Friday, June 20, 2014

Freeze Frame Cinema or The Decline of Cinematic Politics: Exhibition

   Joanna Hogg should be forgiven her cinematic sins. Coming from the TV world of themes and cinematic syntax written in bold crayon, of rushed productions schedules and helicopter-Mom executive producers, it must have been a liberating exercise to make a film whose diaphanous through lines end their lives as quickly as cinematic mayflies, to make a film about boredom and all its pins and needles almost-excitements, about a middle aged woman contemplating herself and her sexuality in front of several sets of venetian blinds on several floor to ceiling windows.

    But before we forgive the indulgences of what, in the end, is a criminally boring film, we owe the filmmaker and ourselves some exploration of why it sucks.

    It should be mentioned that I got to see the director present the film and that I liked her and listening to her speak.  Making a film is always unlikely, making a good one even less so, and even bad films are made by heroic human beings. Your values always flip as you move from one side of a film (it’s exhibition) to another (its production). Hogg was a generous and thoughtful filmmaker, but unfortunately her film was neither interested in its audience nor did it represent anything like thought.

    Exhibition suffers from a condition we could call Freeze Frame Cinema: a film in which, at any point, the image could be frozen and the soundtrack allowed to play on its own and nothing fundamental about the scene would change. Freeze Frame cinema is not only characterized by an obsession with finding the perfect frame, but also with using the camera as a microscope for all the microcosmic life brought out by tricks of composition. Composition highlights a details with resonances, and if nothing disturbs a given pattern our eyes slowly move to the focus of the arabesque.

    In other films, this is a constant conflict. The arabesque must live as the characters live and at a point the characters must live despite the pattern. Mr. Arabesque, Joseph von Sternberg, often begins his films with a party, covering his characters with streamers. Out of that mess of human connections he finds two lovers, and then he pulls the pattern tight. At the center of that web is Marlene Deitrich, whose sex appeal is always partly her ironic disdain. Irony is the only hope for life in a world whose tyranny is pattern. Just as Odysseus brings irony into Greek myth to free mankind from his obligations to the gods and thus the tyrannical pattern of cyclical time, the irony Dietrich brings into her acting - that sleepy, half-seriousness that still reads as the kind of sex appeal men jump off bridges for - is also a move for liberation. That irony is partly a feminine charm - in as much as it represents a beauty that lives despite a patriarchal society. It’s also an irony despite the filmmaker, who ultimately doesn’t dominate Deitrich but instead is always showing his fitness as a formalist by trying to keep up with her - putting the pattern in tree branches swaying in the wind or on the surface of the water a nude Deitrich is swimming in to show the arabesque has flex, stripping down and re-embroidering the pattern to follow Deitrich’s character’s up and down the social ladder, etc.. As much a Deitrich tortured Sternberg she also kept him honest and putting her as the beautiful spider at the center of his beautiful web was really the keystone of his genius. After their partnership ended, his career unraveled. Sternberg may not have been a feminist, but every mysogynistic impulse in Sternberg crumbles as it approaches its object, Deitrich. Sternberg is both pattern and patriarchy negating themselves.  

    In Exhibition, the people inside the pattern do not live a life despite it. Freeze Frame Cinema is the triumph of pattern, and the resulting boredom of these movies is the boredom of watching human beings slowly suffocate inside exacting, if not beautiful, cinematography. Hogg uses Venetian blinds both to represent D’s anxiety, and to connect her to the beautiful modernist home that is the real main character of the film. We could imagine how the conceit looks on paper - yes, Venetian blinds for anxiety is the most worn out cliche in the book, but the connection of those blinds to the house they belong to and the connection of that house to all the dynamics of comfort and anxiety is what I want to really play with. Thus the need for a microscopic view of what is happening in a scene and the negation of anything that could move inside of this movie (like people). The pattern invades persons as the blinds touch D over and over again in her stripey shirts. This is the only place where the house touches us, we have no sense of the space in continuity editing or wide shots. We feel our place in a pattern we never really see. This film is not critical about the life of its bourgeois couple, it’s a fatalistic, depressed pamphlet advertising that lifestyle. Unlike the rest of the films in the grand European tradition of films about sexless bourgeois couples in beautiful homes and mansions, Exhibition has no politics. It’s bored and boring, imprisoned and unhappy, but not still not critical.

     Freeze Frame Cinema is work done in the cliche factory. The camera that is frantically looking for something, anything, that hasn’t been filmed has no interests other than to stake claims in the land of cliche, working with cliche to find cliche that last few cracks of human experience is yet to invade. Steve McQueen is here, so is Kelly Reinhardt, Xavier Dolan occasionally flirts with the style. Cliche is a crime against vision, cliche says “Aha! Now I know!” and looks away. It puts a sign post so that no one else that comes this way will have to look either, but can pass briskly on after having found their bearings - “Aha! I know where I am...” It’s the through points for a larger pattern, the jewels at all the nexus points in Indra’s net. And so Freeze Frame Cinema has no emotions, but only this oppressive numbness.

    If, in the era of Soft Power, forces that were once applied with violence in our society are now applied with anesthesia (if American vulture capitalist provide the kind of despair in South America that it was once necessary to hire torturous dictators to effect) we should distrust numbness not just as the boredom of lives whose rhythms have become too smooth, but distrust the smoothness of those rhythms themselves as an evidence of a larger drama, whose violence is at least more interesting than the boredom everyone of these filmmakers who think they’re making art cinema because, fundamentally, they find art cinema boring.

    We know these filmmakers find art cinema boring because representing this numbness as a political issues is exactly what the European-sexless-bougeois-couples-in-beutiful-homes-and-mansions movies were doing. Carlos Saura’s Honeycomb has something to say about modernist architecture, about Proust’s memoire involontaire, as well as the bourgeoisie as a class. It has a similar fascination with the aesthetic minutia that cinematic art is fundamentally made up of. But in Honeycomb, the minutia adds up into something much larger, in Exhibition the minutia dies little, lonely, ignoble cinematic deaths over and over again. The beauty of a film like Saura’s is there even if you’re not following all of the threads of his thought, or understand all his references. The beauty of thought, when translated visually, is immediately accessible. To think beautifully for the camera is to make a beautiful image long before that thought is translated back into text. And the ability to think this way is the measure of an intellectual who wants to make movies.

    Thought brings with it passion, it imposes limitations for its integrity, it imposes limitations of language that cinema, which goes beyond language, must supersede. A film without thought is unlikely to have this fire and this conflict, but some do manage it. Seijun Suzuki’s conceits never seem to go that deep, but his films live in a fertile kind of nihilism, and when he was sacked for making his masterpiece Branded To Kill, the Japanese New Wave communists rioted in the streets for Suzuki’s right to exist.

    But neither Freeze Frame Cinema’s thought nor its nihilism are this vital. It’s thought would have to think enough to break free of where it meets the pattern, it’s nihilism is just boredom in the face of such a project. And so it thinks till it meets the cliche and the cliche says, “thank you for your contribution, please be on your way.”

    Exhibition failed to notice that the project of most artistic cinema, from Sternberg’s silliest trash to Margertte Duras’s most unlikely piece of painful cinematic brilliance, is to keep a tension between the abstract and what the abstract denies. Exhibition does its work just to work, never asking why. Another trope of Exhibition and its ilk in the genre of FFC is an obsession with the visual possibilities of reflective surfaces. They come closest to the truth here, almost able to touch their invisible prison walls, the real barrier for the distances of thought (and especially cinematic thought) capable of flight. Joanna Hogg almost had a good thing going when she shot her character staring at grease stain a bird left after it smacked into one of those floor to ceiling windows. But without a politics, a religion, a philosophy, or a thorough going, thinking, remembering, willful artistic intuition, there’s no way of crossing that border, or even recognizing it exists.

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