Thursday, 18 February 2010
In critical circles I think too much stock is put in what the Director (and his team) thinks, hopes to achieve and seeks to convey. The art itself, and the effect it has on its audience, should be the paramount concern. Foremost in our minds must be taking the film on its own terms. It is the creation of the director, yes, but just like a child (of his mind rather than his body) it has its own life.
There are two issues that some get caught up in. Two fallacies. The first is that a film or body of films can be considered representative of who a director is.
Lars Von Trier's Antichrist caused quite a stir, with charges of misogyny quickly laid at his door. This attitude, seen from a little distance, is baffling. If an individual and fictional character believes women to be evil and mutilates herself, is she her creator's mouthpiece? Is her hand an extension of Von Trier's? Though there may be an overlap, one simply cannot work back through a film to arrive at its maker's character, his ideologies and his preoccupations. It is fiction, after all. If he had not told us himself, could we use Avatar as proof of James Cameron's peace-loving world view? No. Do Martin Scorsese's films glamorise violence? Yes. Does it logically follow that he loves violence and wishes to promote it? No. It is too easy to see the film as a portrait of its maker.
You cannot even, with any confidence, assume that Michael Mann's 'concerns' with men, their identities inextricably linked with their jobs, actually 'concern' him. They could be the motifs he finds easiest to explore. There are any number of reasons for people to make the films they do - a niche in the market, ease of distribution, money, pushing boundaries, provocation...
The second fallacy, a partial corollary of the first, is that we can work out, from a film, precisely what a director wants from said films, or what he wants to communicate with them. Fallen Angels is full of jump cuts. Wong Kar Wai has stated that a good number of them are not there to create a certain energy, a dislocation of time or anything else but because passers-by could not be prevented from getting in the way of his location shots. Those feelings are still created. They are still there, but not in the way intended.
It is for this reason that the notion of a director's intentions holding great import (beyond academic interest) loses some traction - at least if we are to use the film as evidence.
Many critics I think make a leap of faith (or at least they write or talk as though they do) in imagining a director picking from an infinite array of choices. The question often implied is: 'Why did he do it like this and not like that?'. A director's vision is walled in and warped by limits at every turn: Time limits, budget limits, logistical limits, the limits of the collaborative process, the limits of adherence to well-established film language. Most importantly of all, the limits of their own imagination.
What matters most is what is left after this process and what an audience can get out of it. An extreme example, but what if a film-maker sought to create a sombre treatise on loss but the work came across as an uproarious comedy of manners? Is it any less funny if it is accidental? Perhaps. Perhaps not.*
You know what is in front of you and how it effects you. A film will almost mystically set its own parameters, asking, so to speak, to be judged in a certain way.**
Cinema has no rules and each film has a unique fingerprint that could be radically altered (without us realising) by an edit a second earlier or the use of mustard instead of custard yellow. Bad acting may be a killer in one film but not in another. If I were to write 'the film lacks depth' I would mean to say that the film in question suffers because of a lack of depth - not that depth or 'character development' or any other factor is a pre-requisite for a good and worthy film.
Take the film on its own terms and praise or bury the director for it (we can do no other) but hesitate to assume who he/she is or exactly what he/she wanted to say or do and why. One could say that once an artist has completed and exhibited his art, it is ours as much as it is theirs.
*It goes without saying that an audience will generally become painfully aware of an absurdity in the gap between what the film seems to want to do and what it is actually doing (i.e. The Happening, a parody of itself) and the film may well be damaged because of it.
**It may be useful not to think so much of a straight line from the director through his work to the audience but of the three as the points of a triangle.
Posted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett at 09:31