New Forms for Old

New Forms for Old

New forms for old: some thoughts on contemporary film

It’s been apparent for some time that film has been developing new forms and that it might be worth while to try to develop a loose typology as a way of talking about them and their characteristic stylistic qualities.

Traditional genre typing points in the main to subject matter but might indicate something about style: traditionally we have Westerns, Romance, Sci-fi, Horror, Biopics etc, genres that are still used descriptively. The appearance of a French School of Film criticism in the ‘40’s and 50’s saw both genre and form reappraised, and new conceptual tools created. A group of thinkers, not all French, developed critical evaluations and interpretations; in particular in relation to ideas about stylistic characteristics of film. Out of the work of this group terms such as: Film Noir, Auteur, Neorealism, New Wave entered critical currency as a way of grouping and talking about distinctive films or film styles with shared characteristics that did not fall into traditional categories. A basis for dialogue.

Film Noir a term coined in 1946 by Frank and Chartier, referenced not just the dark psychotic mood and antisocial roles in the material but also the stylistic register of the films: the use of low key lights, chiaroscuro and shadow as expressive concomitants to narratives that were still by and large conventional. But note that even with Film Noir some films, such as Hawke’s Big Sleep, were more concerned with the coherence of style than with the continuities of plotline.

Some of these genres were not straightforward to grasp, provoking differing understandings in different writers and filmgoers. Some writers found it difficult to think in terms of genre other than as a descriptor of subject matter. Neorealism was often confused with social realism, which I think refers to specifically political and social commitment of the filmmaker; to the use of proletarian settings with real locations rather than sets. However despite differences in understanding, all writers understood that the films of the late 1940’s 50’s and 60’s were qualitively different in form and style from those that had preceded them. A new type of film making was taking place, that developed new expressive modes sometimes made possible by advances in film technology, that reflected the concerns and obsessions of a world that had almost destroyed itself. Worlds constructed out of ruins.

From out of this ruined world Neorealist filmmakers created an audacious series of films that were new in both structure and form. For critics such as Bazin Neorealist films deviated radically from the idea of film making that employed straightforward lines of narrative both in micro and macro structure. Neorealist films were films built out of fragments, discontinuities, layers, weak connections, impossible cuts and the intentional splitting of the constituent elements of film, the movement image and the sound image. Deleauze realised that Neorealism pointed to a new situation in film where perception was personal and the seer was located at the centre of the film world. These were worlds in which the filmmakers did not provide an ad hoc interpretation; they visioned worlds that were there for the audience, through the seer, to understand.

In different ways depending on director, New Wave filmmakers developed film form according to their own rules. So as well as incorporating into their work Neorealist ideas filmmakers such as Godard and Rivette made films that used context as the characteristic basis of their films. In particular an intellectual moral political social and cultural matrix lies at the core of the work. Godard incorporated aspects of advertising and pop culture directly into film. Godard as well as grounding his work in the cultural iconography of the times employs a wide spectrum of expressive filmic devices according to what’s contextually appropriate: postcards, inter-title cards, recorded messages; often with the intention of satiric political effect. Cinema becomes a cool medium: a collage of artifice. For Rivette context is specifically Paris where a real Paris is intermerged with a mythic city. In Hiroshima Mon Amour Resnais’ film is a personal historic accounting of Nevers and Hiroshima, an integration of location into personal circuitry where there is no memory without context, and no context without mind and no mind outside time. Questions of thinking as much as seeing lie somewhere at the heart of these movies.

In different ways New Wave has been assimilated by contemporary filmmakers. Directors and film genres have moved on and developed forms responsive to cultural and technical change.

One development I have noticed in recent film going is the ‘Installation’ film. Once we had drive in movies; now we got walk through movies. The ‘Installation’ film has certainly been made possible by developments in camera mounting, in particular steadicam which allows the progression of the camera to closely mimic natural movement through space or about an object. I think that ‘Installation’ movies critically differ from Neorealist in that the centre of the film is not the ‘seer’ but rather the ‘gazer’. By’gazer’ I am referring to the moral role assigned to the audience by the central controlling Point of View tracking shot that characterises ‘Instalation ‘ film. It is a point of view that tends to be detached, amoral. We gaze upon the environment of the other. The not-me. Through the point of view progress of the camera, space and artefacts are investigated and subjected to (mainly) visual scrutiny which is experienced as an inexorable moving through otherness. In ‘Installation’ film we move without pausing through stimulus rich environments. As we progress our gaze is directed to various events or objects: videos, photos, montage of artefacts etc and we leave with a forensic impression of the material that includes our movement through it. With the moving camera the director controls framing and content of frame. But the feeling from ‘installation’ films is that, one has moved through an environment as a detached observer. It is usually a cool detached experience from which the heat of emotive identification is abstracted. We go in. We come out. In the interstices we have gazed on the other.

Films I’ve viewed recently that seem to fall into this ‘installation’ genre include: There will be Blood (Anderson), Hunger (McQeen), Helen(Lawler Molloy). These are films in which the installation element plays a central role. There are of course many other films which use the installation idea to further or develop a scene for the gaze of the audience. In the case of There Will Be Blood, the film is characterised by a large number of long tracking shots that take us through a series of tableaux (often comprising the oil filed). I wondered at first what the tracks were accomplishing; they didn’t seem to have an obvious purpose either moral or instrumental. In fact the tracking shots in TWBB are a simulated replication of the effect the audience would get if they were walking through a photo installation. The film is simply an installation in film form. The big production value centrepiece of TWBB is the Biblical column of fire caused by the well blow out and it reminded me of one of Bill Viola’s walk through installations that featured a huge cascade of water. The hyperrealisation of natural phenomena, overdetermines response in the viewer, filling out their field gaze, their sight lines. There Will Be Blood is filmed in a form that is designed to be ‘cool’, and fill out the visual field. It has not been written and shot for audience engagement with either context issues or emotions. Walk through is engagement with environment, and the presence of human actors is irrelevant. In ‘Installation’ we engage with phantom presences. The not-theres. An example of this is in the first section of Hunger, (which I enjoyed) and which felt like a re-enactment of the conditions at the Maze Prison constructed sometime in the future. A psychoarcheology of the Troubles, etched into walls floors and cell furniture of the prison; an environment for us to gaze on and assimilate. The presence of the actors actually seemed a minor detail almost an irrelevance when set beside the movement through the detailed forensic architectural restoration.

Are you receiving me? Are you getting it? Film as ‘Text Message’(TM). There seem to be a number of films that mimic the idea of the text message: some drama but mostly documentary. The text message film generally sends you one primary message; and keeps on sending it the length of the movie. The film’s structure and form subserve the bidding of the text. The films are usually one dimensional in respect of content, by which I mean the information streams, audio and visual, are only supportive of the basic messaging proposition. Usually nothing is admitted into the movie that is not on message. TM films normally do all the thinking for their audience. The audience they address is by and large those converted to the message, and so their style is often ‘revivalist’ albeit low key revivalist.

In a sense the TM films are outgrowths of the pop video and their intention like the pop video is to sell the message to the fans and perhaps pick up a few converts on the way. In the case of the TM documentary film the message is a single idea such as global warming or the disaster of junk food. Like the pop video the TM film is usually characterised by a rapidly cut and shifting montage schema. Typically composed with shots of short duration that aim at a rhythmic flow that bypasses reflection. The structure of the text film is often, not always, built up around a number of different interwoven intermeshed ‘stories’ or sequences (sometimes moving back and forth in time) that converge as the film progresses. The reason for this structure is that it gives the filmmakers a high degree of control over their material enabling them to cut away to a new sequence whenever there is a dip in the pace or energy of the film. Pace, as in the pop promo is everything, as soon as pace relents there is the possibility of the audience fatigue or ennuie, hence the need to generate energy by cutting to alternative backdrops and character groupings.

Some feature films that seem to fall into the TM genre: Stop-Loss (Pierce) and Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle). Boyles film was like a Disney cartoon and carried one simple text message: everyone can conquer adversity and feel good. Slum Dog structured like a two hour long pop promo and it’s all singing dancing finale castes all that had gone before it as a sort of embryonic preparation for its ultimate destiny. Pierces’s Stop-Loss relates to the clause in the contract American soldiers sign when they enlist. It’s a clause which gives the US armed forces the right to compel military personnel to extend their service beyond the time for which they originally signed. Pierce’s film is made is response to her feelings about this issue. The problem is that film (or for that matter the novel or poetry) is generally not employed to its most powerful or persuasive effect when it is reduced to being a vehicle for an issue; when used as a mere vehicle, a simple conduit for a message.

The final genre I want to look at is the ‘Wheird’. In some ways it is a close relation to the Horror movie, but usually has a stronger social-cultural matrix. ‘Wheird’ movies reflect societies where the values of consumerist capitalism create characters who, beyond a surface appearance of conformity, have little social cohesion. The economics of late capitalism isolates individuals decisively, leading to social relations of untrammelled desires. ‘Wheird’ genre characters are released into a notional freedom driven by the desires of image and object based culture. ‘Wheird’ as genre takes up the idea of a particular form of socially and economically determined isolation, and develops it as a circuit of amplification within the erogenous zone of the enclosed individual and their subjective world. The ‘Wheird’ genre normally envelops and entraps individuals ever deeper into the circuitry of subjective responses. There are no wider social or political responses to the situation, only individuated.

One of the salient features of ‘Weird’ is to employ a narrative form that comprises a strip of action in which a character experiences or provokes a chain of weird linked events. In ‘Weird’ the general rule is that no character in the movie has cognisance of the weird because most of the central characters are bound into the same shared level of perception. What the viewer has to understand is that in the Wheird the characters have found a line of retreat or escape out of the social matrix. This line of escape, or retreat does not alienate them from their own culture; because along one critical dimension they are confirmed products of that culture, though their psychic response is of an unbalanced and exaggerated conformance to the accepted norms. Interestingly this heightened distorted parody of conformity is a trait they share as a defensive response with the exploited subjects of colonial and neo-colonial regimes. In Weird movies such as Napoleon Dynamite (Hess) or The King (Marsh), a common personality feature of the characters is that figures of iconic status from the movies or from rock n roll/ pop culture, provide derivative models for character assemblage. The feeling you get in Wheird is that character is a function of an egregious random assembly from the drifting flotsam of mass communications. A core central feature of the Wheird personality type is an inherent unpredictability caused by disintegration of the assemblage which disintegration is often at the core of the unravelling of the narrative. Lynch is the ‘auteur’ film maker of the Wheird genre, with Cronenberg a journeyman avatar.
The above discussion of emerging genre types may or may not be useful as a escriptive function in relation to movies. But it’s a way of trying to talk about film, ecouraging dialogue and also analysing the amorphous chimerical links between societies and forms of expression.
adrin neatrour 27 July 2009

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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