Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Borrowed Endings: On Allusion and Appropriation in the Cinema

Since at least as far back as the Nouvelle Vague, filmmakers have been making ample use of quotations from other films, calling on the medium's history not only as a reservoir from which to draw stylistic and thematic inspiration, but as a source for more specific allusions as well. These allusions can serve many purposes from, at the most basic level, simply paying tribute to a favorite film (the Tarantino tactic), to commenting on a genre or mode of filmmaking practice, or confirming the continuity of film history. At its best, this approach can take on the complexity and seriousness of purpose of the best film criticism, but even when falling short of such lofty aims, it often rewards attentive viewers by drawing useful parallels between a more recent work and a cinematic touchstone. (Contemporary example: the men throwing bottles at Solo's cab in Goodbye Solo makes reference to a similar scene in Taxi Driver, Ramin Bahrani calling on the racial subtext in Scorsese's film to comment on William's own attitudes toward his black driver.)

These quotations typically serve a relatively minor role when seen in the context of the larger film; even movies built on a system of allusion - like many of Godard's - generally achieve their effect by accumulating a catalogue of references rather than centering the work around a single instance. But some filmmakers have taken things a step further, not simply referencing another film, but lifting wholesale that work's climactic sequence and then using that sequence to conclude their own film. In his 1980 picture American Gigolo, Paul Schrader infamously copped the ending to Bresson's Pickpocket, quoting the earlier work's famous final line, "Oh Jeanne, what a strange road I had to take to find you" (changed only to reflect the differences in the women's names), and jailhouse setting to suggest a similar redemption for its own lead character. But in Schrader's film this redemption rings false. By relying on the jarring, incongruous introduction of Bresson's dialogue to carry the weight of Julian's transformation, the filmmaker overestimates the ability of allusion to paper over his film's own deficiencies. In this failed effort at appropriation, the Pickpocket reference serves only to point up the superiority of the earlier film.

While this wholesale quotation of a classic film's ending may seem an unforgivable presumption on the part of a filmmaker, in theory there's no reason why a movie couldn't benefit from such a device, provided the work was strong enough in its own right that it wasn't forced to rely on the appropriation for the bulk of its meaning. But despite the great difficulty of pulling off such an approach, it does seem to exert a certain hold on the imagination of contemporary filmmakers, at least when we look at the evidence of two recent films, Christian Petzold's Yella and Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, both of which structure their conclusions around content lifted from earlier works and both of which seem to place too much responsibility on their allusive strategies to put across the film's final meaning.

Petzold's film, whose ending derives from Herk Harvey's 1962 horror classic Carnival of Souls, probably achieves the more successful appropriation, but even here the suddenness of the quotation and the retrospective understanding it casts on what we've previously seen feels a little overburdening. But at least Yella, despite its surface dissimilarities to Harvey's movie, displays a tonal affinity for the earlier work, which makes its choice of reference seem somewhat logical. In Petzold's film, a young woman (the titular Yella) fleeing an abusive and suddenly penniless husband in the former East Germany makes her way west toward Hanover in order to start a new job. Unwisely accepting a ride to the train station from her spouse, the car winds up in a river after the man flips out and drives off a bridge. Seemingly surviving the crash, Yella gets up, boards her train and travels to Hanover only to discover her boss has been fired and her job no longer exists. Befriending a businessman she meets, she then becomes his assistant, accompanying him as he negotiates morally dubious takeovers, excelling in her new role and eventually becoming the man's lover.

As Petzold films it, Hanover registers as an eerily depopulated world of steel and glass structures where no one but the principal characters in a given scene is ever glimpsed. As in Harvey's film, where another young woman takes a new job in a new town, Yella evokes an atmosphere of quiet menace, a vaguely unsettling aura where the viewer is never allowed to feel quite comfortable. This sense of unease is further intensified through a series of scenes which suggest the mental instability of the lead character with Petzold crafting a subjective sound design - filled with high pitched tones, the sounds of water and wind - to mirror Yella's slippery sense of self.

But despite the director's success in building atmosphere, Yella can't help but feel a tad slight. Intentionally downplaying the presentation of character and narrative, Petzold leaves us with a rather simple statement about German capitalism and East-West relations and a certain icy elegance, but little else besides. So when we get to the twist ending and we find - as in Carnival of Souls - that the character actually died in the crash and the bulk of the film's narrative occurred only - where exactly? in the character's head, in some form of afterlife? - it does little to deepen our understanding of what's come before. When, in Harvey's film, the main character is fished out of the river, the revelation goes some way toward defining the liminal space in which the rest of the film transpired. But in Yella it seems oddly ineffective, a jarring narrative shift that, while in keeping with the eerie atmosphere of the film's setting, registers as little more than a belated attempt to add some retrospective significance to what amounts to a pretty thin piece of work.

Most of the appeal of Carlos Reygadas' 2007 Cannes hit Silent Light lies in the film's stunning visuals and its sophisticated sound mix. But unlike the film's model, Carl Theodor Dreyer's equally striking but comparatively restrained Ordet, the more recent film aims to overwhelm with the sheer splendor of its aesthetic design. And overwhelm it does: the film's bookending establishing shots, a slow pan down from a starry sky to a barren field, time-lapsing from night to an impossibly sun-streaked day in the opener, the same process in reverse for the conclusion, are ravishing, but they're merely the tip of the aesthetic iceberg. Everything from the grand splendor-of-nature visual set-pieces to the picking out of intimate details - a bead of sweat on a post-coital face - to routine stagings around the breakfast table is perfectly calculated for effect, the unerring eye of Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe taking in the sublime and the mundane with equal precision. And the aural design is equally impressive, the filmmakers isolating each individual sound against a generally silent backdrop, bringing to the front of the audio mix the banal thud of footsteps or the bleating of barnyard animals as the situation requires.

But for all the care Reygadas takes in establishing his aesthetic program, his presentation of narrative and character remain, like those of Petzold, too diffuse to be effective. Set in a reclusive Mennonite community in Mexico, the film centers on the crisis experienced by Johan, a married man in love with another woman who, despite coming clean with his wife, is beset by guilt and sadness, feelings no doubt exacerbated by his strict religious adherence. Johan's struggle is hashed out through a series of largely inarticulate dialogues and an unconvincing crying bout in the film's first scene, but Reygadas seems little interested in engaging fully with the man's emotional crisis nor in exploring the ramifications of an unquestioned faith suddenly confronted with the realities of life. Instead we get a lot of pretty shots framing the impassive protagonist against an indifferent, if lovely, nature and a narrative that stretches on past the breaking point.

So perhaps that's why Reygadas' appropriation of Dreyer's ending seems like such a miscalculation. As in Ordet, Silent Light's matriarch dies only to be magically restored to life. But in the Danish film the director has prepared us for such a bold gesture, crafting his narrative as an inquiry into the role of both faith and organized religion in the lives of his characters that, despite its skepticism, nonetheless maintains the possibility of a divine presence. So when Johannes, calling on the pure faith of a young girl, restores his brother's dead wife to consciousness, it's a shocking moment, but one that never feels out of keeping with the rest of the work and one that, thanks to Dreyer's layered presentation of character, registers with a devastating emotional force.

In Silent Light, however, the same sequence - and Reygadas films his resurrection very like Dreyer, situating the coffin in the middle of a similarly neutral, "spiritualized" space - seems like so much puffery. Lacking Ordet's emotional buildup and without a sufficient exploration of what faith might mean in the compromising context in which the film's characters live, Silent Light's introduction of the miraculous comes off as little more than an empty gesture, a failed attempt to poach some of the significance of a considerably more accomplished film. That the same could be said of most films that appropriate the ending of an another work illustrates the difficulty of successfully incorporating wholesale quotation - especially when drawing on such an iconic screen moment as Reygadas does - but that doesn't mean that it can't or that it shouldn't be done. Still, it's clear that any filmmaker brave enough to make the attempt needs, at the very least, to rethink the approach of his precursors.


My review of Lymelife has been posted at Slant Magazine.


gina said...

This is a really nice piece!

Chet Mellema said...

Good work, Andrew. I still read almost all of your stuff and I enjoyed this post a great deal. Maybe I'm a sucker for film quotes of the type you analyzed and have felt a critical approach to quoting was long overdue...who knows. I'm curious as to how long you've been thinking about this topic. Clearly quotations -- the examples you chose served the post quite well -- crop up all the time. Were there others you considered taking a look at in the essay?

andrew schenker said...

Thanks Gina and Chet.

Chet, I generally appreciate film quotations, but in the two examples I looked at, I felt that the directors relied on the quoted films to do too much of the work: in the Petzold to bring about the(unncessary?) narrative twist, in the Reygadas to add some spiritual heft to a project that seemed mostly surface-level.

I hadn't really considered any other films for discussion. I'd been struck by the wholesale appropriations in American Gigolo and Silent Light, but the idea really didn't come together until I caught up with Yella, which is when I decided to write the piece.

Certainly the strategy I discussed in the piece could give rise to some positive applications - I just haven't seen it yet. If you've got any examples, I'd love to hear them.