September 19, 2016 § Leave a comment
That it took 12 years for Alain Guiraudie, a French filmmaker, to find his way onto the Cannes Croisette is a matter of niggling curiosity. Between his first mainline* Cannes entry, the sublime, erotic thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013), and this delicate 49-minute slice of dreamy realism, Guiraudie directed three features, none of which I have seen and none of which received even a droplet’s worth of the acclaim showered upon his 2013 picture. It would be interesting to discover whether the mid 2000s was indeed an artistic trough, or simply neglected. What can be said with some confidence, though, is that the Bressonian visual elegance Guiraudie displays in Stranger by the Lake is very much on show in That Old Dream That Moves. With a keen eye for borderline bland locations, Guiraudie and cinematographer Emmanuel Soyer turn a dilapidated factory into a cathedral of fragile masculinity and unspoken desire. This brisk but patiently told tale centres on an industrious technician named Jacques who arrives at a factory that is being closed down, tasked with disassembling a particular (and at times phallic) machine in preparation for transportation to a new home. While the regular employees laze about, contemplating their pending unemployment and channeling their fear into petty squabbles, Jacques goes about his business with a certain intensity only to be courted ever so gently by two older ‘heteronormative’ men, Donand and Louis, both of whom may only just be discovering or coming to terms with their own wants and needs. At this point a vital voice in international queer cinema, Guiraudie’s approach to sexuality is neither combative nor yielding. While Jacques does not declare his preference for men on arrival, he neither bends over backwards to conceal his sexuality or rebuff advances. In a strange way, his unshowy matter-of-factness is a challenge to Donand and Louis, daring them to either make a move or make a run for it. If one is to go the allegorical route, Jacques’ role in decommissioning the factory could even position him as an angel of sexual rebirth, spurring his suitors to shed their old skins as they will their old jobs. Like low tide, this very social realist picture quietly presents its central ménage à trois (of sorts) in a manner that suggests the groggy period after an afternoon nap, accentuated by the use of muted tones, diffuse light and soft shadows, and still, boxy framing. At its modest length, That Old Dream That Moves qualifies as a feature film according to Anglo-American standards, while it is nine minutes shy of being a feature in its homeland, having been nominated for a Best Short Film Cesar in 2003. By either standard, though, it is without doubt a great film.
* Giuraudie’s 2009 picture The King of Escape premiered in that year’s Directors Fortnight sidebar
June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
At first it might be somewhat surprising to think that this little known Austrian film from 1983 – little known probably on account of it having widely received X-ratings in most jurisdictions and maintained them for so long – isn’t more frequently cited as one of the greats of the horror genre, because in many ways it is. But it only takes a second’s recollection of what it’s like to actually sit through this supremely unsettling work to realise why it’s not featured on more ‘top however many’, ‘greatest’, and even ‘best you’ve never heard of or seen’ lists. Even perennially revered – and rightfully so – films like Tobe Hooper’s original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Exorcist” have elements of perverse excitement to them and moments that are bound to thrill. The former evokes a very grindhouse, very drive-in, so-wrong-it-must-be-right sense of fun while the former is scandalous in a prestige way that would have surely found audiences leaving theatres talking in hushed but excited whispers, saying, ‘oh my God, did you see what she did with that crucifix?!’ Plus the outstanding art direction in “Chainsaw Massacre” manages to wring a garish, primal kind of beauty from the ugliest subject matter, acknowledging that Leatherface is – like it or not – an artist of the macabre. Fact is, even the most artistically ambitious of horror classics – those that would stand up as great pieces of cinema period – even these would get a bunch of friends excited for a weed-laced re-watch session. But not for a second viewing of “Angst”; surely no one can get excited for that…unless maybe intellectually. In a literal sense, few movies could possibly be expected to approach the level of pure horror that this piece, directed by Gerald Kargl, manages to reach. It would not be at all shocking if it turned out that Kargl’s feature filmography is so tiny on account of him descending into a prolonged nervous rut after having made this movie, which would certainly not bode well at all for the actors, especially not Erwin Leder who plays the lead and who hopefully received a good long debriefing at the close of shooting. Sure, there are piles of movies – especially of late – that are quite content to drown a viewer in violence, gore and dementedness, but the trick to these and the reason that they can be digested by scores of blank faced teens who groan-laugh/laugh-groan ironically at each gratuitous kill is that there are formal elements to these scenes which actually end up blunting the potency of their unpleasantness, or at least distracting from them. It’s the same reason big-budget action tent pole releases that involve scores of people being mowed down with automatics are deemed fit for consumption by thirteen year olds whereas a film like “Irreversible” is quickly shuffled into a containment chamber as though it were Bubonic Plague. In short, presentation is perhaps more important than content when it comes to determining how said content is received, and with “Angst” the presentation is downright nauseating, in the most bravura way possible.
The aforementioned Leder, almost Nosferatu-like in the way that he skulks, plays – with troubling brilliance – a convicted murderer on the day of his release from prison after serving a decade long stint for ending an old lady. Adopting a drolly confessional voice-over narration reminiscent more of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” than something more sordid, the film follows this nameless individual whose first instinct on leaving prison grounds is to find someone to off. He is not only unapologetic and relentless in his pursuit, but he does not display any signs of self-questioning, any indication that he wonders why exactly he has these urges and what purpose submitting to them might serve. Almost as a knowing dig by the filmmakers at the rehabilitation/correctional process in which incarceration is supposed to play a major part, Leder’s character mentions off-hand that prison is where criminals are meant to learn how to be better people, which he says while clearly anticipating his just-got-out-of-prison celebratory slaying. For the next seventy minutes the viewer is subjected to a uniquely photographed portrayal of what it may be like to submit oneself utterly to a force so powerful it might seem like a divine calling, or a curse. Watching this film, it makes complete sense that the man who directed “Enter the Void”, Gaspar Noé, reveres this film alongside “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Shot by Zbigniew Rybczynski, “Angst” features immediately distinct use of very high-angle tracking shots, almost god’s eye (or devil’s eye) views of the main character as he walks down the street and around and through buildings. These shots basically pre-empt the kind of visual aesthetic utilised in certain role-playing games like the “Grand Theft Auto” series or even “The Sims,” the kind used to emphasise how much of a pawn each character in the game is; how much they exist to satisfy the entertainment desires of the gamer. Then there is the virtuosic use of a camera mounted on the actor himself – the kind used to such memorable effect in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, virtuosic here because the camera is a great deal more mobile that would be expected for a piece of apparatus fixed to a moving body. It (the camera) seems to swivel around him, as though the viewer is invited to assume the position of some demon that hangs around like a fly, attracted to the junkie-like desperation evident on his face and in his manner. In combination, these two techniques create a powerful sense of, well, many things: that this man’s physical body is at the utter mercy of his psychological obsessions, that he may be subject to out-of-body-experiences, that he may in fact be the tool of evil forces and spirits, that he is so removed from statistically normal human psychology that the ‘usual’ shots simply won’t suffice. But all this visual artistry, unlike other films in the horror canon, does little to shield or distract from the oppressiveness of the sequences being presented. “Angst” is simply not fun to watch despite wall-to-wall admirable visual flourishes, but it is plenty powerful and it is horrific through and through which is more than most supposed horror films can claim with sincerity.
So is “Angst” some sort of psycho-killer apologist statement? Probably not. There is – on display in the film – evidence that the filmmakers are curious about what exactly it is that enables someone to commit and recommit such acts of staggering violence with diminishing levels of awareness and an inability to view their behaviour in a context outside of their own needs and fantasies. Ultimately, there is the implication that the killer in this movie and similar individuals are in the throes of some kind of debased anxiety disorder, or that their pathology at the very least has strong components of anxiety of the kind that plagues true obsessive-compulsives who feel that they simply must do this or that in order to alleviate the overwhelming sense that all will not be well unless they carry out this or that. It’s terrifying to think that there are people in these particular psychological prisons, and perhaps more terrifying to think that – if faced with such an individual who has it in their mind that they must kill in order to simply feel…okay – nothing could in fact be done to dissuade them from stabbing you into oblivion. It should be said, however, that Leder’s unnamed character is perhaps more than just a victim of his vices. There are clear indications that he enjoys and cherishes what he does, though there are also moments of clear self-disgust and repulsion, for example his bout of dry retching after he has absolutely skewered the young lady and lapped up her blood in a deeply sexual manner in what must be one of the grimmest, most repulsive scenes of violence ever committed to film. The movie which comes closest to “Angst” in capturing the frankly sickening, ‘everyday’ quality that murder might have in the eyes of someone whose life is dedicated to it is “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, an inevitable comparison and a film that probably supersedes its Austrian counterpart on account of it simply being far more watertight and practically perfect. Where “Angst” falls short of undisputed horror ‘glory’, if that is even the right word, is that portions of its apparently famous score (which is said to be more well-known than the movie as a whole) seems to be attempting to express a panic and disorientation that the visuals on their own suggest fairly successfully. There are two of three moments in which this drum-heavy stretch of cheeseball-80’s-action-score music appears, but these are mercifully few in a film that does not dish mercy out all that generously (at least not to humans, though adorable brown Daschunds seem to be an exception) .
May 26, 2015 § 1 Comment
Twenty minutes into Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s electro-scored 2001 pseudo-Wong Kar Wai pastiche (pseudo as in ‘seemingly, but not at all’), I’m convinced that Millenium Mambo is not the most ideal introduction to a filmmaker who is revered in the cinephile world to the point of being considered – by some – to be our greatest living filmmaker. This series I am embarking on should one day provide sufficient context with which I can/may judge such a haughty, hyperbolic appraisal, but for the moment, or more specifically, in the instant that this picture cuts to black and the credits begin to roll, I am convinced that this man Hsiao-Hsien has – in the last quarter of a decade – almost certainly made something that I will see and whole-heartedly adore (based on his general aesthetic, his pacing, his framing), but that this his meditation on youth…or time…or romance…or all three…or none at all, Millenium Mambo, is just not it. Starring the open-faced and stunning Qi Shu as Vicky, a young Taipei bar hostess in the grip of a serious case of post-millenial ennui and a very Gen Y brand of entitled aimlessness, Millenium Mambo is thematically comparable to an Antonioni picture whose characters aren’t able to articulate even to themselves why they may be so dissatisfied with everything, which is to say that there is precious little to intuit in the faces, the movements, the essences of Hsiao-Hsien’s characters, and that whatever little there may be in the way of motivation isn’t readily apparent. These individuals are defined not by words or plot-propelling actions but by the most fundamental modes of behaviour; by the way that they hold themselves when alone versus while in the presence of others; by their decision to pull out a cigarette and smoke it, when they choose to smoke it and how deeply. Honestly, the smoking in this film makes it something of a throwback to the aloof sixties and anxious seventies. On the surface, Vicky has every reason to hate her immediate situation (torn between a frankly diseased relationship with a head case DJ boyfriend and an older gangster suitor; being dissatisfied with her line of work etcetera), but her inertia is almost masochistically silly. Yet this is not so much a slight against the film as it is a slight against the character of Vicky in whom the director and his writer Chu Tien-wen nonetheless invest a generous amount of patience and interest, which they have every right to do whether or not you or I find her as compelling an entity as they do. As previously implied, this film seems to eschew story (almost aggressively so) in favour of mood and spatial intimacy, and with the druggy, roving, saturated image Hsiao-Hsien and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin achieve with what seems to be a fairly long lens, Millenium Mambo concocts the oppressive sense of longing for something unknown and undefined but almost certainly better than what is presently at hand, which may very well describe Vicky and her fellow characters. And perhaps myself as a viewer and beholder.
December 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
Like a tide lapping the sand and then retreating, Claire Denis’ 1999 dusty gem of a movie “Beau Travail” – translated as “Good Work” – dips in and out of a man named Galoup’s memories of his final days as a Sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, in command of a young outfit of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, a tiny nation wedged between Eritrea and Ethiopia and Somalia. It also documents his brewing hostility and hate for a young new cadet called Sentain of whom he is envious, which he shamelessly confides to us, the viewership.
You see, Galoup’s narration punctuates the entire picture, part reminiscence, part journal entry, part amateur poetry. Early on, the palpable bitterness he exudes is striking, not only in his words, but in his voice and later, in his actions. You hardly hear the man speak directly to any of the other characters for the film’s 90 minute duration, but it’s telling that the few times he does seem to come from a place of deep resentment and inner imprisonment. In fact, twenty minutes will pass before dialogue of any consequence or narrative importance is uttered, and one would estimate that all in all there are roughly ten/fifteen minutes of dialogue, if that. But Claire Denis has no qualms inserting shots, snippets and scenes of civilian life, seemingly unrelated to the film’s central focus if only for the sake of contrast. Denis grew up on the continent, and her camera (helmed by a masterful Angés Godard) shows a certain fondness for its people. Some local women are talking shop over some rugs and mats while another group of local women have fun watching a lanky technician hug a telephone pole, mock fantasising, it seems, about the other pole between his legs. In the background, Galoup ruminates with a mixture of disdain and devotion on the nature of routine, his, theirs, the general ubiquity of it. A local nightclub is the one place where routines unite, becoming something of a ground for mating rituals. The girls dance, the legionnaires stalk, Galoup lands himself a cute young local booty-call whom we see every so often. It’s doubtful whether he has much interest in her, but at night there he is, standing and smoking, watching her do her thing, her ritual.
Having never read Herman Melville, it’s nonetheless interesting to discover that his unfinished Billy Budd, a novella about the antagonism between a charismatic, orphaned seaman and an officer, is the basis for this movie. A handful of scenes depicting the young legionnaires engaged in what can only be described as French military Tai Chi are lent a sense of gravitas, perhaps even a camp majesty, as they play to extracts from composer Benjamin Britten’s mid-century opera titled…“Billy Budd”. The choral incantations are effective in evoking something; whatever it might be, one can’t be entirely certain. Somehow, it’s likely that this flourish forces a viewer to see things through Galoup’s eyes. As much as his service might exhaust him, it’s all that he has. He very early on declares himself to be – quote – ‘unfit for civilian life’. So to him, what might be a dusty, sweaty exercise becomes – must become – a kind of ballet, some breed of modern dance; transcendent. You can see that in these moments Galoup is where he is supposed to be, in the midst of his boys, topless, in the Djibouti sun. He has purpose. On the topic of music, there are some very – one hesitates to say “cool” – soundtrack choices in this film. Not many of them, but each quite memorable. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Oliver N’Goma, Corona – disparate styles, all underscoring their respective scenes to a perfect tee. And lest it ends up forgotten, the brooding, subterranean score by Eran Tzur adds a menacing surrealism that is difficult to shake. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the wind in Djibouti smokes Marlboros and slams down whisky.
Make no mistake, a substantial chunk of this movie quietly watches Galoup and his company engage in training exercises, and believe it or not, it’s riveting stuff. Throw in the sparse coastal setting, gorgeous in its arid simplicity; add the camera, like a little girl let loose amongst men, at times coming in for curious close-ups, other times gazing from a distance during moments of lapsed attention or whimsy. Shades of azure and tan fill the screen. Rows of round shaved heads back a blue sky. And boy do the scenes have rhythm, not just the ballet grills but everything. Denis is renowned for the ebb and flow of her films, the unique pacing. “Beau Travail” is in no hurry to get anywhere, but it certainly knows where it’s going. It might take its time, but calling it slow is like calling a circling condor confused. If you allow yourself to admire its grace, you soon become transfixed by it, hypnotised. Hell, this writer’s breathing patterns fell under the spell. It’s that kind of a film. One might hesitate to call it Malickian, but anyone familiar with the works of Terrence Malick will begin drawing parallels within the first five minutes.
Sentain is the titular Billy Budd. Quiet, handsome, heroic and well-liked by his peers, he arouses Galoup’s loathing. Some would say he arouses a little more than that, hence the loathing. Much is said about the homoeroticism that simmers within and beneath “Beau Travail” and it’s hard to dispute its presence despite very little being stated or presented overtly. But, frankly, is it anything more than the homoeroticism implicit in almost every war picture? Perhaps, in the absence of actual warfare and a good deal of clothing, this aspect of military life is given license to come to the fore. And for those who depend on a tangible plotline, the ‘relationship’ between Sentain and Galoup is the closest you’ll get, but towards the end some pretty interesting shit goes down. The only other ‘main character’, Commander Bruno Forestier, is a curious one. Galoup seems to harbour a measure of fondness and respect for him, but it seems the Commander couldn’t care less. He is content to just laze about watching nothing unfold, giving the impression that his benevolence is really just resigned passivity.
“Beau Travail” is exactly the kind of movie that grows on you like an oddly pleasant after-taste. It should be experienced as opposed to simply seen. Really, it’s the work of a poet whose pen and paper are in fact a camera, a handful of actors and some choice tunes. Being this writer’s first Denis film, one who’s been dying to get into her work sooner or later, “Beau Travail” is an entrancing initiation ceremony, as entrancing as the random dancing that peppers the picture.
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.