Recent European Cinema and Beyond
If we proposed that much recent American cinema utilises what David Bordwell calls intensified continuity, has European cinema and beyond reversed the process and used what Peter Wollen and others have called deceleration - the slowing down of narrative, the lingering over the image? There is nothing especially new in this, and indeed Bordwell himself has written in his book, Figures Traced in Light, how in the sixties Antonioni heavily influenced other European filmmakers by being a strong precursor to the long take style. Haven't some of the clips that we've seen in previous weeks been of deceleration: Stalker or Gertrud, for example, or Herzog's work? Also, haven't there been many recent European films that have had no interest in deceleration at all, and even leant towards acceleration, like Trainspotting, Run Lola Run and Amelie, to name three over the last fifteen or so years?
Yet slowing the film down is still central to many of the films in Europe and beyond, and it is certainly true of the films we're discussing today. Also what interests us, though, is the portentous, the meditative, the transgressive and the real in relation to the films we will be discussing. But first of all we should say more about deceleration. It is all very well for a filmmaker to slow down the pace of their film, to hold a shot beyond its apparent use as a piece of storytelling information, but to what end? The playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet proposes in his book On Directing Film, that if films schools are to teach anything, then it should be "an understanding of the technique of juxtaposition of uninflected images to create in the mind of the viewer the progression of the story." What Mamet means by this is that the image should be a unit of storytelling information, told in the simplest, fastest and most straightforward manner. But all the filmmakers we are focusing upon today tend to work in inflected images, in images that extend long beyond the apparent unit of information. In Hidden, for example, there is a shot of Georges (played by Daniel Auteuil) going into his house. The director Michael (Funny Games, Code Unknown) Haneke offers the establishing shot and holds on the shot for many seconds before Georges pulls up in his car and makes his way into the house. This would probably have Mamet tearing his hair out, but if we think of the way Haneke wants to go beyond ready suspense devices, his extended shot starts to make sense.
This is a type of film tension that takes us into the area of portent. Film suspense as Hitchcock defined it would be putting the viewer into an acknowledged position of knowingness as the couple make love in the bed and the husband comes up the stairs, and the director cross cuts between the lovers and the husband, and the viewer wonders whether the lover will be able to hide in the closet before the husband comes through the door. The suspense is decidedly knowing: the viewer possesses a privileged position, and our nervousness lies in wondering whether the lovers will be found out. But in portent the viewer's position is underprivileged and we fret over not the tangible situation, but an intangible one as we wonder what is going on in this extended shot. Is someone watching from across the street, is there something in the shot itself that we need to focus upon but that the director isn't signalling in particular? Where Hitchcock wants a knowing viewer he can nevertheless play with - we know the variables in the situation, we don't know how Hitchcock will resolve them - Haneke wants a sense of portent where the variables are not laid out, but are questions within the viewer's mind. Portent contains within it an abstract dimension the viewer must work with. Suspense leaves the viewer with categoricals within the scene.
This portentousness can of course drive viewers crazy, but one way of looking at it is to differentiate suspense and portent the way the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard differentiated tangible horror and intangible horror. In the former we are afraid but know what we are afraid of - a wild animal, a gunman, a plane crashing, a speeding car - but the intangible horror has no object. It is fear of fear, a subjective fear that says more about the person feeling it than about the outside world. It is this fear, this sense of portent, Hidden addresses, and why Haneke utilises inflected shots that leaves the viewer much room for meditating upon the image.
This meditative aspect is also vital to the Iranian director Abbas (Close-Up, Ten) Kiarostami's work, where he wants to create films that are reflective spaces for the viewer's thoughts. In A Taste of Cherry, the early scenes contain perhaps a vague sense of menace as we wonder what exactly the central character seems to want from the characters he propositions, but something else is of more importance. If when discussing realism we mentioned the Dardenne brothers' eschewal of parallel montage to generate greater tension, and mentioned here Haneke's interest in portent, then Kiarostami likewise finds ways to keep an audience guessing not by privileging our perspective, la Hitchock, but by denying us that privilege. But if the Dardennes' work serves realism, and Haneke's a sort of social suspense, a heightened drama of everyday urban life, Kiarostami is a quietly philosophical filmmaker. Critic Godfrey Cheshire in Projections 8 said that "the films seem unusually careless - free - on the question of audience. But perhaps", he adds, "that apparent lack of concern conceals a deeper sense of anxiety and responsibility on the same issue".
This is in some ways a deeper sense of meditation than Haneke's. Haneke creates an uneasy world to which we must attend; no matter if we cannot quite know to what we are attending. Kiarostami's work creates the curious rather than the portentous, the apparent slackness in dramatic purpose leading the viewer to see nothing going on at all, or the possibility that many things could be going on. As the writer and documentarist Fergus Daly reckoned in Film West, "Kiarostami is closer to the classical notion of the seer, the visionary who never judges but grasps the essence of what happens in all its paradoxical fullness." In A Taste of Cherry, for example, the character is caught in a double bind: he decides he wants to commit suicide but needs someone to throw mud over his grave after he has done the deed. The only problem is most of the people he talks to won't help, and the one person who will, gives him easily the best reason to stay alive. Rather than offering twists and turns in the plot, Kiarostami creates the meditative space for us to muse for ourselves over the paradoxes the film provokes. Is this a lack of interest in the viewer or the exact opposite?
In many ways, Nuri Bilge Ceylan resembles Kiarostami. When this young Turkish director was asked about the ending of Uzak in Talking Movies, he said "I believe nothing will change, as I personally don't think much changes in life." If this was a Hollywood film, he proposed, it would end differently, "but I don't want to alter the reality of things." Once again we have the potential narrative laziness as Uzak foregoes plotting. But Ceylan is interested in an aspect of the real that in its revelation is more revealing than plot. We use the term 'real' here in the sense psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used it: that which escapes ready comprehension. Where most films offer us a cinematic version of reality that confirms to our expectations; occasionally a filmmaker focuses on reality which nevertheless makes it feel strange to us. Once again, as with Kiarostami, the deceleration can seem to show a lack of interest in the spectator, but maybe it creates instead a much more active viewer than usual. After all, what can we say the scene where one of the characters wanders around the snowy park is really about?
The final term we want to explore today is the transgressive in film. This became a key concept in contemporary French film, alongside the abject. In films like Seul contre tous, Irreversible, Trouble Every Day, In My Skin, La Vie Nouvelle and L'humanit, filmmakers have utilised extreme images to force a confrontation with the viewer. If Cheshire muses over Kiarostami's possible lack of concern for the spectator; then many of these filmmakers are wilfully confronting the viewer with an aesthetic experience where nothing may happen followed by an image that destroys the viewer's comfort zone. This combination of often desultory pacing and shocking imagery shows up in A ma soeur!, L'humanit and is also in fact central to Hidden, evident in one particular scene where the audience generally gasps in horror. What the filmmakers seem to be seeking out is what the writer Antonin Artaud once called the shock of thought - a thought that comes out of a visceral reaction to the material. When we see the naked girl in the field in L'humanit, the scene is a moral confrontation: do we walk out of the film in offence, do we ask ourselves whether it is the police inspector who has committed the atrocity, do we see its resemblance to Courbet's L'origine du monde? In such a confrontation the viewer, one may believe, is awakened. As Dumont says in Projections 12, "America cinema is aristocratic - it treats the viewer like an idiot and gives him nothing to do. But I think it's politically necessary to make the viewer equal to the director in deciding what happens in a film. It makes for a kind of democracy, and that's important." What we want to explore today is this attempt at the democratic instinct in a number of its manifestations. As Dumont believes, "cinema creates emotions that require further contemplation."
© Tony McKibbin