Replenishing the Image
In an article in 1998 on Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Fergus Daly noticed that there was far from a consensus in the late nineties around the Iranian master, and thought this reflective of the age. "There seems to have been far greater unanimity back in, say, the 60's regarding the high modernist canon of Bergman, Bresson, Antonioni and Bunuel than there is today vis-a-vis Lars von Trier, Alexander Sokurov, Sharunas Bartas or even Atom Egoyan." (Film West) We could add that not only is there a lack of consensus, but that the great contemporary filmmakers are also given less distribution. Bartas remains almost unknown in the UK, while it took many years for the work of Bela Tarr and Kiarostami to be given a general release. Some of the finest films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien have never been generally shown here. Where Godard, Bergman, Bunuel and Antonioni's films were events to be eagerly awaited, with some of the great modern auteurs they are 'non-events' urgently sought. Their film might make no more than a brief appearance at the Edinburgh or London film festival, and one catches them like a rare sighting: a butterfly caught temporarily in the cinematic net, with film forced to resemble lepidoptery.
However, if we think less of box-office returns and mainstream critical plaudits, and more about innovation of form and pertinent problematics, then there is a range of millennial filmmakers indicating that it wasn't only the sixties that produced directors of international import, but more recent times also, and, of course, some of them are well-known and well-distributed. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke has the capacity for controversy and sobriety. He offers provocatively strong images within the context of probing questions about societal erosion. In Funny Games, Code Unknown, Hidden and The White Ribbon, he insistently ponders over and picks away at societal weaknesses broad and narrow, past and present. In Funny Games, middle-class comfort is turned inside out to become very discomforting indeed. A couple and their child are vacationing in the gated community holiday home when the neighbours come calling. The visitors might be looking for eggs, but feel they have to crack a few to make a particularly messy omelette. These two thugs who intrude are social insiders too, well-off and well-spoken, but with a yen for mayhem as Haneke makes a film that isn't about social exclusion, but the dangers of a certain social inclusion. The gated community might protect the family from the hell of outsiders, but can't do much to save them when other insiders have a sadistic streak. As Gilberto Perez pointed out, the security system that is supposed to protect them from the outside world, traps them inside their gilded cage. "Funny Games is not just a critique of screen violence and its audience but a disquieting picture of the violence fostered by insulated privilege. When the family first arrives at the house, and the gate mechanically closes behind them, Haneke holds the image for a long, ominous moment, conveying a sense that the gate designed to protect them is actually a trap." (London Review of Books) At the same time Haneke's film frets over cinema as too often a medium of gleeful violence, with most films pandering to our bloodlust but believing that busted up bodies is a Saturday night affair. It needn't trouble us the rest of the week unless we happen to be living in a country where what sounds like a fireworks display is actually the bombing of a hospital or a school.
There is no doubt a finger-wagging dimension to Haneke, a stern condemnation of the western comfort blanket (the music, the reaction shots, the heroic action and the can-do conclusions) that he believes a cinema of aesthetic integrity has to counter. "These films make violence unreal and therefore consumable. It's like being on a ghost train ride. I deliberately allow myself to be frightened but I know that nothing can happen to me. I remember when Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" came out, and I was sitting in a matinee filled with young people. The famous scene of a boy's head being blown off caused a huge commotion in the theater. They thought it was great and they almost died laughing." (Der Spiegel) But Haneke's hectoring isn't so simple: it is complicated both by the form and by the problematic. He will often utilise offscreen space (the child's death in Funny Games), or offer such a dense and distant onscreen one that it isn't always easy to know what we should be concentrating on. (The closing shot of Hidden). In Code Unknown, the problem of city living in Paris is fragmented and fretful, a long take-gaze at a handful of Parisian lives that never coheres into a narrative, as though the problem of alienation must manifest itself cinematically as fragmentation too.
Lars von Trier is, like Haneke, an auteur whose films are rarely ignored, and he shares with Godard the ability to be utterly serious and equally facetious. He might have a point to make about Nazi aesthetics, in his famous faux pas at Cannes, but the Danish director also can't help but offer it so that offence is likely. His films often have the same insistent need to address the most pressing problems, and to contain them within a tone that might make us wonder whether we should take them seriously at all. Dogville proposes the possibility that revenge is the only solution, and Manderlay could seem to suggest that slavery is better than freedom even from the point of view of the slaves. In the former film, the brutal treatment the formerly benign Grace receives in an American mountain community leaves her demanding vengeance when her gangster father returns to the town. In the latter, Grace frees the slaves from captivity in a US plantation, only for the situation to get worse rather than better after they get to run their own lives. Von Trier isn't simply saying that revenge is necessary and slavery the best available option, but his retreat from well-meaning simple-mindedness might lead many to see mean-spirited troublemaking instead. However, the films are undeniably provocations determined to escape the simplicity of a ready discourse, and accept that to find their way through to a more fundamental comprehension is to flirt with the disaster of offence. If the great Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke once wrote a play called Offending the Audience, it would also prove a useful title for an essay on von Trier's work.
Even when the director shows that he isn't the illiberal that we might imagine in relation to the narrative conclusions of Dogville and Manderlay, von Trier manages to 'reoffend'. Dogville's end credits show pictures of destitution in the 20th century in the States; Manderlay ends with photos showing the abuse of blacks in the US, both sequences aptly accompanied by David Bowie's harsh 'Young Americans'. Add to this the well-known fact that von Trier has never been to the country that he insistently critiques (he won't fly), and we notice a cinematic recidivist at work: von Trier is one of cinema's great re-offenders. He is so good at it that he needn't possess a reason beyond the film experience, but can dismay the viewer with reference to nothing but our response in the very viewing. Breaking the Waves is a moving account of a couple's troubled relationship when Jan goes offshore, and the religiously-inclined, mentally unstable Bess is left behind. Though the director utilises many distancing devices (chapter interludes to well-known seventies songs, and deliberately distancing melodramatic clichs), the ending could lead a viewer to think they've watched an elaborate joke rather than a weighty melodrama. Von Trier concludes with bells hanging in the sky. It is an absurd moment, and one that asks us either to believe in miracles or accept the film as breaking the contract with suspension of disbelief. Von Trier plays it down the middle and our responses have to be our own, but someone moved by the experience before the bells might feel a little like someone who has been told a sob story about the death of a beloved child, only for the teller to announce at the end they were just kidding.
Von Trier is a filmmaker of genuine facetiousness: he can make the most serious of subjects a cause for the deepest of laughs. In The Idiots, the director shows a group of mainly well-off people in their late twenties and early thirties pretending to have mental disabilities all the better to show how society doesn't know how to deal with anything outside the norm. Von Trier illustrates that the characters have a point, but wouldn't there be a better way for them to show it? Von Trier again plays it down the middle; there is clearly room for umbrage, but can somebody say with much confidence where exactly the offence takes place? This isn't quite the 'gentler' but categorical offensiveness on show in There's Something About Mary, where Matt Dillon's character announces to the bewitching Cameron Diaz, who's brother has learning difficulties, that he likes retards. It is much harsher, yet more ambivalent. Von Trier isn't only looking for the shocked laugh, but wonders also what aspects of a society stick in the throat when deviating from notions of the norm. Comedy and authenticity are oddly interlinked. "This is authenticity combined with comedy. And comedy isn't really something you associate with authenticity." (Trier on Von Trier)
Both Haneke and von Trier are thus provocateurs: with Haneke something of European cinema's straight man to von Trier's court jester. Both, however, seem filmmakers for the millennium, directors with their eye on the times and finding an aesthetic to register it. Haneke usually demands the long take as cruel gaze: an unblinking camera eye wanting to counter the glance aesthetics of much contemporary culture, a glance culture that asks for no more than our distracted attention. Von Trier often plays on this distraction, frequently using handheld cameras and digital technology to keep the eye from settling on one place, and to sweep the rug from under our feet. If Haneke is a Fassbinder for the new age but with a more rigorous and vindictive look, von Trier is modern Scandinavian cinema's Carl Dreyer. Haneke's famous remark about raping the audience into autonomy, isn't too far removed from the great New German Cinema director R. W. Fassbinder's search for new feeling. "In my films there shouldn't be feelings that people have absorbed. The films should create new ones instead." In both Dreyer and von Trier's work the soul and its limitations are revealed often through madness or evil, social instability or personal eccentricity, through fear and loathing. But the contemporary Dane doesn't offer the slow work of the camera's stare as in Dreyer, but more in a motion sickness aesthetic.
The soul is an old-fashioned concept, but it is always up for cinematic renewal, and von Trier isn't the only contemporary master interested in its presence. Bela Tarr, Alexander Sokurov and the Dardennes are all fascinated by the movements of the soul, with each director, however, manifesting the enquiry rather differently. Even though Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr claims that he isn't interested in metaphysical or metaphorical problems in his work, it resembles the remark of a very smart man who doesn't know himself very well at all. He may insist: "there are no allegories in any of my films and there are no symbols and any kind of such metaphysical things." (Enthusiasm) Yet one feels the director's oeuvre is soaked in metaphor and metaphysics, and quite brilliantly so in his films since, and including, 1988's Damnation. Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man from London and The Turin Horse all possess the complexity of a problem much greater than narrative resolution.
If Jacques Ranciere in The Future of the Image sees that many images are moveable feasts finding their home in different locations (the cinema, the television, the gallery), Tarr's images are what we could call diverse resistant. They want to be cinematic images and nothing but. Where numerous great contemporary and yet not at all youthful filmmakers accept the mixed media nature of their work (Godard, Akerman, Varda), Tarr makes films. When he announced his retirement from filmmaking after The Turin Horse, this would seem a more definitive statement than one made by numerous other directors because he works with a specific notion of cinema that demands months of shooting time, elaborate technical equipment and a distribution system that will get his films shown on large screens. If cinema for many is made on a computer and watched on one, Tarr believes in what the French call the dispositif: the full apparatus of the cinema going experience. In both theme and content Tarr is new because he is old-fashioned, a paradox too far perhaps but comprehensible if we acknowledge that one of the main debates in contemporary film culture has been the death of cinema. Whether it happened to be made in the late nineties by Susan Sontag, David Denby and others announcing the cinematic experience is dying out, or Godard, Nicole Brenez etc. well aware that the idea of the death of cinema is a vital dimension to its survival (evident in Brenez's contribution to Movie Mutations), or recent remarks by Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Spacey insisting that much of the art and craft has moved to television, cinema's demise is a modern problematic.
In this sense, Tarr's work feels cinematically as if from beyond the grave. The seven hours plus Satantango isn't the box-set that you watch over the weekend with your boozy six-pack, it is a penitential experience, best watched in the hushed atmosphere of a cinema viewed as a church. Tarr might be interested in Godless worlds, but his films possess the dimension of a religious experience. There is a contrast between diegetic events as malevolent, and the cinematic situation as soulful. The circle is squared mainly by Mihaly Vig's music. Tarr's regular composer often offers a score of melancholic sensitivity contrary to the events that take place on the screen. In Werckmeister Harmonies the central character's (Lars Rudolph) walk down the street after an evening in the pub is captured sweetly by the score. The town might soon be torn apart after the visit of a trouble-making dwarf, the Prince, but there is a calm before and after the storm here, and that calm is chiefly generated by Vig's music. It is also, however, evident in Tarr's camerawork. Indeed, even during the storm - a couple of long sequences where the marauding crowds walk along the street and then overturn a hospital - the images remain contemplative. The same can be said for even the most horrific moment in Tarr's work - the torture and death of a cat in Satantango: the camera must retain the necessary distance. It remains a mournful onlooker rather than an engaged participant. Though his early films like Family Nest and Prefab People have an immediate aesthetic that suggests fly on the wall, his great films from Damnation onwards indicate a more languorous and indifferent reaction: more lizard than fly.
While the soul in Tarr's work comes through in the question that asks what is man capable of - and the director manages to frame the answer aesthetically more than ontologically, by suggesting it is often little more than the art that we have in front of our eyes - the Russian Alexander Sokurov retains the optimistic, or is perhaps just rather more religious. He links his formal interest with theological concerns, saying, "for me, film is neither a circumference nor a sphere, but flatness...for now, film is just flat and still far away from the dimension of the sphere, from this cosmic universe of a sphere." (Senses of Cinema) In anything from Mother and Son to Russian Ark, Faust to Spiritual Voices, Sokurov is a formalist as heavenly seeker, as though he wanted to use film as a means by which to get closer to God. We shouldn't take Sokurov as a slavish follower of the Word; more that he wants to find the meaningful Image: he wants to search out images that can link us to the length and breadth of our being and not only the dead centre of our time. Religion helps us to do this. Talking of his one take film Russian Ark, he says "I see Time in its entirety - the present continuous tense. I have to be inside it, I have to be as integral as this artistic space, as this multiplex yet indivisible architectural ensemble. No close-ups - just one single panorama." (Russian Film) This also links to his claim that "I reckon that faith takes shape through upbringing and education. I wasn't brought up under any religious orientation....Just as in the acquisition of grammar, in the acquisition of religion, one must learn...For me, religion is a very serious labor of the mind and the heart." (Cineaste) The religious isn't a given from on high, but a great effort from below. It is an attempt by man to rise higher and move beyond his moment.
Some will inevitably see a reactionary streak in Sokurov; that his interest in the enormity of existence means that he is in danger of underestimating specific evils. Talking of his films on dictators - Taurus about Lenin, Moloch on Hitler and The Sun, concerning Hirohito - critics have wondered whether Sokurov has bypassed key differences. "Perhaps Sokurov is not interested in politics and history, but politics, so to speak, is interested in him. By placing two leaders of reaction in the twentieth centuryHitler and Hirohitoand the outstanding Marxist and socialist revolutionaryLeninon the same plane ("on the human level," as Sokurov would argue), the filmmaker is making a distinct and reactionary political statement. He is equating Bolshevism and fascism, on the one hand, and indicting Lenin for the crimes of Stalinism, on the other." (Stefan Steinberg, World Socialist Web Site). A fair point, perhaps, but Sokurov is a director who wants when exploring power to make films about the gap between the soul and the masquerade. "These people, the people of power, turned their lives into theatre. Guided by a myth, they conceived and modified their lives, staged real mise-en-scene and subordinated their behaviour to rituals and ceremonies." (Alexander Sokurov WSWB) How best to film the gap between being and behaviour, between the sort of immediacy of behaviour present in the intimate portraits of ordinary people in Mother and Son and Father and Son, and the mannequins to history evident in his films on the politically powerful? Sokurov answers the question by showing less authority at work but the body alienated from itself and its own autonomy in the dictator films. Lenin is dying in Taurus, Hitler is lost in his hilltop retreat in Moloch, and Hirohito is clownish and bumbling in The Sun. They possess power but lack any moral authority, where in Mother and Son and Father and Son the people lack power but possess this moral dimension. Sokurov's reply to those who see his work as conservative might be that we confuse authority with power: mastery of others over self-mastery. A character's purpose is to possess behaviour that makes them close to their being; not removed from it.
Sokurov's is a large body of work that makes generalizations dangerous (around fifty films and documentaries), but the oeuvre often rests on this question of how to give cinematic shape and texture to the Image in respect of the Word. Though Sokurov's images occasionally offer a naturalistic aspect, even then the realism is frequently countered by filter effects (in the semi sci-fi Days of the Eclipse for example). He is a filmmaker who wants to find in film a medium for the soul almost in the twin sense of the term: an aesthetic form and an intermediary for the communing with God.
The Dardenne brothers' interest in the soulful is absorbed into a realist style that never 'intrudes' on the images. While Sokurov wants every aspect of the image to invoke the possibility of God, the Belgian directors utilize the notion of the soul not especially as a spiritual manifestation, but more as the ground zero of our being. Whether it happens to be Rosetta betraying a young man who befriends her as they sell waffles, a father in The Son who chooses to work alongside the boy responsible for killing the father's offspring, or the reckless teen Bruno, who initially sells his own baby in The Child, the directors ask what is our humanity and our core values worth when set against a society that gives us plenty reasons to eschew them, or when situations arise that test our goodwill. Their filmic approach is often handheld and investigative, frequently sticking closely to their leading characters and winnowing point of view. In Rosetta the film generally avoids establishing shots: we are in close with the title character as she keeps on the move, determined to be a worthwhile person as economic agent.
In The Child, Bruno express the antithesis of Rosetta's wish to find work; he says at one moment only an idiot takes employment. He would rather wheel and deal, even if it means what he is wheeling is an empty pram after dealing his child for cash. In each instance, however, the film's problem is the same: how to generate a value system that can give meaning to our existence? The higher calling comes in staving off the lowest of demands: in realizing for example that friendship is surely worth more than a job; that your child is more significant than a thickened wallet. The Dardennes are properly modern filmmakers, even if their ethics and aesthetics owe much to earlier auteurs: the neo-realists, especially; though they often name-check Chaplin. What makes them modern is the precision of their realism (no non-diegetic music, the holding to point of view rather than cross-cutting for tension, the refusal to allow any message to come through in the dialogue). Watching an albeit fine Ken Loach film like Raining Stones or Ladybird, Ladybird next to a Dardennes bros work indicates just how modern realism can be when set against earlier models. Also, where Loach often wants to give the characters space, using long lenses to pick out the characters from the crowd, in the Dardennes the crowd is often one. The camera is in so close that Rosetta is frequently a blur within the frame: a dash of red or blue.
The Dardennes here coincide with an aesthetic approach that needn't at all be indebted to realism, and this is the fascination with the body in much cinema of recent years and whose finest explorer is perhaps Claire Denis. The French director also likes to get in close, but if the Dardennes are often playing catch-me-up with a character's freneticism, Denis is usually much more laid back in her choice of characters and the camera's lingering upon them. In Vendredi soir it is a night of love for a couple of strangers escaping a Friday evening traffic jam as the film takes the empty time of waiting and gives it back to the characters as lengthy glances, soft caresses and dinner quietly consumed. Denis' work, however, also utilises non-diegetic music, and in this the split between the great filmmakers we're discussing is around sixty five for; thirty five percent against. Kiarostami, the Dardennes, and Haneke use it quite reluctantly, if at all, Denis, Tarr, Sokurov, von Trier, Lynch and Wong Kar-wai enthusiastically, and Hou Hsiou-hsien is somewhere in between. The question is not though whether its use is good or bad, but what it serves. Denis is one of those filmmakers who, like Peter Greenaway with Michael Nyman, Fellini with Nina Rota, Truffaut with Georges Delerue, Hitchcock in the late fifties early sixties with Bernard Herrmann, and of course Tarr with Vig, has a relationship with the composer. "To me music is not some kind of decoration you add in the editing room." Denis says. "It has to be part of the work; otherwise I would rather not use it." (Talking Movies) It is the absorption of another creative dimension by artists of importance in their own right. Denis usually works with the band Tindersticks. Their mournful lyrics and sombre melodies give to Denis' films a darkness visible. Trouble Every Day is an account of two couples whose spouses possess a rabid disease picked up years earlier in Africa. The film shows them taking out their cannibalistic desires on others, but couches the problem not as a horror thriller, but a doleful exploration of one's baser needs.
Working with cinematographer Agnes Godard, Denis's visual approach is often intimate, but the audio track (whether through the whispering heard, the breathing caught or Tindersticks ' music's haunting tones punctuating the work) gives her films an immersive quality. You are in a Claire Denis film, even if you don't quite know what is going on. In The Intruder one might gasp in shock at a murder, but still be none the wiser to the motivations behind the killing. In Beau travail, the story is jumbled up as the film's central character Galoup recalls his adventures in the foreign legion. But the film is hardly based on a categorical notion of flashback, and the film flits between different time frames without clear signposts as it works from Galoup's musings. Yet meaning emerges, and the film's closing dance sequence encapsulates well the film's chief contrast: the legionnaires' working and exercise rhythm during the day, and the "rhythm of the night", encapsulated in the Corona song.
There are perhaps similarities between Wong kar-wai and Denis, with the Hong Kong auteur very interested in the body's rhythms captured by a regular cameraman, Chris Doyle, and in using music to encapsulate mood and feeling. The Mamas and the Papas and The Cranberries are vital to Chungking Express, and Michael Galasso's score and Nat King Cole songs to In the Mood for Love. Both Denis and Wong are filmmakers who often utilize youthful energy and this can make their work appear much newer than filmmakers like Tarr or Sokurov. Denis and Wong both offer cultural capital as cinephile cool, but this shouldn't be held against them: they just so happen sometimes to explore situations that lend themselves well to representational aspiration. The beautiful bodies of the legionnaires in Beau travail, the youthful charms of Vincent Gallo and his wife in Trouble Every Day, the exuberant energy of characters in Chungking Express and the elegance of the leading pair in In The Mood for Love, are representatively appealing: they have bodies and clothes that might meet one's ego ideal. In this sense, the figures in Bela Tarr's universe, for example, cannot easily be recuperated into the fashionable; they are very much the opposite, while most of Haneke's characters are too dislikeable to pass for role models. Yet what makes a filmmaker new is not the representational newness, or the ego ideal their characters can represent, but more the aesthetic originality. Wong and Denis are in this sense as important as Tarr or Haneke. Where the Hungarian and Austrian filmmakers offer an austere long take aesthetic that keeps its distance; Wong and Denis create a much more intimate cinema that captures movement in action, as the camera often nuzzles up and moves in close to the characters.
While Denis occasionally uses voice-over, it has proved important to Wong's work, with Yuddy in Days of Being Wild wondering as he sits dying what would be the most important moment in his life, and Cop 223 in Chungking Express musing over his love for the ex-girlfriend. It often gives the director's work a tender, loving and solipsistic dimension: as though characters can't quite engage with the world unless it is through their idiosyncratic thoughts and feelings. Sometimes this segues into a character talking to himself, as when Cop 663 comments on his sad cloth in Chungking Express; sometimes in playing music so loud that the character can't hear anything anybody else has to say - as we notice again in Chungking Express, where Faye endlessly plays California Dreamin' as she works at the fast food counter. But Wong is also fascinated by the complexities of time as personal history, especially evident through Yuddy in Days of Being Wild and Mr Chow in 2046, with Yuddy obsessed with the mother who left him at birth, and Chow a relationship that may or may not have been consummated (and which forms the story of In the Mood for Love).
There was a moment when David Lynch was also a director of cool cinephilia: his films regularly appearing on the cover of style magazines like The Face in the mid-eighties and the early nineties, with the release of Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, but also of course due to the presence of his TV series, Twin Peaks. Yet Lynch has shown himself a great director of longevity. Rather than cutting his cloth to suit the fashion, there is a consistent vision that runs from his first feature, Eraserheard to his most recent, Inland Empire. Fascinated by the body as a malfunctioning machine, this American director's films lack control partly because his characters do not follow the rules and regulations of motivated behaviour, but often appear instead to be malformed or maladjusted. In Eraserhead, Elephant Man and Dune the emphasis is on the malformed; in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway on the maladjusted. If the focus in Eraserhead is on the grotesquery of the central character's baby, in Elephant Man on the horribly hideous growths coming out of John Merrick's head, and in Dune Baron Harkonen's pustular presence, in the later films the characters are more psychologically disturbed, if physically relatively unimpaired. Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Bobby Du Prez in Wild at Heart, and Mr Eddy in Lost Highway are loose cannons rather than human rubble, as we never quite know how to take them. Booth moves from love to hate in seconds, and when central character Jeffrey in Blue Velvet receives a beating it is done with the aid of a kiss. Bobby Du Prez in Wild at Heart pressures Lula into sex and then at the last moments reneges on the creepy pestering he's been imposing on her. Mr Eddy loses his temper while retaining moral indignation when he pistol whips someone over the Highway code. If in the earlier films the disfigurements meant it wasn't easy to know where to put your eyes, in the later ones we are never sure where to place our expectations.
What has remained consistent in Lynch's work, however, is that the world is not a rational place. His importance at the turn of the millennium resides at least partly in taking several Hitchcockian preoccupations and turning them inside out: towards the irrational rather than towards logic. As various critics have compared Hitchcock with the Scottish philosopher David Hume, and with Hume's interest in relations that are external to their terms, so Lynch's work often makes it impossible to accept the givens of relations. In other words, if Hitchcock was brilliant at making his films so precisely well-reasoned that we can work out exactly who the killer is in Rear Window before knowing for certain, and at what point the professor should realize what is in the trunk in Rope, it is because Hitchcock expects us to reason well and clearly. Think of all those moments in a Hitchcock film where the windmill is turning the wrong way, a key won't fit in a door, or where even a camera shot will anticipate an action. The darting track near the beginning of North by Northwest tells us that certain people aren't to be trusted and Roger's ease and comfort will soon be destroyed, and the track in to the cash in Psycho tells us that Marion will go off with the money. Hitchcock creates knowing viewers who he expects will be working overtime to work out clues and cues.
Lynch reverses this expectation and asks us to remain in a state of constant epistemological confusion and affective intensity. When the camera tracks in on the phone in Lost Highway, this isn't the viewer second guessing a problem, but fretting over an odd image as the central character tries to get in touch with his girlfriend. Where Marion gets killed in the shower and disappears from the film, Fred Madison disappears after turning into someone else in a prison cell after killing his wife. In Hitchcock's film the murder is horrible but not at all nonsensical; in Lynch's the morphing defies rational explanation. If in Dial M. for Murder Hitchcock shows us Tony Wendis arranging to have his wife killed, in Mullholland Dr. failed actress Diane takes a hit out on a rival. In Lynch's film, though, the story isn't predicated on this action. It takes place late on, and the film offers a mobius strip style narrative which means that the hit that is paid for is completed in a parallel universe that only tenuously links to the one in which the hitman has been hired. As in Lost Highway, there are causes and effects, but they are not rationally held together as in Hitchcock, but irrationally allusive. For example, when in Lost Highway Pete Dayton listens to the radio, he hears the very saxophone playing we have heard earlier performed by Fred Madison. Dayton is the character Fred seems to have become in his cell, and that Dayton can recognize the music suggests he is that very person, even if nobody acknowledges this and everybody sees Dayton as his own man, not one possessed by the soul of another. This is not even a conventional possession story like The Exorcist or The Omen, as Lynch refuses the possibility of accepting that however irrational we find possession in life, it can offer a useful rationale within a fiction. Lynch insists that we neither accept it is one thing or another, and adds to the perceptually traumatic. This quality shouldn't be underestimated in an American cinema that isn't usually happy with radical ambiguity. As David Bordwell says in the Way Hollywood Tells It, "Completely indeterminate movies are rare in American cinema...and perhaps only David Lynch currently makes them."
Hou Hsiou-hsien is distinctive and difficult in very different ways from Lynch, but he remains no less perplexing a filmmaker. If Lynch allows one character to morph into another, sometimes Taiwanese filmmaker Hou will make it hard to distinguish one character to the next, with Robin Wood admitting that writing on Flowers of Shanghai was a demanding experience. "Its "scheme" is in fact so subtly worked that it has taken me at least six complete viewings (together with more replays of individual scenes and moments than I can count) to disentangle it from all the detail of the realization." (Cineaction) This is partly because Hou won't strongly distinguish characters in relation to behaviour and dress, but also because he often shows events from a position that is more removed from what we are used to, or with indeterminate cues and character exchanges filmed in a manner that obfuscates rather than clarifies. For example, in one scene from Goodbye South, Goodbye, an old man collapses in the background, but we are focused on the foreground, and it might take a moment before we realize what has happened. In another scene two characters argue, but we can see neither character's face, with one standing in front of the other, and the camera filming from behind him. Kevin B. Lee writes that when he wrote appreciatively of Hou's City of Sadness on a forum, another contributor insisted that the film was tediously obscure. As the debate continued, "a distinction emerged between two kinds of films: one in which the film revolves around the viewer, and one in which the viewer revolves around the film. I estimate that 80-90% of movies are made under the first premise. City of Sadness is unmistakably of the latter camp; in fact, it's one of the best examples I know of a film that seems to exist independently of a viewership, self-contained in its own evocation of a specific time and place." (Reverse Shot)
Hou's film's, then, are properly obscure, and for several different reasons. Often the film is historically specific to the detriment of easy engagement, the lighting levels are so low that it isn't always simple distinguishing who someone happens to be, while the camera placement can leave the viewer unsure of what is going on, and unprepared for events that take place. Near the beginning of Goodbye, South Goodbye, a fight breaks out, and we don't see it coming because there has been little of the tension cranking so often utilized to make us ready for the square go. However, though Lee makes a useful distinction between films that are audience-oriented and films that are much more self-contained, David Bordwell would probably resist such categories, seeing in Hou's films difficulty, certainly, but a productive difficulty that just makes the viewer work much harder than usual. After all, Bordwell talks of Hou's "reliance on an international audience", and believes some of the director's demanding oeuvre comes not from eschewing this audience, but finding a specific type of viewer. "As if to confirm Hou's reliance on an international audience, the films also became grander in conception." (Figures Traced in Light)
However Fergus Daly argues that Hou's work isn't about playing with viewer perception, but a dense exploration of being, and insists on four principles behind the director's films: that historical memory is impersonal; that memories don't belong to me, the shot's centre of focus is forever drifting out of field, and that we are clusters of signs and affects given form by light." ('On Four Prosaic Formulas which Might Summarize Hou's Poetics') This is an ontology given film form, a way of looking at the world that finds a method in which to contain it. If The Puppetmaster examines memory as an historical process with the title character passing through history, a figure bobbing around in time, and at one stage required to offer propagandistic puppetry during the war, then Flowers of Shanghai examines characters as pockets of light, in and out of the visibility not because they are in or out of the frame, but because the distribution of light allows them to be clearly seen or obscured. While Bordwell reckons "the festival circuit expects its auteurs to exhibit a distinctive style (a marketable brand, cynics would say), and Hou did not disappoint", Daly more accurately captures the sense that Hou isn't just creating a marketable space for his work, but an opportunity to explore a way of looking at the world that general film form denies.
Bordwell is very good at analysing this style, saying of The Puppetmaster for example that it "counterpoints three lighting textures: the soft, usually overcast daylight of the landscapes, the brilliant color of the puppet shows; and dark, rich deep interiors." But he is less concerned with what this serves, where Daly wants to propose an ontology within which the style functions. It is all very well for a critic to say, as Bordwell does, that "the play of small differences is evident in Hou's minute adjustment of actors' positions across a scene's development. Often it is a matter of setting and lighting that masks off everything but a key gesture..." It is a very useful way of understanding some of Hou's formal choices. But is it doing no more than making things hard for the viewer, like a crossword puzzle that refuses easy clues and demands more complicated ones?
Perhaps it is more useful to see Hou not simply as a filmmaker interested in the most complicated way of telling a story, but that the story concerns him less than the nature of situations. When he says, "I've always liked an action which hides itself - or better, an action which reveals another action" it can help us make sense of the event not as a unit of information towards the story, but as a dimension of the situation. Each scene in Hou's films are events rather than units, and this helps explain the difficulties they generate. In the story we are usually clearly cued to know what to expect, and where that unit will be taking us narratively. But in Hou's work this is not so clear. As Hou says, quoted in Figures Traced in Light, "the plan-sequence [the sequence shot] seemed to me the most appropriate form for treating each moment in a separate and autonomous way."
While Hou acknowledges the importance of action that hides itself and which reveals another action, Kiarostami is fascinated by the indeterminacy of an action and the tentativeness of its completion. In The Wind Will Carry Us, a car load of people from the city go to a small village for an indeterminate reason, and most of the people in the car remain out of the frame throughout, as well as a number of other characters also. Only near the end of the film do we get some idea of what the main character is doing in the village. The task he has gone there to fulfil becomes unimportant next to other things, especially the way he treats people in the village and the way people treat him. In And Life Goes On, a director and his son try to get to the small village in which the director had previously made a film, and where there has been an earthquake, and the film concentrates not on the destination but the journey.
If Hou often shows the complexity of the event in a complex play of light and shade, foreground and background, and actions that seem to hide others, Kiarostami is no less challenging a filmmaker but for different reasons. While the event is more important than the story in Hou's films, in Kiarostami the journey is more important than the destination. Often the films take place in cars (And Life Goes On, A Taste of Cherry, Ten), and frequently concern people trying to reach a destination that will thwart them in some way (And Life Goes On, Where is My Friend's House?, The Traveller). Like Hou he wants us to take the story less seriously because what counts much more than following selected information towards narrative conclusion is the speculative possibilities surrounding the information given. This doesn't make the stories non-existent. Though Kiarostami has made more experimental work (Five), generally the films have plots we can describe. In Where is My Friend's House? a boy wants to return a school jotter to his friend, in A Taste of Cherry a character wants to take his own life and find someone who will bury him after the deed, in The Traveller a young boy wants to catch a football game. However, very little is made out of the quests and the films maximize stillness and observation. It is as though Kiarostami wants to use film form to ask pertinent questions about our place in the world. Frequently his films digress to take in a philosophical conversation (Through the Olive Trees), a fable about suicide (A Taste of Cherry), or illustrate in so much more than an establishing shot the beauty of landscape, from Where is My Friend's House? to The Wind Will Carry Us.
A pressing question for many concerning film at the turn of the 21st century was, as we have proposed when talking of Tarr, what is cinema? With the move towards digital over celluloid, and the gallery space showing films that dissolve clear boundaries between film and art exhibition, what indeed can we claim cinema to be? As Chris Dercon noted in an article published in Vertigo in 2002, 'Gleaning the Future...', "during the past five years cinematographic expressions which have found their way into the art galleries, biennials and other events around the world show a radical difference from what has gone before: from the experiments of film's avant-garde artists such as Anger, Connor, Deren, Sharits and Snow - and the video installations of the artistic avant-garde, of Neuman, Hill and Viola." Dercon adds, "Film or video pieces by young artists such as Pierre Huyghe, Douglas Gordon, Sharon Lockhart, Pierre Bismuth, Mark Lewis, Georgina Starr, Matthew Barney, Stan Douglas or Sam Taylor-Wood are primarily imitations of the cinema or of its mode of production." However, no matter how much the filmmakers Dercon invokes have absorbed cinema or directed films that have been given cinematic status, can they claim within a cinematic context to be the equal of the directors we have chosen to concentrate on here? Do they possess the simultaneous interest in and ongoing questioning over narrative that feature length, cinematically exhibited films can pressurise us into being aware of by virtue of the captive dimension of the viewing experience? To pass through a Bela Tarr film for twenty minutes on the way to looking at some paintings elsewhere in the gallery is not quite the same as watching all seven plus hours of Satantango. The cinema experience makes time much more present in its passing since we do not feel we can get up at any moment and go and look at something else. Though many of the great filmmakers at the turn of the century were not happy with conventional form and feeling, they were still generally interested in cinema as an ongoing project in projected cinematic spaces.
Perhaps one way of looking at is to see cinema as a place in which we take a seat, and a gallery an opportunity to continue a walk. Generally in film the images move and we sit still. In a gallery space we move and the images remain static. Of course that is one of the things films in galleries play with, but what we have chosen to explore here are films that still see cinema as chiefly a place where we sit down, the doors are closed, the lights turned low, and the temporal dimension finally the director's more than the viewer's. Is it here where the image and self are most replenished?
© Tony McKibbin