Friday, October 5, 2007

On Some Dismissive Formulations Which Prevent Educated Viewers From Earning an Appreciation of Contemporary Cinema

A recent issue of New York Magazine featured a lead article on the New York Film Festival. On the cover, arranged in an awkward cascade and shot in profile, were the faces of Joel and Ethan Coen, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson, above the headline "the New York Wave". Inside the magazine, the articles were centered around the theme of the "return of the New York auteur," a claim based on the abundance of New York filmmakers represented at the current festival, regardless of the quality or relevance of the films being presented by these directors. By singling out this New York contingent, the magazine may have adopted an approach calculated to appeal to its core audience, but it betrayed an entirely misleading apprehension of the event. While many New York filmmakers are screening their work at the festival, and indeed these directors are disproportionately represented in the festival's more high profile pictures, the filmmakers that the magazine elected to discuss are very much peripheral to the important work being done in the world cinema. That many of the directors who are central to this world cinema are also featured at the festival only throws into relief the misguided critical emphasis of such "sophisticated" mainstream publications as New York which choose to highlight quirky, but unchallenging middlebrow fare in place of films by directors such as Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Alexsandr Sokurov, Jia Zhang-Ke and Carlos Reygadas, all of whom, like their less talented but more heralded New York counterparts, are showcasing their latest films during the next two weeks at Lincoln Center.

Why then is it so hard to sell educated viewers, many of whom are no strangers to the art-house environment, on such international fare, even though most of these films, for all their foreign provenance, have more to say about 21st century America than the latest hip posturings by Wes Anderson and the Coens? Much of it has to do with certain conventions of the filmgoing public that tend to favor the familiar and unchallenging to anything that might make the audience uncomfortable. In order to both cement and justify this attitude, the viewer has developed a certain dismissive vocabulary which transfers the blame for his dissatisfaction from himself to the filmmaker while demanding the least possible analytical effort on his own part. All he has to do is repeat one of an established catalogue of trite formulations. Below we will take a look at a few of these dismissive statements that keep educated audiences locked in their comfortable viewing habits and show how they prevent a true appreciation of what is important in the world cinema.

1. "Nothing happens in this film."

This comment reveals the persistent belief that a film consists primarily of its content and that any questions of form or style are almost completely irrelevant, since form only exists as a vehicle to deliver the film's content. As such, viewers continue to insist on the primacy of the narrative, so that, in their view, any film that deviates from this plot-heavy formula is violating an essential property of the cinematic medium. Most of the popular indie hits of recent years (Little Miss Sunshine, Pan's Labyrinth, Little Children) adhere unquestioningly to this belief in insistently chronological filmmaking. The truth is that narrative-centered filmmaking with its corollary, the psychologically coherent character, is only one conception of the cinematic process and is not an absolute condition of the medium, but only an arbitrarily imposed convention. Many of the most significant filmmakers working today, while not entirely eschewing the narrative/character matrix, are more interested in other cinematic possibilities and achieve much more significant work than would be possible if they confined themselves within a more conventional framework. The primacy of the image in the films of these directors as well as the unique formal strategies they employ to create their vivid cinematic worlds result in a much more interesting and, ultimately more rewarding, filmgoing experience. Nor do these alternative aesthetic formulations reduce these pictures to mere formal exercises. The films of Jia Zhang-Ke, for example, use slow-developing narratives, long takes and a visual conception which pays special attention to single evocative images to present the lives of Chinese men and women caught up in an ever-changing post-Communist world in which they are forced to make their way despite the lack of a familiar cultural and political framework. No filmmaker is more attuned to the 21st century global society than Jia, and he is only able to achieve his remarkable presentation of this society through an aesthetic approach which places the focus elsewhere than on traditional narrative development and which forces the viewer to take an active role in the proceedings and to seriously reflect on his own place in the world.

2. "Alright, I get the point already."

Said in reference to a shot held for an uncomfortably long time, no matter how evocative the image being shown. Some recent examples include Tsai Ming-Liang's lingering takes of the movie theater's exterior as it turns off its lights for the last time in Goodbye, Dragon Inn and, from the current New York Film Festival, Béla Tarr's lengthy closeups on Ági Szirtes' face in The Man From London. The problem with this comment is that it misunderstands the nature of the image, as if it only existed to have a single, easily discernible "point" and was included in the film only for the purpose of advancing our understanding of plot or character. This objection, however, is perfectly valid for traditional Hollywood message movies or for the new breed of films (Crash, Babel) which strain for a false significance by assaulting the viewer with an ever changing barrage of images and with trite formulations about the state of our society. We don't have to worry about Alejandro González Iñárritu holding a single image for too long. He knows his images are too poor to warrant such a strategy and is quick to switch to the next one before the viewer can notice.

3. "The film is boring."

In 1965, defending the art of Antonioni and Beckett against this very claim, Susan Sontag wrote, "the charge of boredom is really hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration. And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people." This may sound like a disagreeably elitist attack on conservative middlebrow sensibilities, an attack which blames the audience for their inability to understand an esoteric artistic conception, but in reality it reveals a disturbing unwillingness on most viewers' parts to accept the challenge of a new "cinematic" language and a readiness to reject as boring an approach that they have refused to engage on its own terms. To be sure, many of the "new languages" of the films of the 1950s and '60s have been absorbed into the everyday aesthetics of the 21st-century art-house picture, so middlebrow audiences today have no problem accepting the innovations of an Antonioni or a Godard (at least the Godard of Breathless), but the cinema didn't stop at the end of the '60s. These same people are unwilling to engage the "slow-moving" films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhang-Ke or Béla Tarr, raising the same objections as audiences in the '60s raised to Antonioni and Resnais. What is truly "boring" in cinema are films that assume a tired aesthetic approach, that haven't moved beyond the innovations of 40 years ago and that rely strictly on wholly assimilated cinematic ideas to achieve what minimum of interest they are capable of arousing.

4. "The film is pretentious."

Often said with an air of definitiveness, as if no further comment is needed. Since the film is "pretentious" (so the argument runs), any aesthetic accomplishments it achieves are invalid since they only exist in the service of this supposedly abhorrent but hopelessly abstract quality known as "pretentiousness". The Oxford English dictionary defines "pretentious" as "characterized by, or full of, pretension; professing or making claim to great merit or importance, esp. when unwarranted; making an exaggerated outward show; showy, ostentatious". The primary characteristic of "pretentiousness" then seems to be a contrast between a seemingly significant exterior and an ultimately hollow interior. When applied to a work of art, this judgement assigns a false primacy to the "interior" (which is defined as a work's content) and slights the "exterior" (or form) as a mere adornment. As we have already shown, this is a misapprehension of the nature of art, a judgement which aims to separate form from content and then grant almost exclusive valuation to the latter. The biggest problem with the word "pretentious," however, is that it closes off conversation. The word has come to take on an almost unassailable quality: it represents the ultimate in judgment to which no objections can be raised. "Why didn't you like the film?" "It was pretentious." "Say no more." I would ten times rather a film risked pretentiousness than settled for the usual trite strategies that keep most of the art-house cinema locked into its perpetual rut. Educated viewers love to complain about the declining quality of the cinema. The truth is, hiding behind their dismissive formulations and willing to accept the same unnourishing middlebrow fare as the best the medium has to offer rather than risk being exposed to "pretentiousness," the average viewer is just not seeing the truly excellent work being done in the cinema. The New York Film Festival offers audiences the chance to see the latest features from many of the world's most important filmmakers. If viewers are able to look beyond the Coen Brothers and Sidney Lumet, here is their chance to catch up.


PVLGO said...

I said, good post. Also, that it is clear that these days everything--and I mean everything--seems to be moving faster and faster, which underscores the truly countercultural nature of anything--and I mean anything--that requires our attention for any longer than one or two minutes.

Allison said...

i think i disagreed with almost everything you said in this post, but that cannot be a surprise can it?

narrative filmmaking is hardly arbitrary. one could argue that narrative filmmaking is the descendant of narrative storytelling which has been around for oh let's just say a heck of a long time.

why are you so dismissive of wes anderson? is it because he was on the cover of new york? i honestly don't see anything middlebrow whatsoever in his films. and as much as i disliked "the squid and the whale" there is nothing middlebrow about that film. unless you are equating "narrative filmmaking with a plot" to "middlebrow" which is, to say the least, a generalization of the caliber which you disdain in this post. but that's just my opinion.

andrew schenker said...

It's not so much that Anderson and Baumbach (neither of whom I dislike, by the way)are "middlebrow". It's just that they take attention away from better and more important filmmakers. Although narrative has been around for thousands of years so has non-narrative art, so both are equally valid traditions. Besides there is a difference between a film that relies almost exclusively on its narrative to generate interest, and one that uses narrative as a starting point for greater achievements.

Ittai said...

It appears that according to you, it is the style and that ambiguous "aesthetic" of film that is the measure of its quality. You have thrown out content as an aspect by which we should judge a film and exchanged it for more modern sensibilities- the appreciation of simply watching an image regardless of its implications. Kurosawa, Fellini and Bergman, arguably some of the most important auteurs in cinematic history, would disagree with that focus. While ambiance and a certainly slower pace than we're used to play into their work, they all managed to capture something much more relevant than the "moment" that modern art film so relishes: human truths and the question of our existence. A director who presents us with a slow montage of poignant yet ultimately mundane images might be just as middlebrow as Anderson. Louis Malle, in his disturbing finale to "Lacombe, Lucien" in which we are subject to extremely long shots of Lacombe and a woman interacting without speaking, presents us with something to think about, something to cry about, something to feel deeply about. Perhaps if I hadn't seen so many mediocre films that boast of a refined aesthetic sense while consisting only of a few perplexing, meaningless shots, I wouldn't be as adverse to your opinion. How am I different after viewing a film like that? How am I aware of certain new questions and truths? Middlebrow can be anything, not just narrative film and frankly, Baumbach has more closely approached creating art film than anyone else I've seen in recent months.

andrew schenker said...

The main objective of this post is to expose the language barriers that influence people's thinking in regards to contemporary cinema. If a viewer is unwilling to engage with a film that has unique formal qualities, then that film's content will be entirely lost on the viewer. It is not that I slight "content" so much as that I am adressing the barriers that prevent a viewer from even getting to the point where that content can have any meaning for him. The example of Jia Zhang-ke I cite is a particularly illuminating one. To dismiss him as a mere "aesthetican" as many have done denies the fact that he deals with people caught up in the uncertainty of a global society with no familiar markers to draw on and that he does so more effectively than any other working director. And yet, he employs a unique cinemtic language to achieve these ends, a language (long shots, long takes, lack of traditional character development, and yes, a heavily "aestheticized" visual conception) that allows for the realization of his unique program, but one that cannot be properly understood if a viewer falls back on one of the formulations I discuss in the post. To me, he says a lot more about our world than just about any other filmmaker. Perhaps there are a lot of films that traffic in "perplexing, meaningless" shots, but I think a truly evocative image can not be dismissed so easily. I refuse to believe that there is no merit in a stand alone image, especially taken as an antitode to the uninspired visual programs of such contemporary directors as Sidney Lumet and, yes, Noah Baumbach, whose dimly lit interiors (in Margot and the Wedding) and uninspired hand-held camerawork refuse to offer the viewer any aesthetic liftoff. If the film looks terrible, then it doesn't do a good job of communicating its "new questions and truths." In the end, it's not that I dismiss content, but if a viewer can't engage a film's unique formal strategies, then that content will largely be beside the point.