Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cinematic Art Did Not Die With Bergman And Antonioni

Auteurist craftsmanship still vies with empty posturing in an exciting contemporary landscape

In the aftermath of the deaths of Antonioni and Bergman, much predictable guff has been written about the end of the golden age of cinema, and the loss of the last great auteurs in particular. Geoffrey Macnab wrote an interesting piece in The Independent last week that proved refreshingly positive, despite its headline proclaiming the death of cinema as we know it. He cited a number of modern directors who could qualify as contemporary heirs to the spirit of Antonioni and Bergman. I do wonder, however, if he selected the right people.

Somewhat inevitably, Lars Von Trier and Lukas Moodysson were both included in MacNab’s list. I’m reliably informed that I once referred to Von Trier as a ‘ludicrous charlatan’ somewhere on these pages, a position I continue to maintain after seeing the utterly ghastly ‘Dogville’. Von Trier’s critique on America lacks value because he is ill-informed and schematic, and the film’s forced theatrical setting removes any possibility of cinematic alchemy. Of his previous films, ‘Dancer in the Dark’ is interesting chiefly due to the extraordinary presence of Bjork, whilst ‘The Idiots’ is the work of a provocative chancer with little knowledge of his subject matter. ‘Breaking the Waves’ is unremitting in its gloomy absurdity, whilst ‘Europa’ offers clear signs of real talent squandered by grandiose pretentions and obfuscation. Moodysson shares a complete disregard for satisfying audience expectation with Bergman (who was an enthusiast for Moodysson’s films himself), but this has not led him in consistently fulfilling directions so far. ‘Show Me Love’ and ‘Together’ were touching, witty and affecting films, whilst the grandiose ‘Lilya 4 Ever’ had a bleak but compelling vision at its core. ‘Hole In My Heart’ however, took him into the weird world of gonzo pornography, with startlingly unpleasant results. It’s certainly possible to make films containing real sex that capture something tangible, wild and beautiful, as I think John Cameron Mitchell recently did with ‘Shortbus’. Moodysson did not succeed though, instead producing something nasty, excessive and unrestrained.

I am an admirer of Francois Ozon’s work, but he seems more of a jack-of-all-trades than a filmmaker with a distinctive creative vision, perhaps the nearest comparison being Britain’s versatile Michael Winterbottom (also included in MacNab’s list). Again, his work has been somewhat inconsistent and almost all his films stretch the boundaries of credulity at key points (if anything, it’s this that has become his trademark). His last film, ‘Time To Leave’, was given rather short shrift by some critics here, although I think it’s the closest he’s come to capturing something emotionally affecting. A better example of a French filmmaker with clear vision might well be Laurent Cantet, interested as he is in very human stories surrounding work and its relationship to personal identity.

It’s also surely too early to include the likes of Andrea Arnold and Jonathan Glazer in the list (with just one and two features to their names respectively). Arnold’s ‘Red Road’ could not fulfil any acceptable definition of an auteurist work anyway, as a chiefly collaborative project with characters and script ideas pre-determined by Lars Von Trier’s production company. I still wonder whether Arnold might actually have been somewhat stifled by this approach, with the film refusing to state explicitly its position on ‘benevolent surveillance’ and performing something of a volte-face on its expertly crafted tension by its conclusion.

It’s certainly positive to read this kind of encouraging reassessment of the contemporary scene, even if its specific conclusions are questionable. These days I find it difficult to enjoy the writing of, say, David Thomson, who claims that cinema is in irreversible decline whilst somehow managing to omit Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-Wai and Tsai Ming-Liang from the last edition of his otherwise magesterial Biographical Dictionary of Film. It’s hard to believe that someone can be so passionate about an art form, yet so sterile and conservative in their approach that they see nothing of value in what is new. Perhaps Thomson just no longer knows where to look for cinematic talent, obsessed as he is with the machinations of Hollywood and the American movie industry. I just don't see that it's worth writing about the likes of Woody Harrelson or Edward Norton, when there are many more interesting screen presences elsewhere.

Although he’s notable by his absence from Macnab’s list, many would no doubt cite Mexican Carlos Reygadas as a prime contender to inherit the auteurs’ mantle. Despite Jonathan Romney’s glowing report on the premier of his new film ‘Silent Light’ at Cannes, I remain steadfastly unconvinced. The acclaimed ‘Japon’ remains one of the worst films I have ever seen, and a prime example of a picture reliant on all the worst aspects of ‘art’ cinema culture. Heavily influenced by Tarkovsky, yet without either the technical mastery or spiritual wisdom to pull it off, the film is dominated by long shots of nothing in particular, with numerous 360 degree pans around its rugged landscape. Even worse, its central premise is at best ludicrous and at worst offensive. A depressed middle aged man takes root in a small Mexican rural community with the intention of ending his days there, befriending an old woman in the process. After two and a half hours following the man walking, painting, walking and painting, we’re eventually treated to his graphically filmed and thoroughly unpleasant sex with the old woman, seemingly in order that she then sacrifice her life to rejuvenate his. What pretentious nonsense, offering us no insight whatsoever into the nature and meaning of depression, death or sex, its three most obvious themes.

So let’s not assume that the current breed of auteurs all need to be young, fresh and cool, or either European or Western. The austere, challenging style of Bergman and Antonioni’s cinema may be best reflected in filmmakers from areas as diverse as Turkey, Taiwan, China, Iran, Russia and, yes, I will concede, even dear old Blighty.

The clearest heir to Bergman is currently unable to produce a film, despite recent renewed interest in his work. I’ve written about Terence Davies’ films in depth elsewhere in this blog, but it’s worth noting that Davies admits in the interview with Geoff Andrew that accompanies the BFI’s wonderful DVD of ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ that he compares his own films with Bergman’s and finds them wanting. Yet there is such clarity, compassion, depth of emotion and warmth in his film’s that it is clear that cinema is a genuine vocation and passion for Davies. His mastery of the slow, steady tracking shot and visceral close up also clearly betray the influence of Bergman, albeit filtered through his individual, very British vision. It is criminal that he has not been able to make a film, purely through lack of funding, since ‘The House of Mirth’ (his third masterpiece in my view, and one of the best examples of screen adaptations of classic literature).

Elsewhere in Europe, there are filmmakers at work who are every bit as significant as their illustrious predecessors. Michael Haneke has long been pursuing an extreme and uncompromising ideal of cinema, but has recently translated this into significant popular appeal with the unsettling and profoundly thrilling ‘Hidden’. Its immediate predecessor, ‘Time of The Wolf’, whilst less well distributed, was also a startling and challenging work, similar in its simple, unpretentious vision of an apocalyptic world to Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel ‘The Road’. What a shame he now feels the need to capitalise by remaking his deliciously savage, confrontational and brutal ‘Funny Games’ in America. There’s also the Italian Paolo Sorrentino, maker of ‘The Consequences of Love’ and ‘The Family Friend’, although many express the underlying suspicion that he emphasises style over substance (I’ve not seen the latter, but ‘The Consequences of Love’ struck me as exquisitely poised).

Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan has only made four films so far, but he is working at an unusually prolific rate by modern standards. ‘Uzak’ is simply wonderful, and completely unlike anything else in modern cinema. ‘Climates’ fortunately proved a worthy successor, demonstrating Ceylan’s talent for portraying emotional extremes, along with real attention to detail in both image and sound design.

Think also of Thailand’s Achiatpong Weerasethakul, who already has a season in his honour at the BFI Southbank in September. ‘Blissfully Yours’, with next to no dialogue or music, is a beautiful dream of a film, capturing a simple moment of languid romance in something close to real time. ‘Tropical Malady’, with its sudden tangential leap in the middle, has no respect whatsoever for plot or structure.

From Russia, Alexander Sokurov continues to be a challenging and unpredictable filmmaker of sometimes insane ambition. For me, ‘Russian Ark’ was a rather drab and pointless exercise, impressive for its technical achievement alone, and certainly not inspiring or interesting (the film consists of just one tracking shot through the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg). ‘Father and Son’ and ‘Moloch’ are bizarre, unforgiving and surreal films, certainly unpalatable to some, but refreshing in their refusal to adhere to conventions. His one unqualified success is ‘The Sun’, a deeply peculiar look at the collapse of Hirohito that is somehow both elusive and insightful. It’s too early to say whether Alexander Zvyagintsev might join this cardre of directors. The genuine brilliance of ‘The Return’ was somewhat overshadowed by the tragic death of one of its young actors, and initial reports suggest that its follow-up, ‘The Banishment’, is somewhat less assured. He shows real promise and originality though. Similarly, I suspect Germany’s bold and visceral Fatih Akin is waiting in the wings and also a soon-to-be-contender.

Taiwan has now established a great tradition of intelligent, perceptive and idiosyncratic filmmaking. I would certainly have namechecked Edward Yang as an underrated successor to the auteurist spirit were it not for his own tragic and unexpected death last month (in many ways a bigger loss than Bergman’s because he clearly had so much more left to offer). Hou Hsiou-Hsien remains an unstoppable creative force though, and with ‘Three Times’ he appeared to have produced a work remarkable for its lyrical qualities, ingenious use of triptych structure and palpable technical control. Less well known here is the elliptical and confounding Tsai Ming-Liang, for whom an NFT (sorry, BFI Southbank) retrospective is surely long overdue. Many walked out of the screening of ‘I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone’ (Tsai’s contribution to the New Crowned Hope project) that I attended, but I felt it was a visionary, powerful and ultimately moving work.

It’s also worth remembering that the likes of Wong Kar Wai, Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodovar, Theo Angolopolous, Terrence Mallick and Gus Van Sant remain active filmmakers, all still capable of work that exposes some of the younger pretenders as frauds. All have doggedly pursued and developed their own personal vision. Van Sant looked for a spare, non-judgmental style first with the wonderful ‘My Own Private Idaho’ (although I wonder whether that film would have been quite so beautiful without the overwhelming iconic presence of River Phoenix) and then through his most recent trilogy, beginning with ‘Gerry’ and continuing with ‘Elephant’ and ‘Last Days’. His latest picture ‘Paranoid Park’, deploying the outrageously gifted cinematographer Christopher Doyle (himself playing a large part in the luminous beauty of many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films), appears to have divided opinion but I look forward to its UK release with keen anticipation. Van Sant has cited Bela Tarr as the primary influence on his recent work, and it would be hard to find a filmmaker less interested in market concerns than Tarr. Yet ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’, ‘Damnation’ and the colossal ‘Satantango’ (7 hours long!) are all remarkable, compelling and unique works. ‘The Man From London’ looks very much like his most accessible film to date, at a manageable length and with something approaching conventional narrative. Angolopolous works at his own glacial pace (much like the pacing of his films), but is in the middle of a new trilogy exploring Greek political and social history. Wong, on the other hand, appears to have transplanted himself to Hollywood, bizarrely casting Norah Jones as his latest lead, and possibly shooting himself in the foot in the process. Almodovar went badly wayward with the excessive and confusing ‘Bad Education’, but ‘Volver’ put him back on the right track and ‘Talk To Her’ remains one of the most daring and successful films released during my lifetime. Should any of these iconic artists live to the ripe old age of 89, I have little doubt that they will be in receipt of similar kinds of plaudits to those applied to Bergman and Antonioni.

Writing this, I ultimately wonder whether there was ever any real meaning in Cahiers du Cinema’s concept of auteurist theory at all. Any successful piece of art should contain the vivid stamp of its creator’s personal vision, yet this shouldn’t (and usually doesn’t) preclude the possibility of collaboration. The great auteur directors certainly reduced the emphasis on screenwriting and conventional plotting (no bad thing). However, they also relied heavily on the genius of their cinematographers (note the role played by Sven Nykvist in many of Bergman’s finest films) or their charismatic performers (both Godard and Truffaut relied on iconic presences, and Antonioni’s most famous works lived and breathed by virtue of the elegance and physical beauty of Monica Vitti and Alain Delon). Similarly, the most independent, bold voices in contemporary music often depend heavily on the input of their creative partners (Bjork would be a prime example of this). Sometimes the dogged pursuit of an individual vision can result in a creative cul-de-sac, sometimes it results in a string of unparalleled masterworks. It’s certainly a tradition that’s still alive and well though, in cinema as much as anything else. The deaths of towering figures can be dispiriting but what is new can still challenge, provoke and inspire. The new methods of digital production and distribution also promise to change the way film is consumed, possibly in beneficial ways. Don’t let the killjoys put you off.

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