What is the 21st Century? is the weekly column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.
Going to a movie, I never ask: "Is it going to be cinema?" After all, no one in their right mind would think otherwise; praise doesn't get much emptier than "This is cinema!" or "pure cinema"—as if one movie was purer than another. I can also be sure that a novel is literature, a play is theater, a painting hung in a gallery is art, a poem is poetry. The uncertainty arises when we go outside of the usual setting. Art conquered this problem in the 20th century by embracing everything that could lay claim to being one of its children. "You can all be me," it seemed to say. And as art was the most embraceful, poetry turned the coldest shoulder, and has suffered for it. Poets complain at the death of, say, American poetry, and in doing so they forget that America is rich with poets, many of them very popular: Michael Mann, with his free verse epics; Richard Linklater, with his odes to the everyday; Jim Jarmusch, who has executed a progression that's the inverse of T.S. Eliot's—from verse drama to all-encompassing poetry. And anyone who complains that there's no such thing as "popular theatre" in this country any more has clearly never seen a wrestling match. Of course theatre also continues to exist in cinema; it was an American filmmaker, John Cassavetes, who offered us, through example, the truest and most basic definition of theatre: that it was a space within which we could interact directly with emotions through action. Acting, you'd call it, and Cassavetes had enough faith in the actor to believe that he or she always represented some truth, even if that truth was only about themselves. The family was the greatest theatre of all, the most universal, because it gave every one of us a role, even if it was only the role of the outsider. "Life is the most melodramatic story of all," said Douglas Sirk. Rob Tregenza would agree.
So why are all of these things in cinema? If we take the classical definition of "the movie" down to its most basic elements, think of it in the most basic terms, then that definition becomes "the form which engages with all other forms." This was the definition of cinema that the New Wave fell in love with over 50 years ago. It was the cinema as it existed then. The cinema that equalled its constituent parts. That's Bazin's conceit right there: that in cinema we found something that didn't require adaptation, that could be given reality, psychology, painting or literature and match it. But sometimes cinema makes the precedent; it can be the court to culture's law (and that's why André Cayatte became a director: so he could stop being a lawyer and finally become a judge).
A little bit of late 20th century history: there was a point at which we ditched "modern" in favor of "contemporary." The notion that something could be modern had become antiquated. Well, we may be a tad defeatist, but cinema itself remains undefeatable. It's obvious to anyone who's seen the films of Claire Denis, Alan Rudolph, Mann, Abel Ferrara, Teruo Ishii, Tregenza, Olivier Assayas or Steven Soderbergh that something has come after post-modernism and post-structuralism that isn't a post- but an original—an original that, like every original idea before it, feeds off of old ideas to create something new. Something that we're reluctant to name, because like any good New Idea, it seems classical. The phenomenon of The Intruder or Miami Vice can't be ascribed to anything we have a name for. There are, as always, passing resemblances. When Mann places his figures aggressively against the landscape of night in Miami Vice, they're like the paint squiggles Asger Jorn would violently cast against the backdrop of someone else's work. When Leos Carax pieces together Merde, it's "The Wasteland" in 30 minutes. Che fully realizes the dream of Roberto Rossellini's historical films: to illustrate how history is made by showing us people who are unaware that they're making it. New Rose Hotel, The Girlfriend Experience and, above all, The Intruder, give us the world not as we perceive it, but as it perceives us. An experience removed from conciousness.
If we say that "the cinema is dying" now, it's the cinema as classically defined. Now, as we continue to build cinema--which is still young--we find ourselves travelling in increasingly unknown waters; the screen that was once an equal has become a multitude of different-sized screens that produce works unlike anything else. Maybe this is why many of the best films of the 21st century so far are also the most baffling. We'll come to understand them. Filmmakers whose work once seemed grandly terminal—people like Hou Hsiao-hsien, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch—have begun making movies that seem like beginnings instead of pinnacles. We're seeing an influx of the offensive, even if for now we stick to safely praising directors to whom the 21st century is a footnote to the 20th (is there a filmmaker more inoffensive than Carlos Reygadas?). If there's a certain tendency in contemporary film, it's a good one. I too await the death of cinema with optimism.