A Bastard Art
The debut feature of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, the director, in a typical moment of lugubrious self-deprecation that is also evident in the director’s oeuvre, said that he decided to adapt Crime and Punishment to aim high and fall hard: if you’re going to fail why do so with a small drop? This is Beckett’s fail harder, but not as late modernist despair; more post-modern irony. It is as if Kaurismaki adapted Dostoevsky’s novel less out of a struggle with an impossibly demanding text, but more for its capacity for cliché: for the book’s very fame to function as cod-metaphysics not because of the inanity of the argument, but for the awareness one may have of the debate. Even many people who have never read the book will know it is about a young man who kills someone to discover whether one can so easily rid oneself of a conscience, and be aware also that the book has a young woman who unconditionally loves the narrator and an inspector whom the murderer keeps returning to as he cannot quite keep his deeds a secret.
Interestingly, however, though Kaurismaki talks in a televised interview with Jonathan Ross about aiming high, he doesn’t so much aim high as aim low and aspire out of this lowly position to achieve the affectivity of high art: to arrive out of cliché and self-awareness at a feeling that is both ironic and felt. To help us along here we might usefully mention a comment by the philosopher Alain Badiou in Alex Ling’s Badiou and Cinema, and also a remark made by André Bazin when talking about adapting literature to film. Badiou reckons cinema is the most impure of the arts, and calls it a Saturday night art that sometimes lifts us higher than we would expect. Occasionally out of our low expectations we find ourselves in a place of high art. It is as though Kaurismaki takes this as a given and hopes Dostoevsky’s metaphysical speculations and emotional power will find their way into the cracks of his self-reflexively down-market aesthetic. As if he hoped we would take the idea of adapting so famous a novel to the screen as inevitable cliché; but its moments of feeling as a welcome surprise.
In an essay on Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest in What is Cinema Vol II?, Bazin says “with Le Journal [The Diary of a Country Priest] cinematographic adaptation reaches a new stage. Up to now film tended to substitute for the novel in the guise of its aesthetic translation into another language. Fidelity meant a respect for the spirit of the novel, but also meant a search for the necessary equivalents, that is to say, it meant taking into account the dramatic requirements of the theatre or again the more direct effectiveness of the cinematographic image.” Bresson would go on to do his own version of Crime and Punishment with Pickpocket, and there is something in Kaurismaki’s approach to actors that resembles Bresson’s attitude to what he called models. The Finnish director looks not for expressive performances but emotionally muted ones, as if escaping the conventions of theatre and arriving at an exaggerated form of film acting, taking into account film acting is usually more subdued than its theatrical equivalent.
Yet such an approach is merely one aspect of Kaurismaki’s self-consciousness, one element that makes us aware that we are watching a film, and aware that we must surely be watching a bad one. As if taking into account Badiou’s comment that film is an impure form how can Kaurismaki dare to adapt what many see as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest novels except with a facetious tone that accepts the inevitability of its failure. Surely the best way to do so is to lay bare what makes cinema a low form: its reliance on not so much its formal conventions, which is one thing, but its emotional demands, which is another. One might think of a convention as a means with which one simply wants to be understood: the mode of form one adopts to achieve a certain clarity. E. H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion quotes one of Poussin’s patrons who noted: “whenever the painter claims that he imitates things as he sees them is sure to see them wrongly…he must therefore adjust his eye to reasoning according to the principles in themselves but also how they should be represented.” The latter allows for schema, modes of painting and perception that lead to ready comprehension. It is the notion of schema that David Bordwell and other formally minded critics have taken up, with Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film saying, “perception becomes a process of active hypothesis- testing. The organism is tuned to pick up data from the environment”, and then quotes Gombrich saying, “Groping comes before grasping.”
Now let us imagine two ends of the scale – the clichéd and the incomprehensible: the all too readily clear and the abstruse. In Beckett’s desire to fail harder lay the unwillingness to fall into ready schemata that could lead to the likelihood of cliché. One sees it in his early work where language is constantly turned toward itself in self-recognition. The opening of Murphy could in some ways resemble Kaurismaki’s Crime and Punishment. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect.” Here is an existential loner not without irony. Beckett’s book may have come out the same year as Sartre’s Nausea in 1938, but it as if Beckett were already aware that Notes from Underground, By the Open Sea, Hunger and Steppenwolf had made the idea of one man and his room potential for cliché, and thus started playing with it through self-conscious language. Failing harder resides here in acknowledging a certain exhaustion of form and finding the means with which to reflect it. Later of course much of his work would be based on language’s relative absence.
Kaurismaki here also does it through language: but chiefly through the language of cinema, and one can think first of all of the murder near the beginning of the film and the self-consciousness of its enactment. As central character Rahikainen goes up the stairs to the apartment of a businessman, the music seems to play non-diegetically on the soundtrack: a swelling score that indicates terrors to come. But as Rahikainen shoots the man dead he turns up and then down the very same music on the businessman’s record player: a piece we’ve taken to be non-diegetic, to be playing outwith the scene and over the soundtrack, proves to be diegetic: playing in the man’s apartment. The film convention resides in non-diegetic music cueing us into a scene’s emotional context, but Kaurismaki knows also that a convention is constantly endangered by the cliché, by the absurd obviousness of its use. It is as if such a scene allows us to take other moments less self-reflexively cued as nevertheless equally self-aware. For example when the inspector looks at the chalk mark where the body had earlier lain, the film offers a low-angled push-in on the inspector’s face; when the ambulance pulls away with the dead body the shot shows us the blue siren in medium close-up rather than the whole ambulance: a cliched image of metonymic predictability; the part that stands for the whole. A filmmaker can offer a metonym conventionally, where a close-up say of a face is a useful metonym of the entire body, one we hardly call into question as we don’t expect a close up on the foot or on the hand to be prioritised over the face. Or it can be offered unconventionally, where a filmmaker like Bresson or Godard will show you a close up of part of the body over the face. Kaurismaki offers something in between, as he goes for self-reflexive cliché: a metonymic device that becomes so predictable a means of short-hand that it proves surely absurd in this instance.
Ditto the convention of the shot/counter shot. Many filmmakers can use it for a conversation as the characters talk back and forth, but they usually do so with enough variety in the shot choices for the exchange to seem natural rather than formal: for it to seem the most natural way in which to shoot two people talking. However, when Rahikainen goes to see the woman who caught him in the flat just after he committed the murder, and who has decided not to tell the police about his presence there, Kaurismaki offers not only the most predictable of shot/counter shots, but also contains them within a predictability that emphasizes the cliché. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson note in Film Art, “in continuity editing, characters in one framing usually look left, in the other framing, right. Over the shot framings are common in shot/reverse shot editing.” In this exchange Kaurismaki instead gives us a very frontal shot/reverse shot, with the camera directly in front of each actor as they speak, and he also shows them in the same place from shot to shot. In a conventional shot/counter shot like the one between, say, Bette Davis and her daughter in a diner in Now Voyager, the angle is varied enough that though it is conventional it isn’t entirely predictable. It is as if director Irving Rapper offers it somewhere between a two shot (usually a shot showing a dialogue exchange between two characters within the frame shot from the front with the characters sitting on a park bench, waiting for a bus etc.) and a shot/counter shot: we see Davis in the shot as well as the girl when the girl talks, no matter if the director cuts back and forth.
Kaurismaki’s shot/reverse shots in some ways resemble those of the great Yasujiro (Tokyo Story) Ozu: where Ozu would often cut directly from a face looking into the camera to another face looking into the camera from exactly the same place within the frame. For Ozu, this was part of a geometrical aesthetic that numerous critics have commented upon: a distinctive originality rather than a self-reflexive device, and consistent with a formal patterning that creates an aesthetic very different from Hollywood convention, what Noel Burch calls in To the Distant Observer, “Ozu’s systematics”. Kaurismaki’s systematics consists not of rejecting convention, but pushing it into the further reaches of self-consciousness; as if from high art (Dostoevsky) he expects failure, and from low art (Hollywood) absurdity. Whether it is adapting Crime and Punishment here, or Puccini (La vie Boheme) or Shakespeare (Hamlet Goes Business), cinema is a bastard art that one tries to find ways to elevate. When in an interview in the Guardian with Danny Leigh, Kaurismaki said, “Hollywood has melted everyone’s brains”, it is as though he wants to make one aware of that melting and the impossibility finally of doing that much about it. In the same interview, he says “to talk about my lousy films I need more than coffee”, as he drinks beer, wine and whisky.
Now we might wonder whether Kaurismaki’s ironic awareness of convention leaves him resembling many a contemporary American filmmaker interested in a self-reflexive relationship with the image: directors like Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne, with films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, I Heart Huckabees, Election and Sideways. Kaurismaki, though, seems much closer to an earlier (namely his own) generation of ironists, Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, and this isn’t only an issue of age, but also of sensibility. In the latter directors’ work there seems to be a melancholic acceptance of the image structure in film; that we have become so trained in assumption that Jarmusch, Hartley and Kaurismaki hope to make the viewer aware of the viewer’s relationship with the convention and push it into cliché and absurdity. Anderson et al appear much more to seize on the glee of the stale image, adding another layer to it, or barely aware that they are producing stale images in the first place, evident in a claim made by Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess where when a handful of filmmakers including Russell, Payne and Anderson are mentioned by the interviewer, he says “I think people really want to see something new and original and fresh and some of the filmmakers that you just mentioned so offer that.” Surely the images a director like Anderson creates are not fresh so much as glazed, a little like food prepared for a photoshoot. This is the artificiality of the real; of creating a world that allows us not to take character or situation too seriously because the world is hardly a real one on which the filmmaker has trained his camera.
Often Hartley, Jarmusch and Kaurismaki, however, are interested in the real world, but also in the fact that their recording of this world has been filtered through the work of many other filmmakers. They can film the ‘real world’, but they accept they are filming it through an established approach that allows for a certain tragi-comic form as readily as content. It would seem clear that Jarmusch knows well Wim Wenders’ films just as Kaurismaki knows well Bresson’s, and Hartley Godard’s. In Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, the lengthy single take black and white scenes that fade to black seem to echo a certain lethargy relevant to Wenders’ shots in Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and The State of Things. Where Wenders would say he wanted to film reality and perhaps it would develop into a story, perhaps not, in Jarmusch’s work the director puts the idea into formal inverted commas: he appears to be saying that he films reality also, but after other filmmakers have done so in a similar way, and he must acknowledge the realisation through the slightly ironically detached form. Ditto Hartley; most obviously in the scene from a Hartley short that takes off from Godard’s Bande a Part, where the three characters dance. Indeed Jon Pierson reckons in Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, Hartley was indebted even to Jarmusch: “Hal’s European style auteur career was a variation on the Jarmusch model – only faster.” However, this awareness of film form and history isn’t egotistically empowering; it doesn’t give the filmmaker a sense of youthful superiority over the history of cinema, but instead a Confucian modesty in the face of it. They know they must accept forebears, and that even the pro-filmic originality of location cannot quite deny the formal influences of others.
Yet we’ve proposed in Kaurismaki’s films (as for that matter in Jarmusch and Hartley’s also), that the work achieves a capacity for genuine feeling greater than the irony of its form. It is this notion of genuine, as opposed to false and sentimental feeling, that differentiates these directors from the ones Hess mentions. Clearly a term like genuine is one of the laziest in criticism, but perhaps we can ground it just a little by saying that there is character feeling and audience feeling. Often where we sense this audience feeling at work in cinema is in what scripts gurus and others call the character arc. “Structure and character are interlocked”, Robert McKee says in Story. “The event structure of a story is created out of the choices that characters make under pressure and the actions they choose to take, while characters are the creatures that are revealed and changed by how they choose to act under pressure.” In films that possess spurious feeling is it because this interlocking leads to behaviour that seems narratively manipulated rather than personally exploratory?
One of the examples McKee gives as an excellently arced work is the Paul Newman/Lumet film, The Verdict, a film of interest but not especially because of the character arc McKee talks about. The problem resides we may feel in what it wants to give to the audience as a happy ending, has not been earned in the context of the character. As Pauline Kael said in her New Yorker review, Newman is “poorly prepared when the trial opens, and it’s only a lucky fluke – the surprise witness that saves the day for him” – that allows him to win the case. The audience gets what it wants, but we may be left wondering whether the character is capable of giving us the ending the film provides us with, or whether it is the story forcing itself upon him. It is as though the structure of optimism is more important finally than fidelity to character, and the reality of the figure gives way to the sentimentality of the conclusion. The feeling is forced, not ‘genuine’. We can follow the character arc as the drunken lawyer makes good in court and turns his career around, but there is little shown through the character that would indicate that he would have won the case or that he has transformed his behaviour.
Now, of course, Kaurismaki is rarely interested in characters in the usual sense of the term, and indeed part of the Bressonian influence lies in using actors almost as if the are going through the motions – where, as we’ve suggested, the dialogue is slightly flat and the body movements equally so. In what we might call this emotional deceleration, Kaurismaki also often frames for perceptual irony, and offers events as hapless effort. In the director’s I Hired a Contract Killer, for example, when the central character played by Jean-Pierre Leaud goes and tells his landlady he is giving his notice, they are framed too low – there is too much space at the top of the frame, and any drama in the situation gives way to the idiosyncratic nature of the framing. When Leaud goes off to hang himself he fails when part of the ceiling collapses, and then tries to stick his head in the oven. In The Match Factory Girl, the central character goes to a disco alone and meets someone in the club. Kaurismaki offers a pan from people on the dance floor to the character alone, before she notices a man looking across at her. He comes over to her table, they dance and then end up in bed. But Kaurismaki presents it as if with an air of indifference over passion. When the couple get up and dance Kaurismaki lingers over the characters now out of frame as he focuses on the table in which they had been sitting. How can one create feeling out of such emotional deceleration? If melodrama tends to quicken the emotions, Kaurismaki is a director who more than most slows them down. However, to slow an emotion down isn’t to kill it, just as to show recognition that one possesses forbears needn’t negate our engagement in the film.
Shortly before the conclusion, Rahikainen gets a false passport with the intention of leaving the country and escaping punishment for the crime he committed, only to turn round after crossing the border and driving back into the city centre as he prepares to give himself up to the police. Momentarily he changes his mind; goes outside and standing there is the woman who loves him, and he goes back inside and confesses. For much of the sequence of his escape over the border and his return, Kaurismaki gives us a Hermannesque score reminiscent of Marion Crane’s escape with the money in Psycho. We are still here in the world of cliché within convention. But this seems to change at the end of the film. After the young woman comes to visit him he insists that he is alone and always has been, and that she would be wasting her time waiting for him to get out in eight years. As he leaves offering her no hint that he cares, the camera follows him in the prison as he returns to his cell. As he does so Kaurismaki offers a tilting camera shot from the ground floor of the prison to the upper floor, an unmotivated shot since Rahikainen’s cell is on the ground floor, but motivated from the point of view of feeling. The director follows it with a fast-moving dolly towards Rahikainen and the guard as he gets delivered to his cell. In the middle of the first shot a song strikes up: “Love for thee my heart is burning, and for thee I long…” But for whom does his heart long for; the fiancée who died when the person he killed ran her over when drunk three years before, or for this woman who visits him? Or for something bigger than either of them, since he claims he has always been alone. At the end of Dostoevsky’s novel, the narrator says that Sonia always held out her hand to him timidly, and sometimes did not give him her hand at all, as though she were afraid he would push it away. “He always took her hand with loathing…but now their hands did not part.” “How it happened he did not know, but suddenly something seemed to seize him and throw him at her feet. He embraced her knees and wept.” Kaurismaki’s decelerated approach to feeling doesn’t seem to allow for such characterisational catharsis, but he instead finds it in the form as he insists on the self-reflexivity he has offered throughout not for ironic detachment but for human revelation: to signal emotions that the character can’t or won’t express.
Cinema may as Badiou believes, be a bastard art, but a film like Crime and Punishment can give birth to feelings that needn’t ape the form in which it borrows from (in this case literature), as Bazin noted, but can find itself pushing further the formal awareness that Kaurismaki has practiced throughout. If we are moved by the conclusion, it might not only reside in the form reflecting the saving of a man’s soul, but equally, or more especially, the sense that cinema can create ‘genuine’ feeling out of an awareness of clichés that it refuses to surrender to, and conventions it refuses to take for granted. Kaurismaki is aware of historical precedents, aware that such precedents make ‘genuine’ feeling hard to access, yet doesn’t assume that he must give up on that accessing, but instead must bide his time and allow his decelerated, self-reflexive style to impose itself upon the character come the conclusion, but not at all to undermine him.