This Thing I Need to Say about Film & Then I am Done

 – Falconetti in La Passione de Jeanne d’Arc

When it comes to jazz I am hopelessly tone-deaf, I understand it only as an absence of sensation.  Were I to rigorously devote myself perhaps I could, given enough time, feel it in my bones the way it is intended.  Or maybe it is a hardware issue beyond me to remedy, I don’t know.  I can accept that we may not all be wired the same way, and when it comes to aesthetics there are inevitable impasses.

I wish to write about a fugitive aspect of cinema that goes mostly unspoken in reviews and reduced to verbiage in academic papers.  It is sort of formless, messy, and brings with it nothing but shame and feelings of inadequacy to those who try to naïvely ensnare it with words; it seems unspoken for a reason, because it bears out its meaning like a zen koan: to point at it is not to capture it.  However, I am stubborn and frustrated with conversations I have had regarding the virtues of cinema that I shall go through with this stupid task.  The tone-deaf may read on blankly or click away.

In the final minutes of the behind-the-scenes documentary of the Criterion version of Soderbergh’s Che, the director laments the state of the modern day cinema-going experience: “There is no illumination anymore, people see a film and five minutes later they are preoccupied with where they are going to eat”. The issue lies squarely with the audience, not the product. The jazz is there, I just can’t hear it, and likewise the illuminations are there, but some of us can’t adequately experience them. I agree with this sentiment.  Differences of taste occur, and I am not here to deny them, but there is something to be said for a mutual foundational understanding of what modes of experience may be read within the frame, whether you like them or not. Taste ought not to trump experience, it shouldn’t blind one of the modes of experience available to a particular captured moment. I am not so clever that I can erase what Che involves in its presentation by writing a particular nasty review opposed to it; its resistance to conventions of biographical storytelling and its languid preoccupation with the lived-in moments of the protagonist’s life is not up to a matter of taste but palpable to anyone who has the faintest grasp of what came before. The stimuli for illumination is there just like the jazz notes are there, it is not a lack of examples, and therefore not a lacking in cinema, but of the character of those who gravitate to it.

So what is this alternative way through which cinema may be experienced?  Simply put: patiently, one frame at a time.  As viewers we have grown into the habit of privileging the aggregate meanings of a film over, and to the disregard of, the immediate.  We scarcely have a terminology for the micro-bursts of illumination, but we have libraries full of tomes written on their ciphers.

Here of course, I play to my strength, my own eccentricity: in all art I privilege the human over the abstract.  An idea is once removed from the person, I prefer the intimacy of the person over his conceits, no matter how cunning they might be.  All sorts of things stand in for meaning in the visual arena of movies: landscapes, allegories, animation, an unfiltered preoccupation with the ecstatic truth in images that drives Herzog to create, for example, the opening shot of Aguirre; the pursuit of the beautiful and the sublime in images, images as flattened vistas, the person dematerializing into whatever the image evokes and for whatever contextual purpose it serves; add too, the production value intrigue, the people as actors, the room as a set, the film as a consumer good.  There are so many equally valid ways to both create a film and value it.  This post is about my particular preference, something I have come to recognize in the books and music I most enjoy, and especially in the films.

At the core of my defense (or declaration) of a way to value film is a crucial distinction between meaning that is enacted and that which is embodied.  To serve as analogy, think of Chris Marker’s La jetée: a film comprised of still photographs punctured by one glorious moment of life when the protagonist’s sensation of love is so strong it disrupts the pattern, thus accelerating the speed of the frames to give the illusion of motion, and of the embodied human.Marker made the point emphatic, you can’t miss it there, but the same kind of marvels occur in films whose frame speed remain unperturbed if you are open to the experiences.  Tucked away in the crevices of films are such embodied furtive glances of the human that due to proportionality rarely make for satisfying study, and hardly make a dent in a review. They are no less important.  They appear to call back to a primal human instinct: as children we attentively watched our parents’ cues as to how to behave; no pressing need to classify or articulate what we did, it just flowed naturally.  A survival mechanism, perhaps, but no less aesthetic because of it. That delight in observation continues with the onscreen stimuli, the sensation that the filmed do not know they are being watched as themselves, they are exposed beneath the enacted as something potentially embodied; they act towards something but possess far more.

This voyeuristic aspect of cinema may be benign on the surface, for example, in Van Sant’s Gerry, watching two people do nothing but walk for the duration of the film.  As voyeurism goes, cinema has a benefit over the everyday, both because it is a construct and because the viewer is (usually) not in danger of being reprimanded for this gawking (think Sex Lies and Videotape, for example).  What I can get from this one way exchange is distinct enough from reality to warrant that something like Gerry (not even mentioning the exhaustion were I to actually follow these people) can exist only in the movies; it is a special privilege.  Even in the narrative desert that is Gerry, and perhaps because of it, moments of great illumination can spring whose meaning is greater than the whole, greater than the stacks of papers about the whole… meaning out of all proportion.

Certain films ask little of the viewer, and patterns are recognized and do not need to go any further.  When we relinquish the narrative and can see people for the multitudes they possess, something intimate and beautiful can occur.  Which of course brings up its own set of problems, the overemphasis of the literary in understanding a film or a scene, to the oversight of what may be most meaningful by design or by accident.  There is more than one way to read a film, and experience it. Experience and understanding need not be distinct, it’s a false dichotomy, a grammatical error.  The scene is not a paragraph that can be reductively cross-examined, it is a flurry of sensations at its best. When part of the image is the raw person and whether through artifice or happenstance, an embodied truth finds its way into the mix that experience flashes and in doing so becomes understood.

So much of our social lives are made up of enacting parts and it is perhaps with this merciless repetition that I cease to be as enthusiastic as others by the heightening of characterization into ciphers to befit plot and iconography; The Maltese Falcon is twice removed from what I care about, like the digitally distorted electronic music where no voice quivers. The human has been layered over. Ideas appeal to an intellectual satisfaction, granted with merited value but qualitatively different.   They do require a dichotomy between understanding and experiencing. It is a sign of a hyper-socialized animal that it privileges modes of experience that require external authentication over those that are immediate, quasi-mystical and fleeting; burying what makes us who we are, not of even recognizing the flashes as they occur for what they are, what value they possess; if you can’t count it, weigh it, cite it, it’s like it never existed.

Perhaps my best example of what I mean by the embodied is a personal favorite documentary, Dont Look Back.  So much of the rhetoric of documentaries revolve around this concept of ‘what is truth?’, and more often than not, see no further than the scene or the film as a whole.  There are truths, incidental and undeclared, that exist like bubbles rising to the surface, outside of narrative and the pull of an edited choice. Dont Look Back has a deliberate distortion of continuity, and though at times subtle, this is a clear reframing of the events to imply some effect.  Jump cuts are used like dropped frames evoking Dylan’s perpetually high state and are occasionally used to inject commentary, i.e. the grand beauty of Dylan rehearsing on a piano alone is effaced by a cut to fans vulturing him mid-plea. There is an argument being made, no doubt.  But in the case of micro-effects, the tacit awareness of what is onscreen cross-referenced with your own lived-in cache of experiences is not bound by narrative but by recognition of behavior. Narrative tends to presume continuity like a neatly paved road over the images that exist, so that you cannot respond to them without this blockade intruding. The fallacy is in this notion of continuity, as if there is a fixed narrative in a split second of film that can be forever linked to authorial intent. Each moment contains its own possibilities for recognition; if there is pavement, it’s cracked, and no more cracked than in Dont Look Back which blossoms defiantly with these small moments.

It is this fugitive quality, more so than any particular argument of the filmmaker, or the critics that hound him, that give the documentary its essential vitality.  The incidentals of the photographic image, the micro-effects of human behavior in-situ, a collection of tics and eccentricities, all too often perceived as shadows or blemishes to be squinted away en route to the familiar, these rogue characteristics exist outside of narrative, history, socio-cultural relevance, and musicology and at times defy even language.  The persona of Dylan at the center of it, who like an unstoppable black hole wrenching from his interlocutors and, indeed, the audience, any semblance of static familiarity, spurs the rogueries further, the minor upsets of naked human emotions and specks of unrehearsed life left in his wake spread and multiply.  It is hard to see a Dylan outside of the flash bulb blaze, hard to see anything as embodied life outside it own narrative, but the composite record of Dylan of Dont Look Back is a brick in the face of that kind of habit.

While my focus is on the pre-ciphered embodied moments of film, there has been examples of filmmakers adeptly aware of this very thing and who appear to deliberately enhance this aspect to the detriment of all else. Many watch these films and categorize them as ‘lyrical’ without proper reverence for the idea, only to reform this quality within a new analytical framework of discussion.  Gus Van Sant’s “Life” trilogy, Gerry, Elephant and Last Days all seem to possess a quality I call, for lack of a better term, tacit cinema.  The tacit layer requires a certain minimum requirement of self-awareness, of consciousness that, I admit, is by no means a universal trait. Still among a number of our peers, so-called lovers of art, connoisseurs of the arcane, this minimum requirement ought to be met. I would not populate the jazz clubs and fetishize the culture if I did not have the capacity to ‘read’ the music, the way I am speaking of one reading the images.

I am only vaguely aware of the writings of André Bazin, but in this notion of ‘tacit cinema’ I am allying myself with his ideas of ‘the ontology of cinema’, at least in the respect that I too see the value inherent in cinema to capture (or as he puts it ‘mummify’) a lived moment through a inanimate object which lacks the subjective bias inherent to the craft of painters and writers.  We are by nature, tacit viewers, for example, when we engage in conversation we react not merely to what is being said but to that which is comprehensible tacitly, from the quirks of language, the physiognomy of the players. So it is in our film viewing: how often our comprehension of the events onscreen are sidetracked by tacit awareness of, for example, the actors playing parts, the significance of their relationships off-screen, an intimate knowledge of love or sex. A prime example in Last Days – and one I believe Van Sant consciously orchestrated as director – was to have Kim Gordon play against the onscreen persona of Kurt Cobain in his final days before the suicide, and know that she really knew Kurt and really was a good friend of his, and in her ‘performance’ asking him to please get help, it was not just some character asking Blake to get help but was Kim Gordon, emotionally distraught, attempting to save the real Kurt as part of the acting process.  Another example from Last Days is the long shot of Blake sliding down an incline, taking his clothes off, wading into cold water beside a waterfall, swimming to the other side, and then urinating into the water. What significance does that have with anything, if not only to stimulate our knowledge of the bodily sensations related to that activity? The analytic would wonder what is the point, how does it propel the plot, how can you film for five minutes or so such a mundane activity, but it is not mundane in the tacit dimension of it, were you open to that kind of voyeuristic experience of the scene.

By tacit cinema I do not mean merely documented life, cinema verité or the like, for as the above example indicates it is not about that level and that level alone of verisimilitude, rather it is about appreciating the tacit dimension to the viewing experience and manipulating that entirely, mashing both documentary characteristics with staged, with the sole purpose of elevating that tacit connection to the work.  Neither is it lyrical filmmaking, or pure cinema in the Hitchcockian sense, as these sorts of things can exist without the required revelry of the tacit dimension of the images; for example, Hitchcock used the power of the image to dictate a desired narrative effect, whereas ‘tacit cinema’ is one which desires no particular narrative effect other then the bountifulness of connections to be wrought from a scene, so to have an emotive impetus rather than an intelligible one.  I suppose a comparison could be made to the Impressionist movement, which to analytics bore the sign of frivolity, yet which to those apologists saw the potential for the subjective to spread its wings. With Van Sant’s trilogy the value is not the sum of its parts, and not easily discernible by merely denoting the techniques used, as some have done referring to his ‘elliptical style’ of editing, which I consider a secondary device to the nuance he works out in any given scene. The value is in the lingering, the meditative impulse at the heart of the work which demands from the viewer to relearn the art of watching.

A more recent example of this movement is Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy.  In American independent cinema lately, a kind of reductive naturalism has caught fire, resting its gaze upon people and places on the fringe of American society with nary a plot or aesthetic agenda to justify its output.  These films are reminiscent in part of their European counterparts, in style the Dogme movement, in spirit the social dramas of Mike Leigh and the Dardennes brothers, but like most things American, they feel born anew.

Wendy and Lucy has a disposable grandeur to it, of being immediate and uncluttered, like a well-crafted haiku.  With such a film not even the label verité realism aptly captures just how reductive its ambitions are: there is little sense of production or editorial motivation, you are left with nothing to grab hold of critically, the analytical mind feels stymied.  The story operates in the spaces usually cut out in transitions: the maneuvering from point to point, bus rides and walking, the idleness of a day in waiting.  Things occasionally happen to our heroine, Wendy, a down-on-her-luck waif stranded in Oregon, and her canine companion, Lucy, but to rely on these happenings for meaning is to kind of miss what is so special about this film.  The point rather is the make of her car, the grass tufts breaking through the sidewalk, the back alleys, the outdated vending machines, the sterile rooms, the collective disinterest of strangers, and the scent of an Oregon morning.  Denying you the usual attachments, fighting against all framing devices of meaning, until what is left is just being. You either engage with that ‘just being’ or you are bored to death, but it is not going to spoon feed you why it’s there, what it’s doing. It’s not going to pander for your rating. It’s not going to aspire for posterity. It’s just going to exist as long as the film exists. Even Van Sant’s prolonged Gerry is pushing for something else, something transcendent, but I think Wendy and Lucy is ultimately about something terrestrial, plainly, a girl and her dog.  That is tacit cinema, and also a celebration of the embodied.

The embodied need not be this dogmatically defined so as to suggest a school.  It is a fugitive ingredient that may show up anywhere.  Our problem is a lack of vocabulary to acknowledge the embodied as something above and beyond any rote confines that groupthink depends on.  Soderbergh’s ‘illumination’ is at loggerheads with modern blog-minded audiences; in their enthusiasm they have excised the soul and fetishized the body. It may be through no direct fault, intimacy bodes poorly in group dynamics (unless it is a support group).  The illumination is revealed in the darkened corners of personal blogs, if at all recorded.  The poetic is not up for debate.  We can map it, declare it, praise it, but the thread dies.  Thankfully, there is grit in the crevices of iconography, and  I celebrate these imperfections that allow me the opportunity to daydream each film into being.