The Tactile Gaze
Films have of course always played with continuity – played with the idea that a story should necessarily have a beginning, a middle and an end in that order – but have films become ever more adventurous in leaving the ‘straight story’? Have they increasingly searched out on the one hand what some critics have called hyperlink cinema, fractal filmmaking, network narratives and coeval disconnection, and, on the other, a sort of broke-back form? In the former camp we would of course include films like Short Cuts, Magnolia, City of Hope, Crash, Wonderland and Code Unknown, even Three Colours: Red, Exotica and Yi Yi; and in the latter Chungking Express, Lost Highway, From Dusk till Dawn, Nowhere and Tropical Malady. These latter films are not based on multiple plots and character strands, but rather a focused narrative thread that frays and gives way to another narrative entirely. Now sometimes these stories are held together by character (as in From Dusk till Dawn) and sometimes by no more than a tenuous theme we have to search out (Tropical Malady), but what seems most significant is their ability to shift registers and throw the viewer out of the narrative experience and into an atmospheric one. This is generally not the case with the fractal films, where atmosphere is less important than milieu: with the fractal film usually taking place in a large city like Paris, New York, London or Los Angeles. As a rule, the films respect Aristotle’s unity of space, if not of character. In the broke-back film the director wants us to find another purpose beyond the narrative coordinates. Thus we find it in a certain emotional quickening, where we have to relocate ourselves in the film viewing experience, rather than simply move from one story to another as with the fractal film; which gives us multiple lives and numerous perspectives on those lives. This broke-back cinema is, though, neither, Pasolini’s notion of ‘monstrous subjectivity’ at work, à la the directorial freedoms found in Vivre sa vie, Before The Revolution and The Red Desert espoused in his sixties essay a ‘Cinema of Poetry’. It is something else again.
Now one of the interesting things about Eric Khoo’s Be With Me is that it seems to be both fractal and broken-backed, as if it wants the topography of space and the un-coordination of narrative incoherence as it tells three stories very loosely interlinked. In ‘Finding Love’ an overweight, bullied, lonely and semi-illiterate security guard yearns after a beautiful, successful and unattainable woman who works in his firm, while in ‘So in Love’ a teenage girl falls for another girl after communicating through the internet. They meet up and seem to be falling in love; only for an abrupt volte face on one of the girl’s parts after she finds herself having, it appears, much stronger feelings for a boy. She refuses to meet up again, making various excuses. The other girl can’t get over it, and the film follows her painful passage as she falls apart. The third story is the least clichéd, and concentrates on the actual Theresa Chan, a sixty one year old woman who’s been deaf and blind since a teenager. The film details her day to day activities, and also her private thoughts, as the film bases itself partly on her autobiography. Containing these three stories is really a fourth that interlinks the other three, and focuses on an old grocery shop owner who struggles to cope with the loss of his wife, and constantly conjures her up in his imagination.
Now what links the sections seems to be more an emotional thematic than a narrative strand, however frayed, or a topographical focus, however dispersed. Khoo’s film wants to draw upon the themes of yearning and striving, of wishing and willing. How to deal with issues of love, the film seems to ask: do we wish it or will it, do we find a way of coping with oneself and hoping, or do we fail to cope with ourselves and become hopelessly lost? Here it is generally the older characters who ‘cope’; the younger characters who simply yearn. As we see the lovelorn security guard Fatty, and the no less lovelorn gay Jackie, so we may notice that their approach to loss contains a determining dimension only really in relation to the object of desire. This really just furthers the wishing, where the older characters, Theresa and the shopkeeper, seem to contain any yearning within purposefulness. Khoo pays great attention to their activities – like his cooking; her working with blind kids – as he wants to interweave the yearning with a striving. In the younger characters that hardly seems to be the case. Any striving seems helplessly connected to the yearning and exacerbates it, whether that is Jackie continually texting the other girl, and standing outside her house, or Fatty desperately trying to write the career woman a letter and hanging around restaurants and her flat.
And it is almost as if Khoo wants a particular aesthetic style to reflect particular feelings, so that both Jackie and Fatty’s stories are aesthetically soft-centred, and Theresa and the shopkeeper’s stories presented hard-headedly. At several moments during Jackie’s story the music swells up sentimentally to reflect a girl in love and shows her pain, while during Fatty’s story the film shows Fatty bullied by others in moments that draw perhaps too unequivocally on our sympathies. However, Theresa’s story is tougher-minded, capable of sentiment but as if repelling it through Theresa’s own attitude to her life. Meanwhile the shopkeeper’s pain is reflected less through storytelling devices than through his face and through memory: as Khoo concentrates on every line, sag and pore he also includes a series of shots of the shopkeeper’s wife as if she’s still very much with him.
Thus though Be with Me in many ways resembles the fractal work, it atmospherically leaves behind the consistent tone of the milieu-based movie, to focus instead on the atmospheric gear-shifts of the broke-back film. But this is less the director’s ‘monstrous subjectivity’ allied to a character within the film, an approach that allows for both the revelation of a deeper subjectivity belonging to both author and also the character, but something closer to an almost ‘illiterate’ sensitivity. Thus where Pasolini in his ‘Cinema of Poetry’ essay will talk about a certain sophistication present in the style, no matter his own works’ interest in something closer to an art of poverty, Khoo, Tropical Malady’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul and others seem to be looking for a lack of sophistication in the style. Godard, Antonioni and Bertolucci will, in Pasolini’s words, show a complex world: “In short, beneath the technique produced by the protagonist’s state of mind – which is disoriented, incapable of coordination, obsessed by details, attracted by compulsory kindness – the world as it is seen by the no less neurotic filmmaker continually surfaces, dominated by an elegant, elegiac spirit, which never becomes classicist.”
There are hints of Khoo and others in this statement, but there is also something else again here, and perhaps this something else lies less in countering and expanding upon classical cinema in the modernist tradition, like Antonioni and Godard, but instead countering and expanding upon life’s small moments not as meaning but if you like as ‘atmos’, as mood as opposed to meaning, and thus making it an issue of sensuality as opposed to epistemology. For if the significance lies not in epistemology and meaning, but in sensuality and feeling, then a different aesthetic focus is required. In this sense Khoo and Weerasethakul have much in common with David Lynch; as if they’re all filmmakers trying to ‘synesthsize’ cinema away even further than the sixties masters from dead centre of plot and towards the periphery of feeling. Thus feeling carries story, rather than the story carrying feeling, and the evenness of tone gets obliterated because tone is too readily generated by narrative, and where the film’s coherence is held together by an epistemological problematic rather than one of sensuality.
This type of epistemological consistency is really what David Bordwell is talking about when he looks at recent Hollywood cinema in The Way Hollywood Tells It. As he says “An analysis of virtually any film from the period under consideration will confirm the simple truth with which I started: nearly all scenes in nearly all contemporary mass-market movies (and in most “independent” films) are staged, shot, and cut according to principles that crystallized in the 1910s and 1920s.’ Whether the Hollywood film adopts the fractal, the broke-back or even, or more especially, what Bordwell calls the ‘puzzle film’ (Memento, The Usual Suspects and The Underneath come to mind) the continuity codes remain the same. Though in each instance there is undeniably a play with form, and “a keen moment-by-moment anticipation” – there is usually a final epistemological conformism. As Bordwell says, “completely indeterminate movies are rare in American cinema; Point Blank may count as one, and perhaps only David lynch currently makes them”.
But in the radically broke-back cinema of Tropical Malady, the same director’s Blissfully Yours and Lost Highway, it is as though the epistemological principle has been broken: films can no longer be ‘staged, shot and cut’ according to general cinematic principles. They are instead being cut according to vaguer, amorphous, emotional and thematic principles. We do not so much find the story as find an aspect of ourselves in the many details the film throws up. This seems in many ways consistent with another sixties proposition, Andre S. Labarthe’s claim that since neo-realism, the viewer became much more responsible for making the film in their own mind; rather than with the traditional film that was so completely made, in so self-contained a way, that it didn’t need a viewer at all. In the wake of neo-realism, cinema created room for the viewer, and Labarthe sees, in an essay in Cahiers du Cinema on Last Year at Marienbad, the inevitable end goal of such an approach is that: “The work of the film-maker is no longer to tell a story, but simply to make a film in which the spectator will discover a story.” We could just as easily argue however for not even finding a story, especially, but instead being caught in an enveloping atmosphere, a sensual experience of filmmaking that works halfway between a dream and a heightened reality. This is a reality that doesn’t demand we have a moment-by-moment relationship with the film in case we miss a plot detail, as Bordwell claims of contemporary American cinema, nor that the moment-to- moment detail is precisely what we are watching. Instead it is much more a moment -by-moment relationship with the givens of the image that we choose to amplify with our own thoughts in relation to the film’s semi-narrative engagement.
This then isn’t at all to claim for the film image an arbitrary status. It is to insist, however, on a space not just for finding a story for ourselves, but more than that: finding a subjective, atmospheric space for ourselves within the work. Now when we earlier mentioned the modernist genius of Antonioni and Godard, we were also proposing that their breaks with classical cinema were modernist breaks – modernist in the way Francis Wyndham described the birth of modernism in film in an essay in Encounter magazine in the early sixties. Here he talks of the way Agnes Varda contracted time in Cleo from 5-7, Resnais played with it in Hiroshima mon amour etc. They seemed to be taking classical cinema and finding ways in which to break it up. It seems today’s filmmakers are instead looking for something closer to a ‘tactile gaze’, so that breaking up the narrative of the film isn’t chiefly a way in which to get closer to a complex epistemology (as Resnais, Godard and Antonioni still demanded), but to a sensual relationship with the characters and situations. If so often Antonioni and Godard would drift away from a character, or place them as small within the frame, many of the filmmakers of the last generation or so have wanted to get as close to the characters as possible. This was partly von Trier’s purpose behind doing his own camerawork on The Idiots, saying in Trier on Von Trier that the actors “had to live their characters rather than act them”, and it is partly what Wong Kar-wai and his cameraman Chris Doyle do in Chungking Express. Here Doyle moves between tight close-ups that reveal the sensuality of his characters, to a camera that seems almost to mimic the body language of Tony Leung, Faye Wong and others, evident for example in a scene in the food bar where Wong’s window cleaning resembles the camera’s own contortions. We might also mention the Dardenne brothers, who usually insist on eschewing the establishing shot and immediately placing us in a close relationship with their characters. As they say, they “decided not to begin with a plot, but with a character.” And as an interviewer Michele Halberstadt suggests in Enthusiasm magazine, title character Rosetta’s breathing “gives the film its rhythm”. As the directors themselves add: “The first scene of the film has to be both simple and violent, so one could understand immediately who is Rosetta, her situation and she reacts to what is happening to her.”
This is not then an intellectual cinema, especially, and neither is it first and foremost, as the Dardennes make clear, a narrative one – though filmmakers like the Dardennes nevertheless generate a high degree of suspense out of their minimalist examinations of life and milieu. So where the modernists seemed to want an escape from classicism towards an intellectual modernism, many of the newer filmmakers want to move away from the attentiveness of narrative Bordwell invokes, for the attentiveness of the detail. In Be with Me, the very process of cooking carries a quiet significance. When we watch the mourning husband or the blind woman cook, we’re watching not narratively (we’re not wondering where the food will go, and what sort of relationship will develop between the old man and Theresa Chan that the food allows for), but much more the relationship between the character and the food. As Chan cooks a stir fry in her kitchen, we watch closely to see how difficult, or easy, it is too cook when blind. When the mourning husband cooks, we watch a man in grief cooking dinner. We realise there are so many different ways to do a particular action in relation to the emotion one brings to that action. This then becomes less an issue of an action leading to another action (which we expect in fast-paced narrative), but the action in relation to the surrounding purpose. The action is cooking; the surrounding purpose is grief. We are interested less in the next action, but left to dwell on the immediate action that contains within it a permeating sense of loss. This is clearly a very different attentiveness to detail than we find in the films Bordwell invokes, where the viewer is often caught in a narrative of concealment, and where we play catch me up with the speed of story information.
In Be with Me, Khoo of course slows everything down, so that we attend to, rather than are attentive towards (in the Bordwellian sense), characters. We are not in a sceptical relationship with the narrative events, trying to work out how we are being fooled, what sort of manipulation is involved as we often find in the puzzle film; we are attentive instead to the subtle gradations of grief and yearning. For example as we watch the old man cook over a period of time, we might initially feel he is losing himself in the cooking of the food, but by the end of the film he is finding himself, and others in the very cooking process. What happens here is not that the narrative moves forward, but that realizations for both the character and the viewer rise to the surface.
We could argue that realization is also central to many of the modernist films of the sixties, but while that is true, we are still left with the different approaches to allowing the realization to announce itself. In modernist cinema we sense the figure in space being framed by the filmmaker so that meaning comes through the actor not as an agent within the frame, but an object dictated by the frame. Thus when Cynthia Baron insists that in direct contrast to the predictable motion of inanimate objects, the spatial and temporal dimensions of human movements are endlessly variable and the types of energy that can infuse human movements are largely unpredictable” (Cineaste XXX1), we can suggest in modernist cinema that is often not quite the case. Both subject and object seem in a strangely equivalent relationship with each other, and the mobility comes less through the actor moving through space, than the camera moving through the less animate subject and object. In Antonioni’s The Eclipse, in Godard’s Le Mepris up to and including Bela Tarr’s Satantango and Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day, much modernist cinema utilises subject and object secondarily to the camera.
Now obviously much that passes for classical cinema did not have this type of relationship with the camera; as Pasolini states: the camera was not felt. What was chiefly felt was the narrative agency of the actors, so as they moved through space they were really moving from one plot point to another, and objects were chiefly present as props to the narrative information to hand. A critic like Siegfried Kracauer would no doubt argue with this, insisting one of the great things that cinema gave us was the birth of the object, difficult to explore in the other arts. As he says in Theory of Film, talking of ‘Inanimate Objects’ and referencing Fernand Leger: only film is equipped to sensitize us, by way of big close-ups, to the possibilities that lie dormant in a hat, a chair, a hand, and foot.”
But let’s take two examples to see what has changed: Dial M for Murder and High Noon. In Hitchcock’s film, the inspector investigating the case at one stage coolly takes out his pipe and starts to stuff it with tobacco, then equally comfortably lights it and takes a puff. All the while murder suspect Ray Milland’s central character moves and uncomfortably in his body and touches anything he can for reassurance: namely the couch that he stands next to as he feels himself investigated. Objects here serve no more a function than narrative and behaviour, and nor are they supposed to. The inspector does what inspectors do: they fiddle around with a prop to show their comfort in the situation; and the suspect fiddles rather less assuredly with any object to hand. The objects here have little purpose except as props. In High Noon so prop based is the object that if we follow its trajectory closely we realise what we’re witnessing is a continuity error. When Gary Cooper’s sheriff comes and talks to Katy Jurado, he slaps his hat down in a gesture consistent with the way he feels when he enters the room, but moments later, with Jurado asserting herself, and Cooper on the defensive, his hat is back in his hand as he fiddles with it in a moment of insecurity. How the hat moves from the chair to his hand is never indicated. This is obviously not to care about the continuity error in itself, but it is to ask how unimportant the object is in many classical, narratively driven films. That most viewers won’t notice the error is because the hat has no importance except as a prop.
So if we’ve suggested that in classic cinema the object if of little import, and in modernist cinema we often see actor and object insignificant next to the camera, then in the cinema of the tactile gaze, object and actor gain significance almost to the detriment of the narrative and the camera. It as as though the filmmakers are asking themselves how they can destroy the cinema frame and find the images that matter within it. As von Trier says in Trier on Von Trier, of The Idiots, “during the actual takes, it was really only me, doing the camerawork as well, plus a sound technician who followed them as they performed.” Later he adds, “The camera movements we ended up with are the result of my own curiosity…I was sort of a listening camera.”
Just as the actor becomes someone to be observed more than directed, so we might also think of how the object isn’t so much used as observed. One of the ten rules of Dogme was of course that no props were to be used in the films; and really what this comes down to is that objects no longer have narrative significance first and foremost, but a sort of thereness, a presentness we’ve already talked about in relation to the cooking in Be With Me, and where we see vegetables being cut and cooked, and that we can also see in the way Rosetta handles objects – whether that be a bag of flour or a gas canister in the Dardenne brothers’ films. An object no longer becomes a prop, but starts to have, as Heidegger would say, a thingness. Has much of recent cinema tried to find ways to film objects with the weight and focus that Van Gogh brought to those workers boots, or Cezanne to his items of fruit?
This isn’t to say it is a type of cinema without precedence. Of course not – we might be reminded of Wenders’ comment in The Logic of Images that “you have to believe in the characters and allow them to arrive at a story about themselves. You shouldn’t start with a story in mind and then look for the appropriate characters.” Then there is Marguerite Duras, talking in interviews about Nathalie Granger, and saying how we can really believe in the way Jeanne Moreau clears a table of food, plates and cutlery. Then there is of course the post new-wave filmmakers like Eustache, Garrel, Doillon and Akerman, all interested in the performer and the object. But just because we see many precedents, that doesn’t mean that it is quite the same thing as the tactile gaze, a gaze we may notice in Be with Me, Rosetta, The Idiots, Morvern Callar, Blissfully Yours, Chungking Express and in others unmentioned, like Ma vie Sexuelle by Arnaud Desplechin, and Irma Vep by Olivier Assayas, Morvern Callar by Lynne Ramsay. It is obviously a very loose and tentative term, and hardly new as it is already becoming popular in film studies, and is a term often utilised in relation to the blind. It is also open to countering and expansion, to suggestion and vociferous contestation. But perhaps it is also a useful way of looking at what films are trying to do into the new century, and can help explain why Khoo’s film isn’t a work of monstrous subjectivity, and only half-indebted to broke-back cinema and hyperlink film.