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.
Taking my first steps in the world of programming, I’ve been intrigued to see that many of the overarching rules for ‘best practice’ and the more philosophical protocols for program design/code structure, are nearly the same as in screenwriting.
Keep it simple.
Show, don’t tell.
Don’t repeat yourself.
Only do one thing at a time.
Write for your audience.
These aren’t rules in the traditional sense. They aren’t dictums passed down from on high that every programmer/screenwriter must adhere to. Occasionally you simply can’t keep it simple. You may well have to tell, rather than show. And sometimes, because it’s necessary (or because it’s something of an artistic flourish), you may have to repeat yourself.
Rather, these are popular rules, finely honed over the 120 years that people have written for the screen, and the 200+ years that programs have been written for machines.
It’s not just rules that translate between programming and cinema, though. There are quite a number of connections between the art of creating computer programs and the prevailing analytic approaches to film; but that’s for another time.
That’s fine. Critics, of all people, are certainly entitled to their opinion. And Richard Brody is by no means an unqualified critic. What Brody’s done here, though, is fundamentally misunderstand the thrust of the film he’s critiquing. It’s a trap that a great many critics fall into: thinking the film is about one thing, when it’s actually about something else, or a bunch of other things.
‘The movie’s very idea of jazz,’ writes Brody, ‘is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.’ It certainly would be, if this was a film about jazz, rather than a jazz film.
What on earth is a jazz film? Damn fine question. The notion came to me in one of the earlier scenes in Damien Chazelle’s film. Miles Teller’s Andrew leaves the Conservatory, heading home after thinking he’s failed to make the cut for the concert band. Amid the standard cutting of Andrew walking the streets between his school and his home, random shots show street lamps, illuminated windows, signage, traffic. This isn’t a standard contextualising montage between scenes – these are random shots interspersed with the character-centric frames.
This random approach to cinematography and editing persists throughout the film – take the phenomenal final shots which obscure the subjects’ faces, and not the parts a cinematographer would normally mask.
So while perhaps Chazelle is not glorifying jazz, the learning of music, or education more broadly, he is certainly contributing a jazz sensibility to the craft of cinema.
Billy Crystal is quoted as saying ‘That’s the thing about jazz; it’s free-flowing, it comes from your soul.’ This idea works for Whiplash: not only is the flow of images free, but they all feel as though they came from some deep place.
This is particularly appropriate given that this is not a film about music, or education, or history, or culture. This is a film about the systematic manipulation and mangled reconstruction of one soul by another.
Whiplash is a staggering film, that I’ll struggle to get over. It’s a stellar character piece, and I feel that the claustrophobic intimacy of its dark story will haunt cinema for some years to come.
Cinema is movement. Movement is change. Change is politics — politics regulates change.
Movement in the frame is thus political.
The addition of speed amplifies the political impetus of cinema. Movement is cinema.
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[It’s okay, I haven’t lost it. These are perfunctory scribblings for upcoming research, that I thought were strangely poetic. Rough thoughts on the disappointingly not-that-disappointing Need for Speedhere.]
That seems a strange thing to say, given that I bill myself as a ‘writer, producer, and researcher’. But it’s true. In terms of actually setting mind to page without the baggage of scholarly rigour, it’s been an age.
Given I now work for an institution that lauds, encourages, creative practice as research, I’m wondering if there’s an element of writing that needs a punch in the face. Or — maybe I just need to write, and figure the rest out afterwards.
I surround myself with people who I know have outstanding skills in their respective fields, whether living or dead. But I’ve not opened a screenwriting program in some three or four years. There’s something there.
There’s always something there.
I just have to go find it, capture it, and ensure I can type it out in Courier New 12pt.
As previously alluded to, I’m in the very strange process of having to think through my own comprehension of the cinematic medium. In a way, I’m taking baby steps towards my own theory of film. I’ll be taking these initial explorations to a couple of conferences in New Zealand in a couple of months, and I’m also running a studio around the same topic in the second half of the year.
The basis of this new research is that throughout film history, film theory, the notion of the ‘frame’ is never questioned. So much of this is due to the fact that up until very recently, the frame itself was a tangible thing: there’s little need to theorise or philosophise about something you can cut up and hold in your hand. While my research goes out on multiple tangents, the ones we’ll be looking at in the studio have to do with our framing of the world, and how we can link this notion of framing to our conception of self, and our own thought process. It sounds pretentious, I’m well aware, but I’m hoping that through exploring what a cinematic frame is in 2015, we can move towards a comprehension of digital cinema that is either entirely new or, at best, a – ahem – reframing of older theories of film form and philosophy.
‘When I was a child, I thought as a child acted as a child, spoke as a child… but when I became a man, I turned my back on childish things.’ [1 Corinthians 13:11]
The church expects that every person should grow up. Why? There is no harm, no danger, no inherent negative effect in striving to hold on to childish notions, to innocence, to a wonder at the world, to a genuine and pure interest in others. If everyone held to these, maybe the world would be a better place.