Monday, August 06, 2012

Interlude: The Limits of Control?

            My occasional Twitter pal Richard Brody has a nice post up in regards to the Sight & Sound poll, remarking on the fact that many films are by directors with complete control of the camera as opposed to looser filmmakers. He writes:

The prominence of films by of Stanley Kubrick (“2001” at number six), Francis Ford Coppola and Andrei Tarkovsky (three each), and Akira Kurosawa (two); the relative absence of Italian neo-realism (“Bicycle Thieves” at thirty-three, “Voyage to Italy”—if that counts—at forty-one); and, in general, the lack of movies where the strings seem looser (e.g. John Cassavetes, Elaine May) indicates that directorial control freaks have a higher standing among the voters than those whose movies reflect heads-up curiosity, spontaneity, and responsiveness to unexpected discovery.

            Richard is certainly right – Vertigo is dominated by Hitchcock’s precision in every frame, as is The Searchers and Tokyo Story and 2001 – and I too lament the absent of Rio Bravo, or anything by Howard Hawks for that matter. But I think to call these films lacking in unexpected discoveries might be a little too mischievous. Part of this might be due to the fact that Richard is a better critic than I’ll ever be – nothing misses his eyes or ears, while sometimes I need repeat viewings to fully take in some films. That’s what happened when I re-watched Vertigo two weeks ago, and I noticed, on my tenth viewing of the film, that Scottie is not the real name of Jimmy Stewart’s character, but instead it is Johnny (or “Johnny-O” as Midge calls him, which reminded me of Roger O. Thornhill – The O stands for nothing, he tells us – in North by Northwest). 

            But beyond that, I think critics like myself enjoy the work of a director who has complete control of the camera for various reasons. The first of all is we are still mostly auteursists at heart, and seeing a film that expresses the complete singular vision of an individual is a marvelous thing to us, even if we know there are numerous people responsible. We see a John Ford frame and know it is a John Ford frame, and it is his vision coming through. This is not to call filmmakers like Rossellini and Cassavetes the opposite of auteurists, but simply their vision is often not as apparent because they reflect spontaneity. (Of course, one of Richard’s favorite directors from the past decade in Wes Anderson, who, like Hitchcock, is the sign of an auteur who controls every single aspect of his frames).

            Beyond auteurism, controlled films are easier to congeal together when writing. There is a certain pleasure in piecing together each building block of a film as a thematic vision of a particular idea. This is both a great thing and one thing of caution. It makes film easy to write about, but also often lazy. One of my favorite aspects of Rio Bravo is that I’ve read dozens of essays on the film – and wrote a lengthy one myself for a class in college – and nobody has ever been able to place the question, “Well what is this movie really about?” Rio Bravo is simultaneously a film about nothing that much really, and well everything, and Hawks’s frames reflect that by being simultaneously perfect, but always understated in their reflection of their characters. However, think of many amazing essays have been written on 2001, simply because while the film is a controlled work of art through every frame, no single person has defined what that vision exactly means. Are those pillow shots in Ozu a reflection of Japanese poetry or instead a reminder of the objects we continue to signify in our lives?

            Perhaps the most essential reason behind the love of controlled cinema though is the fact that one must submit themselves to the cinema. To watch the work of an exacting and deliberate work of film is to give in to the film and to render oneself helpless to the image before oneself. Spontaneous works of cinema also have this pleasure, but it is in the moment of recognizing spontaneity, catching something almost as accident. It requires the opposite of submission, as the moment may just be in passing. This is what Siegfried Kracauser responded to long ago when he wrote about the essential nature of film to capture reality and specifically “The Unstaged.” 100 years of cinema and we’re still debating whether it’s a window or a frame (Can it be both? That’s no fun! Who wants to be Bazin to my Eisenstein?) One isn’t “better” than the other per say, but to answer Richard’s lament on why one appears more frequently than the other may be because today’s cinephilia is define by this obsession with submission (oh no - do I sound like Armond?) to the cinema more than those captured by accident (or at least appearing accidental). If we live in an uncertain world, controlled “cooked” cinema sounds like a relief from reality, even if it’s shots, sounds, textures, and ideas are all framed by it.

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