Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Stray Thoughts

"Well, to me it's two very different things [film and literature] … I mean there are principles that you can take from one and apply to the other but—no, I really make an effort not to see movies on literary terms, with plots and characters centrally… I try to see them as sound and image, essentially." (Dave Kehr)

Reading this interview with DK from a short while back, I was struck by the above, succinct sentiment.  I've voiced a similar sentiment before, as have a great many cinephiles with a more formalist (and often auteurist) bent.  I don't often make statements like this these days, but at the same time, in the proper circumstances all it takes is someone's snide dismissal of all experimental cinema, or of certain Robert Mulligan films (to name one name) for me to flip on the "sound and image" switch.  Still, there is a massive weakness to this defense and it's strange how formalists seem nevertheless willingly to overlook it despite predicating their taste and connoisseurship on attention to the materials of the medium.  "Plot and character" are simply not parallel, not congruous, not comparable, with "sound and image."  You can attend to one at the privilege of the other; certainly this is the level at which a lot of formalist cinephilia pitches itself polemically.  But 'sound and image' are for cinema what characteristics like words, sentence, diction, or grammar are for the written word.  Concepts like plot and character require perception but also comprehension.  Plot and character are not "uncinematic," nor are they "anti-cinematic," nor are they "cinematic."    The means of narration and emplotment certainly vary from the moving image to the written word, just as they vary from film to film, type to type.  But if they're there ...  Formalist cinephilia can rail against very real crutches & impediments to understanding, but can rely upon its own crutches if the viewer isn't careful, and takes on dogma like a security blanket.  (This last isn't a coded accustation of Kehr or anyone in particular, by the way - that interview was the springboard, it's not a target.)

I've had various kinds of reactions to "mumblecore" movies (does this label mean anything anymore?) ... but I've yet to see one that doesn't cause me to wonder, "Who are these people?"

The first section of The Nun's Story crossed with Times Square would equal something not unlike Ida Lupino's The Trouble with Angels.

And if you look at The Trouble with Angels, it's refreshing to see how rough-edged commercial cinema once allowed youths to be - blemished skin, seemingly unrehearsed body movements.  One can't imagine a hair going astray on the head of Hugo's Asa Butterfield.


Christopher Small said...

Not even Bujalski?

JeanRZEJ said...

Sound and images are to cinema as words are to literature, I'll agree to that. Mood and tone are parallel (and overwhelmingly important, in an oft understated way). However, I would say that syntax, wordplay, phrasing, and a myriad of other devices are the immediate vehicles which parallel movement and stillness, editing and duration, and those other cinematic elements which get called 'poetic' in both mediums. These are the elements which are ever-present with or without a plot or characters, and yet these are the elements which are most rapidly forgotten by many people (or most impossible to forget for others). The innumerable choices which go through the mind of any author and filmmaker at each moment choosing the proper contextualization and stylization to deliver mood and tone etc. In both the most formulaic and most formalist works are often treated as entirely incidental by most all of the casual readers/filmgoers that I know. They rarely recall which passages were best written, recalling only pacing and plot. This is surely related to culture, and perhaps also to the way in which we inherently understand these elements with greater immediacy - but I agree with you that these are equally 'cinematic' and 'literary', which is to say neither. I would also say, and this is what I think Kehr missed completely, is that there are also other similar elements in both mediums which are on a level between the basic image, essentially a noun stripped from context, and these supposed 'literary elements' - and I would posit that these elements are often overlooked in both mediums (and the most potent and intriguing). I don't think it's wrong that people could look at film from a more beneficial perspective - but it is not because the elements are substantially different from those in literature, I don't think, but because people tend to lose sight of the most important, dynamic, and subtle elements in both.

For the best writers and filmmakers it hardly matters which colors and sounds they use or what the overarching significance is so long as the dynamic relationships create the essential moods and tones. Consider the statement, "I have no idea what you said, but I loved the way you said it" and convert it to, "I loved the way you said it, no matter whether I understood it or not." This, I think, is where the real benefit is at. What Kehr implies, on the other hand, is "Words chose good."

Now, of course, Godard fans are probably wondering how what I just composed could possibly be anything less than a masterpiece, but I guess I'm just not ready to take the leap into that particular facet of Godardian brilliance. Or any other facet, really, but that's another story.

Zach Campbell said...

Christopher - Bujalski maybe less so than someone like Swanberg (particularly Funny Ha Ha) ... but still, there's something in those movies as well which makes me scratch my head, a sort of contrived verisimilitude. I don't mean that as a criticism, necessarily. But often I can't figure out how I feel about it, which makes me just wish I saw in these films what someone like Craig Keller does.

Jean, I think we agree. What gets designated, and sometimes denigrated, as "literary" in cinema often has no particular affinity for the written word as opposed to the moving image. "Narrative" is a trans-medium concept.

JeanRZEJ said...

Narrative is a trans-medium concept, yes, but I think it is a comparatively uninteresting part of all the mediums it crosses. What I was saying is that there are other trans-medium concepts which Kehr excludes by way of dichotomy that are far more interesting. To make a mathematical comparison, Kehr talks of data points as opposed to lines, whereas the experience of cinema is neither in the entirety all at once or merely the static but in the dynamic, in the way in which compiled scenes create a context and a real change in experience and understanding that the images and sounds on their own do not express but which you experience at every moment. Art is in the calculus, I say. Kehr seems to trapped in Zeno's paradox.