art

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.

On Kevin Smith’s Potential

Every film has a goal. To explore the capabilities of a framing device. To decry the bourgeois camera style of early directors. To demonstrate what can be achieved on a shoestring budget. Some goals aren’t quite so lofty. Many films exist to simply divert, to entertain, to provide a convenient way for general audiences to fork over thirteen dollars. And that’s totally okay! The existence of blockbusters isn’t dependent upon the failure of art house cinema, and vice versa, so there’s no reason to adhere to a formulaic critical philosophy in order to ensure the survival of one’s preferred strand of film.

But some critics seem to be out of touch with this idea. Why criticize a Transformers movie for its “special effects incontinence” (this is from an actual review) when the whole franchise is intended to exist as little more than a drawn-out CGI battle? Identify what the film is attempting and then evaluate how well it achieves it. It’s simple.

And now I’m going to utterly violate this rule in order to criticize Kevin Smith.

But it’s for a good reason! It’s difficult to separate a film from the director who created it. Any time I see a movie by someone I’m familiar with, it’s inevitable that I’m going to trace common threads between what I’m watching and what I’ve seen before. For evaluative purposes I have an obligation to distance myself from the rest of their filmography, but knowledge of what someone has done before gives a critic a glimpse into what they’re capable of.

Kevin Smith is capable of a lot. We know that because we’ve seen him live up to his potential. Clerks is an oft-cited example of well-executed low-budget cinema, and Chasing Amy shows that he’s capable of taking a nuanced stance on ideas like love and sexuality. The man has talent, moreso for writing than for experimenting with film form, but we’ve nonetheless seen that he’s capable of creating art with substance.

So why on Earth isn’t he using it? I’m not going to criticize the content of Yoga Hosers and Tusk, because he never wanted them to be good in the first place. I am, however, comfortable saying that Kevin Smith’s willingness to make mindless entertainment is worthy of criticism. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with mindless entertainment, but because Smith shouldn’t be the one creating it. In the same way that driving a Ferrari strictly in areas with a speed limit below 35 is a waste of potential, Smith’s recent filmography is disappointing purely because of what the man could achieve if he only tried.

It doesn’t look like Smith will be changing his tack any time soon. He’s currently developing a film called Moose Jaws, a sequel to Yoga Hosers. It’s a quasi-parody of Spielberg’s Jaws, but with a moose rather than a shark. I’m not expecting too much out of that.

I just hope that Smith realizes, preferably sometime soon, that making something that will be remembered as more than just entertainment is worth the effort. Good movies, movies that do more than hold our attention for ninety minutes and make us chuckle, can have a profound impact on our culture. Silly films about walruses and living sausages are fine, but leave them to less capable directors. You have more important things to do.

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.

 

 

The Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

The Inseparability of Romanticism and Science

As a humanities-focused student and a “romantic” according to Robert Pirsig’s definition, I’ve always had some preconceived ideas about people who pursue math and science. For instance, I tend to think of them as fact-driven, emotionally detached from their investigations, and focused on the utilitarian outcomes of their work. Of course, some scientists probably fit this description fairly well, but a quote from Einstein raises another possible motivation for the pursuit of these disciplines that I hadn’t considered before. He claims that some scientists are drawn to their profession out of a desire to “escape from everyday life” and “[trace] out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.” It may not even be the useful outcomes of their investigations that draw them in, but the experience of the process itself. Human life is emotionally turbulent and opaque, often not understandable by cold logic alone. Science, on the other hand, relies entirely on objective observation. Although the process is challenging and involves countless missteps, the tools that garner answers in science are well-defined and easily observable. Perhaps these tools attract those who are turned away by the volatility of everyday life.

 

There is, however, a hint of irony in Einstein’s justification of scientific pursuits. Everyday life, just like science, could be broken down using methods of logic and inference. It’s just that the objective tools of scientific investigation are rarely applied in an informal setting, and therefore human life takes on the appearance of an impenetrable mystery marked with emotion and uncertainty. If we stick to Pirsig’s definition, then claiming that science is understandable via logic and everyday life isn’t is itself a highly romantic statement. It’s looking purely at the observable veneer of each pursuit: science as a chain of reasoning and life as an ever-changing combination of mysterious factors. A true scientific mindset would hold that life can just as easily be approached using logical tools of inference. Perhaps this tension, this inability to see the entirety of existence through an objective lens, shows that we all have a degree of romanticism within us. The tools we use to perform science may be based entirely on observation, but the motivations for utilizing them are not so pure. Even Einstein couldn’t deny that science is sometimes pursued for reasons beyond the purely utilitarian and logical.
Furthermore, science is also influenced by rules of morality and justice, rules that are based entirely on romantic intuitions about what is right and what is wrong. Beyond the evolutionary conditions that have trained us to cooperate with others, ethics are based primarily on emotion and instinct. Science, thankfully, is restrained by these ideas, which demonstrates that there is a degree of intuitive decision making that affects even the most objective discipline. It seems to be impossible to separate ourselves entirely from our romantic affectations, which is probably for the best.