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Days of Purgatory: "Revanche" and Webcam Movies

David Phelps

Nice barks pass for bites. Revanche tops a small strand of recent movie maybe best comparable to a series of bricks: a brick wall. The style develops out of Fassbinder, maybe, Warhol, or Dreyer’s Gertrud, with full-frontal tableaux of rooms as boxes: back walls, side walls, ceiling, and floor. Usually, the camera doesn’t move, and there’s almost never any cutting within a scene—each shot introduces a new room. Shots are self-contained, slabs of space and slabs of time. Walls start to feel permanently fixed; human presence is totally incidental. Characters pass through, enact scenes, but might as well be decoration, walking furniture, taking their places in doorways and chairs. The style, with small lenses that capture epic amounts of space, turns bedrooms into amphitheaters; the effect is of little dolls in big dollhouses, down to the cut-out walls; and the technique is of a webcam, left in place for minutes to frame a room precisely, but starting haphazardly and ending haphazardly as a surveillance video. The films are, at least, Silent Light, Import/Export, Revanche, and, Danny Kasman tells me, Liverpool, with echoes in Pedro Costa and the candy cane patterns of Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and IKEA commercials.

Mostly, the webcam movies affect a coldness as cold as possible. Every element of their pseudo-objective non-style style is calculated to deflect complicity with the characters. The people are boxed in like zoo animals on display, are left to their own emotions in staid spaces, and scenes are never penetrated but cut off mid-note, to indicate this is just slice-of-life impressions—and as if the director got sick of watching halfway through. Where Fassbinder, Warhol, and Dreyer all watch characters thinking and reacting, but do so without presuming what they think (we see effect, not cause), their movies are devotional, and curious, sympathetic if not empathetic. Fassbinder’s shots each play as allegories of larger malaises, Warhol loves watching the way people compose their own scenes (even as production designers), and Dreyer undermines his fixed spaces with the simplest opening of a door: all let the space and stories revolve around the people, even if they just show stories of victimization. The webcam movies victimize their characters, even for the sake of a “beautiful” composition, as straw men trapped in place along the walls.

Import/Export is easily the worst, shot in flat digital that makes its characters and set look like animated cardboard. The subject is the exploitation of bodies—strip-teasers jacking off for webcams and decrepit old men cleaned up and dressed up by disgusted nurses—with sob-stories and grotesques designed to outrage sympathy but only possible in 2-D reductions standard to the webcam approach. The real point, knowingly or not, is that it’s the director, Ulrich Seidl, who’s played slave-master to the people on-screen, making the girls put their fingers up the ass for the camera and dressing the near-comatose men in moustaches to primp for an audience. The “objectivity” of Siedl’s unmoving camera is meant to indicate Siedl wants no part in this world. Really, it’s his carnival.

As Silent Light is Carlos Reygadas’. To stage a miraculous story of modern-day power of love among the Mennonite Mexicans, Reygadas imposes every hick, holy fool stereotype he can to convince us we know what these people are like without meeting them (we’ve read about them in cartoons): simple people with simple hearts—Mexican magic negroes—who want to fuck and love and eat fast food and have divine powers as people of the earth (there is no such belief in the Mennonite religion, but Reygadas cares more about replicating Dreyer than working within the limits and possibilities of everyday reality, as Dreyer did). It’s not SunriseSunrise is a song of two people. In Silent Light, people are just part of the clockwork. Reygadas frames them as the design of the wallpaper.

Revanche, however, is great.


SPOILERS. The story could be a noir with Richard Widmark and Robert Ryan. A low-level man in a strip club (in the noir, bar) tries to save his whore (dancer) girlfriend by robbing a bank, but she’s accidentally killed by a cop trying to stop them and is stuck with as much guilt as the robber. If Nicholas Ray had directed this, it might have all taken place in a small town where everyone knew each other, Widmark might have dashed home before Ryan (as killer cop) arrived to tell him the fate of his girlfriend, and each might have tried living their lives in the small town while pretending innocence, greeting each other at the funeral, knowing the other’s guilty, and seeking salvation in the same girl (cop’s wife). That movie would be about people struggling to make their own lives by force of personality.

But as Revanche comes from the Fassbinder school of blunted anger and moping, that salvation’s never a possibility: the robber fucks the cop’s wife for revenge, the cop doesn’t talk to anyone, both men sit alone in their room and brood (Götz Spielmann’s camera watches patiently), and totally unwanted, understanding starts to spring up anyway as three people in the woods have nothing else to do but confront how disappointing their lives have been.

An American movie might care what they’re thinking, but Spielmann wants to watch them think. As in the American noirs, an old crime unmasks a well-oiled bourgeois life as an act, a façade over madness, though the unmasking isn’t external—L.L. Bean cabins turned flophouses or prisons or criminal headquarters, as in the noirs or Jesse James films—but an internal revelation: the characters are so alienated from their own lives that they can finally see what they’re like. Spielmann uses the webcam approach to estrange his characters from their space, as if they were walking around a monument. What looks like the usual webcam affectations—characters, prostitutes and peasants, treated only for symbolic value as prostitutes and peasants, and model houses with none of the stacked-up mail and dirty dishes of a home ever inhabited—turn out, mostly, to be the affectations of the characters, who would like to operate their lives as machinery, a series of dinner parties and fuckings. Eventually the other characters start to wonder who the prostitutes and singing peasants caricatures at the edge of the plot are underneath, and why they decided to live in home from catalogues. There are reasons for their behavior, but not enough.

From the first scenes, Revanche is about the inability to relate—to a person, to a space. This is normal: life sucks, and it takes a hell of a director to know it and still prove it’s worth it anyway (Renoir, Ford). Revanche is a proof, built on binaries, to a fault, but Spielmann’s achievement is to show how these people who can’t relate, do. The criminal and the cop, as in a Don Siegel film, hate each other because they’re about the same, looking for an outlet to displace their guilt. More important is Spielmann’s old, simple split between civilization and nature. Civilization, the city and homes where the criminal’s picked up all his bad habits, gets the webcam’s staid walls and the rooms like over-sized boxes. Nature gets wind and movement and dwindling roads and colors, and the reason I really like Revanche is because it shows places brought to light. After nearly two hours of blinking statues, the simplest effects of movement at the end of Revanche are totally sublime. A line of light tracks across the water. The criminal has two encounters he’s been pondering having, one in which he realizes the depths of a person he imagined he knew, another in which a lover realizes his depths which she thought he knew. In both cases, Spielmann drops the affectations of the webcam movie—the single-shot scenes, like security cameras, waiting for the walls to be clear again of people—for the simplest trick of movies, a ricochet of shot-reverse-shots. One person is put in relation to another; one space to another. Still nothing is said, but they come as moments of epiphany anyway.


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