Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Postmodern Queen

"As much genius was needed to obliterate Man at Byzantium as had been needed to discover him on the Acropolis. For the suppression of movement and the nude was not enough; the soul is immaterial. The one thing that could "devalorize" the human was what had "devalorized" it at Palmyra and in Gandhara, as in China: a style."

-- André Malraux, The Voices of Silence (that's for
Andy Rector)

I am curious about the arrival of prestige film products this past year that are presented, marketed for being explorations of the golden age of Hollywood: not necessarily Hollywood, mind you, but its age. The Good Shepherd, The Good German, The Painted Veil, Clint Eastwood's WWII diptych, and in maybe a weirder way also The Black Dahlia (the only one of these I've actually seen). There are antecedents for some of these, obvious ones--The Good German had Casablanca (and Curtiz in general), or so I read; The Painted Veil's trailer, at least, seemed like Out of Africa 2: In China. This rush of what seems like rather old fashioned prestigious historical fiction cinema is interesting to me (considering I haven't seen most of the films, only their advertising) because it throws into deeper relief another--more enduring--tendency in contemporary Hollywood that I alluded to in my Tony Scott entry some days back. That is, the willful employment of supersaturated and "unnatural" colors and filters, on-screen texts or images within screens within screens: a stylization, an "artificialization," an apparent devalorization of the human, that is becoming normalized if not naturalized within mainstream cinema. We could try to sort of why exactly this has happened thus far, is continuing to happen, but I don't necessarily want to do that here & now.

What interests me more is the possibility that what we might call the artificial turn can & will shed light on the flowering of "naturalism" in cinema that may now be years past its peak, and which maybe some films these days are no longer practicing as itself but as a sort of underhanded pastiche. "Naturalism" here is not something I believe in (after all I must maintain the impression of my critical detachment and irony!), not as a term I'm trying to just accept blindly, but as a descriptor for many shared conventions and projects of mainstream American film & television, whether "serious/prestigious" or simply "rank-and-file" in terms of style & cultural clout. Are these old-fashioned significations not remnants of so-called "classical" cinematic storytelling and aesthetics ... but instead part & parcel of what Jameson has already famously identified as the markers of (nostalgia & pastiche)? It's easy to say "yes" to that question for a film like Far from Heaven or, for that matter, the Thai hit (finally released in US theaters!) Tears of the Black Tiger, and even De Palma's latest film. It's probably also easy to say yes to The Good German, or so my impression is (given the press the film got about Soderbergh's Curtiz-journeyman aspirations, his use of lenses, etc.). But maybe even those films that aren't so "artistic" and/or "playful" are still every bit as enmeshed in a certain overarching logic of representations and style. Maybe less self-conscious about it; maybe also less interesting for it (in general). But even so ...

Take, for instance, The Queen (which I have seen), a nicely made, likable, intelligent middlebrow film (though it's still fundamentally a commercial pawn). In The Queen there is a retelling of a more recent period than the 1920s-1950s, of course--the week after Princess Diana's death, in case you've not paid any attention to the movies lately and yet still happen to read my blog. (Are there any like you out there?) But this is still what makes the exercise of nostalgia and pastiche so present--it presents itself as a reverse or "human" side to the news reports of August 1997, as though the media frenzy surrounding Diana's death were telling one part of the story, and the narrative cinema will tell the other, ensuring its closeness to its referent (a pastiche; the characters resemble their real-life counterparts in appearance and character: the screenplay & direction work hard not to "fictionalize" the scenario), and trying to rescue/affirm a certain ethical and emotional immediacy for this past event--a common task for fiction, sure, but here is where the spectacle (Debordian sense) is so everpresent: The Queen reconstructs a news media story as a fiction media story, neither one really having an anchor to lived experience but rather only to each other, filling in all the details of a spectacular happening of 1997 with another kind of spectacle. The resultant film, though ... quieter, "naturalistic," more ... "classical" than a media-happening would seem to be. (Apparently Notes on a Scandal is a similarly Brit-tabloidish exercise, though more pulpish.) But I suspect it's po-mo, and Moe from The Simpsons was wrong: sometimes postmodern can't mean "weird for the sake of weird."
I think I'll sleep on this and decide how much I really believe these off-the-cuff suppositions later ...


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, Zach. (And now I feel a little less guilty for forming so many theories about films I haven't seen.)

I think The Queen might be even a little weirder than you're giving it credit for. The Symbolic (with a capital S) sideplot about the hunting trip is probably just really bad writing, but I think it can also be read as a gaudy, blinking, "This Film is Fiction" signpost. (Have you seen Jia's new films yet? They do something similar.) I liked The Queen so much because of the frisson between the obviously-fictionalized elements, the BBC-like recreations, and the real news footage. It'll likely be the second Oscar-winning mashup, after Good Night, and Good Luck.

Have you read read Carloss Chamberlin's piece on Clooney's film at Senses of Cinema? He and I have been exchanging emails for several months now, trying to get at the almost a-g forms of these two films.

Andy Rector said...

Zach, thanks for the Malraux quote and all the ideas above and below it! I enjoyed this post too. I think that the prestige tendencies of the mainstream as they intermingle and oppose hyper-stylized films -- with the go-between of naturalism -- will be one thing that defines the era (that is, if we are able to get our heads above it's teem). How much longer can people, directors, actors remain "natural" among so much disintegrated, "cooked" conditions? Rarely is an aesthetic battle evoked between prestige films and ultra-style-inflated films; too often any contrasts merely fill a market "niche" -- scarcely a moral balance (but that can cooked up too) than a balance for the dollar (don't get me wrong, there's subtlety).

There seems to be a link here to what the 70's Cahiers examined as "le mode Retro" (along with Foucault, and to which India Song was "anti-Retro"). I hope somebody here is familiar with this because I don't have access to the BFI translation of these articles in order to refresh the main points of "anti-Retro". I should say that Cahiers was looking at films like Lacombe Lucien and Night Porter, films that dealt with WWII and Nazism, and did so stylishly. CDC's ideas on naturalism and ideology are also worth investigating.

Daney never really let go of these ideas; his article on L'AMANT (Annaud) is late "anti-Retro" as provoked by a "post-film". This article seems quite sagacious of what we've come to:

Daney: "it's because Annaud's work no longer has anything at all to do with memory, sequence, time, montage. This is cinema where there is no communication, because everything is communicated. The shoe is an item from the script which has turned into a surreptitious little commercial for an attractive marketable object, a kind of Indochinese Bally, just like all the other promotional objects in the film, from the virgin car to the designer girl."

And Daney, from the interview in Cinema in Transit: "Perhaps, all the same, the need for images has a history, comparable to the history of food. The pioneers filmed for a population of the poor. The moderns for comfortably off couples. The mannerists for affluent solitaries. What next? Today’s young directors seem to make do with presenting electronic domination with representations of some kind of cultural and emotional surplus value linked to an idea of cinema. There’s a retirn to ‘legendary’ films: Gone With The Wind, Les Enfants du paradis, Casablanca. There’s kitsch about."

I want to ask, to what extent does the mark of the market-beast scar a film and exclude it from serious consideration? or to what extant must we understand a film through all of the above determinates or obstacles? I, for one, am right tired of the publicity campaign that is mounted upon us, even those of us not looking for it, around the release of EVERY Soderberg film. Inevitably, what first comes out as information on the film's making (budget, peculiar work with the actors, the tools used) in the trade and "professional" magazines (Variety, Filmmaker, etc.) is bloated out to every newspaper, revealing its purely promotional character. I'm speaking, of course, of talk about how Julia Roberts improvised, how Bubble was made with "real people" and distributed, of the research done for Good German, about the lenses. It's almost enough to make praise and enjoyment of his most commercial work (Oceans 11, 12) a subversive act. Is it Soderberg's goal to activate more discourse in the mainstream about these things that make up a film that are usually a little veiled (distribution, practice, star/non-star economy, technical methods)??
Or does it breed an unengaged, complacent viewer? Look at how the studios and "guerilla" marketers run with it. Director commentary and "bonuses" are coming BEFORE the film. And anyway, regarding Good German, what filmmaker worth their weight DOESN'T think about lenses,doesn't impose SOME sort of rigour on this level? I take that particular publicity campaign as a lionization of of the System (what else would the choice of Curtiz tell us?), as you reminded us in your auteur post a weeks ago Zach. All this bludgeoning about Soderberg's greatness creates a little phantom hand over the spectator's head so that when they go to see the film they'll be patted and flattered.

Sorry for going on so long!

ZC said...

Hmm, a lot to chew on here.

Darren--I think films you haven't seen are fair game if you're not talking about the films as "texts," but about their place in culture, as (sold, commodified) products of culture: in which case advertising and other "peripheral" considerations are worth just as much as the text. Or another way of putting it is that this isn't theorizing the films per se (though if I saw them perhaps I wouldn't change my thoughts in any fundamental way), but the advertisements for the films.

Some would say it's impossible to extricate one from the other, perhaps.

Mr. Chamberlin is a fantastic writer--I've read all his stuff on Senses of Cinema, and even wrote a little appreciative post about him on EL way back when. (I think you & he should think about putting your exchanges on The Queen and GN,GL together in a format for outside readers, and posting it on Long Pauses.) Anyway, yeah, it's not that I'm saying The Queen is weird or not weird--I grant you that it, like the Clooney film, has certain weird (even "gaudy") elements ... but the thing is, it's not being marketed or discussed as such, but rather as a respectable prestige picture made for a mass audience and especially for the adult and even senior demographics, not youth. (As my girlfriend observed, the line for the Upper East Side theater where we saw the film was filled with older women who looked & dressed a bit like Elizabeth II themselves.) This is my point about the film--the pomo is even invading the tradition-of-quality!

Andy Rector said...

pomo invading the tradition-of-quality...that's brilliant .

ZC said...

Andy, I've got to pull out my bootleg Cinema-in-Transit. (By the way, when is that official translation coming out? Soon, no?) More will follow from it.

As for the mark of the market beast ... well, I think film writing that considers a contemporary commercial film's larger place in culture should always keep in mind the violence of the product, manufactured & sold for the benefit of an elite and for the leisure of masses. No commercial capitalist film-product really escapes or justifies this process, wouldn't you agree? But this doesn't mean we have to make a cross with our fingers and say, "Hollywood, bad!" as a rote response to every multimillion dollar production coming from the United States or other comparable industries ... even though such a polemic--given an anticapitalist tinge, not that obnoxious IFC "good taste" one--would be pretty refreshing. But for me the question in dealing with contemporary cinema when the films are commercial products (and for many people any other kind of cinema is invisible) is--rightly or wrongly--to refuse to let my thought be ruled by the economic relation and make a single broad judgment, but (a) to understand films as sometimes potentially rich/complex/interesting entities within this sometimes very simplistically brutal capitalist system, and (b) to isolate those rarer films whose very real status as 'product' doesn't seem to contain that complexity; i.e., they are not circumscribed by that commercial function. Terence Davies' The House of Mirth, a total masterpiece in my view, comes to mind.

And someday, someday, I'm going to write up a post on James Gray's films. There are others. I wish that we could go into contemporary Hollywood cinema and do our own little politique des auteurs. For a few years this is exactly what I was trying to do. But the politique as I can envision it is thus far ineffecient, unmatched for the current situation (partly because the film-author is co-opted & sold heavily, like Soderbergh).