Imagine a chamber. Its location is virtual, and space infinite. Inside this chamber all the cinematic figures continue to live on beyond the infinitesimal time of their projection. Once they complete their suite of premeditated movements at 24 frames a second, they endure in this four-dimensional space extending behind the screen’s flat surface.
In this space, the array of images live out their second lives interacting with one another, continuing their semi-immortal existence as grains of silver or 1s and 0s whose longevity mocks the briefness of our own lives. Animated in this world of pure subject, each pixel, color, phrase is released from the shackles of objectification to exist in the space of memory and imagination.
At four films a day, the porosity between one fictional universe and the next is augmented. Characters osmose, musical tracks echo, images reverberate, actors imitate, stories spill over. Creating connections through its voyage across this space, the retina binds together the individual elements into a galaxy of signification. Inhabiting the same continuum, the eye creates constellations of meanings stretching from star to star.
In this alternate space not all figures emit the same energy waves. Some loom fuzzy in the foreground, others shine out from the distant crowd, yet others are blotted out by the mass. By crossing over into this virtual world to inhabit the same ocular hunting grounds as these cinematic subjects, we can pursue these half-alive figures, echolocating their placement to map out this space’s ridges, crevasses, spurs, peaks, caverns. The eye emits its calls, and the soul’s membrane receives the reverberations.
Cinematic space is mapped not through simple reception of image and sound, but from its refraction through the prism of self, the ocular cochlea of filmic energy. The beams which return correspond to the frequencies of our own hunted preferences, demarcate the boundaries of our own imagination, trace out our own aesthetic philosophy. Navigation through these external cinematic spaces is a narcissistic voyage, returning a mirror-image of our own existence, inexact, imperfect.
The limits of an artwork’s radiation and the strength of its waves depend upon the risks it takes: risks of innovation, risks of form, and risks of thought. In Camille Claudel, 1915, Bruno Dumont does not hesitate to “place his skin on the table” as the French say (in English, it would be testicles). Always conscious of the image’s theological weight, Bruno Dumont attempts to build a mass of images that can stand up to the logos of God or perhaps literature. Camille Claudel struggles against this authority (male, religious, inartistic) which institutionalized her against her will. By moving his cinema indoors, making a period piece, and using professional actors he wanders far afield from his staked territories – cinema of land, of the present, of the Bressonian model – taking risks not only against sanctity, but against the history of his own films.
That Camille Claudel, 1915 fails so drastically is a marker of the worth of its aspiration. Changing the area of his cinematic operation causes the secret force that normally empowers his images from inside to bubble to the surface. Paul Claudel’s monologues, Juliette Binoche’s professionalized gestures, the sanatorium’s enclosed space all denature the film of its mystery. Indoors, his ill-at-ease camera is weakened, entrapped.
Still, even if the emanations of Camille Claudel, 1915 may not always be appealing, its sounds pierce the tympan through the force of their courage and intelligence. Jafar Panahi’s Pardé (Closed Curtain) never succeeds in taking the same aesthetic risks, even if he himself takes a very notable risk to life and liberty. However, the weakness of the visual and aural transmissions causes them to pass straight through the receptive membrane, ultimately leaving little behind other than the anecdote of their formulation.
The Berlinale’s other French costume film, Guillaume Nicloux’s La Religieuse (The Nun) is notable more than anything else for its cowardice. In this Diderot adaptation, a young French woman is forced to become a nun against her will (echoes of Camille’s entrapment), and suffers on her path to freedom. La Religieuse not only takes no risk, it hypocritically stands on the pretense of artistry by its association with a great writer and national patrimony. Making Diderot’s novel relevant to our times would have been difficult enough to do given the vast changes in social life, but one has to first make the attempt. Placidly imitating the lazy aesthetics of the costume TV drama (and its high-key lighting), La Religieuse begs the question of its raison d’être. Lacking contemporaneity, it digs the grave of its own hollow imagery with its preciousness and pedantry. Luckily, Isabelle Huppert’s smirk as a lesbian nun provides the film at least one anomalous shrapnel of interest.
Jacques Doillon’s unremarkable Mes Séances de Lutte shares similar high-art hypocrisies as La Religieuse, but is additionally cursed by technical clumsiness in its presentation of a suite of imaged dialogues as a proxy for cinema. Portraying a series of séances in which a couple requires violence to get their sexual nectars flowing, the same fight/desire scene is repeated ad nauseam, ham-fisted from very beginning to very end.
Roaming the same cinematic space are films whose images vibrate at a lower frequency. With lower risk, but greater humility they diligently craft their oeuvres, selecting each sound, sculpting each shot. TPB AFK, Simon Klose’s documentary on The Pirate Bay’s founders proficiently inserts the camera into the world of online piracy, exploring not only the facts but also the ideologies within this world. Although it misses out on the philosophical impact of this disenfranchisement of virtual rights, and the significance of virtuality, it never proposes to do so, and staying within its limits, does justice to itself and its subject.
Neither does David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche ever really get its feet wet, preferring cinema-lite which will run on its 80s southern ambiance. Although it emanates pleasantness, it too never proposes anything more than what Baudelaire in his art criticism calls ‘le joli’- the pretty – in opposition to that which has the force to become ‘le beau’- the beautiful – or perhaps even ‘le sublime’.
Steven Soderbergh’s mastery over his craft in Side Effects shines bright in the cinematic chamber. Its world of psychotropic drugs and their capacity to transform the state of being is just as contemporary as piracy. A riddle-film in onion form, each scene slowly unpeels one more layer of its secret with great tension, making no false moves, no jolting surprises, and with no outside interference. With delicate Hitchcockian string-pulling Soderbergh puppeteers Rooney Mara’s waifish limbs about on their hinges as Jude Law tries to extract a semblance of reality from the artifice, and Side Effects returns us the image of our own masks’ impenetrability.
When an artwork takes less risk, it is also liberated from the pains of its failure. The most notable feature of Thomas Arslan’s Gold is that it’s a cowboy film in German. Although it never succeeds in being anything more than entertainment, unable to present a new façade to an old genre, its futility is insignificant, the risks being so minor to begin with. And when it disappears from our radar, it goes with little sense of loss.
The Catherine Deneuve vehicle Elle s’en va, is the ‘anti-risk’ picture, banking on its commerciability for success. Being nothing more than pure product, the film attempts to fatten its skeletal premise (pay a dollar, see an actor) with pickled jokes, conventional morality and predictable witticisms. Elle s’en va is one of the mass-produced, polished, consumptive. It radiates messages slaved over by aesthetic functionaries smooth the abutments which are potentially their most forceful qualities, preferring instead the benefits of marketability. Slick and hollow, it leaves no trace of its passage, and the images it beams slide off the eyeball’s surface like beads of water from a lotus flower.
Likewise Promised Land’s standard aesthetics provide easy viewing, depriving us of the joy of the hunt. Little in this film resembles Gus van Sant’s early intelligence, and his imagery here is a philosophical nadir for someone who once displayed his virtuosity with the visual crudeness of Mala Noche, critical acuteness of Elephant, and experimental temporality of Last Days. Promised Land tries to run on the momentum of its creator’s fame, only to get bogged down in its hokey heroism, vague patriotism and happy ending.
Rather than turn the frequency of our receptors to the old recognizable emissions of the well-made, they are attuned to the wavelengths of the imperfect. The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppeneheimer’s documentary about an unapologetic Indonesian death squad, awkwardly tried to impose a storyline of “looking at how the killers gain understanding their moral responsibility” when in fact nothing of the sort emerges from within the frame. The killers are emphatically unapologetic, and in fact don’t seem to even be playing the same game as the director. What does however emanate is how entirely at odds the Indonesian conception of life, death, heaven, murder is to our own. Even simple nouns like gangster (a liberated hero), communist (someone with Chinese heritage) lack common connotative or denotative links to our understanding. Although The Act of Killing does clumsily impose a Western vision on its images, it thankfully spares its subjects a Westernized moral judgment. Ultimately, although the director loses grip on his film as it slowly gets hijacked by its content (and subjects) The Act of Killing still provides enough jagged images and foreign thoughts to remain on the radar.
Likewise, Fredrik Bond’s The Necessary Death of Charlie Countrymen offers a novel love adventure in a distant almost mythological country à la Munchhausen. Its chaotic visuals and narrative non sequitors provide not only an emotional force to the film, but allow a very accurate treatment of the feeling of foreignness, and a inner perception on the state of innocence. Glorying in the plasticity of its visuals and the arbitrariness of its logical chain, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countrymen proposes a visual and aural enthusiastic alternative to the well-polished product, transforming its imperfections into strengths.
Dialogues, like chain of logic tend to lead cinema toward understandability and minimize the reflection’s luminosity. Before Midnight advances itself on the wheels of spoken word and rather than the legs of imagery, and as Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy trade accusations and witticisms the phrases spilling from their mouths sound more like the tapping of the screenwriter’s keyboard than laryngeal emanations, mechanical and full of cleverness.
Conversely Harmony Lessons works hard to bury its significance in the symbolic, transforms single ideas into images, and then uses these basic elements to compose a complex whole that reaches for the mythical. The ritual of Aslan’s ostracization by his classmates is built object by object, gesture by gesture.
Complexity is itself a risk, and a film like Child’s Pose (golden bear) prefers an uncomplex character for the sake of realism. However, this portrait of the 60-plus domineering matron requires mystery and depth if it is to provide us curiosity about what lays beneath her surface – we must first smell the blood in her veins. Instead this bloodless one-horse show, with predictable plot, psychological development, and linear narrative progression gets stuck in the realism of yesterday’s cinema, which still dares believe in itself (difficult to imagine 50 years after the Nouvelle Vague).
Not that complexity is a requisite for meaning. Harmony Lessons constructs complexity out of simplicity, like a William Carlos Williams poem. Hong Sang Soo’s simplicity is a refusal of the high aesthetics which can plague a cinema often burdened by its technological and financial accompaniments for the preference of a liberating legerté. His images may not reverberate profoundly in the echochamber, but they are also not meant to. In his latest film, Nobody‘s Daughter Haewon, they resound even weaker than usual as he rehashes old material in a slight modulation of the same transmission, and this film’s signal breaks apart well within the safe boundaries of his known limits.
The Russian A Long and Happy Life directed by Boris Khlebnikov stands out for the simplicity of its propos and modest camerawork, unifying form and content (the 35mm projection also helped breath life into the work). On the same social-realist wavelength as Child’s Pose , this simple story of a young man who tries to live an outmoded rural idealism (much like the film copy) gives off a humble glow that outshines the former’s more assertive attempts at sparkle.
One method to compose complexity is by refusing communicability. Four long shots of the same landscape in four seasons make up Stemple Pass, where we watch a seemingly empty forest with a cabin. Writings of Ted Kaczynski introduce each image with violent, provocative thought about life, nature, poverty, resistance, murder. The stillness of Benning’s images, and the soundtrack’s subtlety not only force us to see, but also to consider. Fearlessly presenting difficulties of interpretation, it is one of the most provocative filmic creatures roaming this space.
Not provocative in the same sense as Ulrich Seidl’s Paradies : Hoffnung (Paradise: Hope), which takes joy in playing rebelliously with the limits of the permissible, cloaking the severity of his critique of placid middle-class Austria and its placid middle-class values under laughter and slapstick (echoing the vicious humor of his literary compatriot Thomas Bernhard). One of the most poetically cohesive works of the entire festival, this film brings his paradise trilogy to a worthy close.
The most difficult quality to chart in this cinematic space is the spiritual one, whose frequencies vibrate at a different level. Spiritual energies released only through time’s passage must first seep through layers of flesh and rock before they reach maturation. Films like Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, or The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, whose plasticity is evident, burn brightly before fading just as quickly. Others hint of potentially deeper wavelengths, still limotrophe to the capacities of our sensory perception, and further echolocation is necessary to map them into constellations.
In time many of the images and sounds in this chamber will fade as we encounter other temporalities, other angles. Time and matter will modulate the echolocation calls, their frequencies and amplitudes, until we have assimilated these reflections into forgetting or remembering. As we exit this virtual chamber to squint again at the light of the sun, the traces of these infinite moments already begin to pale, leaving little more than a buzzing in the ears and a few words on a screen.