There is a mode of writing about film that I really enjoy reading — I’m cautiously calling it romantic-reflexive. Practitioners of this style include Murray Pomerance, Geoff Dyer, Raul Ruiz. It’s a style I enjoy because it feels immediate, almost as if the thought had just occurred to the writer. It’s an informed style, but rather than be peppered with footnotes or citations at every turn, the reader is just aware that they’re being spoken to by someone who’s done a lot of reading.
It’s a style that permits idiosyncrasies, but one that does not allow laziness. It allows for a nuanced discussion of film, but a discussion that is not hyper-critical. The analysis is not over-wrought, such that the film loses all magic, all its moments. I sense that this is a difficult style to master, but I’ve sketched out a few projects in the coming months that will hopefully allow me to give it a try.
For now, though, here, on this blog, I’m going to run the style past whatever I’m watching in the next few weeks, months. I’m currently halfway through Paris, Texas, so maybe that’ll be first.
I received this text message today, and it made me sad.
I lived in Katoomba for a couple of years while I was working on the PhD, and somewhere between the Carrington Hotel and Civic Video, plus the not too shabby view off the back verandah, was maybe one of the most blissful and productive times (creatively and intellectually) in my life thus far.
Civic Katoomba had a top range; a diverse clientele, from tradies and proper, honest working class folk (with proper, real jobs), to commuters like me who taught at unis or were authors or artists or similar. They also sold Ben and Jerry’s, which made for an irresistible weekend combo.
If you can get there in the next day or two, catch yourself a bargain. Otherwise, like me, you can reflect once again on the past, and how things change, and how places, buildings, businesses that you thought would be forever, turn out to be just as fleeting as everything else.
David Cox’s no doubt controversial take on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has spurred me to writing, and not, as you might think, to leap to the film’s defence.
I saw Dunkirk on Saturday morning; not in IMAX, as Nolan would make everyone if he could legally do so, but at my local cinema, on a normal screen.
I’d heard similar things to Cox: that Nolan had crafted a perfect war film, a stark and bleak story of suspense and survival. But I, too, left the cinema feeling wholly underwhelmed.
We had a protracted discussion in my studio yesterday about Interstellar and confection. I avoided discussing Dunkirk too much so not to ruin my students’ gut reactions, which I consider just as good a mark of a film’s impact as any well-crafted review. But in Interstellar, as in much of Nolan’s recent work, the score is solely responsible for imbuing any meaning to the image. We watched a 15-minute clip where the protagonist leaves his family and launches into space. Apart from the opening tears and family stuff, the rest of the scene is highly procedural, with McConnaughey, Hathaway, Bentley et al floating about the spaceship, flicking switches and checking systems. There are moments of banter, but nothing hugely affecting. This scene is ‘confected’ (an excellent word used by my co-teacher) to feel like a massively emotional scene, purely by the score. Humorous lines are given a push by lilting string phrases. Little barbs about home are sent into the realm of epic pathos by a booming bass note. It just feels entirely artificial and wrong (comparisons were made to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pulls off suspense, emotion, awe much more effectively).
Dunkirk is equally confected, but in a very different way. Cox mentions the lack of character development and backstory. When I read the early reviews, I came down on Nolan’s side, arguing naively that perhaps there is room for both well-developed character war films and those that are more visceral. After seeing the film, though, I can’t help but agree with those critics. I would add a couple more criticisms, though.
Compared to the over-exposition of previous Nolan stuff, this film has virtually no dialogue. What dialogue is there is mumbled, or hastily whispered from cover. The dialogue does nothing to explain the characters’ decisions or motivations (exposition), nor does it give a more rounded insight into the characters’ personalities (abstraction/expression). The words just sort of sit there as awkward observations about the characters’ surroundings that, arguably, with the film being shot in IMAX, the audience could probably see and figure out for themselves.
The supposedly ever-present threat from the unnamed enemy comes off as wholly artificial. The enemy is basically represented by a Shepard tone and, because Nolan doesn’t want you to forget that you’re under threat, the Shepard tone never ends. The result is a suspense that is driven not by empathy, or by a feeling of anticipation or fear, but by sheer audience discomfort in the cinema.
The third and final criticism is that this is a blinkered story. The protagonist, if there is one, is played by Fionn Whitehead, who does an admirable job of injecting some affect into the lifeless husk with which the audience is meant to sympathise. If you are going to focus on someone, though, if the audience is indeed meant to feel what a protagonist is feeling, we need something more than an innocent-looking face. At least for Whitehead’s character — Bobby? Jimmy? What gratingly archetypal British name did they give him in the credits? — the audience needs some hint of a story of home, a family or partner waiting for him, loving parents. We get more of that for the sailor’s son, who dies purely accidentally (‘He always wanted to be in the paper’), than we do for the protagonist. We also get next to no sense of the scale of the evacuation, nor of the role that non-British countries played, both in terms of being evacuated and off fighting off the German threat. Apart from two French soldiers holding the line at the beginning, one blink-and-you-miss-him-Dutchman, and the other French soldier pretending to be British, you wouldn’t know that there were not only British, French, and Dutch troops at Dunkirk, but also Canadians, Poles, and Belgians.
330,000 people made it off that beach. That’s the story of Dunkirk. I’m all for visceral cinematic experiences, for switching off my own life in favour of immersion in a story or experience. But in the case of Dunkirk, to ignore the scale of what may well have become ‘the greatest military disaster in our long history’ — to steal Churchill’s words — does something of a disservice to everyone, of all nations, both home and abroad, who somehow got most of those men and women home. To do that, we need to get to know the people on a level greater than pure affect. We also need to see how great, how enormous, this military achievement was. Somehow Nolan, of all people, failed on both counts.
I’ve frequently maintained that the best films stay with you. I don’t mean ‘best’ in terms of quality, necessarily — though that helps — but the best films in terms of those that actually meaningfully contribute to what we call cinema. The best films keep projecting into our temporal lobes long after the credits have rolled; they haunt us, they taunt us, they call to us to watch again, to peel back the layers of their meaning, to look beneath their skin just as they have weaved their way under ours.
A few years ago I taught a course at the University of Sydney that examined the transition from celluloid to digital. It was a wonderful course, and inspired me in many ways for the studio teaching and research I’m currently undertaking. One of the films we watched was Park Chan-wook’s Night Fishing. What a weird little film. Shot entirely on an iPhone 4, the film combines night-vision, fishing, camping, mythology, ghost stories, grief — it’s a masterful little thing. It was perfect for that course, too, because it reiterated that it doesn’t matter what tool you use to create cinema; cinema can be created with anything.
I’d been meaning to catch more of Park’s work, particularly Oldboy and the Vengeance trilogy, but they remain on the Shelf of Shame. After seeing a screengrab from Stoker in a talk on Friday though, I was immediately inspired to get the bluray. This film deserves the highest quality, as it is stunningly beautiful. Also, with this kind of movie, you need your blacks to be really black.
Briefly, and trying not to spoil anything, Stoker is a bottled drama starring Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn, and Matthew Goode as India’s Uncle Charlie. India and Evelyn are recovering from the death of India’s father, Richard, as Uncle Charlie moves back into their lives after a long absence. Long story short, some stuff happens.
The Hitchcockian overtones and influences are readily apparent — the Uncle Charlie/India relationship is pilfered from Shadow of a Doubt, and the tension that slowly builds throughout the film is reminiscent of [insert name of any Hitchcock film here]. But what’s neat about this film is how that tension is woven in with the beautiful imagery. Further, their are even hints of the mobile image (as in mobile phone) that I remember from Night Fishing. In one scene, India and Charlie are playing a duet on the piano. This is a weird moment for a lot of reasons, but the weirdness is reinforced by this tracking shot, about shin-height, that snakes its way between the furniture right up behind them. The tracking shot recalls The Shining, but the movement isn’t entirely smooth. Much like the visual composition of the rest of the film, this shot is not entirely stable. You wouldn’t say its unstable, but there’s definitely something not right. Take any shot of Uncle Charlie, for example. We’re never given the full picture, something is always in the way. It doesn’t hurt, too, that Goode’s performance oozes Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
Stoker is one of those perfect examples of a film where everything congeals into one single vision. Camera, editing, music, performance, narrative all just happen; there’s really no separating them. There is no distinction to be made here between the analogue and the digital (for what it’s worth, it was shot on 35mm). This is a stream of information, a torrent of meaning, that brings the audience wholly into the narrative in an effortless way. This may not be a quality film (it is), but it certainly is one of the best.