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 22, 2014 § 1 Comment
It’s interesting to revisit a film whose first and only viewing was so seminal a moment in the viewer’s life that it was and has been considered an unwavering favourite in the viewer’s mind for years. Interesting in that those elements which initially seduced and bewitched on an almost purely sensual and intuitive level are now approached with an invariably analytical eye. Now that the packaging has been duly admired and fawned over, it’s time to see what’s inside, which in truth would be an erroneous assumption seeing as, with this and many of Antonioni’s subsequent films, form is function. On seeing “L’avventura” for the second time, the images are appreciated for more than just their crystalline beauty but for their role in externalising the interior, in being the visual analogue of the kind of spare modernist prose that can in a few choice words paint a terse yet lucid and eerily precise impression of a character’s essence, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise. Sure, the descriptive density may be low, but the accuracy of the few afforded descriptors is high, and higher still, their suggestive and implicative capacity. Similarly, the physical expanses and edifices, photographed with a challenging degree of patience, double as both the external world in which the characters materially exist and the mindscape in which so many find themselves so hopelessly lost. It’s not enough to view the physical world in “L’avventura” as being symbolic or expressive of the psychological; it is the mind of the characters that inhabit it.
The languid pacing, while often testing, is a deeply ingenious way to induce not only a meditative disposition in the viewer, but a state of mind which mirrors that of the characters in the film, characters cursed with an excess of leisure time so great that they are wont to spiral ever deeper into a vortex of their own inner conflict and despair. Rather than providing the viewer a comfortable boxed seat high up in the stadium from which to view Claudia and Sandro struggle with their dual allegiances to tradition and (at the time) counter-conventional modernity: the concurrent desire for externally prescribed fulfilment and that which is self –determined, Antonioni the director thrusts the viewer onto the lonely emotional playing field alongside the characters he has created and demands that they, that we, play as much a role in this game of the soul as does he, as do his creations. There are probably only two ways to view this film: complete engagement or complete disengagement. As a piece of cinema, this does not suffer the passive patron. It does not give unless given to, which is to say, offered one’s patience and capacity to empathise, or at the very least analyse. What also becomes clear is the artistic shrewdness inherent in the decision of screenwriters Antonioni, Bartolini and Guerra to shoot existential turmoil through the lens of sex and romance, or at least the quest for it. There is perhaps no aspect of the human existence that highlights our perennial state of fickleness, insecurity and confusion quite as unforgivingly as that which relates to the figurative heart and the literal genitals. Contained within and symbolised by the shifting romantic fidelities and sexual scruples of “L’avventura’s” central couple, the decisions and indecision and seesawing between neediness and stubborn yet fragile independence (particularly on the part of Claudia) is – to paraphrase the title of critic Pauline Kael’s disparaging assessment of Antonioni’s follow up to “L’avventura”, “La notte” – ‘the sick soul of Europe.’ The most surprising realisation reached on second viewing, however, might simply be that this film, for all its visual and thematic intensity and brooding, has scattered throughout it instances of dry humour of the kind used by deeply sad people to throw others off their depressive scent. These moments, while able to evoke a smile, a chortle or even just a transitory levity, only serve to highlight the pain belying the pleasure.
But of all the things which stand out on repeat viewing, the film’s final gesture, that of Claudia placing a hand on the head of a seated, weeping Sandro (whom she has just discovered being unfaithful to her on a sofa with a young married starlet), is suddenly a great deal richer than it initially seemed. On first viewing this action bore the scent of forgiveness. This is not to say that she doesn’t forgive him for his infidelity, granted their relationship is itself built on infidelity and the flimsiest foundations; the hand on the head could and probably does encompass a wide range of implications, and Claudia may very well be doing it for various reasons, some perhaps unbeknownst to her. But of all the possibilities, it’s tantalising to imagine that Claudia is perhaps welcoming Sandro, welcoming him to the realm of insight that she and Anna before her have been wandering through, or at the very least the realm of acceptance of the fact that something is not quite and has never been quite right with the state of humankind and with themselves. It should not be forgotten that Claudia is herself in tears when Sandro appears on that rooftop. Her distress may be related to simple betrayal, or regret for her belief, however fleeting, that something durable may have existed between Sandro and herself. Yet when she sees that Sandro, who has hitherto displayed only the slightest bit of self-reflection, is not only contrite but is clearly in the throes of an abrupt realisation that his soul is a void which will not simply be filled by sexual approval and conquest, she is relieved for his sake, though mutedly so. If the film’s central triumvirate of Anna, Claudia and Sandro are at different points along the road to modern self-actualisation, Anna is furthest along, her deep sense of crisis at the film’s outset and her eventual demise or rebirth (whichever the viewer chooses to believe she has suffered/undergone) being the catalyst for Claudia’s own existential awakening, and Sandro’s moment of painful clarity.
So is that the crux of Antonioni’s film: to beautifully, elegantly dwell on the misery of a subset of a subset of a species, one in helpless ontological crisis? Maybe. Perhaps it is a comfort to the average viewer to see that to be simultaneously beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed does not preclude one from suffering pain of a type unique to a beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed existence, which is probably not true. The pain most likely traverses all borders: racial, social, gender, class, aesthetic. “L’avventura” clearly has no answers, no truths or revelations that will guide a person down the path of true happiness and self-fulfilment, nor does it seem in the least bit interested in providing such unequivocal nuggets of self-help gold. If there are to be found in the film, this viewer certainly missed them. But one thing seems apparent; Sandro’s tears are as much a sign of discovery and personal growth as they are of anguish. Perhaps in this moment Anna has finally been found, somehow.
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.
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.