Marilyn Ferdinand is the founder of Ferdy on Films, a blog that has been providing in-depth reviews and analysis since 2005. She is also the co-founder of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon and she has contributed to Humanities magazine, Fandor’s Keyframe, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s program. Roderick Heath was born in Canberra, Australia, in 1979. He writes about cinema for Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod. He has has also contributed to Fandor, Bright Lights Film Journal, and GreenCine. A resident of the lustrous Blue Mountains outside Sydney, he is currently working on a novel.
More Real than Real Life
It never occurred to me that there might be any confusion about real vs. reel until last winter, when I sat in on a film studies class watching Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008). In the discussion that followed, a student asked if what the protagonist experienced in the film really happened. While the film has been described as a “waking nightmare,” it seemed fairly obvious to me, the instructor, and the rest of the class that the events were supposed to have actually happened. This experience made me wonder whether audiences, especially younger ones who have been exposed to immersive games from childhood, have given up on the notion that most motion pictures try to represent, however heightened, the real world. Do they believe that all films are alternate universes inhabited mainly by superheroes, monsters, and human beings whose stories have no more substance than the flat surfaces on which they unfold?
Of course, cinema itself is something of a trick. The apocryphal story of a panicked audience leaping from their seats at the 1896 showing of the Lumières’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station serves to illustrate how movies can confuse audiences. While there have always been film tricks, from the special effects of the Lumières themselves to the surprise endings of The Woman in the Window (1944) and Psycho(1960), most films “play fair” with their audiences by offering clear stories that proceed in a logical, lifelike manner, or portray fantasy with an internal logic that leads the audience down a well-marked yellow brick road to a reasonable explanation or satisfying conclusion.
It’s somewhat difficult to pin down when mainstream movies started to embrace tricks in a larger way, but alternate-reality films emerged more frequently with the release of David Fincher’s Fight Club in 1999.Fight Club provides a version of the unreliable narrator that reached its apex for me with Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic Detour (1945). WhereasDetour only shows us the world from the narrator’s perspective, thus making any other version of events purely speculative, Fight Cluballows its protagonist (and audience) a view outside his subjective experience, revealing what is “really” happening. Like another film of the era that dabbled in alternate reality, Mary Harron’s American Psycho(2000), Fight Club was about advertising’s corrosive effects and the emptiness of consumer culture–a corporate Wizard of Oz revealed to be nothing more than a humbug blowing smoke from behind the velvet curtain.
The trick era might have flamed out as quickly as it started had it not been for an offshoot of the genre, a sci-fi flick from the Wachowskis that also bowed in 1999–The Matrix. Science fiction has long been a place where filmmakers are free to conjure utopias and, more frequently, dystopias, and scientific and technological advances are taken to their imagined logical conclusion. The alternate reality The Matrix created took its inspiration from video games, which today are as widespread and intricate as the variety of devices on which they’re played. Gamers talk about their gaming world with the same familiarity and expansiveness as they might the physical world. Given that an estimated 34 million people in the United States alone are considered core gamers who play at least five hours a week, and that the average amount of time core gamers play is 22 hours a week, alternate realities are gaining equity, at least with gamers, with the physical world. Indeed, in the Taiwanese film from director Lou Yi-an, A Place of One’s Own (2009), a gamer pays real money for virtual real estate.
Films like Fincher’s The Game (1997), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) literally take their characters and audiences inside games from which they never emerge. The trick of “is what’s happening now real, or are we still in the game?” offers the kind of brain tickler M.C. Escher created, a beautifully rendered conundrum that keeps one’s mind and gaze engaged, a World of Warcraft environment where the end is never reached. If you want to stop, you have to leave the game–the game will not leave you. Is this position, however, confined to a certain variety of film, or has it proliferated into the audience’s thinking about virtually all films?
For me, an older American brought up before the age of the personal computer, let alone the internet, movies offer many things–escape, entertainment, information, visual beauty. But, most of all, I look to movies for stories of human life. Stories illuminate universal truths and offer particular strategies for going through the stages of life. When women complain that there aren’t enough movies with real women living real lives–Bechdel-approved movies, if you will–what they’re saying is that they’re not seeing narratives that would help them successfully negotiate life’s stages in ways that are relevant to their experiences as women. When older viewers complain about the film industry’s focus on youth, they have the same problem–how will they acquire the psychological tools they need to face the final stages of life? I would suggest that even surrealist dreamscapes like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and most of Luis Buñuel’s oeuvre offer rich nourishment by helping us access the wisdom of our inner space.
That student’s comment has haunted me because it made me wonder whether a steady diet of alternate reality may be turning narrative into a shapeless blob or a generic skeleton that cannot exist outside its own bubble. Perhaps more unsettling is whether the converse is true–are these worlds more real to some audience members than the physical world because of the immersive nature of the media we all now consume?
The Reality of the Mirror
My initial response to your anecdote about the young viewer of The Headless Woman is that he was rather an outlier. I’ve noticed very little overt distrust of narrative in my generation; usually at best minor delight or frustration if and when a film pulls a successful mind-fuck. Then again, I live in a working-class town, where spades are regarded as very definite spades. Every film represents a different method of conceiving reality, and though we generally expect most to play by the same rules, and everyone to receive them the same way, we’ve no right to demand that they do. Jean-Luc Godard has said a lot of bull in his lifetime, but one of his more pertinent statements was his remark that “cinema is not a mirror to reality, but the reality of the mirror.” It is perception; it is aesthetic; it is a way of understanding, not reportage. Cinema’s overwhelming realness–very different in this sense from realism–has always made this hard to grasp. I’ve often been struck by just how varied people’s ways of reading a film can be with no generational bias involved. An intricate mesh of perspective, experience, and personal feeling, can sometimes dictate personal rebellion against the artwork’s face value. To a certain extent, everyone adapts and finds other realities inside the art they encounter.
I wouldn’t definitively venture when the fashion for destabilised or puzzle narratives gained traction in Hollywood, but everything about them was anticipated somewhere in the history of popular art. Wes Craven, a former philosophy professor, brought elements of surrealism and the concept of different zones of cause and effect into mainstream film with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). With Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), he collapsed the barriers between story and storyteller, playing on the characters-in-search-of-an-author idea with an impudent élan well before Charlie Kaufman did. Groundhog Day(1993) jokily explored the concept of a character’s life as an accumulation of revisions with an unseen, unknown author constantly rebooting his existence, while presenting a metaphor for the processes of growth amidst life’s repetitions. Pulp Fiction’s (1994) suitcase, with its mysteriously glowing, precious content, harked back to some modernists’ fascination with the essential pointlessness of McGuffins, while the film itself kept reminding the audience it was a collage of genre tropes, riddled with “clues” that fans tried nonetheless to assemble. Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) elaborated on this idea, drawing us in with mysteries, and then laying us flat with a twist that both solved the mystery and called into question everything presented to us as truth. Again, not original, but perfectly timed; every young film fan lapped it up. It gave unto us The Twist–that last act revelation that triggered a whirlwind montage of hints given out earlier in the film, designed to elicit a shocked gasp or knowing “I see” from the viewer. We all know this scene by now, because we’ve seen three dozen variations of it. We’ve even seen it in biopics. Remember when John Nash’s pals turned out to be figments of his imagination in A Beautiful Mind (2002)?
Se7en (1995), which turned David Fincher from that guy who screwed up the Alien series to a new breed of popular auteur, came out around the same time as The Usual Suspects. The Twist works differently here, but it nonetheless dovetails apparently random story elements into an outcome that substitutes the usual flux of story for a deterministic one: the heroes have been playing a rigged game, fulfilling the villain John Doe’s plot. Se7en at once subverts the moral schema of the genre film while simultaneously embracing another moral schema. The serial killer plays author and director with infernal omniscience. Fincher moved into knottier territory, as you’ve noted, with The Game and Fight Club–both have a cinematic perspective that mimics the protagonist’s understanding of reality, which is revealed to be dangerously incomplete. M. Night Shyamalan’s name became synonymous with The Twist, as he wrapped the central conceit of The Sixth Sense in a cocoon of metaphor even as he goosed his audience with a radical revision in the last act. Of course, when Shyamalan repeated this dynamic, he steadily exiled himself into mediocrity and ridicule. At some point the Twist ceased to be a value that compelled an audience on its own, so the question is raised, when does the Twist, the game, become excessive and alienate the general audience?
I suppose I am smack dab in the middle of the generation that fostered this brand of cinematic storytelling: I was sixteen when The Usual Suspects was released, and twenty when the holy quartet of this mode of filmmaking–Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, andThe Matrix–all came out. I was not that impressed by any of them at the time, except The Usual Suspects, and I’m even less so now, and I don’t know why I’ve not shared that generational enthusiasm. Eyes Wide Shut was far more my style in 1999, although it is arguable that film, too, offers an unstable reality; it might be a “dream” or it might not be. It is cunningly pitched on a level where neither realism nor surrender to surrealism is offered. I find it telling that you bring up Mulholland Drive, but it stands at quite a distance from this phenomenon. Both Eyes Wide Shut and the more overtly surreal Mulholland Drive have a pretence to familiar forms of mystery, containing puzzles to be solved, but they sabotage these by throwing in strange and random elements, leading to places that are interior and relating to the emotional travails of their heroes, rather than external threats as in a familiar mystery. Arguably, Fight Club does a similar thing, but predicated through a self-projected fantasy that never feels like a coherent expression of the id’s rebellion, but more like a convenient way to espouse outwardly-directed frustrations. The movie itself even has a similar attitude towards its audience as Tyler Durden, to act as life coach and bully all at once. Many of the films mentioned above have radical twists or delve into unstable narrative planes essentially as a gimmick, a way of entertaining the audience by deceiving it, like a three-card-monte trick. Mulholland Drive has no pretence to such purpose, because it is a work of surrealism, its realities not alternative but multiplicitous. Watching Mulholland Drive, faced with the movement from the aching tenderness of Betty and Rita’s first love scene to the pathetic sight of Diane masturbating furiously in trying to will the glossy fantasy she–and we–have been enjoying back into being, we feel the affect as tragic, both on a personal level in the pathos of Diane and in our attitude to it as a self-conscious audience. That fantasy world has been lost, or distorted, into something more brutal and consuming.
You ask, Marilyn, if the unstable reality is confined to a certain variety of film, or if it has proliferated into the audience’s way of thinking about all films. I think the answer to that is, pretty obviously, no. Nobody’s been going to the Marvel or Twilight or Harry Potter or Hobbit films for incredulous twists or spectacles in narrative rearrangement. All of those series violate the presumption that the start and end of a film constitute the limits of its story and thus reach into the realm of intertextuality, but that’s an ancient idea gussied up in fancy words. Marvel’s hugely popular, paradigm-dominating recent success is based in conventional or classical heroic motifs and structures, told in the most functional of fashions, without a trace of convolution. Indeed, I suspect that the meta mode of filmmaking has had its day, perhaps to remain a minor fixture in some brands of upmarket cinema or an occasional genre film. I recall audiences groaning by the time old-school filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese got around to making their entries, with Savages(2012), with its alternate endings, and Shutter Island (2010), with its climactic reality check. The only major examples I can think of from the past two years, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio andResolution, were small indie films scarcely anyone saw.
I think it is worth analysing what the appeal of these sorts of films is (or was) to people of the moment. Perhaps contemporary audiences like some appeal to the head as well as the heart. A lot of people under the age of forty have had far different forms of intellectual and emotional training imposed upon them. Their livelihoods are more likely to involve mentally demanding tasks and abstract problem-solving than those of generations past. So of course many are going to engage with entertainments that offer similar forms of stimulation. Awareness of media as a reality unto itself permeates a lot of contemporary entertainment; Godard’s mirror is now as familiar as the reality it is reflecting, and the way things are reflected concerns us much more.The Matrix films, for instance, were a pop phenomenon fostered specifically by the internet age. They stirred a lot of real and intense curiosity for viewers who followed some of its threads of reference, like Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which is glimpsed in the first film and provided an intellectual eureka for many fans as it contextualised the plot as a metaphor for their own obsession with/dislocation within pop culture. There are references in the film to the ‘60s counterculture with its rejection of “reality” as a last frontier of legitimate rebellion against preordained forms of consumerist, capitalist culture: young computer-savvy folks seized on this because it legitimised the feeling that far from being unreal, the cyber world offered less filtered, power-directed, dominated channels. I don’t say any of this to praise The Matrix films on a level of dramatic worth, but their appeal was for some the opposite of narcotising.
Does this have much to do with computer games? Video games have long been an easy target of intellectual and aesthetic disdain as a puerile adolescent pastime, but that’s become substantively less true, both experientially and demographically. Although many offer an immersive “world” today, few popular video games hinge on any grand puzzle or invocation of experiential dissonance. They still tend to be very literal, based in primal demarcations of storytelling: quest, level-based challenge and triumph, with perhaps occasional problem-solving to grease the wheels. Classic myth-stories like Jason and the Argonauts, the Journey to the West, and Theseus and the Minotaur all have structural affinities with video games. Just because when we’re playing a video game and we’re only looking at pixels, doesn’t make it more perniciously unreal than other media forms.
The medium’s relationship with cinema is troubling, however. I’ve seen some excellent surveys of gaming’s specific influence on modern cinema like Nick Schager’s recent survey for Esquire, and I do think some contempt for the niceties of storytelling has been partly engendered by gaming. Video games treat the onscreen protagonist as a mere projection of the self in a manner that a lot of recent films have mimicked. To wit, in this summer’s Edge of Tomorrow, the hero dies over and over again until he gets his mission right, a conceit instantly familiar to any gamer. Video games imbue control over narrative in a way that many, with our world’s ever-proliferating sources of anxiety, would prize. Gaming offers all action all the time, and I think this aspect has had the most powerful and pernicious effect. Films that seemed lightning-paced a quarter-century ago, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Aliens (1986), now look positively stately. Can you imagine a contemporary blockbuster doing as Aliens does and spending nearly half its running time before a single action scene?
I understand your hunger for shared experience and wisdom in filmmaking, Marilyn, but I don’t think realism is the only way to transmit it. Or do I misunderstand you? As you know, the fantastical is a realm of endless fascination for me and I object strenuously to the idea that it is less worthy or capable of explaining our lives than realistic art. In fact, the older I get the surer I become that it is as capable or more so of bundling together the teeming contradictions of our existence. I do often worry that, as time has progressed, we’ve become more emotionally detached from art and less willing to give ourselves over to the grandeur and crushing force it can wield over us. The popularity of the sorts of films we’re talking about does in part reflect that. There’s serious talk these days about “trigger warnings” being placed on artworks, but the possibility of strong feelings–good or ill–used to draw people to art. Tragedy is considered politically suspect, for rather than nakedly considering the truth that bad things often happen to good people, many prefer to blame artists for failing to provide a fictional universe that conforms to our cherished ideals. Is the basis of much modern Western dramatic art still viewed through the lens of the morality play, even if the desired moral has shifted? Has the currency of both realism and the fantastic been sapped by the technocrats who essentially control today’s film industry? Does this mean that we’re turning contemporary culture into a kind of accessory or app, couching our life experience in cute clichés or studied, preordained rhythms and messages? What kind of escapism is beneficial to the audience and what kind harms it? What films do you think most profitably and intelligibly explore the dissonances between zones of experience and perception, and why are they preferable?
Vanguards of the Coming Zeitgeist
I agree that the student I mentioned in the first installment is an outlier and seemed so at the time–his reaction is notable only in that it got me thinking about this question in the first place. I’m not convinced that the vast majority of people are prone to craving ambiguity or free-floating explorations of the unconscious as you and I often are. My favorite directors are Stanley Kubrick, for his engagement with the macrocosmic questions of life, and Luis Buñuel, for his gleeful dives into the microcosmic world of the personal unconscious. I commented on this fact to a highly educated acquaintance of mine and she countered vehemently with “I HATE Stanley Kubrick. He makes me feel stupid.” She knows many things, but I daresay that she is willfully ignorant of realms beyond the tangible and well known, realms that are frightening to many people.
As you and I have discussed privately, there is a strong streak in most of us to pat ourselves on the back with an “oh, how clever am I!” when we figure out a mystery or twist. Mystery fans like myself know there will be a murder, so, of course, the attraction is not the story itself, but rather the chance to parse the clues before the final reveal. I don’t really think the twist works the same way because there may or may not be clues, the better to create the often-frightening shock that goes with the reveal. I say with unbecoming pride that I had the secret of The Sixth Sense (1999) sussed out about 10 minutes into my first viewing. On the other hand, The Usual Suspects (1997) creates a genuine unease, a world turned upside-down by the revelation of the evil in someone we thought was good. This kind of twist can still have tremendous potency, one that reaches individuals who are not familiar with or, like my Kubrick-hating acquaintance, are uncomfortable with the wide open spaces of the dark universe.
In many ways, I find game-influenced films to be both disturbing in their bare-bones characterizations and oddly empowering in what you call “the onscreen protagonist as a … projection of the self.” In Sucker Punch (2011), a film you and I are in the minority in admiring, Babydoll (Emily Browning) takes on the persona of a superhero in a situation where she is essentially powerless. The episodic nature of the film, the various physical environments in which Babydoll and her fellow warrior-inmates find themselves, as well as the sexualized nature of these characters, bear all the earmarks of a videogame, but the real world filled with real danger that intrudes at crucial moments raises the stakes, engaging the audience in a way that the female-centric, video-game-turned-film Aeon Flux (2005), which I also like, never quite achieves.
I have often found that among people who are trying to break free and increase their status in repressive societies, agitprop art usually emerges early to break through the psychic barriers of oppression. The 1930s socialist theatre and films fostered by the Group Theatre and its “émigrés” to Hollywood–Clifford Odets, John Garfield, Canada Lee, and others–paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the black civil rights movement. Lonne Elder III’s 1969 play “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” (filmed for television in 1975), was a latter-day example of art announcing the civil rights movement to a larger society unaware of the long, slow history of the struggle. Longtime Companion (1989) brought the “gay plague” to movie theatres and led to the breakthroughPhiladelphia (1993), a film that allowed straight people to understand and sympathize with gay AIDS victims and the LGBT civil rights struggle. In some ways, films like Sucker Punch, which uses the tropes of gaming–thus far, a decidedly masculine endeavor–to explore the repression of women, may be a cinematic bellwether of a third wave of feminism that I believe we are experiencing now. In this sense, the inspiration of video game narrative and construction can have a positive life on screen; eventually, however, substantive stories about characters not only aspiring to, but also living better lives must emerge, or the revolution will have shown itself to be a failure.
At the same time, there is a deep vein of pessimism running parallel with such alternate-reality films, mined most effectively by the Coen brothers. An intriguing and persuasive article by Flickfilosopher’s MaryAnn Johanson posits that the title character of Inside Llewyn Davis(2013) is actually dead, and that the film takes place in a type of purgatory. You mention Groundhog Day (1993) in terms of alternate reality, and if we assume that Davis, as unlikeable a character as Bill Murray’s Phil, is going through some type of reality loop, then the Coens seem to suggest that however many times we loop, we will still end up screwed. This forms a consistent thread with their A Serious Man (2009), which spins off into the surreal with a sudden twister–talk about twist endings!–that threatens the rational world of math teacher Larry Gopnik. In a similar vein, this deep well of anxiety and pessimism was mined very effectively in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), which blurred the line between imagined and real-world disaster in much the same way Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) constructed a very real world that grew increasingly surreal and dangerous.
The talk about trigger warnings is really nothing new–we’ve seen it on television for a long time for the “younger or more sensitive viewer,” and the various entertainment rating systems have been in place since artists blew the lid off society’s prevailing Puritan morality back in the 1960s. Yet, there does seem to be something new about this meme, a recognition of the increased fragility of the world at the moment. My student wondering about the reality of The Headless Woman may be echoing the confusion of many ordinary people who don’t recognize the world in which they live. When George Will can call victimhood a “privilege”, reality seems not only unreal, but surreal—the lie as performance art and disruptive influence. If artists are expected to give us a coherent morality play, how are they to know which morality to choose–the libertarian nightmare of extreme freedom, the 19th century leanings of neoconservatives, or the strident desperation of humanists hanging onto a shallow and crumbling ledge of rights. In the circumstances, most any escapism seems alright to me to keep us all from losing our minds.
But it seems increasingly important that artists, who are always on the vanguard of the coming zeitgeist, find ways to ground audiences in a new reality, one that acknowledges the fanciful without succumbing to it. In some ways, I think Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) looked back to look forward, creating a continuum of magic realism that has reached into the video game/new 3-D era and inspired some hope. Wes Anderson’s oeuvre is a little too frivolous to set a lasting stage into the future, though his intentions are honorable and he’s coming ever closer. I have hope that Terrence Malick and Lars Von Trier will continue to be standard bearers in the cause, and that the cult of Christopher Nolan and his empty-headed “profundity” will fade to black. But we need more young artists like Sarah Polley, whose excellent documentaryStories We Tell (2012) unearthed her own distorted reality, who can lead us out of the wilderness. Who do you think will lead us into our new reality? Can they even keep up with the pace of change? Perhaps more importantly, will the new global market for contextless blockbuster films drown out the prescient voices all societies need to make sense of their lives?
No Such Thing as Pure Escapism
It was inevitable that we would talk about Sucker Punch. I revisited it shortly after writing my first reply, and one aspect that struck me forcefully this time was that it’s the only film we’ve discussed that is actively commenting on the phenomena it exploits, and the same ones we’ve wrestled with. It concerns escapism and the construction of concurrent realities in a manner that carefully exposes the way audiences relate to modern media: the Second Life avatars the girls become in the fantasy battlefields compared to the abused wretches they are, the mix and match of gaming and blockbuster tropes, the three-leveled reality of the film, all churn the myriad zones of reference mostly held in dainty accord by most other films. It spurns any “logical” explanation for why we’re stepping between the zones, unlike, say, The Matrix. Gaming is an influence, yes, but so too is just about every other contemporary pop phenomenon, and some hallowed fantasy storytelling precepts too, as its references to The Wizard of Oz andAlice in Wonderland (those founding texts of mirrored reality) make clear. In answer to your question about directors who can lead us into new realities, I would like to see Zack Snyder pursuing this line of thought in his future works, but he seems to have been netted by the more familiar, much less provocative brand of superhero flick for the time being.
Like you I defend escapism. I joked a couple of years ago that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) was actually a film about a group of socially disadvantaged people trying to get their home back from the finance company. Now, I don’t think that Tolkien, when he wrote his book, was thinking literally of that and transmuting it into fantasy, and we don’t need justifications to wield interpretive viewpoints on an artwork. The emotions generated allow such an epic reality as we get in a truly great piece of fantastic filmmaking, reflecting life in a way that renders it much larger, more ennobling than the pettiness of so much existence. Once when I was small boy, I was being picked on by other kids in my school. Then I saw the 1976 version of King Kong on TV and the next day I was King Kong. I could outwrestle everyone who tried it on. Cute anecdote perhaps, but one that tells me a truth I subscribe to: there is no such thing as pure escapism. Every artwork has the capacity to teach us something. The popularity of every very popular film seems to rest not merely on the competence of the filmmaking or the marketing but a complex mesh of circumstances, including the cumulative need of the audience–us–at any one moment. Except for Michael Bay movies; they’re crap.
Your Kubrick-fearing lawyer is amusing; particularly in light of what you say about the delight we take in solving problems. Kubrick’s filmmaking deliberately fostered ambiguity as well as insight. Many viewers seemed to have asimilar reaction to The Master (2012), Paul Thomas Anderson’s most allusive and elusive film to date, as well as one that suggested Kubrick’s influence, coming away with the impression of another level of narrative excised or at least minimalized, in a phenomenon close to the anecdote of the student who started this conversation. Anderson, not a director who had trucked much with subtlety before (in the best way, for the most part), suddenly hinted he was heir to the more meditative and difficult side of his master Kubrick, and suggested how narrative could be explored in less literal ways but without overt cues.
This also touches on something else I have noticed. A few months ago a friend brought to my attention an online video essay which proposed to “solve” the question of whether Childs, one of the last two survivors of the Antarctic base in The Thing (1981), was infected in the film’s famous fade-out. Now, to me, part of the beauty of The Thing’s finale is that the solution is not only opaque but practically irrelevant. It’s a great example of how to do that kind of ambiguous ending, almost an anti-ending if you will, standing up with classics as pointedly arty as Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) or Blow-Up (1966) or indeed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in refusing to sate the audience’s need for firm resolution, but also satisfying on a different level. There’s a driving need amongst many today to solve these things as if they’re a puzzle, lest the existential terror provoked by the spectacle of unanswered questions drive them off diet to eat the last Popsicle in the freezer, and perhaps a habit encouraged by the proliferation of films that really are puzzles. Even an ending as taciturn as that of The Birds (1963) would probably not pass for a modern major production for precisely this reason. The recent documentary film Room 237 (2013) tackled just this phenomenon–the notion that a film contains coded revelations and hidden truths–taken to its nuttier extremes, and with our friend Kubrick to boot. I don’t think the theories explored in Room 237 are wrong, at least not entirely. I’m quite sure that the references to space travel and America’s ever-troubled history with its native peoples are deployed for specific if minor thematic resonance. Just not in the fashion some take them. But this does beg an understanding of how meaning is transmitted to us in film.
Alfred Hitchcock once noted the ease with which cinematic context was changed, illustrated with an imagined shot from Rear Window (1954) where Jimmy Stewart would be looking through his binoculars, smiling to himself. Hitch could then insert either a shot of a baby or a woman’s breasts, and the voyeur was changed from avuncular watchdog to creepy lecher. Cinema is information deployed and suppressed. The inferences of this comment have been endlessly reiterated to a much more technique-conscious audience. Moreover, some modern directors like Claire Denis and Abbas Kiarostami have specialised to a certain extent in removing the explanatory shots that make Hitchcock’s anecdote work at strategic points, and leaving the audience to puzzle out exactly what has been seen. Witness in particular Denis’ 35 Rhums (2009), where any two people might watch it and come away with two completely different interpretations of the resolution. Does such filmmaking really play games with reality, or do they merely prod their audiences to work harder than we’re used to? Either way, we prove merely that cinema is infinitely malleable. Following it always demands a leap of faith.
The destabilised narrative trend we’ve talked about has roots that extend far back into the early phases of modernism in other art forms, and represents, to some extent, the delayed arrival of some long-hoary approaches that in themselves sprang out of the crises of the early twentieth century, extending from Pirandello to Borges to Robbe-Grillet and sundry other writers whose palette was form itself. Commercial cinema took a very long time to become amenable to such ideas, and indeed embraced them around the same time that the notion of the avant-garde literature that fostered them was relevant to anyone except academics went the way of the dodo. The guardians of commercial interest were surely hostile to such approaches, but were audiences? Are any of these contemporary meta-narrative films as revolutionary in form as Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924), or The Playhouse (1922)? Why could an audience swallow films like those in the ‘20s? Because, in being comedies, there was a set of quotation marks, an expectation of play, that we feel different about in being applied to drama or other genres.
Many directors in my mind can and surely will continue to profitably explore the texture of cinema and its uneasy relationship with good sense, although I don’t want this to turn into a mere list of filmmakers I like. I noted a few years ago that some of the directors who seemed to be wrestling most directly and profitably with the way technology has reshaped contemporary life and opened up new zones of awareness, if not reality, were artists who are getting on in years, and to whom it was not a part of the landscape or something to rebel against as it often is for younger artists. These included Brian De Palma, who plumbed the nature of modern war as a compilation of artefacts in Redacted (2006), and Olivier Assayas, who explored globalised, internet-connected society and its abyssal zones of alienation and distancing very effectively in works like Demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), and Boarding Gate (2007). I still think De Palma is far more advanced than most of his followers in the sophistication of his filmmaking and the ingeniousness with which he renders his films as devices, narratives, an artist’s artefacts, and commentaries on the audience’s own viewership. Amongst younger filmmakers who seem interested in cinema as a medium in and of itself, I’ll be fascinated to see where talents like Anderson, Peter Strickland, Andrew Bujalski, Jem Cohen, Pablo Larraín, Sofia Coppola, and Miguel Gomes can take us. Films like Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Larrain’s No, and Cohen’s Museum Hours, all of which saw North American release in 2013, dealt with the medium as message in diverse and brilliant ways, bending familiar cinematic forms into new shapes and yet not forgetting other concerns.