The pleasure (and pain) of expression: an interview with Benny Safdie
October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
Having been tasked with writing a feature article for Melbourne International Film Festival – as part of my previously mentioned involvement in the 2015 edition of Critics Campus – I initiated the process by dutifully poring over my personalised viewing schedule in the hope that random groupings of films would serendipitously reveal a common theme worthy of investigation or mansplanation. Well, a theme did not present itself so much as the sobering realisation that, of all the screenings I had booked on my festival pass, approximately zero were documentaries.
This bias in favour of fiction – on screen and on the page – seemed tailor-made for a confessional self-interrogation in which I challenged my own supposed aversion to non-fiction filmmaking. Yet, on further reflection it became obvious that this aversion was not directed at documentary (as a branch of cinema per se) as much as it was at a seeming majority of documentary films that are convinced of their own factuality, to the point of formal malaise; or rather, films that fail to appreciate the inherent subjectivity of the cinematic medium.
While this stance did not (and does not) in any way justify the inanity of depriving oneself of outstanding work in protest of the presumptuous and formulaic (equally true of fiction films), it possessed sufficient ideological fuel behind it to warrant further inquiry, not least because the Safdie brothers were guests of MIFF 2015 on account of their newest film Heaven Knows What being in the official selection as part of a retrospective of their work to date.
Why the Safdie brothers? Well, Josh and Benny Safdie are two New York filmmakers whose work drifts incessantly between the realms of the actual and the imaginary. Heaven Knows What is a fictionalised recounting of an actual individual’s experiences, with said individual (Arielle Holmes) playing a fictionalised version of herself. However overstated the novelty of this may be in the press and publicity spheres, especially as the film travels the festival circuit and rolls out globally, it is an undeniably uncommon approach which knowingly draws attention to the emotional and expressive purpose of storytelling and of cinema, for both the performer and the audience. Interestingly, the film’s screenplay is adapted from Holmes’ self-authored memoir which begs the question: where did the fictionalising actually begin? Either way, John and Benny Safdie have been melding fiction and fact long before Heaven Knows What. Their previous ‘fiction’ feature Daddy Longlegs aka Go Get Some Rosemary similarly draws on the experiences of individuals who in fact existed (and still do exist), while their feature debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed utilises the streets of New York City (and possibly Boston) in a way that is utterly non-staged and which – as a result – frankly borders on what one might call documentary. Oddly enough, the blending of the fictional and the real somehow enhances the drama of the former while feeding into the curious thrill of seeing factual ‘reality’ projected onscreen. And of course, one can’t forget the Safdies’ documentary feature Lenny Cooke which actively challenges the idea that the documentary form is or should be subject to certain expressive limitations. In short, these filmmakers were the perfect guys with whom to discuss fact, fiction, and filmmaking, and where these three intersect.
Needless to say, I was lucky enough to speak with Benny Safdie on August 1st. My feature article for MIFF Critics Campus was fashioned around a heavily edited and truncated version of this interview, but what follows is the full transcript, excluding my personal introduction to Benny which was essentially a compressed version of this very preamble. Enjoy.
Tope Ogundare: You mentioned hybrid films in an interview with The Dissolve (the sadly now defunct online publication). Does that mean you make a distinction between documentaries and fiction films?
Benny Safdie: Well, it’s difficult because the thing is…Heaven Knows What, I guess, would be kind of the ultimate hybrid film. We’re taking a real person and having her re-enact parts of her past. In this case, it’s not a hundred percent fact, but it rings emotionally true, you know? I think that’s the most important thing. Did you see our documentary Lenny Cooke?
Actually, I have seen it. It’s great.
That’s another instance where there are a lot of things that are constructed and changed to get at the overall truth. [Werner] Herzog called it the ‘ecstatic truth.’ Josh [Safdie] says ‘you always have to lie to tell the truth.’ That’s true, you know? Sometimes real life isn’t as interesting as it seems when you experience it, so, if something happened to me and I tell you exactly what happened to me, you might think, ‘oh, that’s boring.’ But if I change it and I make it more exciting at certain parts and I lie, you will feel exactly what I felt when I went through it. That’s kind of blurring the lines of reality and truth, but at the same time it’s making you feel what I felt, and that to me is real. I think the main issue with documentary films is…there’s this kind of – um – false sense of…
Well, yeah. Objectivity’s such an important topic to breach. The only thing that’s objective by nature is a security camera. If I see a security camera that’s subjective, it makes me think that something bad’s going to happen. I think that maybe the documentaries that come closest to objectivity are those on The History Channel, or some random thing about the government playing on the television. Or if there’s no feeling and no emotion and it’s just a straight document of a certain topic. That’s what most people think of when they think ‘documentary’. But – like – some of the best documentaries by Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, or D.A. Pennebaker…there’s a lot of work going into those to make them seem effortless. But that work is filmmaking, and I think when you see something….when you make a documentary that transcends recording, it just becomes a movie, and a movie is a movie…is a movie. So, I don’t like the distinction between documentaries and fiction films because it kind of diminishes what some documentaries have the ability to do. There are some documentaries where you’re just watching them to get information and audiences go in with the mindset of ‘I’m going to learn something about this.’ But then you see Senna, and it’s a completely cinematic experience. It’s this beautiful use of archival footage and there’s manipulation going on, but at the same time it’s telling you a story, and it’s telling you a story in the best way that it can. That’s what a movie is.
You mentioned that the documentary community didn’t really embrace Lenny Cooke.
(Benny Safdie chuckles)
…that they thought you were doing something wrong. What exactly could you have done to make Lenny Cooke more respectable or appreciated?
It felt like there was some sort of documentary mafia. Granted, making that film was a lot of learning for us. We worked with one editor but it didn’t work out and I had to take over and edit the film, because I knew where it needed to go, but the main issue was that there was a lot of manipulation with the footage, and there was a lot of manipulating of the timeline. And these are all things that you just don’t do in documentaries. You do that in fiction film because you can, and it gave me nightmares personally when I was going in and changing these things. But it wasn’t affecting how you looked at Lenny in any way. It was more about getting you to feel from his point of view. But the elements I was manipulating are considered the law in the documentary world, and if you’re treating them in this way, they say it’s a slippery slope. But it’s this kind of combination of journalism and documentary that kind of makes it difficult.
Lenny Cooke didn’t get into any documentary festivals. It didn’t get any respect as a documentary, and it was strange to me because we felt we really did justice to Lenny and his story, which had rarely been told. It’s reflected in how people respond to it, but it had to get out there in a different way, and it had to do it outside of the documentary community. There is this tendency to say ‘okay, you need to do things in a documentary responsibly.’ This kind of leads to a different branch of movies. I think that the perfect example is Citizenfour. I went into that movie saying ‘okay, this is going to be a standard documentary about what [Edward Snowden] did. But watching it and realising that it’s the direct experience of this guy who’s doing something that he’s frightened to do, and that the film is a once in a lifetime chance to see this kind of thing first-hand…and watching the way [director Laura Poitras] treated the subject, and the way she edited the film and worked the material…it was a movie. We’re caught up in what he was doing, but at the same time it gives you an insight into what was happening in the real world. Plus, the movie had an effect on actual policy. But that was because it wasn’t something you could just write it off as ‘just some left wing propaganda.’
She apparently hired an editor (Mathilde Bonnefoy) who had previously worked on thrillers (i.e. Run, Lola, Run and The International). She was clearly trying to utilise that sort of approach even though she was telling a factual story.
Of course. The fact is we were fiction filmmakers [when beginning work on Lenny Cooke]. We didn’t expect to ever make a documentary, and when Adam Shopkorn the producer approached us, we thought: ‘well, is there something in this with which we can express ourselves, or at least really express some ideas?’ And there was. It was interesting because we had to figure out how we were going to take this all camera footage that he had captured over three weeks and turn it into a collection of scenes, and create a cinematic experience with it. But once we realised we could do that, it led to a lot of interesting choices, for example, with the [time travel] special effect where he talks to himself at the end.
Was that one of the big issues? Is that one of the things that people didn’t like? Because it’s one of the best parts of the movie.
A lot of people said, ‘well, that’s not okay.’ A lot of people were saying, ‘we already knew that; you don’t need to do something like that to make the point.’ But you do, you know?! He needed it for himself, and we needed it for the film, to take it to the next level; to really bring it to this new place. And it was important. But it was something that people thought wasn’t okay. That it was something you don’t do in a documentary. We were just operating under the principle of ‘how do we best tell this story?’
The BFI (British Film Institute) came out with this list of 50 documentaries that a lot of documentarians and film writers/thinkers chose as pinnacles of the form and, looking through the list, so many of them are actually very interested in playing with form. They weren’t simply intimations of objective fact. You’ve got Man with a Movie Camera at number one…and that is really an essay movie. You’ve got Shoah, you’ve got Night and Fog and The Thin Blue Line. It’s interesting that a lot of filmmakers and critics do appreciate the fact that the best documentaries are not that different from fiction in the way that their made. They’re just cinema, as you’ve said. So why is there still a sense that documentaries are meant or expected to be an objective record of reality, which is not even possible with cinema?
It’s weird, because some of the best documentaries, all the way back the 60s – those by Pennebaker, the Maysles, Wiseman – what they’re doing is manipulating reality. They’re making things up with the editing and yes they are celebrated as the greatest documentarians. But I don’t know why there is a double standard. There are some people who are doing it now, like Josh Oppenheimer with The Act of Killing. He’s kind of playing with the form in a way that is very interesting, and doing things that are definitely not okay in a documentary in the normal sense: the aggressive nature of [Oppenheimer’s process] on this guy, of getting him to repent. It’s insane what [Oppenheimer’s] doing…the re-enactments. I think that Errol Morris does it too, and I think it’s interesting. I can’t really speak for other people; I can only speak for what I am seeing coming out, but maybe there’s this ability to appreciate that these daring documentaries are great and that the filmmakers involved took risks. But there is this fear. It doesn’t matter if you change things or make things up in a fiction film. But if you do that in a documentary, some people are going to point this out and say you’re being irresponsible; that you’re not being responsible to the subject. But…I don’t know. I don’t know why there aren’t more movies made like that.
At the same time, each movie should be its own thing. A filmmaker could take cues from those and learn from them, not that they should copy anything…but it is funny that there’s a list like [the aforementioned BFI list] and it isn’t being reflected in what’s being put out. I think it might just be that there is this kind of police force out there that’s always out to get you, and if you’re making a documentary film you’re not as protected by fiction. In defence of the people making these documentaries, they have to abide by certain rules and they kind of have to play with or bend the lines a little bit but not too far so their work is not completely disregarded by this community that needs to be there to support that film. So…in that sense, I can understand it. But it’s definitely much easier for fiction filmmaker to do whatever the hell they want: make shit up, change things, and think: ‘I’m getting at something great here and it’s emotionally true, but I don’t have to be entirely true to the facts.’ I guess in a documentary you have to be true to the facts to a certain extent.
It all depends on the function though. If the function of the documentary is to get at the ‘ecstatic truth’ as opposed to the unadulterated fact, then does it matter if you twist things?
I completely agree with you. [Werner] Herzog was 100% right. His documentaries are so weird and so strange; what he’s doing with the characters, pushing them and interviewing them and asking them piercing questions. He’s definitely doing things that may not be okay. But again, I think there are movies now being made by Laura Poitras and Josh Oppenheimer and [Asif Kapadia’s] Senna documentary – you know – that completely throw out the formula of having to show talking heads or that only use archival footage.
And then there’s the Marlon Brando doc (Listen to Me Marlon) and the Kurt Cobain one (Montage of Heck) which use those two guys’ own personal material.
Yeah. And there was one about Phil Spector, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector. There’s now a kind of movement growing where filmmakers say, ‘okay, we can relax these guidelines a little bit;’ guidelines that are more front and centre when you’re doing something involving politics, which you kind of have to respect. Which is why I was so surprised by Citizenfour. But even with that, you have to respect a certain code of journalistic integrity because you’re not that different from the news, in that sense. Either that or you’re telling the story of an athlete…or the story of a scientist, like Herzog did with The White Diamond. You have a little more manoeuvrability and the some freedom to try and tell a story without people jumping on your back, saying, ‘oh, you made that up, or you changed that!’ What I’m saying is: if Laura Poitras had changed the way that the Snowden saga occurred in a way that was egregious, people would have pushed against it by saying that it’s liberal propaganda. So it’s a very slippery slope and I don’t quite understand it. But I will say that my experience with Lenny Cooke, being a fiction filmmaker diving into documentary, was that the film wasn’t accepted partly because we were coming at it from a fiction standpoint. It was – like –, ‘hey, get back in line!’ It was weird.
Maybe there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium, because the medium is the same. Cinema is what you use for both fiction and documentary, and cinema’s inherently subjective. Even Wiseman: when he places a camera, he could place it in about a zillion different angles, but he chooses one or a couple. Why that one? Why those ones?
If you look at [Frederick Wiseman’s] High School, there’s that footage of the old principal walking through the halls. And then he looks into a window and the movie cuts to the audio of some kids singing ‘Simple Simon,’ and it implies that maybe he’s a pervert and he’s going and looking at these girls, looking at them work out. But he’s clearly not that kind of guy. But it’s an amazing moment in the film.
Do you think it’s irresponsible? This moment?
Well, it’s completely irresponsible, but it’s fine. It’s fine, you know. That guy isn’t doing that…what he’s looking at primarily isn’t those girls, but it works for the moment. I think at some point you have to step back and say, ‘I’m also making a movie here’. But it’s not all documentaries that take such liberties; it’s some documentaries.
Maybe this principal is not a pervert, but the movie’s called High School and it’s not necessarily about one particular high school. It’s about all high schools. This kind of behaviour could be true in some places. The scene is encapsulating everything in one moment.
There was actually a documentary about a Canadian high school called Guidelines.
I’ve never heard of it.
It’s a great movie in the sense that it’s at one school and understands what the kids are going through. It stays with some of them as they’re getting in trouble in principal’s office. You don’t ever see the teacher. You’re just seeing these kids coming up with these lies. At one point the girls have to explain themselves. The teacher says ‘okay, so you didn’t follow her up the stairs and you didn’t go into the bathroom and attack her,’ and one of the girls is like, ‘no.’
‘Then why did you go upstairs?’
‘Well, I wanted to go and see if she was there.’
‘That’s not following?’
She says, ‘no, I was looking for her.’
‘And when you found out she was there…?’
‘I went and smacked her.’ Which is a really weird bending of the truth. But seeing a kid come up with that, and allowing us to see what happens is incredible. Look, I think documentary is going in a direction where, maybe one day, things will be more relaxed. Our experience with Lenny Cooke was that we were these fiction guys coming along and treading on the documentarians’ territory and it backfired a little bit, in the sense that it didn’t get into any film festivals. I don’t think it got into one.
It didn’t even get into True/False [Film Festival]?
No it did not. But Heaven Knows What got into True/False, which is incredible. But then again, maybe because it can be said that it’s very clearly a fiction film. The biggest testament [to Lenny Cooke] is that Lenny sat down and watched the documentary. And then he gave us the biggest hug and was like, ‘that’s it. That’s it!” He’d never seen something that expressed his feelings and his emotions, and he felt the movie did that, you know?
Well then I guess the movie’s a success.
That tells me that we did our job. And people to this day watch it because they want to avoid the steps that he took. And whenever I’m on Twitter, some person will say ‘it’s Monday, gotta watch Lenny Cooke.’ It’s like they’re watching it to prepare themselves for the week. They’ve watched it 30 times; I can’t believe it.
I really have to ask about Heaven Knows What. Did you ever think about making it as a ‘straight up documentary’?
No. The reason we didn’t was because her stories and her life was interesting – the way she wrote them, she had a very unique perspective –, but, like I said earlier, there were certain parts of it that just wouldn’t translate to film. I think a perfect example is when she wrote: ‘Ilya came over, took my phone, saw it was Mike and broke it into a million pieces.’ When you throw a cell-phone on the street – and we shot it that way – it breaks, but it doesn’t break into a million pieces. But she thought it broke into a million pieces. [Co-writer/co-editor] Ronny Bronstein was like, ‘look, the cell-phone should fucking explode – like – into a firework. We shoot a firework and that’ll be the cell-phone.’ And the end result is so unrealistic and so ridiculous, but it fits in that moment. Initially, we threw the phone on the ground and it just wasn’t working. Plus, I think that, from the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a fiction film with her story as the basis. We didn’t want go and just set the camera down and observe these people, you know? We wanted to work with them to express something, and I think that can only happen, in this case, with a fiction film. It wouldn’t have been as powerful as a documentary. We wouldn’t have gotten to the heights that we did.
That’s an interesting point. Because, if you want to present the facts of her life, then you would be obliged to show the phone being thrown to the ground and that would be the truth of the matter. But you were chasing the emotionality of the moment; you were chasing the subjective aspect of it, which actually makes more sense. So, I guess the other question would be: did Arielle in any way mention having gained any new insights into her own experience by way of playing a fictionalised version of herself?
Yes! The thing is, at times she said to us, ‘this isn’t how it happened. I didn’t do it this way.’ And we’d said, ‘no. But if you want people to feel how you felt, we need to shoot it this way. You need to change it.’ And that gave her insight into the process. We weren’t making a documentary about the present. We had to recreate, because these were things that had already happened to her. Right off the bat, we knew we couldn’t do a documentary. I mean, sure, you can have recreations and voiceover, which is fine; but I think in this case this was how the movie had to be made. You could argue that every movie is a documentary, because it’s documenting something, you know. Making Jurassic Park is a documentary of how everybody felt in that moment.
We value acting as being this approximation of the real. So if you’re approximating or reaching the real in acting, and in performance, and in everything else, then what are you shooting? Are you shooting fiction or the real thing?
I think that the distinction really has to do with whether you’re making a movie or a documentary, and I think improperly so. It’s like, ‘oh, what did you see?’
‘Oh, I just saw a documentary.’
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. It’s a shame. It’s depressing. Because a documentary could be just as powerful. It’s like there are two different things. Either you’re using real to make a movie, or you’re using fake to make a movie. That’s the difference. And, in Heaven Knows What, we were using fake based on real and it blurs the line. Arielle’s not playing herself. She’s playing a fictionalised version of herself, re-enacting moments of her life. That makes it a little more unclear. There are a lot of movies that have done this. Shirley Clarke: she made a lot of strange hybrid films that are beautiful. The Iranians were making a lot of films in the 1990s that were blending reality and fiction.
Exactly. We’ve seen that movie many times, and we’ve been – like – ‘holy shit!’ You’re taking this guy who did something and having him play this part. It’s so funny: we had it in our heads while making Heaven Knows What. It’s funny how such films are out there, and that there’s a desire to make them. But it’s essentially about how human beings express themselves. It’s an interesting topic. We took a class in college with this guy Ted Barron who coined the term ‘pseudo-documentary.’
Would this term apply to that movie starring Rip Torn as a psychiatrist?
Oh, Coming Apart by Milton Moses Ginsburg. That was one of the movies we watched in [Ted Barron’s] class. Because Rip Torn’s character is filming from a hidden camera perspective, you can’t help but wonder: who’s real and who’s not? It’s blending the line. It’s a fiction film that has elements of documentary. It’s not a mockumentary, [parodying documentaries in a transparent fashion]. They’re fake documentaries; pseudo-documentaries. They’re real movies that are made to look like documentaries and what that’s saying is, ‘hey, if we can fake this and make you think it is real, then what’s the difference between the two things?’ Look at a movie like David Holzman’s Diary. When it premiered, people were like, ‘oh my God, this is incredible. What a great documentary about this guy!’ And then then it turns out to be directed by Jim McBride and they’re all upset. They’re booing and throwing popcorn at the screen. They felt betrayed: ‘you took advantage of me, thinking I was watching a documentary!’
What do they expect to feel in a documentary versus a fiction film?
I don’t know. The thing is, I think that there is more forgiveness when people go into a documentary. I’ll give Lenny Cooke as an example. People go in expecting to learn something, but when they come out and they felt exactly what Lenny had gone through, it’s emotionally very powerful. They leave the theatre completely shocked and it’s the saddest thing they’ve ever seen, and it’s because they’re feeling what Lenny felt. They’re feeling that lost potential at a gut level, and they don’t always get to experience that in a documentary because they’re simply meant to be observing when watching a documentary. You’re not meant to be feeling things in that primal sense. But when you’re feeling at that level, it’s unnerving, and I think it’s very powerful. We could talk about this forever; it’s such an interesting topic. Hopefully the goal is that the distinction will disappear, and some things will just be based on the real and some things will just be based on the fake, and the fake comes from fiction or the fake comes from the real. Everything comes from the same place, so there shouldn’t be a distinction. And I think that the best documentaries being made today are the result of people just making movies, expressing themselves and expressing the views of the subjects, and that’s the best you can hope for. There are people that are fighting that fight, and I think it’s great.
Including you and Josh. So please keep doing it.
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.