Some of my most interesting conversations about ÆQAI columns and/or issues raised therein occur between me and Dennis Harrington, the Director of The Weston Art Gallery in The Aronoff Center. In the fall, we were discussing a review that ÆQAI had published about Alison Crocetta’s exhibition and attendant video at The Weston. Dennis asked me whether I agreed that a working knowledge of American Film history had become essential to an understanding of contemporary art practice. I told him that I had not given this issue a lot of thought, but he reminded me how often images from film are appropriated into not only contemporary video, but also into a generalized postmodern image bank commonly referenced by younger artists in particular.
As such, ÆQAI is pleased to introduce our readers to David Schloss, who will be reviewing films for us every month (he is also an excellent art critic, which I discovered by accident). David sees between 10-20 films per month, half in theaters and half at home. His first two offerings, Shame and A Dangerous Method are presented in this issue, along with his review of an exhibition at Manifest Gallery.
We hope that you appreciate the motivations behind including regular film reviews; we are, concurrently, beginning a series of book reviews. We believe that many connect contemporary novels also significantly impact upon contemporary visual culture, and we are expanding ÆQAI to include these two new mediums on a regular basis. As always, we appreciate your comments and thoughts.
David Schloss teaches poetry literature and film at Miami University, to which he commutes from Clifton. He is a professional poet, soon to be semi-retired, with time to devote to viewing and reviewing the various arts he is most interested in.
Film is a visual and dramatic medium at its core. The way that the “narrative” is conveyed is a consequence of the director’s (and screenwriter’s) vision, the performances, and most of all, the way that the cinematography conveys that intended “information” visually. There are moods and tones in these artificial waking dreams, alternative worlds we can lose ourselves in, yet participate in the atmosphere they create while contemplating the gestalt, the larger structures of story and plot and quality of presentation.
There are various ways auteurs convey information: one is primarily functional (or prose-like) but the efficiency and concision of it is the aesthetic purpose; or, poetic, where the style can be an end in itself, an overlay upon the story, or the conveyer of the story in its moving images that create the emotions in the situations created on the screen. There can be elegance in accomplishing either end: an effective and efficient concision of story, and convergence of elements to that end is as impressive in its way as a beautiful visual feast that can create its own self-enclosed way of seeing and being in a “world.”
Some recent films exemplify the possibilities of success in both directions, I think, and the possibilities of limitation and failure, too, inherent in each approach. Of the eight films I saw on screens in Cincinnati in January of most interest to me were Shame and A Dangerous Method, both coincidentally starring Michael Fassbender, a very versatile Irish performer indeed.
David Cronenberg, a Canadian who began in the horror genre (and made some great films in it: e.g., The Fly, Existenz, Dead Ringers) has moved to a more ‘real’ world of dangers beyond the supernatural: History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and now the passions of heightened psychodrama and quieter, yet intense, subtle psychological battles between titans– Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortensen), over ideas and behaviors, with a woman in between, Sabina Speilren, (Keira Knightley). Cronenberg is a very precise but less show-offy visual stylist, whose cinema captures the nuances of the emotional action with careful and evocative camera placement and compositions, moving when necessary to be in the thick of the emotions on screen. The flow and rhythms of the editing in his films create the energetic unfolding of his dramas.
This is not prosaic, but not ‘poetic’ either—it’s ‘real’—or a semblance of a realized world recreated by intelligent visual judgment. In his hands the world within his story, the subtle script, unfolds seamlessly and with calm regard. All is shown, given, but the mysteries of motive and character transcend what can be simply seen. The battle of wits and wills of Freud, Mortensen terrific as the soft-eyed yet iron master, and Jung, wonderfully embodied by Fassbender who becomes the buttoned up yet adventurous Swiss, is played out in two shots and interiors and tracking shots of them walking together in lush surroundings, but the seething tensions eventually generated are all indirectly suggested while the stakes get higher and higher for the control of the future of Psych(o)analysis. They even bicker over the term.
In the opposite direction, the dynamic and extreme emotionalism of Speilren in the beginning (in a brave performance by Knightley) contorting herself and her jaw into paroxysms of tension, which eventually transform to paroxysms of passion, echo the high melodramatics of the psycho horror genre, but in this case humanized. That Knightley doesn’t much relent in her tense portrayal throughout may or may not be a good choice: it shows how permanently tightly wound she is, but she seems unable to get out of that gear–while Jung is consistently bland, buttoned up even, even while whipping her into a masochistic frenzy. Literally. His Swiss control contrasts with his passionate interior inferred from the choices he makes and positions he takes—often off-screen. The Jungian mystic vs. Freudian bourgeois pragmatist, yet both men seem privileged, even cosseted in their comfortable environments. If Jung’s wife is an irritant to his secret life, Freud’s life seems monolithically his own amidst sycophants and followers, whom he disregards.
The central power struggle takes place mostly in earnest conversations in calm spaces, though Freud does have a dramatic attack eventually at the point of the inexorable schism. It’s a love story on many axes: Jung and Speilrien, Jung and Freud, even the married Jungs, his selfless wife moving by the end, All ruefully lost –yet, though it all ends in tears, their indomitable natures go on recreating their positions till the end titles report on their fates. This is a majestic overview of one early battle in the formation of psych theory and practice. Jung is sensitive, empathic, reserved, repressed, but he has the courage to follow his passions, up to a point. Freud has already risked all for his approach and is now trying to expand and protect his fiefdom. He welcomes Jung as a son, but the inevitable disagreement, Jung’s striking out into the metaphysical, the exploratory, is illustrated perhaps by the cushioned rich Jung on his gift sailboat: with Sabina for sex; Freud later, for tense detente, as the symbol of the deeper waters running under all their engagements…
Yes, it may end in tears, but they will go on. The Olympian yet engaged gaze of Cronenberg takes it all in with a rational accepting regard for everything: passion, conflict, inner struggling with indecision and complexity, a battle of wills in the most hysteric (Sabina’s) and calm-seeming (Freud’s) terms. The implacable clear gaze and regard of the filmmaker and scriptwriter – Christopher Hampton, lucid as usual – lends the quality and character to this easy-seeming, totally honest artistry. No pyrotechnics, just whatever competence and grace is needed to tell the story well, or more than well: with penetration through staying in the physical exteriors of the minds that are the real battlefields here. This is a modest style of great accomplishment: the invisible craftsmanship and excellence of visual choices, set up after set up, to create a seamless state of unfolding. This is mastery—even if the limitations of the material and the lack of transcendence into a more intense plane rarely occur during this drama. Upon a second viewing, I consider this among Cronenberg’s best work, the work of a skilled master craftsman.
In Shame, Fassbender shows (and shows) what else he can do—his range is impressive: from the sexual hunk of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank to the buttoned up Jung to a dismal driven sex addict, here. Cronenberg had Mortensen frontally nude battling violently for his life in a Russian bathhouse in Eastern Promises; Steve McQueen (who previously directed Fassbender in Hunger as Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner starving himself to death in political protest) has him almost matter of factly in that physical state throughout Shame. In McQueen’s world protagonists monomaniacallyact out—here, losing his battle with inner demons never psychologically explained, but driven joylessly to tryst after tryst: masturbating to a screen, in a toilet, into paid strangers, flirting on subways, and with a coworker with whom he is too close to enact his porno fantasies in practice. He’s damaged, reeking of failure by the end, in a barely held together collapse. He cannot transcend and so goes through ‘dark nights of the soul’ to get satisfaction, which, endless, cannot come (in every sense) to an end.
His damaged sister, a poignant Carey Mulligan, playing very against her earlier ingenue type in An Education, is starkly naked, vulnerable, needy, exposed. He lets her down, of course, as he lets himself down… The very conscious cinematography, of a dismal yet sometimes shiny, mostly dark and seedy NYC is physically evocative and ‘gritty/real’— going out of its way to wallow in ugliness. The “ugly” aseptic sterile office with windows empty and unspecific, where some unnamed business is conducted, moves to bars, upscale restaurants (a whole long scene in just ordering a meal) to capture the strange push/ pull of this drama: the realism of physical place (though shaded toward the in-your-face effect and the murky unexplained inner psyche never analyzed, just enacted, from sterile apartment and workplace to dark trysting places, which the character looks for and finds almost everywhere.
This dichotomy is different from Cronenberg’s in its ‘realism’ of surface, for here images are manipulated toward tonal effects: of loneliness, etc. – and the inner conflicts, left rather blank, but enacted graphically, throughout. There’s lots of nudity, but no sexual joy or release—which shows in the agonizing strain on Fassbender’s face, his hard work at sex, self-imposed as penance, for what? His sister is more naked emotionally, but both break down in their human machinery. McQueen’s visuals are carefully contrived for downer effects much more rhetorically bullying/feel bad, while Cronenberg is more selectively descriptive: he knows what he wants to show you and lets you see it without filter of prejudice. McQ has an agenda: this is “shameful,” and for the characters especially, more than the audience, who may or may not take some gloating aesthetic pleasure of sorts in the lovingly lingered-on textures and surfaces of the empty sexual life in NYC.
There is little connection, just promise and failure to deliver on the release of real feelings except when alone – the porn ideal taken to its logical disapproved-of conclusion. McQueen is an aesthete polemicist: beautiful shots and sly humorous flirts on a subway car: of total ambivalence– come hither go away—as she smiles, but wears a prominent marriage ring; as she leaves him behind, his quest never ending. But the moralizing skews the response: nothing to take away but disapproval/disappointment/pity or maybe compassionate identification? In Cronenberg the lives are individual, unique, and theirs—he may or may not like them, approve, but we can see and feel their reasons, their drives are clarified, their positions illustrated by carefully considered shots to let us see the range of their struggles, inner and outer and between. In McQueen there are only solitary figures bouncing off one another one private psyche at a time—little connection or exchange ever occurs: Fassbender’s character cries alone. His sister tries suicide, alone, off screen. The drama is frozen, the enactments a repetitive hell.
In Shame, everything stops for long dramatically unfocused set-pieces (their length out of proportion to their dramatic importance)—e.g., a very slow painful rendition of NY, NY by his sister; ordering food in real-time at an upscale restaurant on a date with his coworker; jogging along a crosstown Manhattan street to get out of his apartment his sister is using for sex with his boss These scenes are sometimes lurid, at least over-emphatic, all held to points of deliberate discomfort for the viewer.
That Fassbender can lend himself so convincingly, so thoroughly, to either character’s trajectory is an impressive accomplishment to me. In Dangerous Method, Knightley’s riskiest performance of her career, ugly yet clearly understandable as an exceptional intelligent passionate woman seeking release, and Mortensen, gentle but iron-willed, sensitive but relentless, condescending and fatherly by turns, is less obviously noticeable perhaps, but the hardest of the three. Mortensen, one of the more important filmic presences of our time, I think, especially under David Cronenberg’s direction – has a range from tender to violent that is enormous.
Carey Mulligan is surprisingly present as the driven damaged girl yearning for love and denied. Her passion is the counterpart to Fassbender’s driven coldness, a fine pair. Of the characters’ contrasts and films with the same fine lead, both are worth seeing, but in very different ways… One stirs you, the other doesn’t, in fact, leaves you cold, out in the cold. If Dangerous Method’s still in town: see it. Then catch up with this great filmography of a major risk-taking director of our time, whose deep themes of the body and its inflictions on itself is similar to McQueen in this regard, but much riskier, deeper… The aesthetic in Shame is polemical “realism,” in Dangerous Method complex exposition. David Cronenberg is Classical, old fashioned in the way Polanski’s rather Hitchcockian film-making in Ghost Writer is a kind of homage to Classical period style. These three major directors have much in common, stylistically.
One can read a film’s “language.” There are directors and narratives which show off themselves by their images as the main focus of the work, and those who, doing (not merely) a professional job with focused competence, even grace, stay true to the “openness ” in the materials. There are those who implicitly show off their sensibility as the primary concern: “Look at me, how I show the world,” vs. “look at the world as I try to show it to you through story, not manipulate to create story to be impressive unto itself for my own artistic sake…”
While in Cronenberg’s method, everything serves a narrative function: to convey information to implicate the fabric, mesh of tensions and ambiguities/complexities in the emotional lives of the characters, differently focused—there are no long set pieces in ‘real time’ on screen for their own sake. McQueen aesthetically indulges in such (it’s quite popular now, as long-held shots/takes can delve into powerful knowledge – which they do, in other hands, sometimes–– and perhaps this happens in Shame, but often, a single point is made.) The staring regard the camera stages is mainly to be “real” —but Cronenberg accomplishes these things in editing scenes to generate many perspectives. In one, the personality of the director is ever present, on display, choosing over the characters’ choosing what to linger on—for visual effects primarily, and often seemingly arbitrarily to what the story needs. In Dangerous Method, the director serves the complexity of the rich characters’ personalities and characteristics as an omniscient narrator, comparatively invisibly.
A Dangerous Method alludes to possibility and, therefore, tragedy; Shame alludes to a condition, but it’s frozen in itself, in hell: no hope, no change, no possibility of transcendence or discovery, only mystery in what is never shown or explained, simply given. The difference is in the visions of the filmmakers, one delimited, but visually stunning, and the other with other intents beyond the simply beautiful. Shallow vs. profound, take your choice.