Minding the Gap
Why do we need to talk about films? Are they not self-contained packages that serve their purpose over a hundred odd minutes of running time? If it is frequently enough said a film which needs to be explained by its filmmaker somehow hasn't succeeded as a film, surely one that needs to be talked about after seeing it hasn't quite achieved its aims either. It is a variation on the idea that a joke which needs explanation isn't much of a joke at all. Yet in numerous instances part of the very purpose of the film is that it be talked about, that it should generate debate around it. Abbas Kiarostami, the great Iranian director of Close-Up, A Taste of Cherry and Ten, believed an ambiguous ending reveals much about the viewer's response to the film. If someone comes out of A Taste of Cherry believing the suicidal character will kill himself, it might be revealing of their own disposition; if they believe he won't this can be equally revelatory. The question we want to address here is the ambiguous work that demands what Paul Coates in The Story of the Lost Reflection so astutely called 'speculative probing'.
This is an approach involving the filmmaker, the critic and the viewer, and there need be no hierarchy in terms of interpretation. The Red Desert director Michelangelo Antonioni, when asked about the meaning of his work, invoked Pirandello, "how should I know. I am merely the author?" For some this is a facetious comment; for others it reveals the limitations of hierarchical interpretation, where the director seeks truth over beauty, enquiry over form. Antonioni is a filmmaker who is as interested in the questions he can ask as the form the film will take, and thus meaning is always slightly out of reach not because Antononi is teasing us; no, it is that the world itself is a highly ambiguous place, and to comment honestly upon it is to accept that classical narrative cannot contain the questions that need to be asked.
Hence any analysis of the examples that we will be talking about here - Discreet Charm ofthe Bourgeoisie, Divine Intervention, The Runner, The Spider's Stratagem and The Red Desert - will not be based on a privileging of one person's knowledge over another, a power structure that works from the filmmaker down to the lowly viewer - but instead on a close scrutiny of our own perceptions of the films, and how we can bolster them with the aid of critical comments and directors' statements. For example, Divine Interventiondirector Elia Suleiman and Antonioni are very astute commentators on their own work, and we cannot help but utilise much of what they have to say. But this is not simply because they are the creators of their films, but chiefly that they are good observers generally. Antonioni was a critic before becoming a director, and Suleiman, though he never studied film, said he went to New York and "for a year did nothing but read books and [would] see films, sometimes three films a day." It is as much the critic in Antonioni and Suleiman we quote as the filmmaker. Hence the refusal to create perceptual pecking orders; what matters is how interesting the observation happens to be, not who offers it.
One hopes everybody will be able 'muck in', and though obviously not all opinions will be equally valid, the validity of some observations and the invalidity of others will be tested by how the observation holds up next to the film itself. For example if someone insists that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a film about revolution, we will expect the viewer to bolster their claims with several scenes from the film concerning radical political action. If a student insists Bunuel is a surrealist, even though this is generally accepted, still we hope the observer can come up with a few scenes that specifically back up their claims. Sometimes it will be the surprising detail someone notices that might take us quite far.
A student may suggest that Florence (Bulle Ogier), apparently quite peripheral, is the figure that most encompasses the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. Watch how in an early scene she seems the most petulantly unhappy about the fact that Alice (Stephane Audran) hasn't prepared dinner. We may then notice that it isn't especially Florence who is discreet, but Bunuel the filmmaker, as he offers numerous points of detail that reveal the discreet charmlessness. Watch how Bunuel simply, dartingly, moves the camera to reveal a hint of adultery between Don Rafael (Fernando Rey) and Simone (Delphine Seyrig).
So observations big and small are equally valid, and we hope that any film Talking Pictures discusses will bring to mind Camus's observation on Kafka - that as soon as we have read him we feel we need to re-read him: that we constantly sense that we've missed something. In more narratively focused films we may want to re-watch them for many of the pleasures they give us, or perhaps even because one or two of the plot details have passed us by, but we won't especially re-watch them because of what they tell us about ourselves. That is central to what we want to get out of Talking Pictures; we are looking less for the categorical assertions that are often useful in making sense of an intricately plotted narratively driven film, but the speculative probing that may reveal a great deal about what we find ourselves paying attention to when the filmmaker gives us space to concentrate on details other than the story. This could lead us to doing little more than 'taking our own pulse', in Jonathan Rosenbaum's words, in Movies as Politics, but perhaps a bit of self-reflexive analysis is exactly what the sort of films here are searching for. We might be reminded of Kiarostami's comments above, or Suleiman's idea that of Divine Intervention"the film isn't an historical or anthropological study...you don't come away with a geographic or political knowledge of that place but rather a sense of ambience." "A lot of reactions have been self reflective," he adds, the tone hardly dismissive. It's a remark that also of course chimes with Andre Bazin's famous claims in What is Cinema? that what he thought film should aspire to was the "ontological ambiguity of reality", that cinema should create the maximum amount of space for viewer observation through longer takes as opposed to swift cutting, and through depth of field instead of a shallow focus that keeps all the important information in the foreground. In such an approach surely taking our own pulse, in the sense of trying to utilise our own sense of observation, is vital.
So what we can see in the five films we've chosen to discuss in this introductory essay - in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in Divine Intervention, The Runner, Spider's Stratagem and The Red Desert - is probing speculation where both words are operative, even if in different ways in relation to each film. Now earlier we of course suggested that the most important thing is that in such open works we can all have a valid perspective which needn't be readily compatible with somebody else's. We gave as an example A Taste of Cherry, where we can equally say that the character is likely to kill himself or likely not to. However this doesn't mean all interpretations are of equal validity; and some critical frameworks are better than others in trying to make sense of the films here. Undeniably Divine Intervention follows in many ways the expectations of Bazinian realism as it utilises depth of field and long takes. But somehow Bazinian realism wouldn't quite cover the film's achievements. When Bazin offered such comments it was the time of neo-realism, the key post-war Italian movement that focused the story on the details of every day life: on a maid making coffee in Umberto D., in a boy picking up coal from the street and taking it home at the beginning of Germany Year Zero, a bike being stolen in Bicycle Thieves. This was, by most standards up until the time, de-dramatized cinema, but when we look at the films now we see they are still surprisingly plot driven. Bicycle Thieves has the narrative thrust of looking for work and looking for a bike, Umberto D. of an old man soon to be homeless, and Germany Year Zero of a boy committing a horrific act.
Neo-realism was still interested in a strong story, and yet a film like Divine Intervention, which utilises Bazinian realist expectations, and also has potentially strong narrative momentum - a man is stabbed at the beginning of the film, the central character's father is dead by the end of it - can hardly be understood using a conventionally Bazinian paradigm. For example Suleiman is much more interested in off-screen sound, and also in a cognitive complexity that leaves the viewer making connections the filmmaker refuses to make readily cause and effectual. Where neo-realism very much wanted the social and anthropological, Suleiman is more interested in de-contextualizing moments. The Santa Claus stabbing at the beginning of the film has almost no narrative consequence, and nor does the moment where the central, Palestinian, character E. S. (Elia Suleiman) plays 'I Put a Spell on You' as he pulls up at the traffic lights next to a Jewish Israeli: a moment that could have resulted in anything from a car chase to a fight. Yet other moments do have consequences, but Suleiman films them in such a manner that they again play against our usual expectations of narrative information. There are a series of scenes where rubbish is thrown in and out of a garden that ends in a curious speech where one character insists to another that though he is throwing rubbish into their garden, this is still no reason for the person to throw it out of their garden and onto the street. There is cause and effect, albeit delayed, but the way the situation is concluded has more to do with the absurd than with plot reasoning.
Neither neo-realism, nor Bazin for that matter, seemed especially concerned with the Absurd, and yet it is a strain that runs through all five films we're discussing here if in rather different ways, and to varying degrees, and it is a sense of absurdity that owes much to surrealism and much to existentialism. Bunuel, the director of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was of course a famous surrealist of the twenties, working with Salvador Dali on both Un Chien Andalou and also L'age d'Or, yet surrealism and existentialism interlink on certain key questions of absurdist thought. When Sartre describes the viscosity of things in Being and Nothingness, will some not call to mind Dali's dripping watch? Key elements of the absurd as Camus describes it include "the mechanical aspect of people's lives [that] may lead them to question the value and purpose of their existence", and this may not be true of the characters themselves in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but that is centrally where the comedy lies from our point of view. This is where viscosity meets its opposite: the mechanical. Central to the humour in Bunuel's film is that the bourgeois characters cannot see the degree to which their world has fallen apart, that while the world turns viscous as their expectations of afternoon tea and dinner appointments dissolve around them, so they must act as if nothing has changed. They must mechanically follow the rituals of their lives even if afternoon tea consists of no more than water, and their dinner keeps getting delayed.
Another dimension of the absurd that Camus pinpoints is "the sense of being in an alien world" and in this Antonioni's The Red Desert reverses the aesthetic of Bunuel. If Bunuel's alien world leads to the absurdly mechanical actions of the characters as we observe them at one remove, Antonioni asks for an intense identification with his central character Giuliana (Monica Vitti) that leads away from the surreal and towards the empathic. While Bunuel adopts a visual style that is relatively normative compared to the narrative that incorporates dreams within dreams within dreams, Antonioni's was seen as so formally fresh that filmmaker and critic Pier Paolo Pasolini offered a new term to try and explain what filmmakers like Antonioni, Godard and Bertolucci were doing. This was free indirect subjectivity (a term taken from literature), where a character's perspective and a filmmaker's perspective conjoin. This is no longer either the point of view of the character, nor an omniscient view outside the character, but rather an in-between perspective that makes the 'camera felt'.
There is a scene in The Red Desert where the camera moves from a shot of Corrado (Richard Harris) talking, to looking up and down a wall. Usually such a shot would belong to a character listening, and it would show his attention wandering as the camera wanders and would thus be consistent with a point of view shot. But the shot has no point of view as Antonioni takes advantage of his aesthetic freedom to place the camera in a position not too unlike that of a narrator's position in a novel, where the writer can drift away from the characters and postulate on some other element of reality. The shot in the film is neither omnisciently telling us the story, nor clearly reflecting a character's point of view in the traditional way. Yet we suggest it captures well a certain empathy; and, like most of Antonioni's films (like L'avventura, like La notte, like The Passenger) this is a feeling for characters that do not believe in the world as one's expected to believe in it. At one moment the central character lists all the things one could potentially love and how she cannot choose. For most people this isn't a problem - it seems 'natural' that we love our husband over our dog, our child over a river; but what happens when our assumptions collapse, and how should a filmmaker capture this fragility? Surely by a filmic style that accepts meaning itself is provisional. That just as one can't decide what is more important, a river or a child, so the filmmaker may decide Corrado's conversation is no more important than a wall.
This is what we mean by the empathy Antonioni offers. He wants to understand Giuliana's crisis and tries to find a correlative style that will make sense of her own meaninglessness by offering an approach that itself doesn't take meaning as given. While Bunuel is a satirist who keeps his aesthetic distance no matter if he ostensibly goes inside his characters' heads with dream sequences in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Antonioni is a chronicler (his first film was called Chronicle of a Love) of inner pain.
However what is vital of course is that they are both interested in speculative probing, in trying to force the viewer to ask questions about the film. This is also obviously central to Bertolucci's work, and maybe at its most persuasive in The Spider's Stratagem. As Bertolucci adapts a Borges short story called 'Theme of the Traitor and The Hero', so he theorizes it through Freud and Marx (both often interlinked in the sixties and seventies), and problematises it through the developments in film already proposed by Pasolini: surprisingly perhaps considering the film was commissioned by Italian state television, but not so surprising if we know they also produced films by the Hungarian long take master Miklos Jancso, the Taviani brothers, the Straubs and other demanding auteurs. In Borges' story, a young man investigates the idea that his great grandfather was a hero only to discover that he would seem to have been a traitor. For the good of the cause his treacherous act was paid for by execution, but in return his death was presented as a martyrdom: that he was killed by the enemy not by his own side. The original story was set in 19th century Ireland, and Bertolucci updates it to the Fascist era and places it in Italy. The rebels are communists, and the young man investigates his father's involvement. Bertolucci, who admitted around the time of The Spider's Stratagem that the influence of analysis was impacting on his work, said to his psychoanalyst: "your name should be in the credits of all my films" Hence the Freudian shift from a distant relation in Borges to the Oedipal immediacy of the father and son relationship in Bertolucci's film. And what better approach than an apparently Marxist father with an apolitical son who discovers perhaps his father wasn't so Marxist after all? But the director doesn't only offer up an illustration of Freud and Marx, of familial and political life, but also plays with the form. In one scene we see the central character cycling towards us before Bertolucci breaks what is called the hundred and eighty degree rule and plays with our sense of cinematic space. It looks as though the character is riding back in the direction he came from.
This may suggest - in its influence of Freud and Marx, in its break with cinematic convention - that the speculative probing in films like The Spider's Stratagem requires both a high level of cultural and cinematic knowledge. This is not untrue, but frequently there are details in the film, as in all the films we are talking about here, that will puzzle us in and of themselves. What are we to make of the father's lover's acquaintanceship with the son? Athos Magnani Jnr is now at the same age as Magnani Snr when he had an affair with Alida Valli's character, Draifa, and looks identical to his father. Did she bring him back to the town to renew a relationship with the son, and why hasn't she aged?
Perhaps of the five films the one that asks the least from us culturally and intellectually is Amir Naderi's The Runner. Not especially because it is a less impressive work than the four mentioned above, but chiefly because it was made originally for The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in Iran. Naderi also insists that he learnt about simplicity in art from Hemingway's spare style. As he offers up a no doubt semi-autobiographical story of a young boy (many details are consistent with Naderi's biography), the film possesses great mystery but works very elementally. As we watch the boy scrapping with others and scraping a living selling bottles he finds along with other kids in the sea next to where he lives, or sells iced water to thirsty Iranians, the film captures the rhythm of the boy's life without access to his internal preoccupations. This is partly because the runner is basically an eight year old child; partly because Naderi wants to offer a resolutely rhythmic examination of the boy's existence. Watch how Naderi films the kids at play as they offer each other a series of challenges: racing to be the first to grab a bottle of Fanta off the top of an oil drum, the first to reach a particular signpost.
Obviously many filmmakers talk about capturing the rhythm of their characters' lives. Yet as he uses a diegetic soundtrack, Naderi allows natural sounds to have all the purposefulness of a music score in another director's work. Though he talks of the strong emphasis on visuals in his films, this is more to the detriment of dialogue than of sound. While the characters speak little, the soundtrack offers a constant sense of off-screen space. We hear the sound of the wind, of the sea, of planes and of trucks. This is a cacophonous world yet not at all discordant as Naderi builds his film in such a way that though it has been compared to other classics of poverty and childhood (Los Olvidados, The 400 Blows and Shoeshine), its spare use of image and sound makes the film nothing less than mesmerizing. When a Naderi interviewer talks of casting a non-professional in the lead role, she says he needed a child who could "combine a charismatic intelligence and physical energy." Whether the boy is persistently persuading someone to pay him for the bottles he's collected, or racing against the other boys, it is as though Naderi wanted from his actor less acting than a presence that could contain the mysterious and offer the mesmeric.
We never quite find out the details of the boy's back story, and this is partly why we talk of him being a presence more than an actor. Where a professional actor would expect to possess a back story that could contain the performance, and the director provide it, giving the film an underlying narrative purpose alongside its present tense evolution, Naderi wants a character who doesn't offer a back story but a complexly suggestive 'front story'. He could have given us a tale which shows an orphaned boy in search of his father ( la Walter Salles's Central Station), so that the narrative through space (searching for his father) contains another narrative that passes through time, thus giving the film a twofold narrative tension. We would have someone facing certain obstacles in the present as he tries to find his father, but equally would be offering up his back story as well - an opportunity for the actor to work with 'motivation': for reasons to act the way he does beyond the immediacy of the situation. One of the great strengths of Naderi's film is that he utilises the non-professional for the multi-dimensional. The character doesn't have underlying motivations and potential back-stories; he instead contains within him all the mystery the viewer chooses to project upon him. Why is he alone - has his family abandoned him; has he lost his family to a war, has he left home of his own volition? By the end of the film these questions become irrelevant as the mysterious aspect Naderi creates by avoiding the psychological and sociological explanations gives way to a rhythmic intensity that turns the film almost into an abstract exploration of bodies and elements.
The film's ending could clearly lend itself to the symbolic as the penultimate scene focuses on those two opposing elements of fire and ice. Here though Naderi isn't interested in their symbolic power but their elemental effectiveness. By the conclusion the psychological and sociological questions get absorbed into the elements as if the boy is less the sum of his anthropocentric parts than at one with the wider universe. As Naderi cuts from a shot of the boy scrambling down rocks to a shot of the crashing waves, asking questions about his parentage seem beside the point. He is a child of nature more than anything else, and Naderi's achievement is to avoid the boy's history and general narrative demands for a sense of belonging to something much bigger than a family environment. By the conclusion it might be more useful to think of him not as a tragic product of a broken family, but a wondrous result of elemental forces.
Yet obviously this is a speculative reading, and each viewer will have their own angle on the experience. For some viewers the psychological issues the film chooses not to divulge, might never occur to them, while for others they won't feel the film has ended appropriately because there is no divulgence. What is central to the films we are talking about isn't only that they demand speculative probing, but also that they expect us to leave our preconceptions at the door while they try to explore existence in ways that don't explain life to us but open it up to our perceptual faculties, to find new ways of experiencing images and sounds. If someone were to suggest that The Runner is flawed because it lacks biographical detail, that it never explains the boy's present condition, we might suggest that they are making a category error. That is, they are applying the rules of one category to that of another: like arguing that a western they've just seen lacks the suspense and shock elements that would be the norm in a horror film. Of course in the generic work we can easily see the categories and the errors; in a more original piece the problem lies in that the films are more obviously sui generis. It is unlikely (though not impossible) someone will expect horror elements in a western: but what can we expect from a film that is finding its own form? What makes our interpretive faculties especially challenged in relation to art is that many artists are trying to evolve new categories, new formal approaches to understanding the world. The categories aren't set. We may need not only to take our own pulse, but also the artist's.
One of the things that we are interested in here, though, is in finding appropriate response to the work to hand. We may not initially know what Naderi and the others are 'getting at', but by a process of elimination we might. This requires less a set of assumptions, of categories if you like, than a series of questions that eliminate the viewer's prejudices and replace them with pertinent proposals. If we demand from The Runner that the film sets up a question about the boy's orphan status that it will resolve by the conclusion, or if we want from The Red Desert an explanation why Giuliana embarks on an affair that she just as quickly seems to end, then we are asking less the wrong questions than demanding the typical answers that many other films give us, and that remove the need for speculative probing. What we have to try to do is, to paraphrase critics Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson in an interview in Negative Space, think of the film through the intentions of the person who made it. This doesn't mean of course that what the director says about the film explains its meaning; not at all. But we have to try to work through with the filmmaker what sort of question he or she is asking, and why they have chosen the means they have to set about answering it.
Our answers won't be definitive, but they will hopefully be useful and relevant. We've proposed that The Runner explores not the problem of orphan status, but how someone belongs to a universe much bigger than the issue of the family. The boy moves from a human orphan to an element in the elemental universe. How to visualize this shift, we might say was Naderi's question. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bunuel's question may have been how does one capture the listlessness of bourgeois life with little purpose but much formal significance, and film it from the position that concentrates less on the individual crisis ( la Antonioni), than the group dynamic.
Talking Pictures' aim, generally, is to search out what Gilberto Perez insightfully calls, in The Material Ghost, the appropriateness of a film's arbitrariness. Where many films function within genre and audience expectation to such a degree that we know its appropriateness lies within its expectedness; in modernist works, in works searching out new formal approaches to ask searching questions, the appropriateness and arbitrariness are much more closely linked, and the viewer needs to work much harder to comprehend their appropriateness. It is a balancing act that isn't about the right and the wrong, but the useful and the enquiring. In an interesting passage in Human, All Too Human Nietzsche proposes that "the progress from one level of style to the next must be so slow that not only the artist, but also the listeners and spectators participate in it and know exactly what is taking place. Otherwise, a great gap suddenly forms between the artist...and the public." We might half-agree with the great 19th century thinker and suggest the gap can also be closed by enquiring, perceptive viewers who are willing to play catch me up with fine, demanding works.
© Tony McKibbin