Grandly pluripotent

May 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

I would like to take a bit of a stand, arrogant as it may seem, for the freedom of movies. It has come to a head. I was recently listening to a podcast on which a certain newly released film from a director known for a very distinctive style was being appraised and analysed. One of the podcasters stated that they found themselves more taken with the film’s visual and narrative flair than they were by the story and the characters, the word “story” being key here. He then went on to explicitly ask his co-hosts, in a tone verging on mild guilt or even shame, whether this was wrong of him. There was a pause after which one of his fellow podcasters stated haltingly that this may very well be a deficient way to view a film. Here is where I end the anecdote as this is not intended as an attack on any particular individual’s statement but as an illustration of an incredibly pervasive – and troublingly so, I’d say – view of cinema, one which I will further attack and with no lack of fervor.

“In service of the story” is a phrase that is all too frequently thrown around by podcasters, bloggers, critics and members of the film-loving community. In itself it is not a fundamentally wrong thing to say, I don’t think. Where it begins to take on a problematic quality is in its use as a hierarchical standard-bearer, the standard being that film is a primarily narrative medium and that all cinematic elements should ultimately be “in service of story.”

Now while I am no scholar of the advent of cinema, I do know that the medium in its earliest form amounted to short strips of film which, when played back, would only have lasted a few seconds at most. In fact, the oldest surviving film, ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’ by Louis Le Prince runs, at its longest, only 2.11 seconds. Can it not then be postulated that cinema was an advance on the already existing practice of still photography rather than a concerted effort to invent yet another narrative medium? Where still photography captured The Instant, motion picture captured The Moment. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that cinema was developed with the intention that it not be used as a primarily narrative medium, because anybody who is keen on Renaissance paintings can attest to the strongly narrative quality present in many pieces from that period, particularly those depicting historical or biblical scenes. So, to be fair, if a narrative can be extracted from or impregnated into a still image with enough effort and imagination, why not too with a series of moving images? Accordingly, this is not the ground upon which I will found my argument.

Assuming narrative can be a predominant facet of any artwork from a sculpture to a glam rock act, consider the other purposes for which art is created: to express, articulate or to elucidate an emotional or psychological state; to flesh out or reiterate an idea; to ask direct questions of the world that surrounds us or to simply wonder about it; to entertain…and much more. Art has long been a source of entertainment, a mode of ceremony and reverie, a vehicle for social activism and dissent, and conversely for manipulation and control. And narrative has often been the form in which art has achieved the above aims. Nobody, certainly not I, can deny the affinity humans as a species have for a good yarn. Storytelling is far and away the most common use of language by common people in their common social milieus, I would at least argue. I bow to the power of the story, and I love a good one at that.

However, when faced with an artistic medium, care needs to be taken not to limit potential, especially with one as relatively new as motion picture. While the vast majority of films that have seen the light of day to some appreciable extent are in some way narrative, what is to say that narrative is and should be the prime artistic concern of all these? Is the narrative in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ more important that the raw sensorial power of image and sound complementing each other in a way rarely seen up to that point, or the way the film encourages a state of wonder and inquiry both intellectual and spiritual (something it achieves by omitting the usual kind of drama that keeps a spectator’s feet firmly planted in the concrete and thus ignorant of the abstract.) Are the films of the French New Wave directors necessarily more concerned with telling stories than they are with critiquing filmic storytelling and expression, and with theorizing about film’s potential to do more than just tell stories? And what of ‘Zerkalo’? Is it strictly an obliquely poetic retelling of Tarkovsky’s earlier days (perhaps) or is it more about an older Tarkovsky reflecting on those very memories? If film is a narrative medium then what is ‘Baraka’ or ‘Manakamana?’ Where do these films that brazenly and single-mindedly exploit cinema’s unique observational potential fit in? Some may consider such works to be pure hokum and maybe hokum they are, but they are also examples of cinema at its most distinctive, doing what a novel could not dream of doing, nor a play, nor still photography or dance.

Stanley Kubrick is a filmmaker whose approach to cinema I have always deeply appreciated, but his insistence on adapting novels for the screen irked me for some time. The practice frequently struck me as one that somewhat cheapened the medium of film considering most adaptations are in a sense reductive of what can be dense, complex texts that do not easily lend themselves to visual representation. If not a reduction, then at least a distillation or, at its worst, an abridging. But thinking about film’s qualities as a medium has changed my feelings about Kubrick being an adapter of texts. When Kubrick spins a film from a novel or a story or a memoir he loses things, often intentionally and sometimes to the deep chagrin of the texts’ authors. Yet this is why he was such a master advancer of the cinematic form, a pursuit he didn’t take lightly. Perhaps by adapting novels to screen he was exploring what cinema was and could be as an art form distinct from the arts of the written word. Sure, there are things lost in translating ‘Barry Lyndon’ to the screen, or ‘The Shining’, but in the process he discovered something of the visceral force and majesty of marrying sound and image and setting those in motion. The concurrent beauty and oppressiveness of ‘Barry Lyndon’ – how lavish it looks and how stiflingly it is paced – seems to perfectly capture the aspirations, shortcomings and undoing of a certain society in a way that text could not, at least not in the way that a film could. As for ‘The Shining’, the way  in which the heard and the seen seem to meld and bleed into one another, almost becoming approximations  of each other, creates an all-encompassing and possibly overbearing experience of not simply being a spectator of but a partaker in a psychological state. In essence, Kubrick was on a mission – whether he knew it or not – to discover just what made film a different beast to literature, an equally valid beast but bearing different stripes and teeth and methods of accessing the spectator’s  jugular. This is not to negate the fact that Stanley Kubrick was a dedicated practitioner of storytelling who himself frequently spoke of story and narrative in a way that suggests he felt they were vital elements in the cinematic fabric.

The simple fact is this: if I want to be told a story, why not read a book, or pick up a phone and call my most entertainingly talkative friend, or attend a play or see an opera? Why watch a movie? What does a movie offer that the above do not? Perhaps it is these things – whatever they are – that should be prized above narrative when viewing, critiquing or even making a film. People talk about style over substance, but for a medium like film what is to say that art direction and costume and lighting and lens work and camera movement and performance style and effects and musical accompaniment are not substantive elements, for without them what is a movie but the recorded reading of the abridged version of what could be a book or play in which case why not simply read the book or see the play performed on stage? These are simple questions, but ones that I believe get at the very heart of just why cinema is a sovereign art form. After over a century of its existence, the question of what cinema offers that other disciplines do not is one which still gnaws at those filmmakers who fearlessly dedicate themselves to discovering, uncovering and understanding what makes the watching of moving pictures a unique experience, whether it’s Richard Linklater and his mainstream experimentation with motion picture as a documenter of time and change, or the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s nerdy forays into the transcendental and elucidatory possibilities offered by simple, patient immersive observation.

By the same token, there are film artists throughout the history of the medium whose prime concern, sometimes stated explicitly by them, was to contribute to that ever-abiding human tradition of storytelling. Sidney Lumet, the great American director, is to me a prime example of a filmmaker whose utter dedication to storytelling led him to adopt a versatile but deeply disciplined approach to filmmaking. Whether it is the bravura chamber drama of ’12 Angry Men’ that does with a single room what many could not do with a diverse landscape, or the soulful blue-collar grit of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, Lumet’s desire to do full justice to the story he was telling and the characters that populated it drove him to utilise the medium of film in a way that I believe epitomises a certain type of mainstream American studio-filmmaking, in the same way that Elia Kazan’s best work epitomises a particular brand of mythic Americana. A contemporary of Lumet and a mutual admirer, Akira Kurosawa commenced his artistic life as a painter but gravitated towards cinema. He never stopped being a painter if his compositions and his eventual use of colour are anything to go by. At the same time, he sought to find the literary in the cinematic and managed to craft films that could almost be admired from a purely visual standpoint or a purely narrative standpoint which, when viewed from both standpoints simultaneously, make for very powerful experiences. Kurosawa’s countryman and contemporary, Ozu, is similarly interesting in that his fastidious focus on the “literary content” of his films – that is to say character, narrative, theme etc. – resulted in a visual approach so regimentally stripped down and simplified that the resultant visual style strikes me as being the work of a resolutely pictrographic artist. I have nothing against cinema as a narrative medium. It is a beautiful way to tell and be told a story.

I do not wish to suggest that all films be eight hours of one static shot framing a field of subtly shivering grasses and a sky of slowly migrating cloud cover, nor do I wish for a world in which absolutely no filmmakers are allowed to prize narrative and character above all else. In short, I’m appealing for a more pluripotent approach to cinema, one in which anything can be done with the medium as long as it is done with a degree of passion and integrity.

So: to return to the inciting statements made by those podcasters while they were discussing ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ directed by Wes Anderson. Now this particular Anderson (there are at least four more, though one of these has an extra “s” in the surname) is interesting in that both his defenders and detractors seem to cite his robust and unapologetic style as the core reason for the love or disdain they have for his films. I, at one time, swung closer to the camp of naysayers, my reason for this being that I found the experience of watching his films akin to that of biting into an endless series of delicate pastries. The flaws in my thinking included: (1) the assumption that exquisite pastries are less valid a culinary creation than – say – expertly cooked meat or well-tossed salads, and (2) that an individual is wrong and woefully misguided in dedicating themselves to perfecting a particular pastry dish for decades on end. This does not mean that I should waive my right to dislike one or all of the pastry dishes monsieur Anderson places before me, but at the same time it would be unseemly of me to say to him, “stop all this pastry nonsense and give me a thick steak to eat.” Were he to respond to this by tipping me off my chair and directing me to the nearest steakhouse, who could blame him? Silly illustration aside, while food has a vital function in that it helps to sustain life, the experience of taste satisfies a wholly different human need, the need for pleasure and enjoyment and a certain quality of life as opposed to just life. People can stuff gruel down their throats if it keeps them alive, but if this gruel is lovingly prepared with choice ingredients and an artful selection of herbs and spices and condiments, something other than nutritional sustenance is at hand. If Wes Anderson has decided to craft a very specific type of dessert, why complain about the fact that it is not filling when the intention is that you admire the prettiness of it, that you savour the flavour and the lightness of its consistency? Is Wes Anderson not allowed to be a pastry chef anymore? Is it not within his rights as a craftsman to provide an experience that a steak or a soup or a salad could never dream of offering?

Now I know that Wes Anderson groupies would argue that his films are much more than a very specific sensory experience, that they are strongly narrative and are filled with as much emotional depth as is required of most ‘quality’ films; and I would agree with them to an extent. But what makes ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ notable is that it feels like a distillation of Anderson’s aesthetic. I don’t know that his colour palette and production design have chimed at so high a frequency, that his camera moves have been this rigidly and purposefully planimetric, his characterisations this arch and unapologetically farcical…all combining to create something wholly unique despite the fact that a lot of these elements can be isolated in the works of other filmmakers from different places and earlier periods. Anderson has proven, once again, to be unafraid of visual exuberance knowing full well what medium he is working with. Accordingly, we as viewers should not be afraid to admire the exquisiteness of his images and of his technique, even if these are more worthy of admiration than the narrative these images and this technique of his are generally assumed to be in service of.

It certainly could make things a little difficult, discarding with the “narrative is king” approach to movies. Suddenly any film that does something vaguely interesting with its visual language gets a pass even if it’s got nothing else on offer. Well, I suppose that is where an increasingly insightful and visually literate viewership will have come into play. It just seems unfair that a visual medium be judged and appreciated on a primarily non-visual basis.  Nobody should have to feel guilty for valuing ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’s pictorial beauty over the literary affectations of its narrative. Nobody, I don’t think.

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