The various dimensions of the relatively not so bad “Interstellar”

December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

If the Nolan brothers are right, that is to say, if they have correctly understood and applied that which theoretical physicist Kip Thorne brought to the “Interstellar” project as one of the key originators of the story concept and one of the production’s major scientific consultants, and if Jonathan Nolan learned anything whilst he was hitting the physics books in an effort to lend a degree of  credibility and rigor to the script that he was to pen for Steven Spielberg back in the mid-late 2000s (who was then attached to direct the project for Paramount), then they may very well have solved one of the central mysteries of Stanley Kubrick’s game-changing “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film whose cultural gravity “Interstellar” will find frankly inescapable. The eerily intimidating monoliths which seem to function as intellectual wormholes in that 1968 masterwork, appearing out of the blue and somehow propelling humanoid apes from Bone Age to Space Age (via moments of bravura editing and during menacingly scored sequences), have long been considered the handiwork of some benevolent Higher Intelligence whether alien or deity, if these two are even mutually exclusive; one that is for some reason invested (presumably) in the development of humankind so much so that it strategically places these knowledge-radiating/thought-stimulating objects in their midst in order that they may take much needed evolutionary steps forward. Either this, or the gleaming pillars are somehow symbolic of freakish and largely unexplained aberrations in human intellectual capacity and output of the kind that enable for quantum leaps in mankind’s status as a thinking species i.e. raw genius, eureka moments, and the like. The alternative that director Christopher Nolan and his brother and long-time writing partner Jonathan posit with “Interstellar” is probably not in the least bit novel and has almost certainly been someone somewhere’s explanation for the uncanny omnipresence and effect of Kubrick’s monoliths: the explanation being that humanity itself is somehow responsible for their existence and timely appearances; that the ancestors are in fact being guided by the descendants.  But unlike gods and extra-terrestrials, there are branches of physics which actively seek out and continue to find means by which the law-bending feats of survivalist exploration and trans-dimensional communication that take place in “Interstellar” can be explained. It’s a classic case of fiction being inspired to dream big and dream bold by the most radical and/or pioneering schools of scientific thought, and in this way it is very much of a kind with “2001: A Space Odyssey” which seemed to pre-empt the 1969 moon landing on the precedent of everything that had led up to Yuri Gargarin’s milestone 1961 trip aboard Vostok 1 and the trajectory of the Space Race thereafter. Perhaps it won’t be a mere year before humans begin sliding through space-time like mole rats and sending back messages from the future, but the latent hope present in science/speculative fiction is that it will somehow foreshadow actuality, however great the timespan between the two may be.

Following up his woeful “The Dark Knight Rises” with another “Inception”-like special effects extravaganza that indulges his obsession with malleable realities and flexible time, Christopher Nolan offers up a tale set in a frighteningly not-too-distant and very topical future where food shortage is a far greater scourge than war, presumably because Gaia is taking her last breaths after millennia of abuse at the hands of mankind. A still wiry Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA pilot/engineer turned farmer who – with his bright spark of a ten-year old daughter, Murphy – discovers a secret project spearheaded by his former employers, one aimed at seeking out a new home for earthlings. Intent on honouring his species’ age-old exploratory drive as well as securing a viable future for the human race, Cooper joins three other astronauts on a journey outside our solar system. Anne Hathaway, sporting what must be a post-“Les Miserable” head of short hair, returns to work with the British director after her memorable turn as Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Here she lends her body and her voice to the character of Dr Amelia Brand, one of Cooper’s fellow astronauts and the daughter of Professor John Brand, the chief scientist heading the “Lazarus missions” and the film’s Janus of sorts, wearing both the hat of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ at various points. As old man Brand, Michael Caine turns in the same kind of performance that Nolan draws from him in the Batman pictures: that of a painfully sympathetic idealist who sounds like he is perpetually choked-up with emotion. On a similar note, Hathaway, unlike her critic-silencing brilliance in the third Dark Knight film, seems – like most of the cast, to be perfectly honest – somewhat stunted by the didactic plottiness and afterthought characterisations of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay. The thing about Nolan pictures is that the individual performances within them which end up dazzling viewers – Heath Ledger’s The Joker and Hathaway’s aforementioned Catwoman to name but two – tend to do so in spite of a yoke-like plot threatening to strangle out much of their spontaneity. Ledger’s turn is so striking precisely because, as an actor, his ability to break free and create a character that seems to breathe in a seemingly airtight cinematic vehicle is totally and utterly simpatico with the philosophy of the character he is portraying, in that The Joker’s chaos injects something organic and accordingly exciting into the film. Sadly, the various burdens of “Interstellar” prove to be a force strong enough to stifle its largely promising cast filled with some ever dependable presences. In fact, the most interesting performance might belong, by the slightest margin, to the young actor Mackenzie Foy who plays the young version of Cooper’s daughter, Murphy, if only for the fact that her youth is something of a welcome counterpoint to the very ‘adult’ mode of weariness and tight-faced brooding that tends to suffuse this particular director’s films.

y = height = spectacle

“Interstellar” is to 2014 what “Gravity” was to 2013; no, not the space movie of the year, but the Hollywood-brand cinematic event that demands to be viewed seated in front of the largest possible screen and wrapped in the richest Dolby cocoon.  Accordingly, Christopher Nolan, being militantly pro-film (that is to say, shooting on film stock as opposed to hard drives), has commanded his flock of fans and rabid defenders – as well as the general public – to see his latest offering projected in 70mm and/or on IMAX. Living a mere hour from the world’s (apparently) largest IMAX screen, in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, there are few excuses not to choose this viewing option. Sadly, though, apart from the intimidating size of the visuals during the colossal-wave-on-a-distant-planet sequence which, combined with the physical vibrations that growled through the auditorium seats in these very moments, most likely startled hundreds of pairs of eyes and butt cheeks, “Interstellar” did not seem to benefit whatsoever from the IMAX treatment. In fact, the picture might very well be considered to have been betrayed by its own native format. How else is one supposed to interpret the feeling of walking out of an IMAX theatre wishing that they had seen the movie on an average digitally-projected screen one-third the size?

Now, it may very well have been that the projection on this particular day was for some reason lacking, but it seemed as though the visuals were almost ill-suited to the format: dark, distractingly average in resolution and often poorly focused, none of which make a lick of sense because (a) under-exposure is a complaint more frequently directed at films projected in 3D, (b) IMAX film, being 70mm and capturing images at a whopping 18K, should be the pinnacle of motion picture resolution, and (c) Christopher Nolan, while inconsistent on certain fronts, is always technically impeccable and would not overlook focal flaws.  Hyperbolic as it may sound, watching this film was at times akin to watching a pirated version projected onto a goliath of a screen. In addition, unless one is in the rearmost row, there is often an urge to scan the screen, even when seated right in the mid-axis. Were the movie more in awe of outer space, providing single long-held, panoramic shots of cosmic vistas, the act of physically panning one’s own field of vision up and down and left to right might have been warranted, even contributing to the sense that one is in fact staring out a spaceship window, glancing around wide-eyed. However, Nolan is not the kind of filmmaker to place the focus of interest on the peripheries of the frame, the result being that the eyes remain glued to the centre of the screen, creating a kind of blind-spot pan-and-scan. Most disappointing, though, is the fact that “Interstellar” is nowhere near the visual feast that it is touted as being. “The Tree of Life” would have been far more spectacular on IMAX, and not simply the ‘origins of the universe’ sequence but every spiritedly shot, swooping, crystalline image. As strange as it might sound, “Interstellar” is almost conservative (not necessarily reserved) in its depictions of space and space travel when compared to even recent films from the same corner of the sci-fi canon i.e. the aforementioned “Gravity” and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine.” The question then becomes: does “Interstellar” have any actual fuel of its own – as a cinematic event – or is it coasting on the pedigree of its cast and crew and on the expectations that the name Nolan inspires? Because it is simply not as striking – in any sense – as Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 foray into space. The fact is, the financial success of “Interstellar” is a great deal more presaged and expected than was that of “Gravity” which did decent business almost in spite of its being something of a chamber film whose technical virtuosity was oftentimes more in service of the illusion of verisimilitude (as pertains to space-travel) and fluidity of visual narrative than it was of explosive set pieces, not that the film has a paucity of action or energy. In this sense, Nolan is either more commercial or more conventional than Cuaron, or both; because the way in which the experience of space travel – of weightlessness, claustrophobic vastness, infinite silence, loneliness – is imagined in “Gravity” seems to have been a major part of its Mexican director’s agenda, as is true of Kubrick’s approach with “2001,” subjecting the viewer to lengthy stretches of silence and isolation that simultaneously astonish and exasperate. On the other hand, for a film whose ambition and grandeur has been made much of in the lead-up to and surrounding its release, it would be inaccurate – and disappointingly so – to consider “Interstellar” particularly audacious in its depictions of space exploration. Everything from the hibernation pods to the videophone to the lone man hurtling through mangled space-time…all these have found their way onto the screen in the last century.

The one singularly unique touch that Nolan and his collaborators bring to the canon of ‘space cinema’ is the moderate scientific rigor with which cosmic entities and principles such as blackholes, wormholes and temporal relativity are dramatized visually and utilised narratively. When it comes to spectacle, Nolan seems less interested in awe than he is in exhilaration, and in this way he proves to be very much a filmmaker of his time, of this particular time. He has little patience for the visual grace of weightlessness or the endless black of outer space and doesn’t bother to dwell on these, with which there is nothing intrinsically problematic. But it is surprising that a film of such considerable length, set primarily in the vast unknown and cobbled together by a crew of artisans with access to the very best in SFX, is far too preoccupied with plot and action to at least take a moment to consider the wondrous fabric of the universe. What seems to fascinate Nolan more is the violence and raw power that might exist in worlds other than ours, whether it’s the aforementioned tidal wave, the undulating and muscular tundra landscape of another, or the unforgiving enormity of a blackhole. There is this, and there is the physical impact of interstellar travel on the human body. If memory is to be trusted, many a frame is focused on the faces of Cooper and his crewmates as they are assaulted by temperamental physical forces, whether breaking through earth’s gravitational hold or being swallowed by various space holes. The helmeted close-up shot of Keir Dullea’s character Bowman as he is transported through some kind of celestial kaleidoscope to his next stage of existence in “2001” seems to be a template for Christopher Nolan, who focuses as much on the fear, the thrill and the physical strain experienced and expressed by his spacefarers as he does on visualising the actual mechanics of interstellar travel or the wonders of nature.

z =depth = heart, mind and soul

Could it be that, with “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan is making a bid to rehabilitate his image as an emotionally disengaged director? From operatically earnest moments between a father and his young daughter to dusty deathbed scenes and unexpected kisses of joy and excitement replete with paper-throwing eureka-moments, this space epic seems intent on rebutting those who scoff at its director’s reputed lack of heart and sentiment, not that “Inception” or the Batman films were themselves resolutely ascetic.

It is a fairly commonly held view that Christopher Nolan is an unemotional filmmaker, a cold filmmaker, a distanced filmmaker…what have you. Perhaps it has to do with the sense of his films having a certain degree of technical exactitude what with the finicky parallel editing he frequently employs, or the plotlines he tends to dream up, akin to elephants riding trikes along highwires. Maybe it’s a result of his exposition-heavy storytelling, or the cool, crisp slickness of his images, or the fact that he is always in a suit, pouting like a prodigious ten-year-old. And while it may be accurate that, as a crafter of narratives, he seems to be driven more by a fascination with ideas, mechanics and metaphysics (at the risk of painting him in a particularly hifalutin light) than he is by an enduring commitment to exploring and documenting the emotional dimensions of the human makeup, he is not as rigorously intellectual as – say – late Godard, and shows no evidence of being in the least bit shy of staging big emotions and big moments between characters. So conflating some perceived what-ever-it-may-be with being cerebral is a bit of a misconception, because, despite the fact that Nolan’s films are frequently considered to be ‘mind-bending,’ intellectually slippery cinematic puzzles, his work has always had a foot planted firmly in the realm of psychology and emotion. From “Following” to “Interstellar,” the foundation of Nolan’s stories have been, almost unwaveringly, damaged men seeking to rectify something in hope that it might somehow rectify them. While they might adorn an outer shell of composed, dour professionalism, the force of their inner pain and their private obsessions eventually pierces through to the surface in scenes and moments that are oftentimes unwieldy. Perhaps the issue is not so much that Christopher Nolan eschews emotion, but that his films are so beholden to plot and theme that emotion and psychology simply become tools for the progression of plot and theme. Either this is the case, or he truly has zero interest in the emotional lives of his characters and awkwardly throws in obligatory moments of ‘feeling’ in order that they might seem three-dimensionally ‘human.’ Yet, anyone who views his films even glancingly cannot deny the importance of his characters’ inners states as a motivator of behaviour and a driver of plot. The reverse narrative of “Memento” would cease to exist if Leonard was not driven by apparent devotion to his dead wife, nor would Dom Cobb’s spiralling journey into the depths of consciousness in “Inception.” Even the gritty ‘realism’ for which the Dark Knight series is notable is more than partly dependent on the relative psychological richness of its cast of characters.

McConaughey’s Cooper proudly follows in the lineage of Nolan family men beaten down by loss (usually of a wife), and he is certainly up to the task from a performance point of view, though he is more serviceable than he is outstanding. Cooper’s two obsessions, indulging the inquisitive and pioneering human spirit and ensuring a secure future for his children, are what drive him to the peripheries of aberrant space-time. Yet, as with most Nolan protagonists, there is a strange disconnect, an odd disjuncture between Cooper’s devotion to his children and his devotion to exploring the great unknown in that the former does not necessarily explain or even justify the latter. In many ways, young Murphy is shrewd in refusing to give her old man the farewell that he is perhaps hoping for: tearful but agreeable. She most likely realises that his desire to spend several years wandering the cosmos is as much to satisfy his own radical instincts (if not more) as it is to find a new, safer haven for her and the rest of their species. As is the case with most of Nolan’s films, the broody, psychologically bared nature of this his most recent protagonist comes across as a somewhat convenient launching pad for a storyline that becomes increasingly more interested in tossing around the idea that reality is made of malleable fabric and in indulging whatever visual and narrative trickery this might allow. Perhaps this is the reason for Nolan coming across as ‘unemotional:’ his desire to create formalist spectacles outweighs his desire to ‘connect.’ This doesn’t necessarily negate him as a feeling being but rather speaks to his interest in cinema as an assaultive medium, hence his fondness for Hans Zimmer amongst other things.

There is a moment in “Interstellar” which perfectly illustrates the unfortunate offhanded convenience with which emotional ‘beats’ are employed in Nolan’s oeuvre. As Cooper and his remaining crewmates debate which previously scouted planet to spend their time – and more crucially, whole earth decades – exploring, it is abruptly made known, by Cooper, that Amelia Brand happens to be in love with one of their predecessors who never returned from his voyage and who still remains lost in space but is perhaps alive and stranded on some strange world, desperately trying to make contact; and boy is the moment clunky. Regardless of how sincere Amelia’s emotions may in fact be within the universe of the film, the sudden mention of this fact comes across as unashamedly expository and a very opportune way to introduce conflict and to reinforce the fact that these characters are motivated as much by selfishness as they are by selflessness and that the two can be blurred beyond distinction, at least in the minds of those in question. The surprise celebrity cameo, which had people whispering the actor’s name in the darkened theatres and whose entrance unwittingly recalls said actor’s recent comic trope, is another graceless attempt at moral complexity and ambiguity which ironically almost ends up creating the movie’s only true villain, if one had to be named; not that his thoughts and sentiments are villainous, only his methods. In ways that aren’t quite as manifestly transparent and ‘scripted,’ “Interstellar” and the cutting edge scientific precepts upon which the story is based continue to be undercut by misguided attempts at having a credible psycho-emotional core, something that Nolan would most certainly want any of his films to have. But maybe – in a move that would seem deeply counterintuitive for a filmmaker who may be battling the image that he is ‘cold’ and lacking a ‘human touch’ – Christopher Nolan would benefit from liberating himself from the burden of sentiment, emerging as a steadfastly conceptual writer-director. Not only would his films be even more efficient, they might become more thematically sound as its creators focus on the expression of ideas rather than on the consideration and replication of human emotion. However, as things currently stand, “Interstellar” is and will remain a slightly bloated oil-and-water mixture of ideas made stagnant, if not weakened, by an insistence on their being intertwined with a human story.

x = breadth = thematic and ideological scope

‘Stay.’

This word is pivotal to the story, coded into the paranormal Morse-code message that leads Cooper and Murphy to the secret NASA site. Due, however, to an absence of hindsight and a general disregard for the fact that this simple declaration may in fact be an earnest warning from someone somewhere beyond, Cooper does the very opposite and leaves, much to Murphy’s adolescent chagrin. But with this statement, is Cooper suggesting that his past self remain with his family instead of embarking on a fool-hardy expedition, or is he pleading with humanity as a whole to forget the ‘extra-‘ and focus on the terrestrial? Like Professor Brand and the pseudo-villainous pioneering astronaut Mann (Matt Damon doing his now famous comedic stuttering cry in the previously mentioned cameo, one whose casting is simultaneously silly and somewhat shrewd), is Cooper deciding to single-handedly damn humanity to a slow, hungry death on earth simply because of his guilt over choosing the stars over his children? Whatever the answer, it is thrown into the wastebasket when the older version of Murphy, rather than heeding her father’s warnings, proves to be her father’s daughter and somehow ignores it, propelling interstellar travel to the point that it becomes mankind’s salvation, however temporarily. Thus this word ‘stay’ becomes another example of the Nolan brothers’ tendency to craft untenable emotional underpinnings which are quickly shouldered aside by plot. Unless it is a very low-key critique of humanity’s propensity to ignore the obvious or semi-obvious at the risk of its own undoing.

But, for a movie that was expected – however unfairly – to be “Avatar”-like in its revolutionary use of cinema technology, or to at least be on par with “Inception” as the ultimate thinking jock’s blockbuster, the legacy of “Interstellar” will almost certainly hinge on its attempts at scientific accuracy, with both negative and positive implications. On the positive front, Nolan and his team of wizards have single-handedly supplanted all pre-existing visuals depictions of black holes as vortexes and gaping holes in an already abysmal blackness, surprising audiences with a brilliantly haloed sphere, one which is supported by current cosmological understanding. The same applies to the film’s depictions of wormholes as being spherical rather than circular. But is this scientific verisimilitude sufficient enough, though, to outweigh the negatives that pepper “Interstellar”? Especially considering that the filmmakers seem to be conflating fact with pure speculation, following-up the accuracy of a spherical black hole with a purely fantastical depiction of what might exist within said blackhole. Of course, a great degree of artistic license must be assumed by Nolan and his people in the making of such a picture, but might it not be still a touch disingenuous for “Interstellar” to present itself as scientifically correct while being wildly speculative within the same breath? By the same token, can it be reasonably expected that a film present clear, easily comprehensible 2D or 3D visual representations of concepts that involve far more than three dimensions, ones that still boggle some of our most powerful minds;  ideas which up till now most likely only existed as densely jargoned paragraphs and unwieldy equations? Perhaps – as is the case with any artist that takes an interest in exploring and depicting those things that lie at the fringes of intellectual pursuit – misrepresentation, misunderstanding and general unwieldiness must be accepted as occupational hazards. So what with this particular depiction of the ultimate unknown? When Cooper is swallowed by the blackhole – (is he, though? Isn’t AI assistant TARS the one tasked with taking one for the team and propelling himself into the void?) – he finds himself floating around what looks like his old bookshelf on planet earth, only now repeating and folding in on itself in Escherian fashion, cascading into infinity. It’s curious that this particular space in which Cooper finds himself is based on something from his own memory: the bookshelf, the one thing which most likely remains for Murphy a souvenir of her father and his paternal legacy. In some ways this imagining of the inside of a blackhole could be considered lacking in imagination and almost obvious in its conception; obviously warped, disorienting and structurally ‘impossible’ in the way that most people would expect the bowels of this most enigmatic cosmological entity to look like, or at least as per Christopher Nolan’s mind.  Most curious, though, is the way in which Cooper is able to interact with space-time fabric, represented here as bands of light and who knows what else, able to be ‘plucked’ like strings on a double bass. Is this intended to be a visual representation of String Theory? Because if it is, it is rather cute (not to be condescending) and may be the most effective distillation of unfathomably complicated theoretical physics pulled off by this team of filmmakers. This being said, it probably does relative detriment to the narrative of “Interstellar” to pick apart the manner in which science is folded into film dough. As previously said, is it reasonable to expect that a mainstream Hollywood (expected) blockbuster depict still unresolved scientific theories in a way that is both accurate and widely comprehensible to lay audiences? Most certainly not, and on this front, “Interstellar” likely does infinitesimally little to advance  the efforts by throbbing brains around the globe to develop a theory which will hopefully unify the ever-growing number of often contradictory theories about the universe, its origins, its nature and it fate. On this note, “Interstellar” can rest easy on the fact that it contains the most accurate cinematic blackhole to date, which is something.

Even more complicated is the way in which the film deals with human self-preservation, wrestling – seemingly – with the tense relationship between individualism and communalism, selfishness and selflessness, and how these determine the Homo Sapien survivalist drive. Is Cooper’s decision to venture into deep space based primarily on a concern for the survival of mankind or is it simply spurred on by the love he has for his progeny (which is as much selfish as it is selfless considering that his genes will persist if his children do)? The murky morals of this are by far the most interesting intellectual aspect of “Interstellar,” far more than the half-baked physics. Interesting why? Well, consider the inciting incident of “Interstellar”: plague-like global famine, perhaps due to inhospitable soil and/or climates. It could be argued strongly that humanity’s overwhelming desire to survive paired with its ability to master (to some extent) its natural environment to the point of exploitation and eventual devastation is the very reason that planet earth becomes an increasingly hostile environment in which fewer and fewer crops are able to thrive. Just as a great deal of wonderful technology developed over the millennia have been tied directly to mankind’s desire to kill and dominate with efficiently i.e. military endeavours and such,  the tragedy of this species might very well be that it’s ingenuity is its undoing. The tragedy thus extends into the narrative of ”Interstellar” in the sense that humanity, wherever it finds itself next in the universe, might be doomed by the very fact that it chooses to leave the mess it has created rather than learning to clean it up. In this way, the film could be viewed as an astute political comment, a clandestine criticism of those who deny humanity’s role in raping its own home. In fact, by taking place in a future when war is an abandoned human pursuit the film somehow posits that a dying planet (one being steadily killed by humanity) is a greater threat to the survival of our species than our own violent and hateful urges towards one another.

To regress directly back to the core theme at hand: what is the morality of survival, and does “Interstellar” have much if anything to say about it? Somewhere in the middle of the film, it is uncovered that Professor Brand’s true mission is to transport human embryos across the cosmos until a habitable world is found wherein they can be fertilised to kickstart a brand new human population. His villainy is not so much that he decides to abandon the present in hope for the future but that he sends Cooper and countless other astronauts into deep space on the premise that they will be saving the present throng of people. This is true; but in many ways, Prof. Brand’s actions display a degree of insight, however cynical, into the inherent selfishness of his own species, understanding that very few would willingly support a money guzzling project in the hope of maybe finding a new home for a bunch of eggs. So, putting Brand’s deceit aside, is it possible that he – and Damon’s character Mann – are the most selfless characters in the film, ultimately sacrificing themselves (along with everyone else) for the survival of mankind, or are they just coldly utilitarian, pursuing the most practical and achievable goal? Are they extreme examples of the domineering human spirit, more interested in intellectual pursuit, scientific achievement and personal legacy than they are in the species for whose benefit these endeavours should be undertaken. It’s murky territory indeed and it must be said that “Interstellar” doesn’t really seem intent on dipping its feet in this mire, but at least these issues are raised for those who are inclined to mull over them.

t = time = narrative and motion

“Interstellar” is nowhere near as temporally fiddly as “Inception,” which is clearly the benchmark by which the narrative audacity in Nolan’s most recent picture will be and is being judged. Even while that 2010 billion-dollar box-office smash is somewhat creatively bankrupt in the way that Nolan and friends choose to depict dream consciousness – that is, physically law-defying but nowhere near psychologically bizarre – the skilful agitation with which the various ‘dreams within dreams’ are arranged and narrated in parallel fashion demands to be noticed if not applauded. In comparison to “Inception” – in fact, in comparison to most movies – the parallel editing in “Interstellar” is frankly unremarkable, and even as it peaks towards the end of the film, little brain power at all is required to orient oneself to time and place. Unless a crucial oversight is being made here, there are only ever two (or maybe three) frames of reference running simultaneously alongside one another: earth time and McConaughey time (and perhaps spaceship time); this versus the five or six timelines that are juggled in “Inception.” In addition, the fact that many of the characters in that film exist within several of these timelines without much physical distinction makes for an increasingly complicated viewing experience, especially if one if the type of viewer who must be up to speed with the narrative as the film is unfolding. It truly is surprising to hear “Interstellar” being described as mind-bending, complicated or even difficult. Sure, the physics behind much of the story is fairly novel, if not radical, and well beyond the substantial comprehension of most who are not intimately versed in relativity and quantum theory. But the Nolan brothers are populists and so too their general approach to visualising the phenomenon of time relativity. The most that is done to create the sense that time crawls for one person while hurtling for another is for a subtle bit of makeup to be applied to actor David Gyasi who plays the physicist Romilly, one of Cooper’s astronaut buddies who ends up waiting twenty plus years in the spaceship ‘Endurance’ while Cooper and Brand screw around (not sexually) on the wave planet. In truth, there is probably little more that could imaginably be done to achieve this effect; unless perhaps a split screen technique is adopted in which one half depicts Cooper and company in real-time while the other shows earth in hyper fast-forward.

Only once Nolan’s filmography is considered as a whole does it become somewhat obvious how linear and modestly paced “Interstellar” actually is. This is not an unqualified criticism either. There are passages of runtime in this film which display the pinches of restraint and patience of which Nolan is capable, qualities which have subtly set him apart from most other purveyors of silver screen hubris and excess.  Even as most of his movies move at a fairly urgent pace, replete with quick cuts, breathless exposition and scores that absolutely clobber the ears, part of the punch that a Nolan picture delivers lies is the realisation that someone has been pulling strings backstage, quietly, knowingly, in control. In the moment, his films can be almost sloppily frenetic; but underlying them is a degree of narrative fortitude and foresight, and a good grasp of how tension is built and released. Well, that patience has, to some extent, bled through into the editing and the rhythm of certain scenes in “Interstellar” and as a result the film breathes a great deal more than one might expect from something made by this director in this current phase of his career. “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” must have been hopped up on some kind of low-grade stimulant that “Interstellar” thankfully refused (most of the time) or could not afford (as if). The only problem that arises is that a rushed pace can go some ways towards smoothing out or breezing over deficiencies in other departments which, when given time to be pored over, can be ruinous. But a picture that breathes, even just a little, will open itself – its plot, its performances, every tiny goof or inconsistency –  to a heap of scrutiny, while it is being viewed, not just on further consideration. So while Nolan doesn’t seem intent on molesting as many senses as possible, the awkwardness of being an actor in one of his films becomes clear in that there seems to be a distinct paucity of spontaneity (as mentioned earlier), or even the illusion of it, in “Interstellar” amongst others. Characters are utilised as advancers of plot and any attempt at imbuing them with strokes of ‘nuance’ feels like an aside aimed at appeasing those who demand that their fictional people be ‘three dimensional’, whatever this term actually means with regards to psychological complexity. There are these, and then there are the numerous possible plot holes and inconsistencies that surface as the near three-hour runtime ticks along, including (a) why it is that astro-Cooper would send the word ‘stay’ along with the coordinates to the secret NASA site to his past self and young Murphy (unless he hopes that they would find and then somehow sabotage the place, and doesn’t count on the fact that earth-Cooper would be seduced and enticed by the idea of interstellar exploration); (b) why it is that Mann decides to prevent Cooper from returning back to earth to be with his daughter (unless his fear is that Cooper will expose Professor Brand’s true intentions and bring the wrath of the world’s population on the project); (c) why it is that a future society struggling to feed itself in an increasingly hostile physical factors opts for some sort of reflex reversion to hand-in-dirt , weather-dependent agricultural practice rather than succumbing to ‘evils’ like genetic modification and applying some space-age ambition and military gusto to large-scale crop production; (d) why it is that a director known for bringing grit and some semblance of ‘realism’ to a comic book universe finds it difficult to adhere to the simple scientific principle that a vacuum  does not support loud explosions; (e) any number of other potential nit-picks that will most certainly ensure that “Interstellar” is not forgotten all too quickly.

love = the theory of everything human (?)

One of the final shots of “Interstellar” is of a teary-eyed Amelia Brand, standing on the planet which turns out to be the final resting place for the man she loved. At the recommendation of his daughter Murphy (who is old enough to be his grandmother and old enough to be played by the legendary Ellen Burstyn by the end of the film), Cooper jets off to find Amelia, as though she is and always was his destiny. This conclusion, it must be said, is poor in conception, execution aside. Having failed to provide any indication whatsoever that Cooper and Brand see each other as anything more than space colleagues, the movie seems to expect – out of the blue – that Cooper and Brand are meant for each other, for some reason unknown or unexplored other than that which relates to their both being young, fit and attractive astronauts. Call it nit-picking, but there is something unpalatably transactional about old Murphy’s romantic suggestion, almost as though Brand is being – for want of a better word – pimped out to Cooper, perhaps because she is the only woman who is compatible with him on some grand temporal scale,.

Moving on from the above, Amelia gives her now (in)famous brief impassioned speech somewhere near the middle of “Interstellar” during which she raises, somewhat cornily, the idea that love might be, like gravity, a force that is able to transcend dimensions whether there are three as per Euclides, or eleven as in M Theory. According to her, the main drive behind all of humanity’s grandest achievements is not so much survival per se, but love; love for one’s family, friends, peers, society and – if one chooses to be cynical – oneself. Assuming that the only thing particularly problematic about Brand’s sentiment is the sentimental manner in which she expresses it (and the fact that she indulges in this moment of oratory out of sudden lovesickness), it must be said that she might be absolutely spot on; not necessarily with regards to love being some physical entity that can be factored into all manner of calculations and models, but in the sense of it being a powerful phenomenon whose true durability is frankly quite humbling. In a move that is somewhat unprecedented for a filmmaker as ‘cold’ as Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” is most consistently a film about – cheesy as it may sound – the notion that for all the intellectual potential and capacity that humans possess collectively, the most significant, most powerful driving force behind most of our endeavours is devotion to something whatever that something is, whether an individual or an idea. The film’s insistence on the affection and devotion that can exist and thrive between father and daughter or man and humanity or man and idea prevents it from being the cerebral spectacle that people seemed to expect it to be. For all its giant screen bombast, being rooted in the one emotion/state of mind that has preoccupied earthlings since time immemorial gives it a modesty that belies its form, thus making it weirdly unique in the Nolan canon. But there is a somewhat darker reading of Brand’s earnest words, one which extracts love from its place of positivity and warmth and positions it as being potentially constructive and destructive concurrently. If there is one truth which millennia of human civilisation have taught us, it’s that love is no simple matter. To be conveniently reductive, the love for oneself, one’s kin, one’s nation…all these can and have arguably been fuel for hate. And while it’s debatable whether love for one thing can in fact beget hate for another, the ambiguity inherent in this four letter word is interesting indeed. So while Amelia might wax elegiacally about the power of love, she might want to consider how much this crazy little thing has contributed to humankind’s feats versus its innumerable foibles. Perhaps the further reaches of the universe would be better off without mankind and its dangerous penchant for what it believes to be love.

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Before manhood, “Boyhood”

November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

For those as interested in artistry and artisanship as they are the resultant art – in particular, those whose ultimate appreciation of a film is in some way dependent on or at least significantly influenced by their knowledge of the process by which said film found its way onto a screen – “Boyhood” is, quite frankly, a cause celebre. Flourish or fail as it might as a film, these folk, whether in it for the geekery or the gossip, would have a wealth of material over which to froth and obsess. So if bulldozing its way onto the cultural main stage and setting tongues a-wagging and thumbs a-typing was a major goal, however knowing or unknowing on the part of Richard Linklater and his collaborators, the film is quite a success, gathering interest, amassing plaudits and netting somewhat unprecedented box-office receipts. But it may very well be that in order to appreciate and appraise this film with any measure of critical heft and incisiveness, one must first acknowledge the degree to which they are awed or unmoved by the film’s backstory.

Immediately prior to the film’s initial festival showings, when its – and this is said without any disrespect –  general ‘gimmick’ was the most interesting thing about it, it would not have been necessarily cynical to expect that, at the very least, a subset of the critical response would be positive if not hyperbolically so. By the same token, a more pessimistic hunch that this very gimmick would be the film’s undoing, that “Boyhood” would be at best an admirable attempt  at doing something not-quite/quite possibly new and at worst an artistically fraudulent exercise, would have been perhaps equally valid. But now that the film has been seen as widely as one would expect for a nearly three-hour picture without any clearly discernible plot, the unanimity of the acclaim that “Boyhood” has thus far received is almost disorienting. Sight unseen, what this film could possibly do to inspire such an outpouring of adoration was hard to imagine. Having finally seen it, how exactly “Boyhood” manages to inspire such a rightful outpouring of adoration by a means so understated is hard to break down.

While clearly an undertaking of immense patience and faith on the part of the producers involved, “Boyhood” is an out-and-out achievement from a directorial standpoint, for several reasons. One of a director’s core roles in the making of a film – particularly the ‘point A to point B, whatever the route’ narrative type, which “Boyhood” largely is – is tonal integrity. For logistical reasons pertaining to everything from actors’ schedules to location availability, the vast majority of narrative features are shot out of sequence during principal photography. So if scenes that take place in a particular location are shot one after the after regardless of where they exist temporally in the script, it is imperative that the mood, the rhythm, the tone of performance, the subtext of these scenes fit as seamlessly as possible into the overall structure of the piece once it is assembled in the editing suite. Of course, good actors know their characters’ trajectories to a tee, and there is often a script supervisor whose job it is to ensure that the screenplay (however pedantic or scanty) is adhered to as closely as is necessary for purposes of consistency, but there are countless other elements that contribute to a film’s tonal integrity and it is the director’s responsibility to develop a unifying vision with which they approach each sequence, each scene, each shot. On this front, “Boyhood” could have been photographed in five straight months. It is that seamless. For a man who thought it feasible to shoot a film in the way that he did, Richard Linklater, in conjunction with cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, was wise to limit his experimentation to using the same actors across the twelve year period because one could swear that – despite the avalanche of new formats the aughts brought – “Boyhood” was shot with the same roll of film judging by the unified quality of all the images. Looking at the picture, the camera is unobtrusive and quietly omniscient, the shot choices present things without necessarily highlighting any particular aspects of said things, and the colour scheme is as unadorned as can be, albeit well saturated and with the kind of clear-eyed shimmer that might be expected of an infant’s vision. Where many indie filmmakers overdo the ‘intimacy’ of their camerawork such that the naturalistic tone for which they seem to be aiming ends up being unbalanced and forced, the images in “Boyhood” are intimate but stately; close, but respectfully so. A more stylised approach could most certainly have been taken, but this would have likely undercut the verite nature of the project, the slice-of-life texturing that the cast and crew were presumably striving to achieve and arguably did achieve, with honours. Perhaps even more remarkably, the tonal balance Linklater manages to strike would be difficult for most filmmakers, even those with a heavily iconoclastic or idiosyncratic signature style that they rarely deviate from, let alone for a filmmaker whose output is so variegated, ranging from independent no-budget landmarks like “Slacker” to more mainstream fare like “School of Rock”. And it’s not as though he began in low-budget territory and eventually settled into a studio throne like Christopher Nolan; he continually dips in and out of either scene as well as the territory that exist between those two scenes, and amidst all this dipping and diving he was making “Boyhood.” And yet, while viewing the film one cannot easily tilt one’s head or squint one’s eye and say, ‘oh, yeah, this was probably shot around the same time that he was making “Bernie”’ or ‘this sequence has “A Scanner Darkly” written all over it.’ So if “Boyhood” proves one thing and one thing only, it is that thing for which many admirers of Linklater admire him; his chameleonic versatility.

As a film, “Boyhood” can take a very comfortable seat beside Linklater’s other major work, the so-called “Before” trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Both projects quite openly exploit the temporal nature of the cinematic medium in order to examine the (countless?) roles that human perceptions of time play in influencing the understanding of oneself, others and the relationship between oneself and others. The true indispensability of “Before Midnight” to the “Before” series rests heavily on its being about a relationship that has finally progressed from being potential to actual, one that is falling – or has perhaps already fallen – victim to the ‘damage’ that time and proximity can inflict on two people who have made the decision to love each other no matter what, but perhaps who have failed to take into account the absolutely golden fact that a relationship between two people is really a threesome, with time being the third and perhaps most vital member. In some ways, this new picture “Boyhood” is a progression on the use of elliptical storytelling so prominent in that series, elliptical as in: the drama in each one of those pictures is predicated on ellipses, which is to say that which the viewer has not seen and never will see; that which has not occurred between characters Jesse and Celine due to their living on different continents in the first two films, or that which has in fact occurred between a married Jesse and Celine but which they as individuals and as a couple have not quite dealt with. The power of those films is dependent on the length (nine actual years between the films) of the ellipses and the low-grade but potent assault on the senses that occurs when the two lovers are forced to come to terms with their expectations of each other, of themselves and of their relationship, none of which time has in any way forgotten and has in any way failed to chew away at. Well, what Linklater and company do with “Boyhood” is to shorten the ellipses by eight years, making them less robust visually and narratively (i.e. more subtle), and then to lay them down next to each other with the thinnest seams possible, the overall effect being that the influence of unseen moments on the development of a character become more insidious. Whereas in the “Before” films, in which the nine-year block that the viewer never actually sees must obviously be jam-packed with significant moments such that there is a strong element of ‘unseen drama,’ the distinction between ‘drama’ and ‘anti-drama’ is less obvious in “Boyhood” and thus more akin to life as it is lived by those of us who could be considered ‘real’ or ‘actual.’ In many ways Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick have very similar cinematic philosophies in that they seem to pay no heed to dramatic hierarchy. Malick will cut away from the ‘main action’ of a movie to focus on a prairie bird pecking at the grass, challenging the idea that Time as an omniscient entity is any more interested in the killing spree of Hollie and Kit in “Badlands” than it is in the bird’s ambling existence. Likewise, by providing a narrative which so obviously contains ellipsis after ellipsis – absences of chunks of times which may or may not contain moments of epiphany or which may or may not be of life-changing consequence – “Boyhood” undoes the dramatic hierarchy which normally elevates the spectacular above the soporific and, in doing so, reinforces the significance of ‘the moment’, a theme that ripples continually beneath the film’s surface and which is explicitly voiced in the dialogue scene that brings the picture to a close.

But if the production details of “Boyhood” are as interesting to a viewer as is knowing what Tolstoy usually had for breakfast while writing Anna Karenina is to a reader, what does “Boyhood” offer other than the novelty of beholding what is effectively a practical special effect; what star Ethan Hawke finds somewhat analogous to time-lapse photography? Are there any neon-lit revelations, observations, proclamations – spoken or otherwise – that would merit a t-shirt slogan or car sticker, or, like most of Linklater’s less mainstream pictures, is “Boyhood” more of a culture medium, an Agar plate for self-reflection, meditation and introspection? The latter is probably more accurate a description than the former. Viewed without much analysis, the picture is a very – almost boldly so – straightforward summary of a period in the life of a family as seen through the growing, ever observant eyes of young Mason Jr. By no means a highlights reel of the highest highs and the lowest lows but rather a gently undulating string of moments of varying significance that may or may not earn the central character his final moment of low-key epiphany, the film succeeds dramatically by simply trusting in the quiet spectacle of the everyday, totally in keeping with the Malickian dramatic democracy previously mentioned. Eschewing the temptation many family dramas succumb to: stealing from Southern Gothic melodrama and placing emotional blowouts and tragedy at every corner, in scripting this movie Linklater and his co-writers (that is to say his actors) understand that drama is an intrinsic aspect of every form and facet of human existence. Most people’s experiences might not necessarily inspire soaring monologues or culminate in calamitous family gatherings that leave onlookers breathless and buzzing, but for those who appreciate that simple moments can and often do contain enough food not just for thought but for a philosophical banquet, films like “Boyhood” through to more clearly avant-garde pieces like “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” are more than fulfilling; provided that the viewer sets aside a moment or two to truly ruminate on what they’ve seen and consider how it interacts with their own understanding of life.

Chewing on “Boyhood”, it is noticeable how deeply confusing and easily demoralising human temporal perceptions can be. By the time one hour of film time has been and gone it becomes obvious that Ellar Coltrane, the actor portraying Mason Jr, has aged and that several months or years of filmic time have passed (as is the case for his sister Samantha, played by the director’s daughter Lorelai Linklater), but because the march of time is not marked with title cards, a certain degree of nearly imperceptible anxiety flits around like a gnat, at least in this viewer’s gut. Consider that moment when one [in the secular West] realises that the [secular Western] year which had seemed so long on January 1st is suddenly once again preparing for the Christmas-NYE closing out bonanza. How terrifying it is to think that time can appear so slow yet progress so rapidly, and that these two states of awareness – that life is on one hand a grind and on the other a breathless hurtle towards death and immateriality – seem to rarely coexist in harmony with each other, or rather, that most people find it difficult/impossible to appreciate both of these relative truths simultaneously. It’s probably a simple matter of relativity, the kind taught in basic high school physics. Perhaps the person who can get a handle on the fact that living is like sitting in a jetliner at cruise speed – still, slow and potentially tedious in the moment but shooting through space-time from another vantage point – will find themselves in a better place emotionally than does Mason Jr’s mother Olivia at the end of “Boyhood.” Unlike Patricia Arquette’s character who – as admirable a job as she does as nurturer and breadwinner – seems to spend the duration of the film’s twelve years trying to ensure that she will one day look back and be satisfied that she ticked all the boxes, whatever these boxes might be, Mason Jr appears more content with letting life happen to him, to the point of passivity at times. Luckily, he does develop some passion, some drive to counteract his innate tendency to just chill, but is nonetheless content to enjoy the plane ride, second by passing second, rather than constantly review the flight map to see how much time is left till the next destination, the next stage in life. In this sense, Mason Jr is very much like his father, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), who on one hand appears to be the clear underachiever of the two parents but who, by the film’s closure, may very well enjoy an overall more dynamic and quite possibly more fulfilling psychic arc. Initially seeming to exist in a fishbowl of ‘moments’ whereas his ex-partner Olivia is much more aware of the general flight plan of a ‘successful’ adult life, Mason Sr, while he may not end up levitating in a state of luminescent enlightenment or swimming in materialistic success, may be the happier and more contented of Mason Jr’s parents, or at least the one who can state with some certainty that the ellipses in his personal story, while unseen by the viewer, did not go unseen, unappreciated or unlived by him. Somehow it seems that Olivia’s final outburst may have something to do with her feeling the acute loss of her own little moments, moments she may have sacrificed in order to raise a family and forge a successful career but which nonetheless add up to a nagging, ethereal sense of disappointment and anticlimax. As for the boy of the titular hood, Ellar Coltrane’s spot-on, low-key performance of the decidedly low-key character of Mason Jr (is Ellar low-key because Mason Jr needs to be low-key or is Mason Jr low-key because Ellar is low-key or does Ellar become low-key after years of intermittently playing low-key Mason Jr?) throws into sharp relief the degree to which his boyhood is a peculiar composite of two parenthoods, one sisterhood, a couple of step siblinghoods, two shitty stepfatherhoods and the childhoods of his friends and peers. For this reason, “Boyhood” is a lucid expression of experiential symbiosis as a key factor in the development of men, women and children alike. In other words: what separates Mason Jr’s boyhood from Olivia’s motherhood? Well, this movie doesn’t seem to take too much notice of any such distinction.

If “Boyhood” has one limitation though, it’s that its success as a film has an overdependence on viewer investment; and if it has one weakness, it is not the use of pop songs as a marker of date and the passage of time (though the soundtrack is far more nuanced than it initially appears to be), but that the film could be catnip for those whose appreciation of art is somehow related to how fitting said artwork is as an expression of their lives, their experiences, their milieu, their sentiments; their childhood. But even as a simple means to take one’s reminiscences and sun-drenched memories for a long walk, which unfortunately seems to be the case for too many of this picture’s champions, the film still hinges on the gentle alchemy of personal experience which, in comparison to an unseemly majority of cinematic product, cannot be that bad an outcome. Whereas many movies function by dousing audiences in sound and image, oftentimes even emotion or intimations of it, “Boyhood” seeks to draw upon whatever reserves of empathy and tendencies for reflection exist within its individual viewers. For this single feat, it earns its plaudits twofold.

“Gone Girl”: out of his sight and out of her mind

October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

“Gone Girl”, to this mind at least, offers up a half dozen or so truths, confirmations or suggestions, however one chooses to see them. Mostly, though, it offers up a film that one might be afraid to heap plaudits upon lest repeat viewings prove it to be less than it initially seemed. But, for the current moment, let’s agree that this is one hell of a studio picture.

The news that Gillian Flynn’s blockbusting literary thriller had been optioned by some Hollywood movie factory and was bouncing around pre-production purgatory was already well known when these eyes first fixed gaze upon those fast-turning pages. On completion of the book, it felt evident that the act of translating this pop semi masterpiece from one medium to another would  be an unstably tall order if not one destined to end up someplace between disaster and travesty. Even the eventual knowledge that the novelist and screenwriter were one and the same did little to abate whatever degree of trepidation existed. The fact that David Fincher would be at the creative helm did not either. With the shame of the wrongly sceptical unbeliever, it must thus be grudgingly acknowledged that Flynn, in distilling her own prose into an evidently well-oiled screenplay that makes for a damn slick picture, has clearly been paired with a director whose approach could not be more simpatico with her rhythm and tone as a writer, or at least the rhythm and tone of this particular novel of hers, the one after which the film in question takes its name. With “Gone Girl”, David Fincher, who over the last two decades has gained – whether consciously on his part or not – a reputation for being the polar opposite of loose and sloppy, remains the technically consummate filmmaker of near Kubrickian fastidiousness that both his devotees and decriers love to love and love to begrudge. Right from the montage of shots that open the film, establishing its sociogeographic context as GFC-era (presumably) Midwestern USA, namely Missouri, there is already a sense that a shrewd creative intelligence is at work, both behind the camera and in a diegetic sense.  Sure, the techno-grunge leaning that seems to come through in many of Fincher’s touchstone pictures, so aggressive yet so sleek, is not necessarily employed in this his most recent work. The overall hue of the visuals is fairly neutral as opposed to icy or acidic, and the manner in which the never flatfooted camera moves is functional, daresay modest. As for the shot compositions, they are relatively straightforward, crisp and seemingly free of anything even nearing excessive subtext or visual thematics. All in all, there is something calculatedly, stylishly everyday about the way Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth choose to visualise the morbid soul of suburbia and heteronormative small town America, and with this choice the director proves – if he hasn’t already –  that he is as beholden to his material as he is to his craft. More crucially though, had he not done so prior to this point – particularly with his perhaps over-lauded “The Social Network” – Fincher’s expository efficiency highlights the possibility that he may in fact be Hollywood’s prime teller of motion picture stories, despite his being known for style and atmospherics. Even with regards to the aforementioned 2010 Sorkin-scripted picture, the sense of it being a touch slight, of it being too much of a psychologically reductive summary, is inseparably tied to the unprecedented narrative precision for which it was understandably [over]praised.   While other studio-based filmmakers may be unmatched in their iconoclasm or psycho-emotional power, Fincher may be the only of his industry contemporaries capable of adapting Gillian Flynn’s novel to the screen while retaining and placing front and centre the narrative puppetry responsible for the source material’s very potency. Money could be bet and won on the assertion that a filmmaker like Wes Anderson, Tarantino or the Coens would have fashioned a film with a personal vision stronger than that displayed in Fincher’s version, but the art in ‘Gone Girl’ is in its ability to manipulate the machinery of plot and story, and while Quentin and the Coens are themselves masters of fucking with time and audience expectations, their noticeable idiosyncrasies would have muddied the waters to detrimental effect in a way that Fincher’s invested but dispassionate approach does not. This leads to the next fact/confirmation.  This film’s employment of voice-over debunks – as do some many films throughout cinema’s thus far short history – the rote declarations of followers of Syd Field and other self-proclaimed screenwriting aficionados who state that the technique is the refuge of the lazy wordsmith, lazy like Wilder at his best, Kaufmann, Kubrick, Godard, Malick, Truffaut, Schrader…and many other lazy, lazy idlers. What makes “Gone Girl” noteworthy is not just the persistent appearance of voice-over but the boldly matter-of-fact presence of Amy Dunne’s questionable stories and insinuations. So strong is Amy’s presence as an unreliable narrator in the novel that something would have been lost – perhaps everything – if Flynn did not retain this particular device in her screenplay in some shape or form, voice-over being her choice, and had it not been so effectively married to the visuals in the editing suite. It might not be chillingly earnest like Travis Bickle’s similar diary narration in “Taxi Driver” or bear the novelty of being from beyond the grave and thus fittingly, fatalistically omniscient like Joe Gillis’ narration in “Sunset Boulevard”, but if there is a screw loose in Fincher’s hyper-efficient picture, it’s not this. One sequence in particular displays the pure artistic balls the “Gone Girl” camp possesses. It is a prolonged stretch of pure exposition so exhilarating in its construction that it may very well wind the viewer simply because of its sheer commitment to filmmaking that may be considered counterintuitive and against ‘better judgement’. The sequence’s effectiveness is almost due precisely to the fact that it openly defies a film culture which stresses the avoidance of plainly provided narrative information, not only quite possibly committing a cinematic crime, but quite possibly getting away with it so deftly that one cannot help but be impressed. That being said, said sequence bears close similarities to others found in earlier Fincher efforts, namely “Fight Club”, so it seems that the director is simply putting to effective use one of his personal trade tricks.

Then there is Ben Affleck whose being cast as Nick Dunne is a bit – to quote Kim Dickens’ Detective Rhonda Boney – ‘meta’ and whose performance is emblematic of a key element of the film’s success. Firstly, Affleck’s casting feels a touch knowing, if one considers his public persona as compared to buddy and co-Oscar-winner Matt Damon who, with his polite, socially responsible demeanour and his self-deprecating turns on shows like “Entourage” and “30 Rock” is kind of the widely-loved ‘good guy’ that Nick Dunne (and Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne) struggles to be and would benefit from being. Similarly, Affleck as a public figure has never quite seemed to receive the courteously warm reception that Damon seems to enjoy, which is not to say that he (Affleck) strikes people initially as a ‘douchebag’ in the way that Bradley Cooper might, but that it is only as a respected director that Ben Affleck’s star has risen again somewhat, though as an actor he still doesn’t inspire much of a wave of goodwill and presumptuous affection. Maybe there’s an element of glibness about him; almost as though he doesn’t do quite enough to earn his A-list status, which isn’t true. Whatever the reason, news of his casting in this film certainly failed to excite yours truly, yours truly must admit. However, the prudently loose-limbed performance that Affleck brings to the screen in “Gone Girl” counteracts and in doing so complements director Fincher’s coolly disciplined mise-en-scene, dispelling the whiff of anti-charisma that may have unfairly hung about the actor and mirroring the way in which his character in this film reinvents himself, or at least his public persona, to some extent. It’s not a bravura piece of acting necessarily, but the everyman ‘humanity’ (read: underwhelming ordinariness and resultant sense of disappointment) he manages to inject into so tight a narrative machine which in turn helps make this silver screen iteration both thrilling and affecting must be credited to him as well as his co-stars, particularly Carrie Coon whose role as Margo Dunne – though not as involved in the movie as in the book – is quite frankly vital, and Dickens as Boney, whose integrity and clearly strong values are only just kept in check by studied professionalism, not to mention Tyler Perry’s spot-on portrayal of (fictional) celebrity attorney Tanner Bolt. Which brings us to Rosamund Pike and the most thought-provoking quandary that bubbles to the mind’s surface once the credits have rolled on “Gone Girl.”

Rosamund Pike’s turn as Amy Dunne may be considered – on the one hand – perfect, or it may be appraised as being terribly misguided on the parts of the actor and her director. The difficulty in determining which is the more accurate assessment is probably due to the fact that both iterations of “Gone Girl” may be viewed – perhaps even simultaneously – as (a) a work of realism narrated by a fanciful and quite possibly psychotic individual (psychotic in the clinical sense, not the generally misunderstood sense), (b) a satirical social commentary of sorts – or at the very least a dark comedy – whose outright garishness and absurdity ratchets upwards as the narrative progresses, with melodramatic intent, or (c) a largely literary exercise in which the medium becomes aware of itself i.e. the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, the two married writers, morphing into or revealing itself to be a story about writing, narrative and character. From the first moment Rosamund Pike appears on-screen as Amy Dunne, she has a calculated look about her, something self-consciously performative in the way that she carries herself. This sense is not eased by the very knowing voice-over narration Amy provides, which seems to carry through diegetically as she interacts with Nick and the people around her, the manner of her speech that is, not the voice-over. David Fincher’s pictures admittedly tend not to contain deeply naturalistic, mumbly performances. Rather, there always seems to be just a hint of theatricality, almost as if to remind viewers that they are not partaking of a slice of reality but a slice of a cinematic interpretation of reality. So, while the acting in “Gone Girl” is very much director appropriate, Pike’s is slightly more heightened; her speech and behaviour slightly more mannered. It could be that Amy as a person is simply like this. She is the daughter of two writers who created a series of children’s books about an exceptional, multi-talented girl called Amy whose real-life counterpart could not help but compete with, or at least try to. It’s not too difficult to imagine how this would mindfuck any child into personality disorder territory, and there is a strong implication that Amy at some point ceased seeing herself as anything other than a character and her life a narrative. Now, whether this would twist someone to the point that they, after years of matrimonial disappointment (to put it lightly), would conspire to do what Amy ultimately does is hard to know for sure. But considering that the human brain is itself a largely misunderstood, twisted mass of neuronal jelly, it probably is capable of anything as long as anything adheres to the laws of physics; so in this sense Amy Dunne’s actions are not wholly implausible. The thing about Rosamund Pike’s performance is this: was portraying Amy as an icy, outwardly crafty braniac uptown mannequin who is supremely aware of her actions a superior creative choice to – say – playing Amy as a victim of her own psychological hang-ups, which is to say on a plane of realism more in-keeping with most of the other characters in the film? Well, the more one thinks about the overall feel of the film, where it begins and where it ends up, Pike as Amy Dunne is the one consistent element, the one thing that would work to convince audiences that the insanity which eventuates is not out of the blue; she is the foreshadowing of darkness at the film’s outset and the promise of darkness to come as the movie closes out with a shot of her ‘crazy’, rested head.

But before the word ‘crazy’ is bandied about any further in reference to the character of Amy, perhaps the wrath she feels towards Nick is somewhat justified. Well, maybe not the way it manifests but the feeling in itself. The rage that is evident in both the novel and the film is one that seems to be directed at complacency; the complacency of a culture in which it is perfectly fine to douse oneself in cologne and fine-tune one’s storytelling skills prior to a hot date while it is equally acceptable to smell like sweat while lazing about at home after having convinced aforementioned hot date that you’re…extraordinary. It seems as though Gillian Flynn, in writing the novel and scripting the film, has found a way to explore how important or at least how pervasive narrative and character are in ‘everyday’ life and especially in relationships; how even the dullest marital union is a creation of sorts and how, as a result, it is everybody’s responsibility to maintain the image, to keep the plot rolling along and prevent the storyline from stagnating. Maybe it’s a total coincidence on Flynn’s part that Amy and Nick are both writers, and that their initial meeting and flirtation involves them flexing their wit, assessing each other’s smarts and revelling in their presumed perceptive abilities, but what better way to dramatise the narrative of a relationship that to have both parties be writers, and laid off ones at that? If Amy’s diary entries are to be trusted in the slightest,  one would have to admit that the trajectory of their courtship and eventual engagement is very written; the kind of story many people would love to script for themselves, complete with a cloud of frosting sugar in a dark alleyway as the setting for the classic first kiss. If Amy’s memory of this event, and their romance in general, were to be confirmed by an objective, omniscient entity, it would have to be said that both Nick and Amy were very aware of the story of their romance. To side with Amy, if Nick has it in him to dazzle her, why is it that when they pack their bags and move to Missouri he goes from being “Tender is the Night” to TV guide, especially considering how much of an effort she apparently makes to remain ‘literary?’ It’s enough to make anyone do what Amy ends up doing, right? The point in saying this is that David Fincher, on the basis of the film he has directed, on account of his opting to have Amy reach into the audience and attempt to wrench clumps of sympathy from viewers hearts by way of her very direct narration and her knowing presence, may very well be siding with Amy, not that he has anything against Ben/Nick, but that Amy’s grand plot, deranged as it may be, has more than a lick of honesty about it. Plus, Fincher has long been known to entertain the plights of the sick and the perverted (the media machine included, though an analysis of “Gone Girl”s take on the politics of press and public image should be sought elsewhere), like a psychiatrist who is comfortable delving deep into dangerously complex minds because they have the thick, safe rope of professionalism and clinical judgement tied tightly around their waist. They have their medicine; Fincher has his cinema.

Forget sexinema, here’s cinempathy: a brief appeal for a more active viewership

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.

Sexinema

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.

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.

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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