This is the story of the end of an era. For 100 years, movies had been shot on this – celluloid. Paper-thin, shiny, perforated. A medium so sensitive it could capture the subtle colors in snow. But in the ’90s, the digital image and Terminator 2 came and reality got less real. In these last days before that happened, as if to stave off the moment when the link between reality and movies would finally be broken, filmmakers around the world made passionate movies about emotions not spaceships or other worlds.
In this first of two episodes devoted to the 1990s, Cousins highlights the humanist dramas and insistence on realism that characterize a lot of non-American film in the 1990s. According to Cousins’ interview with Robert Osborne, the ’20s and the ’90s are his two favorite eras, because of the great diversity and innovation found there. Of course, he’s talking about anything but mainstream Hollywood cinema in the ’90s, which were, as Robert pointed out, full of remakes and formula films. Instead, this episode will take us to Iran, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, and France, while Episode 14 will focus on the American independents like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers.
Chapter 13 is more polemical than most of the episodes in its fierce defense of filmmakers using film (the actual medium) to capture human themes, which Cousins continually contrasts to the digital revolution on the horizon. He is so tied to this theme that it makes for some really weird comparisons, including a repeated offhanded vitriol toward The Lord of the Rings movies. Even though I appreciate the films he’s talking about here and am really interested in seeing many of them, his apparent hatred of hobbits and the fantasy cinema they stand in for makes this episode a little repellant to those of us who rather like some fantasy films mixed in with our human dramas.
It’s also interesting that with all his railing about how CGI has moved us away from reality, he implicitly highlights how Iranian cinema at this time blurred the line between film and reality, focusing on films by Samira and Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami that involve reenactments of real events, sometimes with real people playing themselves, other times with actors playing real people in a documentary-style film – “doubling back over real life” as Cousins calls it. This is fascinating, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the Iranian cinema I’ve managed to see over the past few years, I haven’t gone back to see any earlier Iranian films and I’m inspired to do so now, for sure. I was especially intrigued by the Kiarostami trilogy of sorts starting with Where is the Friend’s House (which played on TCM along with this episode) that continually revisited actors and events from the previous films, building new films out of them, doubling and tripling back over real life. The only Kiarostami film I’ve seen is Certified Copy (which leaped into my all time Top 100 for a while, I loved it so much), and it’s pretty obvious I need to see a lot more.
Moving on to Hong Kong and Taiwan, he covers Wong Kar Wai, whose films are “of such texture that they seemed to be celebrating celluloid itself.” Wong is another filmmaker whose films I love, but I’ve only seen three or four. In Taiwan, Cousins talks about Hou Hsiao-hsien, who traces influence back to Ozu and his classicism (I’d still love to hear an actual definition of what Cousins means by “classical” – is he using it the same way music/literary/art historians do, in referring to 17th century works?), and Tsai Ming-liang, who brought a strongly humanist bent, focusing on human emotion and the human form. Cousins does take a particularly cheap shot at digital cinema in this section, saying that Avatar was on the horizon but Tsai focuses on the reality of the human body. Avatar came out FIFTEEN YEARS after the Tsai film Cousins highlights. It’s a fairly ridiculous comparison even if they’d come out the same year, but fifteen years apart, and it’s simply ludicrous.
Japan in the ’90s was dominated by horror, and such distinctive horror that it earned the term J-horror, which is still widely used today. Tetsuo examines in stark and stylized black and white what happens when an ordinary man finds himself turning into metal – it’s body horror crossed with a fear of technology that precursors other J-horror tropes, like Ringu, which makes home video a terrifying transmitter of death. Most American audiences will be familiar with these films through the glut of American remakes (The Ring, Pulse, etc.), but the Japanese ones have an eeriness that the American ones can’t touch. It would’ve been interesting to have included some anime in this section, as several of them (like Akira or Ghost in the Shell) also deal with similar themes of disembodiment and technology gone amok.
We go from horror to stark reality in Denmark, with Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and the Dogme 95 manifesto, which posited that cinema must become primitive again – no sets, no tripods, no widescreen, no props, no non-diagetic music, no added lighting, no flashbacks or narrative tricks, shot on real locations, etc. I haven’t seen any Vinterberg films to know, but von Trier certainly didn’t really stick to the Dogme rules for long if at all. His films are powerful and raw, and I guess to some degree the earlier ones do some of these things (Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are shot pretty flat without fancy lighting; Dogville eschews sets), but by and large they come off as highly stylized rather than realistic. When von Trier sluffs off a comparison Cousins makes to Godard (in light of ignoring traditional continuity editing and the 180 degree rule), saying that Godard did things like that to be stylized rather than to be real, he’s pretty much full of it, I think. That said, I do think von Trier gets at more real, deep emotion than Godard does, but his form is still often very stylized. And certainly after Antichrist and Melancholia, style is key. I still think von Trier is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, whether he actually does what he says he does or not. Back to Dogme, just in case we forgot his false dichotomy, Cousins says “in the days before hobbits and wizards, the Dogme films showed human nature, warts and all.” You know what? Tolkein showed plenty about human nature. The best fantasy always does. Give it a rest.
Apparently French directors at the time also hated fantasy cinema according to Cousins, reacting against it with films about class and race, showing housing project and working class France in films like La Haine and the films of Belgian directors the Dardennes brothers, as well as the Franco-African cinema of Claire Denis. I didn’t realize she was born in African before watching this. That actually makes me more interested to see films of hers like White Material. In the previous episode, we watched Luc Besson and Leos Carax take French cinema into the hyperreal, a kinetic and glossy version of French cinema that didn’t stop in the ’90s to make way for these films about disenfranchised France. Cousins is picking and choosing a bit here to support his thesis.
Finishing things off by turning the camera back on the audience is Michael Haneke with his 1997 film Funny Games (he remade it ten years later in the United States), which implicates the audience in its story of two home invaders who terrorize a family for no reason. Cousins suggests the film is about the idea that human beings are becoming unreal, that violence breaks out because we no longer connect with the humanity in others. When one of the home invaders is killed, the other finds a remote control and rewinds the actual film we’re watching, leading Cousins into his sum-up statement – the spell of cinema is broken. We can no longer look at it as if it’s real – the things on screen will soon be avatars or Harry Potter or Neo or hobbits. Literally his words.
Here’s the thing. I know Cousins is not a fan of mainstream cinema, and that’s okay. I’m not surprised that he prefers films like the ones in this episode to big-budget CGI-laden fantasy films. But he’s somehow a lot more vitriolic here even than he usually is against mainstream cinema, as if hobbits have somehow singlehandedly destroyed everything good and human about cinema. But there is still a tradition of pared down, realistic films running up to the present day, coexisting with the effects-heavy fantasy films. They may not win the box office, but really, did Tsai Ming-liang’s films make a big splash in the international box office in the 1990s? Probably not. Meanwhile, fantasy cinema, digital or not, was alive and well in the 1990s – it’s all those films that Robert Osbourne brought up in the opening interview and Cousins dismissed with a simple “mainstream Hollywood isn’t where it’s at in ’90s.” Maybe not, but Cousins is making this into a zero sum game, seeming to argue that this type of cinema was wholly supplanted by fantasy cinema and pitting the realistic international films of the 1990s against the fantasy mainstream films of the 2000s, which is a stretch. I actually quite like Cousins’ thematic linking of films in this episode, tracing an interest in reality, the borders of reality, and the depiction of the human body in films of this time, but that would’ve stood just fine on its own without taking potshots at fantasy films. Next episode is the American independents – we’ll see how Tarantino and the Coens fare with Cousins.