@ Brother -
I’m not sure Cannes is a good barometer of CCC success. As far as film festivals go, they seem to be one of the most politically motivated festivals out there (political in the sense that they like to bring back the stalwarts, regardless of whether the film is any good).
For me, all I needed was to see the standing ovation Mike Ott got at AFI Fest two years ago after the screening of Littlerock. After that, I knew everyone had drank the Kool-Aid.
Santino: Many of the more recognizable directors and films under the CCC banner were first lauded at festivals and eventually given the A list imprimater at Cannes. The conversation was about pacing in CCC films and finding some common ground to agree just what “pacing” was. I don’t think we were looking for a barometer of success, instead I used Cannes and its 2012 roster to show that there are very few CCC films or directors shown this year, perhaps indicating that the shoegazing movement is reaching its end, and critics may be in transition looking for new caption headings and rubrics (mixing a different flavored pitcher of Kool-Aid as it were). I came late, and assume no one cares about this thread much anymore, and you’ve convinced me as well. Sorry I jumped in when I did. Still learning how things work around here. I don’t know Mike Ott or his film Littlerock.
@ Brother – Sorry, maybe I should’ve been more clear. I think a better indication when looking at Cannes would not be the films in competition but in some of the other categories – Un Certain Regard, etc. Looking at the list of films for 2012 , I’m not familiar with any of these films or filmmakers (except for Xavier Dolan, who isn’t CCC so much as he might lean towards a sort of French Canadian mumblecore) but maybe some of these lean towards CCC (for instance WEERASETHAKUL’s new film is getting a special screening)? I don’t know. Maybe it is a waning fad, maybe it’s just an off year at Cannes (I mean, I there aren’t any female directors in competition this year but I don’t think that means we’ve seen the end of films directed by women. lol).
“Sure different film makers (the four you mentioned are a good cross-section of rather contemplative filmic time-based techniques) will use pacing differently, and yet embody the same tools for technique. Interesting to me, is the intention of their use of this technique. As you also mentioned, each one of these filmmakers came from a different film education and apprenticeship, or even earlier mastery of a somewhat different technique. I’d cite Claire Denis’ Chocolate, though dreamy, with Friday Night which has taken dreamy to somnamublism, but for very interesting effect. In -Friday Night_ she simultaneously choses a story with limited barriers of time (night to morning) and yet stretches time within that parameter, by utilizing long takes, scenes without dialogue and limited action, dialogue that fades into silence which becomes the actual form of language sympathetic to the tone and timbre of the quietude and reprieve from worldly care. Premeditated, and a good use of technique with which to isolate these two characters.”
That’s the conversation we should have.
“Yes every film has ‘slightly’ different pacing Wu, thanks for pointing that out. However, if we wish to discuss “slow pacing” as a broad stroke, can you wrap your mind around what that might entail, or do we need to list every single film of all time that has ever held a shot for longer than X seconds?”
And that’s a five-year-old throwing a tantrum…
On the Cannes thing… Cannes isn’t really a good barometer for these films.
Rotterdam is the festival where they were birthed and the place where they continue to be revitalized.
Now in a film like Star Wars, it’s not dependent on having bad acting (or to go back to the Carpenter example, a specific style of acting). No, I think we’d all agree that had the acting and dialogue been better, it would’ve made the film better. I think this is what Axel is alluding to and he’s definitely got a valid point.
My point was that CC films are very different from films like Star Wars—which are narrative or character-based films. In my experience CC films are more about ideas and feelings conveyed through images and sound—versus telling a story with compelling characters via cinema. So the criticism of “boring” characters or the claim that more “interesting” characters would improve the film seem inappropriate and off base. Indeed, my feeling is that what Axel is really saying is that he would like better characters just because of a strong personal preference for them. Now, I like films with interesting characters and good stories. Indeed, I have a strong preference for films like this, but if a film is primarily interested in expressing and exploring themes, ideas and feelings, more than creating good drama via characters and a narrative, I’m not going to penalize or dismiss such films. I might not personally enjoy them, but I’m not going to automatically conclude they’re bad films or would be made better with a better story or characters.
@ Jazz -
I understand what you’re saying and I agree with you that a lot of CCC films are not dependent on characters the way conventional narrative cinema is. But what about a film like Wendy and Lucy? If that’s considered CCC, that’s a film with great character development. And that film is better because of the strong characters, right?
People are at the heart of cinema and art in all forms, I don’t care if you are Star Wars or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
Very few films are “dependent” on having good characters, but even less of them would not benefit from having them, regardless of reliant they are upon said characters.
I mean… “CCC” films have people in them, do they not? If characters are so largely irrelevant to these types of films, why do they have people in them at all? You can present plenty of “ideas” and “feelings” with just human-less B-roll, and yet… these films tend to have characters.
Even films like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi have people in them. I think it’s a pretty hard, if not impossible to successfully “sell” these feelings and ideas, without people.
And if you accept that, then why not have the people be more interesting and dynamic… as opposed to less? This doesn’t cost you anything, even if your characters “don’t matter as much”. They always matter to some degree, and therefore should always be good, no?
People don’t need to be in cinema to be at it’s heart. Plenty of paintings are of fruit. The audience is more important than any fictional character. You have to be pretty kickass to move an audience without people though! But remember that characters aren’t real and are only a means to whatever end the audience perceives. The end is always immaterial. Buh.
That painting may be of a fruit, but a person painted it! We see that fruit through the prism that is the artist, a person.
I do agree though that it is possible to be “powerful” or moving without people, just very, very difficult… like you said.
You guys are confusing terms. You’re substituting “traditional” character types with “dynamic.” The comparison of Star Wars with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu belies this. As does the fact that every single example of so-called “dynamic” characters have come from studio based cinema (i.e. traditional character models) and the examples of supposedly non-dynamic, “boring” characters come from independently produced ‘art’ cinema.
Hence why the only time one has posted anything relating to characterization of any of filmmaker on here it was roundly ignored because it pointed out the inherent flaw in the argument being made.
“In my experience CC films are more about ideas and feelings conveyed through images and sound—versus telling a story with compelling characters via cinema.”
I would also disagree with that. I would just say the ‘compelling’ nature of the characters in the films of Puiu, Hou or Tsai is in their disconnect from the emotive or intellectual aspect of the image. Meaning the characters are shown as alienated, not just from the “(post)modern world” of hyperactivity (one thinks of Chen Shiang-chyi staring endlessly at the giant commercial screen in The Skywalk is Gone), but from the central connection the filmmaker’s themselves attempt to make through imagery.
Hou Hsiao-hsien (who discovered the “dynamism” of Tony Leung before anyone else in the international Asian ‘art’/‘entertainment’ film world), would continually tell his cinematographer to “move further back,” to “make the film cooler.” Not because he didn’t care about the things he filmed (in fact, much of his work from 1983-1998 is deeply, deeply personal and even semi-auto/biographical). But because he wanted the superficial flatness of the characters to be their quality, while opening a richness underneath.
To quote the man himself:
After reading the [ Autobiography of Shen Congwen ] I discovered Shen’s point of view was somewhat like looking down from above. Like natural laws, it has no joy and no sorrow. That I found to be very close to me. It doesn’t matter if he’s describing a brutal military crackdown or various kinds of death; life for him is a river, which flows and flows but is without sorrow or joy. The result is a certain breadth of mind, or a certain perspective that is very moving. Because of this, it produces a generosity of viewpoint. I decided to adopt this angle.
I’m curious as to your take on a non-CCC movie (I think), 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here the human character’s personalities are muted and understated to make particular points about where humanity has ended up in the evolutionary process. Does 2001 suffer from this strategy?
@ Brad S.
To me there’s a difference (very thin lines / subjective) between understated (yet interesting), and “meat in the room to the point of unbelievability”. I felt that the people in 2001, though stoic, the characters were still very much real and interesting people, especially given the evolutionary suggestions and the nature of profession (astronaut). Obviously I don’t think it needs to even be mentioned how great a character HAL is.
I think the spectrum ranges from “hyper bombastic overacting” (Pacino) to "so “subtle” you’re lifeless" (a corpse). I’m sure there have been better spectrum points suggested than that, but the point being there is a line somewhere when the humanity comes through, and when it doesn’t. Now in very rare cases, such as Last Year at Marienbad, it’s ok; even preferred to have your characters “humanity” not come through, but most of the time, I think it’s bad to have lifeless or one-dimensional characters, even in an action or CCC film where dynamic characters are “not the point”.
And for the record I think Tony Leung is the perfect example of someone who is often interesting, dynamic and “subtle” all at once.
But what about a film like Wendy and Lucy? If that’s considered CCC, that’s a film with great character development. And that film is better because of the strong characters, right?
I’m ambivalent about whether Wendy and Lucy is CCC, but let’s assume it is. I find the character interesting enough, but I have several problems with the statement that a film is better because of “strong” characters:
People have their own preferences and expectations about what constitutes a strong and interesting character. My concern is when a viewer imposes these preference and expectations on a film inappropriately. For example, suppose I like gritty, realistic characters a la Casavettes or Mike Leigh, and further suppose that I judge characters from all films with this standard. In some cases this would be completely inappropriate and invalid application. Some films would not benefit if the characters became more like ones from a Casavettes or Leigh film. So if “film benefits from better characters,” essentially means, “the film benefits from providing characters that suit my preferences,” I have a problem with that.
Now, this doesn’t mean that some CC films couldn’t benefit from “better” characters. In some cases this might be true, but even in those cases, I must admit that the statement rubs me the wrong way. It’s like saying African drumming would be better if they incorporated (Western) melodies. Well, that might be the case in some cases, but the statement is largely off base and even offensive. The attitude behind the statement seems to be, if you don’t give me what I like, your art isn’t any good. Maybe that’s not what Axel means, but that’s the vibe I’m getting.
I would also disagree with that. I would just say the ‘compelling’ nature of the characters in the films of Puiu, Hou or Tsai is in their disconnect from the emotive or intellectual aspect of the image.
Hmm, my wording was probably clumsy. I should have probably said that the CCC characters aren’t often compelling to me. I also should have explained that I don’t think the characters are compelling or interesting in more conventional narrative-based and character-driven films. I wanted to make two points with regard to this:
1. If you expect characters interesting characters in a conventional sense, you won’t find them, but;
2. The films don’t depend or aren’t trying to present these type of characters—so criticizing the films for the lack of these conventional characters is not valid, imo.
I think the main difference between the two schools of thought on characters is that art filmmakers (with people like Cassavetes, Leigh, Korine being clear examples) tend to envision characters as raw material with semiotic functions, the way a painter sees the different paints in his palette or a composer sees all his different instruments in the orchestra, while Hollywood filmmakers see fictional characters as people, as distinct individuals that need to be pinned to psychological states, given motivations, made likable, to speak with subtext, and airbrushed with symbolism. I think the tendency in CCC is to work in the tradition of the former, where all characters are expressions of the same mind. This is why Korine’s characters in Gummo are closer to Korine’s characters in Trash Humpers than to any other artist’s characters. They all come from the same (albeit fluctuating) mind and serve the same function to him. From what I’ve seen in CCC (not much), there are characteristics that unify each artist’s characters in such a way, almost a kind of dress code of the soul. The CCC filmmakers are not making character studies, where we delve into a single character’s psychology; rather, they create a vision of the world, a vision that includes characters, as people make up a huge part of what we think to be The World. CCC filmmakers seem to be trying to depict the world as impartially as possible. They are disciplined in the way they portray the world, careful not to celebrate what they depict (including their characters), but nor do they condescend.
“People have their own preferences and expectations about what constitutes a strong and interesting character. My concern is when a viewer imposes these preference and expectations on a film inappropriately.”
I agree. Believe me, no one is a bigger champion of Cassavetes/Leigh style performances than me. But those types of characters, that type of acting, isn’t appropriate for every film. And it would be silly for me to argue otherwise.
Michael said, _
I think the main difference between the two schools of thought on characters is that art filmmakers (with people like Cassavetes, Leigh, Korine being clear examples) tend to envision characters as raw material with semiotic functions, the way a painter sees the different paints in his palette or a composer sees all his different instruments in the orchestra, while Hollywood filmmakers see fictional characters as people, as distinct individuals that need to be pinned to psychological states, given motivations, made likable, to speak with subtext, and airbrushed with symbolism. I think the tendency in CCC is to work in the tradition of the former, where all characters are expressions of the same mind._
I really like the way Michael worded this—especially the part about characters being “raw material with semiotic functions” versus characters as people. I take this to mean that the CCC filmmakers use characters as tools to express ideas and feelings—more than people that viewers develop an emotional attachment to in order to make the film compelling. For CCC films, the ideas, concepts and emotions supercede the characters and narrative (at least characters and narrative as they conventially function).
(Having said this, I disagree with Michael about Casavettes and Leigh. To me, while they both imbue the characters with their own sensibility and understanding of people, their films emphasize and depend on characters—generally rich and realistic portrayals of them—in more coventional way.)
“I disagree with Michael about Casavettes and Leigh. To me, while they both imbue the characters with their own sensibility and understanding of people, their films emphasize and depend on characters”
And both allowed their actors a great deal of freedom in shaping their performances. Leigh to the extent that he uses improv to develop the scripts for his films.
Of course. Cassavetes also encouraged improvisation in his movies. That doesn’t mean we can’t recognize a Cassavetes character or a Leigh character across a wide range of their films. They are distinct as expressions from the same mind. The actors were given freedom to shape the nuances of their character: shifts in voice tone, facial expressions, body language but, partly because these matters of performance were valued in all their films, all the characters are a similar “flavour”. I’m trying to find the Ray Carney quote about exactly this but I’m having trouble, I’ll post it later today.
Carney: "Heck, using the notion of “character” itself is a limiting way to approach a novel, a play, or a film. Cassavetes’ work is much larger and less coherent than such a term implies. But I don’t mean to imply that this is unique to Cassavetes’. So is James’. And Faulkner’s. And Shakespeare’s. And Milton’s.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Carney: I mean there is this surging heaving ocean of waves and currents, and the water has a few bubbles in it that we call “Nick,” “Mabel,” “Dr. Zepp.” To think of them in terms of a few psychological traits is a hopeless reduction of what the artist presents. A work of art is not a window on reality. It is more like a house of mirrors or an echo chamber. Characters are not people! They are part of an artist’s compositional resources, two different colors on his palette, two aspects of a vision. In Sargent’s Mrs. Fiske Warren and her daughter Rachel, the two figures are not a particular mother and a daughter, but two visions of selfhood. In the Daughters of Edward DeBoit, the five girls—I count the dolly as the first one—are five versions of girlhood. In Opening Night, each of the female characters is an alternative version of each of the others. That’s how works of art work. Not as representations, but as comparisons and contrasts. I go into this at length in the Leigh book. Characters are not people. They are semiotic functions.
Interviewer: Can you explain that more simply.
Carney: Think of it this way. Characters are not snapshots of people in the world; but cross–sections of an artist’s brain. They are not slices of life, but versions of a single vision of life. That’s why every James character has more in common with every other James character than he or she does with any Dickens or Shakespeare character. Isabel Archer, Ralph Touchett, and Gilbert Osmond are biopsies of James’s brain organization. And Maggie Verver, Prince Amerigo, and Charlotte Stant are biopsies of a recognizably identical brain at a later stage of development. They are not depictions but expressions, dramatically compared and contrasted expressions.
On top of that, to say the obvious: Isabel and Maggie are not people but streams of words! Isabel and Maggie are sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. That is an incredibly complex thing to be—far more complex than a psychological depiction: an emotion, a motive, a mood, an intention. To summarize a character with a statement of his mood or to reduce a scene to a monotonic dramatic function is to erase its complexity. It irons out the tonal wrinkles, straightens the emotional twists and turns, reduces everything to a few feelings or attitudes. Psychological statements and understandings are traps and limitations. They eliminate the most interesting parts of life: the unpredictable wiggles and swerves that are the most fascinating aspects of the dramatic moment, the reason the scene exists. The very interest, the beauty of the character Cassavetes creates is that the self is dissolved, or say: proliferated outward into a coruscating cascade of shifting feelings, moods, vocal tones, facial expressions. That’s what’s wrong with thinking of Mabel as a “crazy housewife.” Cassavetes’ vision of Mabel is far more radical—and more mobile—than that."
Sure, Michael, I don’t think Carney’s saying anything too radical there, but to use his particular, don’t you sort of have to care about Mabel (let’s assume you came to the film not knowing anything about JC and his ideas), have to see her as a person, in order to care about her “coruscating cascade of shifting feelings, moods, vocal tones [and] facial expressions”?
It seems to me that Carney is saying something more along the lines that you can’t reduce characters in JC’s films to types and tropes, so it would absurdly reductive to just call Mabel a mad housewife and then move on to something else. But she still has to have something recognizably human in her for people to engage with, even if that something doesn’t have an easy-to-apply label to go with it.
Cassavetes also encouraged improvisation in his movies. That doesn’t mean we can’t recognize a Cassavetes character or a Leigh character across a wide range of their films.
Oh, I agree. Leigh and Cassavetes have their finger prints all over their characters; we can see their authorship through their characters. However, my point is that their films are character driven—they’re often character studies or portraits of characters. If there’s any narrative, the narrative runs through the characters. This is not very different from Hollywood movies that heavily rely on the characters. The difference, imo, is that both Leigh and Cassavetes have a distinct approach to acting and characters.
In any event, this is very different from the CCC films I’ve seen.
If anything, it’s mumblecore that should be recognized as the default style for lazy hacks.
“If anything, it’s mumblecore that should be recognized as the default style for lazy hacks.”
Or it could be the monolith that 95% of the world recognizes as the sole purveyor of cinema and creates solely based upon a rigid, unbreakable formula…
It could be that…
Right, their films are definitely character driven. The point I was making is that CCC filmmakers seem to also share the above-mentioned approach to writing characters, an approach that is quite distinct from the Hollywood approach, as Carney explains. I’m not saying Jia Zhangke’s characters are anything like JC or Leigh’s characters though because they have different minds, just that he also sees characters along the lines outlined by Carney.
Yeah, that’s exactly what he’s saying. I cut him off.
“Interviewer: But Mabel is mentally ill, isn’t she?
Carney: No. That’s a misreading of the text. A serious misreading!
Interviewer: Why? How can you say that? Her own husband says she is.
Carney: That’s his problem, not hers! There are so many things wrong with that approach that I’ll have to just list them very briefly:
First, Mabel is not mentally ill because saying that pushes her away from us. She is no longer us. You know I get about one email a week from a girl who writes me and talks about Mabel’s mental illness. You know what I tell them? I say: “Mabel is you or she’s nothing. If you categorize her as ‘other’ in any way—as different from you in any way—you are defusing the bomb that the film is. You are making it safe. You are putting Mabel in a galaxy a long time ago and far away.” A category like “mentally ill” makes Mabel too tame. She has a problem. So cure it. Divorce your husband. Stand up for yourself. Tell off the world. That makes the film too easy to swallow. It’s far more radical and more personal than that.
Second, a category like mental illness stands still. Mabel moves. This isn’t some esoteric doctrine. You feel it throughout Faces or A Woman Under the Influence or Love Streams. Everybody who watches those films feels it. You laugh at McCarthy, then you hate him, then you think he’s an OK kind of guy. Then you decide he’s pathetic. Then you admire his cleverness. He keeps changing.
To watch A Woman Under the Influence is to be immersed in an experience where four or five things are going on at once and constantly changing: four or five different characters visible at once; four or five or ten different, shifting tones in terms of their acting; four or five or ten or a hundred shifts of beats in terms of the structure of the scene. The camera and editing put you down in the middle of it all, moving and shifting around you with no signposts on where to look in the mastershot frame or which is the most important character or tone to pay attention to, or who to sympathize with or how to understand what is going on. You experience energies much larger than individual characters. The characters are really one epiphenomena of those larger energies.
Cassavetes and Noonan are jugglers and the characters are the balls they are juggling, but only a fool would try to analyze the chemical composition of the balls to understand the effect of the juggling act. That’s what it is like to play the “psychology” or “motivation” game on interesting characters. They aren’t real people after all. They are artifacts of the script and acting. We hypostasize their existence. It is a convenient fiction. But like atoms and fundamental particles, they don’t really exist. They are just markers for energy states that bring them into existence.
That’s what I mean by saying that when you are encountering Cassavetes or Noonan’s work in the richest, most complex way, you are navigating a heaving, surging, flowing ocean with all these waves and cross-currents and undertows. The problem is that some critic then steps in and scoops up a few gallons and freezes it into this and that “character” and this and that “meaning” and this and that “sexual role” and some “metaphor.” And it’s no longer the ocean any more, but a series of ice sculptures. There is some relationship between the critical observations and the work—between the terms and the energies—since they are both made out of the same water. But the one is all movement and the other is all stasis. Every psychological or sociological meaning we impose on What Happens Was is a scooping up, a stopping, a deadening, a narrowing, a limitation, a way of controlling something that is much more general and less controllable than that. Do you see what I mean? The critical methodology negates the energies the critic is supposed to be commemorating. My life’s work as a critic is to help people to learn how to stay in the waves and currents—not to resist and flee from them by taking refuge in ideas and abstractions."
So none of this suggests that the characters are somehow secondary and that the story or form dominates. On the contrary, the characters are the primary way for the artists to express their worldviews. We absolutely are meant to care for the characters (“Mabel is you or she’s nothing”) and try to track the subtleties of their movements, emotional and physical. Does none of this apply to CCC?
The point I was making is that CCC filmmakers seem to also share the above-mentioned approach to writing characters, an approach that is quite distinct from the Hollywood approach, as Carney explains.
OK, here’s where we agree: the CCC approach to characters is fairly distinct from the typical Hollywood approach.
I think some of this has been expressed by posters before, but I see a vast difference in filmmakers such as Leigh and Cassavetes (good as both are) and directors placed in the CCC camp. First off, both Leigh and Cassavetes films are character driven, heavy on dialogue. The characters in these films are in the foreground of all the action, blazing away. The dialogue and relationships are key.
In CCC films, the characters are in the background, the interior landscape of the film. Take the example of Bartas. His characters wander around the film’s landscape with little or often no dialogue. We see them framed in shots taken from a distance or against a background. This aesthetic approach really reminds me of Antonioni, who was the master of the cold, detached shot, where his characters are figures on a landscape.
Of course, these are generaliztions, but it does show the difference between filmmakers that have character-driven dramas over those with a more detached view of their characters. To over simplify, CCC filmmakers seem to make the conscious decision to place their characters in the backdrop of the action instead up close and personal.
I think the connection between Cassavetes/Leigh with CCC filmmakers is that both groups handle characters differently from typical Hollywood films…Actually, I have to amend what I said before this post. The biggest difference between Cassavetes/Leigh from Hollywood movies, in terms of characters, is that the characters of the former are generally richer and more complex. The acting is also very distinctive (especially with JC)—so maybe I’m disagreeing with Michael a bit more than I thought.
To over simplify, CCC filmmakers seem to make the conscious decision to place their characters in the backdrop of the action instead up close and personal.
Yeah, I’m sort of with you, here, but I can already hear Wu’s protests—as he’ll probably bring up filmmakers like Tsai and Hou. I can see where he’s coming from, but I do think the way Tsai and Hou deal with their characters in a very different way…perhaps, the difference is in the way the films establish these characters. The characters might be established through the visuals—versus dialogue or even conventional drama. (I’m not quite sure about this, but I’ll throw it out there.)
Of course, there are major differences in their visions. I don’t think Cassavetes is a similar filmmaker to Bartas (though I wasn’t aware we were counting him as CCC). The question isn’t whether Bartas’s characters are similar to Cassavetes’s characters but rather whether Bartas’s characters are used primarily to express ideas about humans or whether they’re used as forces for driving forward the plot. But I disagree with the assertion higher up on the page that characters are less important in CCC. People might be in the backdrop of the world but it is only in the way people act in this world that anything is revealed to us.
I would venture to guess that John Cassavetes would hate modern CCC films.
Since Ray Carney appears to be the holder of the Cassavetes thought (just as Republicans like to speak for the founding fathers), somebody should ask Carney what Cassavetes thought of Tarkovsky.
….where his characters are figures on a landscape.
Maybe we could say the character’s have context rather than say they are in the ‘background’.
Maybe the characters are formed by what they do, rather than what they say.