Sunday, November 24, 2013

Forgive Me

Nicolas Winding Refn has a powerful feel for tone and a good pictorial eye. I appreciate the way he tries to use elements of form and style to provide more evocative experiences - e.g., the way he intimates eyeline matches and shot-reverse shots in non-contiguous spaces. He's a guy with a sharp and insistent sense of how he wants to get a story across through formal elements that aren't totally conventionalized, and it doesn't all amount to serving the narrative so much as it does creating and sustaining a tonal structure. Indirectly or directly he owes a clear debt to the 1980s axis of Cimino-Mann-Friedkin, as well as the rise of Tarantinoism in the following decade. It's the fascination with (slightly) older media forms - title card fonts, killer throwaway shots, just the right ambient music - that aligns him with Tarantino in my mind. It's as if he studied, valiantly, the entire back catalog of sleek and not-so-sleek genre product in the video store circa 1996.

Like James Wan with The Conjuring, Winding Refn's approach in Only God Forgives is deeply satisfying on some level because it's a pop/genre film that trusts its audience to have an aesthetic experience that doesn't boil down to breathless A-to-B-to-C narration, pompously confused political "THEMES (!!!)," and quirky sarcasm. (The Nolan-Whedon death grip on mass-market genre cinema is 100% stultifying, in my view. I'd rather just sit and watch American Ninja II a dozen times in a row, frankly.) Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that Wan or NWR just get a free pass. I also think these two directors share a sense of unfulfilled potential. Their work, even when good, often feels shallow.

Now it's worth pausing for a second to parse out what that might mean. In many cases, people use the word "shallow" (or a synonym) to refer to a lack or failure of three-dimensional characterization or overt thematization. But if these elements are missing, I'm not bothered by their absence per se. This isn't the precise meaning of "shallowness" that concerns me. A lot of great cinema, and art in general, features characters who lack depth and are deliberately not drawn to suggest interiority or believable motivation. I fully and absolutely believe that work that limns the superficial can in fact be great and, well, "deep." To varying degrees, I feel about The Conjuring and Only God Forgives, like Drive, Bronson, Pusher, Saw, even Insidious (which I adore), that these don't trust their instincts enough. They follow their focus enough to create beautiful, stylized, lovingly textured objects but really only seem to have a self-belief in their own effects and not always in what these effects might achieve as full-blown works of art ... even if "low" art ... even if self-conscious pastiche high-low art.

(Valhalla Rising, by the way, I pretty much exempt from these criticisms. For me it's a minor masterpiece and by far NWR's best work that I've seen, one that achieves depth through its evocative play with surfaces and unknowns. Contra dominant tendencies, it doesn't try to explain everything.)

Of course this ignores other important facets of the work. Plenty to be said about Only God Forgives as a weird kind of orientalist text. These are other things worth addressing ...


traxus4420 said...

hey zach, i'd love to see an extended treatment of some of these ideas pushing on an aesthetics of convention, which i see you develop every now and then when i pop in here.

i have to say i don't quite 'get' how your take on refn also applies to the conjuring. i mean, yes, there's the scare scene's semi-autonomy from narrative logic, wan knows his horror tropes, but there's an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aspect to his aesthetic that has always turned me off (though i liked the first saw). i missed the coherency and innovation you impute to that film - for me it was a bit like scary movie in the sense of being sort of a variety show succession of horror motifs. american horror story does something like this too (and for whatever reason seem to share a sort of conservate terror of women and the threat they pose to their own children).

house of the devil (which you wrote about a while ago if i recall) seems to be a much clearer fit with refn - the tarantinoesque obsession with genre aesthetics and a minimalist-formalist way of deploying them. where every single element has a kind of 'perfect' quality, and in which the narrative is secondary in part because it's so slight.

how did you find valhall rising compared to only god forgives? for me, the latter was the apotheosis of his mature style, elevating what he already did with valhalla and drive to something that actually did at least try to be a "full-blown work of art." i don't think the nod to jodorowsky at the end was a joke - there's a ritual aspect to the pacing, the repetition of figures, the oedipal and sacrifice themes, and the general ambience, like an attempt to make literal the concept of 'cult film.' a religious attitude toward genre, as opposed to tarantino's ironized pop language.

ZC said...

The comparison between Conjuring and Forgives (and Wan/NRW) arose because they were recent releases that left me with a similar problem: how best to talk about mixed feelings and limitations regarding this self-conscious, lovingly rendered genre cinema?

I wouldn't push the similarity of stance toward form & its history too far though.

I think that's a very insightful distinction you make between the religiosity of Winding's approach (which seems strongest in Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives, maybe also Drive) opposed to Tarantino's irony. But I do think that both of them, along with the retro-nostalgic work by Wan and Ti West, are powerfully, affectively invested in the material of genre history - in textures, which is why beautifully (or prettily) composed shots are no more and no less important for these guys than the costumes & art direction, and the design of title cards & credit sequences. (The font and colors for the titles of The Conjuring, Drive, and Only God Forgives are all so distinctive, evocative and pitch-perfect, in a way that Tarantino's also are ... but over time I think I'm the only person who cares about this aspect and thus maybe I over-emphasize it.)

Either way, the seriousness of NRW's work is also part of what makes it troubling - that it may be reproducing some pernicious ideological tomfoolery under the protective aegis of Art. E.g., Drive as Aryan fantasy? That's what one friend - and surely not just him - has suggested. It's something I've kept in the back of my head, still not finished thinking about ...

traxus4420 said...

thanks, yeah, agreed about refn's "ideological tomfoolery" - only god forgives is pretty clearly in an orientalist tradition, with it's one possible/partial saving grace being how in what seems like the film's own ethical terms (austere punishment & retribution) the detective is the hero, even though we typically share gosling's pov and the narrative is organized by his journey toward punishment/loss/castration.

but i think any of the films we're talking about are loaded with reactionary content, such is (98% of the time) the nature of the genre beast.