Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Insidious Strategy: Delayed Revelation Cinema

As a nascent 13-year old cinephile, I was so taken with Peter Weir's Fearless that I immediately declared it the film of the year (a claim that was quickly amended when I caught up with Robert Altman's Short Cuts a few weeks later). Nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for that tale of redemption wrung from heaviest tragedy, with Jeff Bridges as a survivor of a plane crash who walks away from his family responsibilities in an air of perceived invincibility only to be recalled through revelation to the importance of his prior existence. Chief among my enthusiasms was the film's bravura climactic sequence in which Bridges' character, nearly dying from ingesting a strawberry (his lifelong allergy to the fruit, in abeyance since the crash, suddenly returns) relives the circumstances of the tragedy, Weir intercutting between shots of the plane ripping apart and Bridges suffering the torments of his near-fatal reaction. At once aesthetically adventurous, thematically satisfying and emotionally resonant, this bit of "impressionistic montage" as enthusiast Todd McCarthy labeled it, seemed to me then to represent the very peak of cinema.

But not everyone shared my enthusiasm for Weir's showy setpiece. A film-critic friend-of-the-family who had been rather influential in shaping my developing tastes loathed it. "It's so manipulative," she explained. "You know the whole way through that they're going to show the crash at the end. And then when they show it, it's completely overblown." Needless to say, I hadn't known that the entire picture was leading up to that one moment of revelation, so it had taken me quite by surprise. But, while I haven't revisited Weir's film in the 15-year interim and while I'm not particular fond of the term "manipulative" as a critical descriptor - all narrative film plays on its audience's expectations to one degree or another - this critic was quite shrewd in her identification and characterization of a particular mode of narrative structuring.

An increasingly common strategy in what I'll call, as a convenient short-hand, the middle-brow art film, the delayed revelation of past event is a highly problematic approach. This structuring device saves for the film's conclusion the full disclosure - either through dialogue or through visual reenactment - of a formative event in the characters' lives about which the audience knows some, but not all, the details. There are two variations to the approach: in one, which generally relies on dialog, the chief function is the imparting of a key piece of information to the audience. In the other, of which Fearless' ending stands as an example, and which relies wholly on reenactment, the audience already knows most of the factual details about the event and the filmmaker's aim is to wring emotion from the viewer by forcing him to experience the moment of tragedy along with the character.

Both approaches betray an unpleasant degree of arrogance on the filmmaker's part. "Here I've created a situation and a set of characters so fascinating," he seems to be saying, "that all I have to do is withhold this key bit of information and I can string the audience right along until my revelatory conclusion." In theory, such an approach can prove valid - after all, the delayed imparting of information forms the very crux of the mystery genre - but when taken, as it often is, for the structuring principle of an otherwise drab domestic drama, this approach seems less like an essential organizing strategy and more like a bit of haughty presumption about the audience's narrative needs. Ultimately condescending toward their perceived middle-brow viewers, these pictures' endings provide the art-film habitué with the same superficial payoff that the action movie fan gets from a much anticipated explosion or shoot-out, while allowing their supposedly more sophisticated viewers to partake of the simulacra of art. Flattering rather than challenging their audience, these films relieve the viewer of the troubling burden of ambiguity. "Here," they say, "don't worry. All will be revealed. And in a scene of great cinematic artistry, to boot."

While I didn't share the distaste of many of my colleagues for Julian Schnabel's 2007 art-house hit The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - I thought it created a coherent and compelling inner world for its paralyzed protagonist - for me, the ending nearly negated the film's numerous achievements. Rendered immobile after suffering a stroke and retaining movement only in his left eye, former playboy and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby learns to "speak" by blinking his one working organ, eventually dictating a book through this unlikely mode of communication. Partaking of the same narrative strategy as Fearless, Schnabel defers his big dramatic payoff for the film's conclusion. Carefully skirting the circumstances of Bauby's paralysis, the film withholds any information until its final moments, when it offers a comprehensive reconstruction of the event. Schnabel's presentation of the incident is thankfully restrained, but his unwavering faith in the audience's essential curiosity regarding the full details of the paralysis is indicative of his troubling presumptions about his viewer's narrative expectations.

If Diving Bell stands as an archetypal example of the revelation by reenactment approach to delayed exposition, then a more recent film prefers to fill in its audience through dialog. Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long spends most of its running time dancing around the circumstances of its lead character, Juliette's (Kristin Scott Thomas), long ago killing of her 6-year old son for which, 15 years later, she has just been released from prison. Coming to stay with her sister and her family, she initially registers as icy and distant, but gradually warms to her surroundings and successfully builds a new life for herself. As Juliette becomes more acclimated to her post-imprisonment lifestyle, we learn more about her past and come to suspect that her crime must be tempered by extenuating circumstances. But we don't know for sure until the film's concluding sequence when Claudel satisfies the audience's final curiosity in an exchange that plays as a near-fatal misstep in what had been a mostly restrained bit of character-driven drama. Finally confronted by her sister about the exact details of the killing, the formerly self-possessed Juliette gives in to a bout of hysterical screaming (showing too the "range" of Oscar-hopeful Thomas' abilities) before explaining the painful and fatal disease that her son had been suffering from, thus recasting murder as generous act of euthanasia and obliterating our last doubts about her character.

But if Claudel miscalculates by withholding a bit of information that we've already suspected and that wasn't really too interesting to begin with and then revealing it in a moment of overheated revelation, he may betray a certain distrust of his viewer, but he's hardly alone in his approach. As I learned back in 1993 and I've been reminded every year since, when a filmmaker - whether low-brow genre director or art-house maven - has no respect for his audience, he falls back on certain strategies for making sure the viewer gets his point. Delayed revelation may be among the more insidious of these strategies, flattering the viewer even as it insults him, but it allows the filmmaker to have it both ways: he ensures himself that the audience doesn't miss a key bit of information and makes a virtue out of this spoonfeeding by tarting it up in sufficiently fancy dress. But don't confuse the simulacra with the real thing: any film deserving the name of art, whether a B-picture by Edgar Ulmer or a high-flown masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, demands that the viewer meet it squarely on its own precise terms.


Fernando F. Croce said...

Right on the money, Andrew. I've been noticing plenty of "spoon-feeding" in theaters lately as I catch up with several of the Oscar hopefuls. Terrific piece.

andrew schenker said...

Thanks, Fernando. I've yet to catch up with too many of the Oscar hopefuls, but am dreading doing so for that precise reason. At least they can't be worse than The Changeling.

andrew schenker said...

That should be "Changeling". No "the".

Mr. Milich said...

Gee. I never knew CITIZEN KANE was considered middle-brow art...

andrew schenker said...

I don't believe I said it was. Citizen Kane may use a similar organizational principle to films like Diving Bell and I've Loved You So Long as well as that of any number of mystery or police procedural films, but the use it makes of that strategy is entirely different. For one thing, Citizen Kane's ending doesn't purport to explain everything. Rosebud may give us a hint at a certain aspect of Kane's character, but it really doesn't go very far in illuminating the inner workings of the man. Far from the closed-off final statements offered by the films discussed in the piece, Kane's ending explicitly resists that kind of definitive summing-up.

Mr. Milich said...

It's exactly the same concept at play in Kane. The point of Kane, the MacGuffin, so to speak, is Rosebud. Who or what is Rosebud? The reporter's job is to find that out -- under the assumption that it'll be a clue into who Kane was. The whole movie is built upon it, and in the end, Rosebud is revealed to great effect.

I don't think there's anything wrong with reveal-based narratives. In a sense, could The Wizard of Oz be considered that? Or Psycho? Or Jacob's Ladder? Or Once Upon A Time In the West? Or The Good Shepherd? Or Barton Fink? Or even a movie like Elephant, which loops around to the eventual violence? Or even now Milk?

It's a perfectly legitimate narrative strategy. Some people do it better than others. To me, the worst strategy at play right now is the removal of all music in certain "art films." No score. Not even diegetic music. As if this is somehow profoundly realistic.

There are plenty of types of movies. Better to judge each movie on its own merits than to become political or biased in what you think is good or bad based on generalizations.

andrew schenker said...

Yes, of course a particular narrative strategy isn't inherently good or bad, but that's not what I'm arguing. I'm outlining a particular tendency in the employment of a single strategy that, as I've noticed its usage in several films, tends to lead to a condescending simplification. In Citizen Kane, the pursuit of Rosebud is an organizing principle, but, for the film's audience, it does not become a definitive end in itself. The point is that Welles' reveal doesn't really reveal that much and certainly doesn't close off our understanding of the central character. "I don't think a man's life can be summed up in a single word," says the reporter (and clearly neither does Welles). The tendency I've been noticing in certain films is in fact to use this delayed revelation to bring about some sort of definitive closure and to allow the audience to feel as if everything's been safely resolved. They can then leave the theater without the trouble of any lingering ambiguities.

I don't think the decision of certain directors to not include a score is meant to make their films more "realistic" than pictures that do have a score. The strategy is often based on a refusal to use music to dictate the audience's response. In a way this approach is far more respectful of the viewer than the employment of delayed revelation as employed by such directors as Schnabel and Claudel.

Alejandro Adams said...

I agree that Kane doesn't exemplify the quality being scrutinized above, specifically as manifested in Fearless and Diving Bell.

Another good point for analysis and grouping is the placement of the reveal/re-enactment. Is it part of the denouement? Or does it come after the resolution of the present-tense plot? I.e., is it positioned within narrative time? When positioned above narrative time, the intention is flamboyantly poetic instead of pragmatically Scooby-Doo. Either variation can be successful or painfully awkward (I wish Tell No One had ended fifteen minutes earlier--a damn near perfect film).

Incidentally, Mr. Milich's remark about the absence of music in some recent films proves that the best way to refute one generalization is to promote another. (Full disclosure: I have a hard time hearing movie music unironically.)

I enjoyed this post immensely, Andrew. Delineating trends is one of the critic's more difficult tasks. Not only does it require vast perspective and meticulous consideration, but it naturally invites hostility from viewers/critics who have affection for any individual work which has been tossed into the mass grave.

andrew schenker said...

Thanks, Alejandro

That's indeed an interesting distinction you make between placement of the revelation in the film's denouement versus after the narrative resolution. Of the three films I've discussed, I've Loved You So Long clearly belongs to the former approach, The Diving Bell to the latter. The re-enactment in Fearless, if I recall correctly, comes at the denouement of that film, but it plays very much like the ending of Diving Bell. Clearly both Weir and Schnabel's films aim for "the poetic" over "the pragmatic". Not quite what sure to make of these distinctions but, as you note, either approach can be successful or disastrous. It depends on how it's handled.

Mr. Milich said...

In the case of Fearless and Diving Bell, I don't think the issue is that they're narratives based upon the reveal, it's that they both rely on non-linear structures.

More often than not, non-linear narratives weave their way to a dramatic revelation. It could be Reservoir Dogs or it could be The Sweet Hereafter.

It's not that they lack ambiguity, it's simply that they've saved an event that might normally appear at the beginning of a story for the ending. Essentially, the viewer is toured through the aftermath, then allowed to see how it all began.

If anything, perhaps you're arguing against the structural concept of using beginnings as endings...