The Resonant and the Distinctive
Here is a list of the most important (though not necessarily the best) American directors of the last ten years: Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Kelly Reichardt, and the British born Christopher Nolan. And from Latin America: Lucrecia Martel, Alfonso Cuaron, Lisandro Alonso and Carlos Reygadas. Most of the director are around fifty or under, and some are commercially viable (with Nolan close to the new James Cameron), and others still reliant on extra-curricular forms of finance to keep working: Reichardt is a teacher as well as filmmaker. “I teach for a living and make movies when I can.” (Guardian) To rephrase George Bernard Shaw, those who can make a fortune make only films, those who can’t rely on other forms of remuneration. This works both in the North American context and the central and southern American one too. Alfonso Cuaron is a director who can a make film anywhere (in Mexico for Y Tu Mama Tambien, New York for Great Expectations, London for Children of Men, ‘outer space’ for Gravity), and makes money easily. Carlos Reygadas works almost exclusively in Mexico, and relies on the festival circuit as well as the odd teaching gig: he is one of the filmmakers signed up to teach at great Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr’s film school in Sarajevo. His is not so much a hand to mouth but a word of mouth existence. Bad reviews for Cuaron will still lead to a movie making money if we take into account a remark J. Hoberman offered in the Village Voice at the end of the last millennium. “However anticlimactic, The Phantom Menace is not only critic-proof but audience resistant as well…Thanks to [George] Lucas’s pressure on theatrical exhibitors to guarantee lengthy exclusive runs…it would take the consumer equivalent of the Russian Revolution to keep The Phantom Menace from ruling the box-office for weeks.” Yet this has often been how mainstream cinema operates. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who uses the Hoberman quote, says that back in 1977 he didn’t know anyone who cared for a big-budget stinker like Lucky Lady, but “Twentieth Century-Fox demanded in advance that Lucky Lady be kept in theaters for extended runs if those theatres wanted to book it at all…” (Movie Wars) This isn’t to attack Cuaron, whose films are often well-reviewed, but merely to say that unlike his compatriot Reygadas, his movies are almost critic proof because they’re frequently big-budget, and with many stakes at stake. Like the banks, they’re too big to fail. Reygadas’s work is closer to self-employment.
In an interview in Sight and Sound about Gravity, the directors Cuaron invoke include James Cameron and Christopher Nolan. “Cameron was very enthusiastic. He said look, the technology is there, you just need to invent the tools. You can do it for $400 million. Well, I’m not James Cameron”. He had to do it for a lot less. But less is more: these are directors who may or not be making personal fortunes, but in most instances their films don’t come cheap. David Fincher talks of a medium budget film costing about $50 to $60m. Discussing Gone Girl in Sight and Sound he says: “This cost 58-62 million. It’s a middle-budget movie and they are harder and harder to get made. They do still get made – The Social Network cost $48 million, Dragon Tattoo $90 milllion…Nobody put a wing on their house from it. Fight Club cost $65 million, and that was way back when, but nobody got a Bentley off that either…Zodiac cost $63 million, and we grossed $30 million, but I am glad I made it.” While nobody gets to put a wing on their house, neither will anybody involved be expected to moonlight. This is a cinema that costs, and people are understandably expected to be paid handsomely.
Our concern here though is finally not with the box-office (Zodiac may be Fincher’s finest film) but with cinema that we believe will be of interest and merit in twenty years’ time. The second wave of Star War films was a marketing bellow, but a cinematic squeak. If Nolan and Cuaron movies are intriguing it isn’t simply because their films make hundreds of millions of pounds, but that they resonate in our culture more than simply impacting upon it. This isn’t quite the same thing as saying they ‘comment’ on society, and while we might not agree entirely with David Bordwell’s essay on zeitgeist criticism in Minding Movies, we concur on certain points. We wouldn’t disagree when he says, “a zeitgeist is hard to pin down. There’s no reason to think that the millions who go to the movies share the same values, attitudes, moods, or opinions,” and that “so many different movies are popular at the moment that we’d have to posit a pretty fragmented psyche.” But resonance by definition is quite a different thing from zeitgeist. The latter indicates the spirit of the time; resonance time recollected in tranquillity. Breakdance movies in the middle of the eighties and The Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles films at the turn of the nineties were of their moment, but they don’t resonate. A film too big to fail has no guarantee of posthumous success, and this is why few people remember Lucky Lady, but everyone knows of Jaws. These were two big-budget films released in the same year, but one has been quietly forgotten, the other continues memorably to be part of the ongoing culture.
What matters is whether one feels the film is likely to be not only of its time but part of its time too, part of a culture trying to understand itself; and that the film does so with formal freshness and a sense of first principles is what counts: that like all important art works it takes its form seriously and has something to say. This latter point has nothing to do with a message – nothing to do with slavery being bad, the Holocaust being evil, democracy being good – but instead with an underlying exploration of an idea. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws might cattle-prod its audience with numerous suspense gimmicks, and the shark might disappoint when we finally see it, but this story combines aspects of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Melville’s Moby Dick to explore the problem of a society that wants to cover up the truth for economic gain, and individuals who care less for society than their own obsessive need to capture the leviathan. Part of the film’s healthy irony is that it is the latter that prove far more useful to society than the local bigwigs who are supposed to be looking after the town’s interest but are detrimental to it. If Jaws remains an important American film to put alongside It Happened One Night, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather and others, it isn’t that it made a fortune, though it did, but that it asked questions about society generally and American society in particular. At the end the Captain Ahab figure is dead, having followed through on his own obsession, but subsequently for a greater good. “Ordinarily”, Paul W.Kahn says, “a film, like a sermon, contains a moral lesson by virtue of its resolution of the problem around which its narrative is organized.” (Finding Ourselves at the Movies) But maybe the more buried within the story this lesson happens to be, the more it has a chance of resonating in the culture. Schindler’s List, Amistad and Lincoln, are all films where Spielberg puts the message up front, but they remain cumbersome next to Jaws, just as we might argue that Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and even ET become too easily entertainments. They are the flipside of the serious, but become irrelevant in their final frivolousness. If Jaws is the director’s best film it lies in the frivolous being underpinned by the serious; the serious partly veiled by the narrative development generated.
This is all by way of an introduction to our opening gambit: what are the films and who are the filmmakers of today who we will still be thinking about tomorrow? Paul Thomas Anderson is already a director who seems to have gone through two phases: the earlier virtuoso cinema of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and the later, more mysterious There Will Be Blood and The Master. The former pair seem closer to the moral lesson Kahn talks about; the latter nearer to the explorative where a moral homily can’t easily be extracted but where an ethical investigation is undeniably evident. This is also apparent in the form. Where Boogie Nights and Magnolia are partly indebted to the style of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, and contain a double assertiveness in their authority over the image as well as clear moral point, the later films are more enquiring visually and aurally. If we compare the opening scenes from Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood, we can see this. In Boogie Nights the film brilliantly introduces us to all the film’s leading characters in the porn industry before alighting on the central figure played by Mark Wahlberg working behind the bar. The point is clear. Here is a young man who wants a piece of the action, and the long take snaking through the club to the Emotions’ ‘Best of My Love’ captures it categorically as it echoes Scorsese’s Copacabana club scene in GoodFellas. But what categorical feeling is being caught in the opening sequence in There Will Be Blood? Here Daniel Day-Lewis is determined and focused, and the film relies on the sounds of a man chipping away in his underground search for wealth, adding some breathing and coughing, then adds the subtlest of plaintive soundtracks possessing bursts of audio dread that can’t be located as a particular sound. It is neither diegetically definitive, like the sound of a tree in the wind or distant traffic, nor non-diegetically quite a soundtrack. The form is as pronounced as it happens to be in Boogie Nights, but not at all ostentatious, and actually less derivative, no matter its cinematic echoes. Critic Mark Kermode on the BBC talked about the distinctiveness of this section of the film where dialogue is eschewed, yet like Kubrick’s 2001 it returns to pre-speech as cinematic form: Kubrick as he focuses on the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence; Anderson with the dawn of Daniel Plainview’s enormous wealth as he finds oil. For the next two and a half hours Anderson will follow Plainview, and always respect a certain silence within him: a feeling that this is a man nobody knows, including Plainview himself.
In The Master, Freddy Quell also remains enigmatic, a man for whom the drives are strong but the reasons vague, and at one moment while being interviewed by his ‘master’, Lancaster Dodd, he breaks wind and Lancaster refers to him as a silly animal. In a Time Out interview Anderson says, “It’s nice just watching Freddie trying to maintain – trying to keep a smiley face with that smart suit on. It’s like trying to put a diaper on a monkey, with a little tiny hat. It feels like that to me.” In a later scene, Dodds and Quell are arrested, and we see the two of them in adjoining cells, with Quell destroying the chamber and Dodds trying to define why he is doing it. Shot mainly from in front of the two cells, but with occasional inserts from within Dodds’s, Anderson refuses the certitude Dodds offers. He doesn’t pretend to know Quell’s character, but will spend the film’s lengthy running time exploring it. Where Magnolia impressively ranges over a number of characters, we nevertheless feel that Anderson reckons he has the measure of them, exemplified perhaps in the Aimee Mann song ‘Wise Up’ the characters in turn sing along to, just as the Emotions song seems no less summational at the beginning of Boogie Nights. But it is as though he wanted to escape from assumptions however brilliantly presented, and sought to find his own America, and not one indebted to forebears like Scorsese and Altman, both of whom were more adventurous in their early films than Anderson had been in his. In There Will be Blood and The Master, Anderson moves from the double-affirmation of the rise and fall narrative of Raging Bull and GoodFellas (no matter their complexity in Scorsese’s work), and the therapeutic multi-narrational film (perhaps exemplified and sometimes simplified by John Sayles, a lesser Altman), with the formal assertiveness of a camera that seeks what it can readily find. When the camera dives into the pool in one scene in Boogie Nights we aren’t in a shot that seems troubled and curious, but one that feels so assured of its technique and the adrenalized story it tells, that it can get to show off. This is Anderson the American storyteller, confident of the story he has to offer, and confident in his telling of it. In the later films he becomes a chronicler of America – though the works are both set in the past (There Will be Blood in the twenties; The Master in the post-war years, Inherent Vice at the turn of the seventies) he assumes no ready hindsight. As J. Hoberman suggested in Film as Film: “There Will be Blood is genuinely widescreen, both in its mise-en-scene and concern with American values…”
Wes Anderson’s work is amongst the most original in the US, and that is a compliment that nevertheless contains within it a hefty reservation. Anderson has a vision: seeing a few frames of his work and we recognize the director. Others possess this quality – none more so than Tim Burton – and we see in Anderson’s films a constant flirtation with animation that occasionally becomes a one night stand. Fantastic Mr Fox takes a certain insistent control of the mise-en-scene to its logical conclusion: Anderson makes the whole film animated. To understand something of this obsessiveness let us go lateral and invoke a filmmaker, Mike Leigh, who isn’t generally given to such obsessive detailing of the screen space, and of course isn’t American but English. Talking about his designer on three of his films, Alison Chitty, he said she stopped “because fundamentally she doesn’t like it. She is very much a play and opera designer…she doesn’t like the fact that as a designer you design the whole thing, hand it over to the director and cinematographer, and then they decide on the images.” (Leigh on Leigh). Perhaps another reservation designers may have is that usually films serve verisimilitude: the designer’s purpose is to be present through absence. No one was likely to comment on the missing red car on the street in Naked, no matter if Chitty insisted that even though the driver couldn’t be found the car had to be removed: it was bumped along the road. She wanted no primary colours in the scene. This would be an example of invisible design, but one reason why working with Wes Anderson would be creatively invigorating is that the design work is very much on the screen. In the magazine Creative Review, Annie Atkins talked of her work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. Atkins was responsible for all the typographical details in the film, from the currency used to the telegrams received, from the police reports to the dinner menus. Where a film set in a categorical historical past might rely either on finding objects from antique shops that capture the period, or would design objects that resemble those from the past, Anderson’s idiosyncratic reinvention of central Europe the inter-war years gives the design team the sort of freedom Leigh could only offer Chitty invisibly. Annie Atkins was allowed visible design.
“My experience was so insular,” Anderson says in the Guardian, “I didn’t have any real perspective about where people were coming from. I didn’t have a radar.” One might say nothing much has changed: Anderson makes films that aren’t so much perceptive as imaginative. The person who lives in their own world doesn’t see the world, they imagine one, and you can regard it as a compliment or an insult when we say Anderson is the most imaginative filmmaker in America at the moment. Whether it is Grand Budapest Hotel or The Royal Tenenbaums, whether mittel Europe or Manhattan, Anderson’s purpose isn’t to comprehend the world, but to retreat into an imaginative encapsulation of it. In The Royal Tenenbaums there is a one-take shot that hints at a real world and yet also illustrates Anderson’s wish that we don’t take the situation too seriously. Here on a walkway flyover with high rises in the background, cowboy-dressing novelist Eli Cash tells Margot Tenenbaum he is no longer in love with her, and Margot says she never realized he was. A few moments later he says she only started giving him the time of day when he began getting good reviews, and Margot replies his reviews aren’t that good. The shot absorbs the city scape and city sounds, but the camera movements, dialogue and the actors’ matching clothes and skin tones play up the ironic. There is one winding shot that Anderson often uses to emphasize the dramatic within the facetious: the moment when Margot announces she isn’t in love with Eli either. The actors are both shown as gingery yellow, and while the scene isn’t quite played for laughs, it does play up the self-conscious.
This extends to Anderson’s soundtracks. Where P. T. Anderson has moved from absorbing music that underscores and inflects the sequence as we see in the opening scene in Boogie Nights, using a well known song, and on to original soundtracks by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, in There Will Be Blood and The Master, scores that create a troubling relationship with the world he shows us, Wes Anderson’s soundtracks are usually reassuring, cool and ‘appropriative’. Like Tarantino, Anderson can make the song his own, giving it a new and purposeful context. We can think of the montage scene from Rushmore to the Creation’s ‘Making Time’ as we go through Max Fischer’s various extra-curricular activities. In The Royal Tenenbaums, we watch Margot and her half-brother reuniting to the sounds of Nico singing ‘These Days’. The form is deliberate – one hundred and eighty degree shot/counter shots with slow motion accompanying Margo approaching Richie from his point of view, and a track in from Margot’s. In The Darjeeling Limited, The Kinks’s ‘This Time Tomorrow’ is again accompanied by slow motion as we watch Bill Murray failing to catch the train. In each instance, music is brilliantly used, but it is also very much music that has a life beyond the frame: we can listen to many of the songs Anderson utilises in a context other than the film’s. He appropriates music very well, but unlike say the soundtrack for Jaws, Psycho, Taxi Driver, There Will be Blood, the music’s very ability to stand alone might make us wonder how much work it is doing in the given scenes in which it is used. Here Anderson unites his imaginative capacity to rethink the world, with the appropriative ability to draw very much on cultural memory.
We can certainly trace a lineage from Easy Rider, through to Scorsese’s use of popular music in Mean Streets, After Hours and The Color of Money, to Tarantino and then to Anderson, but even in Scorsese’s case (in for example the wonderful use of Warren Zevon’s ’Werewolves of London’ in The Color of Money), we might wonder how purely cinematic a score happens to be when its context is already to be found elsewhere. Yet when we talk about the appropriative this is quite different from the impositional, where a filmmaker uses a popular song to cover weak dramaturgy and thus utilises an overly familiar hit. Jason Bailey at Flavorwire devoted an article to the examination of the overused rock hit, commenting on how songs like ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Born to be Wild’ become short-hand. Scorsese happens to be one of the directors under attack for his too frequent use of The Rolling Stones, but Scorsese generally makes a song his own even if it has been utilised elsewhere: ‘Werewolves of London’ works well in ‘An American Werewolf in London’, of course, but Scorsese uses it for a pool scene that gives it a new twist. This is also central to the appeal of Anderson’s work: he can create a little frisson of surprise in his musical choices.
If P. T. Anderson has become the epic chronicler of America, and Wes Anderson its idiosyncratic imagination, then British-born Christopher Nolan has become its hyperbolist. After making Memento in the States, he has gone on to make three Batman films, as well as Inception, Interstellar and others, taking the craze for comic book adaptations as well as developments in CGI (computer generated imagery) and exploring an exaggerated notion of American consciousness. The Batman trilogy is not so much an investigation of contemporary America, but instead a triptych using the graphic novel figure to adopt a mythic structure as he explores US preoccupations. It isn’t that the films capture the zeitgeist; more that they work on such a broad scale that they allow numerous perspectives to be superimposed upon them. In Film After Film, J. Hoberman notes that “reviewers could not help but detect a critique of the war on terror in The Dark Knight, [while] right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy.” Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Kavan admired The Dark Knight, seeing it as “a paean of praise to [George Bush’s] fortitude and moral courage.”” Hoberman notices in the irrational figure of the Joker, someone who tries to “show the schemers how pathetic their attempt to control things really are.” He is a Bin Laden: someone whose motives the West can’t quite work out. Our point isn’t to illustrate how Nolan captures the zeitgeist; it is merely to say that big-budget, pop-mythic cinema like the Batman films can be all things to all people. The low-budget indie film is unlikely to get New York Times Op-Eds, but films such as The Dark Knight often do so. It is like the opposite of advance publicity but none the less almost as useful. If the trailers can bring in the popcorn crew, the fretting thoughts of the highbrows can broaden the demographic. The kids might be looking forward to the Batman films, but the socially concerned parent can go along a week or two afterwards and then look back on the work, finding in it social malaise in semi-metaphorical form. While the second film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight, was much talked about symptomatically, the third, The Dark Knight Rises was the victim of chaos in the auditorium. 12 people were killed and 70 injured after a gunman started shooting people at a midnight screening in Colorado. Nolan’s films make the newspapers one way or another. The film was still in the news in late 2014 – the Los Angeles Times talking about what could be learnt from the event.
Whatever the Batman trilogy’s impact on society, few would argue that the films aren’t the most important and influential of comic-book or graphic novel adaptations, a money-spinning genre that turns the heads of the studio beancounters. From The Incredible Hulk to Iron Man, Spiderman to 300, these are films that make money, and lead to sequels that make even more. According to Box Office Mojo Batman Begins made over $200m in the States; The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises more than twice that. Iron Man 3 made more than 1 and 2. Spiderman 2 and 3 showed a slight fall off, but $373m for the second film and $336 for the third isn’t change that falls through your pocket. To give some idea of the massive profit, There Will Be Blood made $40m, Royal Tenenbaums $52m. We don’t want to bang on about box-office, but this is money in the bank that reflects back on societal interpretation. A masterful film that makes no cash has little symptomatic value, and while we might agree with Bordwell that zeigeist readings aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, they are written about in newspapers. If one admires the Batman films more than most comic strip outings, it lies in the point we addressed initially over Jaws. Spielberg’s film could have been merely another exploitation movie, but it touched on deeper and wider concerns. It didn’t only invoke Ibsen and Melville, it was also one of many Watergate films of the mid-seventies: from The Conversation to Taxi Driver, from the directly relevant All the President’s Men to The Parallax View. This doesn’t mean a film has to make a fortune to make a point, but it helps if it can be part of film culture and not simply a film seen by a select few. Again, this isn’t to scorn the small-scale and quietly remunerative. But if a film happens to be partly a comment on the society out of which it comes, then it also wants to be seen by many members of that society. A Batman film doesn’t function like many an independent production: it doesn’t speak to a private self but to a societal body. It plays more on public fears than private vices.
There are scenes in the Batman trilogy that push form, and comment on wider social content. When near the end of The Dark Knight Rises the football stadium loses its pitch and its players while various bombs go off, this is an image of the world shifting under one’s feet, an image that captures something of the enormity of 9/11 without at all replicating the reality. If the Twin Towers represented a fall from the skies in its various manifestations, The Dark Knight Rises indicates a push from below that nevertheless chimes with the earlier atrocity.
In The Dark Knight, The Joker talks to the now deformed Harvey Dent in hospital and about the way people never panic no matter how horrific the plan as long as it is part of the plan: it is the anomalous that can’t be countenanced. Of course the Batman films like most big-budget comic book movies want generally to offer an experience that more or less goes according to plan, but Nolan’s purpose is to prey on viewer’s fears whilst alleviating anxieties. This is true of much genre work, of course, but then the question is how much anxiety and how much assuagement.
In The Dark Knight Rises as the various bombs go off in the stadium and around the city, Nolan cuts to a number of high-angled shots from the perspective of the film: there is no point of view suggested. But the shots don’t simply possess the production value authority of the helicopter image we expect, say, from a Tony Scott film, they also feel like the counter-shots to the 9/11 planes. We of course saw over and over again the planes going into the Twin Towers; however what we never saw and had no access to, were the images of the planes going into the towers from the pilots’ perspective. As we watch theses apparently ‘objective’ shots, they carry a hint of anxiety and not only big-budget authority.
Nolan is after all a filmmaker of anxiety in Following, Memento, Insomnia and Inception. He is much more interested than Cameron in mind-games, and his plots are usually serpentine explorations of trust and mistrust. Can Leonard believe Natalie in Memento, and even more can he trust himself. Can Bruce Wayne rely on Miranda in The Dark Knight Rises, and what about belief in Inception? Leonard Di Caprio compared his roles in Scorsese’s mind-game movie Shutter Island and in Inception saying, “I’ve been having a lot of fun playing protagonists that you can’t trust. That’s been the objective in both these films, to say lines and not necessarily mean what I say. Each of them, I think, had some similarities in tone, but they couldn’t have been executed any different.” (Reelz)
Kelly Reichardt’s films often have a low-key sense of mistrust, yet with no sense of exaggeration accompanying the images. In her work people are at the mercy of others or the elements. In Old Joy there is a conversation on the phone early in the film between Mark and his partner. Mark is meeting the central character Kurt, and on the phone he says a few things about his friend suggesting Kurt hasn’t really got his life together and he is not sure how the camping trip they’re embarking upon will go. This isn’t the conspiracy thriller hyperbole of blockbuster cinema; merely the constant human threat of people judging you when you’re not around. It is one of those couple-chats that a third party might suspect goes on behind their back.
In Wendy and Lucy there is a moment where Wendy is on the phone to her brother-in-law and sister and though we are only privy to Wendy’s side of the conversation (there is no cross-cutting or split screen), we might again feel here is a character whose family thinks not too highly of her in her absence, and not too much of her even when she is speaking to them in the phonebooth. At the other end of the line her sister sounds a bit dismissive. Both Kurt and Wendy are vulnerable people, both drifting in their lives and without much money behind them as they try and find their way. Wendy is journeying to Alaska with her dog Lucy when various things go wrong as she stops off at an Oregon town. By the end of the film she knows there are others who can look after her dog, Lucy, better than she can, and we may wonder if Wendy can even look after herself. But this isn’t a judgemental response Reichardt extracts, more that the director wants to generate a feeling of concern. In both scenes, in the one where Mark and his partner talk about Kurt, and where Wendy talks to her family, Reichardt is on the side of the personally fragile, no matter if the scenes are reversals. In the former Kurt is absent; in the latter the family happens to be.
Reichardt might say of Wendy, “I don’t know if she is chasing that lifestyle. I think she’s just practical. She was aware enough to realize that there weren’t opportunities in Indiana for her, and, the way many people in their young 20s at some point do, heard about the canneries in Alaska as a place you can go and make money and somehow get ahead. Probably her neighbors and friends didn’t have that kind of idea, they would stick with what they know, but she did have the awareness to realize that it wasn’t happening where she was. I don’t think she’s out seeing the world. I think she’s trying to find some work.” (Fix) Yet this says more about Reichardt’s refusal to judge, perhaps, than it does about Wendy’s personality. If a director wants to emphasize the practical nature of the character then there are many ways in which to do so: from getting a job, to fixing a car, to fixing up a house. Wendy doesn’t have work, ends up having to write off her vehicle after it breaks down, and is of no fixed abode. What comes through is not her practicality, surely, but her vulnerability.
In the Fix interview, Reichardt describes her films as road movies. “I didn’t mean to. It took me a long time to realize the similarities. They’re all stilted road movies, everybody’s stuck and lost, and nobody really gets to where they’re trying to go. But, I really am not sure. I’ve always been driving around, as a kid with my family and in college.” It would have been a remark she made before making Meek’s Cutoff, but her additional comment, “And everything’s a road movie. Everything’s a western. You’ve got to pick a genre, and then work from there” certainly applies. Meek’s Cutoff is a vulnerable western as nineteenth century road movie. It is a frontier film but this doesn’t result in manifest destiny as the characters find their way to the west coast; here characters get lost and trapped in the middle of nowhere: at Meek’s Cutoff. Where many a western plays up the vista of new experience by adopting a wide-screen format that emphasizes the width, Reichardt opts for a standard ratio image that leaves the characters quite literally boxed in. This is a stilted road-movies indeed, and yet again Reichardt emphasises the fragility of the self. As the characters venture further into the wilderness, the more cut off they become from civilization the more reliant they are on personal resources that are lacking.
Again, Reichardt withholds judgement, but she doesn’t at all withhold compassion. She directs with a patient eye for character, and is part of an American movement indebted more to seventies cinema of accumulated observation (Panic in Needle Park, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail) than the millennial interest in exaggeration. Like Gus Van Sant with Gerry and Elephant, Vincent Gallo with Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny, even Bahran Rahimi with Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, Reichardt inverts the ‘impact aesthetics’ of much American film for the rendering of situation and character. These directors are an antidote to the comic strip, and one reason why the road movie is important to many of them (just as it was pertinent to many a seventies film director) is that it allows less a plot to develop than the situations and the characters to grow in front of our eyes. Reichardt might talk about the stilted aspect, but while the journey is stalled, the characters are revealed in their nuances more than in their concrete actions. It is partly why we don’t quite agree with Reichardt when she regards Wendy as practical: Wendy’s impracticality allows the film to show us so much of her character, whether it is losing her dog, communicating with a security guard, or accepting her car can’t be fixed. Though realism is an often facile term, next to the Andersons, Nolan etc. we can see Reichardt as a great contemporary American realist.
Spike Jones has little in common with Reichardt and ostensibly much in common with Wes Anderson. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are knowing works, playfully incorporating John Malkovich in a major role playing himself in the former instance, and the screenwriting guru Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) gets a small role in Adaptation. The former proposes what it might be like to get inside Malkovich’s head; the latter details the various travails of a struggling scriptwriter. Both are absurdly self-conscious, as though made for viewers who don’t want to take their cinema straight. But if Jonze is an important new American filmmaker it rests chiefly on one film, a work that suggests a visionary approach to the US that isn’t only chiefly a question of mise-en-scene, but even more emotional, behavioural and psychological. Often of course the mise-en-scene in science fiction cinema is important if not paramount. Blade Runner’s reputation as a major work of speculative fiction rests more on its design than on its thinking. Of course Ridley Scott’s film has been frequently utilised by philosophers to talk about questions of identity (there is even a book called Philosophy and Blade Runner), but we admire it for its realization of the milieu more than for the visionary nature of its problematic. (David Cronenberg’s sci-fi films are the reverse.) Blade Runner is a film noir set in the future, with Harrison Ford the potential fall guy and Sean Young the femme fatale. As The Aurum Encyclopedia of Film put it: the film is “less concerned with fidelity to its credited inspiration, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than with creating a futuristic film noir”. Sure, there are different versions of the film, with the director’s cut a little less noirish, but the movie is chiefly a film of design.
Her, however, is a film of futuristic feeling, couching the immediate future as an issue of low-key emotional alienation within a world of plenty. Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely and semi-divorced man working for a corporation, writing letters for those too unwilling or incapable of penning heartfelt letters to loved ones themselves. He is fragile and tender, and in time falls for a computer operating system: basically a mobile phone he can fall in love with as the algorithm immediately reacts to one’s needs and desires. Originally Samantha was voiced by Samantha Morton, but Jonze re-recorded the voice-over with Scarlett Johannsen, a perfect voice for indicating, in Star Trek speak, metamorphic potential: someone who can shape themselves according to the needs of the person with whom they are interacting, evident also in Johannsen’s performance in the recent Under the Skin. Her is a film about plenitude rather than shortages, set in a wealthy LA where the apartments are luxurious, the beach near and nature available. But scarcity lies elsewhere, in people failing to understand your needs and wants.
Jonze is both critical of, and sympathetic to, this potential solipsism. During a disastrous date between Phoenix and Olivia Wilde’s character the evening is more touchy than feely, with Wilde worried that if she has sex with him he will do what the other guys do: make it a one night stand and never call her again. Instead they call it a night after the restaurant, with Wilde referring to Phoenix as a “really creepy guy”. Here are characters who have it all but not the wherewithal to develop intimacy with others. Yet Jonze plays it more for pathos than for laughs, aware that we humans go into situations with so many preconceptions and expectations that it is like a virus in our system. Samantha is in perfect working order, a being with no needs of her own and thus can always react with no hint of neurosis on her side.
Certainly the film offers complications later on, but Her is of interest because it manages to offer a plausible romantic futurism: our fascination with mobile phones, and our willingness to allow algorithms increasingly to dictate our lives, allows Jonze to muse over the question of how we might combine the two and find love in a computerised climate. It is a properly sci-fi rom-com, except where the science fiction is visually contained and the romantic comedy aspect emphasizing the mellifluous over the comedic. The style is smooth and soft, with regular use of the steadicam creating arcing movements, tracking shots as Phoenix walks along talking to Samantha and passes numerous people wearing, like him, trousers high on the waist, carrying a shoulder bag, shirts often in pastel colours and jumpers a parent might buy their grown-up children thinking they are still in primary school. Sometimes Jonze offers fixed-frame shots showing Phoenix entering the frame and padding around the large apartment in shoes that don’t make much noise.
Jonze’s film is a subdued idyll. While both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation ironically reflected the present moment as witty self-reflexivity, Her more challengingly thinks itself into an aching future where those who are lucky enough to have money in the bank might wonder whether they and those around them have love in their hearts. Her shows not so much selfish people as self-absorbed ones, and wonders where that atomisation might lead.
David Fincher is somewhere between a genre filmmaker and a finger on the pulse commentator interested in contemporary America. Though he has made three serial killing films (Seven, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) his main interest seems to be, like Steven Soderbergh and often Christopher Nolan, in mind games. This can take diegetic and/or non-diegetic form. In Seven and The Game the central characters are playing catch me-up with the actions of others: in Seven Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are chasing a serial killer whose crimes are based on the seven deadly sins; in The Game we find out Sean Penn has created for his brother, investment banker Michael Douglas, an elaborate ruse the details of which we and Douglas discover only at the end. In Fight Club Fincher creates a character who is a mystery to himself all the better to generate a surprise in the film for the audience: the film in the last act offers a radical reversal with a twist that very few viewers are likely to see coming. In Gone Girl the twist comes halfway through, with the audience privy to information concealed from central character Ben Affleck as the film folds back in time to show us that the wife is not dead or kidnapped as we are initially led to assume. Affleck will later work out that she must be alive, and needs to think one step ahead of the woman (namely his wife) who wants him sentenced for the murder he hasn’t committed.
What is constant is the mind game, the sense that characters are trying to outsmart each other. In a Guardian interview (18/01/2009) Fincher says “I feel that most people, when they speak, are lying. So, I’m looking at the eyes, I’m more interested in the body and seeing how comfortable they are saying what it is they are saying than specifically what they’re saying. I think the same thing is true of cinematography: you’re presented with a room and a scene. You have a feeling about this.” Thus Fincher’s work doesn’t only suggest mind games between characters, even on the play between the diegetic characters versus the non-diegetic audience, but also in the film’s mise-en-scene, even the sound design. Fincher sees his work having no truck with the accidental, evident in his comments about sound. “It seems to me it’s an opportunity to use those 15 speakers to either do something intentional or do something accidental. I’d just rather do the intentional. I work with a guy called Ren Klyce, who’s worked on all my movies since Seven, and who I trust implicitly. He’s just responsible for the sound. He helps choose the composer, helps spot the music and where it goes, and he works with all the source cues.” Fincher adds, “on Panic Room, for instance, which is an interesting movie – maybe not from an audience’s standpoint – but from a technical standpoint: you have an entire movie taking place in one space. To have that space evolve in some kind of way over the course of two hours, part of the thing he did was … he would record all the foley, all the footsteps, all the doorknob turns, all the hard effects of everything, in the actual set that we were shooting in at the weekends.” (Guardian)
The preconception is manifold: through a character’s manipulations, the narrative’s or the visual design and the sound. This doesn’t mean that most other filmmakers make films that are casually thrown together; more that Fincher is someone who refuses any dimension of contingency. It makes sense that he often makes films about master planners: the serial killer in Seven, the mysterious murderer in Zodiac and the monstrously manipulative wife in Gone Girl. It is there in the one upmanship of Zuckerberg in The Social Network: it is couched as a film about one of the most successful innovations in modern media history, and premised on the need to take revenge on a girlfriend.
Yet we have also suggested Fincher is interested in the social as well as the personal. Both The Social Network and Gone Girl are fascinated by the media as a created phenomenon (in the Zuckerberg film) and as an intrusive presence shaping people’s reality (Gone Girl). At one moment in Gone Girl Affleck offers a beefy smile for the camera when he should be aware that since this is a press conference about his wife’s disappearance, a grim visage is demanded. This is Camus’s The Outsider updated: instead of failing to cry at your mother’s funeral, you stupidly smile for the TV cameras. The point and purpose is the same: it indicates the unfeeling, when what the public wants is signs of tragic loss. To do otherwise isn’t so much to show disrespect for one’s missing wife, but even more to indicate a lack of respect for the viewers at home. They have tuned in for the lachrymose; they don’t want to see someone looking like they are still emotionally in one piece. Later in the film Affleck learns; doing a TV interview with someone who has criticized him on her TV show, he pulls off a performance worthy of a Golden Globe. Where before he was indifferent to the media and concerned about his wife (no matter if he has been having an affair behind her back), now, certain that she is still alive, he has no interest in her wellbeing, but is very concerned with the media’s projection of him. We can see that though Fincher’s claim that everyone is lying is interpersonal, it is also often enormously mediated: as his lawyer says that everything Affleck does he does in the public eye, so Affleck masters a level of deceit that goes far beyond an infidelity and the public loves him for it. Here we see the importance of mind games as getting into other people’s minds. One of the reasons why Neil Patrick Harris’s lawyer is so well paid is that he wins cases by understanding minds: he’s always willing to think himself into the thoughts of someone else. Yet this isn’t an act of empathy; it is for greater manipulation. He wants to understand Affleck, his wife, the TV presenter and the public all the better to make sure Afflick isn’t jailed. This has nothing to do with acts of justice either; just one-upmanship.
In Seven it is a bit more emotionally nuanced if we think of the montage sequence to Bach. Here Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt set out to solve a crime based on the seven deadly sins as they try to get into the killer’s mindset. In a dense montage the film cross-cuts chiefly between Freeman and Pitt doing the research, but also includes footage of the staff guards and Pitt’s wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The film also focus pulls into the spine of Dante’s Divine Comedy, offers close-ups on drawings of atrocity through the ages, photos from a crime scene, lateral tracking shots of Freeman walking through the library, slow track-ins as he sits sifting through material, and overhead shots of Pitt exhausted thinking about man’s inhumanity to man. All of this serves one main point: to get closer to the mind of a serial killer. But such technical virtuosity also indicates Fincher’s main theme: to get into other people’s heads so that you know what they’re up to and thus get the better of them.
Much of the most interesting work of the last fifteen years in the Americas has come from central and south America. Some of the films have been commercially oriented and generic: City of God, Lower City and The Motorcycle Diaries from Brazil, Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien from Mexico. Others have been more inquiring, less pushy in telling their stories, and more resistant to pleasing their audiences. Films including La Cienaga, Paraguayan Hammock, Los muertos and Battle in Heaven don’t have the international commercial appeal of City of God etc., but they are carried along by a different circuit of exchange: the festival circuit alluded to earlier. City of God made $30m dollars worldwide; Amores Perros a little over $20m. This is not big box-office next to The Royal Tenenbaums, let alone the Batman and Spiderman films, but compared to La Cienaga and Battle in Heaven and others it is a fortune. Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven, despite great controversy over an opening fellatio scene, earned little more than $250, 000. If sex sells, its profit margin is slim.
Both Cuaron and Reygadas are Mexican directors of loosely the same generation, but where Cuaron went on to enormous success with Gravity ($716m), Reygadas has become ever less commercial (Post Tenebras Lux made just under $40,000). Taking into account our earlier comment about commercial success and influence, about a film’s ability to impact on the world because it impacts on a large public, is a filmmaker like Reygadas increasingly wasting his time? One thinks not. Just as we might see philosophy as an arena of thought that makes little money but often has an enormous intellectual impact (from Kant to Nietzsche, Hegel to Leibniz), so perhaps we should view a certain type of cinema as a branch of burgeoning epistemology rather than of symptomatic entertainment: as a search for certain, often obscure truths rather than the ready ‘lies’ of fiction. If storytelling often reassures us of basic beliefs, philosophy’s purpose is frequently either to call these into question (Nietzsche), or allow them to return but only through the most rigorous of first principles (Kant). There seems to be an equivalent approach in cinema, with Reygadas, Lucrecia Martel and Lisandro Alonso, in the Latin American context, looking for something within the story rather than simply telling the story.
Let us look at Reygadas’s work first. In his debut film Japon, the director follows a middle-aged man into the countryside, a man who intends to take his own life, and who comes into contact with an old woman with whom he makes love. Some took umbrage at the explicit sex scene that Reygadas shows, but to do so too readily is to get caught in representational expectations that Reygadas is trying to escape from. If we must have a problem with the sequence, then can we find a justification which doesn’t fall into easy indignation? Difficult indignation is entirely appropriate, perhaps, but since Reygadas makes films that attempt to defy immediate judgement, then the least we can do if we have a problem with the scene is to delay our initial response. Reygadas says “the camera is a funnel taking in reality. I believe in natural locations, in working with non-actors” and that “what I’m interested in—not dogmatically, but on an emotional level—are those brief moments in which the truth is experienced. The truth is never absolute; it’s approached almost tangentially. Declaring a philosophical, religious, or social truth will turn it into dogma and therefore will prevent it from being experienced as real; it will always be normative”. (Bomb) Thus it is about searching out a certain type of abnormality.
The sex scene between a seventy eight year old (Magdalena Flores) and a man twenty years younger (Alejandro Ferretis) isn’t probably too common in life and even less commonly shown in cinema, but like the sex scenes between the corpulent, poor and ageing chauffeur and his beautiful young client in Battle in Heaven, the mismatch is a question of contrasts. In the sex scene in Japon, Reygadas exaggerates this contrast through the sound design. As the two bodies try to make love, so the director uses an ambiently discordant soundtrack that seems to have nothing to do with the sex scene he is showing us. A cock crows in the background, a sheep is heard, there is a general noise and bustle indicating no peace and quiet in the act. Yet by the end of the scene we hear little more than the characters’ breathing. The outside world has been shut out. and what Freud calls the little death has momentarily assuaged our central character from the suicidal urge. Flores’s is called Ascen, a diminutive of ascension which suggests both Christ’s resurrection and the general idea of rising as Reygadas gives spiritual purpose to the most animal of actions.
We might have a problem with the director’s symbolism, even more pronounced in a sex scene between the chauffeur and his wife in Battle in Heaven, where Reygadas moves between the bloated bodies to a painting of Jesus on the couple’s bedroom wall. But our outrage should pass through the stages of form and content (we should think about the odd use of diegetic sound; the old woman’s name, the calm that seems to descend) before representational dismay takes hold. One might have a problem with a non-professional actress in her dotage performing an explicit scene, just as we may have a problem with certain acts of animal brutality in the film, but to insist on dismissing the content a priori is to accept one is having no experience with the artwork. We are pretty much judging before the event. Surely a film’s purpose is often to counter such a priori assumptions. If a director makes us feel pity for or identification with a child murderer (M), for a man who beats his mistress in the stomach and to an almost certain miscarriage (Seul contre tous), or for a mentally unstable cabbie who goes on a killing spree (Taxi Driver), this lies in aesthetic realization, with the director sometimes a little like a lawyer taking on the cases that seem impossible to win.
Reygadas’s films always have a dimension of this impossibility: a desire not so much to win his case but make one: to say that there is a world of possibility within narratives of improbability. If many couldn’t quite believe the sex scene in Japon, after recovering from being offended by it, then what about the relationship that develops between the portly and poor chauffeur in Battle in Heaven, and the rich and gorgeous Ana? How can Reygadas find the wherewithal to justify this coupling? He does so through formal persuasion more than by narrative assumption. Think of all the films we watch where there is no need to persuade us over what we are watching. Certainly the films need to be dramatized, but the dramatization contains its own argument: in When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Sleepless in Seattle or almost any other romantic comedy where we expect the couple to get together, the film doesn’t have to work very hard to persuade us that they ought to do so. All it takes is an early cross-cutting sequence showing them to be lonely or in stale relationships for us to be convinced. But how is a filmmaker going to make us believe that an obese chauffeur and his employer’s stunning young daughter would embark on an affair in Battle in Heaven, how can he expect us to believe in a miracle at the end of Silent Light where an apparently dead wife comes back to life? Or in Post Tenebras Lux, can we buy into the coherence of a film that ostensibly happens to be about a comfortably off family in rural Mexico, but incorporates images of a CGI devil, rugby games in England, and a heist gone wrong?
But as Jonathan Romney said of the latter: “you never feel that Reygadas is out to impose his unorthodox outlook, to impress himself on you as a visionary. There is a vision here, certainly, but the film feels genuinely, bracingly experimental in that it seems to be searching for its own meaning and form, rather than asserting them ready-made.” (Screen International) Instead of searching out the suspension of disbelief within the unlikely, Reygadas wants the unlikely to suspend our belief for a different type of belief to become manifest. Whether it happens to be an endless supply of people getting out of a car in Battle in Heaven, or an endless line of kids walking past the camera in the village in Japon, Reygadas manages to make us wonder how many people can conceivably fit into and get out of one car, and how many kids happen to be in the village, while also making us wonder what is the point of shots that go on for so long. He even makes us wonder about the very form in the frame: adopting 16mm widescreen for Japon which was blown up for a 35mm transfer, and thus giving it a grainy look. In Post Tenebras Lux he utilises a 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes the film’s image box-like, and then adds hazy edges to many of the scenes. If Reygadas wants to defy plausibility in form and content it lies in the search for a higher dimension, perhaps not quite religious, but hinting at the transcendent. Post Tenebras Lux translates as Light After Darkness, Silent Light hints at a spiritual illumination, and Battle of Heaven offers the theological self-evidently in its title.
Lucrecia Martel is an Argentinian director whose three films (La Cienaga, The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman) work with the edge of situations. Her camera is often close in on the actors and creating partial framings, and she talks about a layering of the events that can leave her freer than narrative would usually demand. In Film Comment she discusses the key scene in The Headless Woman: a moment where the central character Veronica runs over a dog, possibly a child. “What I mean by layers is a form of accumulation, which makes plot no longer necessary in its classical sense. I work with a number of elements that are tied together, and each one of them is present in each scene in different positions, different perspectives, foreground or background. For example, the accident is present in every scene in different forms: maybe there is somebody who is digging, or something that is thrown on the floor. So I’m not spelling out the accident thing, but I have elements that evoke that.” (Film Comment) A fine instance of this sense that a scene echoes another comes in The Headless Woman with the fingerprints on the central character’s car window. As we are inclined to notice them after she runs over something and keeps driving, thinking that they might belong to a child we have seen playing shortly before, and whom she may have killed, so on looking again at the film we will see that they were present before the accident. They are fingerprints placed there by other kids: the children of friends in her wealthy social circle. We may not notice them because they are no more than a detail in the mise-en-scene, not a vital component of it. When we notice the handprints after the accident they become significant because they suggest the narratively pertinent. The viewer moves from becoming a casual observer to a ‘detective’: detecting signs that indicate she has killed a child, where before we had no reason especially to notice the fingerprints because there was no situation that seemed to demand our detectable skills, only our casually observant ones.
Martel, though, is not a director of thrillers, and does not want the story to pull us in the direction of detection and a mono-logical working out of the plot, but instead is a director of obliqueness, suggestion and manifold motivations. As Martel says, “what was important or relevant wasn’t finding out whether she actually killed somebody but her reaction to what happened. I wanted to focus on her human behavior, her human reaction to the possibility that she may have killed somebody, and it doesn’t really matter whether she did or not. What matters is her attitude toward it; in her heart, she killed him. And it’s how she reacts to having done such a bad deed.” (Film Comment) The film isn’t about a crime committed; more about a milieu explored in which a murder may or may not have taken place, but where the important thing in that environment is to maintain social stability amongst the comfortably off. Though The Headless Woman very much has a central character, Martel is a filmmaker of the periphery. She tends to capture things at odd angles, in the partial framing and invokes the wider social world in the process.
The opening of La Cienaga (The Swamp) shows bodies from the midriff, hands clutching glasses, faces seen intrusively close. But this isn’t simply a combination of the great French director Robert Bresson’s interest in the midriff and the hand, or the contemporary fascination for hand-held cameras that poke up against the person. Sometimes the shot is very strikingly composed but from a medium distance. There is a moment six minutes into the film where we see the drunken sunbathers in chairs by the pool, and the shot is slightly high-angle and manages to indicate the moral swamp suggested by the loosely translated English title. Talking of her first couple of films Martel says, “what interested me in this film [The Holy Girl] ? and also in La Cienaga; it will probably interest me for the rest of my life – is that contradictory area between what is organic and perceptible, and moral laws, or laws in general, including language.” (Talking Movies) What we observe in the shot from La Cienaga is a human swamp, but from an oddly organic perspective. Shortly before we’ve seen one of the middle-aged characters drunkenly dropping a glass of wine that smashes on the ground, and other drunken characters, rather than picking the glass up, step around the shards. Here is a social group organically self-destructive, and Martel, as she usually does, expands the problem into social class, with the wealthy hopelessly incapable of looking after themselves, and the poor exhaustingly looking after them instead.
This is a moral problem as Martel would couch it. As she says “to allow hunger would be a moral failure, to allow someone else’s pain would be too. As society stands, those don’t appear to be failures. In individual terms, that is. Hunger and pain can only be analysed now from a historical or political perspective but never as something personal, as a personal responsibility.” (Talking Movies) Martel’s aesthetic, based on intimate observation and oblique perception, tries to do exactly that: she finds new and interesting ways to say the political is the personal. In The Headless Woman everyone wants to make sure Veronica is okay, as though the possibility that she murdered a young boy from a poor background is surely of less import than that she is out of sorts. What matters is that she returns to normal, that she has fun like everyone else, not that she frets over a death that she may or not have been responsible for, and that others are willing to help cover up if necessary.
We have already said a few words about Alfonso Cuaron, but here are a few more. He is alongside Guillermo Del Toro one of the two most financially successful of Latin American filmmakers, entirely connected to their capacity for working both within and beyond Hollywood. Cuaron had a huge success with Y Tu Mama Tambien, but the $33m it made worldwide is still a small sum next to the $796m Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban made, and Gravity’s $716m. Even the modest Children of Men earned twice what Y Tu Mama Tambien did. A box-office success is relative to the Hollywood machine, and Cuaron is a multi-million pound moviemaker not because of some innate ability, but because he has transferable cinematic skills, working on lower budget personal works, and the odd megabuster. His best films are the ones that make less money (Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men), but next to work by Reygadas and Martel, they still seem generic movies, not so much compromised by their budgets, but accepting of standard narratives they work within. Y Tu Mama Tambien is a sex comedy rite of passage, while Children of Men is a dystopian sci-fi. They both know how to kill off a character for ready shock value (Julianne Moore’s in the first half of Children of Men, Maribel Verdu’s at the end of Y Tu Mama Tambien). These constraints are then greatly amplified in the big-budget works. Variety’s Scott Foundas may have published an article titled: ‘Why Gravity Could be the World’s Biggest Avant Garde movie’, but we are more inclined to agree with Kristin Thompson in Observations on Film Art, “The film’s story is certainly simpler and more unconventional than other mainstream Hollywood films, but as we shall see, it contains goals, motifs, character traits, careful setups of upcoming action, and other traits of classical narratives.”
Cuaron’s work has moments of innovation, and in Gravity the film offers breakthroughs in 3D technology, but the freshness is contained by the readily narrational, and the impressively technological. On YouTube one can find Cuaron talking enthusiastically about the complicated shot incorporating Moore’s death in Children of Men, while in numerous interviews he discusses the work involved in making Gravity. Yet in an interview with Anne Thompson on YouTube he differentiates between style and language. Film he says is basically a language that keeps developing over time, and style the aspect of film that seems to harden these rules into the stylistically impressive. Yet one reason why he made Y Tu Mama Tambien, going back to Mexico after making The Little Princess and Great Expectations in the US, was to make a rougher, simpler, film – a road movie following three characters through Mexico. He wanted to forget about the demands usually placed upon a director where the convention is in place and the filmmaker merely finds a more elaborate way of filming that convention. He wanted to develop his cinematic vocabulary, rather than staying within narrow grammatical parameters however stylish.
Yet we would have to say that in the contrast between style and language, Reygadas. Martel and others are creating a much greater breach. If many admire the long-takes in Children of Men, it resides in the convention of the chase sequence (the language) meeting the style of the filmmaker’s virtuosity: in the YouTube piece on the long take much is made of the rig they managed to find to pull the shot off. Cuaron, like Nolan, is a filmmaker doing impressive commercial work, but it is generally style augmenting established film language, not quite innovating it. Even in Y Tu Mama Tambien the style is easily linked to the content: it is a diaristic account in form, an approach that doesn’t ask us to question the shot choices, but to accept the looseness of the aesthetic. If Children of Men shows a director well coiffured, Y Tu Mama Tambien shows a director letting his hair down. Reygadas and Martel by comparison seem to be sporting original hairstyles – a properly new look.
Lisandro Alonso ostensibly seeks a language to the very detriment of a style: that the priority is to film locale and landscape because it is there and not because it can be shaped around narrative demands. In La Libertad, Los Muertes and Liverpool he films rural Argentina with the discretion of a documentarist. As Adam Nayman and Violeta Kovacsic remark in an interview with the director in Cinemascope: “Nobody will ever mistake Alonso for an invisible director, but his distanced, protracted set-ups (the cinematographer is Lucio Bonelli, who shot 2006’s Fantasma) are self-effacing.” Yet this apparent retreat from meaning can actually expand it: creating interesting possible narratives rather than resulting in a documentative contraction. If the fictional image is often removed from its pro-filmic simplicity and turned into a narrative demand, then an image apparently left to be what it is can hint at so many more things than it happens to be. In other words, the film image in fiction films is often there chiefly to serve a storytelling purpose: the shot of a highrise which tells us the characters are living in poverty and will lead to the heist that will help them pay off their debts and start a new life, the cattle we see grazing in a field that will be stolen and start a feud between two rival landowners in a western. When we look at an image we are rarely wondering why we are watching it; the filmmaker uses the image to serve his immediate narrative ends. But what happens if a director doesn’t want to use the image to set a story in motion, but neither quite wants the image to contain only what it shows? How to create a tension in the image which is not quite the same as telling a story but not quite ignoring it either? Alonso says “…precisely what interests me about the movies I make [is] anyone can create the meaning that they’d like, and even register depths that aren’t there.” (Cinemascope)
To allow this possible depth the image paradoxically needs to be freed from the story rather than overly attached to it. This can leave the images looking meaningless because they are not obviously meaningful, yet in not being obviously meaningful they can carry the potentiality of depth. This is partly why critics can accuse a filmmaker like Alonso of pretentiousness: the image isn’t pushing the story so what is it pretending to do. Yet in La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool, Alonso gives us films that are documentative in their imagery, while connotative in their suggestibility. In La Libertad the film focuses almost exclusively on a day in the life of a young man who cuts wood in the Pampas. In Los Muertos a middle-aged man is released from prison and goes looking for his daughter. In Liverpool a man returns to Tierra del Fuego where his teenage daughter lives. As Alonso’s work has progressed the films have become ever so slightly more narratively focused (his latest Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen and has a properly transformative ‘third act’) without losing the documentative: that aspect which keeps things deliberately suggestive in Alonso’s aesthetic. As Nathan Lee says of Los Muertos in Village Voice: “[a woman ] takes [central character] Vargas in for the night, but when he wakes, he wakes alone. Could be that Marie is in the loo, tending chickens, sound asleep. Could be that Vargas has hacked her to pieces. This grim possibility is reinforced in the next scene as Vargas proves his facility with a machete, slicing a makeshift oar from a sapling tree.” Equally, at the end of the film, we see Vargas going into a tent where a baby lies. He puts the machete he was holding down and walks deeper into the tent, now out of the camera’s sight. Moments later a couple of hens come out of the tent, and the camera shows us the toy Vargas was briefly playing with, now lying on the ground. What has taken place in the tent, we do not know – but we are aware from the dead bodies we see at the beginning of the film and the information afterwards, that Vargas was inside for murder. We’ve also seen late in the film how efficiently and brutally (in one take) he has caught and killed a goat. We can read into this act a man who finds violence easy, or believe simply that Alonso shows us a hungry man familiar with nature who kills the animal for sustenance. Yet we cannot quite say for sure, because though Alonso shows Vargas documentatively killing and then gutting the animal, we don’t see him eating it. Certainly Juaja indicates a different type of ambiguity at work as the film concludes on the present after mainly taking place in the late 19th century and where we must make the connections between the two time-periods ourselves, but ambiguity very much remains.
Alonso’s achievement is amongst the most minimalist in American film, and functions in a parallel cinematic universe from Hollywood cinema in both aesthetics and box-office takings. Liverpool made around $23,000. Yet taking into account Cuaron’s comments about language versus style, Alonso is a director looking to refine film grammar; he is searching for ways in which to incorporate within the simple fact that film is related to reality by its photographic representation more fundamentally than to its storytelling demands new modes. If a story comes out of these images, if a world is imagined by the viewer, then that is all very well, but it is not imposed upon anyone. The films that make hundreds of millions we may notice are the other way round: films where the images are very strongly inflected with narration, and the photographic dimension decidedly secondary, even all but obliterated by CGI technology. We needn’t judge one over the other, but how can we not admire films like Alonso’s which, in critic Quintin’s words, “premised upon the belief that cinema is something that can never be fully revealed; it is not (and is never) merely a technical means of representing an external, sovereign reality, but rather a way to explore certain mysterious connections in mysterious ways.” (Cinemascope) There are American filmmakers who insist on spending (and gaining) fortunes on fantasy: whether is in the idiosyncratic form of Wes Anderson, the hyperbolic form if Nolan, or the too easy superheroes that at least Batman complicates. Then there are directors as varied as Reichardt, Reygadas, Martel and Alonso, who indicate that this world, more or less as it is, is even stranger and more surprising still. It is perhaps the difference between hyperbole and litotes.