Capturing the Moment: In Search of Adequate Images

The Werner Herzog quote about adequate images always stuck with me. His call for people to treat imagery with a greater respect seemed important to me, and he obviously put a lot of weight in it himself, clear from how apocalyptic his language was.

But figuring out what exactly adequate imagery looks like was not so well defined. Clearly there was something lacking in a huge amount of our visual media, but it was easier to describe what doesn’t qualify as adequate imagery than it was to describe what does.

I read a Pitchfork article about people who use camera phones at gigs and it got this video essay going. I didn’t want to demonise the people who shoot the gigs they attend, but I could never understand it. The quality of the images they get is terrible as is the sound, and I could never imagine wanting to actually look at them, so why on earth do these people attend gigs just to miss any profound moments they might have experienced by trying to capture it and watch it later?

It made more sense to me to try and explore this desire than to finger-wag, and so tying in Herzog’s concept of adequate images I attempted to link the desire to film a gig with the desire film-makers have to create images. The difference being one group is professional and the other is not.

In particular I wanted to bring the video essay around to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, easily one of the best films I saw this year and one that I believe is packed with adequate images.

One image I specifically enjoyed was how the veil is used by the director Ana Lily Amirpour, an Iranian-American. In Iran the veil is a symbol of oppression (or modesty, depending on who you ask) but Amirpour transforms it here into a vampire’s cape. As the main character stalks the streets at night, preying on sexist men, she is a realisation of a misogynist’s worst fears; a man-eating woman who wears the uniform of her oppression with a biting irony.

I don’t think people who film gigs with their cameraphones should be chastised, but I do think they are robbing themselves of the opportunity to really engage with art. We all feel that because we can all make little films now that we should. Whereas the truth is the same now as ever it was; that it takes years of practice to get good at it.

Anybody can make a great art work, but they can’t do it over night, nor by chance. And the first step to creating great art is to engage with great art. That’s what I was aiming to express in this video essay.

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

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

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.


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


“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.


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.


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.


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.