A place where I jot down my musings on art, life, politics, philosophy and culture.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Now, Where Was I?" - Unwitting Amnesia in Contemporary Filmmaking

Film has been concerned with memory for as long as it has existed. Derived as it was from photography, that most basic of historical recordings, the cinema served in the early days as a way to capture reality and retain it on celluloid. The proto-documentaries of the Lumiere brothers and their recordings of trains and beaches clearly demonstrate a fascination with the retention of imagery from lived actuality. Film can be seen as a technological extension of the natural way that the human brain imbibes moments in time.

Thus, memory and history are extremely important components of film’s essential structure. As Foucault pointed out, a viewer’s experience of a text is not perceived in a vacuum, but relies on a shared historical and contextual understanding. This forms the bedrock of the viewer’s experience. Without it, watching a film becomes a meaningless exercise where we struggle to create our own context with no frame of reference, which can be an interesting experience in and of itself, but also effectively negates the need for a creative force behind the work. If an artist’s work is towards self-destruction then the path is clearly laid by surrealism. Yet even surrealism, in attempting to ignore context and history, intrinsically acknowledges its existence. You have to know what you’re fighting against in order to successfully rebel. The real danger in film is unwitting amnesia.

Let me develop this idea a little more. History is a powerful force in our world. Despite all the insistences of post modernism and Baudrillard, whilst we cannot know everything, past events undeniably shape future events. Actions and reactions can be observed across not just the broad scope of human existence, but span very creation and development of our planet. Our present state of affairs, despite what some would have you believe, are not some grand “end of history”, but merely the logical circumstances which arose out of our past. One could think of all of reality as a massive infinite domino board, where each tile represents a moment, a thought, an action. Each piece falls and scatters the others near it and pretty soon we have an enduring cascade of tiles, of thoughts and deeds influencing others, of actions inducing reactions. This is an unescapable facet of our existence and the study of history allows us to perceive what has occurred before and act to shape future circumstances. Through learning, we are able to develop and grow beyond our past. It is a crucial and fundamental component to our interfacing with reality in a meaningful sense.

In the creation of film, particularly in local circles but also broadly within the cinematic community there has been a glut of produce which is technically accomplished, well produced, financed and directed, yet lacks this fundamental necessity for the creation of viable art. A friend of mine recently remarked that humanity’s lack of creativity is brought about by the simple fact that the number of ideas in existence is finite and we are approaching the ends of our means, but I don’t personally subscribe to this notion. I firmly believe that there are always new stories to tell and new realities to explore which can be rewarding for the individual. As Tolstoy said, “There are only two stories in the world; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town”. The broad notions of this conceit can be found to pretty accurately reflect the reality of narrative; this isn’t due to some lack of creativity but refers more to Tolstoy’s genius. Our stories, the ones that we think of as any good, are concerned with development. Evolution. The introduction of new concepts and ideas; either through the “stranger” of a foreign aspect entering the “town” of an established reality, or the “man” of an experience going on a “journey” and therefore gaining new understandings. This is the core of narrative. As a storyteller it is vital to realise these intrinsic boundaries and build upon them. And one of the most useful tools in this development is to look at the history which has preceded you and start from there. If a filmmaker is not aware of the past of his craft, he/she inevitably produces work which does not evolve and dies as soon as it is created. Looking at the pantheon of great movie directors, there are two key components which are essential in their skill; a mastery of their craft and a knowledge of the context of their work. More vitally, the filmmakers who are recognised for reinvigorating or pushing the medium in new directions all share the inherent and extremely deep understanding of the history of film.

It is one of the profound pleasures of film watching to see the germ of an idea in an earlier movie be picked up by a later director and built on. This can be something as complex as the entirety of Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” without which “Mulholland Drive” would be impossible, to John Ford’s editorial quirk of cutting on the action of the drawing of a gun, which has followed on to pretty much every thriller, adventure movie and horror film afterwards. Being aware of the history of cinema allows a director to truly surprise the viewer and deliver to us that delight of the unexpected. This knowledge of history is most important due to the fact that every cinema goer is actually unconsciously aware of many developments in film.

My attention is drawn to the soon to be released horror movie “The Strangers” which, although I have not seen it, contains one shot in the trailer which already establishes the director as someone who is aware of the contextual history of his craft. The character of Liv Tyler is standing in the foreground, being shot in a deep depth of field, in the background of the well-lit room a figure casually emerges from a passageway. It is one of the most innovative techniques in recent horror and it works purely based on knowledge of the history of the craft. Film such as the original “The House on Haunted Hill” pioneered jump scares. That is, an object or individual rapidly entering the negative space of the frame. This age old trope is one which has served many directors of thrillers and horrors in extremely good stead as it plays upon the expectation of the audience through either confounding or meeting them. In one of the climactic scenes in “The House on Haunted Hill”, the female protagonist is lying against a wall. She is framed so that she only inhabits the extreme left of the frame. As soon as we see this shot, within a split second we unconsciously create tension due to our expectation derived from the unusual framing. We expect something to enter from the right immediately due to our shared understanding of camera angles. The negative space must be there for a reason and sure enough, in one of the most effective albeit entirely nonsensical parts of the movie, a monstrous hand reaches out from the left of frame towards the screaming protagonist. Throughout the following history of film we’ve seen this simple technique elaborated on and developed. We now have the double-jump scare, where there is a first false moment of terror, usually a cat or, more recently in the hilariously terrible remake of “Prom Night”, a lamp. This is then swiftly followed by the real threat, usually some form of knife-wielding psychopath. What makes the film “The Strangers” so innovative is that it realises that as cinema goers we are now well steeped in these familiar techniques and although they may sometimes make us jump, we inherently dismiss them due to our foreknowledge of this cliché. In order to overcome this issue, the film seeks to entirely redefines the old staple of negative space+foreign objext=scare. The basic structure is still intact. Our sympathetic character inhabits frame and there is ample negative space. Thanks to the entire shot being both in focus and quite wide, we subconsciously tense up as we expect a figure to emerge. What makes this particular jump scare so effective is that the filmmakers refuse to overdramatise the moment with rapid action. The entrance by the figure is casual and not highlighted with any dramatic music or fast cutting. This scene works because we have been successfully out-witted by the movie. It is aware that we expect the jump scare to be intense and pumped up with sound and so, by delivering the moment in a flat and undramatic way, it takes the viewer into new territory. Into somewhere where we may find ourselves genuinely surprised. This is one of the best weapons a director of horror could dream of for his audience and stands as a testament of the vitality of contextual awareness.

It is the lack of this awareness which I believe has stifled many extremely talented local producers of media content and others. This can partially be blamed on the relative frugality of older or internationally diverse cinema in Perth coupled with the advent of ever more rapid pacing which has made films made even as little as fifteen years old seem slow and boring to an audience more attuned to hyper-kinetic image assembly. This has made the watching of “older” movies or “weird” movies seem like exercises in tedium and yes, to begin with it can be. Yet I believe that it is essential for all filmmakers who are serious about making something worthwhile and lasting which will impact the audience and remain with them and form a part of their collective memory to learn the history and context of their craft. The lasting mainstream movies such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Terminator, Scream, Alien etc all share the common foundation of construction upon what has come before and the reinvention of old tropes to generate new meaning. All of the filmmakers who produced these works not only merely knew about the past of cinema, they attempted to consume and process as much as possible. They consciously built upon ideas and concepts from past films, not just ones from the past five years, but movies as early as the 1900s and as diverse as Japanese samurai movies, B movies from the 40s, Swiss Surrealism , Sigmund Freud’s theories on sexuality and countless other sources. They serve as indelible proof that film must be aware of its own history if it seeks to exist for any longer than the moment it leaves the editing suite.

I find when watching the works of many local producers and a lot of international fare, that there is a tragic lack of this basic necessity. Directors will demonstrate admirable skill in the technical construction of their work; there are a lot of Perth shorts, music videos and features which flow quite acceptably and possess great lighting, professional looking blocking, editing etc. Yet when it comes to the ideas behind the film, to the nuts and bolts of what the filmmaker is trying to do or say, there is a sudden drastic poverty. I once read a movie review online which described Brett Ratner as a “four year old with a shotgun” and this is, I feel, a pretty accurate description of many of the very talented and dedicated producers of content in our city. They have the means and the drive and the basic know-how, but their knowledge well is dry. They have nothing to build on because they are not aware of what has come before, save for the old stand-bys of Citizen Kane, Shawshank Redemption, The Good The Bad and The Ugly and a handful of others. These are all great movies. But they are not the be all and end all of cinema and moreover, they limit the vocabulary of a director by forcing him/her to rely on the same references and ideas as everyone else. It’s easy to say that Shawshank is the movie you most admire, but if you want to do more than just ape it, you have to know that Frank Darabont (the director), very consciously built on the cinematic style of Frank Capra and Billy Wilder in his movie, as well the grand melodramas of Max Olphus. Starting from here, as you would become aware of not just the skill of Shawshank, but the well-worn framework upon which it was constructed and thus it would become possible to see a new way to develop the ideas and concepts which you loved in the first place. This is what creates the distinction, and I think it’s a very important one, between somebody who loves the idea of movies and somebody who loves movies. Period. The former appreciate films, the latter make them. It is nearly impossible to push anything in any new or interesting direction if you’ve got no idea of how it was done in the past. As I said earlier, history can be viewed as a vast set of ever-cascading dominos and if you want to be the one to push a tile somewhere unexpected and change the shape or flow of the pattern, you have to see how it was done before.

The critically acclaimed Finnish film “Man Without A Past”, by director Aki Kaurismäki, tells the story of a man who is one day accosted by muggers and in the process sustains a head wound which completely erases his memory. When he comes to, (rather comically), in the hospital, he finds that although he can still speak Finnish and walk and function as an adult, he has suffered an extreme form of amnesia. His long term memory is erased and he must seek to build an entirely new life with nothing to rely on besides his own personality. I feel that he’s not alone. The cinematic landscape is becoming heavily populated by amnesiacs. All grasping for meaning. All seeking to shape the world around them and give depth and weight to their work so that they may transcend their circumstances and propose new concepts, new ideas, new directions and truly impact their surroundings. Unlike the man in the film, however, they are more tragic by their unawareness of their own memory loss. They can construct nothing new, because they don’t even know what was old to begin with.

About Me

Timothy John Sharp is a writer/director based in Perth, Australia.