The first thing that struck me watching Winter Light was the precision of the filmmaking. It’s been awhile
since I’ve sat down with a Bergman, so my memory could be faulty, but I
remember The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries¸ and even Persona (one of my absolute favorites)
feeling a bit frayed at the edges. Every edit and every shot in Winter Light seems precisely conceived.
The mise-en-scene speaks volumes. There
is no one as talented as Bergman at positioning actors within a frame for
effect. It is a much sparser film than the earlier ones often touted as his best,
and a much stronger one.
Austerity is fitting for a film about God’s silence. Bergman
observes its effects primarily in the tortured faces of his players. During the
opening scene in the church, I was consistently drawn to that of Ingrid Thulin.
I fell in love with her as Tomas sits down to read her letter. Bergman wrenches
every ounce of expression out of her face as he films her staring directly into
the camera, sans glasses, reciting her words in a single take. A similarly
powerful choice later in the film stages a scene fraught with emotional torment in front of a raging river, the
roaring rapids drowning out the dialogue.
Bergman makes no claims as to whether God’s silence is a
choice on the deity’s part or a result of his or her nonexistence. He merely
asks that we all, believers and nonbelievers alike, question the courage of our
convictions. It’s the uncertainty that troubles Marta in her atheism and Tomas and
Jonas in their Christianity. Algot, the sexton, makes the astute observation
that the doubt Jesus suffered on the cross, along with the departure of his
disciples, must have been inifinitely more harrowing than the physical pain he
suffered. He is the only character in the film who has bears the courage of his
convictions, having taken Jesus’s directive to express himself with love to
heart, and he’s all the better for it.
In Swedish the film’s title translate to “The Communicants.”
It bears a double meaning. The opening scene features the films cast accepting
communion, but these are characters incapable of articulating their feelings to
one another. Algot said when Jesus’s disciples deserted him it must have been
painful, realizing none of them had truly understood the things he had said. So
it is for Tomas, whose attempt to empathize with Jonas only serves to hasten
his demise, who unconscionably excoriates Marta, a woman he clearly cares
deeply for. And also for Marta, who insists she is incapable of putting her
love for Tomas into words. If only we knew how to communicate better, perhaps
the pain of existence would be less acute.
The three best films I’ve seen so far this year (Spring Breakers, To the Wonder, and Upstream Color) all strive to exist as
pure cinema, expressions so heavily dependent on the interplay of sound and
image for their emotional effect that it is impossible to imagine their
survival in any medium other than film. This places them in direct opposition
to the other great film I saw this year, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, which—while
undoubtedly cinematic—could easily be conceived as a thoroughly effective short
story. The term frequently applied to films like Spring Breakers and Upstream
Color (and even To the Wonder) is
Malickian, or Malicky, or some derivation thereof. Sure, all these films rely
more heavily on emotional than narrative logic a la The Tree of Life, but Spring
Breakers is more heavily indebted to Michael Mann, Upstream Color to Cronenberg and Resnais.
Upstream Color is
a genuinely beguiling film. On the surface, the plot is relatively straightforward,
but the details serve (perhaps unnecessarily) to complicate things. This creates
a unique effect. At the same time that you’re being seduced by the sublimely
edited sequences, these details nag at you, making you question whether or not
the whole enterprise is bullshit. On a thematic level this works, as the
characters are being forced to reconsider their identities, the narratives they’ve
constructed for themselves. This is Carruth’s primary focus, the frailty of our
identities and the degree to which they are shaped by other people and the
relationships in our lives.
The growth Carruth has shown
as a filmmaker since Primer is
astonishing. The direction in that film was not without the occasional
flourish, but it was primarily functional, existing in service of the script.
Seldom a moment passed that wasn’t driven by dialogue. Conversely, Upstream Color is driven by its
direction—the sounds and images and the emotions they convey, and the way they
relate to other sounds and images via montage. Large swaths of time flow by
with nary a word spoken. The script sometimes gets in the way, serving as the
source of the cognitive dissonance described above.
Carruth didn’t doubt the
intelligence of his audience in Primer,
but in Upstream Color he places a
remarkable amount of faith in our visual literacy. Like a painter or a poet, he
takes for granted his audience’s ability to piece together a meaning without
the artist connecting the dots. It’s not unique so much for what he does as how
he does it. Elliptical plots are nothing new, we can point again to Kiarostami’s
Like Someone in Love, but Kiarostami
gives us text to build upon, Carruth assumes the foundation is already there. Rather
than apuzzle box like Primer demanding to be solved, Upstream Color is content to wash over
you, trusting that if the plot eludes you the feelings won’t. And in art, the
feelings are what’s important, are they
“Other people direct movies. Terrence Malick builds cathedrals”
These words, from Matt Zoller Seitz, occur to me every time
I watch a Terrence Malick film. They inevitably contain several moments that
are transcendent to a degree that can only be described as religious, so removed
from what conventions have taught us to approach as cinema that the moniker of “movie”
seems somehow to diminish them. Where the majority of movies are inherently
theatrical, Malick consistently rises above such constraints. He writes
symphonies, directs ballets; he paints with light. Malick may not be my
favorite director, but, in a person, he represents cinema’s innate potential to
be the apotheosis of all art.
Despite what audiences at Toronto and Venice may have led
you to believe, To the Wonder
possesses several such moments. I watched it once before going to bed last
night and again upon awaking this morning. There are surely many moments that
eluded me, but among those that are still circling in my mind: Ben Affleck approaching
Olga Kurylenko across ground that gives way like a trampoline as the tide rolls
in around Mont St. Michel, a man’s hand grasping for a woman’s in a manner that
recalls Michelangelo, a jet carving the path of a parabola around the sun, the
woman peering through a hole in a fence as the sun shines through, a man’s hand
running down a woman’s unclothed back, the woman dancing through the aisles of
a fluorescent supermarket.
I could go on and on. It’s worth noting that the majority of
these moments center on the performance of Olga Kurylenko. Prior to watching To the Wonder, I only knew she had been a
Bond girl in a film I hadn’t watched. Now I know her every emotion, every curve
of her face, as intimately as I would that of a lover’s. While Affleck is
clearly Malick’s surrogate, often positioned at the edge of the frame with the
camera looking over his shoulder, Kurylenko is undoubtedly the film’s heart.
She commands every shot she is in, pirouetting with the grace of a ballerina, the
ballerina she aspired to be. The camera soaks in every inch of her beauty.
The beauty is not there solely because Kurylenko is a
beautiful woman, but because Malick knows where to find it. He shows it to us in
the unlikeliest of places: a Sonic parking lot, a Laundromat, in water draining
into a sewer grate. The potential to transcend is everywhere, but we are often
too caught up in ourselves, and the lives of those around us, to reach out and
touch it, to approach the wonder that surrounds us. The Christian prayer intoned by Bardem that serves as the film’s climax embodies this idea.
I come back to the idea that Terrence Malick builds
cathedrals. It occurs to me that Rothko Chapel is in Texas. I picture Malick
walking in and being transported, classical music playing in his head as his
internal monologue conducts itself in something analogous to hushed voiceover. The Chapel’s Wikipedia page features a quote describing it as “a holy place open to
all religions and belonging to none.” Is there any better evocation of the
feeling one gets from Malick’s films? As someone who identifies as an agnostic one
day and an atheist the next, his films are emblematic of the metaphysical truth I search
for in art.
I could go on about the imperfections I found in the film
such as Bardem’s performance and character feeling a bit out of place until the
climactic sequence. I could talk about how beguiling I found the shot of a sea
turtle. I could extemporize upon the ways in which To the Wonder and The Tree
of Life see a famously reclusive director branching out into autobiography. There may be time for that in the future, but for now these things would only serve to impose themselves between Malick and your soul. At worst, they
would dissuade you from seeing the film. Whatever you ultimately make of To the Wonder, it’s an artistic
expression so wholly unique it deserves to be approached on its own terms.
A Man Escaped
opens with a shot of two hands that seem to be in awe of their freedom. Their initial movements are modest. They
acclimate themselves with their newfound agency. They twist. They turn. And
then, deliberately, they begin to strive for something more. Reaching for the
handle and unlatching the door, they wait. When the moment presents itself, they
burst into action. They throw the door open. They run. They attempt to escape.
Moments later, they are returned to captivity.
It is the film in miniature. The final shot of the film
echoes the first, the hands replaced by people. We know they aren’t caught, the
narration clearly emanates from the present, but the parallel is there. The
hands’ eagerness to liberate themselves and their subsequent capture is echoed
by Orsini’s impetuous escape attempt later in the film. Roger Ebert saw the film as Sisyphean, Bresson
admiring man’s ability to persevere in the face of certain failure. It’s an apt
analogy for the majority of Bresson’s work, but also lurking within A Man Escaped is the idea that careful
observation is necessary for proper preparation and that without it we are
doomed to repeat our failures. Running parallel is the idea that abandoning all
caution and taking the initial plunge is often the most difficult part of achieving
anything, being able to identify the moment when preparation gives way to
It has taken me four films to come fully to terms with
Bresson’s cinema. It is indeed a cinema of careful observation, a cinema of
austerity that makes Ozu seem frivolous and Tarr ostentatious by comparison. Ebert claims that he “can’t think of a single
unnecessary shot in A Man Escaped.” I
would go one further. There are no unnecessary camera moves, no unnecessary
edits, no unnecessary adornments or emotions. It is a cinema as economical as
it is ecumenical. The initial effect can be alienating, gone are the
concessions to the audience we’ve grown accustomed to even in foreign and art
house cinema. But as you spend time with Bresson you learn he doesn’t so much
eschew these things as transcend them. Casting aside all that is unnecessary to
connect directly with the basic truths of human experience. With A Man Escaped, I was able to free myself
from my preconceptions of what I wanted, or expected, Bresson to be and love him for who he is. I am eager to revisit Pickpocket and Balthazar.
Like the hand reaching for the door, I desire more.
It's difficult to watch the new film from Quentin Tarantino and not think about the loss of Sally Menke. For all of Django Unchained's virtues (we'll get to those later), its setpieces lack the precise sense of timing and subtle manipulation of tension and release that burned scenes like Mia Wallace's overdose and The House of Blue Leaves into the cultural consciousness. When the extended dinner the characters share at Candieland is viewed alongside the Tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds it feels loose and unfocused, the focus begins to drift as DiCaprio's monologue raises salient points, implying parallels that are germane to our own experience. It's hard not to wonder if Menke could have helped shape the rhythm of the scene into something that better held audiences attention. Practitioner of a craft that strives for invisibility, it is perhaps a compliment that her absence registers more deeply than her presence ever did.
Inglourious Basterds proves a valuable reference point when judging Django Unchained, not only for the superficial reason that they both consist of Quentin putting his spin on actual historical events, but also because the latter plays as the former reduced to its essence, two hours and forty-five minutes of pure wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy. Unfortunately, this process of eidetic reduction strips away the subtext, unique narrative structures (and even on a level of structure Django comes half-formed, a superfluous climax deflating the films final half-hour), and idiosyncracies that made Inglourious Basterds a film that rewarded repeat viewings and in-depth analysis. With Django, it's all there on the surface.
The other factor that contributes to Django's insubstantial nature is a lack of characterization. This is Tarantino's first film since Pulp Fiction that doesn't feature a female lead, and the most prominent female character, Broomhilda, is the least developed of his career. As Django's desire to rescue her is the only facet of his own character that is explored to any substantial degree, this diminishes both of them. Waltz's King Schultz is the only character given a meaningful arc and he's disposed of prior to the finale between Django and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, a relationship in itself woefully underdeveloped.
Which isn't to suggest Tarantino's film is completely devoid of value. Its "kid gloves are off" approach to slavery possesses a certain vitality, courting controversy while frankly addressing a part of our history most would prefer to ignore, making the ugliness inherent in treating human beings as property frighteningly tangible. The ways the races process this differently is expertly evoked in the scene in which Django and Schultz watch one of Calvin Candie's slaves torn to pieces by dogs, a contrast between utter horror and resigned familiarity. The film also contrasts Candie's pseudoscientific justifications with Schultz's guilt and patronizing feelings of responsibility for Django.
On top of all that, it is, for all its structural and editorial problems, pretty consistently entertaining. It still, mess that it is, possesses that inimitable Tarantinian vibe. It may not have the snap, crackle, pop of his best work, but it is still undeniably his, which makes it on some level interesting. Unfortuantely, the above moments are few and far between, and as a filmmaker who so recently claimed he could not make a film that was lesser than Death Proof, he may well have. That film was also a structural mess, but at least it served to create enlivened discussion regarding its subtext. Which isn't to deny the debate Django has inspired on slavery's place in our culture isn't valuable, it's just more of a result of Hollywood as an industry than a film that could be so much more.
This list is necessarily incomplete. The two biggest lacunae in my 2012 viewing are Zero Dark Thirty, which is currently only playing NY and LA, and Django Unchained, which I couldn't get to on Christmas Day and had to sit out as we were pummeled with snow yesterday, but plenty of other films eluded my grasp, among them Crazy Horse, Elena, Dark Horse, Alamayer's Folly, Lawless, Wuthering Heights, Cloud Atlas, The Loneliest Planet, Wreck-It Ralph, Skyfall, Anna Karenina, Silver Linings Playbook, and Not Fade Away.
In assembling this list, slots one through eight filled themselves. I'm pretty confident in my choice for number nine as well, but the ten spot could have easily been filled by four or five different films. It's notable that in 2012, the year they stopped making 35mm film, of the top four films of the year two feature 16mm stock, in a sort of rebellion against the shift towards digital, and two are very much about the loss of meaning as we move from tangible objects to ones and zeros in both the arts (Holy Motors) and the financial sector (Cosmopolis).
1. Tabu (Miguel Gomes) 2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax) 3. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) 4. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg) 5. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) 6. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky) 7. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) 8. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) 9. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman) 10. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Honorable Mention: The Deep Blue Sea, The Cabin in the Woods, A Simple Life, Looper, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Avengers, The Matthew McConaughey in a Cowboy Hat Trilogy (Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe), Goodbye First Love, The Day He Arrives, Lincoln, Girl Walk // All Day