The Death of the Auteur: The End of the White Male Perspective | Cinema

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Not another gender war article. Women are disenfranchised by the patriarchy this, men are losing their masculine identities that. Media types run around in circles trying to be the first to declare who’s coming out the worse as the roles men and women take in Western society continue to resemble one another more and more. So when an article entitled “Warpaint, Cate Le Bon, St Vincent and why rock’s future is female” pops up on The Guardian the overpowering desire is to dismiss it outright. When it comes to creating art, what does gender have to do with it? Historically the ones who controlled the money decided what art got made, which largely accounts for women and non-whites being under-represented in the Western canon compared to white males. But surely it doesn’t matter in 2014 whether a songwriter is a man or a woman, they both should be equally as capable of creating the best work, or of being the future of rock.

But then, it’s hard to argue with the facts. At least four of the best albums of 2014 were composed by women (Wye Oak’s “Shriek”, Angel Olsen’s “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”, Yasmine Hamdan’s “Ya Nass” and St. Vincent’s eponymous release) and in 2013 some of the most original music was also made by women (Cate Le Bon, Laura Marling, Courtney Barnett, Haim). The truth is that this has more to do with new perspectives, which has always been the thing that pushed art forward. Those perspectives largely tend to be female in 2014, more because women in music aren’t quite as prone to the influence of the monied as they were ten years ago. Great music is written, recorded and consumed without the need for dictatorial taste-makers or cynical record company heads, who tend to assemble supermodels for their music groups rather than artists.

The fact that women are making great music is not up for debate. On the other hand, the position of the male perspective in all this is not so obvious. For John Harris in his above-linked article “[a]fter 60 years of rock history, it is perhaps little wonder that the form feels as if it is moving in ever-decreasing circles, split between either hopeless nostalgia…or going-through-the-motions irrelevance.” He doesn’t name-check any of the male-oriented bands he’s talking about here, besides Glastonbury headliners Metallica, who don’t need much investigation to be made look like a prime example of the irrelevance of testosterone-fuelled rock music. But whereas acts like Vampire Weekend and John Grant seem to contradict Harris’s point, its perhaps worth noting that he seems to be talking more about the irrelevancy of a form of music that defines itself by being primarily a masculine affair, which neither of those acts are.

It could be argued in fact that Harris is limiting his scope when he singles out women, as there is much more music being made outside the realm of white male music than white female music. Inevitably the democratisation of music through the internet will lead to Western audiences finding artists from Africa or the Middle East. Yasmine Hamdan is a fine example of this, as the Lebanese singer has gained a certain level of popularity in the West since her appearance in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’. If what music audiences want is different perspectives then any number of them are out there to be discovered.

The Undefeated

So how does this apply itself to cinema? While the music-making process is not as susceptible to the influence of malignant moneymen as it once was, film-making is still very much about a clash of interests. The paths a female director needs to navigate to realise her film is very much like what it was for a female musician to create in the ’70s. Where a female musician at one time had to impress an A&R man, the record label head, the studio producer and a whole murder of music journalists before being presented to an audience, now an artist can achieve popularity with an audience without having set foot in a recording studio, and so the record labels and music media scramble to catch up.

With films however, the process of dealing with actors, DPs, producers, screenwriters, production designers and whoever else, means a strong personality is necessary to achieve one’s vision. As Harris describes in his article about the band Warpaint, “[their] music is exploratory, deeply textured, and less prone to momentary explosions. Some critics fail to understand, but the point is not to wait anxiously for the “Yeah, yeah” chorus: what they are trying to create is a different musical form.” If this is in any way indicative of how female-oriented films are made, then is it the case that perhaps many would-be female directors anticipate the obstacles to their vision and opt quite simply not to bother? So when a woman does direct a film we get a male-oriented picture like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and Hollywood gets to hold it up as a great leap forward in gender equality while the female perspective remains unrepresented.

A graphic on Indiewire recently did up the numbers and found that only 4.7% of Hollywood studio films were directed by women between 2009 and 2013. This damages cinema as a whole, as – if what John Harris observes about male-oriented rock music is true – new perspectives are closed off before they are even able to be realised, and cinema will continue its inward spiral. American cinema in the ’70s was highly male-oriented, but it was also the most exciting time in the history of American cinema. What’s happened since then has largely been a cheap copy of Hollywood’s 1970s prime, and at no point since then has a strong female (or black, or Hispanic) movement occurred in American cinema. Almost everything has been a derivation of what was done in that decade.

A Simple Enquiry

There is little a white male can do to bring more black or female directors into the field. What is in his control is his ability to break out of that inward spiral and to explore other avenues of creating work that is more inclusive of differing perspectives than the one he comes from, the one that has been explored to the point of redundancy. The collaborative nature of cinema makes it so that a director need not be the defining voice of a given film. The auteur theory is based on the classical Hollywood studio system’s manner of film production; one man who is responsible for predicting the way an audience will react to certain scenes or shots or characters and communicating a message of some description.

The Cahier du Cinema critics and film-makers made the director the author of whatever film his name was on and the New Hollywood directors of the ’70s took this to heart. However, other interesting perspectives on how films can be made began to emerge in Iran in the ’90s. Directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf began to mix documentary and drama film-making, often telling true stories by having the people the stories are about play themselves and re-enact their own stories. This was taken to its natural conclusion in Kiarostami’s 2002 film ‘Ten’ in which he stuck two digital cameras to the dashboard of a car – one pointing at the driver seat, the other at the passenger – and recorded ten conversation between a woman living in Tehran and the people she meets over the course of the day.

In the follow-up film ’10 on Ten’ Kiarostami describes how the film attempted to remove the director’s influence from the scenes, claiming he wasn’t even in the car while the shooting occurred. The conversations in the film take on a naturalness not found in scripted dramas, but then it is not exactly a straight documentary either, because the conversations in the film are instigated by the director. Mania Akbari is the one character who appears in all ten conversations and her real life situation is used in the film; a divorce from her husband and the problems this causes between her and her real-life son. Despite being directed by a man, the film ends up being one of the greatest expressions of the female perspective in the history of cinema.

Taking this method of film-making to a new extreme Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 ‘The Act of Killing’ imposes his own creative devices on a number of war criminals in Indonesia, having them act out their atrocities in the form of their favourite Hollywood films. Again, the people in front of the camera are the main focus of the film, not the director who merely uses his creative devices like a skilled interviewer to get his subjects to reveal themselves. In his 2014 film ‘American Hustle’ David O. Russell gives the method a more Hollywood bent; his film is traditionally structured around plot movements, but the actors are regularly allowed to improvise their lines. The result is proof that a director guiding actors through a story rather than merely having the actors obey a director’s strict vision can make a traditionally entertaining Hollywood film and make it the best American film of the year.

Effectively the death of the auteur is the death of filmed novels. No longer are actors merely there to reanimate the corpse of an emotion. Their interactions become real, their emotions are, if not true, then at least their own, and not an attempt to replicate somebody else’s. That’s not to say scripted dramas are worthless, as is seen in one of the year’s best films, Asghar Farhadi’s ‘The Past’. But in those instances it is the plot rather than the characters that takes prominence, meaning the best scripted dramas are melodramas, which, by definition are not masculine in their outlook. They – like Warpaint’s music – are deeply exploratory, always looking to disrupt their own realities, more concerned with what is explicit than what is buried. The emotional austerity of the male-driven film is focused on the lead character’s attempts to overcome the obstacles of the story, whereas in a melodrama the characters – usually women – must simply navigate them and try to come out the other side alive.

Running out of Road

The white male perspective has given us some great films in the past, but in recent years it’s given us laughable and narcissistic representations of masculinity in films like ‘Django Unchained’, ‘The Great Beauty‘ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ as well as films in which white men cast their impressions of what poor people think and act like such as ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild‘ and ‘The Rocket‘ as well as out-right racist films such as ‘The Impossible‘. These films put the director in the spotlight and each one exactly conforms to the idea of male-oriented cinema being caught in an inward spiral. ‘Django Unchained’ is part of Tarantino’s continuing effort to dilute all of the world’s problems into cartoons, ‘The Great Beauty’ is Sorrentino bemoaning the loss of the kind of masculinity that brought Silvio Berlusconi into the Italian presidency, while ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is Scorsese attempting and failing to do for white collar criminals what he did for Italian gangsters in ‘Goodfellas’.

Whether you like the films or not is irrelevant. The fact is that they fail to give us anything original, because the respective directors are not using their art-form for exploration, but for self-expression. Seeing that in 2014 we receive constant streams of information from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Central African Republic, what can this antiquated “Cinema of the Self” appear to the viewer as but an indulgent embarrassment on the part of the “auteur”? White men making movies about white men has run its course. The way we think about how ideas for films are conceived has to change. The jumping off point can no longer be “what do I want to say?”, it has to be “what do I want to discover?”.

Who’s Invited to the Party?

This was written as a suggestion of what white males can do to stay relevant to cinema as it moves forward, but there’s no reason women or non-whites can’t take directorial roles in this manner. The overall point is that who the director is becomes largely irrelevant to the story being told. These films can be directed by men but be about women if the women in the film are allowed to speak for themselves, as they are in ‘Ten’. The director must cede his role as dictator to that of organiser and creative driving force. It will still fall to the director to choose the right people to turn the original idea into a finished product, but the director will no longer create “filmed novels”, entirely reliant on his or her vision. These films will be a form of “open cinema”, vulnerable to the creative influences of those in front of the camera, or indeed, to anyone working on the film with an idea.

 

Out of Time: Museum Hours & The Art of Life

Jem Cohen’s recent release Museum Hours, takes an interesting look at life, art and history in Vienna from the vantage point of the city’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The film has a cinematic kinship with Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark in the manner in which both films use the museum as a place to discover and live the past. However, where Sokurov’s has one overarching experimental idea in the form of a single take, Cohen experiments with form relentlessly, jumping from voice-overs to conversations to documentary-like museum tours and beyond to expand the range of what the museum as an institution actually represents, outside its original conception or the mandates of the curators.

The Vienna of Museum Hours is unromantic, concrete, blank like a canvas. Cohen is not attempting to dazzle us with surface beauty, he is trying to make us wonder by making our eyes and our minds wander. His method is outlined explicitly when a museum tour-guide argues with a museum-goer about the paintings of Bruegel. She believes that in none of Bruegel’s vast paintings (she describes as documentary-like but anyone who has explored the pictures in a Where’s Wally? book will see the similarities with Bruegel) is the actual subject matter the point. For example, the painting ‘The Conversion of Paul’, she believes, is as much about the boy under the tree with the helmet covering his eyes as it is about the conversion of Paul. With this in mind Cohen shoots his film. He dedicates a shot to this boy in the middle of the painting. Later he dedicates a shot to some discarded clothing on the streets of Vienna, or to three bored teenagers in the museum itself. They are all of equal importance in the larger picture.

Have A Look Around

The Louvre opened on 10 August 1793, displaying works of art that had heretofore never been displayed to the public. Until this time art was visible only to the rich who displayed it on their walls as possessions, the way the middle-classes now display artefacts collected from their travels, bought from street-side vendors. As places in which conservation and education could take place, the intentions focused on both the past and the future, the museums became places for both the academics and the public.

But today there is a feeling of exclusivity around art museums. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people nowadays expect the acts of looking, interpreting and understanding to be almost simultaneous as it is when they watch the most popular movies. Films like The Hangover operate on simple laughs and instantaneous rewards. When you see a naked Chinese guy jumping out of a car boot you don’t have to stop and think about it like you do when Groucho Marx recounts his trip to Africa in Animal Crackers: “We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren’t developed, but we’re going back again in a couple of weeks”. That’s the kind of joke that makes the connections in your brain rework, changing the meaning of words and possibly questioning whether you’re offended or not. The meaning doesn’t knock you over the head, it has to be thought about, which is why some people who attend museums, particularly the famous ones, seem to consider relentlessly photographing everything they see to be an apt form of engagement, rather than thinking what is the meaning and what are my reactions to it.

There’s no exclusively “right” way to engage with art, but the mentality of feeling compelled to visit a museum and photograph everything you see – for what? to show it to your friends? “I saw this,” – is a sad and vacuous imitation of an experience, exactly identical with people who record gigs on their phones rather than using their eyes and minds to allow it to affect them in some way. My own favourite museum is the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as it houses one of the biggest collections of Impressionist paintings on the planet. The Impressionist idea of painting light rather than solid objects is, to me, a fascinating one. In this style Monet clearly had the most soul but there’s something endlessly endearing about Degas’ ballerinas or Renoir’s girls. These paintings, in complete opposition to Cohen’s film, express the surface beauty of the world, telling no stories and giving no real insights into the characters, which in a way is a liberating kind of art where the world is inherently both beautiful and meaningless.

Step Outside

This way of not engaging with art in museums is symptomatic of a way of taking the world completely at face value, a thing Jem Cohen tries to get beyond with the decidedly unbeautiful photography of Vienna in his film. There’s a moment in Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities in which Rüdiger Vogler photographs the front of a house and when he sees the polaroid he laments that the camera never captures what he sees with his bare eyes, that is, whatever it was that gave him the inspiration to point his camera in the first place. For Cohen the potential for inspiration is everywhere. When he points his camera it is not to say “look at this, it’s so deep and profound and moving,” it’s more to say “here is our world” and if you find something in it that sticks with you then that’s your business.

Of course anyone who has ever wandered the streets of a city, familiar or unfamiliar, knows that inspiration is only ever a breath away. Where you look when you walk the streets changes your experience. If you (as you sometimes must in a city like Dublin) watch only the footpath, then how will you ever see the scenes of life that play out through the shop windows or in the side-streets or on the tables and chairs in front of the cafés? What do you miss when you block out the world with your headphones or by staring at a phone screen? Replicate your experience of life by buying a ticket to Museum Hours and doing just that. You’ll understand the film just as well as you understand how to live.

The most essential idea Cohen puts forth in this film is that there is nothing in our day-to-day experience that is truly negligible. Of course we feel moments of exalted joy above what we deem to be “ordinary” but where we set the bar of the everyday is completely up to us. There is a piece of graffiti in Temple Bar that is scrawled unevenly in marker on the wall of a building that reads “In the streets of Dublin, where I met my love…” that I honestly feel if it were to disappear tomorrow I would miss far more than if the Mona Lisa was carried off in the night. As feeling thinking humans it is within our capabilities to decide for ourselves what we find to be the remarkable things in our lives. It is a personal compulsion we all have, that too often is suppressed in favour of conformity and hollow conceivable experiences.

Nothing quite captures this idea with such brilliant simplicity as the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’. It is about the word “fuck” that someone has scrawled in crayon on a subway wall, nothing to inspire much reflection – Holden Caulfield had a particularly depressive reaction to a derivation of that piece of graffiti on a wall in his sister’s school – but for Paul Simon taking that extra moment to consider the story behind the word, not even the personality of the writer but the actions that led to the writing appearing on the wall, transforms the initial reaction – the one Holden builds on and gets depressed by – and makes something out of it, not something good necessarily but something not malignant either. Like this, Jem Cohen’s latest film is a wonderful attestation to the act of stepping outside and having a look around.

My full review of Museum Hours can be found here: http://www.meg.ie/museum-hours

Violence, Audience Reaction and Tarantino’s Cinema of the Self | Cinema

quentin-tarantino

“Ultimately, everything belongs to the actors – we just manage the situation.” – Abbas Kiarostami on directing, 2005 interview with the Guardian

“I’m shutting your butt down” – Quentin Tarantino when asked about the violence in his films, Interview with Channel 4 News

In Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent film The Act of Killing (2013), we are led through the world of members of a Sumatran death-squad, gangsters and murderers who are idolised in their country for killing communists. Anwar Congo, one of these killers and the main focus of Oppenheimer’s film, recounts how they would go to the cinema and watch an Elvis movie, how it would define their style and their image of themselves. Congo and his gangster friends would come out of the cinema dancing and whistling at girls. They would dance all the way across the street to a small office building where communists were being “interrogated”, and after a while they would wrap a steel cable around the necks of these men and strangle them to death.

Congo states quite explicitly that their methods of murder were influenced by the movies they saw. The strangulation was lifted straight from the movies because when they simply beat the men to death there was too much blood. The argument about movie violence and its relationship to real violence is as old as the medium itself, but a film like The Act of Killing demands the attention of those who show violence in their films.

LadyVengeance

Violence and Self-Obsession

Quentin Tarantino is an egotist. His films are completely and absolutely about nothing but Quentin Tarantino and like all egotists his creative temperament remains squarely in the realm of the adolescent. Since Kill Bill (2003) every film he has made has had the exact same premise and trajectory, without variation. The Kill Bill films are about a woman whose child was taken away from her seeking revenge against people so sinister that they would murder a pregnant woman on her wedding day, Death Proof (2007) is about women seeking revenge on a woman-killer, Inglourious Basterds (2009) is Jews taking revenge against Nazis and Django Unchained (2012) is slaves revenging against slave owners. That is the last ten years of Quentin Tarantino’s cinema summed up in half a paragraph.

Compare any of these films to the Revenge Trilogy by Korean director Park Chan-wook. The noble glory that comes with murder in a Tarantino film is over-powering at times, because he is such a competent director when you see a slave-owner being whipped to death by an ex-slave or you see Hitler’s face being shot off with a machine gun it feels liberating. You see these acts of violence and you feel good. Park on the other hand offers a different vision of revenge. In Lady Vengeance (2005), a child-murderer is wreaking havoc through a Korean town. This character is every bit as despicable as the villains in Tarantino’s films, but when he is caught there is a scene in which the parents of the dead children line up outside a room where he is being suspended, weapons in hand, waiting their turn to torture the murderer of their children. But it is not a triumphant moment. His screams are echoing through the hallway where they wait and it is profoundly disturbing and unfulfilling, an honest and adult alternative to Tarantino’s representation.

FunnyGames

The Palette of Violence

The difference here is between a filmmaker who thinks about the themes he is working with and a filmmaker who thinks only about himself. Tarantino apologists after the above-quoted interview in which he “shuts down” the interviewer’s questions about violence in his films state the fact that Tarantino has answered this question in press junkets for his previous films, so he shouldn’t have to do it again. However, if The Act of Killing tells us anything it is that a director needs to be surgical and methodical in how they represent violence in films, or more specifically they need to be absolutely certain that every single time they use violence as a method of story-telling in their films that they are completely aware of how an audience will react to it. Tarantino should be made to answer specifically and directly for every single moment of violence that occurs in each of his films, not just once to cover the whole oeuvre. His reaction proves that he either isn’t aware of how films influence people or doesn’t care.

Michael Haneke is a well known critic of Tarantino’s cinema, although no stranger to violence in his own films you get the impression when watching them that he has considered them thoroughly. One of the most famous moments in his films comes in Funny Games (1997) when two baddies of the Tarantino- caste hold a family hostage and emotionally and physically torture them. The audience is told right at the start of the ordeal that this family is going to die, and that by watching we are complicit in their death, as mongers of gore. So after much of the film has progressed the woman eventually manages to grab a shotgun and shoot one of the invaders full in the chest. The sense of relief you feel as an audience member is exactly the same as when you watch Hitler’s face being machine-gunned or the slave-owners being whipped, but as punishment for this feeling, which the film has been preaching against, the other invader rewinds the film to before his companion was shot and stops the woman from killing him. The torture continues.

This is violence in cinema when it is being considered, when its place in the art-form is being questioned. We feel relief and pleasure at watching the invader die, but when that action is reversed we are frustrated, forced to question why we feel this way. For Tarantino his unwillingness to engage is obvious in his manner and his films and while the stupidly obvious retaliation to any criticism his apologists give “movies didn’t invent violence” is clearly true, who’s to say that a Tarantino film has never influenced a person to kill? How do we know that a person who watched Hans Landa get a swastika carved into his head didn’t associate the thrill Mr. Tarantino obviously intended the audience to feel to the act of violence rather than manipulation by the director? How many lives is one Tarantino film worth?

“Come on, what are you suggesting? That everyone who walks out of a Tarantino movie is instantly going to be morphed into a blood-thirsty killer? I’ve seen every one of his movies and I’ve never even thought about killing anyone.” This is the response of a middle/upper-class individual who lives in a fairly stable society. Tarantino’s films show in parts of the world where civilisation is not quite how it appears when you look out your window. What happened in Indonesia in 1965 as recounted by The Act of Killing is not an isolated incident and in a society like that, where even today the mass-murder of people considered unsympathetic villains is widely praised, the jump to murdering someone need not be so great.

CloseUp

A Film About Me

Why does Quentin Tarantino cast himself in his own movies? Why does he say things like “people are talking seriously about slavery for the first time in 50 years because of my movie”? Why does he gloat about his scripts like he has been granted divine inspiration from God to write them and make his actors stick to them like gospel? He’s popular because he’s entertaining. His interviews are fun to watch, his movies are big dumb cartoons that are easily digestible and don’t tax any part of the brain and he just happens to have something that people enjoy. But he can never be considered a great artist. His films have consistently gotten worse and less interesting since Kill Bill. Gone is the moral ambiguities of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), now you don’t have to feel anything, just “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys.”

Compare Tarantino and his lack of engagement in the effect cinema can have on people with Abbas Kiarostami’s stance on the matter. Kiarostami’s film Close-Up (1990) follows the true story of a man who pretended to be Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and promised a family that he was going to make a film about them. As a person interested in cinema as an art, Kiarostami was obsessed with the idea of this man so influenced by the films he saw that he would put himself at risk of allegations of fraud without any pre-meditated goals of extortion or burglary. By mixing documentary elements and fiction, getting the people who this actually happened to to reenact some of the key moments in the story, it is a fascinating and thorough portrait of a man with an obsession. Kiarostami’s film is focused on the idea that cinema has a profound effect on people, both the man who pretended to be a famous film director and the family who opened up their home to this stranger because he promised to make a movie about them.

Where Tarantino is present in every frame of every film he has made, Kiarostami, a true cinematic artist, has the complete opposite intention. In his filmmaking master-class 10 on Ten (2004) he describes his method for the film Ten (2002) in which he simply stuck two digital cameras on the dashboard of a car, one pointing at the driver seat the other at the passenger seat, and let the actors work. For Kiarostami the role of the director is to simply guide the film, and to let it develop of its own accord. He makes notes, rather than writing screenplays. In a way he is Tarantino’s complete opposite and their careers started only a few years apart so their respective trajectories and obsessions – one with people, the other with himself – is fascinating to compare.

Melodrama and Women | Cinema

AllThatHeavenAllows

“Any life-story that deals with a relationship or whatever is a melodrama, and for this reason I think melodrama films are correct.” – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977 Interview with Cineaste

“To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message” – Roger Ebert, Great Movies: Written on the Wind, rogerebert.com

“If you enjoy L’Eternel Retour you may enjoy also King Kong, but not Black Narcissus. If you enjoy Black Narcissus you cannot enjoy L’Eternel Retour (if you think you enjoyed both, you are wrong)” – Lindsay Anderson, Sequence Magazine

Has any genre in cinema history been so maligned as the melodrama? Its focus on emotion, extravagantly unreal plots and current relegation to the realm of day-time soap operas have caused it to be a style that is rarely given a chance to impress. Yet some of the most renowned directors in history have made their masterworks in it; Powell & Pressburger, Sirk, Hitchcock, Fassbinder, Almodóvar to name a handful.

The easy first reaction to a tearful close-up with swelling romantic music or a seemingly random twist-of-fate that sends the protagonists towards their doom is one of scorn and derision. “Ha!” laughs the savvy modern viewer, “what ridiculousness, emotions don’t manifest themselves like that in reality.” The same criticism is often levelled against the melodrama’s sister genre, the musical which does little but reveal the critic’s ignorance of that genre’s purpose. “But I just don’t like those kinds of films,” is the natural response, which is fine, but the fact remains that no other genre has represented women with such psychological depth as has the melodrama. To deride it is to deride half of humanity.

At this point it is necessary to state explicitly that this is not a call to do away with male-oriented genres in favour of melodrama, instead it is a defence of a genre at the expense of nothing.

KillBill

The Empowered Woman

Traditional male genres like the western or the gangster film have typically relegated women to peripheral roles, someone to worry about or mourn for the male protagonist, while the noir had women acting as “vamps,” leading the otherwise upstanding male character to his doom through seduction and self-interest. Women existed, filmmakers at the time were aware of this, but what direct impact they had on the big important questions, those of war, country-building and law-making/enforcing, well who knew?

So when a film like All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) comes along, telling the story of a widow whose feelings for her lower-class gardener are in direct conflict with her upper-middle-class neighbours’ opinions of propriety, who could possibly take it seriously when compared with action-filled aggrandizements of war featuring real buff men like John Wayne? Who could take the small domestic issues of a woman chained to her home seriously when the fate of the world was at stake?

Then, as is always the case, the ‘60s happened, and suddenly the oppressed housewife no longer spoke to the women of the world. However, apart from the odd exception that attempted to address gender issues in a quickly changing environment, Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968) and Network (Sidney Lumet, 1975) being decent examples, the male-oriented cinema continued to reign, with the women characters now just morally dubious rather than things to be morally corrupted.

With a mindset that could only be considered adolescent some bright-sparks thought “hey, why not make action movies only, wait, this is good, instead of men, right, you with me? the heroes will be women!” and so films like Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) and Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) that try to empower women by turning them into male action-heroes were churned out en masse, allowing those who were tired of hearing “but where are the strong women of cinema?” levelled at them to point and go “there, look, she’s killing a thousand Chinamen with sword, how much stronger can you get?” (For the record, Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) is a far more subtle and fascinating exploration of gender than the generic action sequel that followed it, and I will write another time about the horror genre’s link to melodrama).

So it remains today that a film that shows a woman kicking the heads off a roomful of baddies in fits of masculine rage is considered to be “empowering women” in cinema, the films that show genuine women with genuine problems tending to be the lot of a handful of directors.

AllAboutMyMother

Melodrama; what does that even mean?

Like all genres, melodrama is loosely defined. The use of emotional music and over-the-top plotting are the basic requirements, but when utilised well by the best directors it is quite simply the most effective and believable way of expressing  desire and characters, both male and female, but it also has a grand potential for metaphor that is unrivalled in other genres.

The melodrama has its own peculiar style of acting. In contrast with method acting, where the actor is made to feel his or her character’s emotion and then to bury it for the purpose of “realism” (method acting clearly designed to express more “male” characters, emotionally repressed), the melodramatic style puts everything on the surface so that there is no ambiguity; what the characters feel is made very obvious to the viewer. To say there is only one kind of acting is to limit your experience as a viewer of cinema.

In cinema the melodrama can potentially express so much more when using these basic tools of emotion and plot with a pinch of creativity. Films like Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1947), Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959), The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder, 1979) and All About My Mother (Almodóvar, 1999) are four of the best films to utilise the melodramatic style

When recounting the plot of All About My Mother it appears to be a piece of exploitation. With characters like Agrado’s transsexual, a transvestite father of two and a pregnant nun with AIDS it does seem to invite scorn, but the film’s brilliance lies in the simple reality of Cecilia Roth’s grieving mother, whose pain anyone can understand, and the fact that she treats all of these outlandish characters as real human beings, has honest relationships with them and makes them sympathetic. These characters are naturally melodramatic, excessive, so they exist in the realm of melodrama. The urge to laugh at them exists, and in a serious drama that would be the prevailing feeling, but melodrama takes the obvious absurdity of their beings and twists it around, so by the time Agrado is on stage recounting her life story we are all laughing with her.

No other form could so beautifully capture the complex issues of our changing understanding of gender. Only in the world of melodrama can an AIDS-suffering transvestite impregnate a nun and instead of rolling our eyes we feel the honest tragedy of the nun’s mother not being able to accept the child in her home for fear of catching AIDS. These are real issues, and the film is an absolutely essential piece of modern cinema in that it tells the stories of a marginalised people in a way that is not meant to be shocking but compassionate.

In many ways All About My Mother is comparable with Sirk’s Imitation of Life in that Almodóvar’s film attempts to bridge the gap between genders, whereas Sirk’s bridges the gap between races. Cecilia Roth’s role is here played by Lana Turner, the single mother with whom the audience empathises and the black woman – also a single mother – whom she takes in as a maid and eventually becomes friends with. The maid’s daughter Sarah Jane is the stand-in for Almodóvar’s Lola, in that she is light-skinned enough to pass as white and does so. She is ashamed of her black mother with a fervour that to modern audiences may seem excessive but powerfully expresses the inner shame forced on a person for being black in the US in 1950s.

If a viewer approaches the film thinking “why does this character feel so strongly?” rather than “that character feels too strongly so I’m not going to take it seriously” then they will set themselves up to be able to see what melodrama has to offer. Imitation of Life happens to be a masterwork and is still incredibly affecting today, as Sarah Jane is torn between the hard-working mother who has little but started with less, and the society that reacts with horror and hatred when they learn of her parentage.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder has described Sirk’s cinema as the only one in which women were shown to think, by which he means they were the only films in which women decided their own fates rather than having them decided for them. He himself interpreted this by variously showing women as being complicit in their own oppression, an opinion every bit as controversial today as ever it was, if not necessarily untrue. In The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) Hans beats his wife Irmgard in front of their young daughter, but when Irmgard phones her lawyer demanding a divorce Hans suffers a heart-attack and is bed-ridden and unable to work. Of her own will Irmgard returns to her abusive partner’s side, clearly moved by the helplessness that drives Hans to depression. When Hans suffers his heart-attack Irmgard is free but she returns to his side, her presence only prolongs his suffering and draws out the long process of his self-destruction. When Hans dies Irmgard is free again but now it is a despairing freedom where before it was purely liberating.

The worth of melodrama then is in telling the stories of the oppressed in society, those whose oppression is perpetrated by society rather than by the individual, which is the main struggle of most male-oriented dramas; the individual against the individual or the individual against the self. A film like Die Hard (1988) uses its villain as a means for the hero to transcend himself, to go beyond his human form and establish order. For the melodrama films mentioned above the drama of the characters comes in their attempts to simply fulfil themselves, to be able to exist in their real form, not as outcasts but as full human beings.

BlackNarcissusBlackNarcissus2

 

Melodramatic metaphor

Besides the literal facts of a melodrama’s plot the form has one of the greatest capacities of any genre for metaphor. Two of Fassbinder’s greatest protagonists Maria in The Marriage of Maria Braun and Franz in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1982) are both often read as metaphors for Germany in the post-war and pre-Nazi era respectively. Maria’s obvious love for her soldier husband, a representative of the brave and gallant Aryan warrior of the Nazis’ propaganda, an ideal the Germans are purposed to adore, is seen portrayed as hollow when Maria takes up with Bill a black American soldier. Maria’s rise in the business world directly corresponds with Germany’s economic boom, but she is characterised as a soulless woman who eventually destroys herself, literally exploding from inconsiderateness. Franz Biberkopf is an ex-pimp released from jail into a depressed and tense Berlin where his attempts to go straight are foiled by the floundering economy where a man cannot do an honest day’s work with any sense of self-fulfilment or pride. Led into a heist by the mysterious Reinhold he is thrown from a car and ends up losing his arm, unable to work like The Merchant of Four Seasons’ Hans. He, like Germany, is unable to work when it is maimed and so must return to its criminal ways, an inevitable return to self-preservation at the expense of everyone around them.

This is metaphor on an international level but melodrama is also one of the best ways of expressing the goings on of the mind, as is the case in Black Narcissus. A convent in the Himalayas is the setting of the story of Deborah Kerr’s nun and the sisters’ attempt to establish a presence in this part of the world. It is clearly as repressed and isolated a setting as could possibly be imagined but it is the film that has been described as one of the most erotic films of all time for the desire that Deborah Kerr joined the convent to repress. Her memories of her time with her lover in Ireland and his taking off to America without her are shown as the reasons for her joining the convent, but through Mr Dean’s ever-increasingly bared skin and the eventual eruption of Sister Clodagh in a bizarre breaking out in red dress and lipstick and murderous intent, the convent becomes a representation of her mind, and the convent’s failure to integrate itself with the community beyond any superficial level in turn shows that she herself does not belong here.

Time Span | Cinema

Before Sunset

Time Span

A film is a slice of life. When you make a film, whether it be ninety minutes or two-hundred, it is absolutely impossible to squeeze the essence of an entire life that may span eighty years into such a small window. It would be like trying to swallow an entire five-course meal in one mouthful, chances are most of it will end up on the floor and the only debate that will arise will be on the definition of success.

Watching a film is like having a conversation with someone. The great ones are the ones you think about and go back to, the ones that you relive and are full of ideas and nuances of expression that are so much more than the simple relaying of historical facts in loosely connected scenes that is the staple of the biopic, films such as Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004) or Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992), that attempt to capture the lives of men but say less about them than the men’s own bodies of work.

The main problem with the long recounts of a person’s whole life is that it requires jumps through time and eras each with their own unique period style, the use of child actors to portray characters in their youth or old actors – or worse, old make-up – for the golden years all of which works to disrupt the mood and the tone of a film. Even a couple of years between the beginning and end of a film’s time-span can have this effect, where it is the capturing of a specific place and time that is the essence of great cinema, whether it be a scorching summer day in a forest in medieval Japan or a cold and bloody winter in some Minnesotan town.

Persona

Time Outside Film

The truly great films are the ones in which you are simply dropped into a brief moment in time, often like one of the characters themselves, as if you have walked straight from your own life into somebody else’s world and that these scenes on the screen are a part of your life for this short time. Take Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Rick Blaine is a character with a past and with a future that we know little about, we hear he ran guns in Ethiopia and Spain and that ten years before he met Ilsa while she was having a brace put on her teeth he was looking for a job.

In Casablanca information is scant, there is a mystery behind everybody but all the characters are so vividly and successfully realised that you do feel very much like you have walked off the street into Rick’s Café Americain. One flashback to Rick and Ilsa’s time in Paris disrupts the events that take place over two nights in Casablanca to give an insight into the relationship of these two central characters. The flashback here is completely in service to the main narrative, for us to understand Rick’s bitterness we must live the pain he lived and relives when Ilsa returns to his life. In this way it is a journey into Rick’s mind within the film’s time span rather than a real omniscient flashback, as we later learn when Ilsa reveals why she abandoned him the day the German’s marched into Paris.

The past is always a thing that can oppress and define characters, so its presence can be completely necessary to the short time-span being shown for the simple fact that some past event can be a thing that is always on the character’s mind. The problem then is to reveal this information in such a way that it does not disrupt the film around it. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) is an example of this done perfectly. In the presence of the mute Lisbeth on a secluded Swedish island, Nurse Alma starts to open up about her own insecurities. She recounts the story of her becoming impregnated on a beach by a boy, the excitement of the event itself and the guilt of the resulting abortion. It is all told in dialogue but it is so vividly expressed that you feel like you were there, or that these events were shown onscreen. While it happens outside the time-span of the film it would be unthinkable to exclude it because it is clearly something that is on Alma’s mind during the time the film looks at. To have characters thinking about things from outside the time-frame of the film is what gives them life, to not have them expressed in some way would be madness, to express it poorly would mean death.

A grander example of this is Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) which may seem like one long biopic from childhood to death but the main narrative of the film is that of a reporter in pursuit of an article that explains the life of this man. The great bulk of the film is flashback with the goal of understanding the man’s last word, “Rosebud”. This is not to say simply sticking a biopic in a framed narrative solves everything as the framed narrative of Cate Blanchett in the hospital in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) proves. That film is the kind that does not work, because the purpose of the flashback is simply to recount the events of a man’s life from birth to death, which is the point of the biopic anyway and makes the framed narrative here pointless. Once Upon A Time In America (Sergio Leone, 1981) is less clear cut than either of the above examples as the flashbacks seemingly take place in an opium-induced dream. The various versions of this film that exist make the overall purpose unclear but it could be said to take place inside Robert De Niro’s head, like the flashback in Casablanca.

The Breakfast Club

The Magic of Not Knowing

The sequel culture of modern cinema has stripped much of the magic of the medium. Any number of direct-to-video sequels of beloved animations appeared throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s such as The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride (Darrell Rooney, Rob LaDuca, 1998) or The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea (Jim Kammerud, Brian Smith, 2000) but now these films receive major theatrical releases and even Pixar has begun a shameless nosedive in this direction. Taking characters we grew to love in some way and then examining every aspect of their lives before we knew them then after we knew them is not how we tend to live life and is anti-cinematic. If we go back to see the birth of Rick Blaine in New York and follow his upbringing there then follow his school years as an awkward teen then his release into the wide world then his gun-running activities then his post-Casablanca adventures with Captain Reno then his marriage to whoever he finally settles down with do we still feel the magic of cinema or have we simply picked the carcass clean like vultures with an unquenchable desire for facts rather than humans in pursuit of something beautiful.

The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) follows its characters outside the grind of day-to-day life and is a reaction against routine and the societal expectations of what we should be and how we should act so all the time that takes place outside of the film is seen as oppressive and debilitating. This is addressed directly when Claire tries to get Andrew to admit that having now become friends in the solitude of detention back in the real world he will simply ignore Brian if he greets him in the hallway with all Andrew’s athletic friends around. The film is the perfect example of film as a slice of life. Jack Bender’s hostile home environment is theatrically brought in, with cigar burns as proof and Andrew’s recounting his empathy for a boy he feels he embarrassed for his own father’s approval takes the physical act of sitting in a circle and talking about life and people into that realm in which time starts to flow like sand through your fingers, and cinema is the act of catching that sand in an hour glass, to be turned and let flow again and again without ever losing a single grain. The Breakfast Club is an expression of pure idealism and any sequels or even flashbacks within the film would have robbed it of its rebellious optimism.

Cleo de 5 a 7

Types of Time

A number of films take place over many years but do not wear the passage of time on their sleeves. Films like The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1971) and The Searchers (John Ford, 1954) do not change actors or bury them under tonnes of aging make-up eventhough they take place over a number of years. These films are epics and there is certainly a place for epics in cinema just as much as there is for films that take place over the course of a day or a week, but the difference is that these particular films do not condescend to try and explain the life of one man in their respective run-times, or to show all the key moments of their lives. As Scorsese observes about The Searchers one subtle glance from Ethan at his brother’s wife explains the entire narrative of why he would spend years tracking the Indians who kidnapped his niece. What exactly Ethan’s relationship is or was with his sister-in-law is something we will never know nor will ever need to know to enjoy the film. Like Rick’s flashback and Alma’s confession Ethan’s glance says as much as needs to be said.

Real-time is not a commonly used time-span but it has so much potential that it is a great pity it is not utilised more often. The tension in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1956) as Gary Cooper searches futilely for anybody to help him rid the town of the three criminals who have returned for vengeance against him to the backdrop of his having just married Grace Kelly is excruciating and brilliant. As a person living in real time you are aware of exactly how long he has to find someone to take these three men and the result is one of the greatest westerns ever made. Similarly Clèo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962) follows a woman for ninety minutes through Paris as she awaits the results of a medical examination and the long takes of driving through the city feel like real ennui expressed in deep breaths while the scene in which her songwriters arrive to practice a new song which she then sings passes in a flash; it is relativity captured on film. Hitchcock’s Rope also explores the possibilities available to telling a story in real time, but it is largely unchartered territory in cinema.

One of the most interesting American directors is Richard Linklater whose first three films Slacker (1991), Dazed & Confused (1993) and Before Sunrise (1995) all take place in one day, whereas his film Waking Life (2001), for the fact that it takes place completely in a dream, and time passes faster in dreams than in reality, could be said to cover a time-span even less than its run-time. His sequel to Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (2004) follows the same characters as the earlier film only nine years after they first meet. It is a rare sequel that manages to utilise the fact that too much information strips away the magic of certain moments as an artistic tool to show the realities of these characters now in their thirties. It is simply one of the most powerful uses of the effects of time passing ever put to film. His upcoming A Boyhood is another experiment in time in that it began filming in 2004 and has continued intermittently until the present day allowing its actors to age naturally.

A number of recent releases have represented interesting uses of time. Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011) is a 109 minute film that sets its pace from the very beginning with one long drawn-out shot of the window of a house with a branch in front of it. It does this as a way of cooling off the hectic minds of any cinemagoers who have probably just walked off a busy city street or taken a drive to get to the cinema and now need to be eased into the considered pace of the film. The image cuts to the inside of the house, everything untouched in the early morning and finally we see Elena in bed and watch as she gets up. Very little seems to happen when you watch the film as we follow this woman through her uninteresting daily activities, but when you think back on it you start to realise that the few terrible things that happen in the film creep up on you as they would in reality, you don’t even quite realise something has happened until the film is over, much like a real-life trauma puts a person into shock and denial.

Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2012) uses time in a very unusual way. There can be said to be no overall time-span for the film, what it portrays is the world at a whatever time it happened to be filmed, but the cuts between places are purely aesthetic, like that from a sand-filled old church in Louisiana to a Gothic cathedral in Europe. Time-lapse is used as a method of perspective, as the sun floats along the sky we are shown the angles and imperfections of a number of stone heads through how the shadows move, extending from the nose and brow and it is far more impressive than anything 3-D cinema has shown us.