You Can Not Hold A Film In Your Hand
You Can Not Hold A Film In Your Hand
By Scout Tafoya
“As Proust and Joyce are to the novel, so Godard is to cinema…” wrote Terence Davies on the occasion of the death of Jean-Luc Godard earlier this week. It’s an elegant summation but perhaps peculiar because of the values inherent to the mediums. A novel is a thing easily understood, quite literally on paper. Even when exploded or deflated or deconstructed or reimagined, a book is a thing in your hand. It can be understood quite simply even if the best novels are impossible to summarize; their cumulative effects somehow greater than the idea of inked words on a blank page. Certainly there is no containing Joyce or Proust in just their sentences. If you ask someone to picture Ulysses they won’t imagine the cover of the edition they’ve read, they’ll see Stephen Dedalus walking the strand, they’ll see Deasy’s cramped offices, they’ll hear footsteps on cobblestones, they’ll hear God as the “shout in the street”. Or they won’t, depending on their outlook in life. The point is not necessarily each paragraph, each word, but their effect. A lot of people get caught up trying to translate a paragraph roughly and exactly. Not enough people want you to become lost, entangled, and then free when the words have revealed their possible meanings.
Jean-Luc Godard can be said to be to cinema what any novelist (Woolf, Austen, Portis, Westlake) is to the novel because the novel as a medium can be understood. Even when a Toni Morrison comes along and makes it something new and beautiful, it can still be grappled with. Here it is, Beloved, a book. A film is a much different thing. You cannot hold a film in your hand. Trying to describe what a film can and can not be is bound to wrap you in hypotheticals. Even when the medium was new it wasn’t so simple to understand. The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis filmed factories and machines and great throngs of people. So cinema can be understood in that moment to be a record of human behavior and of those same people’s placement in a capitalist Republic. But across France Georges Méliès was making feats of magic, part theatrical craft, part illusion, part short story. So maybe cinema is a combination of re-imagining of the different practical arts in a new and shorter form. Edison started filming scientific processes, the Italians started shooting epics by the likes of Dante or Titus Livius in fantastical but understandable tableaux, and soon after the Russians and Americans started understanding the value of an edit, that two images together were in fact what made cinema, not merely the presentation of a scene in a static frame. It evolved and suddenly it seemed that movies could be anything. Stories of life on the frontier, good faith interpretations of ancient history or literal presentations of historical fact or well known books. By the time movies started incorporating sound in the late 20s, cinema had already proven itself to be a thousand things, and none of them were understood to be the right one.
The exciting thing about this is movies are impossible to summarize, rather like the content of the great novels, but the dreary thing is what became and still remains the dominant understanding of what a movie should be. Ask any American on the street what a movie is meant to be, and you’re likely to get fairly simple, if erratic and vague, answers. Which is fine, it’s difficult to say what a perfect movie should be (I’m of a mind that none exist, though Terence Davies and Victor Erice have gotten close) but the trouble is the dominant idea of cinema is built on broken rules yet seems in no hurry to continue breaking or inventing new ones. Godard’s importance to cinema can be difficult to understand now because movies are unthinkable without his innovations. By the time he came around in the late 50s, popular movies were pretty straight forward indeed. Stories of tragedy and heroism and romance, most taken from popular novels or stage plays, told with as much style as a director could manage under studio dictates…or none at all depending who was behind the camera - but the point is style doesn’t thus intrinsically matter in the popular definition of cinema. For example…
Those of you who have been reading the history of William Cameron Menzies I’ve been writing in these pages the last several weeks will remember that a movie he worked on in 1933, Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade, won best picture in 1933. Cavalcade is a perfect film for understanding what represented both the bare minimum and an ecstatic high by some definitions of what movies can be. If not for Menzies’ contributions the movie would have little but functional compositions of people swooning over each other as all around them the great tragedies of the early 20th century pass by (the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and World War I among others). A movie that encapsulates history but has no intentions of making history was enough for a huge amount of people in 1933, and partly this is because movies that took greater risks got further from what was most usually consumed. “People” liked straight forward stories. Just look at box office numbers. There’s a reason people still know Gone with the Wind (also designed by Menzies) and far fewer people know Meshes of the Afternoon. A movie like Cavalcade was more highly lauded than its competition, which included the much more cinematic likes of Henry King’s State Fair or Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street. Berkeley, indeed is the perfect analog for Menzies, because he wasn’t often the credited director but the reason people remember their movies is because of their additions to the look of their movies. Berkeley choreographed for the camera the way Menzies designed for it. What you see matters, not what you’re told by dialogue. If Menzies and Berkeley had ever collaborated, they might have made the best film of all time, but because movies of pure movement and design weren’t popular in the 30s, it would have been the best movie no one liked.
The reason, thus that people like Menzies and Godard are so important is because they were interested in the development of a singularly and exclusively cinematic language. Godard, like Menzies, worked from novels (and other movies) and treated stories more like rough frameworks than screenplays. You’ll find most of the plot points of Lionel White’s Obsession in Godard’s 1965 adaptation Pierrot Le Fou, and some kinship between their styles (“I’m beginning to feel like a character in a Francoise Sagan novel” says the novel’s clueless hero at one point, which Godard himself could have written) but there’s no accounting for what Godard did to the White’s words. A story of a man who takes the babysitter home and wakes up in her apartment accused of murder becomes a burlesque of crime stories covered in graffiti. The party where our hero (Jean-Paul Belmondo) starts to crack, the party that required the services of the babysitter in the first place, is inexplicably hosting American film director Sam Fuller. At the end of the film Belmondo paints his face blue before blowing himself up with dynamite. These are purely visual ideas, and they’re edited with the whipcrack of a comic cartoon, time and space not mattering to Godard, who will cut to his runaway heroes fishing for a living or dressing up like they’re taking part in the Vietnam war, which has nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with being alive in France in 1965. Godard reached for what was in the air around his stories (as he’d do later when taking on the birth of Christ and the ascension of evangelism in Hail Mary, or the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany Year 90 Nine Zero) to give them substance beyond what a story told in a linear fashion could reveal about society. The film critic Kent Jones asked “can movies think?” taking James Wood’s critique of Henry James Wings of the Dove and repurposing it. Pierrot Le Fou, is a movie that, in every scene, seems to be thinking of something beyond its boundaries as a work of visual art (in a 2.35 : 1 frame projected on a cinema wall and a runtime that ensures it will, like all movies, end). Good movies want you to consider the world, not just the moving image. Godard’s cuts, violently dragging us from the main plot and into sociopolitical tangents like we’ve jumped to the footnote in the middle of a sentence, are designed for the creation of meaning, not the seamless flow of a story. The story doesn’t matter, its what we see and how we see it.
For a more recent and au courant example visa-vis Ignite Films, Ernest Dickerson, who this week spoke to us about his love for Invaders from Mars and our new psychedelic trailer for the movie. In 2006 he directed an episode of the TV Show Masters of Horror, created by Mick Garris for the Showtime network. His movie, The V Word, doesn’t have much plot because, frankly, it would have gotten in the way of what he does best as an artist. It’s a perfect little puzzle cube for Dickerson. In the movie two teenage boys break into a mortuary to see a dead body and discover there are vampires inside. Dickerson takes this opportunity to film the boys from every interesting angle the space allows, he plays with the shadow of the hands of their vampire assailant, he comes up with visual shorthand for the way Vampires see, he lights every window differently and with new colors. In short every shot does its job of communicating the important visual information (the boys walk into a room, the room has a vampire in it, they need to get away from the vampire) in a way only his camera could tell you this and without need of the explanatory dialogue. You could watch the film on mute and understand absolutely everything. Dickerson the director is telling stories the way Menzies did.
William Cameron Menzies may have had little in common with Godard as storytellers but they believed in the same thing: how can something be cinematic, and what does that mean? Menzies great contributions to his movies are all visual. In his movies with Sam Wood, most especially in their magnificent version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (Wilder being one of those artists like Joyce that are inextricable from the idea of a stage play), Menzies wasn’t interested in a story’s progression but rather how to tell a story in three seconds without words, or indeed sounds. He thought like he was creating movies back at the birth of the medium. Why use a camera and an editing bay at all unless you’re doing work that only these tools can accomplish? Thus his finale for Our Town is perhaps the most crucial sequence in his entire body of work because he takes a modernist theatrical idea and turns into something post-modern on screen, treating the innovations of Wilder with respect while trying to move his film, indeed the medium of film, into unprecedented territory. In the play we watch (and are told directly by the on stage narrator) our heroine young Emily Webb grow from a young girl to a young mother and then see her die prematurely in child birth. The final act is her entry into the afterlife where our Narrator finally interacts with Emily and grants her a wish; to live one day over again. She doesn’t really live it, she’s a mute spectator watching a perfectly ordinary day transpire while her then-living self is off stage. Menzies films her in double exposures, so that she lingers on set, unseen by the other characters and unable to interact with the rest of the cast. The graveyard where she must return is much like a black box theatre, with characters surrounded by darkness, presented in geometrically interesting blocking, some close to the camera, some far; the idea is to detach us from understandable cinematic space. In the afterlife nothing needs the order it would need back in Grover’s Corners, the town of the title. Menzies is showing you things you could not automatically picture from reading the play; he’s taking the starkness of a collection of ghosts and making them into shapes and designs that could only exist because he’s arranged them for a camera and used film technique to achieve them (movement, light, filming the same image twice two different ways). Film is not meant to just be a recitation of a play; we could picture Our Town ourselves (indeed many stage productions will deliberately use minimalist design - an idea parodied by Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, the anti-Our Town) but we could not imagine the ways in which Menzies brings Our Town to the screen. And this isn’t just spectacle (most of the movies made for popular audiences now have plenty of that and little else), the literal showcase of, say, a fight to prevent end of the world, but rather things only a camera could produce. Modern American movies can be made in computers. The question lately has become why make a movie at all if you’re not imagining things the way Menzies did.
The final monologue Emily delivers still makes me tear up (I was fortunate enough to be in a production of Our Town when I was about 12 and I’ve never forgotten its unspeakably beautiful language). When she understands that she’ll never take advantage of the things life gave to her, which means that she didn’t really grasp them when she was alive, and indeed almost no one can, she cries out “I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first…Wait! One more look. Good-bye… Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Then she turns to the omniscient narrator, who may be god, or some other figure of otherworldly import, and asks “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?” He answers “No” immediately then pauses. “The saints and poets, maybe they do some…” If you wanted my summation of what a movie is supposed to be, or a novel, or a play, or a painting, or I guess life itself, it’s something that make you understand all of that. Sleeping and waking up, new ironed dresses, our parents, life and everything in it. Anyone can tell a story. Not everyone can make a movie the way it’s meant to be made. Not everyone knows what they’re missing. Not everyone is trying to be a saint or a poet, to really see things and create things no one else could have. Anyone can hum a tune, point a camera at actors, or write a sentence. Not everyone can compose Vision of Andromeda, direct Pierrot Le Fou, or write Our Town.