Picture Technology and Cubistic Narrative.
Articles discussed: “The Big Picture: Hollywood Looks for a Future,” The New Yorker (January 8, 2007), by David Denby (A Critic At Large).
“The New Disorder: Adventures in Film Narrative,” The New Yorker (March 5, 2007), by David Denby (A Critic At Large).
David Denby, with Anthony Lane on alternating weeks, the “Current Cinema” critic of The New Yorker, has written two extended essays that are informative reading for any avid moviegoer. They will be important as a record of our transitional electronic age as the old technologies are beginning to fade away. In the first, The New Yorker (January 8, 2007) issue, “Big Pictures: Hollywood Looks for a Future,” Denby catches the entertainment industry of moviemakers, cinema owners, and movie-viewers in a twilight time of change. In the second, “The New Disorder: Adventures in Film Narrative” (March 5, 2007), he describes the new genre of post-modern puzzle-box films, like Babel (2006), the third of Arriaga- Iňárritu’s trilogy following 21 Grams (2003), and Amores Perros (2000). Such films (others being Adaptation, Traffic, Syriana), with their arty, flashy scrambled-narrative, Denby finds a bit artsy-fartsy. The latter essay is much more interesting as film criticism; the former is a good appreciation through evaluative analysis of movie production and formats.
In “the Big Picture” Denby did some digging. For facts, he reels out statistics on the decline of movie watching on the big screen in twinkling Bijou or Alhambra palaces of yore, on the cost of making hits or flops at Hollywood’s’ extravagant megabuck scale, and then he details the advance of other hi-tech formats, not only for product, but also for viewing appreciation and impact. It’s sensibly written with doses of nostalgia for the bygone days of movie-going, when a kid could enter the magic darkness ten minutes before the movie ended, then stayed through the film a whole second showing, for the full effect. That was really getting full money’s worth! The gilded mini-palaces of multiplexes today, where everyone must clear out for janitorial maintenance, and be allowed back with a second ticket, seem to fall out of favor, go bankrupt, and begin to mould and peel before a decade has passed. Did it not occur to you local Tacomans how quickly the AMC 8 on Mildred by TCC went shabby? The Galaxy 6 on Cedar, still surviving, had every fifth seat broken, taped up or dismantled when I was last there. Remember the Tacoma Mall Twin (mega-)Theatres?—there in the foyer hung two or three Chihuli-mongous crystal, incandescent chandeliers for 15 years, then – POOF!–along comes Krispy Kreem.
A critic of some weight, having been a disciple of The New Yorker’s heavy-hitter Pauline Kael, David Denby assesses the esthetic and real economic value of Hollywood’s continuing to make lousy blockbusters, remakes like King Kong, heavily marketed sophisticated schlock like Da Vinci Code, flops like M:i:III made when Cruise was himself flopping on talk-show couches and still making 70 million dollars, the major take of the whole M:i:III production. Where the money goes is clearly illustrated through Denby’s research notes. It’s interesting analysis for us film-clubbers who are still avidly attending current Indie films and viewing historical films on DVD and VHS, sometimes on computer and 32” TV screens, but still craving to see a big, wide-screen projection if at all possible. It makes me happy to know I’ve seen and helped make popular powerful yet small films, like Last King of Scotland, Brokeback Mountain, Sideways, or Notes on a Scandal. We have to continue to go to the boutique cinemas like the non-profit Grand Cinema to see the intelligent, dramatic Indies, or those flickering illusions will not come on for us to bask in their brightness. There have been some terrific, unexpected successes made for a pretty pittance, like Napoleon Dynamite, and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and After Sunset, School of Rock, etc. Now shooting with lighter equipment and cheaper digital video, placing the work on the Internet for rapid dissemination, filmmakers, like Linklater, with a track record for attracting the older crowd and feeding the younger crowd with quirky, insightful movies, are encouraged to go forward with their experiments.
With our alternative big-screen viewing at WineStyles, able to watch an evening show in comfort in a surround-sound theatre, with fine wine and canapés on the table, I believe the Tacoma Film Club members and friends have the best of the big-screen’s offerings. This is especially the case when we see refined, remastered DVD issues of the classic masterpieces such as those in the Criterion Collection.
The second essay, “The New Disorder” takes on the jig-saw puzzle, collage style of films like Babel, edited with multiple flashbacks and second takes. The disjointed temporal narrative in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with its repetition of scenes through different point-of-view flashbacks, seems to have started-up the modern craze as Denby sees it. Literary examples of experimental narratives were in evidence, e.g. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Wm. Faulkner’s Light in August. These experiments stand out–and quite alone– as famous works. Later came experiments of art cinema, films that were difficult to comprehend: memory-scapes like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Others can be named, spun from experimental literary theorists (like Alain Robbe-Grillet), not unlike the Dadaist collaboration of Dali-Buňuel’s Un Chien Andalou from 1928. If you saw those films ages ago, it’s not hard to remember how non-plussed you were after seeing them. Non-plussed as if it were a joke, like the sense of strangeness one felt after viewing dramas by Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter.
Denby does not approve of confusing audiences with trickery. He generally castigates the new phase of Babel-like puzzle-box narratives. Returning to an ever-present happening and tracing the clues to complex causalities of the global situation wears the audience down, manipulates the emotions, and leaves the viewer despairing of hopeful resolutions in this world. Interesting as they are in cinematic form, Denby views the mosaic sagas of Guillermo Arriaga, the writer, and Alejandro Iňárritu, the director, as miserable humanistic visions, full of grim violence and pathetic sadness. Knowing how the jumbled-narrative genre has attracted audiences with a new pacing, a disordered but exciting series of happenings (Golden Globe and Academy Awards Nominations were numerous), I’m sure he hopes there will not be a wholesale trend among directors to imitate the Babel-style of narrative. I felt similarly about the anecdotal, coincidental story-telling in Crash (2004). Sure, I liked that movie very much; I saw it three times. However, I came to the conclusion I would not wish too many films to follow this choppy, TV-like style of easy resolutions through coincidence rather than through naturalistic life sequences, where everything is not so nicely tied up.
Babel is a main focus of Denby’s criticism. Given the time and attention we TFC commentators have devoted to disputing the meaning, virtues and vices of that film, I recommend Denby’s analysis for comparison. In the matter of Babel’s theme, he poses the following: “The theme appears to be the cohesion of life within the seeming disorder of life.”(p. 84, March 5, 2007 New Yorker). He’s not quite sure (“appears,” “seeming”). What about the cohesion of life? I would ask him, and What about the disorder? That life has cohesion and disorder doesn’t explain very much. The theme of Babel as I resolved it was more pointed: In the global connectedness we experience today, people make decisions to act with good and bad intentions, yet out of those intentions, pathetic and tragic consequences arise for others in far-flung places with little or no comprehension of the causes. We as audience were privy to the details of the local events in different global regions in that film, and we did see mostly miserable consequences of actions, whether explainable or not, but whether it was a stretch to make sense of them, that would depend on viewers’ interest in and experience with unusual filmmaking employing disjointed narratives. Denby feels the disjointedness of Babel was a pseudo-sophisticated game; “the hostile tease of editing” was “an abuse of the freedom that’s normally granted to [written] fiction.” He calls the film “a highbrow globalist tearjerker.” Clearly Denby hopes the Arriaga- Iňárritu success with tricky editing does not inform a standard genre for hiding weak stories that are essentially soap operas.
Although the puzzle-box style is mostly slammed by Denby, he is not totally against disjointed narratives when they are intrinsic to the storytelling, as in science fiction time warps or in points of view from realistically deranged characters. Two examples he details are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry, 2004) and Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000). The first has the sci-fi plot revolve on the possibility of memory erasure. The narrative of that film requires time-shifts in characters’ minds in order to reveal the anguish of lives and psyches out of joint. Even Eternal Sunshine’s experiment, Denby calls “a near-masochistic feast for romantics who live or die by their hold on the roots of emotion.” On the other hand, Memento succeeds with its interruptive chronology because the psychic disorder Guy Pearce suffers is intrinsic to backward movement of the narrative—the protagonist has no short term memory, is trapped in an existential present. Our fascination as viewers is held by the frantic retracing of the hero’s actions back to the scene of his wife’s murder, for which he seeks revenge. “At first,” says Denby, “such [backward editing] structural legerdemain may seem a gimmick, but, through repetition, it develops a hurtling power.” (p.83, March 5, 2007, New Yorker.)
Finally, as an example of an approvable style of editing, Denby brings to mind a recent film of near perfection: The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006). Having recently discussed the film at our Film Club discussion, I don’t think it occurred to any of us to link this film’s editing with the puzzle-box genre Denby caustically analyzes in his essay. However, the fact that this German film presents simultaneous lives lived in parallel—the lives of the citizens in their houses and the lives of the State Security Agents eavesdropping upon them from a distance—it is obvious some time disjunction is taking place as we are presented the one situation and then the other. Denby lauds von Donnersmarck’s narrative, the traditional “straightforward chronology driven by cross-cutting among parallel actions.” He concludes: “It still may be the best way of leading us [viewers] to the paradise of a morally complicated but flawlessly told story.”
Many of us may already feel some sadness at the passing of well-made films with linear chronology. Some critics have used “post-modernist” to describe the new twists and techniques in the arts. However much the term “post-modern” is still debatable as a clearly defined style in movies, literature, and other arts, it may become established with time as a meaningful rubric for something different from what we used to call “modernist style.” The “modern” will become the “archaic.” The loss of a focused, centrist, coherent pattern, such as that of the cubistic editing and narrative we’ve been discussing, could well become the demarcation to post-modernist cinematic style. Although he doesn’t approve now of the new experiments, Denby will probably have to accept the eventual blending of cinematic big-screen and other small-screen techniques. People who have been brought up viewing TV shows, with anticipated, frequent interruptions for advertisements, and who play with digital film formats suited to recording and re-editing by computer programs, will be the vast majority dictating the acceptable patterns of the transformed product we have always known as film.