"The enjoyment of a work of art, the acceptance of an irresistible illusion, constituting, to my sense, our highest experience of "luxury," the luxury is not greatest, by my consequent measure, when the work asks for as little attention as possible. It is greatest, it is delightfully, divinely great, when we feel the surface, like the thick ice of the skater's pond, bear without cracking the strongest pressure we throw on it. The sound of the crack one may recognise, but never surely to call it a luxury." —Henry James, from The Preface to The Wings of the Dove (1909)
"[The critic’s] choice of best salami is a picture backed by studio build-up, agreement amongst his colleagues, a layout in Life mag (which makes it officially reasonable for an American award), and a list of ingredients that anyone’s unsophisticated aunt in Oakland can spot as comprising a distinguished film. This prize picture, which has philosophical undertones, pan-fried domestic sights, risqué crevices, sporty actors and actresses, circuslike gymnastics, a bit of tragedy like the main fall at Niagara, has every reason to be successful. It has been made for that purpose. Thus, this year’s winner is a perfect film made up solely of holes and evasions, covered by all types of padding and plush." —Manny Farber, from “Underground Films” (1957)
"I think that those that are emerging are so incredibly talented. These young…directors…know the job well. But it’s not so often that they really have anything to say." —Ingmar Bergman, (2002)
Some time ago, on back to back evenings, I watched two relatively recent films, one critically lauded—The Social Network—and one with a mixed critical reception—Drive. Both were publicized as two great hopes of commercial cinema. They were feted with awards (many more for David Fincher’s “Facebook” film) and a decent haul of money. After each I felt equally empty, as I do after multiple hours of taking in a spectator sport on the tube. But my shriveling had precedence. Since the viewings I have gladly, yet embarrassingly, distinguished how Hollywood films mark me and make me sick with envy, fatigued as one is following a full afternoon of shopping. The more heinous odor of these films began to waft in during the mid-1990s, at the dawning of my twenties, and today my system and soul will go into remission after the consumption of an enterprise more pointed at selling tickets than asking the fundamental questions that haunt humans: Why are we here? What is love? What can I learn?
To put simply what has taken me over a decade to articulate: these films produce a revulsion of my own life. The more I watch these works aimed at appealing to the mainstream elite, to take in the most cash, the more I feel steamrolled and emotionally abused by visions arresting for their slickness, yet saturated with a glamour that is anathema to art. Call it chic, call it camp, but it’s something else—clearly capitalistic and exquisitely duplicitous. The experience of films like Drive, The Social Network, Duplicity, Michael Clayton, Gone Girl or anything like-minded, is that of a sensorium working on the pleasure-seeking areas of the brain, while any dialogue with the viewer concerning the reasons for existence is pushed aside for the running time of the film.
While a book is often little more than the size of one’s hand, motion pictures when projected are gargantuan. The few old movie houses sometimes have screens 76 x 98 feet large, while today, in the interests of real estate and multiplexes, some have shrunk to 10 x 10 feet, like those at the IFC Center in New York. When I was a child I marveled at movie theaters, being stunned at the size of the screen, but as I’ve aged that feeling has subsided—almost exactly inverse to my physical growth. What is huge often doesn’t hold and because the sound surrounds and punches loudly at the ears, there is no escape from the many-decibeled tyranny except to leave.
While I don’t think the people who make these films, primarily the directors David Fincher and Nicolas Winding Refn, are “worse” artists than, say, Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick, they certainly are not similar, and they have different aims and less strange conclusions. To be as manipulative as many Hollywood films are requires difficult work—a cunning and unholy persuasion on the part of the director. One must be plugged into what the masses want and what they will desire next after getting that. Having seen these kinds of films again and again, I am able to recognize their tell: The lifestyle of glamour. The British painter, writer, and critic John Berger delineated this process as well as possible in 1972's Ways of Seeing, reading his word “publicity” as the equivalent of many Hollywood films:
"Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamourous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of other. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour. "
Many Hollywood films don’t do too much except advertise envy. What is so admirable about them is how much art is missing, how much questioning is not there. Stunning is that what are celebrated as the best, most innovative films are essentially publicity for the corporate control of the masses. As art they are as distinct as sand from other sand. They express glamour through reckless images that encase society types to sell a story. These are films made by the rich, financed by billion-dollar conglomerates, and advertised between nationally syndicated shows at a clip of several hundred thousand dollars per thirty- and fifteen-second slots. When I observe the weedwacker montage employed in The Social Network—making a point of the quickness of life, speech, internet traffic, and monetary transactions—I see a filmmaker trying to impress his audience as a man would flaunt a flashy car to attract attention.
The principals who made The Social Network were men well attuned to critical and commercial acclaim. Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, has won Emmys for writing (his hit TV show was The West Wing) and came away with the Best Screenplay Oscar for the film. David Fincher, the director, has made ten films with combined budgets of two-thirds of a billion dollars, including many commercial hits like Alien 3, Seven, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as well as his one monetary flounder Zodiac, ironically his best work—tense in its dramatization of characters and information. While Seven and Zodiac were the most “realistic” pictures Fincher made before The Social Network, he has backtracked into gloss, cooking up pictures to be more and more seared as worthy Oscar Bait, including two adaptions of best-selling novels. His latest, Gone Girl, is a work examining a flawed couple, where a slow-drip of information leads one to take the conniving wife as a sociopath who the weakened husband accepts back into his life for the sake of their coming child. The jerks and swerves of the plot lead one to expect the Hollywood Fatal Attraction ending, where the crazy woman is extinguished, but Fincher relents and the result is something more unbelievable than a murder in a suburban home. Examining Fincher’s predilections, which tap into the roots of an America created by the product consciousness of TV and Hollywood’s culture, one sees he is mostly interested in mystery stories with an element of meta, glorying in high-tech violence (in Gone Girl, we are treated to the wife slicing open an old boyfriend's neck, spilling blood all over) while couching the films as noxious tonics for surviving in a super-rich world. If Fincher has a message, besides glorifying the lives of the super-rich in The Game, Panic Room, The Social Network, and Gone Girl, it will often lack morals and push a nihilistic superiority that most times identifies more with the bad guys and lets them win (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl). The Social Network was an enterprise considerably smaller, sans lavish sets and explosions, a humble effort whose only expressionist pastiche (the dominant mode of most Fincher’s mise en scène) constituted a mood-breaker halfway through, a five-minute slow motion ad for rowing that destroys what pacing a proper chamber room piece like the first forty-five minutes promised in tone. It is not surprising this director started out in music videos and has made over fifty of them, yet Fincher has not abandoned a similar bump and rush style of presenting his images. Reaction shots of characters who need a reaction in order to sate the audiences’ call for linearity is followed to the tee, establishing shots give way to what has been already established.
Glamour in and for The Social Network was generated without publicity. The number of people on Facebook when the film premiered in October 2010 was 550 million; today it is nearly one and a half billion. With little fiction about it (of course, there was some added by Sorkin) the film used the company Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, having the added bonus of Time making its main character Person of the Year halfway during the film’s commercial release. Most people who went to see the film knew about the star and his story, yet the film barely made back a week of Zuckerberg’s income. The film made money—almost $100 million in the US—but not enough money to catapult it into the territory of a mega-hit. That people didn’t love it (or see it enough) was a fact bemoaned by many major critics who I find most culpable in the push for this sloppy film.
The laudatory soundbites from the critical precincts are posted in CAPS on the DVD cover are as follows:
“A BRILLIANT FILM” – Frank Rich NYTIMES
“****AN AMERICAN LANDMARK” – Peter Travers ROLLING STONE
“REVOLUTIONARY. ABSOLUTELY EMBLEMATIC OF ITS TIME AND PLACE” – David Denby THE NEW YORKER
“SENSATIONAL. A ONCE-IN-A-GENERATION MOVIE” – Steven Holden NYTIMES
“MAMMOTH AND EXHILARATING” – Richard Corliss TIME
This shower of adulation is so much, so over the top, one would think God had made a movie. These overreaching blurbs in their unabashed praise (are they critics or manic little league parents?) are eerily concomitant to the type of filmmaking praised. The language of the hype machine is unmistakeable: “Brilliant,” “Mammoth,” “Sensational.” Triumphantly, in the hardscrabble of sell, “An American Landmark” is used to appeal to the patriotic in time of war. Most problematic is “Revolutionary”—an epithet from one of the most respected critics, David Denby, from inside arguably the most august periodical in the country. Unfortunately, such a tag only swaps the film’s subject for its credentials—his other comment that the film is “entirely emblematic of its time” is, given that the United States is now largely a population of device-aholics, entirely true. Undoubtedly what Zuckerberg did in creating a social network was revolutionary to some degree but there is not a digital frame of The Social Network that could be called “revolutionary.” An intricately plotted film, using cross-cutting and fast dialogue has been accomplished—countless times. It is the ilk of many celebrated Hollywood films. Those with special merit include His Girl Friday, Network, and The Big Lebowski.
The Social Network became only the second film to be named best picture by the four most prestigious critical organizations: the New York Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, The National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics. Why did the critics latch onto the film?
The Social Network documents the entrepreneurial spirit (as well as thievery) of Mark Zuckerberg as it cross-cuts between how he created Facebook and the subsequent lawsuits and lawyers who question the principals, a frame that takes hold of the work till its credits. The film is a drama with tension arising not from cinematography, editing, or the performance of the actors—the script is on display and it dictates how it is to be filmed. It is a series of conversations with the prerequisite over-the-shoulder shots dominating the film. Dialogue drives, the camera is often on the speaker, similar to the way a play’s audience will fix its focus on the character who is speaking. Too much falls on the script. Everyone knows how the Facebook wars turn out. Zuckerberg is one of the richest people in the world. The question then becomes will his friend and partner get anything after taking him to court, but even this vaporizes after an internet search to see that the Eduardo Saverin character, who Zuckerberg apparently stabbed in the back (a fount of dramatization not fully exploited or explained except for the caveat that Zuckerberg is seduced by the Sean Parker character, co-founder of Napster, into cutting him out of the company) currently owns 3.4 billion dollars worth of stock. Why should anyone in this day feel bad because a billionaire couldn’t have been a few billion dollars richer?
The film begins and ends with two different women calling Zuckerberg “an asshole” in two different ways—symmetry. The story is cogent, the players have their roles, but there is no tragedy to the tale. People don’t suffer. Again, all the clients involved in the litigation, including the gigantic Winklevoss twins, make out handsomely. When the Sean Parker character comes aboard and refashions and revitalizes Facebook about two-thirds of the way through, Zuckerberg starts to disappear from the story. Just when an in-depth examination of the Zuckerberg character and his process of cutting out his most trusted partner were most warranted, the film went silent. The dramatic character of Zuckerberg lacks soul, having only witty retorts and bullying tactics for anyone who gets in his way; the lark that he builds Facebook to get back at the love interest who spurned him in the beginning is a trope only worthy of the Hollywood culture that made the film and it has no basis in fact. While I normally enjoy Jesse Eisenberg’s acting, his characterization is static, playing the feared but oblivious “asshole” throughout—consistently displaying a bunch of bluster, crystal clear line readings, and triumphant elucidations of rack and pin putdowns as drawn from his more forceful and well-developed role in The Squid and the Whale. Because the script or “story” is the main artistic component of the film and because the main character lacks a comprehensive and intelligent characterization, the film itself cannot be said to achieve the necessary prerequisites of compelling drama. This, while another film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, expertly made three years earlier by Sidney Lumet and full of truly tragic proportions, buoyed by a Shakespearean script full of switchbacks and wit, intriguing cinematography, and bravura performances (all the main male actors were theatrically trained) remains largely unseen and undervalued mostly due to the darkness of the story which translates into an indigestible meal for most.
The final shoving of shit in the poor and lower middle class’s face is to buy the rights to one of the most expensive songs (anything by the Beatles, this being “Baby You’re a Rich Man”), fading the first bars in during the closing close-up of Zuckerberg, and then blasting it loud and proud as the end credits meet the screen. What’s meant to be ironic and to bring the film “full circle” is that he’s waiting for a response to his friend request from the original girlfriend he insulted at the beginning of the film. He is now extraordinarily rich but he still needs love, or the like, instant as always, of someone that has spurned and spurred him on to create Facebook. The gift-wrapped conclusion crusts over because of its shallow, warped vision of dramaturgy and urge to tie the tie tight—both declivities akin to TV shows. Still, films are not beholden to networks, standards and practices, and affiliates. The MPAA does exist but its purpose is only to prevent most full frontal nudity and anything that looks too much like people having sex. Where is the tension in the ending? Does the audience care about this Mark Zuckerberg’s feelings or his accomplishments? That he’s only vaguely interested in women as symbol of his own status is a small strand checked off by the film’s first scene. Given a blow-job by a college woman, he is stunned, but the performer of that blow-job is not to be seen again. Of course some people will still ignore him but they don’t have his money. The point of view that money doesn’t buy all is paltry. It is a theme Sorkin and Fincher can grasp at and appropriate, but this and other appropriations smack of business world takeovers—they are absent of drama and the film language used to translate such a pie-in-your-face theme is vapid.
A film like A Social Network doesn’t require much from audience and one doesn’t have to identify with Zuckerberg because there is so much money involved. At one point he says of his net worth, “…I could buy ‘em out of Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club and turn it into my ping pong room,” which is perhaps a mantra for those stunted enough to want to lord something over someone.
The specter of violence has become the cinematic question posed more than any other in the last fifty years since Bonnie and Clyde. Not form, not editing or digitalization—violence has obsessed critics and audiences of cinema. And so, after the blood-filled 90s, here came Drive dressed in a pomp satin jacket to remind those growing up in the 80s (a good part of the consumer audience now) what they were like, how cool they were, and how cool this film is, and hence Drive is more a fashion statement than a film. It qualifies the remark of Ingmar Bergman about having something to say much more succinctly, because though it may be argued by some major critics that Drive has something to say about violence, it can’t say anything because it is too interested in titillation and disturbance, and most execrably, like Pulp Fiction before it, a wayward morality.
The film concerns a criminal, the Driver (Ryan Gosling), who is made to look good by being put up against members of the mafia in L.A. He decides to help his female neighbor’s partner (he falls for her when her Arab-American partner is in prison for robbery) and father of her child (who the Driver also takes a shine to). The mafia protected the husband while he was in jail and now they want a boatload of money for that nicety. They force him to perform a heist and the Driver goes along to help (as the driver), but it goes awry and the husband gets killed. The Driver takes the money, starting a war in which the Driver’s friend and six members of the mob, including two bosses, die—all these six by the Driver’s hand. At the end, before the Driver murders Albert Brooks—Bernie, the top boss—Brooks knifes him in the stomach, a wound which may kill the Driver, but the film does not answer this, ending with him doing what he does best, drive.
The Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn, demonstrates his knowledge of the cinemas's maestros of violence, as he films death after death in orgies of quick editing replete with slow-motion shots and whiz-pans, and once by wisely pulling back into a long shot when the masked Gosling goes into the Pacific to drown an already bloodied Nino (the other boss). This is one of the few moments of restraint in a film that shows the Driver taking a curtain rod and impaling it in a bad guy’s chest, so the blood jet created by a Hollywood special effects team is launched from his heart, as well as Gosling’s repeated bashing of another Mafioso’s head with his foot so the noggin ends up looking like a squashed melon oozing brain and puss in a matter of seconds. The point of showing these gruesome and fairly supernatural deaths is to induce repellence in the audience—it is spectacle. In this L.A. of killing after killing, every day is High Noon as the audience is casually asked to identify with the Driver, a killer who supports people who lie, cheat, rob, and batter. He is played by Ryan Gosling (a friend to men and sex-symbol to women) who does have a record of incredible performances in Half-Nelson and Blue Valentine. Are we supposed to be happy that Gosling is killing all these people? His purpose is to stay alive, but our purpose is to enjoy art. There are the garish colors of L.A. replete with its smoggy sky and a night diffused by the lights of the land, and Refn uses these like the great technician he is, but his vision of humanity, and most despairingly, romance, is knock-kneed, and about as elastic as a teenage boy’s bedtime fantasies. For a Dutchman, his pathos is purely American, which may be because he counts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Martin Scorsese high among his influences. The female character, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, is all Hollywood screenwriter, in this case Hossein Amini. She loves bad men and has a child by one, and while he is gone to prison she gets lonely and is seduced by another. This isn’t a person or a philosophy anyone should subscribe to, and the actress lacks the language of a Lady Macbeth or the architectonics of a Meryl Streep to make her anything more than a cardboard cutout treated like waste by writer, director, partner, and seducer.
Unfortunately, like a myriad of other Hollywood films, and in the spirit of Noam Chomsky’s dictum about television (the show is the filler, the commercials are the content), The Social Network and Drive are publicity for a lifestyle that reinforces consumerism, materialism, envy, survival of the fittest, and ennui. My feelings of emptiness derive from these films’ adenoidal insistence on presenting the lifestyles most in vogue—that is, characters, whatever their morals, often more sexually and monetarily successful than most. Most Hollywood films portray heightened moments, only the most important scenes in one’s life—surface excitement is their marrow. Violence, sex, and success are held in highest esteem. Our capitalistic society burns away our souls under the cover of good business sense, where these ingredients are the main programming. As long as one or some combination of those three are being achieved, the audience is placated—and this is dangerous. It is dangerous because we live in an oligarchy where most dissent has been forced out by devices that save us time to fill with ourselves doing three things at once to save more, as well noxious, consumerist culture TV and movies, that rarely fosters thought, questioning, or helps us to live our lives, outside of escaping them.
I’m empty because the art produced by this mindset gives very little that is meaningful or inspiring. I can’t sing after such an experience because I was not meant to join in. I am not supposed to share with these artists—that would be verboten to the economics of art, because if something is mysterious, as Robert Bresson says art should be, it does not invite most of the viewership. So much of Hollywood films are built on addiction and the return customer—the drug (or film) in itself, is worthless.
In her day, Virginia Woolf did not keep her perturbations about books private. When faced with the fusspot Arnold Bennett and his claim that the novel was in crisis due to the failure of Georgian writers (Forester, Lawrence, Joyce, and Eliot) in the art of “character-making,” which he found crucial for successful novel-writing, she wrote in response a seminal essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” In the following, read “books” for “movies” as she concentrated on the books of the Edwardians (Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy), those being the “successful” character makers:
"Yet what odd books they are! Sometimes I wonder if we are right to call them books at all. For they leave one with so strange a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. In order to complete them it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque. That done, the restlessness is laid, the book finished; it can be put upon the shelf, and need never be read again. But with the work of other novelists it is different. Tristram Shandy or Pride and Prejudice is complete in itself; it is self-contained; it leaves one with no desire to do anything, except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better. The difference perhaps is that both Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself; in the book in itself. Therefore everything was inside the book, nothing outside. But the Edwardians were never interested in character in itself; or in the book in itself. They were interested in something outside. Their books, then, were incomplete as books, and required that the reader should finish them, actively and practically, for himself."
And so, there it is. Ninety years before I asked the question, Virginia Woolf, sitting in post-WWI England, answered it. “Put the book on the shelf...never [to] be read again.” Flash the sentence that I saw the film Such-and-such in conversation, or put it in a feed. It is consumed, its destiny achieved. Some films, like some books, aren't made to be seen into and some are made to see us. If films are produced for diverse people, but everyone is allowed to see them, there are going to be different audiences (running from consumers to geeks) and differing reactions. Fincher and Refn are celebrated as autuerists, not studio hacks, but if their appeal is wide enough for full financing, their philosophy is artificial.
Robert Bresson never enjoyed the audience of many of his contemporaries, but thirty some years after his final film, his work garners more and more plaudits and followers. Bresson was extremely articulate, able to expound about the process of filmmaking at will, evidenced in a 1966 French TV interview about Au Hasard Balthazar:
"The difficulty is that all art is both abstract and suggestive at the same time. You can’t show everything. If you do, it’s no longer art. Art lies in suggestion. The great difficulty for filmmakers is precisely not to show things. Ideally, nothing should be shown, but that’s impossible. So things must be shown from one sole angle that evokes all other angles without showing them. We must let the viewer gradually imagine, hope to imagine, and keep them in a constant state of anticipation…Life is mysterious, and we should see that on-screen. The effects of things must always be shown before their cause, like in real life. We’re unaware of the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause."
In light of these remarks, one question I would like to ask Fincher and Refn and many Hollywood filmmakers (and even a few who work outside that system) is, Why do you show me the things you show me? Why do I have to see the self-satisfied face of Jesse Eisenberg after he delivers another zinger—hasn’t the zinger itself sufficed? Or the close-up of the agony of blood in Drive? Think of the end of Bresson’s last film, L’argent. A massacre occurs in a country house, but Bresson mainly shows a dog running from room to room and only in one shot do we get close to the act of murder, yet still we don’t see it—the murderer’s ax is hoisted and then swung, destroying a lamp, directly after it cuts the flesh of the old woman who took the murderer in, but we only see the lamp and the wall behind it containing a small spray of blood—cinematography and editing according to the precepts Bresson pointed out in the interview. What are David Fincher and Nicolas Winding Refn trying to say? What they seem to communicate is a satisfaction of my own anticipation, something which disappoints, doesn’t help, and angers because I go to films for something artistic, something more mysterious than what I already know is living in the calm stew of my brain. Kubrick could have played to my anticipation, but he decided to show things in very different ways. Like Hitchcock, he made conversations between characters into a panoply of delight, editing between shots of different angles and distances to accentuate certain lines of dialogue, as in Vertigo and Psycho. So does the early kitchen talk between Danny and Halloran in The Shining become a rich montage of order, surprise, and suggestion.
I confess I prefer to poison my outlook often by bemoaning the current state of film and literature. So excuse me for breaking a different kind of wind as I found myself euphoric in the midst of an elderly August, heat up my sleeve, autumn in my sights. Many great films do exist and I took to filling my head with a few of them.
In the months following the release of the Sight and Sound polls of the greatest films in 2012, I watched Muriel by Alain Rensais, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson, Playtime by Jacques Tati, Band of Outsiders and Two or Three Things I Know About Her by Jean Luc Godard, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Puppetmaster and Café Lumiere, Bela Tarr's Satantango, Werckmiester Harmonies, and The Turin Horse, and, most importantly, five of Carl Dreyer’s famed oeuvre (four for the first time), The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud. In addition, I rewatched Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Godard’s Breathless, Vivre sa vie, Contempt, and Pierre le fou, along with Au hasard Balthazar by Bresson, Altman’s The Player, and Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Of them all, Tarr’s Satantango, Yang’s Yi Yi, Godard’s Contempt and Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Dreyer’s Ordet and Gertrud had the most impact, being some of the most absorbing works of art I’ve ever experienced.
What makes a film by Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman, Resnais, Godard, Kiarostami, or Malick an experience? Because it is art? The first paragraph of Susan Sontag’s essay “The Spiritual Style of Robert Bresson” illuminates what the experience is:
"Some art aims directly at arousing the feelings; some art appeals to the feelings through the route of the intelligence. There is art that involves, that creates empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection."
And surely there is the synthesis of the two—art that involves, creates empathy, and provokes reflection. Does it have to detach? It well may want to, but I abjure to say so because of the negative and Buddhist connotations, because “detached” can lead to “cold,” a familiar recoil from thinking—the point of not just reflective art, but all art. Is thinking such a cold exercise? It is mostly solitary. There is no doubt that on the whole, film is not considered art in this country, but entertainment, more akin to television. Yet there are films which can be said to entertain as they create art, of which Hitchcock and Kubrick are the best exemplars. Should this split surprise us? Film is not thought of as art in this country because, on the whole, it is not produced as art. Apart from the comic book films, those interested in Oscar gold by producing a long line of “serious” films from Marty to Gandhi to The Social Network would cavil, claiming they are storytellers with a duty to point out certain ills in society and show people how to live, but I think Kubrick rightly answered this when he said:
"I don’t think that writers or painters or filmmakers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form; they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I don’t think that any genuine artist has ever been oriented by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was."
The great films are experiences because they are interested in addressing the questions that occupy our daily existence. Who am I? What am I doing here? Who are these people surrounding me? How do I interact with them? Sontag says that reflective art is about the form it uses. “The effect of the spectator’s being aware of the form is to elongate or to retard the emotions,” and that it “imposes a certain discipline on the audience—postponing easy gratification.” What makes these films and their filmmakers great is that their art accomplishes many things at once. It tells an enticing story and creates a beautiful rhythm—where another life and another way of seeing passes before our eyes with ideally no interruption (hence the darkened confines of the theater is the ideal viewing locale), projecting images (whether wonderful or horrible in terms of story) to appeal to our senses. The characters can be assholes, and there are assholes in the world, yet the world is still beautiful. However much one might quack, the aesthetic experience in terms of cinema is a quantifiable one. There is more going on in a Robert Bresson film than a David Fincher film—more mystery and stronger images made from seeing less. Images made to stick inside us like poisoned arrows, to be considered differently on different viewings. Most people often classify books or films that require the reader or viewer to think more than the usual, “difficult” or worse, “boring.” They can’t watch them for very long because they are lost, but confusing a viewer is not a symptom of great art, for as the same fusspot Arnold Bennett says in his book Literary Taste, “…your taste has to pass before the bar of the classics. That is the point, if you differ with a classic, it is you who are wrong, and not the book.”
It is funny in the most ironic, idiotic way, but I have found that as much as many Hollywood films drain me of my life spirit—even my will to live—in a such a world dominated by spectral special effects teams and tawdry teenage emotions, so do the great films lift me from my sedentary stupor and charge my soul with a gift to hold during my continuing days on the planet.
Seeing Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word) from 1955 for the first time was a stunning experience, on the order of reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Ordet is a film of extended scenes captured in long takes where life develops and eventually bubbles over, so in the end I felt like I had passed through something more than a gate. I had waved goodbye ever so briefly to what I despise most about myself—my pride—and gone toward a deeper truth.
There is such selflessness to Ordet—Dreyer’s only agenda was to make a piece of art. Based on a popular Danish play by Kay Munk, the film proceeds as a chamber piece, but how it is presented is overwhelmingly cinematic. For some time Dreyer was not given many chances to make other films due to lack of funding (it was his first film in eleven years)—and he sat on this work like a mother hen. Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen recalled that everything, every camera shot and movement was planned, but at the beginning of each shooting day Dreyer scrapped his plans and proceeded anew, though it had already been vastly refined. He knew the lives of the characters as if they were his children—once even taking his lead actress to buy stockings at a clothing store, though the stockings are never seen. The same obsessiveness and constant working one hears about Bergman, Kubrick, and Tarkovsky is evident in Dreyer, who called actors in the middle of the night with ideas. Where did all that preparation lead? It took five days for him to edit Ordet.
An echo of King Lear is evident in the story of Ordet as the old widower father, Morten, has three sons—they all live together in the Borgensgaard farm house. Mikkel, the oldest, is married to Inger (they have two daughters and Inger is pregnant). Anders, the youngest, and most “weak” according to Morten, wants to marry Anne, the daughter of Peter the tailor, a zealot-like Christian who forbids Anne from doing so because Anders’s family is not as fervent as theirs. Finally there is Johannes, who studied divinity but has had mental breakdowns and now believes himself to be Jesus Christ, sometimes walking far into the sand dunes near the farm to stand high and admonish the people of the world, though no one is there.
Each of the characters has a clearly defined role. Morten, with a Santa Claus beard and belly, but a dark mourner’s wardrobe and oftentimes scowling eyes (except when interacting with his daughter-in-law Inger, the fount of compassion in the film), has uneasy relations with all his sons, and it is no wonder he asks Inger to deliver a male grandson for him. Mikkel doesn’t believe in God, but he is in love with his wife, who helps to keep his family together, tirelessly caretaking them. When Inger dies he is distraught, but holds his contempt inside so it blows out in nasty remarks until the moment when the coffin of his wife is to be sealed after the viewing. Then he unleashes and weeps, and Morten says, “Thank God, tears at last.” Perhaps no other film has examined what death means and what it does to the people closest to them—Bergman’s Cries and Whispers also comes to mind—in such a deliberate, encompassing manner. All the main characters have their faults, from the hallucinating Johannes to the glib doctor who works on Inger when she falls ill, but the faults are inherent—the characters come to the audience as completed people, we feel for them because Dreyer’s precision and mastery is a result of the film’s form exquisitely complementing its theme. This is evident in the long takes, the floating camera (care of the dolly), the painterly compositions reminiscent of the best of the Baroque (see how two old men are grouped with a woman who gives her testimony during a religious meeting at Peter the tailor’s house—a classical triangle, with bodies bent and contorted as in Caravaggio or Velázquez), and the dialogue. As Mikkel overflows at the end before the coffin lid is affixed, his father says: “Come Mikkel, her soul is with God. You can see it is not here,” to which his son replies, “But her body, I loved her body too,” a plaintive, naked cry as pointed as Shakespeare’s words for the stage and intoned by the actors in a way that makes any other unimaginable. It is also seen in the movements of the actors, those spaces between their lines, such as the way Johannes walks, the mortified face of Morten as his family falls apart, and Inger’s delayed response at the end before her hands flutter.
I must confess I sat pulverized as I watched the second half of Ordet. Being caught, the art of the film had dripped into me to such an extent that I lost my place on earth. A real death, a real loss had been introduced to my life. An infection, like I had to carry the burden of the Borgensgaards as well because Dreyer’s film art had made me love them and in some ways (because I could see so much more of them—their personalities, their drives) I loved them more than the family I was born into. Because they were written into a play and later subsumed into a film, of course their lives were trying to get somewhere in a hurry—they only had two hours to show off. Isn’t it amazing that we expect so much of characters in films when in real life we often wait years for the person we love to change? Morality plays aren’t what they used to be—they endeavor to model but what they might accomplish instead is give false hope. Is the moral of The Social Network not to want to become too rich? Maybe what’s missing is passion. If characters aren’t open in an almost bloodletting way and don’t change, most of the audience will not be emotionally involved in the story—this is of such a great concern to studios and megastars that script rewrites are ordered constantly. Yet film is the grand collaborative art. Passion is conferred by many sources and directed by a visionary. Critic Kent Jones says good films:
"are made by people who don’t so much transcend their moment as bypass its clichés, its institutionalized inhibitions and prohibitions…they fight their way through the movie, past their own certainties, preconceptions, and tricks, until they arrive in territory that is uncharted, for them and for their audience as well…[an] artist must always be fighting against something."
Writer James Salter said, “The secret of art is simple. Throw away everything that is good enough.” This is the separation I see between the Dreyers and the Finchers.
Dreyer could hardly find financing for his films, yet their stories are some of the most compelling, disturbing, and emotionally vibrant entries in cinema. A saint burned at the stake in The Passion of Joan of Arc. A vampire hunted and stabbed in her coffin in Vampyr. In Day of Wrath, an old woman (an accused witch) burned at the stake, while the young wife (her mother was rumored to be a witch) of an older pastor falls in love with his son from a previous marriage and eventually kills her husband with her new powers. Resurrection in Ordet. In Gertrud, a woman makes to divorce her husband when she falls for a younger man, while at the same time an old lover is visiting. She gets rejected by the younger man and leaves the other two, though they both want her, choosing to live the rest of her life as a hermit. Real and supernal, these are the most tantalizing subjects one could seek in story, and yet like with Orson Welles, like Bresson, like John Cassavetes, producers felt they could not take a chance on Dreyer.
How many times is the word “love” uttered in Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud? Many, more than many—it is voiced so much one can’t look away, because when love is the overt subject of art (we should assume it is always the inherent subject) we know the artist is not afraid and certainly not afraid to fail because he or she is interested in what everyone has to be interested in even if the public isn’t—that lonely, majestic syllable. Cassavetes, who often funded his own films, attests to this pull, saying:
"To have a philosophy is to know how to love and to know where to put it because you can’t put it everywhere…you’d have to be a minister…but people don’t live that way, they live with anger, and hostility, and problems, lack of money…tremendous disappointments in their life, so what they need is the philosophy…a way to say where and how can I love…so that I can live with some degree of peace…I guess every picture we’ve ever done has been to try and find some kind of philosophy for the characters in the film, and so that’s why I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, and do all that stuff…the rest of the stuff doesn’t interest me…that’s all I’m interested in…love."
Great art rhapsodically bears witness to love, celebrating its mysteries, while most studio-financed films push it to its familiar hackneyed corner of juvenile cliché so it can’t contaminate the viewers they want to impress and impel to buy a return ticket. An admirer of Dreyer or Bergman would probably rather continue to entertain the questions of the film in their mind as they moved through the world. The works of Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and others don’t foster thought—figuring out the story and piecing the elements of it together, yes, but I mean reflection, how art generates spectators to examine their own choices in life, how they’ve treated people, and what they want in the future. After I had witnessed the resurrection of Inger in Ordet, that mystery and miracle stayed with me the way a weekend visit with an old friend might re-awaken a spirit grown rough and isolate. I had been taken. Emotionally and physically anguished, yet anxious to change my life and do a little good with what time I have left.
Great art is its own miracle because it informs as a parable with no personal political push except its own terms of beauty. The rich get richer, the concerns of popular culture more moronic and otiose, but if, for only a little while, true art, great art can equalize the gross amount of muck weighing on our souls and create a space for our behavior to mend itself, the gradual appearance of a harmony so reluctant to show its face in a sue-happy, reactionary culture will flicker in the wind like a spring flower, but it will have seeds.
Bennett, Arnold. Literary Taste. Hodder and Stoughton, 1914.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin, 1972.
Farber, Manny. Farber on Film–The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. Library of America, 2009.
James, Henry. Preface. The Wings of the Dove. Norton Critical Edition. Norton, 1978.
Jones, Kent. Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism. Wesleyan University Press, 2007.
Kubrick, Stanley. "Notes on Film." The Observer Weekend Review. December 4, 1960, p. 21.
Salter, James. Burning the Days. Random House, 1997.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1966.
Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays Volume 1. Chatto & Windus, 1966.