Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rambling Thoughts on Film : The Resurgence of Narrative

I've seen two remarkable films lately and thought I'd use them to indulge myself here with a few thoughts on film, if you will. I've heard it said that film is the most pertinent medium of our era (with an unparalleled ability to effect the senses). And while I suspect it's simply a precursor to truly ensconcing media (think virtual reality installations), there's no doubt its widespread popularity is due in no small part to its ability to "take us away." Of course, folks once gathered around a radio for the same escapist purposes, but...

In as much as film is so utterly accessible that, more than any other other single medium, it grants access to people from wholly different cultures and spoken languages, though, it has had a rough passage into the ranks of widely appreciated "fine art." This paradox seems due in great part to the fact that whether through an aversion to having it seen as too much like mass culture offerings or simply an insistence that it was required to convey the vision of the artist, experimentation for its own sake and an aversion to the conventions of storytelling have been hallmarks of fine art offerings in film. I mean God help you if, when dabbling in more traditional narrative, there weren't enough tell-tale signs of your fine art status to more or less overshadow your narrative efforts. As a result, far too often, IMHO, such efforts convey nothing so much as an incipient refusal to tell a story well, denying the medium (at least in part) of its essence.

Lately, though, it's seemed to me that eschewing the traditional narrative is no longer a hard and fast rule for the fine art set. Quite the contrary, there seems to be a renewed interest in its potential.

A few high-profile precedents got us here. First was Barney's "major release" style stagings and length (albeit with hardly traditional narratives). Then Schnabel's more-or-less straight storytelling with just enough visual innovation and lushness to remind you you're not watching a Spielberg flick, but both of these filmmakers seemed, still, a bit too uncomfortable committing whole-hog to what I consider the inevitable "hybrid" that seamlessly blends both. Embracing narrative is a key here, I believe. At least until the next level is reached.

Enter Steve McQueen.

I'm sorry to do this to you, but it looks like today is your last chance to see McQueen's staggering effort, "
Hunger" at the IFC Center at West 4th and 6 Avenue. Visually stunning, as well staged as any action adventure film you'll ever see, and heart-achingly moving, this film is raw rage and human frailty as I've never seen them conveyed. The exchange between imprisoned IRA fighter Bobby Sands and the priest he tells he's going to lead a hunger strike to protest the British Government's refusal to bestow political status on him and his fellow IRA members behind bars is such an engrossing achievement, it's nearly impossible to believe McQueen pulled it off. I want to believe it was done through sophisticated editing, but all signs indicate that it was done through a spectacular feat of documented theater and daring. You don't have time to appreciate you're watching an "art film" as you do in too many other efforts in that category. You're as engaged on every level as you could possibly be. That is McQueen's triumph in "Hunger" and an indication to me that this is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to the potential power of the hybrid.

The other film that I thought represented a new achievement in embracing narrative came from a documentary filmmaker (not a fine artist, per se, but then again, I won't split hairs here having seen this) who recently debuted his first effort in fiction, a film called
"Tulpan." Sergei Dvortsevoy is a highly acclaimed Kazakh director who swept the international film festivals with his simple, but (in my opinion) simply flawless story of a herdsman who seeks a wife in the vast open steepe of an unrelenting Central Asian landscape. To call this region desolate is to employ absurd understatement (see this trailer). Admittedly, it's a bit hard for me to observe this film entirely objectively, as much of it looks like footage shot when Bambino and I traveled to the outer regions in Kyrgyzstan (the family in the film live in a yurt and eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and live in much the same lifestyle as people we visited), so I didn't absorb it all as entirely unexpected (the New York Times review said "the milieu and the characters will seem almost impossibly exotic.")

Still, the authenticity achievement in this film is beyond belief. I scoured it intensely looking for some anachronism, any anachronism (in either prop or gesture or even facial expression). I found none. And it's this flawless accuracy in telling the story of these people's lives that lifts this film above the throng of other such efforts. Again, as with "Hunger" it was this film's ability to transport you to this place so completely, such that you stopped feeling voyeuristic, despite the raw intimacy of being right there, in the the yurt, with this family and felt miraculously invisible in their midst.

More than that, though, in "Tulpan" (and I was in "Tulpan") I realized I had stopped being aware of the act of viewing at all. I was living with this family. It may have taken
Dvortsevoy's years of filming documentaries to make him a keen enough observer to pull this off, but he and McQueen also relied heavily on filming (rather than staging) actual events (in Hunger the actor truly loses a frightening amount of weight and in "Tulpan," well, as the New York Times put it, you see "a milestone in cinematic ovine obstetrics, [which] is both crucial to the story and a tour de force, the kind of thing a director like David Cronenberg or Takashi Miike would attempt only with prosthetics or other special effects. In “Tulpan” you see it for real, a perfectly ordinary event that is also something of a miracle"). (You simply must see that bit to believe it, even if you grew up on a farm, you won't believe he got that scene, with that actor, in that place, on film.)

I'm not sure that's not a weakness in both, to be honest--relying so heavily on actual events-- but then again, that's film's potential. In the right hands, under the right conditions, it can stun us with its truth. Consider this an open thread on the strengths and/or limitations of narrative in fine art film.

Labels: Film, narrative, open thread


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to see both of these films on the big screen. Living in NYC certainly does have its perks for art and cinema.

Also playing here is "In a Dream" about Isaiah Zagar the visual artist. It is a fascinating life story of artistic achievement and personal demons, as interesting artistically as it is as a psychological portrait of the artist.

So happy to be able to see these in a theater instead of on DVD.

---ondine nyc

4/14/2009 09:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barney is Jodorowski with a bunch of money and art stars.

and McQueen exploits the exploited with the excuse of art.


4/14/2009 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I kick myself everyday that I do not purchase a film directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. So I've been kicking myself for 1,095 days since I first discovered his work. I absolutely adore his Turkish cinemascope series (being a panoramic fiend myself) and can only imagine how he translates that vision onto the big screen.


4/14/2009 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I'm not sure about this notion of "fine art" film? I'm a major film buff and frankly "Hunger" wasn't a revelation in film form for me. It had this daring conversation scene (which I couldn't understand most of what was said) cut right through the middle, but experimentations in narrative cinema probably dates back from Kiss In The Tunnel by George Albert Smith (1899) (The Brighton School in cinema absolutely predates the surrealism movement).

This re-appropriation by Fine Arts of experimental cinema is the wrongest trend I've seen coming lately. I hear they are doing an exhibit of all the Kenneth Anger films at PS1?? So what is it? You walk room by room and stand while an old film plays on the walls?
Those are "art films" that used to be shown in small experimental cinemas, and where imho much of the "narrative" video art movement should go, because first, the rooms have always been much more suited for this (since when have we started to snob the traditional theatre room? What is the necessity for this?), but more importantly, experimental cinema has an history that is in every ways older than video art, and it's really time that we grasp how a good portion of Fine Arts attempts in the field of moving images are actually pertaining to that history.

The last "art piece" I saw by Steve McQueen was actually this: a long video (maybe 3 hours?) played on a screen in a gallery, and you had two large wooden bench to sit on. The sound was a little reverbarating, you could hear the gallery staff in the back. It was an horrid experience and the whole thing was screaming "Become a filmaker, already.". Somehow, Steve heard me (I don't know if this is his first "real" film). But hearing the Fine Arts people wanting to re-appropriate this as a "Fine Art" piece simply makes me cringe. Let it be... just a film?
It's just a film, Ok? I've seen I don't know how many Ozu that felt more edgy than this.

I've studied in both cinema and visual arts (double separate bacc was the only way they would let me)
and the disparities between the art and the cinema people always stunned me. You rarely meet an art people or cinema people who have a strong understanding and respect for the other field. You have video artists who "reappropriate" cinema like it's a tacky monster from another part of culture. And you have filmakers who describe their filming process as though it was making a painting: in their mind, Fine Art is still at the age of Bacon or Picasso.

Ok, this was 15 years ago. The age of Youtube brought a strong interest in old movie clips (or just clip-watching in general, that's why I say video artists should adapt). But before we send more old films into the lab-rat scrutinity of the white cube (it seems art people are only interested in things whenever it is framed by a gallery space), we need to refind, re-build, old nickelodeons and art cinemas and get things working where they should.

Cedric Casp

4/14/2009 02:31:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Hard to keep up on the new stuff what with ticket prices and all.

Have to agree on Barney - Jodorowski is weirder - earthier - more ad hoc feeling. Like Easy Rider, or Apocalypse now - create a situation and film it. Barney never just let it happen like that. Period pieces.

Gregory Crewdson better make a film before he becomes a permanent Hopperesque mood machine.

I like David Lynch, even though I think his narrative "puzzles" ultimately aren't that puzzling (most knots aren't) - I like the dreamlike qualities in all these films - mood pieces - Herzog's "Aguirre Wrath of God" and "Grizzly Man" and on and on - or Being John Malkovitch -dreamlike, episodic - and for an even more conventional mood maker, Lars Von Trier has a new one out. Peter Greenaway has some great shorts (Statisticians should love the one on defenestration).

Now YOU can be the Antichrist. (Who gets to be the Antichrist these days?).

But if you want real world I like the fictionalized Eskimo story -

Atanarjuat | The Fast Runner

Reminds me of the anthropology films of nomadic tribes leaving their elders to starve in the annual migration (too true) - I saw a bunch in college. Tribesmen carving the skin off of giraffes, scarification rituals. Real, and true. These were better than Cameron Jamie's Melvins music video about the Krampus "Kranky Claus" or backyard wrestling.

Which was good but I wish it wasn't art. And the Melvins are OK (Sabbath slowed down) but there is a lot more to life and music than Sabbath and Sun O.

In fact, take any anthropology film and krank up some music - maybe "Earth" to "Tangerine Dream" to "Bruce Springsteen" to Pink Floyd's "Umagumma"- its the formula for good times, coaxing melodrama out of otherwise slack self indulgent moments.

I love sound and narrative in art and in video.

I don't want to fall in love, I just want to mic the difference in room tone.

4/14/2009 03:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

Tulpan was much better (my taste) than Hunger (inflicting yourself pain for art is not for me) , but they were comparatively great films from these regions last year that did not get the same recognition.

There was a mongolian film recently, let me check...Nima's Women (actually a chinese film) which despites the cheesy music
and rather quiet narrative was really about showing life in the yurt (long ending sequence inside the yurt). I liked how that film showed a life that seemed very remote, but with the giant wind turbines nearby.

Cedric Casp

4/14/2009 03:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cedric just made my day. I think art people, me included, are too arty oriented and blinded by cultural elitism...we are always trying to reclaim the media as ours...as if we could make it all better and more pure.


4/14/2009 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not sure I understand PV...reclaim it from whom? Artists generally don't invent media, they use existing ones to express their visions.

I'm not sure what you mean here.

4/14/2009 03:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Lynch is the best! It's not just about moods. I see his recent films as religious pamphlets for his beliefs (and a good stab at Hollywood too).

Art reclaims the word by enclosing it in a gallery space where it becomes otherwordly important.
When Baudrillard said "art is everywhere but where it THINKS it is" (emphasis mine, he means
that perhaps the shovel that Duchamp brought in the "white cube" (artworld) was already interesting in itself. But art is not intrigued by it until it is conventionally framed within its own system.

By frame I mean, what's around a canvas, a pedestal, a gallery. The framing in Fine Arts as always
been as relevant as the art gesture itself. Art is really much about the framing.

Cedric Caspesyan

4/14/2009 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

In cinema, the effect is opposite.
The frame is used as a threshold between the audience and the world that unfolds upon them. You are encouraged to be "aware" of the world happening outside of the frame, and to extrapolate. Acconci was amazed by this when he walked around his camera, but cinema always had been like this since the fellows in L'Arroseur Arrosé walked out of the frame. Some colourfield art (or photograph artist) aimed to do this but with lesser success (the best at extrapolation is Kapoor).

In cinema you tend to forget the frame, while in visual "Fine" arts you tend to be constantly reminded of it, as it is being re-adjusted for you.

Cedric Caspesyan

4/14/2009 04:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

There is a missing "h" in what I wrote earlier.

The framing in Fine Arts has always
been as relevant as the art gesture itself. Art is really much about the framing.

4/14/2009 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Tulpan was much better (my taste) than Hunger I agree. Tulpan was near perfection in my opinion. I'm rather stubborn about what makes a film "good" actually (there's a surprise, I'm sure). Tulpan proved what I've always felt about how every choice must serve the story and move it toward its conclusion.

Mamet said it best, IMO. A story boils down to a protagonist, what the protagonist wants, what stands between the protagonist and what he/she wants, and the resolution of that situation. Everything in a film should effectively serve communicating those elements. Anything else should end up on the editing room floor.

4/14/2009 04:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Hmm..Mamet is cutting down The Battle Potemkin by half.
I think simply not all film are about its protagonist. There should
be a reason for everything you put in a film, though. That's the
principle of film form. But they are other modes of expression than classical hollywood, and the Mamet films, while were all excellent, were definitely classical.


Cedric C

4/14/2009 04:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you mean FILM or VIDEO?

4/14/2009 07:18:00 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

Actually Mamet isn't much of a filmmaker at all, but rather a theater director who somewhat ponderously films plays. Nothing wrong with that, exactly, but it's not exactly pure cinema.

4/14/2009 09:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Wow, it must be weird to see a theatre version of Heist or The Spanish Prisoner, but I really know who David Mamet is. He's a fine filmaker when he does it.

Cedric Casp

4/14/2009 11:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedxic C said...

Digital cinema has turned some of video art theory a little obsolete, I find.

Film had scratch, video had feedback, digital has glitch, but these are details for most results that artists wish to achieved.

Also, "video artists" are working with film too, some pertinently (Rodney Graham is pertinent
with his film installations, when he "frames" the projectors themselves within the gallery).

When I read a classic book on "video art", it's more of a nostalgic experience for me. "New Media" art is better suited for the array of experiences you find today.

Cedric Caspes (i just love this topic, change it to wall stret again and I'll shut)

4/15/2009 12:18:00 AM  
Anonymous sara s said...

you probably don't mean it in this way, but i have a gripe with the way you've phrased your introduction to this post, seemingly dismissing film as "simply" a precursor to virtual reality installations. come on -- don't you think that is a terribly disrespectful way of putting it? my gripe is partly informed by the way i often find art people speaking about film, as if it's really powerful, but ultimately LESSER than art. i think that a terribly pretentious sentiment - like saying soccer is much more popular than tennis, but alas a sport for the mere masses.

4/17/2009 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I didn't mean it that way, no, and hoped my radio reference would have clarified that I was limiting that distinction to the medium's ability to captivate one through more manipulation of the senses...once you have art that uses sound, images, and touch (or smell or taste) it will surpass film in this capacity, just as film surpassed radio.

my gripe is partly informed by the way i often find art people speaking about film, as if it's really powerful, but ultimately LESSER than art. In this age of pluralistic practices I wouldn't think anyone would argue that media are, in and of themselves, hierarchical any more. I know painters will be disappointed to hear that ( ;-P ) but...

4/17/2009 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I did a multisensorial installation once that was really laughable. I should put this up on the web.

Cedric C

4/17/2009 06:33:00 PM  

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