Thursday, 30 September 2010

Incomplete notes on the character of the new cinema

"Incomplete notes on the character of the new cinema

The cinema is in crisis. It neither apprehends our reality in an honest way nor does it aid us in imagining a different kind of future. It is suffocated by a set of anachronistic conventions dictated by the agents of commerce. What follows are incomplete notes on the basis for a new cinema practice:

The absence of verisimilitude in the corporate cinema has reconfirmed the essential radicalism of critical realism. But the new cinema will also reflect the fact that, as bb [Bertolt Brecht] has observed, “realism is not simply a matter of form.”

Instead of asking whether images change the world (a question whose answer now seems obvious), the new cinema seeks to discover what should be changed, and how.

The new cinema recognizes that any apprehension of the present is predicated upon an understanding of the past. Likewise, a new future can only be imagined after an understanding of the present is attained.

The new cinema doesn’t concern itself with technological debates, particularly the antagonisms of analogue against digital. It employs, without prejudice, any and all tools available to it.

The new cinema can only exist in a state as unfinished and incomplete as the world it aims to mirror and engage.

The new cinema should strive for beauty, but never perfection.

That which has been viewed as beautiful, the new cinema will regard as ugly;

That which has been seen as ugly, the new cinema will regard as beautiful.

Clarity is a form of beauty. Mystification is a form of defeat.

The new cinema refuses to recognize national borders. It identifies itself neither as fiction nor as documentary. Likewise, it is unconcerned with genre, which is useful only to the agents of commerce.

Popular culture is neither. The new cinema will strive to return popular culture to the people themselves."

Travis Wilkerson, here.

I stumbled on this interview while looking for the links to downloading An Injury to one, which I had just seen, in order to send it to a friend.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The "mysteries" and mysteries of Uncle Boonmee

I'm still trying to sort out my thoughts about Uncle Boonmee, which I've seen twice in two days and preferred the second time. But one of the things I'm already reasonably sure about is that there is something more than slightly irritating about the discourse surrounding it (I mean the articles by writers I would take seriously, i.e. who take the film seriously). I'll probably come back to this when (if?) I get around to reading the Cahiers and Positif articles on it, but one of the dominant characteristics of all the articles I've read so far has been to take a stand on the film rather than discuss it. Mark Peranson's article, sublime in its enthusiasm, in a way falls prey most of all to this trap. Thankfully, the articles accompanies an interview in which Peranson is more acute and searching in trying to explore the film the way he would any other film, but what of the Inrockuptibles review? (I will one day discuss the Inrocks more in detail, how they represent a triumph of taste over insight, with all the losses in intellectual curiosity implied) Even Le Temps has at least one better insight (bottom of page 1). Mystery is a very important word to describe a lot of very good art, and is an essential one to describe Uncle Boonmee, but so far it has been used as a shield, to deflect any attempt to really evaluate what is going on.

With this in mind, I'll attempt to set down a few inroads.

Uncle Boonmee is less hypnotic than the two other Apichatpong films I've seen, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. Part of this, at least for me, has to do with the lack of camera movement, though I'm still trying to tease out why he completely renounces something he'd used for both previous films. Overall, though, it seems this is more a film of surfaces, less prone to withhold its treasures. There's nothing like the motorcycle ride from Tropical Malady or the Black Hole from Syndromes and a Century here. Doubtless my expectations were also what confounded me the first time, what with the tendency of great artists to do everything except what you expect of them. Especially since in this film, Apichatpong plays with his audience even more than in the previous ones.
This is all the more unsettling since the narrative is in many ways more straightforward than in Tropical Malady or Syndromes and a Century. Apart from a catfish episode, essential thematically but a blast out of nowhere in terms of the narrative, and a dream sequence not very hard to assimilate when it appears (though understanding it is another story), the film is linear. Even the two possible realities at the end (truly superb. I'm reminded of an Arthur C. Clarke article in which he called for greater but more simple imagination on the part of SF writers, using the example of a man walking into a room and switching on the light only to find out that it was already on) happen concurrently, equivalently, but after the time warp that gave them birth.
Yet for all this straightforwardness, Apichatpong is playing a very serious game with audience expectations.
Almost every single scene announces a conflict that will go completely unresolved, that principle extending also to the overall narrative scheme (Jaai, the Laotian helper, so important in the first scenes, announces he will leave soon and is not seen again. Even his departure is neither witnessed nor mentioned by the other characters or us) and even the title: unless we accept the Princess or the Catfish as a previous avatar of Boonmee (there's nothing to indicate this is or isn't the case), we don't see any of Boonmee's previous lives, only his relatives' current after-lives and his own future life. The scene of the Catfish is, once again, essential in this aspect: what is set up as the key elements of the narrative, her quest for her lost beauty and the love of her palanquin bearer, is made completely irrelevant in the face of what turns out, a posteriori, to be essential: the possibility of a relationship between man and nature.

I don't know yet quite how to relate all of this to the rest of the film, except to note that the theme of man's relationship with nature is also present almost everywhere else (Aunt Jen coming from the city and trying to adapt to the rural house, the jungle as place of possibility and danger simultaneously...), but the Princess and the Catfish is one of the supreme instances of man's fusion with the natural world in the whole of cinema. And, of course, it's also a question of man's relationship with cinema, as the Princess's vision of her former beauty in the silver screen of the water makes clear. But what is so beautiful in that scene is not just the sexual nature of the fusion, but how literal it is, and how cinema itself is included in the equation. The encounter is not presented as sexual, it is sexual. And cinema itself becomes a participant in this epiphany: first of all a curious and tender observer of this physical bliss, the camera then suddenly gives up on its status as an outside observer to fuse completely with its surroundings, annihilating itself in a shot which echoes the previously observed movement from abandonment of human contingencies (ornamental status symbols) to pure oneness with the elements.

For the record, it's a very good film, but for the moment, I still think Kagemusha, Apocalypse Now and La Dolce Vita are better, without mentioning Syndromes and a Century. Or even Film Socialisme. Not that this is really the point. Maybe this is one of those films...