To see as Marty sees AKA does style mean a darn thing?

April 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

I don’t care what you have to say and how well you intend on saying it: if I don’t speak your language – literally can’t understand you because you speak German or Japanese while I’m just a monolingual Anglophone philistine – then all your rhetorical magic will be lost on me. When it comes to film, style is as key to meaningful communication as is having a common tongue in the sphere of verbal or literary discourse. Sure, filmic style is nowhere near as intellectually regimented and complex as verbal language, but an inability to adopt the style of a film would render the viewing of it as fraught with incomprehension and frustration as would be a reading of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by a kid like myself, raised in the nineties and unlearned in the ways of Middle English.

In fact, literary style plays the exact same part in the process of communication that filmic style does. Anyone who reads enough – particularly fiction – can appreciate the phenomenon wherein one style of writing is devoured more swiftly and with much more ease than another. Moreover, it’s not as though one style of writing is easier to digest, unless of course the prose is bland, devoid of personality and for all intents and purposes style-less: case in point, every James Patterson or Sue Grafton novel that clogs endless aisles in endless book stores. Some readers fly through the densely mannered pages of many a Victorian author’s novels while finding themselves stuck in the terse, clipped quagmires penned by post-Beats generation American writers. The inverse is also true, particularly for this writer. I suspect this has very much to do with a certain compatibility – nay, congruence – that exists between a reader’s pattern of thinking and a writer’s pattern of — writing, almost as though both parties think a similar thought language, or share a similar mental dialect. And it’s not simply about the speed with which the pages turn, but the depth with which words on those pages register in the mind of the reader. I find that, in order to be a more receptive reader of literary works written in a style that may not reflect my own innate mental rhythms, it is necessary for me to adopt the rhythms of the writer. Sure, I can resist, but not only will it takes an unduly long period of time to finish a book, but I can almost guarantee that once the book is finally laid to rest back on the bookshelf, I will find that my reading experience was not only a drag but that I hardly remember what was read and/or that very little of it seemed to resonate or even register with me. The solution in my experience is to quickly appreciate the fact that style, especially in the instance of a good writer (of fiction, in particular), is very much the key to understanding the mindset and world-view of the individual whose words I am reading. Whether it be the brooding intensity of Dostoevsky, the blunt simplicity of Hemingway or the obsessive circularity of Foster-Wallace, style is almost definitely a reflection of the author’s mind state and thus the portal through which the experience of another human being can be absorbed and contemplated.

As many will attest, it takes a gifted and insightful artist to find a way to express their own personal experience in an aesthetically compelling and unique way, unique to them. It is then only fair that as a patron, the reader/spectator endeavour to indulge this artistic achievement as best they can in order to better receive that which the artist is attempting to channel, for what is the purpose of art – other than aesthetic pleasure/entertainment – if not to translate one’s ideas and philosophies and experience and stories to another human being?

It makes sense. Those books whose main purpose for existence is to impart ideas and/or knowledge (textbooks being the most obvious example) tend to possess less obvious style than those for whom expression of personal experience is a prime concern. Note, I haven’t said that there is any written work completely devoid of style, but just as many people hide their eccentricities and quirks so as to conform to social norms for reasons of being included and for general peace of mind (a legitimate life choice though lacking something in courage), many writers, in failing to create a style unique to themselves while attractive to others, opt for a plainer perhaps more populist approach and in so doing often gain a wider audience.

All that I have said about literary style likely applies to film style, the only difference being that film as a medium does not provide the intellectual blueprint/roadmap for accessing the creator’s mental space that the written word does. If literature accesses the psychological and emotional spheres via the intellectual act of reading and comprehending words, it can be said that those very words function as the roadmap which guides a reader towards the psyche of a writer. If music, for most people, accesses the emotional by first tapping into the sensual, then film is much closer to music than it is to literature. It functions through the sensual experience of image and sound embroidered together by time and expressed as motion, visual and sonic motion. It’s no wonder many cinephiles, critics and film purists champion silent cinema as the purest form of motion picture, as the visual equivalent of music. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that film style is a little different from literary style, and that this difference may be the key to understanding how filmic style is perceived by the cinematic spectatorship and how film style will either help or hinder film’s tenacity as a socially powerful art form.

Martin Scorsese, during an interview whose details I’m still racking my brain to recall, stated that the style of his films – the visual dynamism, the medleys of 20th century pop and rock that are his films’ soundtracks, the violence, the heavily Catholic moral burden, the operatic scope of the storytelling – is a direct reflection of his own personal experience of the world around him, a reflection of the way that he literally perceives things. While this has been evident to me intuitively, hearing him speak these words lit a major 1000 watt light bulb in my mind. The man had found a way to channel his psyche through the medium of cinema, one that was not only artistically and aesthetically exciting and unique, but one which in many ways advanced the medium itself both in terms of form and content. Since his advent as a filmmaker of influence, Scorsese’s style has pervaded world cinema so thoroughly that his current films suffer from the phenomenon of a groundbreaking artist being influenced by the work of artists who were heavily (perhaps derivatively so) influenced by his own art. Scorsese, being an avid film viewer of not only classic but contemporary cinema, professes to being intrigued by modern movements in cinema, for example modern Hong Kong and Asian cinema, a lot of which has deeply appropriated elements of his earliest films into its own aesthetic. One cannot overlook the irony of ‘The Departed’ being a remake of ‘Infernal Affairs’, a Hong Kong film that bears indelible hints of elements from Scorsese’s trademark crime and gangster flicks. In fact, it’s hard to argue that Hong Kong action cinema has not – for decades – carried a significant portion of Scorsese’s style in its genes.

So why is it that Scorsese’s recent films do not quite pop (for me at least) in the way that his – in my opinion – landmark films do? And why do films that ape the exciting and seductive style that Scorsese developed ultimately lack the power of the master’s best? I suspect there are several reasons for this.

Martin Scorsese is – in his early seventies now – a bone fide cinematic legend, having proven himself against all odds, a darling of the film world and a pioneer and proponent of film preservation. One could argue that there has very likely been a slight mellowing of the melancholic personality responsible for those furious films of the seventies and eighties or at least a personal peace-making or Zen-reaching of sorts. Sure, some of his more recent pictures retain his trademark muscularity, but none feel as scorching as ‘Raging Bull’ or authentically vinegary as ‘The King of Comedy’ or even ‘After Hours.’ The Scorsese torn between cinema and Catholicism, forced to carve a niche for himself in order to survive the hard-scrabble, mob-ridden streets of New York’s Little Italy, the asthmatic neurotic who was said to swing between mania and depression while filming, who was nearly undone by a cocaine addiction and a painfully contained violence that needed to be expressed vicariously…that Scorsese is most likely a little different to the one who lives and breathes today, as would be the case with most people. He said it himself. ‘Taxi Driver’ was created by a trio of Travis Bickles with enough insight not to remain that way. Scorsese’s first three decades as a studio filmmaker appear to have been a cinematic intervention, psychoanalysis, confession and exorcism all in one, and I daresay argue that this process in some way allowed not just himself, but the American psyche to work through some deep issues and emerge a little less troubled or at least a little more at peace with themselves. Scorsese is no longer Travis Bickle, no longer Jake LaMotta, no longer Charlie; at least not as close an approximation of those characters as he might have been when he first felt compelled to artistically air them out. Even compare and contrast his earliest interviews with his most recent to gain a slight appreciation of how the moody artist with the brooding eyebrows has become the laugh-a-minute professorial figure with the grandfatherly eyebrows and endearingly earnest aura. This is not to say that Scorsese’s troubled psyche has died and gone to heaven and that he is free of all psychic scars and wounds, but there has been some sort of a change. Of course, this is not to suggest that young Scorsese was an utter fuck-up and a freak and a screwhead.

If Scorsese’s initial style was a product of his world-view at the time, his psychological state, his pain, does it then not compute that a fundamental evolution in Scorsese the person would render the current iteration of Martin Scorsese unable to recreate ‘Mean Streets’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ in 2014, if not only on a surface level? I think it does compute. Sadly, and somewhat funnily, this does not conversely mean that a personal transition will translate into a successfully stylistic transition. Simply because angry Scorsese could make great films of great fury does not mean that less angry Scorsese will make similarly great films of much less fury. Unfortunately, my feeling is that the recent films of Scorsese that bear closest similarity to his explosive masterworks (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) and those that seem to be channelling Scorsese’s fondness for classical Technicolour expressionism a la Michael Powell (Shutter Island and Hugo) suggest that Scorsese has not quite found a style that expresses the current artist that he is quite as prodigiously as he did during his “heyday”, if one believes he had such a period. But how do I know that he is not successfully expressing the current iteration of his inner perceptive life? I don’t for a fact know, but I feel less earnestness, less vulnerability in his recent work. It’s like the difference between sitting in front of an authentic wood-fire in a fireplace and sitting before a similar wood-fire that’s positioned behind a pane of glass. The heat is less, the sheer power if oddly muted; the experience is simply not the same. And what about those filmmakers who channel a little to a lot of Scorsese in their films, either unwittingly, by way of misguided reverence and homage, or simply due to artistic laziness? Well, I think it would be unnecessarily repetitive to state why it is that an individual who is not the short, asthmatic neurotic son of first Generation Italian-Americans growing up in post-War New York and equally seduced by the opera of the Catholic Church and the rock-and-roll of the rough streets would most likely be unable to produce a film like ‘Mean Streets’, or more specifically, would simply not be able to produce ‘Mean Streets’, period.

Filmmakers that more closely fit that profile would have enough trouble creating that piece of cinema let alone a seventh generation Anglo-Australian that was raised atheist in the gentrified suburbs of Sydney’s inner west, in a society that is very conscious about building the self-esteem and self-confidence of its youth, often at the expense of self-criticism and unforgiving insight into one’s own flaws (not to say that this is ultimately negative.) There is simply no way the above individual could truly imbue a gangster film with the same psychological and emotional elements of guilt, sexual turmoil and coiled rage that young Scorsese does, unless this theoretical individual was exposed to experiences outside of those common to their peers from their native social milieu of 21st century urban Australia. It’s no surprise then that so many films made by filmmakers raised on Scorsese come across as mere exercises in style; because, while these artists might adopt this style because it resonated with them and seemed of a piece with their own perceptive rhythms, the truth is that – despite how honest they believe their artistic driving force to be – unless they see as Scorsese saw the world, feel emotion as Scorsese felt it (at that time in his life) and think as Scorsese thought, their well-meaning intentions will translate as hollow and devoid of substance. This common accusation of style-over-substance is made all the more common and all the more likely because of how darn exciting and seductively propulsive many of Scorsese’s films are; the general perception is simply that this style of filmmaking is adopted simply because it is “cool” and will therefore grab spectators.

On the opposite spectrum are those films that litter the festival circuit: slow, pensive, almost confrontationally static films that hold the same shots for minutes on end. Filmmakers who pursue this approach to cinema are labelled “pretentious” and a lot of the recipients of this accusation are probably not too far from it. To be frank, and possibly presumptuous, it seems highly unlikely that such films would be an honest expression of the psyche of many young filmmakers raised in an increasingly fleet-minded society…unless one actively seeks to avoid participating in a culture so thoroughly inundated with ‘data’ that the only way public attention can be arrested is by finding ever more nifty and devious ways to impart ideas, opinions and information with maximum brevity and maximum memorability. If media is a reflection of society which is a reflection of media which is a reflection of society which is a reflection of so on and so forth, it has become – to me – impossible to tell whether it is the media of the people that demand smaller and smaller quanta more and more frequently. It is probably a bit of both, the point being that the idea of an individual with a natural tendency to quietly sit and absorb the world around there seems less and less probable.

Imagine you have two still cameras. One camera has a shutter speed of 1/6000 while the other has a shutter speed of 1/8. Both cameras are mounted on a speeding platform and exposed for one minute. Compare, now, the quality of images acquired by the high-shutter-speed camera versus that of the single image acquired by the time-lapsed camera. One is a series of precisely captured images of possibly varying clarity and focus while the other is one unholy blur of light that looks like one big stare into the sun. How does one perceive – with nuance – the stillness of life with a racing mind; the subtleties of time in a world where one second is almost too large a unit of it?

There was a day when this time-lapsed approach to filmmaking seemed to resonate with both filmmakers and audiences, or rather, a larger proportion of filmmakers and the film-going public. Proponents of this style of meditative cinema that was as interested with the passage of time within an image as it was the passage of images through time found a sizeable audience during a period when the news was updated daily not minutely, when letters took days not seconds to arrive in the recipient’s mailbox, when fast cutting in films and colloquial terseness in novels were somewhat avant garde. And when directors like Tarkovsky or Antonioni were interviewed, either in writing or on audio or film, there is a clear sense that they were genuinely captivated by that which most might have found boring or irrelevant, perhaps for intellectual reasons, but probably because that was simply how they saw the world. One current filmmaker whose slow, gentle style seems congruent with his personality – as evidence through the few but moderately lengthy interviews that circulate on the internet – is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, himself an ardent fan of both Antonioni and Tarkovsky, the only other filmmaker he equally treasures being Yasujiro Ozu (surprise!) Ceylan is softly spoken and unhurried in his manner, clearly a man whose contemplative nature is authentic and which is reflected to great artistic effect in his films. Just as Scorsese saw life as a fast-moving sensual assault, Antonioni it seems (like his pseudo-protege Ceylan) was drawn to the passivity that resulted from the same emotional turmoil that drove Scorsese’s characters to recklessness and violence. Beginning in the sixties particularly, Antonioni’s films explored the inertia that plagued a certain section of affluent western society, an inertia borne of a desire for modernism and a concurrent entrapment by traditionalism. Antonioni’s people of privilege, pleasure and time enough to contemplate the metaphysics of their own existences found that their modern ideals of sexual freedom were stifled by the strong scent of Catholicism that seeped in from a still pervasively religious middle class, and from within themselves. Accordingly these characters found that they were arrested emotionally, tortured sexually and in existential crisis. Inertia is a major symbol in absurdist and existential art and if Antonioni was to capture this type of purgatorial state of being, it was necessary for him to slow things down. Why move the camera or race between numerous shots when the only thing moving is time, and not very quickly? As fate would have it – or some cosmic force – Antonioni the man and the artist were uncannily suited to capture this state of mind, this psyche, whether or not Antonioni himself was in the throes of similar existential distress or not.

Sure, this phenomenon of one mode of thought being so limited by a preceding mode of thought such that the thinker is stuck in a state of motionless still persists. The difference now seems to be that the inability to move has morphed into an inability to sit still. This existential crisis faced by a modern mankind desperate to detach itself from the placenta of tradition came to express itself in a restlessness that characterised the late sixties and has only contrived into the present day. While there might be spiritual, there is physical and mental hyperactivity. It’s curious to witness the fidgety transience of thought common to mainly western youth, always bored, ever in need of stimulation, rarely still and when so, apparently deeply uneasy with it. It may seem counter-intuitive for me to say this, but perhaps prolonged static cameras are as effective today in expressing spiritual stagnation as they were in the sixties, the only difference being that nowadays a static shot of an unmoving individual may highlight the internal psychic tension and unease that propels members of today’s westernised society to seek motion and action and stimulation as a means of escaping the sensation that eats away at their souls.

So where in all this does the spectator find themselves? Well, it should be clear and it should be simple enough. Just as it would only benefit a reader to acclimatise themselves to the rhythms of the prose that they are reading, it would similarly benefit film viewers to appreciate the fact that, for some filmmakers – particularly those whose approach may appear a little left field and esoteric – style is often a direct entry point into the state of mind that would allow for optimal communication of the ideas contained within the film, provided that the style is an honest expression of the filmmaker’s perception of the world. I think what separates a good critic from a casual filmgoer (and a bad critic) is an ability to adopt – briefly – the styles of myriad films, paired with the ability to intuit the honesty with which the various styles represents the filmmakers’ respective perspectives and thus how valid an artwork the films ultimately are.

Style is not just about aesthetics, I’ve come to realise. It is a key, key aspect of both artistic creation and artistic patronage. Style is that which a new resident of a city with a strong personality must first appreciate and then drink in in order to fully experience what that culture is really truly about, as opposed to the abridged version with which most 10-day tourists must make do. What is that saying turned cliché? “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Note it doesn’t say become a Roman.

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