Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On The Value Of Being Opaque (The Master, Holy Motors, and Cloud Atlas)

Just because my writing for the blog has been plummeting ever closer to the level of “shameful” for the last couple of months (To the four remaining folks whose Son Of Danse Macabre Reviews I have to write, I thank you for your patience, rest assured they are on the way) doesn’t mean that I haven’t been watching the films.

Indeed three seemingly unrelated films, The Master, Holy Motors, and Cloud Atlas. have been banging around inside my head since I saw them months ago, sparking against each other in all sorts of odd ways. And I think, the reactions and receptions from critics and the public to all three to all three, tells us a lot about where film is at the moment. Particularly in regard to the value of opacity.

Lets start with The Master. I’m not confident in my ability to even begin to unpack all the things that the film does right (though if you're interested in that I recommend reading Bill Ryan’s account, perhaps the sanest thing I’ve read on the film). What I want to point out is the baffled reactions of everyone from Roger Ebert on down, about the films lack of a "Deeper Meaning".

This is somewhat understandable, given that There Will Be Blood for all its tactile pleasures might as well have been entitled, Deeper Meaning: The Movie. But I simply think that with The Master it's just plain the wrong question to ask, this is a movie that is entirely, almost aggressively, surface. What is The Master About? It’s about putting you in the headspace of Freddie Quell, a personality in full fledged meltdown. It's as unpleasant a place to be be as any I’ve seen in a film. Anderson mercilessly puts you in this guys shoes, for an unsparing 144 min, and by the experience is nothing less than grueling. By the time you’ve finished you should be dangerously close to knowing what its like to be in the mind of someone who is taking mental and physical dysfunction about as far as he possibly can. Larger thematic concerns aren’t just secondary, they’re beside the point entirely. Everything you need to understand the film is right there on the surface.

Holy Motors on the other hand is a film that is utterly opaque. It is perhaps the first film that should have liner notes passed out with its tickets (Lets just say that one would do well to research director Leos Carax’s life before venturing in). Holy Motors tells the story of Mr. Oscar, a man who with the aid of a mysterious and mostly unseen organization stages pieces of, well lets just call it performance art, around a city. I've heard the film interpreted as everything as a meditation on the acting process, to a political essay. These are all very cute and reductive.

As for myself After a bit of research and a second viewing I think I have a better hold on what the movie is, "about" now, but I will not pretend that during my first viewing I had even the faintest notion of what was happening on a basic narrative level. (That being said, I’m pretty sure that Roger Ebert nailed the particulars of Mr. Oscar's peculiar occupation with his interpretation. Particularly given the film’s relationship to Tokyo! His explanation seems obvious to the point of bitter, face palming, frustration).

Does that make me a fraud? A poseur? Little more than Homer Simpson chuckling at the dancing Horse on Twin Peaks? Afraid to dislike the movie that all the cool kids are raving about? The thought has crossed my mind, but ultimately I don’t think so.

Even at my most baffled, my main emotion during Holy Motors was one of exhilaration. The sensation of seeing something new under the sun is the rarest a film fan can have and Holy Motors delivers it with every frame. It’s a film of contradictions, an elegy, if not a eulogy for cinema that opens up new possibilities for the form. As intensely intertextual as any film I have ever seen, that feels completely original. One of the great stylistic triumphs I’ve seen that manages to set itself in a recognizable world. It’s all as giddy, strange and inexplicable as well an orchestra full of accordions. And even if I had no idea what it all “means” the pure sensation of the thing is reward enough.

Which brings us to Cloud Atlas, a film that for all it’s supposed narrative opaqueness (bah!) is not merely more open about “What. It. All. Means.” than Holy Motors, but is so eager for you to know what it all means that it has several instructive montages on the subject, over which a voice over explains to the viewer What. It. All. Means. As the images reveal the truth (singular) of the lesson over the ages.

Of course I don’t think that Cloud Atlas’s thematic openness should count against it anymore than Holy Motors abtuseness about its message should count against it. Openess about theme is only a detriment if its clumsy and Cloud Atlas, despite what its harsher critics say, isn’t clumsy just earnest. Which is an entirely different thing.

Indeed perhaps the most rewarding thing about Wachowski’s career as a whole as it comes close to capping its second decade, is that for filmmakers who made their name for the post modern way they mashed up their influences, they have unexpectedly morphed into two of the most earnest filmmakers working today. There is a deep romanticism  underpinning The Matrix sequels (films I’ve long defended and am happy to begin to see finally get reevaluated) equal to the open, dorm room enthusiasm with which the Wachowski’s tackle the various philosophies that duel throughout the film. I may not defend Speed Racer as vigorously, nor do I love it half so much as its more fervent apologists, but I do have to admire it as a hot mess of a thing. And much of that is a result of how deeply felt and insistent its pro family message is.

In the end, the film I would liken Cloud Atlas to would be Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a film that gets an A for effort, but will most reward the forgiving viewer willing to overlook some significant flaws. But like Watchmen, the fact that it is on screen in a recognizable format at all sort of trumps whatever issues one may have with it.

Cloud Atlas has much of the same sincerity to it, it's about as ironic as a Golden Retriever puppy. It’s a film about Lots Of Big Stuff, karma, power, freedom, love, our ability to choose and The Wachowski’s and Tywker don’t want you to miss a single moment of it. While Cloud Atlas has its problems, (it simplifies and subverts Mitchell’s text, the decision to drop the book’s structure is a mistake, and though the actors playing multiple roles throughout the area works aestetichally it confuses things on a narrative level, as they can either be separate souls experiencing their own karmic tragetories, or they can be the reincarnation of the same soul throughout the eras, but they cannot very well be both) this eagerness to share its enthusiasms is not one of them.

This Autumn and Winter have been one of the strongest in my time as a Moviegoer. What can I say? Thanks to films like these if Cinema is a corpse as Holy Motors suggests, it is an extremely lively one. 


Joe said...

You... You defend the Matrix sequels? There will be Action Cast! words about this at some point, sir, and they will not be kind!

Bryce Wilson said...

Bring 'Em.

parfum said...

Nice blog
Parfum pas cher