Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Cinematic Fraudulence

Some Thoughts On Carlos Reygadas

Somewhere on these pages, I apparently once dubbed innovative Dogme film-maker Lars Von Trier a ‘ludicrous charlatan’ for his laughable and grotesque pretentions in films such as ‘Breaking the Waves’ and ‘The Idiots’. Watching Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ absurdly over-praised third feature ‘Silent Light’ on DVD last weekend, I was once again reminded of those inadvertently hilarious words. Reygadas must surely be the most generously indulged of contemporary film-makers. Alternately hailed as either an ‘enfant terrible’ or as Mexican cinema’s brightest new talent, Reygadas’ combination of fatuous provocation and pseudo-intellectual meandering actually distinguishes him more as a gigantic fraud than either of these things.

Watching ‘Silent Light’ set me pondering why I immediately like some serious, high-minded and slow-paced films, but am very wary of other films of a similar stylistic nature. Films do not need to have action, plot or a driving narrative for me to connect with them. They also do not need to be judgmental or adopt clear moral stances. I am a self-confessed evangelist for the works of directors as ponderous and ambiguous as Wong Kar Wai (I can think of no more beautiful film in the last twenty years than ‘In The Mood For Love’, slow and bereft of direct action though it is), Bela Tarr (whose ‘Satantango’ is, at more than seven hours, the longest film in my collection) and Tsai Ming-Liang (most notable for his almost complete renunciation of dialogue). Yet I am instinctively wary of languid pacing or technical superiority simply for the sake of it (the best examples of this I can highlight are Alexander Sokurov’s ‘Russian Ark’, Zhang Yimou’s bizarrely lifeless ‘Hero’, David Gordon Green’s ‘George Washington’, an all-too slavish homage to Terence Mallick, and, of course, Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Japon’). The most successful directors developed signature styles that are in service to their broader themes and ideas. Carlos Reygadas seems to use an established cinematic lexicon simply to shout his credentials as some kind of newcomer to the pantheon of great masters.

I’m not quite sure why I felt compelled to give Reygadas a second chance (his debut feature ‘Japon’ is among the worst films I have ever endured in a cinema). Some very favourable reviews of ‘Silent Light’ (particularly a glowing testament from Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound) encouraged me to give it a try. At the most basic level, the film’s theme of infidelity in a Mennonite community, using real Mennonites rather than actors in the cast, at least appeared to be promising.

Indeed, for at least its first hour, ‘Silent Light’ succeeds in spite of its ponderous pacing. Much comment has already been made about its impressive opening sequence – a single six minute time lapse shot of a sunrise, but such impressive control of the camerawork continues throughout the film. The technique also extends to the intelligent staging of the domestic scenes as much as to the familiar long tracking shots obligatory to any work of contemporary ‘art’ cinema.

Best of all is the film’s extraordinary sound design – without a musical soundtrack, most of the work needed to create its atmosphere comes from the sound itself, which is vivid and intensely loud. The heavy sound of footsteps through long grass, the noisy whirring of farming equipment, the overpowering noise of wind and rain – all capture not just a community and its way of life, but how the physical intensity of human feeling paradoxically both echoes and exceeds the buzz and intensity of everyday life. It also shows the extent to which ritual pervades every aspect of this community’s existence.

Whilst the non-professionals in the film are often blank and deceptively emotionless in conversation, Reygadas creates powerful impact in the scenes where devastating feeling is allowed to break through (the first scene of Johan crying at the family table, the later, considerably more heavy-handed scene where his wife Esther breaks down in heavy rain). Reygadas makes an assured decision to start the film somewhere in the middle of Johan’s story, after his affair has already begun. We are spared any superfluous backstory, or any understanding of how his treacherous attraction began.

More interesting than this, though, is the very non-judgmental way in which Reygadas treats the theme of infidelity. Johan is troubled by his actions and painfully honest with both his wife and father about the affair. One might have expected Johan to be quickly condemned and ostracised by his community, but all listen carefully to his admission of succumbing to temptation. Reygadas is surprisingly confident in both his emphasis on human compassion in the first half of this film.
He even considers that Johan’s family commitment might have been a terrible mistake, and that Marianne might in fact be the woman with whom he feels the greater connection.

The film is considerably more tasteful than the outlandish, provocative and silly ‘Battle in Heaven’, and although her part is inevitably underwritten, Marianne is portrayed sensitively, alive to the feelings of Johan’s troubled wife as well as her own confused mindset. The film is alive to the overwhelming power of physical attraction, even at a time when life’s plan seems to have been entirely determined and when to submit to it might mean the loss of all security.

Yet, even in its stronger moments – the unpleasant whiff of artifice that surrounded ‘Japon’ still lingers. Reygadas continues to develop an interest in religion and spirituality, but only explores this opaquely. It’s vaguely implied that Johan's temptation might be the work of the devil – yet the film’s religiously observant characters also seem to accept (perhaps refreshingly) that these things happen to human beings as a matter of course (his father also confesses to an adulterous desire). It’s also suggested that whatever happens is pre-determined anyway, and all of Johan’s agonising is therefore entirely futile. Such fatalism rather undermines all of Reygadas’ quasi poetic ruminations. The point in setting this familiar everyday story in a religious community seems lost if some of the theological complications are never adequately explored.

In addition to these undeveloped ideas, ‘Silent Light’, like ‘Japon’ before it, is demonstrably indebted to the work of great masters. I’m not an expert on the works of Carl Theodor Dreyer, but Reygadas’ film apparently bears strong similarities with ‘Ordet’. The directorial signature that I most noticed here though was that of the great Ingmar Bergman, particularly in the austere close-ups of faces and carefully framed domestic scenes. Yet the film lacks Bergman’s mastery of tension and claustrophobia, and its confused and fundamentally objectionable conclusion removes any claim the film can make to saying anything profound about either religion or infidelity. Where ‘Silent Light’ echoes Bergman and Dreyer, ‘Japon’ desperately aspired to the languid mastery and spiritual profundity of Andrei Tarkovsky, but fell short of his pioneering and unique language in the most embarrassing of ways.

‘Silent Light’ ends up a good deal more like ‘Japon’ than most commentators have noted (it has been described as a more audacious and mature work, but by its conclusion I’m not convinced that it is). Both films are undermined by unfathomably precious and intellectually flimsy conceits, and burdened by a self-appointed transcendent artistic purpose.

‘Japon’ can be summed up very succinctly, given that it is a film of very little substance. A disillusioned middle-aged man ends up in a small community in the Mexican wilderness – he walks around a lot, paints a bit, and masturbates fervently, apparently trying to rid himself of some unexplained grief or burden. He meets and befriends an old woman, with whom he has unnecessarily candid sex towards the end of the film. The woman then subsequently dies in an accident, the supposedly ‘spiritual’ implication being that she has transferred her life to the man through the act of sexual union. Oh yes, and her name is Ascension.

What an offensive and arrogant proposition this is (the sacrificed female body regenerates an uncritically heroic man) – and one for which Reygadas has never been held properly to account. He has claimed that Japon has no delusions of grandeur, but is merely a ‘simple story of how we help one another in life’. If it’s really that simple, then it’s remarkably trite. If it aspires to something more profound, it presents us with a gratuitously simplistic sexual psychology linking the libido with an urge for death. It also privileges male life above female, whilst pretending to imbue the female contribution with the greater intellectual significance.

Reygadas certainly duped The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, a usually dependable critic, into finding the film’s sex painful, emotional and convincing rather than indulgent and gratuitous. Over at the website, Travis Mackenzie Hoover even argues that the film’s sexual dimension keeps it ‘out of the transcendent’ (no it doesn’t – in revisiting the age-old conception of the profane act having sacred meaning, transcendence is precisely what Reygadas is aspiring to) and that there is humour in the film's overall austerity (I can’t detect this – unless you count the unsubtly inserted scenes of horses copulating or the masturbation sequence as funny). Yet Reygadas provides no adequate explanation as to why this woman would consent to transforming a plucky friendship into a sexual relationship. There’s no reason why either of these characters would have been attracted to each other and there’s not even a hint that their coupling is mutually satisfying. It’s not even presented as transgressive, which in itself might even have been more interesting, however cliched. What is even worse is that there is no sense that the indulgent male character, who remains a complete enigma throughout, deserves the considerable sacrifice and indignity this woman affords him. It simply happens, for reasons that Reygadas stubbornly refuses to reveal to us.

‘Silent Light’ ends with a similarly forced and unconvincing miracle. Esther’s breakdown and death in pouring rain might be a pompous scene (Reygadas delayed production on the film for over three weeks waiting for a suitable Biblical downpour in which to shoot) but it at least had some convincing emotional resonance. Having tried with extraordinary resilience to be understanding, Esther finally collapses on hearing that Johan has seen Marianne one last time. The subsequent lengthy funeral scenes provide insight into Mennonite customs and death rituals, and would have made for an effective end to a flawed but ultimately intelligent film.

Yet Reygadas is obviously not a man who could ever exercise this kind of restraint, however necessary. The very notion of Marianne resurrecting Esther through kissing her corpse is completely absurd. What life has Marianne within her that she can return to Esther? Why is she imbued with the strength that Esther lacks and what sacrifice is she making here – is it all in the knowledge that her relationship with Johan must end in order to restore Esther’s vitality? Or is it of some wider spiritual significance? Either way, why is Esther reduced to the status of a mere passive participant when she is arguably the most injured party?

I’m by no means objecting more generally to the use of religious or spiritual themes in any form of art. In fact, the ideas of personal religion experience and miracle remain of great interest to me. Yet these are notions that Reygadas has simply attached to his films in their closing moments, as if they somehow explain or justify any self-conscious ambiguities in the preceding two hours. There is the sense that his pacing is deliberately leaden – which, along with his audacious borrowings, admonish his audience into thinking his concepts are weighty and of profound insight. Yet his films say so very little about life, death, grief, faith, repentance or sacrifice, in spite of their lofty ambitions.

Reygadas has absorbed the technical skill and some of the style of his influences without their intellectual rigour, sound editorial judgment or emotional clarity. The predictability of his ideas eventually even undermine the impact of his undoubted technical flair. It seemed grimly inevitable that ‘Silent Light’ wound end with a second time lapse shot, this time of the sun setting once again. These films are the worst recent examples of arthouse style over substance, and the acclaim gifted to them is an affront to intelligent cinema audiences – many of whom could be forgiven for being deterred from seeking out more adventurous examples of great world cinema after enduring such pious nonsense. If Reygadas is grasping to create some kind of iconography, these are modern day cinematic icons that I’d be happy to smash.

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