By Bob Clark
Between books by the likes of J. Hoberman and David Denby and no end of speculation from online commentators, there’s been a lot of questions asked about the place that cinema has in the growing fog of mass-media communications and whatever role that true art plays in that versus the marketplace. In the case of many professional critics, there’s been far too much emphasis on the death of film as a physical tool, on the weaning end of celluloid as an instrument of cinema versus the rising popularity of digital-video among younger directors and thrifty producers, mostly with an eye for the loss of the old visual substance one had with the chemical process of old-school photography, ignoring the ways in which new technology has effectively democratized what once was the most expensive, and therefore least inclusive, of all the arts. While there’s every chance that this cheaper blend of cinematic tools will eventually help sire a new generation of savvy independent filmmakers beyond this past decade’s mumblecore crowd, so far we’ve mainly seen all the old stalwarts benefit from the rise of digital, from mainstream Hollywood filmmakers to institutional art-house relics. To a certain extent all of these forces are present on display in the new films showcased during each year during the New York Film Festival, which traditionally blends high-profile Oscar-bait like a professional fisherman opening a box of his latest lures, with a cornucopia of select international fare.
Now there’s plenty of promising stuff that I didn’t get a chance to check out during the festival, as far as new stuff goes. Brian De Palma’s sexy-remake Passion sold out almost as soon as it was announced, while interesting material like the cold-war drama Barbara, the Isreali documentary The Gatekeepers and the Tavianna Brothers’ Caesar Must Die, following the inmates of a Sicilian prison staging a production of Shakespeare, all conflicted with the rest of the schedule I’d penciled in of classics like Lawrence of Arabia or Heaven’s Gate from last week. Of the new releases that I did make a point to see during the festival, perhaps the one I most anticipated was Ollivier Assayas’ follow-up to his dynamite epic Carlos, especially since this latest film returns him to the heady days of French radicals. Following a handful of teenagers growing up in the haze of 1970′s demonstrations and rioting, Apres-Mai (titled with the more generic label Something in the Air for American filmgoers unschooled in the aftermath of the 1968 uprisings, and who therefore probably wouldn’t even know to go see the film in the first place) represents something of an odd blend of revolutionary action-romance and a more usual Boomer-era exercise in generational navel gazing. Early on, Assayas’ youths juggle their time in ways that anyone old enough to exercise in nostalgia can recognize past the dense layers of striking period detail– there’s era-specific stuff like violent clashes with police and security guards, certainly, but there’s something universal to the anarchic delinquency exhibited by these kids who stage an invasion of their high school after dark to tag it with graffiti and slap up posters everywhere. If the consumerist intellectuals of Masculin-Feminin were “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola”, then these are the children of Nick Ray and Godard– rebels to be sure, but with a cause.
At least that’s what they seem to think of themselves. Following a protest-action that goes wrong and leaves a guard hospitalized and an innocent fellow-traveller saddled with charges by the police, Assayas follows his youths as they flee France to lay low, treating life on the lam with little more consequence than rich kids backpacking across Europe, which gradually we can come to see is exactly what they are. Though we seldom see any sense of parental figures around these kids (in fact, we only see one father in the whole movie, in a grand total of two or three scenes), we frequently get them namechecked as the kids ponder what kind of life awaits them after they return from fugitive life on the lam. Everyone seems to come from wealthy backgrounds well connected to whatever career they’re trying to get into, and the extended vacation they enjoy on the dime of the local leftist parties comes off as another embodiment of privilege. What begins as a mere exercise in Baader Meinhof Complex red-flag waving sex and violence slowly turns into a subtle indictment of how a generation can sell out on its principles. We’ve seen plenty of versions of this story in the United States, but the telling difference here is that Assayas is putting his generation under the microscope during the stage of its youth, rather than its belated adulthood or sagging middle-age, as one tends to get in most nostalgia-ridden American reminiscences. He’s not waiting for his beautiful hippies to slowly morph into yuppies, but showing them sell out right in their youth, and inspecting how the seeds for that hypocrisy are planted right in the comfortable socio-economic positions they rail against.
Perhaps most effective in the expression of this theme is how the young actors mostly turn in rather half-hearted performances throughout, by turns wooden and stilted, inexpressive and uninterested. It’s another sign of a generation of kids born with a Riviera casino chip on their shoulders, straining to act too cool for school even as they seek to tear it down. The characters almost seem bored and offended to find themselves in this kind of movie, and almost seem more comfortable with the idea of breaking the fourth wall to rush the stage and occupy the theater it’s playing in. A sped up, younger illustration of the slow decline of morals and morales that Assayas himself put to screen in the Fat Elvis stretch of Carlos, the film succeeds as a sad statement on a generation that lived in passionate times, but didn’t seem to enjoy them very much.
If there was a purposeful sense of joylessness throughout Apres Mai in the way that Assayas charted the spoiled disillusionment of his trust-fund radicals, there is then a joyfulness onscreen every bit as purposeful, and perhaps at long length just as strained to the senses, in Leos Carax’s much-heralded return to feature filmmaking, Holy Motors. Much has been made of the film’s standout appearances in festivals around the world already at this point, with plenty of rightful comparisons to the style and substance of Bunuel and Tati as the director follows a mysterious performer who attends numerous engagements in various disguises, inhabiting all manner of seemingly disconnected roles in a job that’s never really fully explained and might for all intents and purposes be seen as a grand act of absurdist live-action role-play. Carax has admitted that the premise is really just a thin gimmick to allow him to put to screen as many stories as possible, each of them representing a failed attempt for features and shorts he’s made over the years. In at least one case, we even see a character from previous works return in the figure of the sewer-dwelling, flower eating troll Monsieur Merde, handily stealing the show as easily as he does Eva Mendez.
In that role Denis Lavant succeeds in pulling you into this utterly perplexing but undeniably amusing sequence, as he does for all his various characters and the overall frame-persona of Oscar, the actor who finds himself spirited from one surreal engagement to the next via a limo with an interior large enough to make you wonder if it’s a TARDIS with a working chameleon circuit. In a performance, or rather an assortment of performances that takes him from a ping-pong ball covered motion-capture actor to thugs, assassins and all manner of aging father figures, Lavant commits with the same level of spirited commitment as a lion-taming circus clown suddenly tasked with performing an acrobatic high-wire act after being shot out of a cannon. As a piece of cinematic acting, it’s easily one of the most impressive feats of the past several years, and one that ought well be recognized even in the mainstream awards season this fall and winter. It’ll have to conquer Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis’ excursion to Mt. Lincoln, but if Benigni could manage winning the namesake of Lavant’s character, why not Lavant himself? As a piece of filmmaking itself, however, the feature does show signs of sagging and strain at least a little while after it passes its accordion-infused Entre’acte, and moreover attempts to place more emphasis on the overall role of Oscar the performer and the organization he represents. In the film’s first half, when we’re still unsuited to the rules of the game and when Carax is willing to keep things abstract and disconnected, the surreal series of episodes pays off rather handsomely. The more he focuses on the frame instead of the individual tales themselves, however, all he really does is draw attention to the flimsy excuse it provides.
There are occasional moments when he almost reaches the dreamlike existential musings on the nature of performance and the role of cinema itself in the new millennium, such as a lengthy melancholy-ridden encounter Lavant has with a fellow performer played by Kyle Minogue (of all people). Their bittersweet musical sequence, and the past it represents both for them as characters and the roles they mysteriously inhabit, come close to attaining the same kind of magic that Wim Wenders reached with his childlike angels over Berlin, and moreover does a good job of continuing the film’s representation of all manner of cinematic genres and motifs within the confines of this picaresque journey. Yet at the same time, there’s some of the same wear on patience that any overly episodic film can in this vein– it has just enough emphasis on the frame story for it to get in the way of the individual chapters, but not enough to flesh out and fully explore the interesting ideas it poses in bite-sized chunks. One wishes that there were either a more conscious emphasis on the nature of Lavant as Oscar throughout the film, instead of mere teasing tidbits, or that rather the frame were abandoned entirely in favor of letting the film be the anthology of shorts it is in function. As it stands, Holy Motors feels somewhere caught between the Linklater experiments of Slacker and Waking Life, though it has a more tangible quality than either, which makes it an easy candidate for any future list of the decade’s greats.
Holy Motors represents, among other things, one of those unique cinematic visions whose realization today is helped made possible by the advent of digital filmmaking and the lower costs it provides, and though Carax has gone on the record as disliking the digital video overall, it’s to his credit, and that of the technology itself, that the product he’s able to pull off is one that is virtually indistinguishable from celluloid film (indeed, had it been printed to film reels instead of being given a digital projection, I seriously doubt anybody would have even thought it was shot on video to begin with). Cost has often been the major determining factor in whether or not to shoot a new film project on video nowadays, but in the matter of Pablo Larrain’s third feature, No, the video-cinematic process is instead a matter of aesthetics, and moreover of period detail. Following a fictionalized Mexican-Chillean marketing whiz played by Gael Garcia Bernal who joins a campaign to advertize the 1988 election to oust Pinochet from office, Larrain makes the potentially off-putting decision to shoot the entire film on the same dated VHS stock that the various political promotions and commercials were produced on, giving the film the same look as the period it seeks to represent. The ugly, grainy look of the video shot here robs the story of any potential aesthetic graces it might’ve had in celluloid or digital, as well as the decision to frame everything with industrial 1.33 as opposed to the more expansive 2.35 that Lars von Trier and other video-minded filmmakers have often shot for, adding a kind of poetic grace to the grimy footage that Larrain’s film plainly lacks.
And that’s precisely the point, of course. Or rather, it’s in part the point, in addition to the ways in which the video helps bring an immersive quality to the story, putting you right there in the kink and funk of 80′s tech and media sensibilities. Video here becomes as important a period detail as the rainbow t-shirt design for the opposition campaign, or the Star Wars posters hanging on the walls of children and ad-men alike. The ways that the main footage helps blend with the archival material of actual ads from both sides of the debate (as well as commercials for Coca-Cola rip-offs with New Wave music and mimes mugging for the camera) helps lend it a verisimilitude and weight that it likely couldn’t achieve if it attempted to stage the same kind of upscale cinematic recreation of the times at the same scale and scope with which Assayas brings the 70′s back to life in Apres Mai. Instead we get a more intimate, down to earth depiction of ordinary civilians attempting to protest and motivate a populace to make a stand against a dictator, however symbolic, with positivity and hope instead of the usual defeatist liberal passive-aggressive muckraking cynicism.
At the same time, however, that intimate portrayal of the times can sometimes make the film’s limited focus upon Bernal’s character and his advertizing cohorts feel a little suspicious– the video footage gives it all the feel of a home-movie, and claustrophobic confines of the script’s restricting us to virtually nobody but the campaigners almost lends the impression that Pinochet could be taken down by commercials alone. Video both gives license to keep the scale of the drama small and personal, but also encourages us to ignore the larger offscreen dramas we’d likely be able to see through more consciously in celluloid or digital. Can audiences be trusted to look past the medium and see the flaws in the message? Are we really that close to thinking Bernal capable of bringing down a dictator singlehandedly? If we believe David Strathairn and George Clooney could beat McCarthy or that Redford and Hoffman could win the war against Nixon all by their lonesomes, maybe the answer’s not as simple as “yes” or “no” to begin with.
Finally, while Larrain’s No represents a novel, if problematic usage of video to tell its story, then the late-in-the-festival feature Tabu from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, deserves recognition in the fact that it stands as the only film during the 50th New York Film Festival to be shot and presented in pristine celluloid. Freely mixing past and present, reality and fantasy, eschewing dialogue for half its running time and color for its entirety, the film stands as a stridently old-fashioned representation of dreams and memories of both the last heady, gasping colonial days of European empires in Africa and the ebb and flow of cinema itself at an age when it was, like now, seemingly in the midst of being supplanted by new media like television. Recalling Godard’s In Praise of Love in its two-part present-to-past narrative and stylistic structure as it follows an elderly Portuguese woman haunted by long-ago loves and misdeeds, the film feels like a formal yet playful balance of classical and radical cinematic techniques. Though its story is slight both in its talkie first half and its silent second (save for environmental noises and voice-over narration), it gains an unexpected weight from its use of traditional celluloid in the shooting, showcasing not only the depth of its own narrative and aesthetic principles, but moreover displaying what types of films can perhaps most benefit from sticking with the tried and true materials of the celluloid-photographic process.
There’s a natural, naked quality to the way that Gomes composes his open 1.33 frames and captures the natural, yet dramatic lighting for black and white, clear as glass but with the occasional imperfection of film grain. It’s that sense of a natural flaw now and then that helps give an otherwise overly formulaic plot and visual style a sense of the wild, of asymmetry that pixel-perfect digital would lack even with the most careful recalibration of its instruments. With costs saved from switching away from more expensive film production, Gomes may have been able to afford a more lavish representation of the colonial times and turn the movie into an old-fashioned monumental epic more true to the Hollywood love story he consciously patterns his romance after, but with the budget restrictions of celluloid there comes an intimacy with the cast and production that’s common to a lot of the independent productions of decades past, and might be seen lacking in many of the more technically ambitious material of today that strains to reach a high-concept plateau of its own. Holy Motors suffers a little from this attempt to reach the brass ring, while No adopts an imperfect visual form of its own that both enhances its best attributes while adding fuel to its fallacies. Tabu settles into a pleasant visual atmosphere that at once makes up somewhat for its simplistic story and derivative presentation, its grain adding richness to an otherwise pleasant, if otherwise unremarkable production.
Even at its most modest when compared to the ballooning scale and budgets of big Hollywood productions like the ones that opened and closed the festival (and aren’t worth attending, seeing as they’ll be easy enough to track down in one of your more obscure supermarket multiplexes) cinema might not be dead, but it certainly might be dead drunk, high off its own successes and excesses. Cinematic aesthetics and subjects have become more and more disjointed and fragmented as of late, as evidenced by something as large and looming as the upcoming Wachowski-Tykwer collaboration Cloud Atlas or as relatively inauspicious as the festival crowd-pleaser Holy Motors. If McCluhan’s mantra still prevails in this new millennium, that what is to be made of how cinema keeps splintering its messages in the age age of newer, practically schizophrenic mass media? In the narrative and technological divisions we see in Hollywood and the art-house alike, are we seeing something akin to the Cinerama experiments vaunted in competition to the rise of television, or merely filmmakers adopting and adapting to a new set of tools, both physical and conceptual? If perennial academic bad-girl Camille Paglia is correct in asserting that the death of the avant-garde spirit in contemporary art posed has shifted the true potential for modern fine arts into the realm of cinema, then where exactly is that spirit to go? Are the movies choking on their death-rattle, or merely clearing their throat? Cinema isn’t dead, and it certainly hasn’t hit any kind of drunken rock-bottom either, but it wouldn’t hurt for it to have a moment of clarity.