartment in a fashionable European quarter of the Egyptian capital, and Crowley had set up a temple room in which he attempted to invoke the spirits of ancient deities.
Crowley claimed that as he sat at his desk, a supernatural entity called Aiwass incessantly chattered over his left shoulder, essentially dictating the text to him. Crowley's job, as a self-appointed prophet for a new religion/philosophy/belief system that he dubbed Thelema, was simply to bash out the words. The writer, he insisted, had been entrusted with guiding humanity into a new "Aeon of Horus" during which people would take control of their own destiny.
According to Crowley, during the previous Aeon of Osiris, paternalistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism had dominated - and restricted, if not crushed - mankind's spiritual development. Thelema, by contrast, encouraged human beings to embrace their individualistic "true will", and argued that people should pursue their own needs while existing in harmony with the cosmos. The Aeon of Horus would be a period of self-realisation and self-actualisation, and guided by "the principle of the child".
It might be easy to push aside much of Crowley's (or Aiwass') mystical musings as hippy dippy mumbo jumbo now, but The Book of the Law proved hugely influential in the counterculture of the 1960s, and arguably predicted the emergence of youth culture.
Crowley is credited as being a pioneer in making Eastern philosophies accessible in the West, and an accidental forerunner of the drug use that played a substantial role in psychedelia.
Those outside the mainstream were fascinated, including, allegedly, British author Aldous Huxley and LSD poster boy Timothy Leary.
The Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (O.T.O./Church of Thelema)