Thursday, 29 November 2012

The State of Cinema Essay 2012


Cinema used to connote a place and film a material. Now what makes a film is a philosophical or contextual issue, one of form and favour. The 'cinematic', due in part to the digital revolution which overthrew film's textures, is apparently concluding its metamorphosis into the televisual, raging with inadequate weapons, 3D and IMAX, against its invisibility.

Cinema, or films, are exposed as never before. Technology has opened them up and made them available for all. It is easier than it ever has been to watch films and cheaper than ever to make them (Bellflower $17,000; Quiet City $2,000). All countries will produce all genres. This is an age of rumours, spoilers, YouTube, Netflix, torrents, cable pay-per-view, fan cuts, deleted scenes, directors' commentaries, internet forums, the crowd-sourced Life in A Day, Star Wars : Uncut and Paul Verhoeven's imminent Trick'd, an age in which we lurk behind the curtain, an age in which the studio-anointed artist's pedestal is being kicked from under him.

 Quiet City (Aaron Katz, 2007) and 
Troll Hunter (Andre Ovredal, 2010)

Almost anyone can achieve a professional look, in part because the mainstream multiplex aesthetic is meeting low budget output halfway (shaky camera, unvarnished images, unstudied acting), challenging viewers to learn new definitions for amateurishness, or for good and bad.

Found footage, or character-filmed movies, are eulogies to the average guy not only as star but as artist, wherein the director apes the unschooled observer and draws attention to the lens as never before.

The expert's trump card is skills not tools. He is a critic on his own shoulder, a sculptor chipping away at six hours of footage to achieve a gratifying two-hour hourglass shape. The difference between the best and the rest will increasingly be in the editing.

Ambiguous motivations, events and outcomes are proliferating out of a cycle of audience demand for co-authorship and artistic cowardice. As vision and personal craft retreat there is more space being left for us to step into. Writers and directors are less likely to serve a meal as provide the ingredients with their open-ended conclusions and loose threads implying that moments when we can be active participants have to be contrived and then prescribed : "now you can think...".

The audience, following a work from conception to delivery, are made aware of, and can criticise, every decision taken almost as it is taken and the temptation comes to see oneself as a better curator than the creator. The hands-on, pseudo-interactive, consumer is given everything he or she needs to ruin his own experience of a film, already aware of what is going to happen thanks to leaked scripts and synoptic trailers.

The rituals and spells of film-watching - the tickets, the popcorn and the darkened room or the magical family gathering around the flickering fire of the television set - are wearing off.

Fiction is beginning to fail. The apostles of Big Story, M Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water, The Happening) or Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) for example, suffer disproportionate ridicule (for being 'ridiculous'). People do not "get into" film (and art across the spectrum) as they used to. They cannot treat it as if it were real, their disbelief almost too obese to suspend. This phenomena is seen most acutely in an arena where people would dance happily along the fourth wall, no matter how narrow it was - professional wrestling. Now a growing number of fans can think only of the mechanics and believe themselves intelligent when they shout at the uninitiated, in a shower of binary or a spray of pixels : "It's not real!"

We are increasingly inculcated in an idea that all film is a representation of and response to our exact reality. No work is allowed to record reality without having an artistic approach and little can be artistic/fantastical without having a metaphorical, allegorical or political stance (is The Dark Knight Rises conservative or liberal?). Characters lose agency and stories are uprooted. These perspectives hamstring fantasy and pour the poison of supposed agenda (something to be feared) into our ears.

It is for all these reasons and many more that remain hidden that the 'Golden Age' of Cinema (especially of pure barrelling narrative and entertainment) isn't a place in time (i.e. the thirties) but a time in each person's life - childhood. When we are young we believe unconditionally and questions of how and why something is made are a still distant test of faith.


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Over the last years 'slow films', with longer static takes, fewer plot points and less physical action became more mainstream, the preserve of continental Europe no longer. As with ambiguous stories, this type of film purports to provide worlds less full of their own content, so to speak.

Such films tend to come with the cachet of being more contemplative or intellectual and, with this in mind, many directors appeared ready to brand their works with the conventional marks of art cinema (if there's less happening there must be more to think about) hoping a credulous and equally pretentious viewer would take the bait.

Slow films, and so-called art films in general, are, by and large, easier to follow and understand than faster populist films. They can be appreciated by anyone.

The finest examples of the past few years have been Oxhide I and Oxhide II (directed by Liu Jiayin and starring herself and her parents) and the Paranormal Activity series, which uses a pared down patient style (perfectly suited to horror) that, had it been used for a different type of film, may have been dismissed by the public.

A precious few know how and why to use these styles and in so doing earn distinct labels of established, thought-through genre characteristics (if not principles) : Structuralism or Minimalism.

Podworka (Sharon Lockhart, 2009) and 
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010)

The best exponents happen to be women: Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty), Sofia Coppola (Somewhere), Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff), Sharon Lockhart (Podworka) and Chantal Akerman (La-Bas) to name but few. Special mention should be made of Benedikt Fliegauf (Milky Way), Hou Hsiao Hsien (Cafe Lumiere) and individual films in the Romanian New Wave (Tuesday, After Christmas; Aurora) They mollify the more inherently distant (often literally, in longer shots than the norm) feel of this naturally self-disciplined and rigorous mode of expression with intense scrutiny and slender elegance.

Small changes in constants are fundamental dynamics of minimalism. Two, three, four hour long shots of streets or ocean waves (uploaded to YouTube) sit us down in places where we wouldn't normally spend so much time and, by putting a lens in between and a frame around, allow us to watch the world. This isn't minimalism or extreme minimalism; it's just filming and a (heartening) type of filming removed from the way art evolves its own real, stuck in cycles of fresh, mannered, cliched, then fresh again.

The whole point of filming is to record another place and to take people to it. The first thing cinema did was document when Lumiere filmed his own workers leaving the factory (beating Scream (still going strong with Scream 4) in the meta-stakes by over a hundred years). Presentation and beauty would quickly and inevitably follow (Danse Sepertine) accompanied by all the entanglements of meanings, intentions and maker / art / reality / viewer.

Lav Diaz's Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Sion Sono's Himizu (2011) staged dramas in areas affected by real-life natural disasters (landslides in the Philippines and the tsunami in Japan), constructing raw but tempered polemic ground up through their characters and bearing great witness to the plight of peoples and nations. They are illustrated documents where fantasy is a ghost stalking the plains of the real. The opening and closing tracking shots in Himizu are showing the same devastation as in Ten Days After.

Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz, 2007)

Indeed trauma was the predominant colour of recent cinema. Structures of psychosis, delusion, loss of self and loss of reality hid its shades in kaleidoscopic puzzle narratives that would eventually shatter under the weight of the same truth : something terrible has happened. Have terrorist attacks, have nationwide catastrophes, have economic meltdowns, as the storms approaching the shore in Take Shelter, come home, in the cinema, to roost?

The search for meaning (Knowing, Prometheus, Melancholia, 4:44 Last Day on Earth) may come amid apocalypse or may be answered by the apocalypse : there is nothing.

Through the same prism, the increasingly popular mortification of Torture Porn (too many examples to mention) could be seen as catharsis via self-flagellation.

The psychological and physical torment (where the sexual and the violent are melded and confused) of one individual, in viscerally thrilling and deadening games (the villain will often frame his actions the self-same way we frame our film-watching - as a bet in which morality has no stake), is trickling, as our systems demand stronger drugs, down the certificates and quite possibly onto the streets outside the theatre.

Saw VI (Kevin Greutert, 2009) and
God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2011)

Torture Porn goes together with the revival of extreme game shows (Gamer, Death Race, The Hunger Games, Live!) and the warping of (we are told) sensible people (horrified at the insensible world around them) into murderers (Rampage, God Bless America etc.).

These fantasies, which can offer a breathtaking buzz, rest on the sensitive tissue where criticism, truthful representation (horrible things should be shown horribly) and collaboration of and with reality meet, like blood vessels in a bruise. The issue of what we bring in to a film and what we take out, although its complexities can be overstated, has never been more knotted.

Frankly what it comes down to is what we are instinctively comfortable watching.


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What of films for children, for whom our best must be reserved?

There have been plenty of good children's films. They have entertained (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Muppets) and inspired (Arrietty). They have empathised with young people (the films of the Dardennes and Dorota Kedzierzawska, which do for children what the films of Mizoguchi and Naruse did for women) and encouraged them (The Hole, From Up On Poppy Hill). They have even ended war with awe, as in The Last Airbender. Films meant for older audiences have foregrounded selflessness and sacrifice : The Matrix films, Prometheus and Sucker Punch.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011) 
and Tomorrow Will Be Better (Dorota Kedzierzawska, 2011)

These tales show us that there are causes to fight for and things to achieve, a world we can sign our name to, and on. We are more and not less. In this regard Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life was a game-changer. It raised the bar for film as a visual form and as an exaltation of the human in stark contrast to the likes of Martyrs or Final Destination, which appeal (albeit effectively) to the reflexes and the flesh alone. A feast needs many tastes.

The feeling persists, however, that children are being let down. The infantile has the upper hand with its array of sop and fart jokes. Too many children's films are schizophrenic, packed with adult references (like most films they are more 'self-aware' than they used to be) that appeal to the fathers and mothers who are accompanying them and that leave each watching a separate film rather than sharing in one.

Fables and fairytales would always give children 'what they want' as well as something to learn, something adults (who are, after all,the makers and writers) thought that they needed. There was always risk and danger, edge and a taste of the grown-up world that awaits. Films for children shouldn't be childish.

In a way film in the olden days, with its (self)censorship, wanted to show our best face. Now there is less shame. We are treading roughshod through the groves of childhood with muddy boots. We are churning out boring, unimaginative pacifiers with less meaning and less meaningfulness. The sprinkling of "F**k"s (because that's what they were) all over Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr Fox is depressingly symptomatic.

The same multiplexes that across the globe are filled with the froth of  fun but forgettable films (the same ones where you couldn't see The Tree of Life or Godard's Film Socialisme) upgrade to 3D whilst AD (Audio Description) and subtitles are still not available for all films (which a girl called Immy brought to the nation's attention on BBC's Newsround). Why spend time, money and energies on the fripperies and leave a significant portion of the (potential) audience out in the cold altogether? Film isn't meant as a charity or a public service but it does have opportunities to make itself as good as it can as well as, quite rightly, as rich as it can.

It is as if the development of children is being arrested in preparation for the silly sleaziness of modern (inverted commas) romantic (inverted commas) comedies and their so-called adult relationships. The most believable and interesting love stories aimed at teenagers are almost incidental to main plots (Peter and Gwen in The Amazing Spider-Man, Spock and Uhura in Star Trek).

Role models (accepting that these characters don't exist) in blockbuster films have all but disappeared from the screen. The strong leading men and women of old have been routinely replaced by blank-eyed waxworks with attitude, of which the focal switch from Tron's smart/cool/manly Kevin Flynn to Tron Legacy's smart-ass kidult Sam is characteristic. Before we would aspire to be like those on screen. Now, sadly, we simply aspire to be in their position – rich, devil-may-care, surrounded by busty babes. 

Nostalgia talks : films used to have more bite, more verve, more maturity, didn't they? It is frankly useless pining for a bygone age (even if it was better) as it would only come back skew-whiff; silent film came back as The Artist, a zombie feasting directly on silent film flesh rather than what fuelled the classics of old : passion.

Passion. A story to tell. Make with your hands, tell with your heart. Not drag with a mouse. Not cut and paste templates. Not (just) insubstantial CGI but honest-to-goodness TLC. Who will replace Jean-Luc Godard, Bela Tarr and Jacques Rivette when they hang up their scissors? Whose idiosyncrasies will grace the landscape like Eric Rohmer's and Tony Scott's. The talent is out there; the problem as ever is promoting it to its rightful place...

Alexandr Sokurov (Faust), the invigorating Sion Sono(Land of Hope), the genre-hopper Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Zack Snyder (Man of Steel), Lars Von Trier (Nymphomaniac), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre), Abbas Kiarostami (Like Someone In Love), Leos Carax (Holy Motors), David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola (Twixt) Michael Mann and Ti West (The Innkeepers).

The most exciting prospect of the next few years will be how new directors and new writers take on the great inheritance, and playpen, Star Wars. It is a litmus test of a 21st Century industry. How personal, how different will they (be allowed to) be? Everyone has a unique style and a point of view and yet vast swathes of films appear as if imagined by the same mind.


Key developments of the last five years (from top):
George Lucas sells Lucasfilm to Disney; Liu Jiayin films
Oxhide II; Paranormal Activity 3; The Tree of Life


4 comments:

  1. Wow this is amazing. Alot to digest here but this is some impassioned writing. I need to think on this.

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  2. Fantastic essay. Your points on films for children and the aspirational relationship we used to have with movies and their characters are very well taken (and written). Your suggestions on slow cinema and the ways it is digested are fascinatingly counterintuitive and deserve thought.

    I am constantly on the fence about "the state of cinema": I don't think the art of film is really dying--there are too many great talents out there--but I do feel that our mass cultural stew has been growing increasingly toxic in recent years, and movies have a great deal to do with that. There are things our movies used to do, used to encourage, used to strive for that very few of them do today. These values are not extinct, but we must look further and further afield from the popular hits that dominate the cultural conversation (to Ghibli, for example). Of course, the fact that we are able do this and spread the news in the age of the internet could also suggest a capacity for cultural renewal yet untapped, though it may also signal a continuing (never-ending?) slide into subcultural balkanization. I suppose all we can do is our small part and hope for the best.


    As an aside, does this mean you've decided to like The Tree of Life now?

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  3. Stephen,

    Thank you very much.

    "...but I do feel that our mass cultural stew has been growing increasingly toxic in recent years,"

    Nicely put. I've been struggling with how far something can be "just a film" and how far it can have a tangible influence. It is trends and waves of themes and representations that make an impact; you cannot really blame individual fictions. The stew is indeed becoming more toxic and it's probably not the sort we'd want to feed our children.

    We adults can squeeze the sponge dry but they are far more impressionable. As I said, there's no burden on a film to encourage the right ideals but that doesn't mean they can't.

    "...the fact that we are able do this and spread the news in the age of the internet could also suggest a capacity for cultural renewal yet untapped"

    Indeed. I hadn't thought about that.

    "As an aside, does this mean you've decided to like The Tree of Life now?"

    Yes. The first time I saw it I thought it was awful (pretentious, boring, visually unexciting). I got the urge to watch it a second time and thought it was exceptional - possibly the greatest film I've seen.

    Thanks again for the comment.

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