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Cinematic Communion

The Soul of Things


What is it for a work to commune with itself? What aspect must a film possess that suggests it isn’t simply self-reflexive, in the general sense of making the viewer aware of the fact they are watching a film, but instead in dialogue with its own inner thematic? To differentiate, let us think of Godard’s Vivre sa vie and Anna Karina’s look directly to the audience. This is a film that possesses a self-reflexive dimension, but that doesn’t mean that it is in communion with the work that it is, though it might be so in other aspects. Now let us think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the scene where early on R. P. McMurphy tries desperately to shift the water tank before eventually admitting failure. At the end of the film, after McMurphy’s been lobotimized, and the Indian chief suffocates him rather than leaving him in that state, the chief uses his enormous strength and manages to lift the water tank, carries it over to the window, and uses it to break the glass and make his escape. This appears to us quite different from the Godard example, or the idea that if you bring a gun into the first act we expect it to go off in the third. The former is an instance of making the viewer self-conscious, the latter a Chekhovian example of foreshadowing, a telegraphed moment of narrative preconception all the better to set up the viewer to expect its deployment later. For the gun not to go off would be playing against audience anticipation: it would be possible, but the filmmaker ought to be well aware of the viewer’s expectation. In some ways Godard plays with expectation too; just as the gun will go off in the third act, so we expect the characters to look at each other and not out to the viewer, and Godard defies that convention. These are very different examples (one formal; one narrative), but they seem quite distinct from what we are saying of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Can we say there is the equivalent expectation concerning the water tank as there is with the gun going off, or at the other extreme, the equivalent sense of surprise when the audience is faced? If Chief had escaped by breaking the window with a fire extinguisher, we would be unlikely to be thinking of the water tank that hadn’t been deployed, but if there is a gun conspicuously presented to us in the first act in a film and the person ends up using a knife instead, we might wonder why the gun was introduced to us at all, except as a red herring, a way of later confounding a viewer’s assumptions. The tank doesn’t have that same sense of expectation, so when it is used it becomes a meaningful object, not only a useful one.

Now we can say there are at least five ways in which a work can potentially commune with itself, three of which we have already mentioned. But it is the type of example we find in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that really interests us. However, it might be useful to lay out these five possibilities and propose why four of them serve a different purpose, even if the purpose they serve (as in Vivre sa vie) are formally and often intellectually much more challenging than the type that interests us here. One is the self-reflexive that acknowledges itself as a work with an audience, and insists on confronting the viewer with an aspect of form that draws attention to it as a piece of cinema. Whether Godard has Karina looking at the camera in Vivre sa vie, wondering what shot he should choose to use in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, cutting out the non-diegetic music in the middle of a scene to point up the imposition of music in Slow Motion, or the camera that turns its lens on the audience in Contempt, Godard is a master of self-reflexivity in film.

A second instance is where the form is deliberate but not quite intrusive. When David Bordwell talks of the parametric in Narration in the Fiction Film, he mentions films including Katzelmacher, Pickpocket and, indeed, Vivre sa vie as films that create a certain style through deliberate formal choices, choices that might not be immediately visible to the viewer, but indicate a clear formal parti pris. In Katzelmacher, fixed shots are met with occasional tracking camera movements. At a certain point we might realize this is a very deliberate strategy, rather than merely the best way to convey boredom and release. Noel Burch’s essay on Gertrud in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary explores this notion of a very deliberate set of formal decisions so invisible that many critics when the film was originally shown saw a dull, stagy adaptation, rather than a film of immense cinematic deliberation. Sometimes this formal patterning might not carry over the whole film, but will allow for formal bookending. The overhead crane shot that leads into a theme park at the beginning of Reality is matched at the end by a similar shot that is based on reversing away from a big brother style studio. Wendy and Lucy starts on a tracking shot of Wendy playing with her dog as if viewed from a moving train. At the end of the film Wendy gets on a train to Alaska, and the shot chimes with the opening one, with Wendy almost part of the very tracking shot we saw at the beginning. It is a form of cinematic antimetabole: a reversal within repetition. A third example that incorporates self-awareness is the homage, the moment in a film that acknowledges its debt to other films. Whether it is the beginning of Jackie Brown recognizing its similarity with the beginning of The Graduate, Taxi Driver’s overhead shot of the alka seltzer similar to the Godard moment of a coffee cup in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, or American Gigolo ending similarly to Pickpocket, these are all moment of self-reflexive debt.

The fourth and most common aspect of self-reflexivity, albeit one usually completely absorbed into the diegesis, almost into our general patterns of thinking, is also all but unavoidable: the narrative details that we expect the film to follow through on because they have been so clearly established. Occasionally of course a filmmaker refuses this expectation. Antonioni’s L’avventura and Blow-Up do not reveal the narrative mysteries they have set in motion: a character that goes missing in the first instance, a murder that takes place in the second. In Hidden we never find out who is responsible for the sent tapes. We are reminded here of Pauline Kael’s quip in the New Yorker at the expense of Wim Wenders: the director seems to want to tell a story but can’t quite keep his mind on it. However, most films do keep their minds on the story, often to the detriment of the other properties of film, and yet we shouldn’t dismiss this out of hand, but rather see it as consistent with how our mind generally works. When the gun is introduced in act one, we do expect it to go off before the end of the film.

To understand this better we can invoke the fifth instance of which One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a fine example, see how it differs from the fourth, and why the narrative method of most films chimes with our general reasoning faculties, but the others belong to the freedom of the filmmaker. The water tank is a detail that needn’t have returned, unlike the gun prominently displayed that needs to go off. In John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, for example, there is a moment where the characters refer to a gas bottle that could send the whole police station they are in sky high. This is the ‘gun’. Later it will be the very bottle that will help them draw attention to the station that is being besieged by a marauding gang. It is a detail that we expect to be picked up on again as the bottle falls into the category of yankee know-how – that capacity to think of the best solution to getting the hell out of a place. Carpenter’s is a fine film, but very much a generic work that follows through on its own narrative reasoning faculties. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest creates a subtle faculty beyond reason; finding the invisible logic that makes the water tank emotionally inevitable but not at all predictable. To understand this more clearly, wouldn’t it have been absurd for Chief, having broken out of the hospital with the aid of the fire extinguisher, to have returned and broken out all over again with the water tank? The plot demands that he break out of the hospital, but the water tank is the detail that gives great thematic significance to the moment. It echoes back to McMurphy’s attempt in the past, while also showing Chief’s enormous strength in the present. Yet it also illustrates Chief’s respect for the lost freedom, and lost life, of McMurphy. The water tank is the film communing with itself. It is this notion of a film finding the means for self-communion that interest us here, and though the other methods of what we will call abstract communion (the parti pris of the form, the self-consciousness of the film, the self-reflexive relationship with film history) are all important, and the plot logic usually essential, there is an attentiveness to this question of communion which often allows for ‘the soul of things’ to become apparent.

It is a term Milan Kundera uses, out of Flaubert, in an essay in The Curtain. The water tank is not a functional thing in this context but a soulful thing, an object that contains both time and feeling. Where numerous objects in films are plot functional, there are some that are soul functional, but this doesn’t have to manifest itself in an object of course, but equally in the words of a subject. If Casablanca is a film that moves people so consistently, it rests in part on the number of echoes it possesses to other moments, other times. When Rick says “Play it, Sam”, it is a reference to the time Bogart and Bergman were in Paris; when at the end he says “here’s looking at you kid”, it again possesses an echo. Here the film is in communion with itself through the characters being in communion with each other. But is that not also what takes place between McMurphy and Chief, with Chief managing not only to escape as McMurphy failed, but also lifting the water tank as well? Here Chief very much succeeds where McMurphy was defeated, but this isn’t at all an example of the one-upmanship of the living, but the survivor acknowledging the dead.

There are, then, very different ways in which soulful communion can take place within a film, and a fine recent example is a moment from Frances Ha, with the title character at a dinner party babbling on as she gets drunk before talking of the important moment of complicity you can have with someone where you are on the other side of the room, in different conversations, but you are connected. This revelation comes halfway through the film after her close friendship with Sophie has weakened, and then in the concluding scene, with their friendship strong again, we notice this moment of complicity between them. It is a beautiful touch because it isn’t expected, but it isn’t arbitrary either. Where the plot moment invoked by Chekhov becomes an expectation, the moment of communion comes, oxymoronically, as an inevitable surprise. We wouldn’t have expected it, but it feels when it happens as though the film couldn’t have ended any other way. In an action film, or a romantic comedy, when the villain is bested and the girl or guy got, the inevitable is not surprising, it is mechanically expected, however well it happens to have been developed. Perhaps it is a question of how much thematic play a film manages to create, and the more generically given a work, the more mechanical are the demands placed upon it. When in Four Weddings and a Funeral it looks like Hugh Grant will walk down the aisle with the wrong woman, we wait with expectant breath for Andie McDowell to appear and the film to have not only its happy ending but its entirely predictable one. The film doesn’t cast a star like McDowell in a lowish budget British comedy without also making her the bride of Grant’s bumbler. Not only do we feel the mechanics of the genre at work but also, as in many a romantic comedy, the mechanics of the star system as well.

Perhaps one reason why Eric Rohmer has usually avoided stars, except those partly of his own making (Beatrice Romand, Marie Riviere, Melvil Popaud, Fabrice Luchini, Arielle Dombasle), is that the mechanical cannot manifest itself as star-system expectation. In The Green Ray, Riviere’s Delphine finds the man of her dreams but within the context of the film he is a cameo extra: he turns up at the film’s conclusion, but he hasn’t been seen at all until this point. The ideal that he represents has however been alluded to during a conversation a group of people have that Delphine overhears as they talk about the green ray. Witnessing it with someone else we can read our own and the other person’s feelings too, and that is perhaps what happens when Delphine and this stranger with whom she can talk witness it together. It is a beautiful moment because it is poetic rather than mechanical, a moment in nature and not a scene of ready manipulation. Neither character is cajoling the other, no friends are available to shape the situation, and thus, when the green ray appears, it manages to reflect well the characters’ feelings, whilst at the same time shrinking them next to nature’s wonder.

Rohmer interestingly once proposed that “we are not led to look for the existence of atoms behind what the film shows us, but for something that reaches beyond phenomena, a soul, some totally other spiritual principle.” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one feels, searches out this notion; Assault on Precinct 13 does not. Thus we might apply Rohmer’s dictum to the notion of communion. If the elements come together too obviously through the categorical plot logic, then the work seems devoid of the contingent, and contains the dimension of the narratively efficient. We often refer to many films as soulless, and what we mean by this frequently lies in the film’s incapacity to generate the soul of things in dialogue, objects and nature.

Of course this is a subjective thing, because there are films that play on repetition and yet we may insist they remain soulless works. In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell sees in Jerry Maguire (a film about a sports agent who gets fired from a mega-firm) numerous and wonderful examples of repetition, saying the film “…teems with recurring motifs.” He notes that the “pop songs create clusters of implications…music eventually gets linked to the goldfish Jerry [Tom Cruise] rescues from the agency. At first the fish indicate how little support he has from his co-workers (“they’re going with me”) and how little his bosses respect him (“those fish have manners”).” We might muse though over the repetition that for many summed up the film: the phrase “Show me the money” so insistently deployed in the wake of its commercial success. We’re inclined to see this and other repetitions as hollow, an anxious compulsion to repeat, closer to the endlessly uttered line in the rather more critical Robocop offered by an advert: “I’d buy that for a dollar”. The repetition is no longer surprising but a weary expectation, a point director Paul Verhoeven notes as he uses it to question the brain drain impact of advertising, but that Cameron Crowe in Jerry Maguire plays up. Indeed, there are scenes in Jerry Maguire not unlike the advert in Robocop: in Crowe’s film we have a series of brief scenes with Jerry’s mentor talking direct to camera about what makes a successful agent. The various repetitions in the film are closer to leitmotifs, a term of course commonly deployed in music and adopted for literature, and Bordwell sees their use in Jerry Maguire as a positive, while Verhoeven clearly uses them in Robocop as a negative.

What might have allowed Jerry Maguire to offer the soul of things lies elsewhere, in a semi-rhyme that Bordwell doesn’t mention. Around three quarters of the way into the film we see Jerry and his new wife eating with Jerry’s one client, Ray, and his spouse. While the client and the spouse are clearly in love and can’t stop touching each other, Jerry can’t quite share Dorothy’s love for him. He makes a couple of gentle gestures but they seem forced. Near the end of the film, Jerry hugs Ray after an emotional game, and the man from the mega-agency who fired Jerry at the beginning of the film looks on, offering a hug to one of his clients that is rejected as the fake feeling it so obviously is. There is something in this repetition that if had been played a little straighter, and if Jerry hadn’t then gone off and declared his love to Dorothy (after it looked like the marriage was over), it might have allowed the soul of things to show through. But Jerry Maguire can’t allow the subtle complexity of feeling to reveal the soul; it has to register it as insistent feeling. When Jerry starts babbling on to Dorothy about how she completes him (an echo from an earlier scene between a deaf couple they see in a lift), she says he should shut up – he had her on hello the moment he walked through the door. But the film itself can’t shut-up; it wants not a moment as subtle refrain, where Jerry might have realized that he is a great agent but lousy in relationships, but a clutter of motifs and recurrences all narratively dovetailed. If we were left to wonder whether Jerry might just get better eventually at love (to be as good at loving as he is at promoting and looking after his clients), then the film would have ended more openly and perhaps have arrived at showing us a hint of Jerry’s soul. Instead we see the mechanics of romantic comedy excessively whirring.

Our point here is that the communing is often based on a repetition not at all becoming a detail within the work regularly repeated. It is something that need only return once, perhaps twice, but that isn’t overdone within the context of the film for ready narrative effect. It instead provides a subtler form of resonance. It mustn’t become an expectation, a cumbersome leitmotif; but a small detail that brings us closer to the soul of things. Often it is something half-forgotten, like the water tank, but all the more memorable for its possible obsolescence.Thus what the film needs to do if it is to find communion is to put into dialogue, objects and nature the soulful through careful elaboration and contained surprise.

To conclude let us give two further examples to put alongside One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Casablanca, Frances Ha and The Green Ray: Five Easy Pieces and Le vent de la nuit. At one moment in Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson character says that he is constantly leaving because things always turn bad if he stays, and it is as though, when we see him at the end of the film suddenly leave his girlfriend and jump into a truck going to Alaska, we have the line in our head as we witness his relatively inexplicable action. It is the beseeching line earlier about having to leave that feeds into his behaviour, just as the discussion earlier between Frances and others at the dinner party feeds into the look she shares with Sophie at the end of Frances Ha. In Le vent de la nuit it resides in a picture of the central character’s wife we see earlier in the film that we must assume is the same picture lying face down after the central character commits suicide. It is a subtle touch that could have easily been more forced; a flashback to better times, perhaps, or at the very least a clear sense that this is the picture from before. But no, director Philippe Garrel expects us to remember the picture and assume it is this photo that we see on the floor, just as our central character Serge is shown face down on the table after the suicidal deed.

Some might insist that these moments, for all their subtle expression, are nevertheless merely an element of the script; that they are not properly cinematic properties as we may find in the opening and closing shots of Reality, as we see in the homage to The Graduate at the beginning of Jackie Brown, or as we notice the formal insistence evident in Katzelmacher and Gertrud. No doubt many of the moments were scripted, but the success of such touches often lies in the manner of delivery, or the body language of the actor. When McMurphy desperately attempts to lift the water tank and after defeat says, “I tried, boys. I did at least do that. I tried,” another actor might have delivered the line with more anger or bravado. Nicholson delivers it with just the right amount of weary failure, a rebel who has suffered many a defeat. When at the end Chief succeeds where McMurphy failed, it carries within it a gesture of defiance much greater than an object thrown out of a window, just as Bobby’s escape at the end of Five Easy Pieces carries with it a despair much greater than the gesture partly because of his line earlier about walking away from things because they turn bad if he stays.  Equally, Frances’ burbling on earlier in the film suggests how desperately she needs a friend, and so when the relationship between the two girls is cemented, the silence between them is all the more pronounced because of her need to talk before to others. Just as Nicholson is the perfect actor for a certain type of tired rebelliousness, Greta Gerwig in the role of Frances is just right as the opposite: a figure of irrepressible energy and enthusiasm amusingly evident earlier in the film where she tries to get another acquaintance to play at mock fighting as she used to do with Sophie.

And what of The Green Ray and Le vent de la nuit? Both films invoke nature in their very titles, and for Rohmer and Garrel it functions cinematically and thematically: the green ray is of course the ray of hope Delphine is looking for in her life even if she might be surprised at how literally it appears. But the film doesn’t only invoke the sun, but also the wind. At one moment after lunch with friends she goes off on her own and we see her crying, the wind shuddering around her as her body quietly heaves. In Le vent de la nuit, the wind presents itself one evening late in the film after Serge and his assistant step out of the car. It is a mysterious presence, as though conjuring up the dead that is evident throughout the film in Serge’s obsession with his late wife: the picture we see, the conversations he has about her, the grave he visits in Berlin, the suicide that will take him away from his pain and perhaps closer to his late spouse. The communing present here is to give nature a purpose without simply turning it into ready metaphor. This is not like the rain we often get when lovers part, or the violent wind that can kick start a plot as it destroys a town. Nature is neither quite metaphorical nor is it simply plot logical. Rohmer and Garrel give to nature its properties, its capacity to be present in film as in no other art form, and then allow it to commune with other elements to generate the soul of things.

Our purpose here hasn’t been to push forward a solid argument; more a suggestive notion based on feelings that we may believe need a degree of articulation. It is often easier to explain what a film communing with itself isn’t rather than what it is. It doesn’t lie in a plot element later revealed, in a homage to another film or art work, to a formal patterning or a self-reflexive gesture, though there is certainly a place for an essay about films that commune with other films, and films self-reflexively communing with an audience. We might think of Godard’s use of The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre sa vie, Mon Oncle in The Illusionist, Bertolucci’s albeit weak use of Bande a Part in The Dreamers, or the mask Edith Scob wears in Holy Motors in reference to her own role in Eyes without a Face more than fifty years earlier. Or, less concretely, we might think of Belmondo’s Bogart gesture in A bout de souffle, the camera movement at the end of Seul contre tous that homages Mizoguchi. These are all examples of films communing with other works. Then there are films that commune with the audience not only as Godard often insists upon with a straight-to-camera address, but also in the freeze-framed look out at the audience we find in 400 Blows and A ma souer!. The soul of things in cinema can take many forms, but what has interested us here is first and foremost those works we find in communion with themselves, films that gain meaning and purpose from their capacity to reference an earlier moment that then returns with added weight and force.


©Tony McKibbin