New American Film and Beyond
There is a certain vein in recent American cinema that some people love and others loath. The films usually utilise an overly determined sense of story and character, with everything put in inverted commas and given a slightly cartoonish quality. Films that come to mind include Being John Malkovich, The Royal Tenenbaums, I Heart Huckabees, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Life Aquatic, and less obviously Election and Sideways. They often also have an absurdist dimension, taking a crazy hypothesis and running with it. What would it be like being inside John Malkovich's head, for example, or imagine if you had your memories of an ex-lover wiped because the pain of remembering was too great? Frequently the films have a caricatural element that makes the character's inner life much less relevant than their outer persona, than the way they are presented: this is true of all the Tenenbaum kids in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, where Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow are all given not so much characters as character traits and a look: Stiller a red tracksuit; Paltrow heavy eye-liner, Wilson a tennis head band. What all the films share is a sense of knowingness, a sense that they are putting the viewer in a privileged viewing position where each image will be ticked off and readily comprehended. A 'hermetically sealed celluloid universe" critics have called it, and not always unflatteringly.
It is a filmmaking approach very much opposed to seventies film, even if the filmmakers themselves sometimes invoke names of that decade in relation to their own work. Sideways director Alexander Payne has spoken of Robert Altman's importance to him, David O. (I Heart Huckabees) Russell has invoked Hal Ashby, while P. T. (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) Anderson is clearly indebted to Altman's mosaics.
We sense however that few of these young filmmakers have much interest in what critic Robert Phillip Kolker called, in The Cinema of Loneliness, Altman's "delight in opening up narratives to the play of their peripheries and to images that deflect away from, rather than toward, the dead center of plot." In the recent films the dead centre of plot has returned, and the peripheral elements usually get coralled into the narrative. We might think of the way even a wasp in Election has a key narrative function, stinging our hero in the eye and changing the direction of the story. In Eternal Sunshine... the philosophical elements, the idea that someone might want to forget the pain of their past love affair, becomes a narrative device as the central character (Jim Carey) discovers that his ex had an affair with the very man who's wiping away his memories, and that the professor's determination to wipe Carey's mind of a past love affair serves very much the professor's own ends.
This isn't especially to decry such cinema, just to try and say what it's doing, and what its limitations happen to be. If the tone is usually facetious, and if the stories frequently move towards a fairly clear denouement, then the film won't have what Andr Bazin believed cinema at its most interesting could offer: the capacity, in Kolker's words, to allow "the viewer to retrieve a range of information and experience from the image." The filmmakers want much more to arrange the information in such a way that the tone remains consistent and the narrative relatively clear, no matter how complicated: as the stories often are in the key scriptwriter of this 'movement': Charles Kaufman's work on Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Consequently the films usually work best on the first viewing. Because the eye is so well directed, and the stories so neatly constructed, a second look is unlikely to yield up much more than what's available on the first.
But of course not all American filmmakers have closed down the image so completely. Filmmakers who've remained open to the possibilities of a more free perceptual approach include Gus Van Sant, in Elephant, in Gerry and also in Last Days, Larry Clark with Kids, Bully and Ken Park, and Vincent Gallo in Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny. It's as if instead of the narrative being sped up, as in the labyrinthine tales of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and co, it's as though the story has been slowed down, so as to create the maximum amount of space for viewer observation. Thus in Elephant Van Sant investigates an event that is similar to the tragedy of Columbine, with a couple of school-kids gunning down various pupils and teachers. The mayhem however only happens in the last section of the film, and Van Sant devotes the rest of his time to observing the way the kids interact, through an unusual tone that combines well a sense of obliviousness on the part of the kids, and portent on the part of the viewer, as he plays with the chronological structure, and views the same event from different points of view.
If Wes Anderson is a filmmaker looking for ironic assuredness, Van Sant is a director searching out ambiguous unease, as we watch the film and enquire into the nature of an incident that has no obvious reason, but many analysable elements. Every gesture must be read as a sign of possible motive, but not a character's motive within a narrative, but as possessing a loosely sociological purpose: what elements come together to create a situation like Columbine? The event is both inexplicable and yet demanding of analysis. Van Sant seems to respect this paradoxical situation in the very filming. Utilising long-takes that seem almost to drift past the characters, occasionally eavesdropping, or observing, Van Sant offers a very unimposing style to an event that of course received its opposite from Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Moore may have been right to so insistently take on the gun lobby in the film, but Moore wanted to work with absolute certitude and blame the ease with which American citizens can get a gun to explain Columbine. Van Sant would probably not entirely disagree: but nevertheless there are many schools in America where guns are just as easy to get hold of and yet there hasn't been a school massacre; whilst in other countries where there is gun control, as in Britain, there have been similar tragedies: Hungerford and Dunblane for example. For Van Sant what matters is to comprehend as many of the variables of the event as possible. Not then to explain what happened, but to try and understand the nature of it. This is first and foremost an aesthetic undertaking, and it would be absurd to 'reduce' Van Sant's film to an account of Columbine. Just as Larry Clark's films want to understand teenage behaviour from subtle observation and intense scrutiny, from the lazy gestures, from the air of frustration, from the need to do something with one's life, but to do it in an undisciplined, spontaneous way, so Elephant wants to look at all the ways in which teenagers construct for themselves provisional identities. Some will take pictures, others will take lives. This might seem a flippant response; but it helps explain both the inevitability and contingency at work in Elephant, as Van Sant shows the genealogy of behaviour which will hint at a future action. We may find some elements too deterministic (critics have wondered about the boys watching Nazi footage, and the gay clinch in the shower), but there is still a great deal of free play here.
Some critics have used the term impact aesthetics to describe the way American films haven't so much become more violent, but the manner in which the films impact upon the viewer. Thus though many films of the late sixties and early seventies (Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs) were violent, the violence was actually first and foremost an empathic horror and secondly a visceral impact. Certainly many of the films managed to shock, but if they worked, the shock was only half the story; in impact aesthetic cinema, in films like T2, Speed, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Godzilla,Independence Day, the impact seems the absolute priority. The writer often credited with the term impact aesthetics, Geoff King, nevertheless would say this isn't quite the case. In his book New Hollywood he says, "Narrative construction remains an important ingredient in the mix offered by even the most spectacular and special-effects laden blockbuster productions." But he also notes that in the contemporary blockbuster "spectacular moments here are both larger and more frequent, fragmenting the narrative". It is a point Liam Neeson notes ruefully in Tom Shone's Blockbuster, "I don't think I can live with the inauthenticity of movies anymore." "We are basically puppets." An impact aesthetic style relies less on the story and the characters, than on technique: on the quality of the sound and of the special effects; on the way the viewer isn't so much moved, by emotion, as jolted by a kind of aesthetic brutality.
This may even help explain the strangely lifeless, bitty The Passion of the Christ. It really seems one of those films where, if you didn't know the book upon which it was based, you would struggle to know what was going on. It's as if director Mel Gibson didn't want to recreate the biblical story but wanted to force the viewer to feel battered, bruised and repentant. Shouldn't it be called The Pain of Christ, as we see far more pain than passion? But The Passion of the Christ is just one of many contemporary films that seem to want to brutalise the viewer: others include, with varying degrees of efficiency, and for very different reasons, Casino Royale, The Departed, Munich, Saving Private Ryan and Fight Club. Where the disaster movies of the seventies like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno still tried to tell offer a character-oriented story (perhaps for no better reason than that they knew they couldn't quite astonish us with their special effects), films like Titanic and Speed seem to want to keep us in a state of high stress, and know that cinema has evolved to such a technical level that an impact aesthetic can work as effectively, or certainly as immediately, as a well-told narrative. It's perhaps a return to the very beginnings of cinema, where people all but ducked out of the way of the train rushing towards the screen in an early Lumiere brothers film, and where people were rumoured to have run out of the cinema when a character in The Great Train Robbery fired directly at the screen. But where there the technique was rudimentary and the audience 'nave', now we have an audience that is, at least in some ways, obviously much more sophisticated, and a quality of technique that can once again return the viewer to a state of credulity. For after all as Tom Gunning has pointed out, quoted in The Cinema Book, the early days of cinema were a "cinema of attractions", where viewers would go along to be "aroused and satisfied by novelty, surprise, even shock."
Whether this is all for the well and good is a debatable point, but at least it has a clear generic history, and of course cinema throughout has always played with elements that connect to a "cinema of attractions". Would many people not have turned up to Psycho at the beginning of the sixties to be aroused by novelty, surprise and even shock? And even if we admire the aesthetic brilliance of Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch shouldn't we admit that part of their appeal resides in their visceral aspect? But we could argue that yes this was part of their appeal, but only a part. The Passion of the Christ and Independence Day, if very differently, feel like films wanting to eschew the other elements to focus almost exclusively on the graphic. Independence Day gives us the money shots of spectacular architectural collapse; Gibson's film one man's spiritual survival. Apparently Christ suffers for our sins, but just as readily we might argue for our impact aesthetic pleasure. Note the way the various whips are lingered over in advance in a manner not very different from the shots used in 'torture porn', in the wave of films (Saw, Hostel, the albeit excellent Wolf Creek), that gains a certain generic relish out of pain.
If earlier we talked about the over-determination of details in film, that unlike Altman, a filmmaker like Alexander Payne has to make his apparently incidental moments prove significant for narrative development, then what are we to make of the over-determined story strands in films like 21 Grams, The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction and Go? We touched upon this earlier in our section on editing, where we wondered whether for all the complexity, films like Memento were complex or just complicated, and it is a fair question to ask in relation to the 'over-determined' narrative film that has become so popular over the last decade. Here what we often have are criss-crossing narrative strands that seem to create narrative non-sequiturs, seem to lead from one story to another with no apparent connection, only for the connections to become apparent as the film develops. Some of these films use the device for the purposes of plot (The Usual Suspects, Go, Pulp Fiction), others first and foremost to explore milieux (indeed Altman's own Short Cuts and also Magnolia) and others to bring out a theme, as we see in 21 Grams. This doesn't mean that each type is mutually exclusive: after all Magnolia (referred to by one critic as a "mosaic of misery") wants to explore theme as well as focus on the Los Angeles locations in which it's set.
21 Grams, though, more obviously seems to be seeking out a thematic as it explores the nature of a heart that's transferred from one man's body to another. Here we have Sean Penn, after a heart operation, becoming infatuated with the wife (Naomi Watts) of the husband whose heart he's taken. Telling its story elliptically, the film steadily fills out the necessary details that leads us to realise the fragility of life and also its inter-connectedness. If the film works as more than a gimmick, then it lies in the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's ability to go beyond the form as a device, and make us feel that he couldn't have developed the theme any other way. If he'd told the film in a linear fashion, would we have felt the full sense of lives that are never quite our own but always connected with those of others, whether that be emotional (Watt's increasing love for Penn), physical (Penn is walking around with someone else's bodily organ), or culpable (Benicio del Toro plays the tortured soul responsible for the husband's death)?
Just as we talked in week two about style, and how sometimes a filmmaker was meretricious rather than meaningful, so we may say the same about narrative and editing. Do we feel the filmmaker has done something clever, or created something consequential? There is of course no hard and fast rule here, as there cannot be over issues of style, but we might ask ourselves when a filmmakers offers us an obfuscatory narrative whether he's done nothing more than offer us the aesthetic equivalent of an anagram that we merely have to decipher, or has elucidated a method for understanding the complexity of life.
One of the big growth areas over the last decade has been the increasing popularity of documentary. Obviously the films aren't proving blockbusters, but they are becoming nice little earners. As a recent headline in Sight and Sound proposed: "Documentaries are now big box office business." Here is a list of a handful of documentaries over the last decade and a half: Hoop Dreams, The Buena Vista Social Club, Capturing the Friedmans, One Day in September, Dark Days, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me and Spellbound. Not all of these are strictly American, One Day in September is an Academy Award winning documentary by a Scot; Buena Vista Social Club is directed by the German Wim Wenders. But both involved American production money. Is the success of these films a good thing we might ask, is it wholly positive that documentaries are making it at the box office? Let's say yes and no. Yes, because for years documentaries have been seen as a worthy but unremunerative profession, with the filmmakers reliant chiefly on TV screenings and the odd festival airing. But no if it means the filmmakers are aping fictional film devices as they search not for the epistemological aspect, but first and foremost for the suspense elements.
A number of the documentaries above work with tension building devices. Most obviously Spellbound, which is all about the outcome of a spelling bee; while Super Size Meexaggerates the effects of a month spent scoffing McDonald's food as readily to play up the suspense of self-appointed guinea pig Morgan Spurlock bursting at the seams, as to question the nutrient value of fast food.
Which might make us think that When We Were Kings is a move in the wrong direction, and a key influence on this negative turn: the film was released in 1996 and like the equally suspenseful Hoop Dreams has been central to the commercial rise of the documentary. But maybe we shouldn't dismiss suspense techniques out of hand, and instead wonder whether the subject matter innately contains them, or whether they're more obviously superimposed on the material. In When We Were Kings the filmmaker Leon Gast wants to return us to a moment of complete astonishment. He wants the audience to be well aware that when Muhammad Ali got in the ring with George Foreman in 1974, nobody thought Ali had a chance. Ali had two long tough fights with Ken Norton, while Foreman had demolished Norton in two rounds. The writer Norman Mailer, who wrote a book on 'The Fight', commented on how Foreman's punches into the punching bag were so hard that "each of these blows was enough to smash an average athlete's ribs; anybody with poor stomach muscles would have a broken spine." Foreman would hit this bag six hundred times: Mailer wondered whether he might do the same damage to Ali that he was doing to the bag. Utilising comments from Mailer, Spike Lee, George Plimpton and others, the film moves towards the fight whilst never ignoring the wider context: that this was a fight taking place in a corrupt dictatorship (Zaire), where two black men would fight each other damn near to the death. To ignore the tension that lead up to the fight and also surrounded it would seem an absurdity, and Gast weaves well the suspenseful and the contextual.
In Spurlock's film Supersize Me, however, we always sense a hyperbole that really has nothing to do with the material. As Spurlock's medical advisors warn him of the dangers of his new diet, Spurlock seems to want them to emphasise these dangers, exaggerate them for the purposes of his film. Finally a guy eating too many burgers doesn't quite have the innate narrative tension of a boxer getting into the ring with man who can break your spine with one punch; just as we might wonder whether a spelling bee can really justify the sort of hyped up elements Spellbound tries to give it. All we're proposing is that documentary remains true to its subject matter and then finds whatever useful drama it can discover out of that subject - without resorting either to hyperbole, or ignoring its epistemological function, its capacity to enquire into the truth of its subject.
© Tony McKibbin