Henry Fonda, Opposite Grave

“Will you take the driver, go by a floral shop, pick up some flowers and put them on Irving Cobb’s grave, you know and a say a prayer for both of us?”
-John Ford to Andy Devine during the making of How the West Was Won, recorded in Devine’s Oral History at Columbia University.
 

Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946), Scene shot by Lloyd Bacon / Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

Miklós Jancsó (1921-2014)

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The “tracking shot in Kapo,” a little-seen film by Gillo Ponecorvo, has become shorthand for a type of aestheticization of the Atrocities of War, an easy out for criticism to label depictions of horror on moral levels via aesthetics. Many critics (including myself at times) often feel queasy attacking a film on moral grounds (the usual “what gives us the right to judge” connotations etc etc), but formal discussions become fair game to sneak such articulations in. This is our expertise after all.

Miklós Jancsó’s tracking shots don’t offer easy aesthetic answers in terms of their morality. Formally they are breathtaking: dollies, zooms, whip-pans, the whole works to create a lucid sense of space, one that is not about tracking us through a space, but disorienting us. Jancsó shifts emphasis throughout – information (ie. the characters) enters and exit the frame; they become the dominant center before suddenly retreating to the background. It’s different from what Robert Altman would do, because Altman treated everyone equally. Jancsó’s shifts are more sudden and jerky; scenes are always interrupted by the presence of new information.

If morality of films were only judged by their formal elements, Jancsó would be more damning than Kapo. Except Jancsó’s political explorations justify such aesthetics. He lived in a country that was literally torn: first during the war, and secondly between its Soviet influence and its Western aspirations. A film like The Red and the White, the agreed upon canonical title of his work, presents a seemingly unending war in which victors, villains, and victims are all one in the same. His idea of a tracking shot is not to sweep us up in emotion. It’s to throw us around into the shit.

System Malfunction: Spike Jonze’s Her

her_trailer_large_verge_medium_landscapeHer is so obsessed with trying to tell a story about “how we live now” that any of its profound ideas seem quite self-evident. By playing the romance between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, introverted to the point of limitation[i]) and his new operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson[ii]), as a serious relationship, Jonze certainly asks us to explore radical territory by thinking about our new(-ish) relationship to technology. However, it becomes quite apparent that despite this bold premise, it’s more of a sleek surface to create an allegory of loneliness. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with such a choice, except Jonze emphasizes his narrative through utter banality, a conventional romance about letting go of the past. Despite the uniqueness of the central relationship, Jonze is complacent in simply following through the various conventions of meet cute scenes, vulnerable people talking about their vulnerability, and various day trips that play to broad gestures of emotions. These sequences rely on montages that could come out of his 90s music videos—pleasantly shot in mutedly light colors for pleasant compositions, but rarely perceptive ones—pandering to a little more than a cinematic equivalent of BuzzFeed. It’s an emotional simulacrum without depth.

The potential of Her is brimming, yet Jonze’s decision to instead romanticize this relationship as conventional as possible gives little room for exploration. The basic plot should be a daring feat, to make us emotionally believe in this relationship as a possibility while investigating the teleological elements of a digital society— not only how our technology has changed but how it has changed our own social relationships. But Jonze swerves toward the easy route at every corner. Samantha is a “perfect” system built to every need of Theodore, which should provide a mountain of territory to explore in the world of customizable technology, but even such a possibility is brushed aside with a few jokes (“What’s your relationship with your mother like?” —we’re still making this joke?). Every opportunity feels squandered. The first “sex scene” between Theodore and Samantha has potential to explore that strange relationship between our physical and mental drives. But instead he fades to black and then giving us an overview shot of Los Angeles that strikes as wholly arbitrary and tonally awkward, a “magical” moment that left me cold. His satire of the Appleization of culture is certainly present in the film’s mise-en-scene, but the film’s too cloying dialogue (“I thought this song could be like a photograph for us”) suggests there is less critique than an embrace of the style like a Millennial steampunk. Even more gaping, the satire of video games and phone sex is fish-in-a-barrel levels of irrelevance.

This is not to say Her is completely devoid of clever or interesting ideas. The use of a Shanghai-Los Angeles juxtaposition creates a unique dystopic landscape. Some discussion about Theodore’s ability to “project” emotions and lives onto people—whether through his job or while walking around with Samantha—is certainly something crucial to the narrative and gives a unique insight about how we often read people.[iii] And while that original sex scene is disappointing, a latter one involving a “threesome” gets into an emotional and morally thorny territory examining authenticity and replication. But most of this is just backdrop or dismissed for the sake of allegory—he seems only mildly interested in these ideas, using them like the candy colors that fill the film’s various locales. Her eventually finds an easy out to its central relationship before ending on a contrived and banal final monologue and one of the most laughably obvious shots of the year (“All you need is love” complete with a cue of Feelings courtesy of Arcade Fire’s obnoxiously cute score).

Jonze’s films have always placed emotional territory before intellect, but I wish he would search more for the intellect within these emotions—how and why we process them, and what radical possibilities can be unlocked by them. This is what we see in the forbears of melodrama—Griffith, Mizoguchi, Sirk—and the filmmakers who continue to use the styling of melodrama today—Wong, Garrel, Gray, and Wes Anderson. Jonze uses palatable “cute” surfaces as covers to his raw feelings, but this embracement of brash and unrefined material strikes me as more dubious than revelatory. Simply observe the montage of Theodore’s past relationship with Catherine (Rooney Mara, underutilized), a series of unspecific details of kissing, snuggles, and eventually fighting that give us little reason to invest in his need to let go, given how little we understand about the relationship.[iv] A woman asks Theodore directly what he loves most about Samantha, and he rambles, “It’s just so many things…it’s larger than that” (this is taken as an serious, intelligent response). In Her, Jonze assumes simply having showing emotions is good enough, which is why everything under its surface is palpably thin.

By embracing such a radical premise and guiding it through emotions, what’s surprising is how conservative Jonze’s film actually is. His views of both technology and relationships fall into old adages that feel quite simplistic in comparison to the film’s radical potential. In the end, Her is the first film of the new decade that already feels dated.

[i]While every film requires a different type of performance, I cannot help but feel Phoenix’s internalized gestures are undercut by Jonze’s filmmaking of him mostly in relaxed medium shots that never utilize his physical body. His cinematic language is so obvious that Phoenix resonates with very little internal life, as opposed to recent performances in Anderson’s The Master and especially Gray’s The Immigrant.

[ii] An emotive and striking performance given the limitations imposed on the actress to just her voice, but one that stretches the plausibility of its premise.

[iii] The film’s best scene happens to be one featuring Olivia Wilde on a first date that goes from perfect to horrible in a matter of seconds, an interesting take on how easily our emotions read into a single line or moment.

[iv] There are huge issues of gender at play here with the way that Jonze’s writing of female characters into one-note archetypes (especially Mara’s Catherine and Amy Adams’s Amy), all too perfectly constrained and left with unexamined lives. I hope another critic can tackle this glaring issue at some point.

Many thanks to my friend and fellow cinephile-in-arms Carson Lund for helping me edit this piece.

Wanderers Before God: Alexander Sokurov’s Faust

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Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (Casper David Friedrich, Oil on Canvas, 1818)

Somewhere between a Rabelaisian paean to Earthly pleasures, complete with the drunken waltz of the camera, and a serious investigation to the failure of human desire for knowledge, Alexander Sokurov’s Faust is quite unlike any other cinematic event I’ve encountered this year. The film’s loose adaptation of Goethe’s masterwork sees no difference between its highly aspirations and its low humor—an opening CGI shot that sets up an epic mythology ends with a blurry shot of a flaccid (and dead) penis of a cadaver being examined for the progress of human knowledge. That failure of knowledge is key for Herr Doktor, a man who has learned all he knows about the stars, only to be disappointed that he finds no pleasure in this life—that perhaps the science he defines his life brings him no pleasure (he has much to learn by the woman visiting his gynecologist father, her checkup an excuse for the orgasm the examination will produce). Even a monkey on a moon, a bizarre and lovely image, adds no interest to him. This man is destined to his meeting his Mephistopheles (Anton Adasinsky, the performance of the year), a drunken and ghastly creature who will take him through the maze of life’s lowly pleasures (a bath of virgins, a drunken pub, a mockery of a funeral), all in the hopes to make him reveal some desire worth trading his soul. Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Faust meanders without implicit meaning or classical rhythms, forcing the viewer to accept his venture of the physical into something metaphysical, the camera spinning around like a waltz (two steps forward, one step back) in an attempt to make Faust find something within the moral schema he still submits to. Sokurov’s demented view of humanity is so decidedly strange (the Devil is not just evil; he’s also a bad speller) that it’s easy to dismiss his portrayal of this “important” work as the sign of a filmmaker who can’t tell good from bad, but even his obsession with bowel humor is sublimated into the great philosophical search, all implemented through the garish colors of Bruno Donbonnel’s boldly inventive visual palette (at once seductive and repulsive). The film’s most beautiful moments—a golden vision of his beauty, and the two’s romantic drift into a river—are also the most tragic.

What makes Sokurov’s cinema so exciting is that he’s an original, not obsessed with the type of references to his elders that defines too much of contemporaries. While certainly owing debt to Tarkovsky, his most apparent references are outside (that cinema became his art form of choice, despite his mastery of it, seems coincidental). He seems more indebted to someone like De Tocqueville’s inquiring sociological eye, Dickens’s melodramatic realism, Dostoevsky’s conversion narratives, and certainly Chekov’s absurdism. Even Quixote’s windmill makes an appearance, another man chasing dreams of greatness only to be overcome by them. Visually, he owes more to painting, finding psychological discovery within what could only be called moving still lifes. In one interview he claims he and his cinematographer starred at Freidrich’s The Monk By The Sea to prepare for his 1996 film, Mother and Son. Faust‘s most obvious painterly references are certainly Rembrandt (the film’s opening scene perhaps a reference to The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp) through his obsession with displaying faces and bodies in their full grotesque palette, but finding visual spectacle in the negative space There are elements of Bruegel in his parade through the village, a Botticelli in the Venus like portraiture of Margarete, and an ending out of Freidrich’sWanderer Above the Sea of Fog, except Sukurov’s Faust refuses the awe of the event he sees, actively denying God before him. The devil has failed, trapped under a pile of rocks, and the man wanders into the icy darkness. A fool’s errand, achieving knowledge! The film’s billing as the final part in the director’s “Power Tetralogy,” which ends the film, offers both a cementing of teleology of the root of the 20thcentury, but perhaps a sly nod toward philistinism (“So thats what he meant by it all!” you can imagine the “cultured” old woman murmuring to her husband). But Faust is an infinitely complex film toward a search to the failure of human nature’s desire for knowledge that does not define great men, but all of us. “Good does not exist, but evil does,” a character warns the Herr Doktor. Such trifles toward the search to comprehending the heavens within the language below it can only lead us to our useless search through the desert. Knowledge is nothing without the faith to believe it.

Gina Telaroli’s Traveling Light

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I consider Gina Telaroli enough of an acquaintance that I can’t completely write about her film without proper disclosure. Gina is one of NYC’s most dedicated repertory film viewers, so we do end up seeing a number of the same films and chatting before and after.

Gina Telaroli’s Traveling Light strikes me as a work essentially about loss, and one that operates unlike any other film set on a train—its visual language and rhythms are highly unique (certainly falling under the category of “experimental” but never didactically so).1 The film is almost like a collection of postcards, filled with moments of reflection on not only how we view the world, but also how we view each other. It’s also a film that stirs emotions hard to explain. The fact that Telaroli’s initial plan for the film went haywire (described her in my interview with her) and the final work is still something of rapturous transfixion, should speak no doubt to the conviction she has when wielding cinema.

Opening with the passing of two trains that feels less like a moment of everyday banality and more like an excerpt from the “Beyond Jupiter” section of 2001,Traveling Light travels on an Amtrak from New York to Pittsburgh. But it’s not a film pushing forward, but seemingly always looking back and what is disappearing, of space and time falling behind. The world is always passing by in windows, the shadows overtaking the frame, and trees pass by via the reflection in a laptop. Shots from the window at the end of the train are framed in a way to resemble silent film shots, literally sending us back in time. The human moments convey this as well, as Telaroli gives each member of her cast a moment: a conversation outside the train is just barely audible, a reunited couple only spotted for a moment. A woman drinks coffee and then vanishes before our eyes with a flicker. Another writes in a diary – we can’t read the writing but can observe the gestures in the hand. As the snow becomes more dense and the sun drops, the camera continually searches for light, any moment to connect with what once was. During the final shot, as the camera stays stranded in the station, and the light of the train that took us to this destination disappears before our eyes, I felt a strange sadness over my connection, my need, for light, even the artificial one that reminded me the art form I claim so dearly only exists through such means.

But within this sadness, I’m also reminded of how beautiful the images Telaroli finds are inspiring in their beauty to remind me that even if these things are disappearing. Each shot has a soft focus feel that feels gently touching and filled with passion for both the world around them and the people in it. During a moment late in the film, the camera captures ice forming on the windows, and the red light that illuminates it. “That looks awesome!” The camera operator notes, before he and Telaroli, voices just audible, decide to hold the shot. It’s this belief in the image that fuels this gentle gesture to our changing world, and the hope that even in transitions, something of beauty may emerge.

1Although not a direct influence, it has shades of some of the scenes set around Vienna in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, though the “theory” behind such images is never stated in Telaroli’s film.

The Philosophy of Histoire(s) Du Cinema

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About two hours into Histoire(s) Du Cinema, I finally had a small epiphany moment with Late Godard, a period that begins with this mammoth work and continues into what I’ve seen from the 90s and up to Socialisme. Late Godard isn’t popular with most folks who fondly remember his 60s films because he largely abandoned narrative. He’s not an avant-garde artist either, or at least in a way that where his work isn’t a complete breakdown of form (See: Brakhage, Snow, Dorsky). Instead, it’s now clear to me that Godard is trying to write philosophy in the same way that Kant or Hegel or Hume write philosophy. But instead of the pen, his choice of means is cinema, where he can use the image and the juxtaposition of image to create his dialectics stronger than words could do—perhaps the closest thing to the hopes of an intellectual montage as theorized by Eisenstein. Some would call this thus an essay film—a term I must admit I still don’t have a strong hold on, so I will avoid it (Andrew Tracy provides some fantastic thoughts here on the essay film).Thinking of Godard as philosophy gives us some easier access points into Late Godard and specifically

Thinking of Godard as philosophy gives us some easier access points into Late Godard and specifically Histoire(s) Du Cinema. Firstly, it makes me more forgiving in how inaccessible the film can sometimes be, whether by its references to events, films, and people we might not understand (Kant’s Third Critique makes numerous references to his contemporaries, and yet we can still understand his view of judgement without reading those works). Perhaps it also makes more palatable the fact that not everything—heck, at least a third of the film—remains untranslated from French. Plenty of philosophical texts I’ve read will quote Latin or Italian or what not and expect that the person reading such a work is familiar with these languages. Godard does that too—it’s frustrating to someone as naïve in other languages as me (I wrote down about 10 oft-repeated words from the film in my notebook to translate after), or that I have no idea who some of these people who appear in the frame with Godard are, but it has its justification.The “Godard as philosophy” tenet also means reserving judgment of the work in ways that I think we might approach other cinema, whether narrative or avant-garde. During the beginning to part 4A, Godard goes on a long rant about the tyranny of governments, who justify murder but are no different than the anarchic man who murders. Godard has his reasons, as all political philosophers do, and I strongly disagree with his view of government. But I also feel the same way about reading some of the more tenuous views of Plato or Machiavelli. What I’m more interested in while watching

The “Godard as philosophy” tenet also means reserving judgment of the work in ways that I think we might approach other cinema, whether narrative or avant-garde. During the beginning to part 4A, Godard goes on a long rant about the tyranny of governments, who justify murder but are no different than the anarchic man who murders. Godard has his reasons, as all political philosophers do, and I strongly disagree with his view of government. But I also feel the same way about reading some of the more tenuous views of Plato or Machiavelli. What I’m more interested in while watching Histoire(s) is that it’s central problem: did cinema ultimately fail the 20thcentury? Did we fail to properly answer the question of “what is cinema”? Although for some reason many had told me this work essentially came down to that essential famous quote from Godard about the failure to record the images of the Holocaust, I think there’s much more going on here that cinema’s failure to record. Godard essentially places cinema between two tracks—art and technique. Both fascinate and frustrate him. It’s clear Godard loves art and cherishes it deeply—he constantly putting various cinema images alongside various paintings dating back to the Renaissance to his contemporaries. But he’s also frustrated by the tyranny of art to

Godard essentially places cinema between two tracks—art and technique. Both fascinate and frustrate him. It’s clear Godard loves art and cherishes it deeply—he constantly putting various cinema images alongside various paintings dating back to the Renaissance to his contemporaries. But he’s also frustrated by the tyranny of art to represent reality and how cinema took off on that track as well. The magic of Ophuls and Nicholas Ray, the transcendent moment of Wayne lifting up Natalie Wood in The Searchers (and Wood’s screaming reveal to her mother in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass—heard but curiously unrepresented by image)—Godard feels deeply about this art, but he also knows it is a lie; that cinema began as a technique, a recording device pioneered by Muybridge’s studies to capture reality and investigate. This fallacy too—the photograph is a technique, not reality, and even in the pornography Godard occasionally cuts to, allows us to see it as false. Photography is something that always has a perspective, but we are told that it can exist as truth, as an objective document. But to ignore the question of truth—to only embrace cinema as art or entertainment—is just as problematic.The question of entertainment is the question of Hollywood, addressed thoroughly in Movement 1A and 1B, perhaps most notable by the voice of  Jack Benny saying “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” from Lubitsch’s

The question of entertainment is the question of Hollywood, addressed thoroughly in Movement 1A and 1B, perhaps most notable by the voice of  Jack Benny saying “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” from Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be over images of the camps. I don’t agree with Godard’s take on Hollywood and Thalberg, but I don’t think he totally agree with himself either. Trying to think through this, I think Godard’s favorite moment in his hatred for Schindler’s List is the red coat, because it showed the artist, not the artist’s false depiction of a so-called reality. What is this mystery of cinema? This is the question that haunts the filmmaker, the one that he can’t answer, so he rambles through the memories of his past life in order to see if he can come any closer to answering the question.There are many major images that stick out through

There are many major images that stick out throughHistoire(s) Du Cinema, starting with the man himself, sitting solemnly alone among books, reels of film, and his electronic typewriter. Histoire(s) is a film that could only be made by a hermit, who is left scattered with images of the 20th century and trying to pick up the pieces. Smoking, always staring off toward some distant space, recalling things he clearly loves (“Le….Regle…Du…Jeu”) before finding his footing in the strangeness of the flashing juxtaposition, the images emerge out of each other. We constantly return to the title, broken down into other words and syllables; flipped around as if meaning can be derived by looking at it backward. More than anything else, we remember the rewinding and reeling of filmstrips on his machine, as if finding cinema at the molecular level will reveal its truth (the film begins after all with Jimmy Stewart and his binoculars). Godard slows down, overlays, and is doing everything he can to find the hidden meaning. He’s no longer a filmmaker or cinephile,1 he’s an archeologist, searching within the images to see if this mystery of cinema—a 19thcentury idea that could have promised some sort of utopia only led to mankind’s most disastrous century.I think it’s telling that Godard keeps coming back to only three of his own works: his most self-reflexive (

I think it’s telling that Godard keeps coming back to only three of his own works: his most self-reflexive (Contempt), his politically salient (Week-End), and his most philosophical (King Lear—a work about a rebirth of art’s first image). In the final moment, Godard finally admits what he’s been hinting at all along. He’s aware of his influence on cinema history, on his works of “art” embraced around the world, and I think he feels embarrassed that he didn’t do more, that he made self-reflexive works but not self-inquisitive. “It was me,” he laments in the final frames. This is not a work that condemns the 20th century; it’s a work condemning one’s like work. Even Lear’s narrative sensibilities, however strange they may be, is in some ways perhaps a failure of Godard to not embrace to radical possibilities of cinema as he does by creating philosophy here.A long-standing debate in film reviewing, criticism, and academia is the idea of the “good” work. Every cinephile or critic I know who has talked at length about the film’s structure of narrative, imagery, editing, themes, or more to someone outside of their profession has certainly that question then asked: “…so you’re saying it’s a good movie?” It’s a question we can sometimes loathe, but it is a question worth reckoning with. Academia tends to ignore this question—a work is worth writing about if it exposes a certain facet of political, sociological, or ideological history or life. But academia is also prone to thus find itself writing about the irrelevant to find something relevant—to using

A long-standing debate in film reviewing, criticism, and academia is the idea of the “good” work. Every cinephile or critic I know who has talked at length about the film’s structure of narrative, imagery, editing, themes, or more to someone outside of their profession has certainly that question then asked: “…so you’re saying it’s a good movie?” It’s a question we can sometimes loathe, but it is a question worth reckoning with. Academia tends to ignore this question—a work is worth writing about if it exposes a certain facet of political, sociological, or ideological history or life. But academia is also prone to thus find itself writing about the irrelevant to find something relevant—to using capital T Theory to justify to study of work. The critic (as opposed to the film reviewer, who only writes about the elements that are good or bad in a work) lands himself in the middle of this. He can write long about a work’s thematic, narrative, and aesthetic construction, but unlike the academic, he is ultimately answering a question about whether the work at hand is relevant, important, worth seeking out and exploring for whatever reason. The critic may lament himself as a purveyor of taste, but this is a good thing. To place B above A, to argue for the merits or demerits that a work does expose something, is a good thing, and the great critic can be self-evident enough without having to write, “this is a good work” or any such equivalent.

Histoire(s) Du Cinema is a film, a work of film criticism, and a work of philosophy. Is it a good film? Yes. Why is it a good film? Because it is a philosophy that investigates things that are important, and because it opens up dialogues through an aesthetically ambitious style of filmmaking. The title is not History of Cinema, and contains nothing similar to the narratives created in the texts of Bordwell and Thompson, or even the excitement of making (albeit extremely tenuous) connections between radically different works as Mark Cousins’s Story of Film has done. Instead, it is histories—a plural—about the tensions we’ve created in finding cinema’s own trajectories, ones that are dialectical in nature and seemingly irresolvable. It is a good film because it leaves us with more questions than answers; it does not teach us how to view both history or cinema, but teaches us how to question it.

1Although this is nowhere near the point of Histoire(s), I’m frankly a little shocked at how someone who made films in Sonimage in the 1970s and has staunchly placed himself against Western society has such Western tastes. I saw maybe one image of a Kurosawa film, but nothing from China, Hong Kong, Latin America, Africa, or the Arab world. I recall him saying some fine words about Kiarostami back in the day, but at least the cinema he presents in this work strikes me as a very narrow view of cinematic history, especially one that in some way promises multiple histories.

Kurosawa, Cinephilia, and Seven Samurai

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Kurosawa is part of a contentious tradition now with Bergman and early Fellini in cinephilia for not making “open” movies. The main claim would be that their perfectly executed, pictorial frames do not allow for interpretation beyond what they present. These films do not require explanation in the way that their counterparts – Mizoguchi, Rossellini (only the latter works) and Antonioni respectively – make films that are only legible to those who have truly engaged with cinema. While I could point to Andrew Tracy’s piece in Cinema Scope at the time of the AK100 Criterion set (“Prompts the question of why his presence among the most active and engaged sectors of present-day cinephilia feels so pallid,” a sentence that certainly doesn’t engage in any sort of exclusion process) or even David Bordwell’s defeatist attitude (“I still find most of his official classics overbearing, and the last films seem to me flabby exercises”), this would be falsely presumptuous to lay the blame on contemporary shoulders.Instead, we can go all the way back to

Instead, we can go all the way back to Cahiers Du Cinema to find the origins of such debate. Luc Moullet on Drunken Angel: “Its aesthetic pretensions…surpass in their grotesqueness anything even the European Cinema has produced,” and Ikiru: “As for the ending with the swing, confronted by such a piece of idiocy and affectation the audience is left speechless.” Jacques Rivette too, who notes “those ‘picturesqure qualities that made for the facile success of The Seven Samurai, of which we may now rightly ask whether it was especially aimed at the export market.” And Godard’s famous comment, “merely a more elegant Ralph Habib.”  Bazin was more cautious, noting his own (and I’d admit my own) preference for Mizoguchi, while writing “I wonder whether, instead of considering Kurosawa’s cosmopolitanism as a commercial compromise, albeit of superior quality, we should not rather see it from now on as a dialectical progression pointing the way forward for the Japanese cinema.”*

Kurosawa’s images tell you how to read them. He explains emotions, power relations, and other abstract elements made literal by the camera placement. The mistake, it seems, to describe “straight forwardness” as a lack of complexity in the filmmaking. What appears to be at work here is an element of snobbery – because Kurosawa makes images that even someone who has not watched the entirety of world cinema can understand, the lack of a need for criticism means they are necessarily bad. Add to this the comparisons many critics will make by contrasting Kurosawa with Ozu and Mizoguchi, when 1) Kurosawa worked at Toho, a studio that had a radically different style and approach than Shochiku, 2) he began making films in the early 1940s, almost two decades after the latter two 3) the extreme differences in genre that are always ignored (This is why Ikiru is always the favorite a rallying cry of Kurosawa’s skeptics because it’s his “Ozu” movie, and thus when its approach is not Ozu enough, it’s clear that Kurosawa is a terrible filmmaker). One does not sit around comparing the styles of Lang and Fassbinder simply because they emerged from the same country, and yet with the Japanese cinema, such comparisons are made without rationality.

Why must we have Kurosawa versus Mizoguchi or Ozu? It’s at this point I simply turn to Kent Jones: “The appeal of systematic rather than case-by-case exploration is obviously great, as great as the lure of enlightenment in the realm of art and outside of organized religion. However, I find it troubling to read rejections of religious and political dogma from critics who simultaneously espouse aesthetic dogma. I have a feeling that serious film criticism is afraid to hoist up the anchor of moral essentialism for fear of drifting off into the shallow waters of connoisseurship. I suppose that moral essentialism offers a guarantee of seriousness.” (If you want some serious debate, may I suggest this Dave Kehr comments section?). Perhaps instead of reading Kurosawa against, we can read him alongside.

Seven Samurai is the most protected film of the Kurosawa legacy, #17 on the Sight & Sound list for both critics and filmmakers. It’s also probably notable for me as one of the first films I convinced my dad to buy the Criterion DVD for me even though I had never seen it, or much less any foreign film (only two or three months later, I would get Netflix). Seeing it in 35mm though makes the expressiveness of Kurosawa’s images more pronounced. His camera movements are exacting, and he prefers to work in what many have described as living paintings. Many shots show an extraordinary amount of depth—often four or five separate layers to each frame. That Kurosawa ignores his negative space is an issue for others to discuss, but he does create precise spatial relations and sometimes makes very bold jumps in editing (I recall one moment in Ikiruwhere the old man confronts his son; Kurosawa abrasively cuts to his wife in the foreground of the frame in the darkness, silently controlling her husband). The early sequences in Seven Samurai are shockingly advanced in their storytelling, giving strength to those who might otherwise be seen as none (the village leader in extreme close-up) and finding apt metaphors (Mifune behind the gates, shaking them like prison walls).

There’s a very tricky balance of cynicism and optimism Kurosawa plays with, the kind that I think wildly shifts from scene to scene, unlike the more reserved emotions seen in Ozu. I find this incredibly effective for Kurosawa’s films, a direct conflict in every moment that shifts and turns us violently as much as the very plains of the filmmaking space. Kurosawa might go bold, but he undercuts his moments; the broad humor of the discovery of the armor is played against the revelations that the peasants have been holding out on them. The romance of the budding spring is played against the tragedy of the stolen wife. If Kurosawa’s characters speak directly, they also speak in contradictions. Rashomon is not the only film of Kurosawa’s to present different forms of truth; each film is about a series of truths and lies, of dialectics at work that will never be truly resolved, only accepted as an impossibility.

Why then, “to live,” to put it in the form of a Kurosawa title? In his films, action is a form of humanity. If Ozu is defined by the final passage of Early Summer, passively accepting life like the flows of barely, and Mizoguchi is survivalist, nature runs its course without a care of humanity as in the final shots of the devastation in Sansho the Baliff, then Kurosawa is the active existentialist. Life has no meaning without being or creating, even if it is unrecognized by peasants who carry on their celebrations without honoring the dead, a small playground only beloved by a group of mothers, or embracing a forgotten child. Death often feels pointless in Kurosawa; an unfortunate cause for the living, which always brought out the nihilist in him. There are fatalist attitudes in the filmmaking, and even Bordwell has eloquently pointed to how this isreflective of his shooting style. But it was contradicted by the hope; the humanism that defined (and perhaps takes too much emphasis now) in 1950s world cinema. For while the graves sit silently unadorned, a new field sprouts once again. Perhaps then, Kurosawa was a Westerner after all, not for his proximity to the American cinema, but toward European philosophy.

*The quotes from Cahiers Du Cinema can be found in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, edited by Jim Heller.

Three Capsules from the New York Film Festival (2013)

Screen shot 2013-10-14 at 12.22.54 AMOnly Yesterday (John M. Stahl, USA, 1933)

Few will be able to question a dogmatic stance that John Stahl’s Only Yesterday is a towering masterpiece of the classical melodrama given its rarity (not even on VHS!), but be assured such a work is deserving of the praise. As soon as the film’s seemingly trivial depiction of Black Tuesday (but delightfully so—suicide never seemed so funny) begins to feel staid, Stahl suddenly shifts toward innocent love, bitter disappointment, and ultimately the value of life an unappreciated life. John Boles moves through his wife’s fancy dinner party, unable to answer any questions about the crisis until he locks himself in his office. With the gun loaded, he notices a private letter for him, leading him down memory lane to a young woman named Mary Lane (Margaret Sullivan) he met during the war and then abandoned, while she became the woman who does not forget (for reasons both emotional and physical). Movement seems to be the game that Stahl plays. Either the camera moves, or the characters move, often in opposition, passing just for a second.The narrative involves passing movements as well, these rare chances when diagonals of life can finally cross, but only for a moment, and one that may lack recognition (Stahl’s was the first adaptation of

The narrative involves passing movements as well, these rare chances when diagonals of life can finally cross, but only for a moment, and one that may lack recognition (Stahl’s was the first adaptation of Letters from an Unknown Woman, but where Ophuls highlights physical tragedy, Stahl turns toward the metaphysical). A meet cute ends first as a comedy, secondly as a tragedy, and thirdly as something beyond us entirely, a navigation of emotional territory rarely felt in the American (or any) cinema. When the two lovers finally collide first via a slow exchange of silent close-ups and then finally via words, each phrase out of Boles’s mouth is an emotional dagger, cutting right into Sullivan’s heart. But her continued gaze and affectation is the core of the film—she is willing to let this man reveal his own hollowness, and unwilling to believe their night was not destiny. Sullivan comes from a theatrical background, but her close-ups stand in stark relief, a blank face also a canvas of tears held back. While it’s wrong to create pointless value judgements, Stahl does silent, black and white close-ups in a way that rival any devastation created by Douglas Sirk, sometimes letting the gaze of Sullivan carry all the pain in a way much riskier than a gambit by Sirk’s spilling of emotions. His work is toward a quiet reverence that always respects its protagonist, and never once falters toward anything of pity. She is a triumph of human testament to live despite (a word beyond her vocabulary). The ending of Only Yesterday, both in terms of narrative and the carefully constructed mise-en-scene of the final bedroom, brings to mind Dreyer’s Ordet. There is no literal transcendence for this melodrama, but there is instead an emotional one.

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At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2013)

At Berkeley seems like too broad a subject for Frederick Wiseman’s camera, and yet over the film’s four hour running time, it becomes seemingly clear how succinct his vision of this institution is, as well as his broader take on the triumphs and weaknesses of American public education in this time of budgetary crisis (the impetus for the film appears to be the reduction to Berkeley’s operating accounts to only 16% by the state of California). Wiseman’s film is not about the actual structures of institutions, but of an ethos when it is confronted with daring problems. The film is essentially about the paradox: Berkeley stands for free speech, liberalism, and diversity, but to operate under hard times, it must be about conserving resources and limiting its vision as an “equal for all” institution. What fascinates Wiseman then is how everyone from administration groups to research labs to English classroom discussions on Thoreau find a creative solution to this problem—of action and systemization. The opening classroom discussion might be about idealism for public education, but as the professor explains, it’s about how to institutionalize “charity into policy.” If such an idea goes against contemporary liberal ethos, one shouldn’t faint that the film doesn’t sympathize with the students who are losing, fighting against the policies put that deny the free education the school once provided. There’s one particularly devastating moment as a student explains her plight of being too rich for financial aid but too poor to make by without it.But Wiseman once again asks for rational thought. Each moment becomes an echo of a previous sentiment. A conversation on constructing robotic legs begins to reflect the same discussions budget committees have about how to create unique offers to lure strong professors to the school. Constructing a plot might seem like a misstep for Wiseman, but here it’s a chance to see theory in practice, and the film’s epic third hour sit in shows three sides brilliantly: the protesters, the administration in action, and even the students laying in the laws who go on without even noticing. Wiseman’s camera is always curious but never didactic; it’s tough to say where exactly his sympathies lie, both in terms of his fascination with certain characters like the Chancellor Robert Birgeneau or even the single man who mows every single acre of the institution’s

But Wiseman once again asks for rational thought. Each moment becomes an echo of a previous sentiment. A conversation on constructing robotic legs begins to reflect the same discussions budget committees have about how to create unique offers to lure strong professors to the school. Constructing a plot might seem like a misstep for Wiseman, but here it’s a chance to see theory in practice, and the film’s epic third hour sit in shows three sides brilliantly: the protesters, the administration in action, and even the students laying in the laws who go on without even noticing. Wiseman’s camera is always curious but never didactic; it’s tough to say where exactly his sympathies lie, both in terms of his fascination with certain characters like the Chancellor Robert Birgeneau or even the single man who mows every single acre of the institution’s lawn. But the sprawling movements begin to take shape into an institution that might place liberal free speech students with ROTC trainees in the same space, between one that can’t compete financially and yet provides services beyond the above in a negotiation of quality. And what seems like a university at ends with its paradox is yet a shining beacon of thinking and possibilities outside of any box. If anything, one of the major takeaways from At Berkeley is to acknowledge the potential of such an institution under huge financial duress. Think what would happen if they didn’t even have to fight for money.

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Bastards (Claire Denis, France, 2013)

To say Bastards is a departure for Claire Denis leads to the question: what are the tangible auteurist properties of her work? In her films, glances do the heavy lifting, and a single touch is practically cathartic. Each frame feels, to give into the tactile sense of cinema that began with Chocolat. To name a film that stands above her work feels strange; she is the opposite of the Coen Brothers, whose individual works are more enjoyable than when taken as a messy whole. Denis is more fascinating on individual shots and edits, which feel of a particular digital vocabulary. But Bastards is in fact her first digital work. Denis’s digital makes objects sharper, more dangerous. Even when the world was dangerous (the mystery of Trouble Every Day, the lurking war in White Material), Denis always makes it seductive and intoxicating; a place tantalizing with sensuality. The case is the opposite of Bastards, whose world is cold, harsh, and striking. The tactility of the image lurks out; each image feels closer to a knife than a desirable plane, the glances display lust, but with an anger and menace hidden just under the surface. Even the soft skin of Lola Creton, a figure who has been cast before for her virginal qualities, now has blood running down her legs. This reflects into the film’s narrative, which could be describe as film noir, but Denis’s editing style and aversion to straight exposition shouldn’t be confused with generic trappings.

Denis sets up the major relationships and tensions within the first act, leaving most of her game to filling out details: a man who moves into an empty apartment, another man with capital and desire to exploit those without, and a series of black haired women, vulnerable to both men’s sinister games. The ellipticism of Denis comes almost to a fault in Bastards. It’s a film about corporate and sexual intrigue, in which we see neither. A glance toward a shirt transfers toward a symbolic passing of cigarettes and then reappears during an awkward encounter with unintended consequences. The chess game seems quite obvious at first, and the resolution almost too simple, even if the details come in and out as focus throughout. Erasing themes of her previous work, and giving her imagery a more pointed, cutting tactility (as sharp as those heels), questions remain in a way that how we are supposed to walk away, especially given its final, surveillance footage, and at least one symbolic reference taken from Faulkner’s Sanctuary that leaves more puzzles than clarification, both tangibly and emotionally. The work feels left unfinished in some way, the pieces left to be filled in with feelings left unsaid, often spoken by a single frame (supercoherence at its most specific). Which is to say, Bastards is a Claire Denis film.

Reality Manifested: The Opening Shot of Tarr’s The Man From London

5328955857_bb932acd54_zThere is something truly metaphysical about the opening of Bela Tarr’s The Man From London. More than any other shot in his filmography, this opening shot, as well as much of the rest of the film, Tarr feels to be manifesting existence before his camera. I love the openings to both Satantango and The Turin Horse, but the operations at work under those shots is of a very different quality of what Tarr does here. Many perceive that the long take in cinema creates a sense of realism. But in The Man From London, Tarr’s long aren’t capturing reality, they seem to construct reality itself. Until the camera exposes us to what we see, I’m not sure that the location beyond the sight of the camera actually exists.

In this way, the opening shot of The Man From London recalls the opening to Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. But while Reygadas shows us the birth of the universe (as my friend Victor Morton wonderfully describes here) presented to the camera by God, in Tarr’s film, the camera is God, creating the reality in which this drama will play out. We begin with only water, and as the camera pans up, we see the enormous boat that will become a crucial location to the narrative. As the camera moves upwards, it suddenly becomes shadowed in black at moments. We soon realize that there is not just the water and the boat but now there is an existence of another materiality—something blocking our ability to see, and so we are not just at sea with the boat. Finally, we have the appearance of total black and then feet. A human body is now part of this reality, a room in which we still don’t understand where and how it exists, and yet it is now part of this world. The camera continues upwards and we get up to the window of this perch, and thus we can now see the top of the ship where two men are meeting. Did this exist before it entered the shot?

The metaphysical qualities of Tarr’s cinema, the slow camera panning from composition to composition, suggest that nothing is known in the physical world until the camera points to it and capture it. It is as if Tarr was slowly setting up the pieces for a game of chess (an image that factors in later). So as the camera then pans right, slowly observing through windows, you feel that with each pass to a new window, the elements come into existence: first a bridge, and then a cobblestone land, and finally a train. These are now, here and exist. The camera then moves back, and allows the observer—the man who views and thus creates—to have a face. He was a body before; now he is a person. We follow his view, and as he leads us to the other side, suddenly we are confronted with land on the other side, a new part of this reality that exists almost independently of the train on the other side. Watch how the camera then treats the essential action—we watch as a man moves to the edge of the port, and then the camera turns to show a man now on the boat, holding a suitcase. That suitcase and man could not exist without the movement of the camera, and thus by the camera pointing us to him, he now exists and allows the suitcase to be thrown. Finally, Tarr gives us the full view via a long final pan—the mystery port, the boat, the train station. The train’s engine starts, but it can only move until the camera points the way forward, creating the railway for it to travel. The shot is complete—we now have a reality for this narrative to take place in.

This is just one of many moments that feels so crucial in The Man From London, which I feel is not like what we see in Tarr’s more canonical works. When Tarr has a shot of a quiet city street, he points the camera up and suddenly we hear a baby crying, as the movement of the camera had led to its birth. Tarr’s shots begin with the intimate, and then he slowly establishes space and reality itself as the shot continues on. We might here a sound off screen, but we have no idea what exists until Tarr manifests it to the spectator, sometimes comical (a playful dance of a ball and chair) revealing (a certain character listening in on a private conversation). It’s also what ties Tarr so directly to Miklós Jancsó, as his shots also construct a reality that feels like a chess game where you can’t see the move until it happens. No wonder why we never see the death near the end of The Man From London, the body literally locked away beyond the camera’s grasp. Tarr’s films are said to exist in a godless universe, but the camera itself is our God.

Suspicious Paintings and Wind in Trees: An Image/Text Approach to Narrative Excess

I have a lot of issues with the idea of narrative excess. What does excess exactly mean? Isn’t the point of cinema to see “excess”? Anyways, this paper was written in my seminar on contemporary film theory last semester. It’s too sprawling to really have it published somewhere, but it does get to some of my core beliefs about the possibilities of cinema, cinephilia, post-60s film theory, digital indexicality, and more. Please note this is not for casual readers.

Wind in the Trees

A man climbs a ladder on the side of a building. He and another cop follow a criminal across the rooftops of San Francisco. The criminal aptly jumps from one building to the next. The cop follows and barely balances himself. The man attempts to do the same but slips, grabbing onto the ledge. The cop comes to help him back up, telling him, “Give me your hand!” but falls himself.  The man can only look down in horror.

Any person who knows the scene I have described from the opening to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) will immediately recognize this description as insufficient. What about the mood of the scene, with its stunning dark hues? How about the tense score created by Bernard Hermann? What about the presence given to Scottie by Jimmy Stewart, and all that seems indescribable in his piercing eyes? This all leads to the real question: is this a failure of my description or a case of narrative excess?

The concept of narrative excess—films that create something that exceeds the necessity of the story they are attempting to tell—has been frustratingly limited in recent discussions in contemporary film theory. It is often relegated to certain films and filmmakers: it exists in action films and musicals during their elongated sequences that “do nothing to push the narrative forward.” Art-house films, with their long tracking shots and characters without affect, are declared to have narrative excess. And one cannot forget experimental cinema, which has no narrative and must only be excess.

The debates surrounding narrative excess have always felt somewhat contrived: a categorization instead of a problematization. What does one achieve by defining a shot, a moment, a technique, or a style as excessive in its narrative? Where exactly can one draw clear lines between narrative and excess? If excess is defined when a cinematic element no longer serves a purpose for the narrative, what purpose does it serve? The film critic David Edelstein had a fantastic description of a moment in Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), a film that shouts “excess” at the top of its lungs:

Why film an action — say, the lighting of a cigarette — in one shot when you can do it in six? So you get match swipe, match flare, another angle (with a double exposure) on the flare, tip of cigarette burning, cigarette going between lips, character inhaling in close-up … And the film stock changes in each shot, one green, one black-and-white, one overexposed … And the sound of that flare is like a bomb going off … and the cigarette isn’t even a big deal.[i]

Surely this must be excess if the cigarette does not require it…or perhaps Domino, a film about excessive characters who indulge in excessive violence and mythologize their own excessive existence in the wake of reality television (the film’s tagline: “Based on a true story…sort of”) requires this stylistic attitude. Who is to say thatDomino is any more excessive to its narrative than a Dardennes Brothers film? What if the Belgian realists are actually the much more excessive filmmakers?

One can define narrative excess in cinema by examining whether everything contained within the frame absolutely necessary for the function of the narrative. But when have cinemagoers ever worried about narrative excess? Since cinema’s birth, spectators have always been interested in excess: Le Repas de Bébé (Lumière, 1895) became not about the child and his food but about the wind in the trees—everyone cared about what the director did not even realize he was filming! Narrative excess perhaps existed before narrative in cinema, which opens a whole new set of questions that have been yet to be theorized properly.

This paper is about narrative excess, but more than that, it is about the relationship between the images and the text of a film. I will appropriate the term “image/text,” theorized by the art critic W.J.T. Mitchell, to build a discourse between narrative and the images used to form narratives in film. My proposal is that images are necessarily excessive of their text—they propose a that-ness to the text’s the-ness. While many of the theorists and critics who have written on this issue in the past see this as a point of political discourse and ideological interpretation, my goal is to push this debate of narrative excess to the Bazianin tradition of “the real,” the ontological element that has necessarily been a part of cinema and continues to be one of the dominant factors of its attraction. I will finally stake the faith of the future of film studies not in the critic or academic, but the 21st-century cinephile: the one who searches for meaning in cigarette smoke instead of the tracking shot—the moments that expose the design of cinematic excess.

By working through these relationships between narrative and excess, text and image, “content” and “form,” is the possibility that if one begins to see every image that cinema conceives as a form of narrative excess, then one must also claim that there is no such thing as narrative excess—excess is simply the basis of cinema.

Narrative Excess and Its Discontents

What is a narrative in cinema? How does one conceive of narrative and what is its relation to the images it creates? To be reductive (but necessarily so), let us take David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s definition of narrative in Film Art: “We can consider a narrative to be a chain of events in cause—effect relationships occurring in time and space…A narrative begins with one situation; a series of changes occurs according to a pattern of cause and effect; finally, a new situation arises that brings about the end of the narrative.”[ii] Narrative form has been the dominant form of cinematic storytelling in cinema since 1907, and there is no reason to see cinema forgoing this function any time soon. In the latest poll by the film journal Sight & Sound on the greatest films of all time, only two films in the Top 50 could be considered “non-narrative:” Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) and Historie(s) du Cinema (Godard, 1988-1998).[iii] Narrative is a form of storytelling; it is about the causal link (or non-link) between actions and events. As Peter Verstraten puts it, “A transition from one situation to another takes place, and that change is brought about by a (non-)act effect by someone or something,”[iv] Narrative can be non-linear, include ellipses and gaps, and feature characters with clear motivation or none at all. It simply needs to pose the possibility of causal relationships between its various elements (though not necessarily deliver on them).

So what is the difference between a narrative and a cinematic narrative? A better question to ask: what does a cinematic narrative look like without cinema? One might point to a screenplay: the physical object from which the narrative is “directed” from—it gives not only the dialogue of a film, but also the locations and gestures. Yet no screenplay is complete; it might not include a description of the background space or the costumes, or perhaps the dialogue itself has been improvised. What one must realize is that words, no matter how much detail, can never capture everything that is the film itself. Marie Clare-Ropars argues, “Film’s writing is defined by the montage of a plural apparatus.”[v] That is to say, film cannot be contained by words alone. Every Film School 101 class always includes the inevitable first rule of being a good filmmaker: “Show, don’t tell.”

Most would agree, however, that narrative and cinema work together—all of those cinematic devices are simply another way of expressing words. Bordwell has often argued that film “style” (that is, the material of film that cannot be expressed with words) is subservient to narrative function: “On the whole, classical narration treats film technique as a vehicle for the syuzhet’s transmission of fabula information.”[vi] One chooses Jimmy Stewart because he can best represent Scottie’s psychological obsessions, and one shoots in the fog-filled San Francisco because it is a very European city that has a ghostly presence. Every choice to create an image representation for the film is to use something that best demonstrates the narrative.

But as narrative excess theorists contend, certain moments, images, and elements of cinema cannot be justified by the narrative—they are not something the narrative “needs” in order to tell the story. Kristin Thompson provides the most comprehensive definition of this: “Films can be seen as a struggle of opposing forces. Some of these forces strive to unify the work, to hold it together sufficiently that we may perceive and follow its structures. Outside any such structures lie those aspects of the work which are not contained by its unifying forces—the ‘excess.’”[vii] Excess is what lies outside narrative—the thing that cannot “fit.” Thus, the most common examples of narrative excess are often in genre films like musicals and action films. Both genres include extended sequences where characters indulge in what is quite often a multitude of acrobatics to achieve a very simple goal. In The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953), two lovers dance at midnight in Central Park in an extended long take that lasts around four minutes. The first twenty-five minutes of Police Story (Chan, 1985) follows a cop who goes through a series of Keatonesque actions as he chases a criminal. One can argue these as excessive, but both sequences are necessarily tied to their narrative: the dance sequence in The Band Wagon allows the characters to spark their romance, and the chase in Police Story is what sets the cops and criminals plot in motion. While Verstraten argues, “[The musical’s] excessive stylistic elements are consistent with the representation of extravagant spectacle that is presented as separate from the actual plot,” I am inclined to disagree with him: almost every musical, especially those of the classical Hollywood system, justifies its sequence within some sort of boundary of how, what, and why the characters are singing and dancing.[viii] It is no more excessive than the witty banter in a screwball comedy, which perhaps does not need its punch lines to be that funny, but is often necessary to move the narrative forward.

Verstraten also makes a case for excess in “art cinema,” using L’Avventura (Antonioni, 1960) and its gaps in classical narration and lack of motivation. He writes, “Antonioni’s meticulous style, with its stringently composed black-and-white shots and dead moments, focuses attention on itself to such an extent that L’Avventura now only seems to state its own unorthodox style.”[ix] Verstraten seems unable to even conceive that these stylistic notations are built into the way Antonioni’s characters move and talk, and his perception of “excess” is simply the film’s annunciation of its content. Even the elongated tracking shot through a futuristic city in Tarkovsky’sSolaris (1972) allows the spectator to feel time passing as Kris moves toward the space station. Often the bigger the excess, the easier it is to justify it as part of the film’s narrative: film noir’s expressive lighting, Nicolas Roeg’s unorthodox editing patterns, and contemporary Romanian cinema’s infinite long takes are all essential to their narratives, not working in spite of them.

Perhaps then, one should look for narrative excess not in the major but the minor—the accidental moment that cannot be explained by the narrative because it is what “slips through” onto the screen. Stephen Heath points to what will be the most essential image of narrative excess for this discussion: the Picasso-like painting in Suspicion(Hitchcock, 1941): “The play here is complex: this other painting has no reason, is ‘useless’ (isolated, without resonance over the film, marked off by the piano phrase and by the fact its link with [the policeman] Benson who remains more or less apart in the main substance of the scene, out of frame and with only one line of any significance) beyond the limits of the film.”[x] What is that painting doing there? How can we understand it? Heath goes on in his piece to discuss narrative space, but he has latched on to the key moment of excess in a classical Hollywood film: something that does not annunciate itself, but instead appears out of place against everything occurring within the narrative, sitting on the wall and almost taunting the spectator in its inexplicable presence.

If we thus really want to examine the relationship between narrative and excess, we have to stop thinking big and start thinking small. The more troubling versions of excess are those like Suspicion’s painting—the “forgotten” detail in the background. And perhaps if one cannot justify the forgotten detail, perhaps one cannot justify anything as essential to narrative. The image is always has more than the text.

Image/Text

Why does Jimmy Stewart play Scottie in Vertigo? The simple answer is because he can best embody the character of Scottie in a way no other actor could. But Stewart is not Scottie—he is Jimmy Stewart. He carries with him his own memories, his own motivations (“make art” or “make money”), and his own gestures that were not necessarily meant for Scottie. He is a living body, a person outside the diagesis of the film, operating on a film set that is always a film set, no matter what one “believes.” His presence is immediately excessive.

For this discussion, we must consider narrative as a pure element—something beyond the filmic reality presented on screen. A narrative is always first and foremost a text, though perhaps one that cannot be fully articulated by words. One cannot discuss a narrative as a concrete object—film is at least a series of tangible and viewable images. Narrative is an abstract proposal that relationships between objects can be causally explained. As discussed before, this is not the screenplay, but perhaps can be said to be a totality of the thoughts that went into the filmic translation. Thus, every film has a text that is the summation of narrative elements present in the film. Cinema can be seen as the process of text to image—consider it along the lines of the famous Stanley Kubrick quote: “If it can be thought (text), it can be filmed (image).” Going from text to image causes two things to happen: there are a plurality ideas that become one image, which then creates a new plurality of interpretations.

To better understand this concept, take another example from Vertigo. In the film’s second half, Scottie spends much of the narrative attempting to re-create Madeline though Judy: She must wear the gray skirt with the blonde hair with the swirl. But in a parallel universe, there is perhaps another version of Vertigo: she wears a luscious yellow dress, her hair is auburn, and it is in a ponytail. Or one can image a number of variations on gray suits and blonde hair and swirls. But Vertigo must be that gray skirt, that blonde hair, and that swirl because that is what obsesses Scottie. One cannot say for sure what another version of Vertigo would look like without what is there in the image—and even the imagined versions will always fail, as it is impossible to “un-see” Vertigo. The point of the exercise is that in the creation of the “film text” is that there are always infinite possibilities, but the image has only a singular “reality.” It is no longer the gray suit but that gray suit.

In creating the singular reality, a new plurality begins. What does that gray suit mean? The gray suit itself might be essential to the narrative, but only the “thought” of the gray suit is what is essential. The actual suit itself can inspire a whole set of questions and speculations of the suit’s actual purpose that is no longer linked to narrative causality. Roland Barthes discusses this phenomenon in literature, but it becomes even more essential in film:

This new operation is interpretation…To interpret a text is not give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it….In this ideal text, the network are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifies, not a structure of signifieds.[xi]

To many, this no longer sounds like a theory of narrative excess, as every film has these types of functions. But this is part of what I would like to argue: filming reality necessarily creates excess. To connect that gray dress to the narrative and make it “the” is to always leave something out of the suit’s that-ness. The object’s tangible reality, just like Stewart’s bodily and human presence, always carries something beyond the pureness of the text. In cinema, it is never the, always that. And that requires a plurality of readings. As Barthes writes, “The systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language.”[xii] One can never finalize the meaning of the image in cinema when it contains a reality beyond its intention in the narrative.

Cinema thus necessarily has a relationship that can be called image/text. What is image/text? I have noted that I am taking the term from Mitchell, but my definition builds on his use of the term. For Mitchell, it is what is being seen against what is being spoken. As he writes, “With [moving image] media, one encounters a concrete set of empirical givens, an image-text structure responsive to prevailing conventions (or resistance to conventions) governing the relation of visual and verbal experience.”[xiii] For Mitchell, the visual dimension of media can clue us to another meaning the dialogue cannot. To give an easy example, in The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948), Lermontov continually states that his interest in the beautiful Vicky is her artistry, but viewing Anton Walbrook’s performance and the suggestive nature of his eyes, the spectator becomes aware that he is actually in love with her. While this is an important relationship, this is not the definition of image/text important for this discussion. Instead, we should think about what is conceived contrasted to what is actualized.

Mitchell, however, provides some interesting material that will prove useful in thinking through our conception of narrative excess in relation to image/text. Firstly, he makes perhaps the strongest case for why to write image/text with a slash, as it suggests “a problematic gap, cleavage, or rupture in representation. The term ‘imagetext’ designates composite, synthetic works (or concepts) that combine image and text.”[xiv] Certainly, my theory of image/text is built on the disjuncture between what is thought and what is seen, which can never be the same. The image creates a singularized version of the text with a whole new set of pluralities. Secondly, I am struck by Mitchell’s discussion of Art Spiegelman’sMaus (1991), a graphic novel in which the author tells the story of the Holocaust but represents it through cartoon characters of cats as Nazis and mice as Jews. That is to say, there is a clear disruption between the text Spiegelman uses, his father’s memories of the events, and the drawn images, which represent the story in a very different conception while still relaying the various causal elements of the text. Mitchell argues, “The effect of Spiegelman’s brilliant animal caricatures is, of course, more complex than a simple ‘veiling’ of the human form. The reduction of the Holocaust to a ‘Tom and Jerry’ iconography is at once shocking in its violation of decorum and absolutely right in its revelation of a fitness and figural realism in the animal imagery.”[xv] This is a perfect conception of how one can think one thing and see another; the memories recalled by Spielgelman’s father are told in one form, but to give them a visual function changes the relationship of the words as a pure text. Spiegelman’s audacious move is to highlight this disjuncture; if he drew human characters or even filmed them, there would always be a gap. The image/text—the relationship between storytelling and the images used to represent them—must always have this gap. The images are only an attempt to represent the text, but they are never the text itself.

One might be skeptical how this truly relates to narrative excess, which seems to operate in a different realm, but I cannot help but think about the painting inSuspicion. It is not necessary to the text, but there it is in the image. And perhaps the painting is not part of necessary to the text, what is necessary? The actors to deliver dialogue? The articulation of voice? All of these elements will necessarily add a new dimension beyond what is implied by the text itself. Stephen Heath, in his canonical examination of Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958), argues, “Just as narrative never exhaust the image, homogeneity is always an effect of the film and not the filmic system, which is precisely the production of that homogeneity…narrative can never contain the whole film which permanently exceeds its fictions.”[xvi] And Kristin Thompson admits this as well, “A film depends on materiality for its existence; out of image and sound it creates structures, but it can never make all the physical elements of the film part of its set of smooth perceptual cues.”[xvii] A film is always excessive of narrative—films simply attempt to hide this!

Perhaps the best filmmaker to represent this dichotomy and attempt to work through the problem of text and image is Robert Bresson. Bresson’s films have been described as eliminating excessive images into only what is necessary for the narrative. In his own words, Bresson says his hope was to create “Not beautiful photography, not beautiful images, but necessary images and photography.”[xviii] Additionally, he always referred to actors as models, forcing them to repeat a line over and over until any “emotion” or unnecessary affect was removed from it: “Right innotations when your model exercises no control over them.”[xix] In a way, Bresson’s concern is not using cinema to represent a text, but allowing the image to form the text for him, eliminating or often highlighting the disjuncture. A filmmaker should not use an image to represent a text, but instead capture the image itself. He argues, “Let images and sounds present themselves spontaneously to your eyes and ears as words do the spirit of a creative writer.” [xx] So Bresson’s “plan,” so to say, is the eliminate image/text in favor of imagetext, where the text and image are one because the text only exists as part of the image.

In Au Hasard Balthazar(1966), Bresson gives us a character who has no voice itself—an animal that cannot be “narrativized,” yet is constantly being subscribed a voice by others. He is given a name and baptized—a text is forced onto the image! And yet, Bresson gives us moments where he makes us realize the spectator does this as well. The titular donkey is taken to a carnival and Bresson shows a sequence in which the animals “communicate” to each other. What they articulate to each other is impossible to say (if we even agree they are communicating)—the “narrative” cannot exist except for the one the spectator interprets out of the images. It is not a product of the text, but of the spectator reading the image. This recalls another essential line from Barthes about finding elements out of place in the image: “The obtuse meaning is clearly counternarrative itself. Diffused, reversible, caught up in its own time; it can, if one follows it, establish only another script that is distinct from the shots, sequences, stygmas…You will have another temporality, neither diegetic nor oneric, you will have another film.”[xxi] The image necessarily bares a new meaning—something that is read out of the image that was not necessarily intended. In photography, Barthes refers to this as the punctum of the image: “The detail that interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional…it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object.”[xxii] The punctum thus breaks the continuity of the image as a pure text so to say, and gives it something beyond its intention. Bresson makes this clear in Balthazar—we can read things out of the donkey that are not necessarily part of the text; they only come from reading the image itself.

Image/text is thus a new approach to narrative excess that argues that the image itself is what is excessive in cinema. The next step for many writers (Barthes, Clare-Ropars, Deborah Linderman) is to take apart the image and find the ideological content that is revealed through excess. As Linderman suggests, “Foreign simulacra, multiple filaments of meaning, multiple embeddings, all hint at preemptive ideological content.”[xxiii] However, I would argue that such an approach ignores something even more essential to be discussed: narrative excess reveals cinema’s index.

The Index and the Salvation of Cinephilia

Where is the excessive ­that-ness in an animated image? Nothing. There is no extra material that is meant to go beyond the text that is not purposefully there. In animation, there is no “that,” only “the.” The images are all determined by the text, as nothing can spontaneously appear that was not determined to be necessary by the creators. Animation cannot have its “wind in the trees,” something outside of its intention.

Narrative excess exists because the image is never just a text and thus produces multiple meanings. But the most essential one of those meanings is cinema’s that-ness. That thing existed there. For it to be there is important for the narrative—it creates narrative’s space-time function that moves linear action—but it also has the fact that the spectator recognizes that was there, cinema’s indexical nature. Thus, we must read narrative excess as a form of Bazinian realism as the first step to searching for new meaning. Cinema has become a narrative device, but that is not inherent to the medium, as any series of actualities or avant-garde works can demonstrate. Cinema’s original function is that of photographic recording. As Bazin argues,

The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.[xxiv]

One cannot ignore the cinematic that-ness that develops out of seeing “the model” to use Bazin’s words. Beyond an ideological framework for what develops from beyond the meaning of the text, the image is first and foremost a recording of what was. When the gray suit in Vertigo becomes excessive, it is because it is that gray suit as opposed to the gray suit: it was worn by Kim Novak on the set of a film in 1958. The suit’s that-ness is beyond the meaning of the narrative—the index causes new meanings not inherent to the text.

The that-ness of the index is a much more intoxicating idea than Barthes’s political interpretation of the image-text relationship. Barthes searches for the punctum that breaks the text—that which could not help but be captured by the camera. This necessarily suggests that there are parts of any image that Barthes must ignore (what he calls the studium, the parts that still adhere to the ideological framework he wishes to reject). But the index need not discriminate—the existence of the image itself is what is beyond the text. The index necessarily creates a new text already. The text creates the; the index creates that. And that is always excess.

This comes closer to why viewers of cinema have always, in some way, cared more about “the wind in the trees” and the love of so-called “realism” as a cinematic goal. Siegfried Kracauer praises cinema’s ability to capture material that has not be staged: “Film…gravitates toward unstaged reality…Staging is aesthetically legitimate to the extent that it evokes the illusion of actuality…by the same token anything stagy is uncinematic if it passes over the basic properties of the medium.”[xxv] Kracauer theorizes cinema’s goal as an attempt to cause the viewer to “experience physical reality,” which suggests something beyond narrative.[xxvi] If we return to the idea of the text as abstract—as thought rather than written—it already suggests a break with reality: it is something artificial. The image, however, must be more than the text, and that excess is reality itself. This is not to say cinema must record reality and focus on the unstaged in order to be cinema, but that excess, seen as a problem for narrative, is itself a basis for cinema. Cinema cannot exist without having an image that is in excess of any narrative because it is also something real and beyond its narrative.

If cinema is born in the unstaged—if narrative excess begins with that which appears out of place—then this is perhaps why the contemporary cinephile can lead cinema into reclaiming this paradigm. Narrative excess has been usually discussed in terms of filmmakers who are actively doing too much—too much color in the shot, too much movement in the camera, too many edits. But as I have argued, the break into excess is not the grand gesture but the accidental moment: all elements of cinema exist in excess, but it is the accidental moment that exposes the design—the painting inSuspicion that opens up readings beyond the intention of the narrative. The contemporary cinephile—the 21st Century blogger—has always focused on the image and the backgrounds that make up “excess.” The influential blogger and film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has theorized this history:

The theories that form the foundation of both filmmaking and film criticism concern themselves not with small or subjective properties, but with grand designs: montage, mise-en-scene, camera movement, framing. All of these things could be called the “obvious properties of style.” Cinephilia set itself aside from mere film-buffery by becoming the hunt for small moments and small films, things that appeared to exist outside the realm of obvious gesture. Criticism sought to explain the tracking shot; cinephilia looked for the meanings of drifting cigarette smoke, stray glances and apparent accidents, and to divine the patterns of hats, cars and donkeys.[xxvii]

The accidents that Vishnevetsky discusses are perhaps those most essential to narrative excess, or at least those most prone to the cinephile’s investigation. While this again suggests a similarity to Barthes’s punctum—searching for what does not fit—the cinephile’s sees this unstaged as part of the system that expands alongside the grand gesture, not against it. Suspicion’s painting, after all, is no accident—Hitchcock certainly planned it there, even if it has no causal relationship with the narrative. Its stance apart from the grand gesture is not one of an accident as Barthes would suggest, but one that works with it—the cinephile simply is more attuned to search there for meaning. Because of the index present in all of this, the grand gesture matters as much as the small moment, but I am arguing that the cinephile begins with the small moment before moving into how it relates to grand gestures. Seeing the index allows one to break from what is the causal design, and thus search to new systems of meaning proposed by that-ness.

These searches have taken on new purpose in cinema’s digital landscape: the pause button has allowed the cinephile to reclaim the image instead of sit subservient to it. The ability to stop an image, see something that feels out of place that is perhaps there only for a second, has become one of the defining traits of contemporary cinephilia. Consider a sequence out of Room 237 (Ascher, 2012), a documentary about cinephiles who have crafted wild theories about Kubrick’sThe Shining (1980). At one moment, a cinephile describes how the typewriter Jack uses has a symbol on it that directly ties it tits origin to the typewriters used by the Third Reich, and thus the film must be about the trauma of the Holocaust. Because Ascher is able to pause and zoom on the image, one certainly recognizes that the detail is in fact there, though whether this confirms the cinephile’s theory or not is specious at best.

While Room 237 might not be the most ideal version of searching for narrative excess, it certainly points toward the new tendency that is being led by contemporary cinephilia. Andrew Klevan and Stanley Cavell have also discussed how small moments that are perhaps accidents can change and open up a new film beyond the narrative. In a discussion between the two, Klevan postulates, “Why did they think to execute it like that…I didn’t only think the shots were unusual, or striking, I thought they were gently mysterious, and that they were significant. They asked questions of me…My intuition was that because the shots were like that they might give me a key to the whole film, and open it up in new and rewarding ways.”[xxviii] The cinephile has always been attuned to look for the mundane, the tiny, and the small moments of cinema—the moments where narrative excess truly begins. The digital era has only increased this possibility to pour over every screen grab possible in search of excess, the thing that does not fit within the text but is there in the image. The cinephile will lead the search for perhaps what was unstaged and discover, as Barthes suggested, “another film.”

Closings and Openings

I asked a question at the beginning of this investigation: how can one say a Dardennes film has less narrative excess than a Tony Scott film?  Scott blows up a moment into something huge and jarring, but the Dardennes often appear to be recording reality that just happens to have a narrative in it. Perhaps, the Dardennes are truly more excessive then, as they work within the unstaged, while Scott’s films are carefully calculated in not just every shot but every frame. The Dardennes constantly expose moments in their films in which we realize there is a world beyond the frame—their cameras are capturing something beyond simply their narratives. They break our sense of narrative as a contained substance, and suggest numerous possibilities in the image.

Narrative excess has been theorized as a problem for the cinema, but it is really an opportunity. Thompson argues that once one begins to work through issues of narrative excess, “The viewer is no longer constrained by conventions of reading to find a meaning or theme within the work as the solution to a sort of puzzle which has a right answer…Such an approach to viewing films can allow us to look further into a film, renewing its ability to intrigue us by its strangeness.”[xxix] However, while she searches in the grand gesture, I have proposed to begin with the wind in the trees. Identifying excess always exposes that there is more to a film than simply the narrative. Cinema has a reality, and we can see it in the flows of cigarette smoke and background paintings. Narrative excess is essential to talk about, because as I have argued, it is what forms the basis of cinema. Cinema began by recording reality, and while there is now so much more to cinema, its attraction is still the ability to capture that-ness. As cinema moves into the digital, which as Lev Manovich suggested, indexical cinema will perhaps become only a small part of the greater history of animation, and the unstaged itself will no longer exist. Image/text becomes imagetext, and the gap is closed. And yet, the greatest achievement of Avatar (Cameron, 2009) was its ability to translate the faces of the real onto the digital creations—the ability to see a that-ness in what was otherwise a the-ness. The index continues, and thus excess continues as well. Additionally, more and more films seem concerned with presenting “open” narratives in which excess exists simply in the text itself. Films like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2011), The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011), and Margaret (Lonergan, 2011) all build narratives around moments that cannot fit into any sense of narrative causality and thus open themselves up to new interpretations and criticism. While I would admit some lamentation for what seems like the fading appreciation for the perfection of “closed” films, I welcome films that are willing to truly make their text as excessive as their image.

The concept of narrative excess, of something beyond the text, has been crucial since even before narrative became the popular form of cinema. Cinephiles will continue to find what images tell us beyond narrative—not what the text wants to tell us, but what we discover from the image, even if it is simply our own past existence. The text will always inspire filmmakers, but it is the image that keeps cinema alive.

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[i] David Edelstein, “Sons and Muggers,” Slate.Com, October 13, 2005, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2005/10/sons_and_muggers.html.

[ii] David Bordwell, and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Eighth Edition), (McGraw Hill: New York, 2008), 85.

[iii] “The Top 100 Films.” Sight & Sound. no. 9 (2012): 56.

[iv] Peter Verstraten, “Between Attraction and Story: Rethinking Narrativity in Cinema,” Narratology in the Age of Cross-Disciplinary Narrative Research, ed. Sandra Heinen and Roy Sommer (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 156.

[v] Marie-Claire Ropars, “Film Reader of the Text,” Diacritics, 15. no. 1 (1985), 18.

[vi] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 162.

[vii] Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 130.

[viii] Verstraten, “Between Attraction and Story,” 165.

[ix] Ibid., 164.

[x] Stephen Heath, “Narrative Space,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 382-383.

[xi] Roland Barthes, S/Z, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 5.

[xii] Barthes, S/Z, 6.

[xiii] W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 90.

[xiv] Mitchell, Picture Theory, 90.

[xv] Ibid., 93.

[xvi] Stephen Heath, “Film and System: Terms of Analysis Part I,” Screen, 16, no. 1 (1975): 10.

[xvii] Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” 131.

[xviii] Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, (New York: Quartet Books, 1986), 82.

[xix] Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 74.

[xx] Ibid., 64.

[xxi] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning,” Artforum, 11, no. 5 (1974): 49.

[xxii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (New York: Macmillan, 1981), 47.

[xxiii] Deborah Linderman, “Uncoded Images in the Heterogeneous Text,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 144.

[xxiv] Andre Bazin, What is Cinema?, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 14.

[xxv] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 60.

[xxvi] Kracauer, Theory of Film, 300.

[xxvii] Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Scott’s Metaphysical Romances, Pt. 1,” Sounds, Images (blog), Dec 3, 2010, http://soundsimages.blogspot.com/2010/12/scotts-metaphysical-romances-pt-1.html.

[xxviii] Quoted in Girish Shambu, “Small, Striking Moments,” Girish (blog), April 2, 2010, http://girishshambu.blogspot.com/2010/04/small-striking-moments.html.

[xxix] Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” 141.