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The Navigators by Ken Loach
Ken Loach directs a profoundly moving and grounded segment in the film Tickets. After seeing that I needed to see more. Here’s a director somewhat like Mike Leigh, or perhaps the Dardennes brothers, but his cinema verite is wholly thematic and topical, if not political also. The Navigators is told in doc style and features the travails or railmen in the UK, laying track while privatization rolls right over them. Loach is keen on telling a somewhat Marxist tale, but he allows it all to manifest itself in the dialog, the situations, events, and conflicts that form the fabric of his characters’ relationships. The message, to the degree that it’s there, is unnecessary.
But it’s there. And this is what makes the film compelling. Loach reveals the social conflict, the crushing and impersonal demands of the privatization of a small band of railway maintenance workers, through the confrontations it creates among friends. He shows us how privatization results in work that is now farther from its origins, perhaps more profitable but more dangerous and less effective than it was in its more pure state. It’s like social relationships in the age of their mechanical reproduction (Walter Benjamin).
What Loach films is true. Authentic. It gains in sincerity for what it jettisons in style. The Navigators was utterly engrossing. I highly recommend it. (then see Tickets)
The film is beautiful, of varied beauty, three times beauty. Each of the three time periods, each of the film’s three acts, maintains the kind of tight set design you’d expect from the work Christopher Doyle (thought it’s not Doyle). It has a bit of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, as well as a bit of the more recent cyber alienation that seems to structure a lot of contemporary Korean films (hit Redial for murder… Hitchcock in the East…). On one level the film is an allegory of Chinese-Taiwanese relations. From the first act, in which the characters flirt but are unable to consummate their affections; to the second act, brilliantly done as a silent, in which the two characters are separated by codes of ownership, by the dark smear of prostitution as left by the thumb of time passing through the pages of history, painting in its wake a gulf between the two countries; and to the third and ambiguous present act, in which the characters, now teens, blow through city streets on a moped made for mayhem, cellular connections cut by the winds of time.
The film has a genuine cinematic effect. It did not grab my attention when I saw it; but then nor would it let me go once when it was over. I got particularly stuck on the silent film that is the second act. When film makers declare their preference for black and white because it has richer colors, it’s a “Yes, that makes sense.” Well there’s a similar artistry in Hou’s use of silence and subtitles. These subtitles trailed the dialog. Are they always done that way? The characters spoke. And then the subtitles appeared. As if to allow us to hear them in silence, as if their silence was not just the style of silent film, but something more.
Don’t invite your friends to see this one. It would be better alone. It’s a film to keep and hold.
Posted to the Contemplative Cinema blogathon
It must be recognized that the question has a two-fold answer. Who contemplates? The film contemplates; the viewer contemplates. They are different contemplations, for the film’s contemplation is given to the viewer’s experience for the sake of his or her own contemplation while viewing, as well as for his or her reflection upon the film. Contemplative cinema is a mode of thinking, is the thinking of film, in film, filmed, a direct thought of which we are incapable of, for we can only represent in thought. Contemplative cinema is more, and less, than our contemplation. More, because it assembles and produces time and image — and we cannot do that. We cannot create a time within time, for we are already living in time and our mode of being offers no possibility of stepping outside of the time that we are in, and which unfolds through us is it carries us. No, we cannot create time, or times, for we are subject to time. Film, as a subjectivity of image and time, creates its own time, in a time that it takes from us, or which it draws us into. Cinematic time is a synthetic time, a time realized through the effect of continuity engendered at 24 frames per second; it is also time as an effect of montage, of cuts and sequences arranged to produce a a direct experience of time: a temporal illusion of immediacy.
Cinema’s subjectivity is its own, but in contemplative cinema it is given to us to contemplate. But in our contemplation of cinema, we can only reflect on it, can only think about it, that is, we cannot contemplate it without translating it first into a representational schema by which we then make conceptual associations around it. Cinema’s own contemplation is direct; ours is indirect.
The early cinema was a reconfiguration of drama, of narrative story-telling for the camera, indirectly, instead of for the audience, directly. But its creation, film, is direct image and sound, unburdened by the instabilities of the stage, and the relations that an audience might take up to its actors, sets, and production. The production of film is invisible. It comes to us directly. And so its own contemplation, its own thought of time, of action, of space and movement, its own speed, rhythm, continuity, is already complete for us. Its production is invisible.
Cinema thinks as we cannot, for it can think its own world as it thinks. It is a perceptual thinking, directly in and through image, a thinking that precedes the invention of concepts and ideas, but which can arouse concepts and ideas as it suggests them by means of its perception. Cinematic thought, direct and in the image, is thinking as perception, perception that thinks and after which no amount of reflection is necessary to the film’s essential creative act. Film thinks as in what it sees, but in seeing it has already finished, for it cannot compare, cannot reconsider, cannot think by analogy or reflect on its own ideas. It is the being of thought prior to reflection, direct and in the image. It is a thinking that cannot communicate, and yet we are often moved by its beauty or sublimity, but its gift and talent and for its effort to present us with better, more resonant, more sensible worlds. It will seem to conceal its reasons, on occasion, but in truth it has none, for it cannot but arouse our reasons, and those are something it knows nothing about. Cinema contemplates, directly, hermetically, within and unto itself. But if we are fortunate, and present, and contemplative, we will experience its sensibilities and be moved. And with the right cinema, we will be given a contemplation to contemplate, and from the cinematic contemplation we will be able to think further, to reflect on and through the film. For the film cannot. It cannot contemplate outside of itself, cannot become what it is not, cannot be other than what it already is. Its contemplation is complete, and we would be mistaken to make it contemplate what it has not given itself to contemplate. But if we did not contemplate the film, we would miss an opportunity to think new thoughts, to think the possibilities the film has offered us, and from which, moved, we might renew our being. The cinema is an outside that moves us to contemplation, if we take it in.
Written for and posted to the Contemplative Cinema blogathon.
“Against those who defined Italian neo-realism by its social content, Bazin put forward the fundamental requirement of formal aesthetic criteria. According to him, it was a matter of a new form of reality, said to be dispersive, elliptical, errant or wavering, working in blocs, with deliberately weak connections and floating events. The real was no longer represented or reproduced but ‘aimed at.’ Instead of representing an already deciphered real, neo-realism aimed at an always ambiguous, to be deciphered real; this is why the sequence shot tended to replace the montage of representations. Neo-realism therefore invented a new type of image, which Bazin suggested calling ‘fact-image.’ This thesis of Bazin’s was infinitely richer than the one that he was challenging, and showed that neo-realism did not limit itself to the content of its earliest examples. But what these theses had in common was the posing of the problem at the level of reality: neo-realism produced a formal or material ‘additional reality’. However we are not sure that the problem arises at the level of the real, whether in relation to form or content. Is it not rather at the level of the ‘mental’, in terms of thought? If all the movement-images, perceptions, actions and affects underwent such an upheaval, was this not first of all because a new element burst on to the scene which was to prevent perception being extended into action in order to put it in contact with thought, and, gradually, was to subordinate the image to the demands of new signs which would take it beyond movement?” p 1 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Deleuze opens his second book on cinema with a suggestive thesis: that post-war cinema engages thought, is a thought cinema, an emergence of a new kind of cinematic production (he would avoid the term “language” for specific reasons) interested in exceeding the limits of action and narration. He situates this break in the films of neo-realism, which offered us scenes and shots that fall outside the conventional use of camera to capture the actors’ physical and motivated participation in a visual story.
In these shots the camera chooses to dwell on its subjects not to show us their motivation, their actions or reactions, but to show us their subjectivity, their physicality, their presence outside of dramatic narration. The shots may even resemble a conventional reaction shot, but be placed in a segment of the film that has no need of it. The technique is common today but was not at the time.
In films like those of Lou Kerrigan, in examples like The Last Life in the Universe, Cafe Lumiere, or Morvern Callar, we are given subjects standing alone, or alone amongst others, mute or stuck, frightened or distressed, emptied out or meditative, attached to some interior trouble or block that renders them unable to find an action that might correspond to their present situation. The films give us situations in which actors have no present and immediately-available course of action.
These are new images for film. Characters are not meant to step outside of the dramatic flow of a narrative story-telling. The challenge of doing this in theater risks creating an untenable situation, for the character’s sudden pause can so easily make those of us in the audience uncomfortable and distressed for the actor. Theater places the audience in relation to stage actors in a way that makes it difficult for them to change their role vis a vis performance without also threatening to break the “third wall” between them and the audience. In film, the camera enables the possibility that we might see the character watching, stilled, and silent without feeling that something is going wrong, without feeling that a performance has now stalled or that an actor has possibly changed his or her relation to us.
On the relationship of viewer to actor/action in convention film:
“What the viewer perceived therefore was a sensory-motor image in which he took a greater or lesser part by identification with the characters.” p 3 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Painters would inevitably paint with paint alone, apart and away from representation, from perspective, away from the picture and with the contrast, movement, and force of paint itself Composers would discover the sounds and rhythms that lay just off the page of sheet music, where sounds might break free of the harmonies and melodies whose own familiarity made it difficult to sound something new without sounding something recognizable. In film, too, the signifying production of moving image and sound would have to peel off the printed page to unravel on the cutting room floor, awaiting new modes of reconstruction and assemblage.
“This is how, in an ordinary or everyday situation, in the course of a series of gestures, which are insignificant but all the more obedient to simple sensory-motor schemata, what has suddenly been brought about is a pure optical situation to which the little maid has no response or reaction. The eyes, the belly, that is what an encounter is… ” p 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Deleuze sees some of the films of the 50’s and 60’s as participating in this movement: a movement to rewrite the art of film-making. For the sake of creating new films, finding new moves and new movements, new ways of constructing time, of capturing it, freezing it, stilling it, cutting it or drawing it out…
“What defines neo-realism is this build-up of purely optical situations (and sound ones, although there was no synchronized sound at the start of neo-realism), which are fundamentally distinct from the sensory-motor situations of the action-image in the old realism. It is perhaps as important as the conquering of a purely optical space in painting, with impressionism.” p 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Time through movement and motion within a shot, and not just through the whole that a film presents. Time, as in Tarkovsky’s case, as a pressure within the shot. Or in Tarr’s case, as the time that it takes to walk from a village to the market square. Time as waiting, for a daughter to return or perhaps for knowledge. For example, Antonioni and Ozu each created new ways to place shots within a film, found new relations between the camera and subject, set up symmetries or wanderings that were like inverting the relationship between footnotes and a text: the viewer would now become stuck within footnotes. The film’s action seemed undercut, and a story so under-told, that something else had to be going on. It is the mark of these new films that their departure from conventional constructions seems at first boring, incomplete, uninteresting or unsatisfying. All of which could be said of any attempt to speak in a new tongue: is it the language, or what is being said, that’s nonsense? One would need to learn the language to know if an utterance made sense or not…
“This is a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent.” p 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Having described, in just two pages, the needs of this new cinema, Deleuze can now proceed to develop some of its inventions. Christian Metz’s well-known and accomplished account of a semiotics of film makes a similar attempt at teasing apart a grammar of film’s signifying language. He identifies shots as as units; scenes, phrases, cliches, and on up to stylistic and narrative elements of genres. And indeed many of these phrases are so widely known that an animation like The Simpsons can produce parodies by quoting cinematic codes. But to Deleuze, Metz makes a critical mistake by approaching film as narrative, one that he believes eliminates the possibility of discovering cinematic material and substance, not to mention the construction of films themselves. We can take Deleuze’s comments on the widespread use of the banal in the films of Antonioni and Ozu (many contemporary indie and art films insist on the banal almost by rule) as a means of liberating place from setting. The banal, he claims, provides a new image because it so easily asserts itself. The film-maker only has to lift it out of its conventional role as a setting for action and story-telling.
“Similarly, if everyday banality is so important, it is because, being subject to sensory-motor schemata which are automatic and pre-established, it is all the more liable, on the least disturbance of equilibrium between stimulus and response (as in the scene with the little maid in Umberto D), suddenly to free itself from the laws of this schema and reveal itself in a visual and sound nakedness, crudeness and brutality which make it unbearable, giving it the pace of a dream or a nightmare. There is, therefore, a necessary passage from the crisis of image-action to the pure optical-sound image.” p 3 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
From the slackening of the sensory-motor schema in neo-realism, Deleuze claims that film can now create pure optical and sound situations. Situations divorced from action, from narrative, and the film’s traditional organization of itself as dramatic and representational form. In Visconti and Antonioni, we are now not only given actors to observe (who are themselves observing, rather than acting), but we are given objects and places disembedded from story-line and from their role as grounding storyline (as settings).
“After Obsession, however, something appears that continues to develop in Visconti: objects and settings [milieux] take on an autonomous, material reality which gives them an importance in themselves. It is therefore essential that not only the viewer but the protagonists invest the settings and the objects with their gaze, that they see and hear the things and the people, in order for action or passion to be born, erupting in a pre-existing daily life. …. So the situation is not extended directly into action: it is no longer sensory-motor, as in realism, but primarily optical and of sound, invested by the senses, before action takes shape in it, and uses or confronts its elements.” p 4 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
“And Antonioni’s art will continue to evolve in two directions: an astonishing development of the idle periods of everyday banality; then starting with The Eclipse, a treatment of limit-situations which pushes them to the point of dehumanized landscapes, of emptied spaces that might be seen as having absorbed characters and actions, retaining only a geophysical description, an abstract inventory of them. As for Fellini, from his earliest films, it is not simply the spectacle which tends to overflow the real, it is the everyday which continually organizes itself into a travelling spectacle, and the sensory-motor linkages which give way to a succession of varieties subject to their own laws of passage.” p 5 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Spaces now present new opportunities for relations, for the construction of relations between actor and space, action and space, space and situation, and ultimately, for the viewer and the cinematic image. Where spaces as settings were conventionally governed by their need to situate actor in action, they were subordinate to narration and requirements of dramatic staging: they were the stage and set design, if you will, in which action might unfold.
“The space of a sensory-motor situation is a setting which is already specified and presupposes an action which discloses it, or prompts a reaction which adapts to or modifies it.” p 5 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
The new image would be free of those needs, free of drama, and thus free to suggest, show, and become either on their own terms or in new relations (to viewer, to actor, to situation). We need only think of Herzog, Kieslowski (especially in Double Life of Veronique), of Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Greenaway, even Kurosawa (whose love of drama is complemented by his own talent as a painter) to recognize this.
Another step is now taken. The image, becoming free to take on new significations, is assigned: to a subjective or objective position.
“In short, pure optical and sound situations can have two poles—objective and subjective, real and imaginary, physical and mental.” p 9 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
A sheet of rain can be given to us as an image, or it can be given to us as a mental image: a sheet of rain through a character’s eyes. In the second case, the possibilities for meaning or interpretation are multiplied. Is this a sheet of rain here and now, or in memory, in fantasy, or dream? What are we seeing? What the character sees, or what the film is made of (the landscape dream sequence in Fata Morgana, which he obtained from his brother’s 16 mm and which is utterly alien to the film, visually and in terms of location or setting)?
“As for the distinction between subjective and objective, it also tends to lose its importance, to the extent that the optical situation or visual description replaces the motor action. We run in fact into a principle of indeterminibility, of indiscernibility: we no longer know what is imaginary or real, physical or mental, in the situation, not because they are confused, but because we do not have to know and there is no longer even a place from which to ask.” p 7 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Deleuze invents new terms. These are signs, but not direct indexical signs (e.g. smoke = fire) but optical and sound signs. Deleuze is giving cinema a “language,” but it’s a “language” that has nothing to do with narration…
“No longer being induced by an action, any more than it is extended into one, the optical and sound situation is, therefore, neither an index nor a synsign. There is a new breed of signs, opsigns and synsigns…subjective images, memories of childhood, sound and visual dreams or fantasies, where the character does not act without seeing himself acting…” p 6 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
Film, even when they contain individuals, couples, families, and other personal compositions, can be told impersonally. He sees this especially in Antonioni’s trilogy (Avventura, Eclisse, La Notte). This is not just a tale of modern alienation, of aimless drifting, or of existential crisis and loss. That would be the narrative reading (and it’s fine, as that). But to measure the invention at the level of the image, of the sound, and of the assemblage of these Antonionis we must see more than just the muted angst and longing, in the ennui distributed across Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, and Marcello Mastroianni.
“…it is noticeable that Antonioni’s objective images, which impersonally follow a becoming, that is, a development of consequences in a story [recit], none the less are subject to rapid breaks, interpolations and ‘infinitesimal injections of a-temporality’…” p 8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
For Deleuze, Antonioni has invented spaces whose presence provides possibilities for characters in transit, transit emotionally, privately and unto themselves, spaces open for occupying, moving through, but not for making into a home, not for making familiar, not for personalizing. Spaces perhaps alien, whose distance is almost contagious, infecting those who find themselves in them suddenly afflicted with a modern purposeless. Spaces as were available in the American western, for the taking and colonizing, for the occupying and purchase, for the railroad and the law. But spaces as they were just before they were mapped: urban deserts.
“We are returned once more to the first form of the any-space-whatever: the disconnected space. The connection of the parts is not given, because it can come about only from the subjective point of view of a character who is, nevertheless, absent, or as even disappeared, not simply out of frame, but passed into the void.” p 8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
“From The Eclipse onwards, the any-space-whatever had achieved a second form: empty or deserted space. What happened is that, from one result to the next, the characters were objectively emptied: they are suffering less from the absence of another than from their absence from themselves….” p 9 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
But I have already said too much, for Deleuze insists that we avoid “reading” cinema, for it is to be seen.
I wanted to present Deleuze’s film theory by providing a close reading of just a couple cinematic inventions that would seem critical to our Contemplative Cinema blogathon. Deleuze is, for me, the only theorist whose work makes a serious attempt at grasping film from the inside, from what it does as it unrolls at 24 frames a second, as if magically staging whole places and times, people, and events, succeeding at folding us in and taking over our position in time and space… There is much more in these books, some 500 pages of film theory (I’ve covered only nine of those pages here!). It would be possible to seek out the new images of contemporary Contemplative Cinema, I think, if we got down inside them, swept the floor, and took the lid off those cans… Black and white versus color, Christopher Doyle vs Sven Nyquist, action vs meditation (is there not contemplation in Wai’s Fallen Angels?), scene vs event, and so on. Can CC still be CC if it makes up only a part of a film’s style (e.g. 101 Reykjavik; Last Life in the Universe)? Can it be CC if it is of the Asian Tartan Extreme variety (e.g. Snake in June)? Is a haiku a form of poetry, and if so what’s an epic tale told in verse? Is CC in the form itself, in elements, in style, or in the film-maker’s own ambitions? I think Deleuze would have an easy time of this one, but a Deleuze comes along only once in a great great while.
I’ll try to get another one together, this time on camera moves, before the blogathon is over. A shorter one, I hope!
From Two Regimes of Madness, by Gilles Deleuze
“In the old conception of the detective novel, we would be shown a genius detective devoting the whole power of his mind to the search and discovery of the truth. The idea of truth in the classic detective novel was totally philosophical, that is, it was the product of the effort and the operations of the mind. So it is that police investigation modeled itself on philosophical inquiry, and conversely, gave to philosophy an unusual object to elucidate: crime.
There are two schools of truth: 1) the French school (Descartes), where truth is a question of some fundamental intellectual intuition, from which the rest is rigorously deduced; and 2) the English school (Hobbes), according to which truth is always induced from something else, interpreted from sensory indices. In a word, deduction and induction. The detective novel reproduced this duality, though in a movement which was proper to the literary genre…” 81
“The criminal side of the affair can also be quite interesting. By a metaphysical law of reflection, the cop is no more extraordinary than the criminal—he, too, professes allegiance to justice and truth and the powers of deduction and induction. And so you have the possibility of two series of novels: the hero of the first is the detective, and the hero of the second is the criminal.” 82
“What the new literary use and exploitation of cops and criminals taught us is that police activity has nothing to do with a metaphysical or scientific search for the truth. Police work no more resembles scientific inquiry than a telephone call from an informant, inter-police relations, or mechanisms of torture resemble metaphysics. As a general rule, there are two distinct cases: 1) the professional murder, where the police know immediately more or less who is responsible; and 2) the sexual murder, where the guilty party could be anyone. But in either case the problem is not framed in terms of truth. It is rather an astonishing compensation of error. ….”
“This is because the truth is in no way the ambient element of the investigation: not for a moment does one believe that this compensation of errors aims for the discovery of the truth as its final objective. On the contrary, this compensation has its own dimension, its own sufficiency, a kind of equilibrium or the reestablishment of it, a process of restitution that allows a society, at the limits of cynicism, to hide what it wants to hide, reveal what it wants to reveal, deny all evidence, and champion the improbable. The killer still at large may be killed for still other errors, and so it is that these compensations have no other object that to perpetuate an equilibrium that represents a society in its entirety at the heights of its power of falsehood.” 83
Deleuze’s claim is interesting and offers up some rich material in just a few paragraphs. That the modern crime film has followed a journey in parallel with novel seems obvious. Though film of course has tracked its own arc through the genre with perhaps more bricollage, blending, borrowing, or baking together of cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, mafia, and buddy/road movie themes than literature. Visual montage is more flexible than the written form (to wit, Thomas Pynchon’s recent Against the Day; a film/cartoon/novel rolled into one and baked good at 420, unsparingly). But the point Deleuze makes here should not be lost amidst spaghetti western dialogue (of which there is notably little) and therapy sessions with mafia family Capos (of which there should have been more). Truth, indeed, is no longer the aim of investigative pursuits, period. And I’ll borrow here from Niklas Luhmann to make my point.
In Luhmann’s Love as Passion, the philosopher-sociologist argues that both the function and meaning of love in romance has changed fundamentally several times over the past few centuries. Modern love, in particular, has practically no love in it at all. Based neither on the romantic concept of amour, nor on the concept of passion, it has been stripped (pun intended) to the bare essentials, and by essentials we mean here the personal resources and communications of two partners whose commitment is as much to problem solving and managing the travails modern living as it is to high romance. Until death, or taxes, do us part, one might ask?
Hitchcock built a career on the frustration of romantic overtures set in famous crime-solving partnerships of screen idols (name the films: John Gavin-Janet Leigh; Cary Grant-Eva Marie Saint; Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman; James Stewart-Kim Novack, James Stewart-Doris Day; Gregory Peck-Ingrid Bergman; Rod Taylor-Tippi Hedren) bound by crime to ill-fated courtships. Indeed it’s been often noted that Hitch’s stories were therapeutic and auto-biographical, a revealing dossier from a director whose own affections a work of love, screen gems from a marriage committed to the preserving the possibility of passionate romance on the silver screen. Where, shine they did.
The partnership as problem-solving, this intermingling of personal and professional roles, is nothing shocking any more. Today we make suspense, action, comedy, drama, documentary, and even romance out of romances. If love springs eternal, then no harm in it springing from a leak as from a fountain. Partnership now transcends the concept, pragmatism and action providing daily togetherness, and for all we know this beats the unconsummated longings of a balustrade-serenading lutist on bended knee. Who cares if we’re battling aliens on the front lawn of the White House, as long as we’re a team, right?
Lest this write up get further out of hand, allow me to back up and return to the point:
Crime is no longer the opposite of the Good and the True. It is the generalized condition of the system, and possibly a symptom of its own reproduction. In other words, crime is not really crime. It’s just, well, poor decision making. Today’s best crime series (most were British) are more dramas set in highly corrupt conditions, involving infinitely corruptible characters, given remarkably creative talents for corruption, deception, and misrepresentation, and featuring an onslaught of completely unacceptable events and situations. One hour of 24 would kill most mortals. It’s the team-manship that keeps them (and the series) alive. Team-manship that organizes Survivor at the beginning and rips it apart at the end. That propels the competing subcultures in The Wire, or that binds the loyalties of territorially fenced Italians in The Sopranos. That suggests compromise and olive branch coverings for the blood-stained but en miring pitch of mud that splits the center of Deadwood. Team-manship that permits the circulation of real olive branches from informant to traitor to soldier, in Rome.
If collaboration and cooperation are the overarching themes here, then negotiation, manipulation, and deception are how they unfold. British crime series excel here, especially those political or bureaucratic dramas that have offered many of the country’s finest actors to cut their teeth at 24 frames per second. My favorite is Cracker, though House of Cards and Prime Suspect are right up there also. Though it is considerably slower, owing to its age, John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (and the follow up, Smiley’s People) give us Alec Guinness sans monk costume, and in finely textured performances of a weary but crafty statesman of espionage.
Perhaps that’s the difference between the British and the American genres (speaking of crime TV). The British versions feature the demands of stewardship, intelligence, be it for the detective work or for the cover up. The tension and plot are moved along by cock-ups, exposures, finely executed schemes and well-stashed hidden agendas. The stories are powered by conversations, encounters, chance looks and accidental sightings giving away what the audience knows but which the characters don’t. In a word, Hitchcock.
The American versions, in contrast, tend to give us more of the improbable event, the surprise and cliff-hanger (good for commercial breaks) and to end each episode on, as well as inventions that show off the writers’ collective and caffeine-fueled white-boarding sessions. It’s easy to picture these creators of dramatic programming at work, up late around a table of splintering formica, names, signs, ballistics, forensics, and mystic numbers all connected by arrows on the white board like some old Monday Night football intervention by John Madden gone horribly awry. Piles of scripts in a complete spectrum of colors strewn about so that nobody can copy them, and nobody knows which one contains the real ending (it’s the black one). Speed, surprise, and the unexpected drive so many American versions of the crime genre, though this is not a bad thing necessarily, just a different thing. Recently, it seems, HBO has found success with its own brand of quirky/indie puzzle pieces, each as engaging for its innovations as for anything else. And I watch them.
This then would be my take on the transformation of crime, from pursuit of truth to endemic corruption. The show must go on, and if that means taking a few bribes now and then, well perhaps that’s just show business, folks.
Cracker: A flawed and deeply human “forensic psychologist” pursues and nabs the criminal (while the police inevitably nab the wrong person) and more often than not draws out a confession in a climactic therapy session, a reward for his psychological affinity for, proximity to, and understanding of the criminal’s emotional system and logic. When under the gun, his challenge is to anticipate the criminal’s next crime before it occurs, and in some episodes he is even put into a relationship with the criminal, whose challenge of wits throws down a deadly gauntlet.
House of Cards: political intrigue set in the ascendance to and settling into power by a member of British Parliament, whose rise is a climb over the backs of trusting and unsuspecting friends-colleagues-women with whom the protagonist shares secrets and crimes available at any time for trade, blackmail, or other kind of exchange in an economy of debts and gifts constituted from the hidden, the unspeakable, and the unmasking in a culture that might think it, but couldn’t possibly comment on it.
The Wire: an interwoven narrative of crimes conducted and enacted in the midst of an emerging regime of surveillance whose own undoing is its own corruption, thus connecting the life on the street with the law, its enforcement, and the economy for which it stands—which is in itself connected to forces, the circulation of goods, people, services, and favors beyond the local. A logical puzzle in which no single actor or agency seems aware of the grand scheme of things, this is a detective series that engages the audience in detective work of its own: who can guess what the writers will reveal next? Action and events transform or realign relations among the show’s participants, and those relations weave a web that erases distinctions between police/public, good/bad, right/wrong, black/white, and so on.
Prime Suspect: The crime committed may drive the narrative’s plot, but the real story is in the culture of a detective unit unaccustomed to taking orders from a woman, and her role is not only to solve the crime/mystery but to realign relations among corrupt cops and closed-minded bureaucrats behind their backs, behind closed doors, which the audience hopes will be a bedroom door (and sometimes it is). A woman’s power to reorganize relations according to the personal, while still operating effectively as a bureaucrat creates an ongoing tension: Helen Mirren must play a dual role as a chief detective, thus realizing the feminist claim, the personal is political. She accomplishes this through a mix of personal and professional achievements, the ambiguity of which it might be (and with which fellow detective) driving the audience’s engagement. Ultimately the choice is a social and ethical one, and the audience is given both to enjoy: woman desired, woman respected.
There are few elements that, used in film, produce both sound and image at the same time. Fire–and in its form as an action event, the explosion– and water are the two that come to mind. Light and darkness are soundless, and most sonic elements don’t have a visual correlate of much use to the film-maker. Rain, raining, running, in rivers and sheets, or in hushed continuity… rain is among the film-maker’s most pliant, flexible, and rewarding materials.
Not only does rain vary in tone, it falls with lesser or greater urgency. In films it can fall without wetness, as a sheet wrapping the scene in textured translucency, enhancing the image when it registers well, even though it obcures it at the same time. Indeed rain can make a scene more difficult to see, but create interest in the scene in the process. Rain might blow and create motion, running like a mad spirit first to left and then reversing and blowing suddenly to the right, across faces it has caught in its flushing wake.
When used by some, rain rains, it truly pours down, thus giving us the skies above, though we may not see them. Rain falls, in drops descending as they are bound by the earth to do, and rarely do we see an upward gushing, for rainfall falls for a reason, and that reason is the reason the film-maker welcomes the rain.
Rain is melancholic but not sad, it is usually cold, wet, and uncomfortable, but in film it has no temperature and becomes moving image, an element as pure as any made for film. Rivers flow, but we cannot film flowing rivers and be in them as we are in a scene shot in the rain.
Rain is time, rain is the reign of time, in rain it is time that rains. But as times are different in film, so too are rains. Tarkovsky’s rain is a rain-event, rain falling, in light and shadow, rain as sculpture, as a column of rain falling through a hole in the ceiling of a room. Rain in Tarr is a sentimental field, a wash of mood, used to wipe the lens and the eye and to perpetuate a sentiment even and in spite of action developing within it. Rain in Tarkovsky is isolated, contained, unless it is really raining outside. Rain in Tarr reaches from edge to soaked edge, containing but not contained, as unbroken a field as light itself, a visual plane or surface, where Tarkovsky’s rains are perhaps more like thin waterfalls and magical moments.
Rain is sublime, it arouses thought, and yet in many ways it suggests nothing, nothing it all.
I must have been six feet under myself, to have avoided this show for so long. Either I wasn’t listening or I just didn’t get it. After watching the pilot last night (Series one, episode one), I sunk into the couch and played the rest of the first disc’s episodes straight through. I wouldn’t normally go out on a limb and post on a show this early into watching it, but its beginning really seems to set up an emotional logic that will serve the director’s purposes for the show’s duration that I’m going to climb out there and see what comes to mind.
In spite of its title, and its gimmick, the show is not about death. Yes, each episode kicks off when somebody kicks off (the big one; aka bites the dust, meets his maker, buys the farm up in the sky), but these are just dead people, not people who die. Since we’re given their death at the beginning of an episode, we’re not emotionally invested in what’s happened to them. Instead, we’ll become emotionally invested in what happens to the family as the death creates consequences requiring the family members’ attention.
So it’s not really about death, it’s about an afterlife. In fact the family’s been given a second chance by the death of their father (I’m not spoiling anything here). His death is a gift, sacrifice perhaps so that in his absence, members of the family might consider their own lives seriously for the first time. Each of the family members is eccentric in his or her own right. This tells us we’re watching HBO. Characters, for being eccentric, will each have a greater range of action and reaction for the reason that they’re quirky. But in many other respects, the show is conservative.
Though surrounded by death, the father’s death gives the family a second shot at being a family. The first family was built on death, literally on the repression that bound a family to support a father’s funereal existence. To individual family members, the family house was a funeral home. They were each living out a death sentence of sorts, wether by maintaining secrets, keeping the closet door locked, by lying about affairs, by struggling against conformity and family obligation while trying to be different.. In other words, the usual family dynamics!
If what it took was for the father to die in order for this particular family home to confront its deathly service, then so be it, but it’s a TV show. What makes this second life interesting is that we’re given a family of idiosyncratic individuals. They’re going to repair and remake the family on their own terms. Isn’t this the blueprint of the socially conservative, or hopeful indie? That conventional social organization won’t get us there; but individualism will. And individualism can rescue dying social institutions after all. We’ll each have to make our own choices, but if we’re true to ourselves and honest with each other, it can be done. The recent hit “Little Miss Sunshine” followed the same line: a VW bus, quirky in its own right with a clutch gone bad and failing horn, propels a family barely contained across hundreds of miles of imminent disaster to support the hopeless but love-able dream of its youngest family spirit.
The genre is optimistic, probably as unrealistic as any other family drama, but at least optimistic. Not to mention just hilarious. So looking forward to the rest!
Gun barrels and bullets may be a blast to many American film-makers, but “foreign film-makers” find them to be riddled with cliche and only limited opportunities. At least how the story goes, or is often told. But Inarritu’s Golden Globe success with Babel tells a different story, in other tongues, putting gun barrels and bullets to service as a means opening up the field rather than setting it off to run its natural course.
Guns, of course, are an excellent match for film. They execute story lines and create action at the same time. When fired, a bullet may drop a man whose pursuit has held the audience in strangely -posed pauses, popcorn so ever close to the mouth, but not yet in, because the logic of the Western, like the logic of popcorn, requires that the bad man drop before the rest of us can enjoy our (now doubly pleasurable for having acquired a guilty complicity) popcorn; the popcorn itself a strangely historic nod to the genre, what with tall stalks of corn on fields, sunlit and fertile, a field of dreams if not days of heaven, the success story of a civilized and settled western territory but for the ominous threshing promised by an off-screen and future reaper… a grim reminder that the children of the corn may eat now, but pop tomorrow… Popcorn placed into mouths, and it’s never just one but it must be several, enough that there are stakes involved each time, enough that simply attempting to get it into our mouths while anticipating, like the rest of the crowded theater, the pop of the gun, and the bad man’s fall, that will release own own trigger elbow so that we and numerous others might unleash a hail of falling kernels and puffy targets made.
Gun barrels and bullets might double up action, even involve the audience directly in the production of entertainment from something horrible and terrifying (namely the threat of bad men, and death). But there is more, of course, to the genre than just lock n load (though it is true that this statement may not always apply).
Guns and bullets may execute justice, but they don’t make its case. Guns make sense if fired at the right person, for the right reason. A bad man dropped creates a relief in tension only if we know the bad man is a bad man, that he has done bad things, and that the man who shoots him is the right man for the job. In fact, we prefer to let our criminals escape from jail in order that we can see them hunted down and finally killed by the men they pissed off in the first place; we prefer that even to the courtroom drama of preparatory statements, lawyers interrupted mid-sentence and mid-stride by objections launched from on high, judges and juries, a reflection of the intrinsic freedom invested in the political system so uniquely rendered in examples of democracy such as American Idol and captured occasionally on CSpan, again poised and ready to utter that phrase whose terminal authority becomes a release with the simple addition of the prefix “Not”…
Guilt and guns, it is, perhaps, more than it is bullets and guns. Or they might all share a connecting line, and a trajectory if you will: righting a wrong, rendering justice. Without guilt, there is no morality (suggested); without morality, no moral. Guilt creates the possibility of justice, justice, the possibility of the holster (enforcement).
This cinematic field is strong and will always be strong, for its logic is as simple as it gets, and clear at the same time. The crime is defined by the social body against which it is committed, which by Biblical reasoning is entitled to demand justice, if not also mete out a bit of punishment, too. Contemporary action films still have the western embedded within them, borrowing and extending the chilling, thrilling and the harrowing, not unlike the journalistic practice as deployed during wartime military campaigns (notably during the campaign bits, less so during the clear, hold, and gradually lose control bits). These days we still have guys with rifles on rooftops overlooking main street, checking the time, and waiting for the two men mortally and philosophically, if not also morally opposed, to face off against one another. These days men on rooftops tend to offer numerous additional Guns n Ammo product placement opportunities, what with the varieties of caliber, sights, infra-red targeting (did you know those beams show up if you’re using night vision goggles, while the poor target has no idea his torso has become a momentary display of sol et lumiere dancing spots of red light, fireworks of course imminent…), but this is just a cliche’d way of layering the Western with technical progress (an achievement in its own right, for the Western chapter of American history was brought to a close by the arrival of industry and practitioners of the law).
Inarritu, in Babel, was aware of all of this, though he may not have thought about it in this way. His stripped-down, high caliber gun is a Soviet issue commonly used to execute territorial justice in the highlands of Central Asian republics. In this case it is fired, however, for no good reason, and at nobody in particular. The violence has no logic. It is in fact illogical, for it is arbitrary. This is Inarritu’s style, and it’s a style common to relational films—films in which social relations are thematized by or through random acts of senseless violence, beauty, or both. Crash, too, and Hustle and Flow, not to mention Capote, each used this theme. So, too, have Michael Haneke’s films (though not always involving gun barrels and bullets); the Dardenne brothers, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and countless other films which, for the past ten or fifteen years, have produced a genre of relational film along many different lines and variations.
Inarritu, in Babel, plays with the notion of causality by pursuing the question of the gun’s owner, and that owner’s personal story, in an attempt to pose the Why question (which must be addressed because the violence has no proximate cause). He suggests in this way that in an interdependent world, local violence may have global causes and consequences. Arms trade is of course the topic here, though presented without the apparatus of gun runners, organized crime, internationalized detective work, and so on (that would be Bond). But as we know, it’s not just guns that kill people. So a social logic appears, organizing relations among those involved through choices and acts that are good or bad, right, and wrong (the bus passengers, the embassy, the families, the press), and the reaction shots to the random (gun)shot now appear against backdrops that each provide their own degree of sense and organization. For what is or would be the correct thing to do, if as is the case in the film, we must have some compassion for those who committed the accidental crime? What do we do, what is the right thing to choose, what is the appropriate response or retaliation, if conditions themselves pulled the trigger, if the shot fired was a social shot, not a bad man’s shot? If the gun belonged neither to the cops regime nor the robbers regime, but to an animal hunter’s regime? If we cannot use the logic of the gun because it was not that kind of gun, not that kind of shot, is the violence it has started a violence we can reverse?
Films about social relations work by destabilizing fields in which simple cliches of justice, punishment, retribution, pursuit, and so on must be reassembled by acts of a different order. In Crash it was personal redemption by act of kindness (thus healing the social). In Capote, an author investigating a terrible and senseless crime repeats the crime by sending his man to the gallows (for the sake of good writing). In Cache, the threat of violence against a French television personality recalls a forgotten crime against Algerians, redoubled in a family’s own complicitness, and explicated by personal forgetting, rage, and resentment. And there are numerous others.
Films are set up around a shot and reaction shot. The question of a response, which is to say the organization of a cinematic narrative, depends on the intentions and motives of the opening shot/shooter. Babel, though it risks losing its connecting threads at times, successfully raises the question and then presents an even more compelling response, by suggesting, I think, that it’s not just in making sense of the shot fired, but in making sense through one’s response, that society, if not humanity, might still have a shot at its own redemption.
(also postsed to the Contemplative Cinema blogathon.)