Download as PDF Download PDF


Directing the Fly


“You cannot direct a fly”, The Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan claims, and yet could we not say a certain vein in recent American film is based almost on the very capacity to direct a fly, or at the very least a wasp? In Alexander Payne’s Election, for example, it is a pesky wasp that leads to Matthew Broderick’s decline and fall when he gets bitten around the eye, and we know before the wasp bites him that this isn’t just any old insect; this is a wasp with a narrative purpose. It needs to be directed.  But isn’t this desire for obsessively controlling the apparently everyday true of a great number of recent American films – not just Election, but also Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, I Heart Huckabees, The Life Aquatic, Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State, Being John Malkovich and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? When LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas commented that both Wes Anderson and Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess proved themselves to be ‘detail fetishists’, we might add it is the overriding ethos in much contemporary American film. While Elephant, The Brown Bunny, Bully, Before Sunset, Gerry, Ken Park and even Far from Heaven, for example, are trying to open up the image, are the detail fetishists not closing it down? Are they not creating a closed frame form of filmmaking that almost suggests animation as readily as the pro-filmic?

To help here we will utilise a couple of theorists who’ll allow us to see what is at stake. First of all there is Vsevelod Pudovkin’s notion of the shot, where he says in Film Technique “to show something as everyone sees it is to have accomplished nothing…This is the reason why the greatest artists, those technicians who feel the film most acutely, deepen their work with details.” For Pudovkin these are details that are vital. “To do this they discard the general aspect of the image, and the points of interval that are the inevitable concomitant of every natural event.” However, the detail fetishists seem to want to detail not to deepen, but ‘superficialise’. They appear to believe in the cut the way Pudovkin talks about it, when saying that one should break the film up “into parts and elements”, but this isn’t to create the sort of intensity Pudovkin so admires in the Battleship Potemkin Odessa Steps sequence, but if anything removes the ‘intent’, the purposefulness behind the cut. Cutting in The Royal Tenenbaums, I Heart Huckabees and others resemble in anthropocentric terms the knowing wink, the witty interruption, and the ironic remark. When Alexander Payne says of the novel upon which Sideways is based, that he liked “those guys, how pathetic they are, how sad they are, their pathetic dreams, wrong self-images, comic set pieces and the lying…” (The Sundance Kids), we sense the knowingness even before the film’s been made. The films seem consistent with Pudovkin’s belief that the cut is central to film, and that through the cut the details become prominent, but the tone lacks seriousness.

Many would argue of course that what do we want seriousness from comedy for, but are these films really comedies, or do most of them simply absorb comedic form into their narrative structures because facetious tone becomes the priority? In Rushmore, for example, Bill Murray and Brian Cox’s characters discuss Jason Schwartzman’s Max Frischer. Murray who’s just met him, thinks he’s a sharp little guy, and the camera then abruptly cuts from a two shot on Murray standing behind Cox in a side elevation shot, to a frontal shot of Cox in foreground and Murray in the background: “He’s one of the worst students we’ve got”, Cox says, after taking a deep puff on his pipe. Some of the humour comes in the pause, but much of it comes in the cut from the side elevation to the frontal shot. The film then introduces us to a montage of shots suggesting why Max might not be much of a student: he belongs to every club in the school. To Creation’s ‘Making Time’, we see a series of shots of Max’s numerous extra-curricular activities in another moment that underscores the information we’ve already been given. Where Pudovkin talks about an emphasis that deepens, we see how in Rushmore the emphasis lightens: the form and content weld together to capture a facetious tone that doesn’t so much generate the comedic, but undermines the serious. What we’re suggesting about many of the films here is that they don’t quite achieve what Gerald Mast astutely called the ‘comic climate’, with it own rules and often tight reasoning procedures; they instead offer a ‘blasé’ climate, a sense that one’s indifferent or unimpressed by something because we’ve all seen or done it before. While frequently in a comic climate there is a strong sense of naivety – evident in visual comedians from Chaplin to Keaton, to neurotics like Jack Lemmon and Woody Allen – in this blasé form it’s as if humour isn’t a specific climate, but much more a knowing disposition, and a disposition almost pre-existent to the work, taking into account Payne’s remarks above. It is as though the filmmakers are looking for material that can allow for the maximum amount of cinematic smugness, for a complicit relationship with the viewer.

We can see this complicity at work in I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell’s existential environmentalist movie, where Jason Schwartzman (again) hires a couple of investigators to make sense of his ‘coincidence’, basically to make sense of a series of incidents in his life. Though an attack on corporate America and advertising, Russell’s film nevertheless feels like a branch of that world because of its own image structure, that sense of instant summation which allows us to ‘get’ the film, with the voice-over, music track and caricatured characterization all adding to a sense of knowingness in the viewing experience. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or, say, Donnie Darko, Russell takes existential problematics (the notion of the event in I Heart Huckabees; memory in Eternal Sunshine…the problem of time in Donnie Darko) removes from the subject the sense of mystery, and replaces it with a sense of ontological security, a sense of visual and narrative certitude on the viewer’s part through a visual and narrative assertiveness on the director’s.

Of course, such an ontology flies in the face of our second theorist, André Bazin. Bazin believed that cinema’s greatness resided in the “ontological ambiguity of reality”, in the image being probed by the filmmaker and consequently the viewer. It would not only be the fly that wouldn’t be directed; the filmmaker should also search out the maximum amount of contingency within an unavoidable aestheticism. As Bazin insisted in What is Cinema Vol 2?: “realism in art can only be achieved in one way – through artifice.” But this is an art that seeks the truth, and the longer the take, and the deeper the focus, the more opportunity there will be for the viewer to see the complex reality the filmmaker tries to capture. As Bazin says elsewhere in Bazin at Work: “Isn’t this a sound definition of realism in art: to force the mind to draw its own conclusions about people and events, instead of manipulating it into accepting someone else’s interpretation?”

There is so often the sense in the blaséists’ work that realism hasn’t much to do with anything – that even the notion of realism, in an age of multi-media manipulation and Computer Generated Imagery, would be the height of naivety. And yet what is interesting about many of the filmmakers who refuse naivety is their acceptance of sentimentality. Certainly at the beginning of Garden State, for example, we’re meant to find the funeral of the central character’s mother a gag rather than a moment of emotional intensity. Here a woman sings a song in respect to the central character’s late mum, but writer, director and star Zach Bruff frames the scene in such a way that our emotional involvement is very much secondary to our ironic distance. Yet by the end, as Time Out critic Geoff Andrew suggests, “this is a movie where ‘sensitivity’ and ‘sincerity’ are signposted by songs by Paul Simon and Nick Drake”. Where in an earlier moment we’re witness to the absurd – evident in the shirt the central character’s given as a gift that matches identically with the wallpaper he stands against – by the end of the film the mise-en-scene is mobilised for maximum sentimentality: evidenced for example in the scene where the leading character and his love interest kiss in the pouring rain.

What we often have in the blaséists is an inability to generate a new image system, a new way of evoking thought and feeling, and thus they instead settle for the two modes of the ironic and the sentimental, with usually the ironic taking care of the first half to two-thirds of the film, and the last section bringing in the ‘moving’ to allow for the necessary catharsis. Is this what Andrew is getting at when he says in Garden State “a tryst beside the log fire marks the moment when the plot’s formulaic trappings are laid bare for us all to see?” In I Heart Huckabees, the closing scene shows tough and sensitive firefighter Mark Wahlberg talking to Schwartzman about the importance of the environment in a mocking tone that is nevertheless unequivocally meant to move us, as the music strikes up and reminds us how we ought to feel. As Schwartzman places a hand on Walhberg’s shoulder, Wahlberg says “it looks like you saw some truth”; and Schwartzman offers the same observation back. But as they both get excited by the mysteries of the world, Russell films it with no mystery in the form. A series of shot/counter shots shows the film covering the dialogue exchange in the most conventional manner available. In Rushmore, the film ends on Max dancing with the much older woman of his dreams, the new first-grade teacher. Once again the director relies on shot/counter shots and the music to guide our emotions as Wes Anderson concludes the film on a similar sense of wistful catharsis to I Heart Huckabees. The blaséists want their cake and to eat it too, and utilise in the first instance the sort of detail fetishism proposed by Foundas, and secondly a sort of therapeutic catharsis that has become a mainstay of American ‘indie’ cinema, whether it be the homogenising emotional montage at the end of Magnolia, the feelgood gay family ending of Shortbus, or the endings to I Heart Huckabees, Garden State or Rushmore.

There is a sense that in Indieworld life isn’t about goal-oriented behaviour, which will release catharsis through our identification with action, as we expect in the mainstream blockbuster, but instead about getting in touch with feelings through relative inaction. Though Harold and Maude is often name-checked as a key influence, much more so would be The Graduate. Though both are occasionally mentioned in James Mottram’s The Sundance Kids, a book that includes many of the films we are talking about here,  it is the passivity of Hoffman’s character, Benjamin, that keys into the emotional tenor of many of these films. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees all owe something to the quiet resistance of Benjamin whilst the filmmaker searches out the emotional arc. This is no bad thing in itself, but if the film so insistently caricatures in the first half and attempts to move us in the second, we feel as viewers less on a learning curve than a carefully calculated emotional register, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous exaggeration, while the filmmaker still has to rein in our carefully worked insensitivity for the cathartic resolution. The passivity can seem a lot like directorial control to the detriment of character agency.

This is of course very far from Bazin’s ontological ambiguity of reality, but then it is also far removed from the dictates of Pudovkin. If Pudovkin believes that the film needs a “dissection into parts or elements,” then this still finally feels much less manipulative than a film that isn’t only dissecting the scenes into a series of short cuts, but also dissecting for the purposes of emotionally leading us by the nose. It would be absurd to suggest that even in the films Bazin most admires that we’re not emotionally lead. Rome Open City, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. all have manipulative scenes with, respectively the priest killed, the father searching for his bike, the maid making coffee, that leave us knowing exactly where we should be. But they still seem to looking for the same sort of accumulative effect Pudovkin would demand when saying “when we wish to apprehend anything, we always begin with the general outlines, and then, by intensifying our examination to the highest degree, enrich the apprehension by an ever-increasing number of details.” There is, then, despite the very different aesthetic demands of Bazin and Pudovkin, an intensification; many of the blaséists demand the intensification only as a sort of emotional peripety: that it is not so much the character who undergoes a shift of fate, but the audience a shift in mood and tone as we move from cynical and mocking to soft-hearted and sentimental. This is less cathartic release than therapeutic assuagement, and the ‘depth charge’ comes with a decidedly strong feeling of bad faith.

It is presumably the emotionally peripety that Andrew invokes in that sentimental moment as the two leading characters fall in love by the fire in Garden State, but we see it in plenty other films as well, and, just as David Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It notices many filmmakers are working with other arcs beyond the narrative one, so why not a sort of emotional semi-diegetic play with the audience also? Bordwell mentions that many filmmakers today work basically with visual arcs. “Whatever its source, the idea is now widespread, and most major films will be planned to execute an overall visual arc. Requiem for a Dream, for example, works its “three acts” “with a different color temperature: warm, hard light for the summer; colder tones for fall; and artificial fluorescent light and pushed film stock for winter”. “As Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) takes it story from the late 1920s through to the 1940s, the imagery moves from Technicolor’s early two-color palette to the richer three-color one.” Bordwell admits this isn’t entirely new and gives for example the “lens plot” for Twelve Angry Men (1957), where director Sidney Lumet moved toward “longer lenses and steeper angles as the action unrolled”, while Scott Higgins writing on Far From Heaven in a book on Todd Haynes proves it was central to fifties melodrama and beyond. But, it seems, it’s only recently become de rigueur.

Now of course some people would say a visual arc is one thing, a non-diegetic element superimposed onto the storyline, while an emotional arc is surely very much about the storyline. Yet to some degree the visual arc is also narratively driven: evident for example in the three act, three season aspect of Requiem for a Dream. By the same token the emotional arc is only partly about the story, if we take into account that the shift in register isn’t just because a character is undergoing a change of fortune, as we find in the usual notion of a peripety, but also if the film determines a change of tone that doesn’t especially concern the character. In Garden State, for example, the central character doesn’t move from insensitive to sensitive, it is more of a case that the film does. The emotional isn’t especially consistent with the character arc; it just moves from a caricatural mise-en-scene to a sensitive mise-en-scene. We see this early caricatural mise-en-scene in the scene where Bruff’s best friend’s mother is sleeping with a ‘knight’ – a young man who happens to have a job at some theme park where he goes to work in full armour. This isn’t especially Bruff’s character’s amusing take on his friend’s mum and her boyfriend; it is much more the film’s. We find it amusing more because of the camera placement and the breakfast table scenario and the clanking noises than from some especially cynical or amused point of view. We certainly don’t feel that Bruff’s character is on a learning curve from insensitivity to sensitivity, but the film’s emotional arc is to have us move from ironic to sentimental, as Andrew suggests.

However, if we finally have such a problem with this type of filmmaking, it is because, as we’ve proposed earlier, it doesn’t seem to know how to find a fresh image structure, and works instead knowingly with the clichéd images we already have. In the early moments in The Royal Tenenbaums, as the kids talk to their father (Gene Hackman), the film offers 180% reverse-angle cutting that gives an ironic dimension to the discussion as it plays on the shot counter/shot but simply exacerbates the angle of the cut. There is no doubt Bruff, meanwhile, is aware that log fires have been used throughout cinema history to indicate lovemaking, and a heart melting, and it is as if his job is to film it in such a way that we’re aware of his awareness. It is not a fresh image; it is a knowing cliché. It is one of the very things that Gilles Deleuze despairs over in much art, where as he suggests in his book on Francis Bacon the image is nothing but “Cliches, clichés!” He’s of course talking about painting, and reckons the “situation has hardly improved since Cezanne”; he feels that the artist’s job is to wrestle from the many clichés something that moves beyond cliché. He quotes Lawrence on Cezanne saying, “after a fight tooth and nail for forty years, he did succeed in knowing an apple, fully; and, not quite as fully a jug or two. That was all he achieved. It seems little and he died embittered.” But though Lawrence might be talking hyperbolically of failure, it contains a huge lesson for the Blaséists, a lesson that filmmakers like Larry Clark, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes and Vincent Gallo have learnt – that life runs through the filmmakers hands as the film runs through the camera. To offer anything that possesses a smidgeon of this reality is a huge move forward, no matter if it is surrounded by a general failure.

And why would this be? We return to Lawrence and his belief that “Cezanne’s apple is a great deal, more than Plato’s Idea”, and this is because it doesn’t assume everything is an idea that we then sketch or paint or film as realistically as possible, but that we need to extract from something real a tint, a shade, a colour that makes us feel the appleness of the apple. In the Blaséists’ work it is as though they are in a world where there is no longer anything organic, that all images are now genetically modified and that all they can offer is an awareness of the artificiality of the crops. But what Deleuze (who was hardly a Bazinian realist, as his two books on Cinema testify) Lawrence and Cezanne are asking for, and what we see in the occasional contemporary filmmaker, is an attempt at a fresh garden, a garden where organic images can grow.

This, though, isn’t the place to explore the moments of growth – that’s for another article – but to propose how filmmakers accept too readily its impossibility. In The Royal Tenenbaums, the film works from a kind of over-determined mise-en-scene, where characters are placed within a space and the director sums up their natures through an emphatically external perspective. If a “basic principle of expressionism is that the physical surroundings of the characters reflect their internal states”, as Wead and Lellis say in Film: Form and Function, then many of the younger filmmakers practise a sort of inexpressionism. It is as though the characters are caught in the mise-en-scene, products less of an inner life seeking an outlet, than an outer life seeking an identity, however pathetic. Anderson in The Royal Tenenbaums plays up this pathetic aspect. Just as Payne proposes that what he liked about the novel Sideways was based on were the wrong self-images and the comic set-pieces, so Anderson seems to concur. All the young leading characters are pretty much arrested adolescents, a family of over-achievers at an early age, the Tenenbaum kids have ground to a dysfunctional halt, especially Gwyneth Paltrow, who hasn’t completed a play in years, and Luke Wilson, who still holds a candle for his half-sister (Paltrow) and hasn’t played pro-tennis since she married another man. Then there is Ben Stiller, who still wears basically the same red tracksuit he wore as a kid, and who kits his own children out in exactly the same apparel. An inner life here would ruin Anderson’s visual schema, and so frequently he’ll settle for a psychological equivalent of that log fire, evidenced when the depressed Paltrow locks herself in the bathroom and smokes endlessly. Isn’t this just cinematic shorthand?

The biggest problem with Anderson’s film, and by extension the work of all the blaséists, is that you sense the internal life has no place and, though it’s unlikely any of the filmmakers here would choose to compare themselves to the behaviourists in the field of psychology, they share the behaviourist desire to “leave out consciousness and introspection”, according to the Dictionary of Modern Thought. When we proposed the idea of an inexpressionism at work in many of these films, it resided in this refusal to explore the complexity of an inner life, or more especially an un-willingness to suggest fresh possibilities for its characters through finding an outer form that expresses this inner complexity. If anything it is the other way round: they find an outer simplification to signify the inner simplicity. We don’t feel as we do in many of the great films of the seventies, in Five Easy Pieces, in Taxi Driver, in Fat City, or The Conversation, that the search for the characters’ existential purpose is uncontainable – however determined the director happens to be to find an expressive form for that crisis – and that is partly what makes the seventies films often ambiguous works. In The Royal Tenenbaums, by contrast, every crisis seems decidedly containable, as we see for example in the scene where Wilson’s tennis ace plays a hopelessly inattentive last game while Paltrow sits in the crowd with her new husband. Here the commentators bemusedly enquire what has gone wrong with Wilson’s game, while we in the audience, of course, are in no doubt that it is because Paltrow has just got married to another man. This isn’t ambiguity; its singular irony. It is often this ironic tone over an ambiguous sense that man is always more complicated than art’s capacity to contain him that brings out the differences between the seventies films and their nineties and ‘noughties’ counterparts.

This, of course, isn’t to say there aren’t recent filmmakers doing work that’s consistent with the seventies films, and we’ve already name-checked Van Sant, Clark and others. But we might wonder why many of the films by Anderson and co. fall under the indie rubric, and yet have an air of representational smugness, where many of the seventies films that didn’t possess this sense of summation were made by filmmakers working with big studios: The Conversation was made for Paramount, Taxi Driver, Five Easy Pieces and Fat City all for Columbia. This isn’t to say that many of the newer films mentioned here haven’t involved big studio money – Rushmore was co-produced by Touchstone, Election by Paramount and Being John Malkovich by Universal – but they are all perceived as Indie-minded films. Yet the sort of work that would pass for clearly Indie in the seventies would be Wanda, A Woman Under the Influence and the work of Charles (The Killer of Sheep) Burnett, films where edgy form met edgy content, films that were less calling cards than postcards from the edge. Sometimes it is hard now to differentiate from indie and mainstream because the indie film is seeking to function not as an antithesis to the mainstream but more a preparation for it: The Brothers McMullen being a textbook case. As the hardly radically independent Kevin Smith reckoned, “Ed Burns and The Brothers McMullen was the beginning of the end. It was a movie that absolutely could have been made by a studio. It has as much edge as vanilla ice cream.” As Smith insists in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, “everyone wanted that cheap but softshell picture that fuckin’ reaches into the warm and fuzzies of the fuckin’ average multiplex moviegoer while still being able to call itself independent.” Would the seventies indie pieces pass for warm and fuzzy?

But what we have been looking at here isn’t the behind the scenes shift from indie to dependent, the way for example Miramax was steadily absorbed into the mainstream by being bought over by Disney, but much more the lack of independence in the very image making itself – something that Miramax contributed to long before its take-over. In an issue of the independently minded Vertigo magazine, its nineteen point manifesto included “that it tells me something I don’t know and questions as much as it answers,” “that it holds a mirror to the broken world” and “that it not look like a music video, or smell like an advertisement.” Of the three only the second seems much to interest the Blaséists, so much so that Mike Atkinson in Sight and Sound reckons that in recent films “modern American suburbia was envisioned as a dour, soulless hell.” We could incorporate the urban as well as the suburban. Whether it is The Squid and the Whale, Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State or Little Children, there is this sense that the broken mirror is present, but what is perhaps missing is the political and aesthetic dimension to the fractured glass. There is no sense of putting America back together again through some sense of political engagement or aesthetic purposefulness. Humanism usually wins out, whether that’s the conservative compromises of Little Children as the leading characters realise that they can’t sacrifice their families to their passion, or Garden State’s increasingly mushy mise-en-scene as yet another film contributes to the making of the couple, there is a sense of that all too human cathartic release. There is a reactionary strain in many so-called indie films, and whether it is in form, in content, in distribution compromises, or audience expectations, we’re left wondering how many recent American films are really worthy of the name independent in any manifestation.


©Tony McKibbin