Monday, May 19, 2014

You Missed It At Film Forum: The Retrieval

First, The Retrieval has to be admired for what it achieved with its budget. It belongs to a long if largely under-appreciated tradition of low budget war films like Come And See, Generation Kill, Overlord, Kanal, and Full Metal Jacket. Sophomore director, Chris Eska, told Indiewire that he considered several different locations and time periods for this story before settling on the Civil War South. The flexibility to set the same story on the contemporary US/Mexican border, in India in the 1970's, or between Union and Confederate lines in the 1860's could be seen as a sign of overweening acquiescence to one's producers: if there's money to make it in 1970's India with period cars, crowded exteriors with extras in period clothing, let's do it. If not let's ride on this slavery film wave and make a film with Civil War reenactors who already own the uniforms, tents, and rifles. We should consider here, however, that every element of filmmaking is creative, including the management of finances. The producer is herself a vital and intelligent artist - or at least, she better be. What The Retrival did with the money it had is an artistic achievement.

Filming an epic subject usually takes money (and for most war and superhero movies it also takes military equipment and accompanying censorship). Without money, an epic take foolhardiness - Herzog's dessert and jungle films, 20's German mountain films, or, less amusingly, independent film sets like the one Sarah Jones lost her life on last year. Without an excess of either, it takes creativity. Faking a budget is one of the few universal criteria for great filmmaking. Some films can be judged for their characters, some for photography, but how an author responds to her lack of funding and/or the strings attached to money she can get her hands on is always a virtue.

A painter could paint war or a bowl of fruit with almost the same amount of effort and materials. To paint like a filmmaker films he would need one brush that was 6 grams and another that was 3 tons operated with a rented crane. Cocteau (not Coppola's) famous remark that, "Film will only became an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper" was made in defense of 16mm, and, had he know, he might have said the same thing about digital. What's missing from this formulation though is that there's a lot more to the expense of a filmmaking than film stock. Film only became an art through the work of filmmakers (on 35, 16, 8, and digi) to develop styles that were as cheap as pen and paper. Vertigo is, among other things, a meditation on what exactly Hitchcock needed Hollywood's money for. The Retrieval's artistic merit comes from scenes like the one in which three freed slaves, whose narrative has almost nothing to do with the war, pass from the union to confederate side as the front line suddenly washes over them during their journey. That's a great scene because this film had great producers, a great cinematographer who could make a handful of extras look like a whole war, and a director who was bold enough to write that scene and smart enough to imagine how his crew could pull it off.

These aren't the only merits of the film. The story is strong, I cared about the characters and what they did to each other. The dialogue often falls below hissed whispers and actor's mumbled period accents, but I was always able to keep up with the cold blooded tragedy of the story visually. This is not to say that the film had a wealth of visual conceits - the trees in the forest move forward, they stand still, they move back, there are few elements included in the frame that turn a rectangle into a whole world. He limits the subject of race feels limited to physiography, this could have still been a story about South Asian on the Indian/Pakistani border in the 70's. The universal story and the universal characters within it are men and women ruled by the kind of brutality festering somewhere like a disputed border or a front line. The point was to make characters whose identities change as these lines sweep over them.

Ultimately, despite all of the above, the indifference to setting is exactly what I didn't like about the film. In general, American cinema's retreat into the forest has been a retreat from an ability to make worlds. Filmmakers have instead clung desperately to their characters in the empty frames of Place Beyond The Pines, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Wendy And Lucy, King Avalanche, et al. Sometimes it's the forest, sometimes the beach, sometimes a farm, sometimes it's the suburbia of Prisoners, it doesn't matter, because no one knows what to do with a shot. Concerns shrink from world to story, to character, to the minutia of an imprisoned kind of realism.  This is a cinema of anxiety, of an inability to collect the world in images, to relate the shape of a human body to broader patterns that traditionally make up visual style. The relationship of universal to particular is off kilter: a movie about black slaves could be about Mexican migrant workers - isolated in the universal - but every actor is alone in his pleasant but arbitrary frame - isolated in the particular.

These filmmakers are not Malick's, their cinematographers are not Vilmos Zsigmond's. Their concern with natural landscapes mark a shift rather than a return in American cinema. Malick translated Heidegger and taught philosophy at MIT, if he wanted to film an Andrew Wyeth painting at magic hour with Camille Saint-Saens's "The Aquarium" playing on repeat for 90 minutes, he likely had a reason. If he set Days of Heaven during The Depression, he also had a reason. The two reasons are also likely connected. They might even be the reasons to make a movie in the first place.

For filmmakers like Eska however, the American landscape is a default position. They're not sure what else to put in their frames other than their actors, so they make a half-hearted attempt to celebrate a landscape that, as Her illustrates, was long ago homesteaded by the pharmaceutical commercials, was reified and refried with After Effects and mumbled caveats on the likelihood of death, stroke, or paralysis for taking broken sex life medication. Someday we may have an American filmmaker who can save the forest, and if it's Eska, it wasn't with this film. The shame is that it could have been.

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