Recent American Cinema
No writer has more astutely captured what has been going on in recent American cinema than David Bordwell in his book The Way Hollywood Tells It. Here he coins the phrase 'intensified continuity' to describe how many American films have become faster paced, more narratively complicated and utilised a far greater range of shots than films of the past, while at the same time following all the rules of continuity. He insists that almost every film made in the States follows these rules, with David Lynch possibly the only aberration.
Shortly after the book came out, Mark Lawson, in an unconnected article in The Guardian, claimed cinema was going through a new golden era to rival the forties and the seventies. Where Bordwell saw intensified continuity as creating problems, Lawson sees the opposite. As Bordwell says "the visual bravura of the 1990s suits the attitude projected by the plots of Go, Memento and Jackie Brown - sly pieces of clockwork to be admired not for their realism but for their outlandish ingenuity". "Most filmmakers" he believes, "want their cake and eat it, to flaunt style and yet somehow never throw the viewer out of gear with the fiction." But does the self-consciousness take precedence and often "sink into gratuitous display?" Bordwell ends his book with a mixture of optimism and despair; but some of the reservations Bordwell offers are taken up by Lawson as unequivocal plus points.
Lawson, for example, says "the main reason for this renaissance is that all levels of cinema - from the people who put up the budget to the people who pay for the tickets - have become less frightened of intelligence and complexity." "Now", he says, "a producer, director or actor is likely to have been schooled - and then film-schooled - to high levels, and can rely on a potential audience of similar sophistication."
We want to address here what seems to be going on in American films, and whether it is true that filmmakers and audiences are more sophisticated, and whether this sophistication is always useful. Now many would see Casino Royale as an example of this renaissance in intelligent cinema. It seems less gadgety, less egotistically driven and less glamorous than previous Bonds. There is only really one Bond girl and she makes Bond more vulnerable than any Bond girl before her; and the villain of the piece isn't the super-villain that the Austin Powers films have been gently mocking in recent years, but a loser on a grand scale who needs to make a fortune to save his life.
This is a Bond film that seems to have absorbed the aesthetics and ethics of the Bourne films, and appears closer to the convoluted logistical intricacies of Syriana than the global hyperbolizing of the Roger Moore and Brosnan Bonds. But it is also a prime example of intensified continuity as Bordwell describes it, and especially one aspect of it - what Geoff King calls impact aesthetics, where the priority lies not in telling a good story, but in the visceral reaction of the audience to the explosive events depicted. Think of the collapse of the Empire State Building in Independence Day, the destruction of major world cities in Armageddon, the Volcanic eruption in Volcano: character and narrative often play cameo roles to special effect superstardom. In the early chase sequence in Casino Royale on a Madagascar building site, every thump and fall is clearly registered in close-ups and sound effects. However, where in many impact aesthetics films the purpose is to awe the audience into special effects, Dolby sound submission, do the impact aesthetics on show in Casino Royale serve an immediate purpose?
Let us think briefly of an absurdly wasteful moment of impact aesthetics: a scene in Speed where an empty bus collides into an empty plane and thus offers a very impressive but entirely pointless explosion. In Casino Royale if the chase sequence is to be effective, we really need to know what is at stake, and if the film has been the best received Bond film in years it resided not least in the impact aesthetic brought down to a human level. Thus the Dolby sound and the general eschewal of special effects for more immediate physical sensation leaves us inside Bond's experience, and not ironically or awe inspiringly removed from it. When Bond is asked whether he likes his martini mixed or stirred, he replies "do you think I give a damn". After years of ironic removal and special effects eye candy, Bond is brought down to earth with numerous bumps and bruises.
Presumably both Bordwell and Lawson would approve of Casino Royale, believing in Bordwell's case that the intensified continuity and impact aesthetics are more than bravura, while Lawson would add that the viewer's knowing ability to read complex, serpentine narrative within the context of an action movie means that a Bond film doesn't need a clear cut goodie and baddie, but a subtler examination of power in the world.
Though as Bordwell says, almost all filmmakers in America work with coherent worlds, however jumbled the narrative happens to be. As Christopher Nolan said of his own apparently mind-bending Memento, one can watch it three times and it will reveal to the viewer all its complexities. Better still, you can go straight to the DVD and watch it in chronological order. But can sense be made of Lynch's work, and most especially Mulholland Dr? With its leading characters apparently dissolving into somebody else, or another version of the same self, with its digressions onto characters who may have more or less to do with a central story whose centrality is constantly in question, Lynch's film is an exercise in the uncanny as the inexplicable. If the film could be readily explained in the way Bordwell indicates most American films can be, then it would lose much of its vital uncanniness. It makes more sense to try to understand the feelings it generates in us as viewers than it does to work out the storyline. It is a bit like how one should relate to dreams: rather than trying to make logical sense of the events, we make emotional sense of them. When we dream do we not work through feelings and the events reflect those feelings, while in life it is more the other way round: our emotions come much more out of the events to which we then attach the feelings? Lynch's 'dream logic' asks us to combine the event of our waking lives with oneiric reasoning.
Simply working out the story can be reserved for less emotionally complex films. Bordwell uses the term the puzzle film to describe how a film is withholding information but "does not signal it is doing so." Adam Mars-Jones has, as we noted in Cinema Narrative, wittily referred to the films as anti-clock-wise movies, films where the twist throws into question the whole narrative momentum leading up to the conclusion - films like The Game, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense and the Latin American Nine Queens, are all films that generate a twist that turns the film inside out and asks us to reread all the information we have viewed as objective up until this point, only to find out it has been a product of a character's subjectivity, or manipulation on another character's part. Lynch, though, seems to want not the puzzle-like cleverness of plot twists, but the dissolution of character and narrative into an atmosphere that leaves us working out our own feelings towards what we have seen. To do so we would be better trying to understand how he generates empty framing, plays with the hierarchy of dialogue, music and sound in film, so that sound becomes the most important element, where his close-ups do not emphasise meaning but call it into question, and where his establishing shots don't establish the scene but create an uncanny sense of the viewer looking at something and not quite knowing whether it is a point of view shot or not.
David Cronenberg's recent films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are uncanny for very different reasons. They seem almost predictable and old-fashioned in their shot structure, their characterisation and their plotting. Both films possess key narrative twists, but they are closer to what in Greek tragedy would be called the peripety, "a sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation." In A History of Violence, John Stall's wife thinks her husband is one thing, and then halfway through finds out he is something else altogether. But compared to the anti-clock wise thrillers the film still feels almost anachronistic, as though it has almost accidentally given its plot away too soon.
Cronenberg however is famously sophisticated, and there is a curious sense of unease in these films; as though we are expecting more narrative than we get, and more sophisticated images than Cronenberg offers us. As he uses reaction shots, establishing shots, unequivocal baddies, post-Tarantinoesque shoot-outs and predictable dialogue, at the same time he offers extremely tight essays in the virus of violence in our lives. In many of his earlier sci-fi horrors like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood he wanted to show the genealogy of disease. Here he does it in relation to violence, saying that "the social contract has been cancelled in America", and that there is a "hallucinatory quality to life in the States". By showing in A History of Violence a blunt examination of gun culture in the US, and letting the viewer have their cake and eat it, is Cronenberg's more conventional approach more radical than many an example of intensified continuity? Do viewers need to be sophisticated not only on the technical and narratological level, but also socio-philosophical level as well?
For some, such questions are irrelevant in much American film; that the freshness lies elsewhere: in the style. Is the important thing not the troubling and uncanny awareness of a viewer in response to Lynch and Cronenberg, but a knowingly ironic position in relation to so many films that play up a comedic dimension? Critic Scott Foundas coined the term 'detail fetishism' to describe films like Rushmore and Napoleon Dynamite; movies that seem to care more for the mis-en-scene than characters who appear no more than a dimension of it. Garden State, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, I Heart Huckabees and Adaptation would all seem examples of a type of film that makes the viewer knowing not through working out puzzle film narrative, but instead by allowing them to adopt a blas attitude that leaves the viewer knowing exactly where they are at all times. In the opening few minutes of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson generates an airless sense of summation that owes a little to the Coens' work and much to the instantaneousness of advertising. This type of cinema is fun, and Anderson its master, but when Lawson talks of the intelligence of the contemporary viewer, and Bordwell frets over that sophistication, we could do worse than look at the details fetishists and see where some of the problems lie. Look at the way Anderson cuts back and forth in a shot/counter shot style that pins the character to the frame. Or the way he removes depth and texture from the image. This is knowingness, certainly, but is it really more sophisticated than a deep focus image and a two shot style that allows actors and mise-en-scene to breathe?
© Tony McKibbin