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The Party (Blake Edwards, 1968)
The central metaphor in The Party, that of the party itself and the chaos into which it evolves, is one of the more fertile metaphors in cinema, and it inevitably recalls the restaurant sequence in Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime (1967). At first, it might seem like Edwards and Tati are expressing the same stance, a predilection for the loosening of order and the joy brought by the descent (ascent?) into chaos. But actually, both directors are, in these films, expressing much finer, more personal themes, although they begin from the same starting point, which is in the character of the bumbler (a sort of unconscious, well-intentioned version of the trickster). The bumbler’s lack of skill—in Tati’s case, this is almost merely a misalignment of skill, so out of sync with the rest of the world is the character of Monsieur Hulot (Tati), in contrast to the attempts of Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers) to fit in—is thematically essential, because it makes him lovable but also serves as a counterpoint to the modern capitalist world’s worshiping of expertise. Ultimately, the most profound thing about these two characters, kindred spirits with Jean Renoir’s Boudu (played by Michel Simon), is the way they seemingly opt out of the demands that modernity and capitalism have placed on the world, and they do this—and here is perhaps the most profound part of all—by using the techniques handed down to them by comedy, often the lowest forms of comedy. These characters (and the actors portraying them) turn these techniques into grand political and metaphysical statements. When Monsieur Hulot, in any one of Tati’s films, inattentively sidesteps danger, thus transferring it to the person next to or behind him, he is demonstrating his ability—an ability earned by not taking part in, not cooperating with the modern world’s increasingly rigid routes and courses—to avoid an entire ideology of living and conformity which would place him in danger, unbeknownst to him. Likewise, in the attempts of Seller’s Bakshi to fit into this world—much the same world as the one sketched out in Tati’s films—he unravels the meticulously put-together party piece by piece. The partygoers’ world is one ruled by uniformity and conformity, where etiquette carefully dictates human interaction but in the process cordons off any kind of authenticity. This is a world as carefully and fussily shaped, leaving no room for the organic and the ill-shaped, as one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines.
In these worlds, everything is laid out in a austerely linear, step-by-step fashion; nothing is left to chance or to imagination. This explains Tati’s fondness for automobiles, which feature prominently in his films, particularly the underrated masterpiece Trafic (1971). Automobiles must, by rule, stick to a predestined track. At the end of Trafic, Hulot is preparing to part ways with his colleague Maria (Maria Kimberly) and enter the subway, but as he does, proceeding to descend the stairway, a mob of people exit and push him back up the stairs to the surface. Instead of making another attempt to take the subway, Hulot simply veers off-course and proceeds to continue walking with Maria. Here, Hulot embodies an opposition to the assembly-line world depicted in Tati’s films: pushed off-course, he can just as easily adapt and take another course. Living, for Hulot/Tati, is not a matter of successfully following any pre-ordained plan; it is a matter of adaptation and improvisation. Chaos, for Tati, is the byproduct of this kind of authentic living, particularly when it collides with the rigidity of modern life. In Playtime, when the restaurant begins falling apart, Hulot and an American business man adapt and have their own fun, undeterred (and perhaps emboldened) by the chaos surrounding them. The modern world is built through fastidious planning, and so Tati’s films are often set in places that expose this pathology, such as the famous apartments in Playtime. As in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” the apartment itself is a sign of conformity, and Tati shows this literally by demonstrating how the apartment’s form presses individuals to conform to its shape as a machine might do to a piece of sheet metal. The same order that so many of us are obsessed with and that we clamor for is exposed in Tati’s films as extinguishing the joy of improvisatory living, of living outside the confines of an externally designed system imposed upon us. Chaos for Tati is merely part of the process of this pathological system unraveling before our eyes.
By contrast, Edwards seems to have a much more genuine love for chaos qua chaos. For him, it is a leveler that reverses the rotten stratification of people that our system imposes. It is not an accident that Seller’s Bakshi is a foreigner and a member of the working class (an extra in Hollywood) attempting to navigate amongst wealthy Americans. Instead of getting fired from his job after his bumbling irritates the director, he is accidentally invited to a posh party. The partygoers show little sympathy towards him or interest in him, unless he can do something for them, as with the Texan actor who is delighted by the odd Bakshi being a fan of his movies. The only character who deviates from this pattern is Michèle (Claudine Longet), who is also a foreigner. For the first two-thirds of the film, Bakshi attempts to fit in, which means not standing out. Some have criticized the fact that Seller’s plays this character in “brownface” so as to appear Indian, but far from being offensively racist, the way Sellers cannot quite blend seamlessly into the appearance of the character he is portraying parallels the way Bakshi himself cannot blend into the party. Sellers is hopelessly lost in the supposed skin of an Indian man, just as Bakshi cannot do enough to suppress his own attributes to become like the partygoers who he slavishly views as superior. Bakshi is infantilized during the dinner party by being sat in a chair much shorter than everyone else’s, so that he appears as a child at a table with adults. Through all of this, he is stripped of being fully human, unable to simply be himself but also unable to achieve any form of reciprocity with the partygoers. But from our vantage point in the audience, we can see that Bakshi is a person with many wonderful qualities, all of which are simply ignored because he doesn’t understand the unwritten rules of social behavior in this milieu. We can never put our finger on exactly what makes Bakshi stick out like a sore thumb, but watching him try to fit in is an exceedingly uncomfortable experience, performed by a brilliant comic actor who convincingly and skillfully portrays a man unraveling under social pressure.
And the behavior of Bakshi is one way where Edwards and Tati differ. In Tati’s world, the blockage produced by a rigid and conformist society erupts in chaos damaging the world around Hulot, who himself is especially suited to navigate the environment chaos produces. In the world of Edward’s The Party, the stress of this blockage becomes internalized by Bakshi, who must suffer as a near-scapegoat in order for the party and society not to be disturbed. Chaos, then, in Edward’s hands becomes the tool that must be unleashed in order to level the party and create a more utopian world. After Bakshi falls into a pool, some guests take him upstairs to change clothes and give him alcohol (which he never drinks) to calm him down. He finds Michèle in another room, alone and crying because of her agent’s rude behavior at the party, and he comforts her with a sweet sincerity. They both go downstairs, determined to have a good time and find that the children of the party’s hosts have shown up with an elephant painted in 1960’s slogans. Bakshi scolds the daughter for doing this, demeaning the dignified animal, and suggests that they clean the elephant off, but in doing so, they unleash soap bubbles everywhere that grow and grow until they threaten to overrun the entire house. The party then becomes completely chaotic, but in the process, the soap bubbles also tear away the hierarchy of social status that had previously held the party under its sway. In the chaos of the soap bubbles, everybody is equal, or at least, everybody is equally able to be themselves. This is a recurring theme with Edwards, the way chaos breaks ossified social patterns that erupt in new, creative energies (see, for instance, 1982’s Victor Victoria). After the party is over, Bakshi drives Michèle home, and the two share a tender, romantic moment, with the promise of a future date. It becomes clear that none of this would likely have happened if the party’s domineering hierarchy hadn’t broken down over the course of the night. In the confusion of chaos, Edwards says, people are best able to be themselves and to find each other.
Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)
Domino is at times a confusing movie, but more precisely, it is a confused movie. It thinks it’s a “motion picture” but it really wants to be a picture book. But we live in the 21st century, so perhaps the ideal format for Domino is an exclusive Tumblr blog, in which one can click through from image to image. The film yields to this kind of fleeting aesthetic promiscuity, the ability to jump around and dictate one’s own tempo. These images deserve to be touched and fondled, to be lingered upon. But as a movie, seen the “proper” way, Domino is a bit of a mess and a bit of a failure, though by no means an uninteresting one. It’s the type of movie that intrigues when individual, fleet images are glimpsed, but it falls apart under the stress of being asked to mean something. When I was much younger, first discovering cinema, I read a lot of books about films and became entranced by the lone, solitary images in them. There were some images that I held onto in my memory for years until I could finally get access to the film. And quite often, actually watching the film was a disappointment that couldn’t match the allure and mystery of that single image. (This is partly an inspiration for this blog, though I hope to inspire more than disappointment.)
Seeing those images forced me to reconstruct the rest of the film (which was unavailable to me) in my head. An image needs something to latch onto, a gravitation center pulling it into a visual, thematic, and aesthetic network of ideas, textures, and moments. Without such a center for a lost, homeless image, I inferred my own, taking pleasure in guessing how such a thing as the actual, complete film might look one day. There’s a strangeness to almost any film, an odd sensation relating to the way it winds through streets and alleys of possibility to arrive at one particular actuality, the same being true of the ones I imagined in my mind. And this pathway—not a linear one from beginning to end but one that shoots out into all directions and is better left unexpressed in merely spacial terms, which would only crush the mysteriousness of it—this way of a film finding its way into existence creates a dense fabric in which feelings and concepts may catch hold. A single image is only ever one point in a much more organic structure that isn’t easily expressed in this manner, plucking one piece from the whole but asking it to stand for more. It is, and should be, almost dangerous to do this, so important is the unity of the whole, but at the same time, there’s no escaping the fact that we need a point of entry.
The image is perhaps the most crucial and resonant building block of cinema, but an image is always more than what is visible. When you rip a plant from the ground, a lot more than the plant itself comes with it, roots and bits of soil dangling from underneath. The same occurs with an image, which will always possess its own connective tissue. I’ve never really found much use for pretty but abstract images plucked from cinema’s beating heart and rubbed all over the internet on blogs that reduce them to hollow, aesthetic baubles. But I believe we can also talk about a single image in a way that respects its true constitution when we recognize that meaning is built from the interconnectedness of images, ideas, moments, both with each other and between them and ourselves, the viewers. An image is supported and amplified, accumulating resonance, by everything else that happens in the film and also by the association between what we see on the screen and what we know and experience in the real world. Because of this, I believe there is no limit to the power of film or any other creative medium, because it’s “always already” about any and every aspect of the world we live in through its resonance with our own (personal and social) network of meanings.
The reason why Domino, as a cinematic experience, doesn’t quite “work” for me is that the images never catch hold of anything, not within the film itself nor within myself or the real world. This “catching hold” is an admittedly elusive and vague concept, but it also seems that Domino wasn’t designed to do this either. Some people have commented on the film as a pure audio-visual, sensory-overload experience, but I don’t see this in itself as an improvement over all the other things that art is capable of doing (which is not to lump Tony Scott in the category of “dumb and artless” either, a category I find fairly artless and dumb). By contrast, Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) or the films of Artavazd Peleshyan are akin to these kinds of pure experiences, but they also collect meaning and articulate ideas through their unfolding, all without seeming too mannered. The rootless Domino never catches onto anything, creating not a liberating experience but a deadening one. There’s no center to bind its threads and create the proper web to make these images resonate beyond their minute flashes. It would be better to break the film apart into a series of images and to lovingly examine each one and, in the process, create an entirely new film in one’s mind from each of them, one with an imagined core and a beating heart.
The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)
In The American, men and women are shaped and bent to the contours and demands of mere objects. In the film’s saddest, most pathos-ridden scene, Jack (George Clooney) hunches over and precisely tends to a bullet, placing an explosive charge into its tip. This lonely man’s entire being is magnetized by the bullet, pulled into position over it to satisfy the needs of its form (while leaving his own unfulfilled). It’s poignant to see this one tiny object have complete control over him; it seems, through a hypnosis of acute concentration, to possess him. We have changed from a species of people using objects to a collection of people used by objects, battered into a shape to fit and suit them rather than the other way around. When Jack brings the custom rifle he builds to Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), an assassin, she assembles it with nimble fingers and fluid movements. The rifle and all others like it have imprinted their form into her body’s memory, so that when a job calls for their assembly, the fingers, wrists, and hands respond automatically, like machines rather than the organic structures they are. In such a world, the fate of these people is preordained, written into the demands of the objects that rule them. By contrast, the freest character is perhaps the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) with whom Jack starts a relationship. In one scene, Jack and Clara go on a picnic near a river, and giving in to some primeval urge, Clara undresses to go for a swim. Unencumbered by objects, she is liberated from the restrictions and determinations they impose; the lone object clothing her, a pair of sheer panties, doesn’t even perform its lone task of concealing her body.
Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002)
One of my favorite details in Panic Room—and there are many, this being a David Fincher film featuring a zoom in to the filament of a flashlight flashing on and off—occurs in a scene when Sarah (Kristen Stewart) goes into hypoglycemic shock and requires one of the men attempting to rob her and her mother’s house to give her an injection of insulin. For nearly the entire film, Sarah and her mother Meg (Jodie Foster) remain trapped inside the “panic room” in their house, while a group of three men make repeated attempts to get inside that very same room to steal some bonds stashed away there by the previous owner of the house (whose grandson Junior (Jared Leto) is one of the robbers). Meg leaves the room in order to get Sarah’s insulin syringe (without which Sarah will go into a coma and possibly die) when she thinks it’s clear, but the two remaining robbers Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam)—Junior having been shot and killed by Raoul—have actually tricked her and get back to the panic room before she can. Meg tosses the insulin kit into the panic room as the two men seal her off outside, leaving them to care for Sarah. Because the men never expected anyone to have moved into the house yet after the previous owner died, they also never intended for anyone to get hurt. Burnham particularly attempts to avoid unnecessary suffering; all they want are some bonds that don’t even belong to Meg or Sarah in the first place.
Panic Room is a very logical film, and its numerous strands of logic, behavioral and thematic, bring the characters to precisely this point of contact, where Burnham must administer care to Sarah or else she might die. The energy and interest of the film lies in its unity of logical opposites. Burnham is a threat but he must delicately inject Sarah with insulin to prevent further harm to her. Meg is Sarah’s mother but throughout most of the film, she is the more frightened and less composed one. And though the men are physically stronger, they end up getting hurt the most, as if struggling against some form of martial arts that uses the opponents’ force against them: in one scene, the robbers attempt to fill the panic room with propane gas, but Meg ignites the gas and sends streams of electric blue flames back out at Junior, whose arm catches on fire. In fact, the film likes to play with gender, taking as its starting point a family of two (implicitly vulnerable) women and introducing the element of a male threat literally surrounding the women and attempting to forcibly gain entry, extrapolating from the primal threat of rape in order to comment on modern, urban life. And when Meg’s ex-husband, Sarah’s father, comes to help them after being called by Meg, the robbers beat him up and tie him to a chair, emasculating him. Lurking in this film’s subtext is the conflict between the impersonal nature of urban life—exemplified by the panic room built by the large house’s reclusive former owner—and the way the brutality of violence inevitably tends towards the personal.
This theme of the personal nature of violence is intensified during the scene where Burnham gives Sarah her insulin shot, which gains its power from dancing around the taboo of adult male contact (physical and, given the situation, intimate) with an adolescent girl (played by an actress who was about 12 years old at the time). The word taboo derives from an indigenous Polynesian word that less suggests a prohibition and instead implies a warning about an activity, object, or phenomenon that is dangerously powerful. One ethnographer compared this concept to a “high voltage” sign, indicating a push and pull between the latent power and the threatening danger of this excessive power. The taboo broached in this scene is that of intimacy between two such people as Burnham and Sarah, who contrast so wildly in their power/vulnerability in relation to the other person. The closeness of their contact—highlighted by Fincher showing the delicate way Burnham lifts the immobile Sarah’s shirt to reveal her bare stomach, which rises and falls gently as Sarah’s body struggles to maintain stasis in its precarious state—creates a subtle shift in the scene’s mood, which culminates in Burnham saving the family and killing Raoul at the end of the film.
This is one thing I’m sure robbers never think about (but which the film demands that we contemplate): the possibility of tender, physical contact with a victim. The tension in this scene is not sexual in nature, but because there is often so little separating physical contact from sexuality in our culture (especially given that these two people are not related to each other), many viewers will undoubtedly see that connection here. And that’s partly the point, pointing to the way these characters have here entered a sort of intersocial “no man’s land” unhindered by (but also confusingly lacking in direction without) the forms of interpersonal etiquette that normally dictate the majority of our social behavior. They have stumbled upon a type of interaction neither of them expected and for which they are no preordained patterns of behavior. This highly liminal space necessitates that Sarah and (especially) Burnham understand this situation, their intimacy and humanization of each other, without conventional rules to guide them, which is why the robbers’ carefully laid-out plan unravels so that by the end Burnham has sacrificed his own freedom, getting caught by the cops, in order to help Sarah and her mother. We can see then why the broaching of taboos is so powerful (transforming Burnham’s relationship to his victim) but also why, for Burnham, they are so dangerous.
Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan, 2006)
The complete dismissal of Lady in the Water by critics and audiences seems not merely tangential to what we see on the screen. I have written in the past about films which foreground the act of storytelling, but Shyamalan’s film takes this to an extreme and, in the process, virtually taunts viewers to embrace or reject it. This is, after all, a film featuring a character called Story and a film critic who gets killed. But if Shyamalan’s film, based on a screenplay written by the director, seems too poorly constructed, at times rickety in its dialogue and at other times cloying in its emotional presentation, surely there’s something of a point to all this. This is not a case where “secretly” all of the films flaws are actually not flaws at all but aesthetic assets; instead, those same flaws seem not only daring, muscularly so, but part of a program to investigate, in the 21st century, our relationship to narrative. We now live in a time where many can no longer “buy into” narrative the way we used to, so mistrusting are we of any narrative because of the way the medium has been perverted through ideology and capitalism. So when Chris Fujiwara writes about how differently American audience react to Douglas Sirk as compared to Japanese audiences, he exposes, tragically, the way we might be losing our ability to believe in narrative art as we did during its aesthetic pinnacle. Though this has certainly affected filmmaking as well, I’m more interested in how it has shaped and transformed our attitudes towards and evaluation of films. For some time, audiences have extended greater and greater tolerance and admiration towards films that are increasingly cynical and contemptuous of conventions. Some of these films are great, necessary, and important, but the overwhelming trend has been non-stop deconstruction to the point where narratives succeed only by disguising themselves as something different, hence the proliferation of “gritty” realism, documentaries, films based on true stories, etc. At the core of this shift is the extent to which we can or cannot believe in narratives and, by extension, the world portrayed by narratives (i.e. the world we live in, whether or not it is presented as such).
About the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Paola Marrati wrote, “The task of thought, in philosophy, cinema, or elsewhere, becomes the task of a conversion of faith. We ‘moderns’ need to believe in the world; our problem is not the absence of a God but instead our absence from this world. What we lack is belief in the possibility of creating new forms of existence, of experimenting with new forms of life” (“‘The Catholicism of Cinema’: Gilles Deleuze on Image and Belief”). Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water foregrounds this theme by constructing a narrative about believing in stories. A mysterious woman, named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), appears and seeks help from Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the handyman at an apartment complex. Cleveland eventually comes to believe that Story is a creature called a Narf and that she comes from another world, to which she is trying to return but is prevented from doing so by a wolf-like, grass-covered creature called a Scrunt. Cleveland is perhaps inclined to believe in all this because he is a damaged man, having lost his family years ago; his self-effacing, sincere, and curious demeanor embodies the ideal way for us to approach art and storytelling. In one scene, he must even act like a little boy in order to hear more about the tale of the Narfs from an older Asian woman, who says that the story is intended for children. This scene is a silly interlude, sure, but how much of its silliness derives from our own inability to assume the childlike perspective being called for here? As Cleveland learns more, he discovers he must find and gather together various people in the apartment complex who will play iconic roles (e.g. “Healer,” “Interpreter,” “Guardian”) to help Story fulfill her quest to return home. As Marrati quotes Deleuze’s response to the question of what to do about the intolerable state of the world, “To believe, not in a different world, but in a link between man and the world, in love or life, to believe in this as in the impossible, the unthinkable, which nonetheless cannot but be thought.” Story’s appearance in this apartment complex gives meaning to the group of people Cleveland assembles, restores to them a link between them and the world, and it is Cleveland’s openness to storytelling/narrative (to a story and to Story) that allows him to believe in this link.
The theme of belief is omnipresent in Lady in the Water. To find the people who will help Story, Cleveland seeks help from a film critic (Bob Balaban) who recently moved into the apartment complex. Given that the film critic is knowledgeable about narratives, Cleveland believes that he will know who would likely be the “Healer,” the “Interpreter,” and so on. The film critic character is presented as horribly jaded but incredibly self-confident in his absolute knowledge of cinema and storytelling. After the critic responds promptly with clues that point to characters we have been introduced to already, Shyamalan depicts the following sequence, in which Cleveland uses the clues to locate the correct individuals, with a sense of excitement, of pieces falling into place. But we later find out that the critic was incorrect, leading Cleveland astray and exposing our own eagerness to possess this “superior” knowledge. This relates to Deleuze’s notion of “a great turning-point in philosophy, from Pascal to Nietzsche: to replace the model of knowledge with belief.” The critic’s bloated reserves of knowledge relating to narrative patterns and conventions—knowledge which, in the film, prevents him from enjoying the experience of actually watching films—incorrectly guided Cleveland because it lacked belief, which the critic has clearly lost after years of becoming deadened to art. Some observers have complained about the film critic character, especially because Shyamalan has him killed off, but it would be practically impossible for Shyamalan to discuss these themes without taking into account the role cynicism plays today, of which the critic is an embodiment. The character is less an attack on critics and more an investigation on how this cynicism affects our ability to believe in narratives. Truly, as the saying goes, “everyone’s a critic,” and so when this character gets killed off, it is an enactment of the eradication of those parts of ourselves that, for a multitude of reasons, refuse to believe. It goes without saying that some critics are less like this than many audience members can be, so the actual profession of the character should not distract from the message here.
The cynicism of Lady in the Water’s film critic proves to be contagious, and after the story Cleveland hears doesn’t play out as expected, Cleveland’s companions begin to lose hope. But they eventually figure out, by throwing out the film critic’s advice, the true identities of the individuals needed to help Story. Shyamalan’s manner of constructing these characters is somewhat ingenious, but this genius is exactly what could turn many audiences off. As Deleuze writes, “We need an ethic or a faith, which makes fools laugh; it is not a need to believe in something else, but a need to believe in this world, of which fools are a part.” Cleveland enlists the help of a variety of misfits, the most important of which, the Guardian, turns out to be something of a fool, a man who is exercising only one half of his body (Freddy Rodriguez). These “foolish” aspects of Shyamalan’s story, such as the way the Interpreter turns out to be a boy who reads messages off of cereal boxes, are important because they construct an egalitarian environment where all aspects of “this world,” most importantly the people in it, are embraced and accepted; one of the most important aspects of what Shyamalan is doing here, which dovetails quite nicely with Deleuze’s philosophy of belief, is creating a world in which everyone is present and integral, a world in which we can all believe. Shyamalan picks the least likely individuals to play important roles in this world, and in this way, he truly challenges us to shift away from our knowledge of this world—knowledge that, like the film critic’s, tells us who is and is not important—and towards belief in a narrative that can comprise misfits and rejects. The “awkwardness” for which this film has been criticized seems less a flaw and more an honest and humble attitude expressed sincerely. If we abandon our cynicism and our fear of being contaminated by “mere” stories with ridiculous characters, this is a film that we can believe in, and that alone makes it a powerful work of art. The narrative of Lady in the Water puts this very belief to the test and places us in a position to discover belief alongside the characters.
Cyrus (Jay and Mark Duplass, 2010)
According to Martin Scorsese, John Ford once remarked that “most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world” is the human face. The human face is also one of cinema’s greatest treasures. Its depth and presence ensures that the close-up will function in a powerful way unique to the medium. Where a writer must use words to suggest the reality of a character, the mere existence of a human being before a camera can often do this and more, creating instances in which the word “character” is no longer adequate. The Duplass brothers’ Cyrus is a film constructed out of the raw material of human faces. To look simply at the faces throughout this film is to understand the story, and where the film so often threatens to veer into clichéd or maudlin sentiment, the actors’ faces infuse each moment with a weight that is not easily ignored or dismissed. Frequently throughout the film, the Duplass brothers will present images of the characters’ faces not synced to their dialogue, imbuing their faces with an out-of-time, almost mythic look. Instead of watching two characters tell each other how they feel—and the dialogue in these scenes is often a literal and simplistic, though effectively so, account of the characters’ own understandings of their emotions—we watch the poetic reality of this dialogue, the glances and facial expressions in the nooks and crannies between their words. Their words hang in the air, harmoniously inert, giving the impression of moments in which these people, hovering in a state of hyper-attentiveness to each other, truly meet.
Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) (Olivier Assayas, 2008)
“In general,” says the matriarch to her only daughter, “You prefer objects not weighed down by the past.” Every character in Summer Hours ponders the way time collects on objects like an invisible patina, transforming them in the process. Everyone, that is, except for the youngest generation; they are the only ones who truly embody the ability to revel in objects (and life) not weighed down by the past. When Hélène (Edith Scob) makes this pronouncement about her daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), it sounds and feels right. Adrienne is modern, hip; she can appreciate the past but mostly only in an aesthetic sense, the way we can appreciate art from eras in which we could not ourselves live—after all, she has just published a book about a famous artist from her mother’s generation. But she is just as intertwined with the past as her siblings or her mother are. She simply rebels against it, sculpts her own life in contrast to it, as the photograph is to the negative. Perhaps it is understandable that someone watching this film would identify with her more than her siblings; currently, we prefer her brand of mutiny against hegemony to her brothers’ isolation (eldest) or conformity (youngest). The siblings themselves are “objects weighed down by the past,” pressed and shaped by the contours of time’s passage.
One of the most fascinating images in Summer Hours is that of the eldest brother Frédéric (Charles Berling) looking at a broken Degas plaster kept in a plastic bag (see above). It is a reminder that history’s onward movement is almost never light, always a touch too heavy. In an earlier scene, Frédéric had attempted to show some members of the family’s youngest generation the artwork that hangs in the family home. Predictably, they show little enthusiasm; time has neither molded them to respect the past nor has it taught them to appreciate it aesthetically. Frédéric is the sibling made most uncomfortable by the way the past weighs down on us; as the eldest, this makes sense: our relationship with the past is nearly always about our own mortality. At one point, Adrienne opens a copy of the book she has been working to a page showing a photograph taken at the exact same spot she stands, many years in the past. Later, Frédéric examines a sketch done by his mother’s uncle, depicting the exact same view of the house he is looking at. These siblings are fascinated by the way the past connects to the present, the way people can sit in one spot or look at one view and then replicate that very same moment years later. They are drawn to imitate the past ritualistically, Frédéric moving mere inches until he is occupying the exact same vantage point that was used to create the sketch.
Later, the family has the broken Degas plaster restored. It had lived quite a long existence as merely a bunch of rocks in a bag, but with care, it transforms into a gleaming, beautiful work of art. Of course, the transformation from object to objet d’art is not unambivalently an upgrade. After the family’s matriarch passes away, the family donates many of her possessions to a museum. Frédéric and his wife pay a visit to the museum to find the family’s former possessions rendered foreign behind glass. Assayas shows the museum-goers’ casual disinterest in “art,” the way they respectfully pay an indifferent tribute to the idea of treasuring the past. When Frédéric sees this, it understandably upsets him: the bonds connecting past to present are revealed to be built out of little more than sentiment and alchemy. On the other hand, the people at the museum who restore the Degas plaster are able to create something entirely new out of the past. The restored work may not mean much to Frédéric, whose hands are used to caressing mere discarded fragments, but it might mean a lot to all the people who can now see this work of art. Assayas’ commentary on art can feel quite grim when juxtaposed to the wealth of meanings this family had built into and around their family home and the objects contained therein, but Assayas also shows how the family’s past has become constricting—leading them to sell the house—whereas the Degas plaster is wonderful because it is a vessel in which to breath new life.
If meaning in Assayas’ film is a continual process of creation, maintenance, deterioration, and reinvigoration, then youth are symbolic of the “ignorance” (toward past meanings) necessary to create something new and vital. But without direction, this youthful ignorance is merely destructive and chaotic. There is a point at which a person can straddle the line separating the youth who create with a freedom not “weighed down by the past” and the older generation, who in their concerns with mortality become caretakers for the deteriorating past. Assayas ends the film beautifully with an image of this. Frédéric’s two children decide to throw a party for their friends at the family home, just before it is about to be sold. They bring in giant speakers to play the type of loud music that horrifies the older generation’s sensibilities and indulge in alcohol and pot. Frédéric’s daughter and her boyfriend leave the party for a moment to take a walk outside, and they pause in one spot so that she can relive a memory of being with her grandmother in that very spot. The mood shifts ever so slightly, and then they head back to the party, climbing over a fence. As the Incredible String Band’s “Little Cloud” plays on the soundtrack, Frédéric’s daughter straddles the fence, looking backwards and forwards. In this moment, she is not trapped by the past, weighed down, nor is she free in a merely directionless way. About Yasujirô Ozu’s There Was a Father (1942), I wrote that the film made visible the passage of time; Summer Hours does something similar, though not with the way time passes but rather how it accumulates on objects, people, and places. And as with Assayas’ Clean (2004) and Boarding Gate (2007), with Summer Hours he is interested in giving us glimpses of the vitality that drives an individual. By ending with this image of Frédéric’s daughter, Assayas celebrates liminality and hybridity as the source of this spark, which cannot be preserved but must always be given new life.
Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood, 1997)
Wrapped in a wildly (but delightfully) preposterous story, the core of Absolute Power is loneliness. Clint Eastwood plays Luther Whitney, a thief who witnesses a crime while on one of his jobs. The act of being a thief is in and of itself lonely (see also: Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)), but this is made doubly so for Luther when is forced to sit and watch a horrific crime being committed. As he is about to leave the mansion he has just robbed, Luther hears voices and hides in a secret compartment that contained the jewels and cash he has stolen. In the compartment is a chair, and from it, anyone can view the bedroom through a two-way mirror. Later we learn that the owner of this mansion uses that chair to watch his much younger wife have sex with other men, and the voices Luther heard belong to the wife and a man, who enter the bedroom and begin to make love. The man suddenly turns violent, forcing the woman to reach for a letter opener to protect herself, but just as it appears that she will attack him, she is shot from behind. The man, we learn, happens to be the U.S. president (Gene Hackman) and the shooters who kill the woman are the Secret Service.
The premise of the compartment in which Luther hides reminds us of the power and draw of movies, the way we desire to see the most lurid and far-fetched events play out and cannot look away from them. Luther is portrayed as a fairly sophisticated, intelligent, and sensitive man, but once the “show” playing out before him begins, he continues watching even though it repulses him. Eastwood humorously cuts repeatedly from the action inside the bedroom to reaction shots of Luther wincing or expressing shock on his face, depicting simultaneously two forms of drama taking place (one on the “screen,” the other in the audience). The experience of art is lonely because it puts us in the same position as Luther, where we watch something unfold before us but cannot reach for others to develop our response to it. Art can provoke social responses (criticism being the most obvious), but the actual experience is entirely isolating: the answers to the questions art provokes can only be found internally. Of course, the “performance” Luther is watching is not art; it is a crime in the moral and legal sense. This points to why art is enjoyable: it demands no action from us and obligates us to no form of responsibility. The experience is the same as Luther’s in its loneliness, but Luther is no mere “spectator”, realizing that he is now responsible for making sure the crime he witnessed does not get covered up.
Loneliness has become a major theme in Eastwood’s work as he has matured as a filmmaker, and in his films, particularly Absolute Power, it is not a flaw or wound but a natural part of human existence. It is not the natural state of humanity—because it is always present alongside other emotions—but it is a perpetually integral component to our state of being at all times. And Eastwood understands the way loneliness serves an essential function function by creating the impetus to drive people outside of themselves, as soon as they have given up clinging to the comforts of loneliness. In Absolute Power, Luther is estranged from his daughter, who resents his career and how it took him away from her when she was young. Luther has obviously internalized the isolation imposed on him by his daughter; he spends most of his time in quiet solitude. When he returns from robbing the mansion, he puts all the items he stole in a giant safe, where they seem merely to collect dust and call attention to the way Luther pursues his vocation as a way to further ensconce himself in loneliness. As an alibi, Luther watches a tape of the football game from the night of the robbery, given to him by the owner of a local bar. In one remarkable shot (see above), Eastwood frames a reflection of Luther watching the game in the TV screen; the game is meaningless to him, drained of the enjoyment that fuels sports fans and converted into little more than a tedious ritual. This, we sense, is his life, and based on these sequences and the others showing him dining alone at home or sketching in the museum, we feel witness to the complete life of Luther Whitney, so sad in its sparsity.
Eastwood enjoys playing with his persona in this film. We are introduced to Luther sketching in a museum and then soon see him break the code on the mansion’s security system. There’s something about this latter sequence that jars with our image of Eastwood, who we would much sooner expect to use brute force instead of deft skill. When he nearly leaves the country, rightly suspecting that he’ll be found out by the Secret Service, Luther is disguised in beard and raincoat, barely resembling Eastwood. But later, when he is brought out of his shell in order to protect his daughter, who the Secret Service target as a way to get to him, he again becomes the Eastwood we are all familiar with. When forced to kill a Secret Service agent who is trying to murder his daughter, Luther gets to utter a line that is “classic” Eastwood. Yet the thrill of resuming this persona is dampened by regret and, again, the sense of loneliness that must accompany the use of brute force, which inevitably distances us from others. In a way, Eastwood draws a link between his persona, via Luther, and Gene Hackman’s president, recalling their pairing in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). Hackman’s president is one of the ultimate villains in Eastwood’s anti-authoritarian cinema, using his “absolute power” to crush innocent people in order to hide his own guilt. His use of power illustrates the way the state will do anything to protect itself, piling murder on top of murder in order to conceal misdeeds. In his own way, Eastwood is critiquing his persona here, the figure of the all-powerful “badass.” What ultimately distinguishes Luther from Hackman’s president is not the way they use their power—one senses Eastwood’s discomfort with the use of power over others for any reason—but the loneliness Luther endures in his isolated existence. This loneliness makes him reflective and allows him to sympathize with others, unlike the impulsive and reckless president, and in the end, it drives Luther back into his daughter’s company and respect.