art

Slacker and Storyless Films

Despite the laments of some film critics, I do believe that there is still plenty of innovation happening in the medium. Some mainstream directors (Iñarittu comes to mind) are combining new filmmaking technologies with exploratory attitudes to push the form to places that it’s never been able to go before, and there’s a wave of recent independent filmmakers who have continued to leverage the medium to address pressing social issues. In fact, it seems that more voices than ever are now able to tell their stories through film, which is certainly conducive to innovation. However, despite this optimism, I do feel like the medium has become stagnant in one particular way; that is, it seems that most directors nowadays possess a traditional, objective-oriented mindset when it comes to art.

When I refer to “objective-oriented” or “traditionally constructed” films, I’m not just talking about films with a chronological narrative structure; I’m referring to any film in which the vast majority of scenes contribute to some overarching narrative goal. For example, while a Tarantino film might not have a linear narrative structure, I would still consider that within the realm of “objective-oriented” films since every piece of the movie’s puzzle builds towards some narrative endpoint, even if those pieces are jumbled in a nontraditional way.

This has, of course, been the norm throughout film’s history. It makes sense that the majority of filmgoers want to consume a logically constructed piece of storytelling, as that’s the type of entertainment that is most easily understood and casually enjoyed. That’s not to undermine the value of such films; in fact, the majority of movies that critics include on “greatest of all times” lists (including mainstays like Citizen Kane and Vertigo) are put together with a particular storytelling goal in mind. Within the realm of traditionally constructed films, there’s still plenty of room for experimentation with film form and themes.

However, I think that restricting films to this kind of objective-oriented mindset limits the scope of what they can achieve. Having this tacit requirement that every film ought to have narrative consistency implies that film is inherently a narrative-focused form, but I don’t think that that’s actually the case. In fact, if filmmakers were more willing to push their movies out of the realm of narrative storytelling, I think the medium would feel much fresher than it currently does for a lot of critics and viewers.

The film that got me thinking about this in the first place is Richard Linklater’s Slacker; it’s a 98-minute film without any semblance of a plot. Instead, the film simply follows a character (almost always a beatnik-type college student or recent graduate) for a while as they go about their daily business before wandering over to another character and following them for a while. There’s no narrative mission that the film is working to achieve; it simply showcases a collection of small episodes from the daily lives of twenty or so characters. That sounds like it might get tiresome, but it doesn’t; the characters are varied and the snippets entertaining enough to always keep the film feeling fresh, and I found myself forgetting that there wasn’t actually a larger narrative. Moreso than any other film that I’ve watched recently, Slacker simply offered me a day in the life of a particular subculture and allowed me to lose myself in their daily business. Did it present me with nuanced commentary about any social or political issues? No. In fact, it didn’t present me with commentary about anything, as the film doesn’t seem to comment on the views of its characters at all. It did, however, show me something that film is capable of that I haven’t really seen before, and that itself is a valuable takeaway. I’m not downplaying the value of socially or politically oriented films; that type of art plays a crucial role in our cultural landscape. However, I think it’s important to keep film’s other capabilities in mind as well, so that we don’t develop a limited perspective on an incredibly flexible art form.

I’ve simply tried to argue that film is capable of doing more than just telling a story; for a more militant perspective about the dangers of popular culture, I’d recommend reading this article. It’s not quite on the same topic that I’ve just discussed (and it certainly takes a more radical stance), but it provides an interesting perspective on the purpose of art as a whole.

Villeneuve’s Arrival and Balanced Innovation

(spoilers for Arrival)

Decrying the state of cinema has always been popular, but now it seems to be particularly in vogue. Recently, I’ve heard people argue that cinematic innovation is not just slow as a result of cultural trends, but because of artistic limitations as well. That is, after a century of development, everything that is worth doing in film has already been done. I’m not talking about technical innovations and gimmicks like Cinerama or 3D; I mean in the sphere of storytelling and film form. Looking back at the French New Wave era, or even the German Impressionist movement, I can definitely see why some critics aren’t pleased with the comparative innovative spirit of today’s cinema. But to claim that film has reached the apex of its development is, I think, shortsighted.

And I’m not just talking about the most obscure, avant-garde corners of the art form. In fact, I think some mainstream films are innovating more meaningfully than the least accesible experimental pieces. I recently watched Villeneuve’s Arrival, which sits firmly in the mainstream sphere, and I think it’s a perfect representation of balanced, meaningful innovation in film storytelling. It encapsulates exactly what a modern film ought to do in order to maintain a substantial audience while also exploring new artistic territory: take an old trope or technique and turn it on its head. It’s an old trick; taking old motifs or expected patterns and inverting them in some way has been popular among experimental musicians for a long time now, but only a select few filmmakers seem willing to do it.

In the case of Arrival, Villeneuve takes a tried and true tool of cinematic storytelling, the flashback, and uses it in a way that few filmmakers have attempted. Throughout the majority of the film, the protagonist (Louise) experiences what appear to be flashbacks to her life before the death of her daughter. Just as in any other film, these visions give the viewer context that frames her actions during the events of the film. However, at the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that these supposed flashbacks are actually flashes forward: the alien language that Louise is studying enables people to experience time in a nonlinear fashion, and throughout the film she is actually seeing premonitions of events to come.

It’s a simple inversion. Villeneuve takes a standard cinematic tool and turns it on its head. There are no ridiculously long takes, no experimental color flashes, nor even any particularly obscure storytelling structures or techniques. These things are certainly valuable at time, but filmmakers looking to make movies that are both innovative and accessible should be thinking like Villeneuve: take an old trick and make it new.

Ikiru and Inertia

Sort of on the cusp between middle-aged and elderly. Certainly not old enough to be in a nursing home, but certainly too old to get off the bench in a recreational basketball league. Out of place at both a rock concert and a bingo hall. That I-like-my-coffee-black sort of age, but likely too young to have one of those medicine trays with seven compartments, each labelled for a specific day of the week. A city councilman, or a planner, or a chairman, or some other variety of bureaucrat. Public Works department, yet he doesn’t seem to have completed any sort of Work for the Public in quite a long time. Stack of paper. Stamp. Place in bin. Brush aside needy citizens, who do they think I am, some kind of public servant or something?

Stomach cancer. Incurable. Six months, maybe? He realizes how he’s never realized how unfulfilling his life is. He tries indulging himself. Gambling, drinking, parties, etc. Doesn’t cut it. So he decides to do his job, see if he can make his community a better place. Turns a cesspool of sewage into a public park. The people love him. He dies.

Ikiru is, I think, among Kurosawa’s finest, samurai or otherwise. It’s certainly among his most personal. And yet some of its implications are a bit unnerving. Do we never fully realize our capacity for good, nor recognize the happiness it brings about, until we’re nearing the end of the time allotted to us? Why does it take so long? Perhaps it’s a desperate scramble to do something of substance, to justify our birth and the eighty-odd years we spend spending and eating and indulging and crying and laughing. Kind of like this review. I spent the first half rambling and now I’m realizing that I need to say something, that this needs to have a purpose, because otherwise why did I even bother to sit down and write this? We fear that our story will end without a theme, without having said something, and maybe it isn’t until the end approaches that we even recognize this fear.

Or maybe it’s more ego-driven. Perhaps our desire to be seen, to be noticed in some way lies dormant throughout life and only overcomes our inertia when it’s almost too late. Maybe his swan song is nothing more than a way to perpetuate himself, to make some sort of legacy that will outlast him. Is this why anybody does anything at all? Certainly frightening, but Ikiru leaves it open as a possibility.

Go watch it if you haven’t already. Above all else, I think it works best as a warning against the joyless drifting that we fall into all too often.