American Millennial Cinema
Ambience and Ambivalence
Is American cinema dead, lost to the bulked-up blockbuster, a cinema on steroids, with actors spending more time in gyms than in acting classes? There may be occasional blockbusters like The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Bond films like Casino Royale, that suggest nuance within the hyperbole, and even indicate political concerns. But overall, the superhero film replaces the human drama; the need for easy resolutions over subtle psychology. Andy Serkis in the Independent reckons "Cinema is slipping away, sadly, apart from tent-pole blockbusters. The streamers are taking over." The drama is to be found on television, with so many key cinematic figures working in a TV format, however personally involved they happen to be. Todd Haynes with Mildred Peirce and David Lynch with the recent Twin Peaks are two American auteurs who haven't just directed a pilot and left the rest to others, but who have seen the work through from beginning to end. Haynes says, "it's increasingly hard to find financing these days for serious dramas, domestic stories, female-driven narratives-everything we already know. The recent record profits of studio productions one would hope would have the effect of broadening, not narrowing, the possibilities-since they can afford it-but, unfortunately, it's having the reverse effect." But he is also aware that television is not cinema: "This is coming into people's living rooms, and I respect that. I'm a consumer of popular entertainment as well and I think it has tremendous powers. I was happy to explore it." (IndieWire)
Cinema cannot so easily be replaced; nor need it be if we acknowledge Serkis's understandable pessimism while also believing that film has a place as amplified perception. This doesn't mean we have to see a film in the cinema, but we might need to believe that the director has made it with cinevisual rather than televisual perception in mind. This means no more than that the director assumes the viewer will be watching a film on a screen greater than their own height, and at least a few times their arm span. This is vital to the difference between film and television: the director assumes in cinema that the perceptual faculties are broadened; in television contracted. Many fine filmmakers don't assume that the large screen is an opportunity for spectacle (and hence a superhero movie), but for observation - the ability to see what cannot easily be noticed on a smaller screen. This is partly why Andre Bazin never took TV seriously as an art form. "At the risk of disappointing the reader, I will first declare my skepticism as to the importance of the artistic revolution implicated in TV. More precisely, TV seems to me, like radio, to be an acquisition of great importance as a technology of reproduction and transmission, and it is in these that its principal vocation lies." (Andre Bazin's New Media) Raymond Bellour quotes Chris Marker: "Cinema is that which is bigger than we are, what you have to look up at. When a movie is shown small and you have to look down at it, it loses its essence ..." ('The Unattainable Text')
How does cinema retain its essence; what American films do we believe remain true to film's possibilities as an art form? Rather than looking at specific auteurs, we will attend to a handful of films from the new millennium. We might wish to put them into two chief categories: the malign and the benign. In the former, we have the violence that is so fundamental to American film culture and some might also say its history: Elephant, Mulholland Dr. AHistory of Violence, There Will be Blood, Zodiac and The Hurt Locker. In the benign category there is Far From Heaven, Before Sunset, Her, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and The Tree of Life, where often a more benign optimism exists even if violence is sometimes apparent (as in the aggression in Casey Afflick's character in Manchester by the Sea; the father's abusiveness in Tree of Life; the violence the central character shows in the middle section at school in Moonlight). But in the latter instance, we do not see violence at the heart of the US but on its periphery. In the former, it is the heart indeed.
None more so than Elephant which was more or less a fictionalized account of Columbine several years earlier, but can be also be viewed as enquiring into the nature of a high school phenomenon that now has so many incidents that no particular massacre need come to mind. Director Gus Van Sant abstracts events in several ways. He tells the story from various points of view and crisscrosses in a manner that means a main character from one story becomes peripheral in another. But the abstraction is also there in Van Sant's style as he combines a distanced look at two killers tooling up for a killing spree. When John (John Robertson) comes out of the school we are no longer in his perspective as we were in another stage of the film: he becomes a cameo figure in the lives of the murderers and Van San insists on remaining outside ready identification to indicate no point of view will readily be privileged. Van Sant brilliantly suggests that a high school massacre is an event that needs comprehension rather than dramatization. Instead of focusing on the killers or the victims, Van Sant moves through the film offering an angle that undermines the centrality of selfhood, the sort of selfhood the killers practice as they decide in their resentful, irritated state to kill their fellow students. Van Sant has no statement to make, but he has an aesthetic to offer, and in that aesthetic, a statement can be found. Todd McCarthy reviewing the film when it premiered in Cannes believed that it was "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst." (Variety) But many films are rather more pointful and all the more irresponsible. Revenge dramas like Dirty Harry, Death Wish and Mad Max validate brutality in a manner that would be more likely to appeal to a sensibility looking to justify their anger than Elephant. Whether or not films influence violent action in reality, if films do Elephant would be unlikely to be one such example. Elephant explores the malign but is not itself quite part of it.
A History of Violence is more ambivalent on this question of representation, which is very much the film's point, even if the consequences could be more problematic. Canadian David Cronenberg's film is the sort of film we might assume the aggressive would warm to. The youtube clip of the teenage son taking on the school bully and beating him is accompanied by comments in higher case: "It's what every bully should get" and "the only 100 % proven way to stop bullying," and so on. The film examines the problematic nature of this individuality, but isolated scenes can give the impression that this is just another revenge movie. Cronenberg chooses a strong, identificatory issue all the better to call into question the violence the film depicts, but this assumes the viewer will see it in its entirety and not cherry pick moments online. Elephant has no such scenes because it refuses the readily identificatory. Cronenberg's film is so deliberately full of them that he wants to examine what underpins them.
Neither film falls easily into the glorifyingly violent, as though aware that the US imports violence threefold: through the movies it makes, the arms it sells and the wars it involves itself in. In 'Hollywood Wants Gun Control...' Kelsey Miller looks at Hollywood's fascination with guns, saying in early 2018 "Movies are more violent, ratings more lenient, and overall gun-use in film has risen approximately 51% in the last decade." The US is the world's largest arms dealer, says 'uk.businessinsder.com', "The US sold weapons to at least 98 countries between 2013 and 2017." The New York Times noted that "The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of 9/11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories." The article says, "While the number of men and women deployed overseas has shrunk considerably over the past 60 years, the military's reach has not. American forces are actively engaged not only in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen that have dominated the news, but also in Niger and Somalia, both recently the scene of deadly attacks, as well as Jordan, Thailand and elsewhere."
This is the context in which we can usefully see American cinema and the malign examples we are choosing to look at. The question is whether the film problemtises the violence it explores, and the finest American films of the millennium have found ways in which to look at the violent without the nave acceptance apparent in online comments and many an American film. Mulholland Dr. There Will be Blood, Zodiac and The Hurt Lockerwonder in which ways people need violence in their lives. In David Lynch's film, the revenge comes late and perversely, with Lynch structuring his film so that the film loops back on itself and we realise that the opening crash is part of a revenge motive revealed much later in the film. Revenge is undermined as the complex structure is foregrounded, with Lynch playing up the psychotic over the vengeful as we try and work out what exactly might be going on in one of the character's heads (Naomi Watts) and what this does to the very plot itself. Lynch dissolves subjective and objective states so that it is difficult for a story let alone a gun-toting message be extracted from the film. But what it captures well is the feeling of psychotic vertigo where violence is a constant undercurrent.
It is this idea of undercurrent that often distinguishes a film examining the violent from one assuming it. P.T. Anderson wonders in Will There be Blood what drive sits within Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis): we notice at a certain point this is is an unquenchable will which has little do with personal happiness. It instead shows us a man who wants it all but wouldn't be able to describe what that all would happen to be. He is the American on the make but there is little that he wants made,as Anderson indicates the core of a man who fights for success but where the operative word is fight rather than success. He is a murderer in waiting, someone whose ambitions reflect on internal force rather than simply the desires for external gains. David Fincher's Zodiac, meanwhile, takes the serial killer film and infuses it less with narrative ingenuity (as his earlier Seven did), than with a constant sense of violent dread. It is as if the serial killer isn't the exception to the rule of human kindness, but the figure capable of exploiting the dread that sits underneath violent culture. Zodiac is based on a famous case that was never solved and Fincher takes full advantage of an ambiguity most films would fear: to create a feeling that is much greater than a single individual can muster. Seven was narratively full of dread, but it was a punctuated evil that offered a twist all the better to indicate we were watching a movie, one that could play horrible tricks on us. Zodiac ends with the palpably unknown. We might think we know who the killer happens to be, but the film muses over a violence done to others that goes by no particular name and leaves the society all the more implicated. Dirty Harry was based loosely on the case and Fincher didn't much care for Eastwood's film. "I didn't like it. I've got to tell you. When I saw it I resented it. I thought: 'Wow, they're making light of something that I remember.' (IndieLondon.co.uk)
In The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's film follows Jeremy Renier's bomb disposal man who wants less to fight for peace as find in war an odd peace of mind. He is restless and agitated at home, while war zones give him the chance to focus and concentrate. It narrows his life (and potential death) down to a single point that we know can be lost in a moment as the film initially indicates that Guy Pearce might be the character whose life story we will follow. But he will die a gruesome death, and it is only to his demise that we get the chance to pay attention. Frequently Bigelow's films have been more interested in the rush of excitement over the moral containment of the story; while some might insist this is her weakness we would be inclined to think it is the source of her success. She understands well that from a certain point of view the US does not want to solve the world's problems, nor even its own. It wants to keep agitating its own nervous energy, whether it happens to be crime gangs taking risks with the surf or breaking into banks in Point Break , cops turning on black kids and their perceived white girlfriends in Detroit, or a woman trying to make it in the male world of police officials in Blue Steel, Bigelow is a female director who understands what would usually be seen as a male fascination: people putting their nerves on edge and living the American dream on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is the undercurrent of America, a nation that might assume it wants peace and prosperity for all, but time and again in their films' preoccupations, and their governments' actions would seem to prefer perpetual war. Bigelow admits that "thrill-seeking adrenaline addicts have always fascinated me. The idea seems to be that it's not until you risk your humanness that you feel most human." (University Press of Mississippi)
Yet we have also talked about a benign force aparent in a number of contemporary American films. We do not see these works as at all aesthetically superior to the malign ones. Our point is that whether benign or malign the films need to seek out a problematic that will push the aesthetic: that manages to convey the form without assuming the feeling. If A History of Violence flirts with the formula it does so all the better to question what the history of violence happens to be running through the US. Isolate a scene however and it can seem a little too close to kickass cinema. No scene in Elephant we have noted can be so readily isolated. Van Sant works more with the form than Cronenberg, though they are both very fine films that counter the idea gun culture needn't be at all questioned: both films muse over America's second right amendment to take out others who get in your way. Equally, the benign films need to do more than indicate the US is a land of plenty, with full-fridges, cut lawns and school runs. It also needs to contain within this an affirmative belief that runs contrary to the superficial claim that wealth and comfort will make you happy, the sort claim philosopher Stanley Cavell makes when discussing the contentment of the couple when speaking of the classic It Happened One Night. "What this pair does together is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together, even that they would rather waste time together than do anything else - except that no time they are together could be wasted." (Pursuits of Happiness)
When we speak of affirmation we do so with the relational proving more signficant than the conflictual. In Her, the need for the relational is so strong an operating system can provide the support and comfort our central character Joaquin Phoenix needs as he recovers from breaking up with his wife. He needs affection more than confirmation, to love more than to hate, and this is what we see running through the affirmative films we have invoked. In Her, director Spike Jonze creates a benign environment of glass and computer interfaces, high trousers and moustaches, alongside a soundtrack utilising several Arcade Fire pieces to generate a tender ambience. The colours and light are soft, gentle as Jonze insists on a world where aggression has little place, and the slightest of rejections can wound. But above all he explores what it might mean to live in a world of quiet loneliness that one can then project onto the advances technology offers us. It isn't that technology is necessarily so advanced (this is low-tech cinema next to Ex-Machina or the Blade Runner 2049). It is more that the human is so solitary, so enclosed in tidy, glass apartments. any technology that plays into the hands of our hopes can provide the sustenance wished for. Her does not condemn our capacity for falling in love with technology as it gives such a term a proper narrative form as Phoenix falls for an operating system. No, Jonze muses gently over what we need to do with ourselves rather than with the technology. This is a proper technology of self over the furtherance of technology. When Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality used the term to explain how the Ancients would talk of themselves, how they would detail their day, attend to their friends, look after their bodies, it was the self that mattered rather than the technology which used to have a very different meaning from the one we have today. Techne, was know how, knowing how to look after oneself. Now it is technology: knowing how to operate external things. Here is a fine film suggesting that we need to entertain its original meaning and not only its modern one.
Richard Linklater's Before Sunset might not seem like an American film at all. Ethan Hawke is an American writer promoting his book in Paris and who is there at the launch in Shakespeare and co. but a woman (Julie Delpy) with whom he had lost touch: someone he met a decade before one lovely night in Vienna (and in Before Sunrise). At one moment in the film as they walk through the streets of Paris in the hour and a half he has available before he must head for the airport, Ethan Hawke explains there are happy people who suffer terrible misfortunes, yet they remain optimistic in their outlook despite their tribulations; others who suffer little and are always miserable. This would seem to be dispositional, Hawke suggests: there are happy people and unhappy people and then there are events that happen to them. The affirmative films we are looking at often contain far more sadness than the belligerent examples we have already discussed. Her is much sadder than A History of Violence, but there is something much more horrifying in The History of Violence than their happens to be in Her. Cronenberg investigates the dispositional aggression in American culture that cannot leave us feeling other than pessimistic no matter the very superficially happy ending of Viggo Mortensen returning home to his family after taking out his troublesome brother. Her concludes with Phoenix accepting that the Operating System he had feelings for also had feelings for hundreds of others. He knows also that he must accept the divorce his ex-wife seeks and that he has been putting off. Agreeing to the divorce allows for self-realization and growth as the film explores emotional pain without physical violence. Before Sunset is also wise to the decisions people must make in their lives, knowing that many of the ones we make contain within them ambivalent feelings of both happiness and pain. At the end of Before Sunset, Hawke hasn't got on the plane, even if his wife and child are waiting for him Stateside. To stay with Delpy is not going to be without anguish, even if it will also be a joyous experience. (As we find in the third film, Before Midnight) Linklater films in long languorous takes as he gives the people space to breathe and to think, just as Cronenberg adopted a short focal length (usually 28mm) to push everything into the audience's faces.
Todd Haynes in a different way from Linklater is also looking for delicacy of feeling. Even though he insisted Far From Heaven was utterly artificial, he also wanted very real emotion to come out of that artificiality. He wanted to find the feeling out of the mise-en-scene as readily as inside the characters' psychology. In this story of a white wife who falls in love with her black gardener, and whose husband acknowledges his homosexuality, Haynes sees the film as experimental because of that artificiality. "Yes, because it refuses a lot of familiar narrative touchstones that makes us feel like we're watching a genuine drama: contemporary codes of naturalism, psychological realizations, redemption, and any sort of heroic victory. So it refuses all of those things and maintains a completely synthetic language that comes directly out of the world of film." Haynes notes, "and yet it's done in complete faith that that language in some way embodies more potential for emotional feeling than anything that mimics what we think of as reality. In other words, people talk about this film in relation to sincerity verses irony. And I think it's different. I think it's about the intense feelings that only come from synthetic film language, that only come from artificial experiences that we know from film, but we nevertheless invest with intense feeling." (IndieWire) The style might be very different from the naturalistic, actor-scripted work in Before Sunset but the dispositional affect is similar. Both films want us to feel the sensitivity of the character over the insensitivity of the world. Do the violent films emphasise the insensitivity of the world, and the very good ones that we have looked at here call that into question.?They do not assume belligerence is a good thing. It is a problematic thing. Cavell says in Must we Mean what we Say? "avoidance of love is always, or always beings as, an avoidance of a particular kind of love: men having to accept under the name of love whatever closeness is offered, and by then having to forgo its object." In different ways, Far From Heaven, Before Sunset and Her are about teaching people to love rather than training people to hate.
This has nothing to do with filmmakers creating positive representations. This would be a shallow approach to disposition, where if certain boxes are ticked and happy endings arrived at, the film would be deemed worthy. If Moonlight is a film of some importance it has nothing to do with its story about a gay black man, but about a man who happens to be black and gay, someone who cannot easily allow intimacy into his life. This doesn't mean that he is black and gay is irrelevant. Obviously not when he is a tough, wounded boy who finds he has feelings towards a schoolmate. But if the film moves us it rests on the contrast between his environment which is very harsh and his feelings that are very tender, and thus his sexuality cannot easily be explored. It could be equally moving had it been about a white nun; what matters is the level of solitude, frustration and yearning conveyed. At the same time we might wish to link the films to others concerning black experience made in the Obama era - from 12 Years a Slave to Fences, Selma to Django Unchained, as well as Loving, Fruitvale Station and Jenkins' earlier feature Medicine for Melancholy. These latter films are closer to the spirit of Chares Burnett than Spike Lee - to a cinema of reflection and tenderness, over agitation and assertiveness. We can see the films coinciding with the movement Black Lives Matter sociologically, but they matter to us chiefly, aesthetically. The wider context can help us understand their signficance but Moonlight is only as good as its aesthetic achievement.
Manchester by the Sea is a little like Moonlight: a film exploring the anger of someone who manages to turn that despair into relative affirmation. Casey Affleck and his wife (Michelle Williams) we discover have lost their kids to a fire in a flashback sequence that gives context to the aggression he shows earlier in the film. Williams is trying to move on with a new man, and Affleck is doing right by his nephew aware that he can't easily do right for himself. As he says 'he just can't beat it' - the loss is too great. But at the same time the film shows Affleck allowing the tears to come in a moment that is very different from the useless fight he gets into early in the film. He has at least moved from agitation to contemplation - from fighting to feeling. "What I'm really interested in is people struggling with situations that are bigger than they are, that are overwhelming to them." director Kenneth Lonergan says. "Also the disparity of experience, the variety of human experience, how one person can have one kind of life and his neighbor will have a completely different kind in every respect. (Film Comment)
The ambition involved in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life can be understood partly through the two arenas we have focused upon: the aggressive and the affirmative. Malick more than perhaps any other American director wishes to find a position that balances these poles of experience and feeling. As the film elliptically explores a young boy's burgeoning maturity with an oppressive father and a loving mother, so Malick manages simultaneously to suggest menace and invoke warmth. There is a scene where the young Jack sneaks into a neighbour's house and steals some lingerie. The attention to sound and the low angles from the bottom of stairs capture a sense of impending terror, but also the yearning of a boy whose desire is awakening but with little clear orientation. Of course, Malick also moves into the present to show Jack as an architect who lost his brothers years earlier, and into the prehistoric past to witness early life forming. Malick is in the affirmative American tradition that Cavell is also inclined to evoke. The influence of Emerson and Thoreau well explored by Ron Mottram in an essay in The Films of Terrence Malick indicates a very different tradition from the Western ideal of might is right and the rule of the gun, with Emerson and Thoreau loosely contemporaneous with Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, Jessie James, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But this was a west coast violent ambition; Emerson and Thoreau were East Coasters looking to bring out the wonders of nature rather than to make manifest their destiny. Malick can feel the pull of both traditions, as his films vacillate between that violence and nature's balm. The US is an enormous country, yet often seems like a nation obsessed with competition as though there was never enough space to go around. The films we have looked at find ways of escaping from or calling into question that competitive streak which is often also a violent one. If we have indicated that television is not finally the most fruitful place to explore this problematic, perhaps it rests partly on the question of magnifying a problem all the better to explore it. When A History of Violence emphasises the short focal lens length it puts violence right in front of our eyes. When Malick indicates the presence of nature he can show us the vista that plays up how small we can be in a world that is so much more than the societal. Television may frequently have length but it lacks height and breadth. It remains a small medium. Even if a film like Elephant was originally made for HBO, and Mulholland Dr. started out as a pilot episode, they were suitably blown out of all proportion by the cinema screen rather than contained by the small screen. Perhaps we need something bigger than we are to explore who we are: cinema fulfils that function within the context of a darkness that can show us a certain type of light.
© Tony McKibbin