Sometimes, my mind wanders from the specificity of a film I'm watching. This happens especially often at a film festival, where movies overlap and blur together, supplant and supersede or otherwise conjoin in the mind; also, this happens often when the films being watched are not particularly interesting or good. The mind wanders. Back in October I had the pleasure of going to Vancouver International Film Festival, where some of the above occured, as it must at any cine-festivity where an audience member sees more than a handful of films. I saw a good amount of films that inspired me, and a fair share of those that didn't. To honor that latter share, I thought that instead of reviews this time around, I'd sketch down general observations and incomplete arguments that came to me in Vancouver and perhaps tell a tale, obliquely, of some things I saw.
Since this post references few films specifically, and not the films I really found impressive, I thought I'd lead this off with my four favorite films I saw at VIFF, followed by the others I liked (all presented in the order I saw them):
Peace (Kazuhiro Soda, Japan)
Fortune Teller (Xu Tong, China)
Morgen (Marian Crisan, Romania/Hungary), pictured above
607 (Liu Jiayin, China)
The High Life (Zhao Dayong, China)
Surviving Life (Jan Švankmajer, Czech Republic)
Littlerock (Mike Ott, USA)
Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, China)
Belly of the Whale (Ana Lungu & Ana Szel, Romania)
And now, to the wandering, ill-formed distractions!
I'm always seeking echoes of old Hollywood cinema, an era whose circumstances produced arguably the most precise, concentrated, idiosyncratic and yet uniform amount popular art. The cultural-industrial system that produced that work may be long gone, leaving behind nothing but a shell of a thing currently called Hollywood, but traces of what once made Hollywood great and cinema a genuinely popular medium can still be found.
In a strange way, I think (and I presume others who know the area far better than me might as well) that contemporary independent Chinese cinema carries with it some of the lost allure of Hollywood. This may seem paradoxical or even grossly inaccurate, but I'm not talking about old Hollywood in its industrial capacity, nor in its massive audience whom the industry thought they were reflecting in their cinematic products. Rather, the similarity I see between, say, an American film from the 1930s and a independent Chinese film from 2010, like Fortune Teller, a documentary that was the best film I saw this year at VIFF, is the understanding of filmmakers-producers that one's country has a significant population, a population whose stories should be told and to whom stories about that population should be told.
American cinema has long since lost the desire as well as the general ability to be about Americans (except tepidly, inherently, generally), but contemporary non-mainstream Chinese cinema seems positively ravenous to rove across its massive countryside to find all manners of people and stories, their spaces, habits, and manners. One of the main differences is address: old American cinema was "about the people" (often cynically and calculatedly so), but this was more often than not because it was for the people: relatable, common stories for a mass, common audience. Current Chinese cinema, though, at least the kind I'm talking about, presumably has an audience primarily of overseas festival goers, and if they're lucky, a slightly broader address via local distribution inside China as well as outside it. (Who, for example, will see Wang Bing's films? Or the 6-hour documentary Karamay, which also played at VIFF?)
It's a limitation of audience, to be sure; but the trade for a smaller audience is a greater freedom of expression. A man and his movie camera can go out and make a three hour treatise on a single person's livelihood in the countryside, step out the country, and through the projector's rays throw a light across national borders that has been cast from a common element, yet one also cast with a precision from which emerges insight, poetry, and something both human and social.
But perhaps what I'm getting at, if I'm getting at anything at all, is that showing a film like Fortune Teller isn't simply cultural exchange but rather a revelation that this is a time in the history of a national cinema where there is an avid desire to record the work and lives of its people. The motivation may have changed from that of the 1920s in America, but in a way the results are similar: small people doing their own small things from which cinema expresses a dignity, beauty, and realism in its preference for exact social detail and small local observations, material interactions with the world around regular people and the jobs they do, daily struggle and hard-earned smiles. The cinema world has changed—these are no longer fiction, they are no longer coming from a place that they are also addressing as an audience—but it certainly is a relief seeing not just a reference but an honest passion to understand film in 2010 as a popular art form, a popular medium. "Popular" perhaps now meaning something different—related to populace and population rather than popularity—but something still with meaning and still attached to my favorite art of them all.
A certain subsection of what might be called contemporary popular (cinematic) art could be seen at VIFF as well as festivals across the globe and, to a lesser degree, in theaters around the country. I would casually say it is the predominant stylistic-aesthetic-formal development in American independent cinema in the last ten years, and the broad term I would broadly label it by is "impressionism."
I'm primarily thinking of films that reject tripods, deep focus, and depth of space, and jam their cameras as close to their actors heads (backs as much as fronts) as possible and let the whole film's—or more likely, video's—visual field tremble as the light of daybreak blows out colors, the lens flares, and out-of-time inserts of pretty things sensually "captured" all add up to a cinematic formal strategy that aims to evoke what something is like rather than what something is.
This seemingly subtle difference is more often than not actually an excuse. Throughout many, many decades of film's short history the idea of the film frame being entirely filled with the subjective sensations of a character inside the drama would be limited to brief reveries, drunken episodes, lyrical, and impulsive-propulsive bursts as, perhaps, characters became so caught up in their own feelings that those sensations seemed to exude out of them into the very fabric of the film's creation, melding the style of the film with the impressions running through their fictional being. Now, this is common stuff.
In fact, it is an easy default—why make the effort in defining the world your character exists in, moves through, thinks about and interacts with when all you have to do is tell their story through their limited-myopic sensations, ones working like blinders keeping the film's world limited to that sensed by a (often overly sensitive and/or disconnected) protagonist?
I well understand the desire, the desire to get closer to one's heroes, to get inside them and let their insides flow out so we can be carried along as they feel, even the desire to feel the limitation of how they feel but not how the world (or more distant storytelling) sees them. But this false-intimacy dies a claustrophobic death trapped inside the too-tight close-ups (because we can only register emotions and feelings in close ups), wobbly camerawork (because this is real, a sensibility uncontained by the artifice of a steady frame), hackneyed-tepid insights supposedly told through appreciation of the worldly beauty, almost always light-obsessed, surrounding our characters.
Such a stylized-artificial construct, purporting to tell us subjectively what it is like in this situation in this state of mind, I think ironically comes from fear. It is a fear of the artifice of melodrama, of outward emotional expression or interaction (vs. these films' inner / minimalist expression through stone faces, vérité camera-shenanigans, sensations of the world), and perhaps above all the fear of stranding half-formed characters in real spaces in the world, where their navel-gazing sensitivity might be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of detail, space, and context they find themselves living in.
Speaking of strategies towards realism—whatever that is—how about these films, now dominating the art film and film festival landscape since, oh let's say the mid-1980s and now absolutely ingrained in a certain kind of film language, of the near-silent, near anti-dramatic, anti-actorly protagonists?
At first, perhaps it came from an impulse as much towards the silence of suffering souls or the sufferings of silent souls as it was, in the early years, a desire to talk about human existences without falling on bourgeois-mainstream-melodramatic expression. Now, like indie impressionism, it is a lazy default, used often by those who cannot write richly characterized roles or cannot direct actorly drama. There is only so much an impassive actor can tell you about the world his fictional character is living in, and unless unreadability in the M.O. for the filmmakers, eliminating a sense of inner life or thought in their characters through this impassivity is generally more a detriment to a film's expressivity than it is a mark towards greater "realism."
Most people wear some manner of their thoughts and feelings in their faces, reveal it through their bodies; suppressing it for psychological-melodramatic minimalism must, as with "impressionism," be a focus of a film rather than an unthinking, accepted convention of filmmaking. Manny Farber wasn't talking about exactly the same thing in 1967, but it's worth quoting a passage of his for relevance: "...the Flat Man, a central character structured like a vapor, a two-dimensional hat salesman, telephone-operator, or decrepit dirt-farmer who doesn't appear to come from any relevant Past, and, after aimless reels of time, there is no feeling that any Future is in sight...one of the elements scalping the New Actor is a simpleminded contrariness to the old story-telling film. An amazing complacency allows any arbitrariness as long as it reverses-mocks traditional expectations." Except by now these moves by a film aren't aggressive and revisionary, they are ingrained to dulldom.
Hardly anyone remarks any more on the attempted micro-profundity of the unacting actor, the realist-allegorical social figure so "realistically" portrayed as to be indistinguishable from a crowd in a documentary, because creating such a figure isn't taking a stance in cinema any more, it's making a resignation.