Monday, October 31, 2005

Chief

It is hard to choose a chief sin of the modern Hollywood film; there are so many, the seven deadlies hardly suffice. But for me, one reigns: forgettability. How many times I have walked or subwayed down to Loews Lincoln Center only to return, two and half hours later, with only a vague sense of what intervened... The look and feel of the "down" escalator, the click of the double exit doors onto 67th (?) Street, the sense of emerging late onto a barren sidewalk (the accompanying sense that I have been "digested" by the movie theatre, processed in and processed out), the glare from the Food Emporium across the street, always meeting me there, somehow, with a reminder of stale, unwanted groceries: these sensory, homely, homemade data, repeated over years, are more vivid and lasting than almost any of the lavishly constructed images I came and paid money to see. If the reasoning is escapist, as it often is for me--why not see a movie and forget about everything for a bit?--the bargain is Faustian. It seduces you to forget life for two hours, but conceals its condition: that those two hours are lost, that you forget them too.

I saw three excellent films in the last few weeks, two of which are still, sadly, forgettable. Capote, for instance, a movie I would not dare to impugn, except, except... honestly, what did I take from it? I realized its most vivid moment for me came when Truman was reading excerpts from his book: not the scene, nothing of its filmic content, actually the prose itself, what he was reading! It was so far, in artistic quality, above any part of the film that it constituted an (unintentional, obviously) shattering indictment of film-as-art. Truman reads about the heads of the Clutter corpses concealed in cotton; we have seen this image--literally, enacted--in the film, but our glimpse of it onscreen is child's play compared to its prose rendition, chilling and magnificent. And I went also to see Good Luck, and Good Night, or however it's titled... I can't even remember the title. What I took from that viewing (again being savagely honest with myself) was mainly the opening scene, where the camera passes over faces in black-and-white, at a glamorous party, smoking and chatting, smiling in complicated ways, faces that are slightly worn, made up bravely beyond our present-day standards: a whole ethos of appearance heartbreakingly different from our own, the acceptance of wrinkles and edges and severities and strains, and all of them observed by the strangely modern camera, while wonderful Jazz Era music plays... Ahh, I thought, settling into my seat, sipping my 7-Up, this is great, but at no further point in the ensuing short film was I so satisfied. If the film had been about the substance of all of those bit characters' personal lives, about whatever they were discussing while the camera panned over them, I would have probably died of pleasure; instead it was about journalistic integrity. The transposition of Truman Capote from bleak snowswept Kansas to bleak rainswept Manhattan seemed a stage shift, not a life-shift (ah yes the noble trains criss-crossing wide, savage America), and both of these locations, even, seemed blessedly real compared to the Spanish villa where Truman and his lover get away, and eat perfectly set breakfasts against blue, cloudless Mediterranean backdrops; a drama played out in film terms, in "locations," in "scenes." So, too, the anxious newsmen fretting in the booths of CBS, the heroic frowns, the conjured banter of men with writers.

Both very good films. But in relation to the other very good film I saw in this period: fakes. Sadly--or perhaps not that sadly--this other film, Garcon Stupide, is very hard to see (playing in "alternative" venues according to an exceedingly limited schedule); and also I cannot recommend that squeamish viewers venture it, either; it is not a film for Grandma, unless she is terribly tolerant, and I'll leave it at that.

I needn't lie to myself to say it was good; I needn't force myself to remember anything; a clamorous group of images pops up in my brain, demanding attention, whenever I call the film to mind. For example, a scene where the main character goes up to the top of a mountain, to its pure overwhelmingly white snow: the film is washed out by the light, you feel that even your viewing experience is "threatened," seared away, and a surge of unexpected music merely confirms a tremendous release from the dark, indoor, night-filled, pasty, fluorescent, seedy scenes we suddenly realize we have been watching non-stop. And all he needs is that metaphor, that confluence, that departure; the filmmaker lets it go at that; there is no need to hammer in what the metaphor "means," it radiates all kinds of possible meanings in every direction; just as he merely needs to follow the glance of the 20-year-old, for a few seconds, around the little artifacts of his boyhood room to encapsulate all the traversed loss. But what is the boy feeling as he looks around? Thank God, there is no way of knowing. (Whereas in Good Night & Good Luck you always know that Murrow is stressing about the consequences of his aggressive journalism, about ideals, standards)... A conversation in the parking lot of a McDonalds; a drive-through order; cars passing through traffic circles at night; half-conversations in front of the numbing TV; Garcon Stupide is full of all kinds of authenticating, depressing realities; and yet I didn't find myself resentful at being dragged from my escape into life; I was grateful to be reminded of things I see every day: grateful to be reminded not to forget them.

Always be suspicious of people who tell you that something is "real," and something else is not. That I suppose includes me in this blogpost. I have my own agendas. I don't want to make a case for reality, however, so much as for memorability. I should add to the list of this movie's virtues that it rekindled in me an appreciation for certain aspects of Rachmaninoff (for that is what I have been told the music is)... perhaps I will finally buy that recording of Weissenberg playing Etudes-Tableaux. But Garcon Stupide has that rare asset: a director who seems to understand something about music. The concluding two minutes of the film seem musical, not by accident, but in essence. The onscreen events are reticent to declare themselves ("I am a happy ending" or "I am a sad ending," or even "I am an ending at all"?), and they take refuge therefore in the music (which cannot really declare itself either); the two enigmas are tied to each other, timed as a gradual release and disintegration, an unfolding of images and motives.

And instead of the usual spitting out down the escalator, out the corporate downward ladder, I found myself shaking, walking down the sidewalk in the Village, in no mood for bulls*** statements or any kind of interpretive crap. That means I really liked it. In this case a different bargain was made; I left with more time than I came in with; I had not sold my soul to the cinema, but instead it had sold mine back to me.

2 comments:

sheri said...

That's a great way to describe an enriching experience - leaving the theater with more time than you came in with. It's also good way to think about what to give an audience - concentrated time.

There is a maker of very beautiful films, named Nathaniel Dorsky, who writes about the post-cinema experience in a tiny gem of a book called "Devotional Cinema." He speaks of films, (or concerts, or theater), making one feel healthy or unhealthy. And how the experience can alter your relationship to your fellow audience members, as well as your relationship to the environment upon exiting the theater, (be it the down-escalator in Lincoln Center or a bustling street in the Village).

For myself, I have a strong leaning towards films that work on me more like music - non-declarative, often to the point of non-narrative, but replete with meaning. You've made me want to see "Garçon Stupide," that's for sure! S.

DO said...

Questions:
1. For whom is Think Denk sanitized? Is this a PG-13 blog?
2. Do you really think "Good Night" was excellent (albeit unmemorable)? That seems awfully generous to me. It had never seemed possible to make a film utterly devoid of ambiguity--until I saw it. I thought it black and white in every sense of the term.