by Jack Wareham
Looking at the mainstream American releases of the last two decades, it’s easy to see why Susan Sontag claimed cinema was in an “ignominious, irreversible decline.” Members of the film-is-dying-camp usually point out that the films currently in theaters can’t even remotely compare to that legendary period of the early 1970s, when viewers got to see The Godfather, Badlands, Mean Streets, A Clockwork Orange, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
According to their commonly accepted narrative, American film’s golden age was the 1940s and 50s, when the studio system produced genre masterpieces like Sunset Boulevard and The Searchers. In the 60s and 70s some subversive, visionary auteurs flourished on a mainstream scale, including Kubrick, Scorsese, and Coppola. The 1975 release of Jaws signaled a shift toward blockbuster cinema, and Star Wars was the last nail in the coffin — American art cinema was gone, forever replaced by special effects and superheroes.
Although some version of this story has been promulgated by a range of critics, it relies on some strange assumptions. First, we have no reason to believe that a masterpiece will be recognized as such right out of the gate. Most of the best American films (Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 2001) take many years to become part of the essential canon. Second, those who claim cinema is dead will have a difficult time offering an explanation for this demise. Studios have become less interested in experimentation, but film equipment has become affordable and widespread, giving a new generation of filmmakers plenty of tools to produce innovative work.
Instead of dismissing an entire art form, a more productive approach would be to take Jean-Luc Godard’s advice: “Failure is much more interesting than success because it is like a sick body. You can look at it and examine it and then say what’s going wrong or not.” Two critically-acclaimed releases from March of last year offer clues as to where American auteurs have gone wrong, and diagnoses of their failures can help pave the way for future successes.
On the one hand, there’s Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, a film about a boy’s journey through the Pacific Northwest with a horse. Although the film left me teary-eyed, his constant “homages” to minimalist auteurs (dialogue from Cassavetes, low-angle shots through hallways from Ozu, and plot devices from Bresson) had me wondering whether Haigh had an artistic vision of his own, or was merely content lifting stylistic techniques from other directors. By the end of Lean on Pete, one might feel moved, but still long for the grungy, low-low budget days when indie directors like Jarmusch and Lynch made films with stylistic rigor and surreal inventiveness — films that disturbed you instead of lulling you into a humanist stupor. This, of course, isn’t just Haigh’s problem. Most of the indies of the 2010s seem satisfied to remain slick, efficient empathy machines: consummate entertainment, but repeat viewings yield little to nothing.
Then there’s Wes Anderson, who clearly does have a unique vision. There are debts, primarily to Truffaut’s whimsy and Kubrick’s exquisite composition, but their reformulation creates a style that is, to say the least, original. And yet, Anderson’s trademark techniques (symmetrical shots, pastel colors, dollhouse mise en scène, stop-motion animation, wooden acting, and heavy irony) are devoid of substance — gussied-up kitsch. According to Anderson’s worshippers, artiness equals art, and his mere differentiation from normal big-budget high-concept blockbusters is a sign of quality.
In Isle of Dogs, he elevated his vision to the realm of political commentary, and the result was embarrassing failure: a grab bag of hokey visual gags and tasteless comparisons between dogs and refugees. I heard chuckles in the audience when the authoritarian government set up a concentration camp for the dogs, as if the Holocaust was just one big puppet show, subject to hip in-jokes like everything else.
These are just two films, but the problems they present — feel-good tranquilizers on the one hand, and empty artistic vision on the other — are not isolated. In the first camp, one also finds Call Me by Your Name and The Shape of Water, while the second contains Ex Machina, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
And yet, last April I saw a film that elegantly skirted both of these pitfalls: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which follows a clergyman’s spiritual crisis and political radicalization as he becomes more aware of climate change. Schrader’s film is intensely formalist, but for the sole purpose of enhancing its content (unlike Anderson, whose films are style over substance par excellence). And, instead of jerking tears, First Reformed embraces the genuine ambiguity of violence and refuses to end on a heart-warming note. As in Lean on Pete, there are explicit comparisons to Bresson (both in religious theme and stylistic minimalism), but Schrader is not interested in merely referencing the old masters. By placing a pared-down aesthetic in conversation with environmentalist content, Schrader accomplishes something genuinely original and substantive — a disturbing meditation on spirituality in the wake of human extinction.
Assessing whether Sontag was right about cinema’s decline is a difficult task. Although those who defend her claim will find ample evidence in what’s currently playing at the theaters, cinema’s current failures shouldn’t be viewed as proof of American film’s demise. Rather, they can be used as clues: ways to critique, modify, and ultimately improve the state of film. Only through this optimistic approach could we discover new works that can rejuvenate our hope for the lost art of cinema.
by Jack Wareham
Godard’s films are particularly directed toward proof, rather than analysis. Vivre Sa Vie is an exhibit, a demonstration. It shows that something happened, not why it happened. It exposes the inexorability of an event… Vivre Sa Vie seems to me a perfect film.
— Susan Sontag
Here, I want to sketch out and diagnose an aesthetic characteristic of American cinema that I term “American Masterpiece Syndrome.” AMS is not a rare condition. In fact, it affects a diverse and talented group of directors, always male, including Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and Martin Scorsese. Usually contracted later in their careers, these directors become convinced it’s time for them to make a masterpiece of epic proportions – a ‘deep’ meditation on American capitalism, the male ego, representations of violence, or worst of all, humanity itself (whatever that means). The sickness infects their films, which become bloated with pretensions of artistic genius.
My goal in this piece is not to criticize these films per se. Some, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Raging Bull, are fascinating. Others, like There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men, I find vapid and even insidious. I also don’t wish to contest that films like Inception or Apocalypse Now have some moments of brilliance and inspiration.
Instead, I’m interested in the urge that these directors have to make ‘epic’ films that cover multiple large topics, vast spatial expanses, and many decades. And correspondingly, I’m interested in the uniquely male obsession with these films in pop culture. What drives men to produce YouTube video essays about the ‘philosophy’ of Fight Club or mansplain the quantum mechanics of Interstellar to you at a house party?
Women don’t make these films. They usually don’t write thousand-page novels like Infinite Jest either. There is something undeniably masculine about the imposition of the epically scaled film upon the viewer – a penetrative act that immerses one within the mind of the male director for an extended period of time.
Again, I would never holistically deny the value of this category of films. Sometimes, there is a supreme aesthetic object – case in point, 2001. And I couldn’t sketch out a complete alternate framework of what film should be. But I would suggest the answer lies in following Sontag’s evocation of what makes Godard so simple and beautiful. Instead of tackling a massive subject head-on, perhaps film should “[expose] the inexorability of an event,” the essential this-ness of reality, films that only cover a few characters over a few days: Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. These are films that don’t over-extend themselves. They begin with the reality of immediate experience, which, after all, is the only thing the artist can truly work with.
By Jack Wareham
Dedicated to those filmmakers too often branded as ‘slow.’ Bresson, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Tati, Kubrick …
Describing the speed of a film is one of the most common metrics we have of assessing cinematic technique. We’re told that fast-paced films are thrilling entertainment or popcorn flicks. Slow films, in contrast, are more likely to be a part of ‘art cinema,’ and for many, sitting through them is a duty rather than a pleasure.
But what do we really mean when we describe a film as slow? After all, every film moves with the same speed: twenty-four frames a second. I think the adjectives ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ are often used incorrectly to describe films, and should ideally depart the vocabulary of film discussions.
1. The most obvious problem with discussing whether a film is slow or fast is that speed is entirely dependent on the viewer. To a movie-goer in 1941, Citizen Kane was likely a wildly sensational experience, but to someone growing up on Snapchat stories and Vines it might be a dreadful slog.
2. Maybe speed is a descriptor of the number of plot points, or the rapidity with which one plot point leads to the next. But consider Barry Lyndon, a movie deemed ‘slow’ by its detractors, which spans a man’s entire life and his rise and fall from fortune. It can’t be a matter of dialogue either: for a recent example, think of A Quiet Place, which was deemed a thrilling movie by many despite having almost no conversation between characters.
3. A more precise measure of speed could be a film’s Average Shot Length in seconds, or ASL. And yet in my High School film class some students described Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as slow despite its ASL being only 3 seconds, compared to Michael Bay’s 3 and Steven Spielberg’s 6.5.
4. In their current form, discussions of speed in film tend to privilege plot over form and new films over old ones. I think what people really mean by ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ is the speed from which a film moves from one meaningful moment to the next. As such, the real question is not the pacing of the plot or the length of the shots, but how often we find ourselves captivated or astonished.
If you find rapturous pleasure in the long space sequences in 2001, or the melancholy zoom-outs in Barry Lyndon, there is no need to describe them as ‘slow.’ To quote Jonathan Rosenbaum in his discussion of the speed of Yasujiro Ozu’s films: “For what finally matters most in Ozu is not how slow or fast he is but how slow or fast we are in keeping up with him.”
by Jack Wareham
It’s been said that people reach middle age once they realize that they’ll never read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which spans seven volumes and an impressive 4,200 pages.
Well, I’ve already given up on that novel. My version of Proust is Out 1 – the 1971 magnum opus of French New Wave director Jacques Rivette. It clocks in at almost thirteen hours, making it the third longest film ever to receive theatrical release.
I bought the 7-disc DVD box set last April on a whim and it’s been taunting me from my bookshelf ever since, enticing me with its sleek, modernist spine and whispering at me in my weakest moments: “I know you’ll never watch me.” Even Out 1’s subtitle, Noli Me Tangere, is a cruel joke; translated from Latin, it means Touch Me Not.
Sometimes I can even hear Rivette’s thickly-accented voice, coarsened by tens of thousands of cigarettes, posthumously trash-talking me as I consider watching his masterpiece of the avant-garde: “Jack, just sell me on e-bay already. You don’t have the endurance. Go and re-watch Breathless like the basic film student I know you are.”
It’s not like I haven’t tried to watch it, okay? In fact, I’ve watched the first three hours over two normal-movie-length sessions. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t somewhat challenging (especially the extra-long, single-take sequences of an experimental theatre troupe screaming together). But overall, I thought Out 1’s fuzzy orange color palette and moody paranoia were genuinely mind-altering – even borderline psychedelic.
I would start from the beginning and watch the whole thing in a heartbeat… but I’d like a buddy or two to help motivate me. So, please watch Out 1 with me. We can split it up over a few days or something.
For comparison, season five of The Office is a full hour longer than Rivette’s chef-d’œuvre, and I’ll wager you’ve watched that at least twice.
Plus, it would be pretty cool to say you’ve done it. Prove those Gen Xers wrong when they complain about our weak attention spans and over-stimulated minds.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org; serious inquiries only.
By Jack Wareham
“It’s important that a film is loud and I hope many people agree. You should be inside of a film
when you go into a theater. It shouldn’t be way up the front of you. It should surround you,
envelope you, so you can live inside a dream.”
David Lynch is a director often associated with striking, iconic images. The ear in Blue Velvet,
and, of course, the film’s titular fabric (which has become an S&M emblem), the baby in
Eraserhead, as well as Jack Nance’s shock of vertical hair, and in Twin Peaks, the “Red Room,”
plus a cup of black coffee and slice of cherry pie. Lynch is equally well-known for his music,
like that nostalgic “Twin Peaks Theme” by Angelo Badalamenti, and Bobby Vinton’s kitschy
“Blue Velvet,” which remains stuck in my head for days every time I re-watch the film.
These images and songs gain their power, as well as their “Lynchian” quality, from their mixture of the commonplace and the strange. But part of what makes Lynch one of the most
transgressive and innovative American directors is his non-music sound: the auditory ambience that pervades his work and is crucial to what we think of as the Lynchian aesthetic.
Take a scene from Blue Velvet. Our starry-eyed protagonist (Kyle MacLachlan) takes a walk
through a suburban field and finds a severed ear lying in the grass, encrusted with dirt and pale
green mold, and crawling with ants. Lynch’s camera, which comes to represent our most
uncomfortable, carnal desires, slowly zooms into the ear canal. At first, McLachlan’s walk was
decorated with a quaintly suburban soundscape: the crunching of grass, cicadas buzzing, and
birds chirping (one bird’s call suspiciously resembles a child yelling “Mom!”).
But as he begins to discover the ear, we hear a low-tone industrial hum, and a close-up of the
decaying ear is paired with a quiet, high-pitched feedback noise. These techniques should be
familiar to the observant horror-film watcher, but the way Lynch’s sounds instantly recede once
the scene ends, without crescendo, is nothing short of unsettling. And, crucially, the suburban
soundscape does not fade out when the feedback noise enters; the two coexist.
That zoom-in shot of the ear has predecessors (the shower drain in Psycho) and successors
(Tarantino’s adolescent blood-fest in Reservoir Dogs), but it remains quintessentially Lynchian
in its uncanny mixture of banality and violence, especially with regards to sound.
It’s difficult to describe sounds, and I’ve never learned a formal vocabulary for studying ambient noise. Perhaps part of the pleasure of the soundscape in film is its imperceptibility – the way it creeps up all around you and “envelopes” you. But still, stopping to analyzing ambient noise in film upon repeat watches gives us a multitude of clues into the aesthetic strategies of directors. No analysis of an auteur’s style would be complete without understanding sound, which, after all, accounts for 50% of the cinematic experience.