May 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
Of those who watch films and complain that they didn’t feel anything I ask: whose fault is this? If there is a door and the door is closed, can I really blame the door for my not having gotten to the other side of it if I have not even endeavoured to turn the knob? If I turn the knob and the door does not open, have I checked under the mat or above the doorframe for a key? Only after I’ve done all these things and perhaps more can I say “this door cannot be breached.” Unless, of course, I decide to kick the door in, which may be a useful approach if kicking the door can be considered analogous to breaking a film down and analysing it in its innumerable pieces; perhaps not.
The point being that a lot of folk seem to think that art can be indulged in passively, and maybe a lot of art unwittingly or perhaps less innocently encourages this mode of thinking. Written word literature may be the most purposefully active popular art form (with regards to the spectator/patron) in that the content must first be consumed by sensory perception (seeing/hearing words or feeling braille) and then digested by intellectualisation (appreciating the respective scripts and symbols that the eyes or fingers are perceiving right through to comprehending and/or interpreting the literal or expressive meanings or connotations that result from the structural relationship between the scripts and symbols that the eyes or ears or fingers are perceiving), even though reading can still be done with semi passivity if one skim reads and forgets half of what their eyes are half-seeing or their fingers half-feeling. Compare this process to that of viewing a movie or listening to music or watching a ballet or strolling through a gallery. You can exit the Louvre and know that you have seen a beautiful image by van Eyck without having spoken a word of Flemish in your life (or whatever language Jan spoke). You may even attempt to describe ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin’ despite having only seen it as opposed to having truly looked at it and still be able to convey, with some success, something of its content or essence. On the contrary, hand me a Pablo Neruda poem in its original Spanish translation and I could tell you that the words look pretty on the page but probably little else; hand me something by Li Bai untranslated and I’d be able to tell you even less. Admittedly, though, a poem’s appearance on the page may be the one literary instance in which an individual can partake of artistic expression by simply seeing (if due only to the reality that the physical structure of a poem is often less of a slave to variations in publisher typography than is prose). To summarise, film is arguably more subject to viewer passivity than written literature is to reader passivity.
It seems that mainstream film-going culture (at present, but probably always) relies largely on passive absorption of image and sound. People can sit and let images cascade over them, images so obvious and plainly telegraphed that an individual with cortical blindness might process the content simply via thalamic pathways requiring little conscious registration. What’s more, mainstream cinema, particularly of the Hollywood major studio ilk, seems to be of a certain school of filmmaking: that which seems to believe that the more obvious and visually assaultive a film is, the more its spectators can be permitted to sit passively in the dark munching on their popcorn and slurping on their icy sodas, or twiddling with their smart devices on their sofas at home, ultimately walking away with the sensation and impression that they have partaken of something. Admittedly, there is a certain breed of film which encourages a certain type of active viewership, to an extent. ‘Inception’ is a great example of a film whose rabid following stems, I suspect at least partially, from the fact that it seems to validate viewer intelligence by explicitly challenging viewer attention with its “levels” and by concluding with an image whose ambiguity does not seem to infuriate or alienate in the way that other ambiguous endings do, simply because it is largely irrelevant whether A (the top continuing to spin) happens or whether B (the top dropping) happens because the fact that C (Cobb reuniting with his children, whatever the reality) happens is really the crux of the film’s conclusion, I would argue. While delivering the kind of SFX extravaganza and breakneck action that seems to bring in the bucks at the box office, ‘Inception’ also provides viewers the relief that comes from knowing (believing) that they are not simply brainless consumers but “active” participants. This may be a cynical stance, but when a film’s ultimate legacy is that it inspires endless debate about whether or not a spinning top stops or doesn’t stop spinning (aka whether chocolate ice cream or strawberry ice cream is better when the real issue pertains to ice cream versus lack of ice cream), I count this a general loss for the concept of active viewership.
A lot of people expect theme, ideas, emotion, to be pumped into them, to be drawn out of them. They say, “the movie didn’t make me feel anything.” Well, whose fault is that, I ask. People say, “This movie didn’t make me care for the characters.” Well, whose fault is it that you don’t have it in you to give two shits about a two dimensional representation of a human being which is what – to be perfectly honest – the overwhelming majority of people on earth will ever be to any of us, if that even; if not just a CIA World Book statistic.
Let’s talk about digestion.
You eat a meal, say a meal consisting of some meat and some vegetables. You end up shitting it all out and find yourself malnourished and upset. Whose fault is it that the food was not properly digested? Was the food supposed to digest itself? Your gut failed, my friend, either because you have IBD, or celiac, or some intolerance, or an infective colitis, or you swallow but don’t chew, or maybe your gut is in shock from some assault it endured. Maybe it a whole lot of it was cut out and doesn’t exist anymore to absorb anything. Either way, you cannot blame that poor lamb shank and those broiled silverbeet leaves for having gone through you unused. Your body was required to engage in an active process but this didn’t happen. The food is not at fault. Okay, so you say, what if the food is not digestible? For example, what if it’s made of wax or plastic or rock? Well, you’ve got to put the damn thing in your mouth, chew it and swallow it first before you extricate yourself of blame.
I will be the first to admit that a lot of art is bad food, either fake food made of wax and PVC, or junk containing too many calories and deficient in its variety of nutrients. But in order to know this we’ve got to open our digestive tracts and eat, right? We’ve got to ingest these foodstuffs only to realise that we’re fatigued and not satiated, agitated and hypoglycaemic, stunted and underdeveloped, overweight and diabetic with arteries on their way out. Art forms will struggle to achieve the level of purpose and social significance they can and should have until that vital feedback loop is completed.
“We want passive nutrition,” some may say. “What’s wrong with it if it gives you what you need?” Do you really want passive nutrition? Do I really want MY muscles to grow without my having to lift a finger? Want my intellect to burgeon and my soul-life to blossom without ever sitting myself down with a decent book that really challenges me or without crossing my legs on a mat and meditating? Sure, get that cannula into my arm, get that total intravenous nutrition running; strap those electrode patches to my pecs and my thighs and run electricity through them. Let’s see how vital that leaves me. My gut will wither, my digestive hormones will lose their bearings and the day I decide to stick something in my mouth and eat it I’ll find myself utterly ill-equipped. Cinema should be – at least in some ways – an active art form. It should be a mode of intellectual, emotional and psychological exercise. As a spectator, one should be required to bring something to the act of viewing. Emotion should not just be drawn out of a spectator; it should also be invested into the film by the spectator. It’s okay that a film portrays a scene of profound and obvious sadness such that tears spring to the corners of your eyes. But not all moments of emotional intensity are visually obvious, and in these circumstances that which is required is that thing which is so sorely misunderstood: empathy. Which is where this monologue was always heading.
Empathy is not a passive emotion, I’ve come to understand. To empathise is to act. But it’s not just an action that one engages in haphazardly; it’s an endeavour, the pursuit of a particular psycho-emotional ideal. It is to repeatedly subject yourself to a level of emotional skepticism and self-questioning. It is to be aware of who you are in relation to who other people are, what your values are, and why you believe the things that you do, and in doing so to forego them momentarily and in those moments to imagine and to infer that which your own experience might not necessarily bestow. Empathy is goddamn hard. Feeling sad for a weeping widow is not empathy if you know what it is to grieve, whatever the loss might have been which caused the grieving. It’s generally easy to know that she is sad. Sociopaths and psychopaths get their kicks by being able to know when someone is sad, or in pain, or afraid. To empathise is to encounter a stoic widow who you believe should be inconsolable and in tears and to not simply dismiss her as a cold and unemotional and a murderous spider, but to seek to understand how she might be feeling or what she might be thinking, to understand in however miniscule a way what her experience might be, even if you ultimately feel that she is cold and emotional and a murderous spider. You may never get anywhere but you tried and in trying I believe you empathised.
For this reason I admire and hail the films of Antonioni and Altman and Kubrick and Rohmer and Bunuel and all those film artists (and artists in general) who were clearly striving to understand or at least gain some semblance, however minor, of the experiences of others, however close to or far removed from their own experiences, their own milieus, those experiences might have been. People might consider Antonioni’s films emotionally vacant, but the more I watch them the more I get the sense of a man trying desperately to empathise with a particular mindset of a particular section of society at a particular time in the 20th century. There is no judgment, only a desire to understand. As a spectator of his work one is required to invest and inquire and question the inner state of the characters he paints and portrays. These are human beings on screen. As I have previously said, I probably know more about those beautiful, tortured, closed-off individuals Antonioni is showing me than I ever will most of the people I see around me, at the bus stop, on trains, in shopping malls and cafes, even some people to whom I speak more than once. What a sad and terrifying day it will be for me should these individuals cease to be human beings in my mind simply because all I see are creatures with a couple of physical dimensions standing, texting, eating, walking, largely unemotional on a surface level (let’s be frank about it: most people are damn good at keeping their emotions in check when in public) What a sad existence it has been for humanity considering that this seems to be an alarmingly common mindset, whether or not it is acted upon or not by the majority of people.
Empathy, I guess, is to appreciate that each individual you encounter, however two-dimensional and unconvincing they might appear to you is a human being however ‘other’ they might seem, and in appreciating this, to strive to understand what their experience might be. This is why I believe cinema can be, should be and is a premier art form of empathy. In order to live up to this though, it requires an active spectatorship who will guide and develop sincere and purposeful artistry, and vice versa and so on and so forth, until it all comes to some sort of end at some point in the future near or far.
May 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ is out and in the open, I feel that I have finally come to some conclusion, or at the very least some articulable opinion regarding the practice of putting sex on film. Tossing my mind back to the days when this project was just a rumour in the air about the Danish prankster making a movie starring Shia Lebouf and his member, one that would tread the line between “cinema” and “pornography” more perilously than he ever had before – because ‘The Idiots’ had definitely not attempted this – I am struck by how anticlimactic the whole three-and-a-half hours feels, anticlimactic in the sense that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is perhaps a lot tamer than the hullabaloo leading up to its release suggested it might be, not that hullabaloo is ever predictive of anything. But at the very least, the film in my opinion does not commit any transgressions greater than have been done in previous von Trier efforts. Assuming, also, that the claims made by the director’s production company Zentropa are true – the ones about digitally grafting movies star faces onto porn star bodies – then one could concievably argue with some degree of conviction that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is likely not his most ‘pornographic’ film, which in itself is a problematic claim on so many levels, semantic and otherwise.
‘The Idiots’, a 1998 Dogme 95 film (Dogme 95 being a movement that forbade – amongst other things – the use of effects), featured actual sex between individuals whose heads and genitals were of the same flesh and shared the same DNA. ‘Nymphomaniac’, as far as we’ve been told, does not. Does this then make it less pornographic than von Trier’s 1998 picture? Does ‘The Idiots’ as a film have sex more on the brain than his most recent opus? Well, firstly, I’d argue that ‘The Idiots’ simply has sex in it while ‘Nymphomaniac’ is generally more sex-centric, if only sex as seen through one or two particular points of view.
Thinking about ‘Nymphomaniac’ over the last two weeks has led me to settle on the opinion that it is a film that does not explore or portray sex and sexuality in a particularly interesting or challenging way, but one which, by virtue of its sprawl and ideological indiscipline, is nonetheless a great heaving bonfire around which sex on film can be discussed. Maybe not sex as a complex facet of humanity, but sex as an element of cinematic language. I don’t want to review ‘Nymphomaniac’. I don’t want to critique the various performances and myriad accents featuted in it, the digressional script, the use of multiple aspect ratios, or whether it deserves its two-volume release. I’m not quite that interested in debating whether Lars von Trier is a misogynist or a wannabe feminist, whether he has anything to say or is just eager to be heard, whether he is intentionally or unintentionally tongue-in-cheek, or whether or not he loves or hates himself. Perhaps these are all meatier, juicier talking points, but I would like to take this opportunity to hash out some heretofore muddled thoughts and theories on filmic depictions of sex.
In my time as a young male raised in an epoch of sexual ubiquity, I have had my tiger’s share of media-assisted sexual gratification. I say assisted because some of my earliest autosexual experiences were facilitated by everything from women’s magazines tailored for conservative housewives and Avon catalogues, to kids’ shows hosted by finely-bosomed brunettes and even an admittedly sexually-charged scene from David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenz’. To further clarify, when I say autosexual I do not simply mean masturbation, but any situation in which I was sexually aroused in the presence of myself and no one else, an arousal which I to some degree enjoyed, encouraged, prolonged or actively sought out. Does the fact that I was sexually aroused when watching the host of Kideo (a South Africa kids’ TV show) or that I pleasured myself while paging through Avon brochures imply that that show or those brochures where pornographic or that they at least contained pornographic elements? Sure, they contained sexual elements, and if they did contain sexual elements but only unintentionally so – from the perspective of their creators – then were they necessarily pornography? I can assure you that the host of that show was no more sexually suggestive than a pretty Sunday school teacher, and that those Avon materials no more suggestive than an insurance ad adorned by a gorgeous, smiling face. Now, while the latter may intentionally capitalize on sexuality to sell both insurance and mascara, to say that Avon or AAMI intend on me flopping out my wiener and stroking it is highly cynical.
Conversely, there are sex scenes of varying graphicness that I have witnessed on television or on the silver screen or on my laptop which, despite oozing tits and ass aplenty, barely stir cyclops from his slumber if at all. Some of the above scenes were in films legally registered as triple-x adult material yet for all their sexual explicitness I could have been watching lions mating on Saturday daytime cable TV. In these cases was I or was I not in the presence of pornography? Whereas I was aroused by that which was perhaps not intended to arouse, the converse occurred with that which was certainly intended to arouse to some extent or at least mildly titillate which is, let’s be frank, what most sex scenes featuring attractive actors in ‘non-pornographic’ films are in some way expected to do. There is clearly a difference between something being pornography versus being pornographic. Perhaps pornography is created with intent whereas anything can possibly be rendered pornographic, even transiently so, by way of a patron’s response to its sexual potential. I wonder.
So having established the complexity of the concept of pornography, I would like to consider why – outside of the realm of audiovisual coital aids – sex is finding, has often found, and will likely continue to find its way onto screens.
It’s saying nothing really, to state that whatever is on the mind of society will somehow find its way into that society’s artistic firmament. If this is the case – which it surely is, considering how steeped in sexuality are our oldest surviving tales and myths – then it is no surprise that sex and film has a long albeit problematic relationship. Almost as far back as the advent of the cinematic medium, blue movies and stag films have existed. Sex is and has been on the mind of human society for millennia and there is really no point in questioning why it continues to be portrayed in art. The real question is what purpose sex serves in the context of film other than simply depicting an enduring part of human life or kowtowing to society’s obsession with it? If a filmmaker states, as many do, that they wish to depict human lives in as raw and truthful a way as possible without succumbing to the usual pressures to create drama and omit the everyday, then would it not be a little prudish of them to avoid capturing humans in the act of sex, whether real or staged? In fact, why should sex not be depicted? Surely it’s not in order to preserve some ideal of sex being an intimate and private affair that only the involved parties should have any right to experience, because if this was the case, a staggering proportion of dramatic art would be immediately rendered inappropriate and exploitative for having exposed and portrayed that which occurs behind one’s closed doors and behind one’s eyes. Of course, it would be naïve to ignore the abiding influence of religion and common morality on how sex is approached in various societies. And while the society that I am most familiar with – the predominantly Anglo-Saxon West – has its roots in Judeo-Christian philosophy that traditionally considers sex to be a private and sacred (if not outright holy) act, in the secular here and now of 2014 when and where sexual explicitness and suggestiveness are commonplace in that there are increasingly commodified, it strikes me as particularly odd that the act of sex when transposed from its usual place under the duvet in a darkened bedroom onto a screen in a darkened theatre still seems to inspire discomfiture in so many people; well, at least from ratings boards and champions of moral “decency”.
It was only subsequent to the release in 2010 of Derek Cianfrance’s ‘Blue Valentine’ (a film I like but am not overly fond of) that I felt I understood something of the way sex is handled by the secular west. Now, assuming that the MPAA and other such organisations base their decisions on their gauge of the prevailing public mindset, then it can be argued that sex is not what causes such communal blushing, but the context in which sex occurs; the same goes for violence. This is nothing new. It has been clear to me for some time that violence is considered most disturbing when its psychological implications are brought to the fore. This is what allowed for the popularization – no – normalization of the action movie bloodbath in which hordes can be slaughtered yet nary a gasp or groan can be heard coming from a theatre audience. Kids half-watch such things in the presence of their parents at home, and the clanging of swords and barrage of gunfire are no more alarming to any of them than would be mild interference on the car radio. Similarly, people sit and consume their dinners while watching the news which is often a string of decontextualized violence recited plainly, as should perhaps be the case with all news, the “plainly” part that is. The horror may register intellectually, but there is little if any emotional impact. I know people (who shall remain unnamed) for whom violence is a strong no-no, apart from when it appears on the news in which case it is simply information despite the fact that some parties were actually affected, traumatised, maimed, killed. Violence is palatable, entertaining even, when the significance of the act is bleached out. Countless shootings and stabbings and beatings seen in countless films have barely scratched my psyche, yet one single act of brief violence in a film like ‘Cache’ still affects me, because it should, if only by way of my imagining what would possibly lead an individual to inflict such a thing on themselves and on the onlooker who stands looking on; because this is what the film itself asks.
On that note, back to ‘Blue Valentine’, a film that was threatened with – and may have in fact received (if I remember correctly) – an NC-17 rating (one step below X-rated) largely on the grounds of a scene in which a balding character played by Ryan Gosling fellates a character played by Michelle Williams. There was a mild cyclone of controversy about the MPAA’s reaction to this scene and much was written about it which I did not read, which means that some or much of what I say may echo things previously written and said.
When I heard of the MPAA’s decision I could not remember seeing more than Gosling’s oblong bobbing head shielded by William’s left thigh and seeing the response on the great actress’ face in a performance which consisted of more than the usual mechanical oohs and ahs that seem to score most sex scenes. Hers was a portrayal of vulnerability, desire, relief, uncertainty, frustration, conflict…things usually sieved from mainstream depictions of sexual intercourse. Just as the man who slashed his throat midway through ‘Cache’ did so – I believe – as an expression of something he felt he could not express with words, so too was the sex scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ in which a man tries to rekindle the fire with his wife in a kitschy hotel room and in doing so simultaneously expresses his desire to dominate as well as his utter dependence on her. In these two movies, violence and sex were not just acts for the purpose of narrative propulsion or embellishment; they are acts of communication, whether or not they were successful or even warranted. Moreover, the scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ has no comic or cartoonish undertones to it, just plain sexual honesty; no quick montage of a million and one sex positions, and more importantly perhaps, the deglamourisation of two recognizable and lusted-after faces such that what is on screen is not the Sex Olympics of the Gods but the simple psychosexual yearnings of average humans. Needless to say, it is exactly this type of honesty that disturbs people. Perhaps sex (and violence), when treated with seriousness, has an uncanny ability to access deep recesses of unexplored emotion and subconscious rumination in viewers that many – by conditioning or by choice – refuse to confront until they are expressed through acts that are either pleasurable or confounding or regrettable or all three and more. Violence is, of course, always regrettable…says the pacifist in me.
The sex scenes in ‘Nymphomaniac’ are not so much sex scenes as they are brief flashes of Joe and her lovers in various sexual positions. On this front, the film is disappointingly akin to many of its contemporaries in its approach to sex. Does Lars von Trier have any idea why it might be interesting to depict Joe in the act of sex? One could argue that for Joe, sex isn’t much more than a series of sexual positions with countless partners in which case the director is vindicated in the approach he has chosen. But considering he opted to pepper the film with random and frankly timid shots of penetration and genital intimacy, perhaps he should have utilised this explicitness for unprecedented artistic effect. I don’t think it would be at all presumptuous of me to suggest that the way in which a person interacts not only with their own body but with the bodies of others can provide as much information about their state of mind as a well scripted monologue or exchange; as much if not more. This alone would be a sufficiently strong justification for the inclusion of graphic penetrative sex in a film.
Anyone who believes that fellatio is simply the act of licking or sucking another person’s genitals like it is a bland ice cream or lollipop, and anyone who believes that there is no more nuance to the act than simple mechanical licking and sucking, is frankly kidding themselves. Just as the word “yes” can be uttered in various ways to express various things, so perhaps can an act of oral pleasuring. The most disappointing aspect of a film like Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Battle in Heaven’ is that the sex acts seem to be so aware of their “scandalousness” that they are content with simply being graphic, failing to be little more than plain depictions of sexual intercourse. Admittedly, there are clear attempts in ‘Battle in Heaven’ to utilise sex as an expression of inter- and intra- class/ethnic relations, and the fellatio scenes that bookend the film are perhaps the clearest of all. But even then, the act is so mechanical as to be comparable to the tentative first steps of someone who has only just learnt to do something new and somewhat terrifying. The blowjob that Hugh Jackman’s character receives in ‘Swordfish’ or the one that Captain David Aceveda is forced to give in FX’s great show ‘The Shield’ are almost more accomplished expressions of something in a way that the equivalent acts in Reygadas’ film are somehow not, and I say this as an admirer of Reygadas and his oeuvre. It seems that, as graphic penetrative sex is slowly finding its way into “non-pornographic” somewhat mainstream cinema, there is a self-consciousness that prevents the expression of anything more than giddy exhibitionism and rebellion. Perhaps, with time, once graphic sex becomes less of a taboo, actors, writers and directors will become less concerned with the fact that they’re pushing boundaries and more attuned to the psycho-emotional power and density of sexual activity. Until this becomes more prevalent, artists who use the suggestive power of sex rather than the explicit power of it will dominate in the way that the oft cited scene from Bergman’s ‘Persona’ has dominated this particular conversation since it was first seen in 1966.
By far the most effective moment of graphic sexuality in ‘Nymphomaniac’, the shot of a rising erection is more an expository device than anything, expository in the sense that the penis’s becoming erect tells us exactly what the man in question’s sexual predilection happens to be, which in turn has minor narrative implications. So, I suppose graphic sex can be used to advance plot, though in this circumstance plot would be a strong word. However, with regards to Joe’s dependence on sex, I must say that almost none of the sex scenes in which she features illustrate what exactly sex provides her. I could barely tell you whether Joe actually enjoys sex, or whether there is an element of emotional dependency or self-absorption. The only scenes in which an individual sex act is observed without von Trier’s camera quickly looking away with a blush are the S&M scenes. Joe’s self-loathing and desire for punishment are made a bit clearer, but self-loathing is almost the “go-to” emotional hang-up for sex addicts in fiction. Besides, graphic depictions of sadomasochism are not particularly subversive in 2013/2014 in which case von Trier once again comes across as mildly toothless. At the risk of sounding perverted, ‘Nymphomaniac’ does very little to make a case for the artistic validity of graphic sex in “non-pornographic” film by simply not going far enough. Believe it or not, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’s much hyped sex scenes, while not involving much penetrative action, can be said to at least provide a viewer the slightest insight into Adele’s deep desire for self-actualisation and emotional freedom. In ‘Stranger at the Lake,’ another fine film, writer-director Alain Guiraudie utilises sex more fearlessly and with more psychological heft than does von Trier in ‘Nymphomaniac’, partly by investing his sex scenes with as much time and patience as he does the scenes of dialogue. In that film, sex and speech have similar thematic and narrative weight.
If sex is a mode of communication – non-literary, intuitive communication – then cinema needs to develop a sexual language that can express more than just desire. When two sexy young things manically rip their clothes off and boink each other in your run-of-the-mill television show or movie, one thing that is generally understood, without fail, is that these two individuals want one another on some level; nothing wrong with this. But imagine all other forms of language – verbal and otherwise – were portrayed on screen with equal unsophistication. Imagine actors could only either smile or frown, or were only permitted to speak the words “yes” or “no” and nothing else; hyperbolic as this illustration might be, this is – to an extent – the level of sophistication with which sexuality seems to be used as an expressive modality in film: desire, desire, desire, desire, desire. Maybe domination once in a while. Okay, sure, but what else?
No doubt, if art reserves the right to depict certain aspects of the human experience, on what moral grounds can it be prevented from depicting all aspects of the human experience? Sure, some of these result in more unease when portrayed in art than do others, but perhaps this is because modes of communication like sex and violence are more honest than the average human’s use of verbal discourse, discomfortingly so; honest in that they are deeply visceral and relatively more resistant to social conditioning than our use of words, maybe because we were fucking and fighting long before we developed a form of meaningful oral language and, in the wake of our new-found rhetorical skills, relegated those two to the closet where they can continue to wield immense influence from where they lie in the darkness of our collective id. Wherever words seem to fail, a penis or a pistol is never too far off for better or for worse, so why turn our eyes away or throw coy little glances? As much as it would be nice if violence ceased being a language of its own, if we are to explore ourselves as a species at the current time, we cannot ignore its power and its prevalence, its true terrible power. The same goes for sex.
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.
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.