BY NIGEL ANDREWS
It was like being at a tennis match. I remember the evening well though it was four years ago: an annual awards dinner sponsored by a London newspaper. I was on the judging panel. The two film folks I sat between, both globe-travelling Britons, both winners on the night: Paul Greengrass, named best director for United 93, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, handed the top technical prize for The Last King of Scotland. More than anything, I remember busking my attention between these rival talk-mates, increasingly aware that I was present at some defining game of yin and yang.
Today more than ever I feel that evening summed it up: the crisis of modern cinema style. Dod Mantle and I talked chiefly about two great swaths of movie minimalism he has been associated with—the fantastic German documentary Into Great Silence (incandescent stillness in a French Alps monastery directed by Philip Groning), and the Danish Dogme canon (Festen, Mifune’s Last Song, Dogville) with its now legendary vow of chastity and frugality. Directors like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg offered a decoration-free cinema obsessed with the notion that the reality in front of the lens mattered more than anything the lens or editing machine could do with it. Greengrass, to whom I turned in alternating spells during the dinner, was in the first throes of the Bourne movies, their handheld, jump-cutting razzle-dazzle already evident — though for me held back just enough — in United 93.
Today ‘holding back’ is losing the argument. The enigma and excitement — yes, excitement — of visual minimalism are becoming an endangered species. Minimalism is hunted and harassed by a lens-wielding generation convinced that modern audiences need their cinema fast, staccato, headlong, or in other ways gussied up to compel fugitive attention.
I don’t just mean the cutting: the rhythmic frenzy deployed by Greengrass to inventive effect with the Bourne movies but now starting to take on a worrying deliriousness (Green Zone), or the handheld hyperkinesis brilliantly displayed by Spanish director Jaume Balagueró in REC, but ratcheted up with diminishing returns in REC 2. I mean also the fact that good directors from both sides of the Atlantic, and from both sides of that more shimmery divide between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment,’ are making films in which bombardment rather than persuasion is the technique of choice.
While mainstream thrillers and action dramas deliver an ever higher quota of adrenal shocks and arbitrary plot twists — you lose count of the horror films featuring ‘surprise’ nightmare wake-ups — the high-concept comedy, which always did specialize in a back-of-the-envelope plot idea, now requires a sheaf of them. Time machine trip? Hot tub holiday that goes wrong? Oh hell, combine the two.
Even children’s fantasies get done over. I think of two recent films based on literary classics — classics that have surely earned the right not to be knocked about by gimmickry — where the originals have been whooped up with trendy tropes. Simplicity is no longer swallowed straight. The audience must be offered a ‘drink me’ bottle of kitsch — super armies of good and evil — so that box-office receipts can push through the ceiling. Or so that a great storytelling template is halfway to being a computer game while it’s still on the theater screen.
I don’t blame directors. I blame producers, studios and their notion of what modern audiences require. Maybe Hollywood is right and young filmgoers really are effects insatiable: anxious, whenever sitting in a movie theater, to get back to the simpler, pacier pleasures of game playing or Web surfing. (The young can connect high-speed dots into patterns like no previous generation, but they seem unable to understand the beautiful enigmas of slowness).
Cinema, however, has the power to guide, change and influence trends, not just to follow them. This is where directors can come in. Why not storm the high ground and refuse to accept a script with five competing plot ideas? Ask the writer to develop the best one. Why not refuse to obey the studio or production company that says, “Speed up the rhythm”? Tell executives to look at Hitchcock, Ford, or Laurel and Hardy. Those men knew how and when to dawdle, how to make us look for the vital detail in a lingering image: the essential nuance in a comic tableau or the essential mood shading in a landscape or interior. They knew that effects should be built up to, not scatter-fired at random. Psycho’s shower sequence only slays us, and stays with us, because its fast-cutting frenzy is a contrast to surrounding scenes.
Godard once said that every shot is a moral decision. You can’t, I submit, have 10 moral decisions a minute. Nor can you subject your moral decisions to Richter scale stress with a nonstop-seismic handheld camera. Or maybe you can — but isn’t such a style decision given weight and integrity, made ‘moral,’ by being an elective exception within a film’s rhythm and trajectory, rather than an exhausting rule? Three films impressed me recently because they dared to risk holding shots, scenes or moments beyond the notional fidget point. Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, the British director’s film of a Jim Thompson crime-and-psychopathology novel, was vilified by some because Winterbottom refused to cut during a scene of brutal violence. We had to sit there taking the punishment. There was no hiding behind kaleidoscopic editing. There was no crosscutting to another plot or subplot. The scene wasn’t ‘nice.’ But neither is a lot of art. And neither is a lot of life. The other films I admired were the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. The first, a wonderfully serious movie (with a sense of humor), is full of close-ups held beyond the point where they communicate the obvious.
It is a study of meanings beyond meaning, of the human or supra-human signals that can’t be deciphered by simple math. In its way, it’s a meditation on the mystery and encryptions of great cinema. Jarmusch’s film is all about landscapes, streetscapes and face-scapes, watched until, like paintings, they crack open their secrets. Jarmusch says to us: “Don’t go away. There’s no plot here except what you see and what, if you’re patient, your seeing tells you.” His film is set not in the Strobo-sphere but in the land of the eternally open eye and lens and image beam. The spectator takes the thematic and dramatic clues; puts them together; edits his while supplying every necessary piece of the puzzle, dares to leave us unprompted and undirected. In an age where screen style is ruled more and more by ‘more,’ perhaps the lesson for enlightened filmmakers in the future is—‘lessen.’
Nigel Andrews is the film critic for The Financial Times. He twice won Critic of the Year honors form the British Press Awards and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.