Cinema in extremis

Introduction

Cinéma vérité, (cinema of truth – a term first used by the Russian Documentary maker, Dziga Vertov ‘A Man with a Movie Camera – Kino-Pravda) of its day was a movement of documentary filmmakers which crossed the boundaries of genre into fiction and drama. The technique of natural light, hand-held camera and the story of everyday folk, explored the lot of the average working-class family and the dour condition of society.

British cinema has been plagued with the genre’s bleak outlook on life, with its focus on working-class existence and at times has been re-labelled as social or socialist realism.

Albert Finney ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ (1960), Directed by Karl Reisz and Written by Alan Sillitoe, stands out as a production which exemplifies this kind of realism. Jamie Russell writes on the BBC website it’s “A fascinating film, and a snapshot of an era that’s depressingly all too real.” It offers a bleak view of an even bleaker Post-War Britain (late 50’s).

In my mind it reduces the problem to pure economics and misses out on the spiritual nature of the crisis. The hope of shocking us into action, namely protest or revolution, falls short. The effect is to numb you with the enormity of the problem and provides the viewer with a monotonous languor, social inertia. Part of this misfire is due to focusing on a symptom and not the cause. It is ‘thespiritual’ which informs ‘thematerial’. We have become desensitised to the point where we ‘need’ greater and greater shock treatment to overcome the numbness, our lack of sensitivity to the human condition. The Realist Project has not worked in its attempt to motivate us to change the bleak reality of everyday life, wherever we live.

Its concerns seem mainly political, using film as a utility to propagandise an issue. It is no less worse than ‘religious’ films used to proselytise people, the same principles apply, but film should remain free from the clutches of political and religious control. For example, in Britain we call to mind the films of Ken Loach, with such productions as ‘It’s a Free World’ (2007) I was at a showing of this film at the 2008 Unchosen Film Festival in Bristol, which itself was raising awareness of the issues involved in human trafficking, (see http://www.unchosen.org.uk/unchosen-2008.php ). In a question and answer session after the film, it was interesting that Mr Loach suggested that the film followed the documentary genre and the search for ‘objective truth’. For Mr Loach, this was achieved by ‘not putting the words’ into the character’s mouth, things that the film-maker wanted to speak about. Of course that is a conceit, as filmmakers invariably put their words into actor’s mouths! As for objective truth, I seem to recall a claim by Emile Zola that he would be able to prove through his Naturalist novels, what Darwin could not through science. This Naturalist would undertake research into the condition of the working-classes, visiting infamous areas of Paris to gather fodder for his stories. But a life researched is not a life lived. It is rather fortunate to observe human, social dissipation and then walk away from it, to the comfort of your own home. It is the literature and film of privilege, a view from the outside, to advance champagne socialism.

But are we happy that film is used for ideological propagandist purposes? And if hard-hitting propaganda doesn’t work, then what comes after it? Well, perhaps we have the answer to this, in the form of Gaspar Noé’s ‘Irrivérsible’ (2002). The film’s tag line is ‘time erodes everything’, even sadly, the beautiful Miss Bellucci.

Belucci-casselThe film is the story of a couple, played by Vincent Cassell and Monica Bellucci. We watch the brutal rape of Bellucci – it is not one for the squeamish – but the film follows the dissipation of humanity and the sexuality of self-loathing; nihilism writ large, searching for a pulse in an already necrotic body politic. Modernism’s legacy comes-of-age in Post-Modernism’s incredulity. After all, Lyotard warned us in ‘The Postmodern Condition…’ that “Postmodernism… is not modernism at its end, but in the nascent state and this state is constant.” (Manchester University Press, 2001. p.79)

Lyotard considers this a mechanistic statement, but I would see it as rather more organic in nature. Cultural development is more akin to agriculture than mechanics. A seed propagation system that can bring forth strange fruit!

la-double-vieIn his lovely documentary on Krzysztof Kieslowski, ‘Kieslowski – Polish Film-maker’, Luc Lagier tells us that the making of ‘The Double Life of Véronique’ (1991) marks a change in his oeuvre, or outlook. Says Kieslowski, “You can’t always tell dark stories, you also need to show some kind of hope.” Lagier suggests that in this film the Polish film-maker has “moved away from reality, to look upwards towards the light.” He sounds a wonderfully poetic tone. Kieslowski is not looking at the surface of reality, but what lies beneath, under the façade of civilisation. It expresses a more poetic view of life in extremis, a more intimate kind of storytelling, than say Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979), or Bresson’s ‘The Devil, Probably’ (1977), but still encapsulates what we at Handy Cloud call ‘cinema in extremis’. It is of course a very sensual thing to look beneath the surface of the object under the filmmaker’s scrutiny, but as we have stated before on this website, ‘thespiritual informs thematerial’. Immediacy is replaced by transcendence, consumerism with contemplation. From Kieslowski we learn that the human condition transcends national borders and barriers. With ‘Dekalog’ (1989), he may have been filming what he perceived was a particularly Polish problem, but then realised it had a much deeper resonance with the ‘universal’ experience. We have the same joys and sorrows, hopes and expectations, whether we view the Iron Curtain from the East, or from the West!

Cinema in extremis – What is it?

Well here are a few constituent parts of the whole, trusting in what Bresson said to,

“Accustom the public to divining the whole of which they are given only a part. Make people diviners. Make them desire it.” ‘Notes on the Cinematographer.’ Green Integer 2, 1997. p107.

But what kind of film is it? How are the characters formed? What kind of story? To answer this I believe we can gain insight from Robert Bird highlighting Tarkovsky’s method,

‘his films were united by a common theme. “the desire to develop and investigate characters in a state of extreme tension, in a state of extremely tense emotional imbalance, where these characters must either break or achieve final definition.” ‘Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema’. by Robert Bird. (Reaktion Books, p108. 2008).

It is noticeable that Tarkovsky doesn’t gravitate towards resolution, but definition; a visual, not a literal metaphor. We can talk of plot or conflict resolution, but definition: visual clarity, clear outlines, concentrated as opposed to fragmented, is different; it eschews the linearity of word-based communication. We can imagine a character held together, not pixellated on a screen; a character being held together, constituted by light and not broken by the darkness.

For the actor, or ‘model’ as Bresson called them, this required a particular approach to the role. Here is a lengthy (spoken) quote from Kieslowski on the role of the actor in filmmaking,

“They bring their world, life and experiences to it. The trouble is the actors want to protect their own experiences, their own fears, pains or joy, but what we have lived through, what we have touched, what has hurt us, are the only materials we can draw on. They hide behind the character, but if they don’t give the character something of themselves, something very personal, the character will be two dimensional and will never come alive.

The character won’t be original, which is the key to being universal. It will be a cliché, a repetition of an existing pattern. In order to avoid this, you have to reach into your inner self: Very deep inside yourself. And you must not be afraid that by doing so you will show your weakness. Perhaps by doing so you are showing your weakness…”
From the wonderful documentary: ‘Kieslowski – Dialogue’ by Ruben Korenfeld and Elizabeth Ayre.

The art of cliché occurs when actors or artists (!) simply follow an existing pattern; when they hide their experiences from the rest of us. What Kieslowski points towards, is what some theologians of spirituality would call ‘incarnational’ and what in cinematic storytelling we would describe as ‘embodying the character’.

Thus in the fellowship of suffering and joy displayed on the screen before us, we have in effect realised a universal intent, that is, an embodiment of the character, the actor has expressed transcendence. We cannot limit this to film of course; we could draw analogies to other art forms.

But what sort of role is it?

Tarkovsky, I believe, showed us the way. Robert Bird puts it this way.

“Tarkovsky’s intervention in the European imaginary (i.e. the lexicon of images and sounds we draw upon to give meaning, or orientation to life), like his forays into that of his native country, seeks to not to enunciate an alternative or dissident viewpoint, but simply to create a space within which vision can re-calibrate its images vis-à-vis the world.”
(‘Elements…’ ibid. p.145)

It is not a protest, not a revolutionary zeal of adolescent spirituality, but subversive and as such working under the surface calls for a different resolve, a different ‘imaginary’, or lexicon of images and sounds.

The subversive, spiritual filmmaker, by their approach ‘create a space’ for a transformation; a recalibration, renewal or re-formation of cultural meaning and that method calls for that view of life in extremis to achieve this.

How is this achieved? Well here is something to fire the imagination from ‘The Double Life of Véronique’. Véronique’s double life in Poland is lived out by Weronika. In extreme close-up (ECU) we see Weronika’s father drawing a townscape. As he draws, the camera in ECU looks through the lens of his glasses. We see, only partially, what he is drawing. Here is a prolepsis for what is to come. Later, Weronika is sat on a train travelling to her Aunt’s home in Krakow. She is playfully viewing the countryside passing by her window, through a child’s toy, a transparent ball. The buildings and trees are upside-down. The camera moves closer and closer to the ball; the filmmaker wants us to see something, perceive something, not about Poland, but of the world he is creating. It is a moment of rare lyrical, cinematic beauty, which captures the heart. Kieslowski has provided us with another visual metaphor for the role of the filmmaker, who sees in part and therefore knows in part. His job is to turn the world as we know it, upside-down and as he does, what is broken falls out and is analysed.

Kieslowski spoke of this time as a filmmaker under the control of the Polish State Censors. As part of a group of documentary and drama film producers, they learnt to get under the surface of Polish society and communicate in a way that was beneath the radar of the censor. It was a subversive intent, to speak about the human/social condition under the surface of things, using a language which alluded to, but never spoke directly of their plight.

This wasn’t realism, but more a poetic, allusive quality to their storytelling. I suppose we could allude to Tarkovsky here and talk of the aesthetic over the anaesthetic. It wasn’t an attempt to put people to sleep, to numb them from the awfulness of the State Regime, but to revivify them, remove the chloroform from film. This is the power of true art in the face of the anaesthetic qualities of ideological propaganda, the big turn off for imagination; ironically, the great disconnect from the power of the regime. Art is at its best when it brings us back to life, re-energises us, re-sensitises us, gives us hope and not despair, reignites our passion for life, helps us to imaginatively re-engage. This is the power of film at its best. Kieslowski knew that, as did Tarkovsky, who had to work in the glare of the censor’s searchlight in Soviet Russia.

Tarkovsky, as Natasha Synessios has pointed out,

“…had little time for Soviet doctrine; as far as he was concerned, he belonged to the nineteenth century Russian cultural tradition, which was in free creative dialogue with the West. Tarkovsky’s ‘quotations’ (i.e. his use of Bach’s music, the art of Brueghel and van Eyck, the tableau vivant of Rembrandt’s ‘Prodigal Son’ in ‘Solaris’) are a vital part of this creative dialogue; attempting to eradicate the cultural void that was a consequence of the Soviet Regime.”
(p.59, ‘Mirror’, Kino Files #6, IB Tauris, 2001).

So, what can we conclude about working under a politico-cultural regime? A Regime’s intent is one of hermeticising and homogenising cultural production. Whether in the name of unity or equality it is always repressive; always suppressing the true nature of art and the aesthetic. Both Tarkovsky and Kieslowski resisted this pressure and through it, today, show us the way to create freely and cultivate a ‘spiritual style’ in film – and in art. (See Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.; Reprint edition 17th Jun 2004).
With censorship in mind, Kieslowski talks of his work as a filmmaker, in terms of ‘sending out signals’ that people, but not the censors were receiving. He was looking under the façade which the Polish Regime projected, ‘describing the hidden world’, whilst openly confessing to his feeling of weakness. This then is the cipher for ‘spiritual film’, what lies beneath the surface of political, social and human reality. His view was never to underestimate the ability of ‘the people’ to receive the subtlest, most allusive ‘signals’, even if the censors couldn’t.

Tarkovsky’s repeated use of a Western ‘imaginary’ brought him into conflict with the censors of the Soviet Regime, which had left a spiritual, cultural void in Russia. The filling of the void was with a spiritual imaginary (sound and images) alien to the atheistic despots, but which the people were able to adopt as signs of hope, appropriate them as part of their experience. Bird puts it this way,

This then is one key to poetic cinema: the spectator’s appropriation of the work incinerates the author’s conception, releasing it as a free potential that can be adopted by the viewing subject in an act of en-voicing, en-visioning, emplotment and even embodiment.
(ibid p.129)

A Man Escaped 1956.  By Robert Bresson. ©Robert-Bresson.com, Noel Art. 1956

A Man Escaped 1956. By Robert Bresson. ©Robert-Bresson.com, Noel Art. 1956

Poetic cinema has then, the potential to bring about social, spiritual transformation and it is to this that we commit ourselves and not the rabid imaginary of Social Realism. We move from a spirituality of adolescence and juvenile protest, to one of a subversive spirituality, of resistance to the regime, to the mono-cultural despots of our day.
Cinema in extremis – ©Handy Cloud Productions, 2009. All Rights Reserved.