A fable circulates among the dialecticians of cinema. Whether related in a whisper or a shout, the message behind this fable is always the same: cinema is not what it is. This game of telephone began in 1998 with Gilberto Perez, who suggested to his readers that cinema is actually The Material Ghost, or the “true hallucination,” unlike the motionless photograph, which remains hopelessly un-paradoxical. Three years later, the archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai shaped his book of aphorisms, The Death of Cinema, into a self-obliterating montage. Usai aimed to illustrate his belief that cinema, always understood as the art of moving images, should be redefined as “the art of destroying moving images.”
Then, in 2006, Laura Mulvey announced with Death 24x a Second that cinema had inverted Godard’s famous maxim only to become death itself. That same year, Jacques Rancière cut his own definition in exacting terms: cinema is the art of dialectical self-thwarting, a contest between mimetic and non-mimetic forms, an idea born between the classical and modern eras of art. Not to be outdone, the philosopher Boris Groys cast cinema as the truest secular art—one forged in the age of Marx and Nietzsche—and so a profane art hell-bent on the destruction of icons. It could only be a matter of time before cinema inflicted this iconoclasm on itself.
Have the theorists killed cinema? Has it killed itself? With its languid long-takes, spectral distances, and near-death sense of expanded time, much of recent art cinema appears to have been directed by a dying man, like Ivan Ilyich or Tarkovsky’s poet from The Mirror. Yet it should go without saying that cinema is peculiar among the seven arts for its ontological idée fixe. The current line of critical redefinition, beginning with Perez and extending to the present, goes hand-in-hand with the Bazinian tradition and its eternally recurring question: What Is Cinema? This time, though, death really does hang in the air. The long, slow films of the last two decades—like Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994)—were often idiosyncratic expressions of an art experiencing the death of its medium. Perhaps this is also why Abbas Kiarostami—the encyclopedist of reflexive techniques—recently spoofed Arthur Danto in his film Certified Copy (2010). Danto is the contemporary philosopher most associated with the vicissitudes of art in the time of its death. And if there is one thing that unites the Danto who wrote After the End of Art and the Kiarostami who filmed Taste of Cherry (1997), it’s the conviction that death is rarely the end of the story.
Cinema’s soul, once glued to the photograph, has become unstuck. It now tarries in the Beyond, in an afterlife somewhere between the death of film and the childhood of the digital image. Already a new kind of cinema is forming in this afterlife. Even this new mode’s provisional name—”the cinema of the in-between” or “in-between cinema”—suggests a spirit realm where cinema thrives apart from its material body. Robert Koehler and Dennis Lim, the critics now associated with this mode, have in mind a different state of being “in-between” documentary and fiction, but this state too depends on the zone between photograph and image. Critics, dispossessed of a language appropriate for describing this new kind of film, are forced to rely on halfhearted expressions like “docufiction” and “semi-doc.” Meanwhile, like a shout from Limbo, cinematic modes proliferate against genres. We now have Slow Cinema and Neo-Neo-Realism instead of the musical and the western. And we still use the term “film” to describe works of exclusively digital composition, projection, and distribution. Surely these are signs of ontological confusion.
The critics are right to proclaim a new cinema that means “to thwart or simply ignore the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction,” as Dennis Lim wrote in August, 2010, in the New York Times (“Miguel Gomes and Others Mix Drama and Reality”). But like doctors who treat the symptoms and not the condition, Lim and Koehler are too fixated on the new cinema’s “in-between” features. Neither critic has given a well-formed explanation for why this hybrid cinema has emerged. This is because both critics are stuck in a torpid debate about realism. For Lim the new cinema is a product of what crypto-aphorist David Shields calls “reality hunger,” or the public’s supposed craving for art that deals with real life. Koehler disagrees. In a review titled “Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias: The New Nonfiction” for Cinema Scope in 2009, he manages to dispel tired notions of “reality” with the flick of a finger:
Given that there’s no objective reality and that the scientifically observational field film has been quite consciously re-examined under the Heisenbergian notion that the only reality that exists is that which can be observed, and further, allowed to be affected by intentional subjectivity, the zone of a cinema free of, or perhaps more precisely in between, hardened fact and invented fiction permits all manner of wild possibilities.
This strange pathogenesis of cinema’s condition will not pass muster. The new mode of cinema is not a side-effect of quantum mechanics, metaphorical or otherwise. It is rather an art born in a period of overlap, a neutral era, where the gains of digital cinema—copy-ability, accessibility, and malleability—must be tallied against the enormous losses of a cinema with weakening ties to the body of the photograph.
The Neutral Vanguard
As a cinema tied to the photograph—and so to historical record and discrete units of captured time—recedes into the archive, or oblivion, we can no longer rely on the “cinema of facts” Dziga Vertov desired. We’ve inherited instead a cinema of artifacts, of life surmised, approximated, and assorted. Digital image formats are so malleable, and we are so comfortable manipulating them ourselves, that we no longer wholly trust their truth-content. (There is a very thin line between “I could have made that” and “that isn’t real.”) And even at this early stage, every available image format has been exploited for the purposes of theater and agit-prop, in the name of truth, lies, art, and documentary. This turn of events confirms François Truffaut’s Romantic vision from a piece he wrote in the late 1950s called “The Film of Tomorrow Will Be an Act of Love,” where everyone has become a filmmaker. It also points to the underbelly of this vision, where everyone has also become an actor, sound designer, and video editor. In our new role as proletarians of the image, it is ever more impossible to watch a movie without wondering how it hangs together. As a consequence, the documentary potential of an image—it’s ability to register the mere presence of a person or event—has become aestheticized and softened.
The new cinema finds itself in a precarious state between life and death, documentary and fiction, medium and image. Under these conditions, without any kind of aesthetic mainstay, cinema should not be able to produce a vanguard. And yet, a transitional vanguard has emerged, one that stakes its tent on shaky ground. Incidentally, Roland Barthes, in lectures published in 1977 under the title of The Neutral, had a name for objects that set up camp in a conceptual no-man’s land between warring signifiers. He called them “the neutral” because they “baffle the paradigm” of accepted meaning. But we shouldn’t get matters confused. There exists no coherent faction in cinema that switches between forms like an overmedicated child—unless you lump together scam-films like I’m Still Here (2010), Catfish (2010), and Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).
The transitional vanguard of the neutral—filmmakers including Lisandro Alonso, Michelangelo Frammartino, and José Luis Guerín, and the sui generis Apitchapong Weerasethakul and Pedro Costa—should be understood as a scattered non-group formed around a basic attitude of resistance. Specifically, the neutrals resist the call to abandon the original force of photography. At the moment of film’s prolonged death, these directors—alongside upstarts like Miguel Gomes, Pedro González-Rubio, and C.W. Winter with Anders Edström—are paradoxically bent on recapturing the enigma of early cinema. In order to return to cinema’s origins, these filmmakers have self-consciously abandoned documentary forms. They have chosen instead the archival project of aestheticizing and staging life in a world marked by precarity and ecological danger.
A Cinema of Transmigration
The neutral cinema is one that hangs between two bodies. It can thus be understood as a cinema of transmigration. As if working to educate their critics, two acutely sensitive filmmakers have recently literalized cinema’s transmigration of the soul. With Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte (2010) and Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), critics have been given a road map to the neutral. To begin with, both films take great pains to establish the constancy of cinema in the face of death. In doing so both films elaborate the basic conditions of cinema’s recent turn.
In Le Quattro Volte, cinema is like the transcendental God of Boethius, an eternal spectator pondering the lifespans of his subjects, in this case a shepherd, then one of the goats in his flock, and then a tree used in Calabrian ritual. It is clear that Frammartino means to define his art as the force of vision capable of uniting this Calabrian village—itself in a state of ontological uncertainty—through life and death. The logic of transmigration is something Frammartino lifted from the history of Calabria. The Pythagoreans, the original Western doctrinaires of transmigration, hailed from there. And yet Calabria is never mentioned in Frammartino’s film—the marginal and often endangered locations of the neutral rarely are.
Frammartino is not overly interested in documenting Calabrian history. Rather he aims to reconstruct the village out of its own material bits, mostly for aesthetic posterity. With the eye of an archivist, and the training of an architect, Frammartino patiently shapes his slight narrative into a series of overlapping segments, each one permitting the death of its subject to seep into the life of its neighbor. The result is something that feels both enacted by natural events and reshaped by a metaphysical aesthetic. This unsure feeling—one that creeps in through the hole where documentary certainty once was—is heightened by a bravura sequence where Frammartino, shooting from a rooftop, captures a series of processions in a street below. The first procession is a traditional Catholic Via Dolorosa, a ritual meant to evoke the memory of Christ. The second is an actual funeral—although it is, in a sense, fictional—honoring the recent death of the shepherd. (It should go without saying that Christ was a shepherd by occupation.) This mixture of ritual and ceremony is purposeful, and it is meant to signify a mode that willfully combines the logics of past and present. This double logic is of course one of transmigration: it is an aesthetic that understands the soul’s memory of its former body always haunts its present one.
Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the recent film that best allegorizes cinema’s life in the region between film and digital image. Like Le Quattro Volte, Uncle Boonmee relies on a doctrine of transmigration, this time culled from the regional mythology of northeastern Thailand. In Weerasethakul’s film, the dying Uncle Boonmee is visited by a gallery of life forms—monkey ghosts, yaks, and family relatives—who are prepossessed by the weight of their compounded lifetimes. But to this doctrine of transmigration, Weerasethakul deftly imparts touches of the Phaedo and Socrates’ deathbed elaboration of the theory of recollection. The film patiently shapes itself as a eulogy for a special kind of cinema, one written with light In Memoriam, and so a photographic cinema with the power to recall its past lives.
Weerastheakul’s title character is dying, but far from believing himself to be the victim of an arbitrary ailment, Boonmee is convinced that his illness is political, one borne from killing communist rebels decades earlier. This particular kind of illness, let’s call it a syndrome, is a predominate theme in Weerasethakul’s films. A crude reformulation of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre might simply be that the obliteration of space and the desecration of historical memory have transformed the curable ailments of the past into the vague syndromes of the modern world. Film or photographic cinema, with its indexical relationship to the material world, was Weerasethakul’s weapon of choice for resisting historical erasure. Now that its moment is passing, Weerasethakul has chosen to elaborate both what is lost and what might be gained for trans-medium cinema.
After Uncle Boonmee dies and after the second funeral ceremony—again linking the film with Frammartino’s—Boonmee’s family members sit in a hotel room, glued to the television. The two relatives who had the most direct contact with Uncle Boonmee decide to have dinner. Oddly, they are not able to tear themselves away from the television screen. In one of the strangest and most beautiful sequences in recent cinema, the characters divide from themselves, they become—to borrow a term from Vertov’s journals—unsynchronized from their own needs and desires. Now doubled, with two bodies, Boonmee’s nephew and sister-in-law manage to break free of the electronic display in order to leave their hotel. This odd and seemingly inexplicable resolution, which is actually a version of the bifurcating impulse found in many of Weerasethakul’s films, is meant to outline the evolving conditions of cinema. In the digital age, if we can no longer tear ourselves away from the present, at least we can copy ourselves, like image files, so that we might be two places at once.
An Ethnographic Turn
The neutral era’s bid to reclaim early cinema’s élan vital has so far meant a return to the wide-eyed origins of documentary, if not to documentary itself. It’s no big surprise, then, that the neutral filmmakers don the garments of Robert Flaherty and Alberto Calvacanti, directors who surveyed the terrain of “actuality” with a vitalist’s charm. And although they were sick with wanderlust and ethnographic mania, the original documentarians weren’t naive about the “fact” content of their movies. At least two of Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic masterpieces—Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934)—staged outdated harpooning techniques and used handpicked non-actors. These films long ago predicated contemporary neutral films like Uruphong Rakasad’s Agrarian Utopia, a recent Thai film that stages antiquated farming techniques to great aesthetic (and political) effect. Above all else, early documentary was a cinema close to the rhythms of labor and the transience of nature—the “flow of life” cherished by Siegfried Kracauer. So too goes the neutral cinema: it seeks out cultures marked by the material labor and environmental uncertainty of life in endangered territory.
In his book The Virtual Life of Film, philosopher D. N. Rodowick pinpoints this willingness to “seek out images” as the originary impulse of photography. Rodowick however laments that with the death of film cinema, a given director will no longer yearn to “become a traveler . . . in search of contingent encounters with the flux of history and everyday life.” And yet the cinema of transmigration has already proven itself just as much a cinema of migration. In ten short years, the neutral cinema has variously explored the slums of Lisbon (Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy), a collapsing neighborhood in Barcelona (Guerín’s En Construcción), the coral reef of Mexico (Rubio’s Alamar), the villages of Calabria (Frammartino’s Il Dono and Le Quattro Volte), the jungles and pampas of Argentina (Alonso’s Los Muertos and La Libertad), the southernmost city in the world (again Alonso, with Liverpool), the mountainous Arganil region of Portugal (Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August), and the agrarian communities of rural Thailand (Uncle Boonmee and Agrarian Utopia), just to name a few.
With its self-conscious blend of ethnography and artifice, José Luis Guerín’s Guest (2010) unfolds as a roaming summa of the neutral cinema. Guest has Guerín attending film festivals in South America and Africa and Cuba (among other places) where he is often asked by programmers about making films “between documentary and fiction.” Guerín never answers. Instead his camera trails behind the nearby locals as they argue the politics of poverty, or dance and sing in whichever collapsing city square. In this sense, Guest plays out as a précis of the neutral cinema’s fix on the passed over and the left behind. During his time in Africa, Guerín even falls prey to what might be called the ethnographic trap. While filming a small group of women washing clothes and preparing food in an unnamed village, Guerín’s camera becomes attracted to one of the younger women. At first he frames her away from the others, and then, in an unsettling sequence, he speaks to her from behind the camera as she sits alone in various parts of the village. The dialogue they share is by turns demure, discomfiting, and revealing. But why does Guerín indulge in this strange digression?
In his previous fiction film, In the City of Sylvia (2007), Guerín both exalts and mocks the fading European flâneur, with his penchant for staring down (and disturbing) beautiful women. In Guest, Guerín assumes the role of global flâneur, and in doing so he sets the aesthetic and political parameters of the neutral approach. Put plainly: there can be no worthwhile global political cinema that ignores the pratfalls of curiosity and the sexualized gaze of the explorer. But the best of neutral cinema occurs in the moments when this impulse is thwarted. In this vein Guerín suggests a possible answer to (or evasion of) the ethnographic trap. If the documentary subject becomes herself an actor, if she begins to challenge the ownership of the gaze—if, in other words, the film becomes something between documentary and fiction—a new, more honest kind of cinema might take hold.
The exemplary filmmaker of the ethnographic return is, as it happens, the one most skilled at escaping the ethnographic trap. In a single decade, Lisandro Alonso has crafted four highly accomplished features out of his travels into the harsh terrain of provincial Argentina. With La Libertad (2000), his groundbreaking début, Alonso confounded critics like Elvis Mitchell, who, writing for the New York Times, called La Libertad “a documentary of a skilled practitioner busy at his craft.” The film, although hardly an hour long, is an acute staging of the daily labor of Misael, a woodcutter and recluse who lives in a tent, chops his wood by day, sells it by afternoon, and eats alone by fireside at night. The slight yet circular plot betrays the presentism, the lack of historical weight, of the neutral cinema. Instead of emphasizing the link between repetition and memory so crucial to filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Resnais, Alonso focuses on the workaday details of a life spent laboring on the margins.
La Libertad comes with a message about pre-capitalist fantasies. It claims, to stunning effect, that there is no libertad to be had without toil or boredom or loneliness. By the film’s end, Misael is back where he started, at his encampment, eating again by a fire. This time, though, the narrative reveals that Misael is gutting an armadillo with a knife, as bolts of lighting shock the sky behind him. The final shot of La Libertad is one of alarming natural beauty and mythic elegance. And it has the desired effect of disarming incredulity—of suspending the need for documentary truth.
“To be more precise,” wrote Kracauer, “the film actor must act as if he did not act at all but were a real life person caught in the act by the camera. He must seem to be his character.” Here Kracauer appears to elaborate something rather obvious about the film actor: unlike the stage actor, he should not resort to wild gestures or posing. The camera is recording the natural world, and accordingly, the actor should be like an object existing naturally within it—as Tony Curtis put it, “I don’t act, I be.” This rule is easy to bend or break. Big Cinema has often relied on large personalities to do its bidding. And documentary cinema—all too self-conscious of its performativity—often resorts to the overpresentation of roles; insert into this category “expert” voice-over narration or, more banally, the agit-posturing of Michael Moore and others. Against this grain the neutral cinema takes Kracauer at his word. In this respect the non-actor-actor has evolved beyond Bresson’s actor-model, who was sometimes more angelic than natural. The non-actor-actor has an advantage: he not only seems to be his character, he is his character.
The presence of Misael in La Libertad is a curious phenomenon. He is a woodsman playing (and looking) the part of a woodsman. He is an actor-laborer playing a version of himself, as much acting as a laborer as he is laboring as an actor. The predominance of this non-actor-actor is a crucial feature of the neutral cinema. In Alonso’s second full-length, Los Muertos, a man credited as Argentino Vargas plays the role of a murderer newly released from prison. The murderer’s name is also Vargas. Is the actual Vargas a murderer? Probably not. But the possibility lends Los Muertos a primal intensity, one strong enough to send critic James Quandt into a speculative tailspin. In “Ride Lonesome,” Quandt’s 2009 Artforum survey of Alonso’s films, the critic bizarrely suggests that Vargas is a serial killer, even though Alonso assures him that this interpretation is fanciful. Amazingly, Quandt reenacts the ethnographic trap on the critical stage: he reads Vargas’s quick-and-easy killing of a goat for food, for example, as an “expression of bloodlust.” It’s perhaps too easy to interpret Quandt’s error—as well has his constant recourse to the so-called “primitivism” and “animism” of the neutral cinema—as a vestige of colonialism. Yet Quandt’s mistake does reveal the urgency of the neutral cinema, the need to understand the non-actor-actor not as a modern savage, but as an aesthetic subject who breaks free of documentary restraints. The ambiguous role-play of Vargas and Misael actually masks something much more profound. The non-actor-actors of the neutral cinema are versions of Weerasethakul’s aforementioned doubles. They are both themselves and not themselves. This makes them the perfect catalysts for a self-negating cinema that is not what it is.
The non-actor-actor marks a formal limit of the neutral cinema. When this limit is crossed, the weaknesses of the neutral mode appear. Take Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill (2010)—itself a pastiche of neutral techniques—where the director veers directly into the enthnographic trap by way of stilted interviews with his non-actor-actor cast. It seems that Porterfield has yet to unlock the secret in the heart of the non-actor-actor: to cozy up to him, you must understand his labor. Lisandro Alonso has pointed out that in order to build a relationship with his non-actor-actors, he documents “what they eat, for example, and how they make money in order to survive.” If this statement comes across as plainly ethnographic, it is also wholehearted. Alonso knows that every worthwhile neutral film forms its narrative arch out of the labor of its non-actor-actors. In Guerín’s En Construcción, it is the labor of construction workers modernizing a neighborhood. Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte and Il Dono (2003) are shaped around a shepherd and a prostitute respectively. Even Costa’s In Vanda’s Room (2000) is contoured by the drug preparation of Vanda Duarte, who, it should be said, is probably the great non-actor-actor of the neutral mode.
The best of cinema between film and image, although steeped in documentary impulses, is aware that it cannot explore what Rodowick calls photography’s “inherent affinities with the unstaged, the fortuitous, endlessness, indeterminacy, and duration.” As Rodowick describes at length, contemporary filmmakers are overwhelmed by the impossible task of dissecting the real time of an expansive present. “They anticipate a future world,” Rodowick explains, “that has already emerged in the present, and which we confront with exhilaration or anxiety.”
Along these lines, the neutrals should be understood as the contemporary filmmakers who are most sensitive to the future contained within the present worlds they create. This is why neutral films go to great lengths to reveal the material labor of non-actor-actors. Neutral subjects like the woodcutter Misael are working to fashion future worlds out of the material present. The neutral filmmakers, in other words, are trying to build what Michel Foucault labels “heterotopias.” Foucault defines the heterotopia as an actually existing yet partially closed-off space couched within an existing world. This space possesses its own “slice of time,” which is either accumulated, like in a library, or “flowing, transitory, precarious” like a festival. Perhaps due to its weak connection to historical memory, the neutral cinema has begun to archive pockets of space and time situated on the margins of global capitalism. More and more neutral films detail the hard work required to live in precarious spaces just beyond the sight lines of modernization; this labor is reenacted on camera in order to construct an alternative present. “Their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space,” Foucault explains of heterotopias. In this way neutral films hit the pause button on the unrelenting flow of capital. The effect is something akin to being in a secret garden, and certainly, for Foucault, the garden is a textbook heterotopia. Of course, the neutral filmmakers require someone to tend the garden, someone who shares a material link to their habitat. This is one reason the non-actor-actor, typically a laborer, has risen to prominence.
Alamar (2009), the first and only film of Pedro González-Rubio, goes to great lengths to arrange itself as a heterotopia. Rubio is working firmly within the neutral mode, and his film would simply be an Alonso film—basically a man alone with nature—were it not for the omnipresence of its child protagonist. Natan, very much the Mowgli of Alamar, is a half-Italian boy torn between parents from very different worlds. After years spent with his mother in Rome, young Natan is allowed to spend a halcyon summer fishing with his father, who lives off the Chinchorro reef on the Mexican coast. This is where Alamar takes root. Rubio trades the harsh grays of Rome—with all of its historical baggage—for the lively azures and vegetation greens associated with life in an oceanic idyll. Yet despite the sometimes Living Desert aesthetic, it is the suspended sense of time—the expansive present—that lends Alamar its emotional weight. At the closing of Alamar, when Natan returns to his mother in Rome, the sense of losing a minor paradise is palpable.
The main problem with Alamar is that its stakes aren’t high enough. That Rubio wanted to gun for bigger game becomes obvious in the closing credit sequence, where he places a title card describing the environmental state of the Chinchorro reef. With Alamar Rubio must have meant to make a point about ecological precarity, but he backgrounded any glimpse of ecological danger in favor of a sentimentalized portrait of father and son. Rubio, though, is right to suggest a link between cinema and the precarious present. His point about precarity is taken up in the powerfully realized heterotopias of two far more experienced directors—Pedro Costa and José Luis Guerín—who happen to be the great practitioners of the neutral mode.
Any question about unity of approach of the neutral mode, should refer to the twin birth of José Luis Guerín’s En Construcción (2000) and Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room (2000). The similarity of the films, from their subject—the demolition of an Iberian neighborhood at the hands of modernization—to the methods they use to circumscribe it—the conversations, exasperations, and recollections of a community—invokes a spell of providential respect.
It is fitting that the neutral mode, born in a state of uncertainty, was inaugurated by projects depicting a community in existential crisis. The fates of these neighborhoods—Costa’s in Lisbon, Guerín’s in Barcelona—play out like the death of a character. In this way, both films tilt back toward Greek tragedy, recalling, for example, the House of Atreus as opposed to any one character of Agamemnon. (Although with Vanda and the prostitute in En Construcción, both films have their Cassandra.) And both films are remarkable in their evocation of ruin. Concrete slabs and scraps of drywall amass. Here, however, the similarities end. Although both films ignore formal limits, the directors have remarkably different politics. Where Costa is spare and Flaubertian, Guerín is robust and Balzacian. Where Costa frames out the villains in order to amplify the voices of the victims, Guerín refuses to assign blame (or exclude anyone). Even the title En Construcción, variously translated as “Under Construction” and “Work in Progress,” implies a kind of Stoic acceptance of the transitory nature of life. In his portrayal of a neighborhood in transmigration, Guerín is properly neutral. Many of the great soliloquies in En Construcción come from the mouth of a Marxist bricklayer, one who is actively constructing the “modern” neighborhood, and the heterotopia of the film, against the grain of his own politics.
The neighborhood of cinema is also being dismantled to make way for modernization. The Copernican turn away from film, toward medium-less-ness, has quickened the erosion of cinema as a form of communal memory. A flood of digital distribution and home-based viewing precipitates the disappearances of film projection and arthouses. Without the arthouse theater—its church and polis—cinema understood as a means of communion has vanished. The sense of mourning for this lost cinema is palpable in the premiere critical works of the last decade, from Usai’s The Death of Cinema to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. Where we once had movie palaces and feature films, these critics lament, we now have Netflix, and as Richard Brody calls them, “mailbox Alexandrias.”
Highly sensitive to—and also a product of—this cinema in crisis, the neutral cinema has sought out endangered spaces. It has also begun to lean on belles-lettres forms as a metaphor for the shape cinema takes in an era of separation. Pedro Costa recently wrote an entire speech referring to his films as letters. Other neutral films, such as Edström’s and Winter’s The Anchorage (2009), take the form of a diary. Increasingly, too, a certain class of neutral films relies on a notebook quality, one that reveals margin notes and scribbles, the raw materials and rejected bits that lead to its own construction. Like an old man fixated with his genealogy, these notebook films are obsessed with origins.
In the proto-neutral notebook film Train of Shadows (1998), José Luis Guerín unveils himself as cinema’s premiere originalist. Here he predicts the neutral vanguard’s return to the birth of cinema, to the sheer wonder at the power to capture moving images. Even the title is a reference to Maxim Gorky’s firsthand report, in 1896, of the Lumiere brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.” Train of Shadows fluently blends haunting original footage from an early portable film camera, speculative fiction, and the decaying images of a playacting family, all in a beguiling effort to bend cinematic form by claiming curiosity as the original link between documentary and fiction, without neutralizing the boundary between the two.
Guerín’s lesson with Train of Shadows is that you can expose your cards without losing the hand. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy to pull off as some have thought. In Miguel Gomes’s curiously acclaimed notebook film, Our Beloved Month of August (2008), the method is transparently a foray into the absurd restrictions of fiction and documentary. Gomes capriciously shifts registers between an aimless melodrama and a weak musical-travelogue of the rural region of Portugal where it was produced. And production here is key. In dimly lit scenes designed as spoofs of Pedro Costa, Gomes negotiates the completion of his film, already late and off-script, with a producer from Lisbon. As the conversation progresses, it becomes obvious that the rules of production are anathema to Gomes. Billed by his supporters as a vitalist—a wunderkind who can’t keep still in his chair—Gomes is actually just jittery. Unfunny and without discipline, Our Beloved Month of August registers a low point in the mode. It thinks of itself as Tristram Shandy, but it’s not even as good as A Cock and Bull Story.
In contrast to Gomes’s baggy monster, Edström and Winter have crafted a spare, unsettling diary entry—The Anchorage—that epitomizes the neutral cinema’s preoccupation with heterotopia and endangered territory. The home-movie quality of The Anchorage, coupled with its near-stable camerawork, congeal to generate a voyeuristic warmth, a tone the slight narrative modulates to great effect. The film begins with a middle-aged woman undressing and bathing in the sea. She is comfortable in her nudity, and the isolation of her home in the Baltic forest sanctifies this comfort. As the film progresses some family members arrive by boat. Briefly—and critics have missed this—a hunter appears in an open doorway as the family relaxes around the house. Something changes in the film at this point. Where it was once measured by the quiet labor of the woman in her idyllic home, it now takes on a tremulous tone. Although she doesn’t witness the hunter directly, signs of disarray—a boat out of place, an unnerving wind—overcome her in isolation. Too nervous now to bathe nude in the open sea, she starts to wear a swimsuit. One night she startles, locks all of the doors to her house, and quietly crumbles alone in her bedroom. The hunter never appears, but even in his absence he personifies disequilibrium and the impossibility of selective isolation. The Anchorage, taut and vulnerable like the woman whose diary entries punctuate the film, resonates beyond its form.
This survey of neutral filmmakers is not comprehensive—the work of Jia Zhangke and other Chinese filmmakers, for example, should be considered. There are also strange proclivities at work in the neutral films, like their sometimes Milo and Otis-style treatment of animals, which is offset by a disconcerting tendency toward ritualized death and animal sacrifice, as in the films of Lisandro Alonso and Michelangelo Frammartino. But in the words of the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky, “This is not something I can do by myself.” A full-scale treatment of the neutral will require new energy on the part of critics. Against Koehler and Lim’s glossing of the new cinema, this will not be a criticism that depends on the division of labor between magazine critics, who are meant to perform trend-analysis, and academic theorists, who place these trends within fact-based histories.
In Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, the Russian poet Gorchakov tells his guide Eugenia that we must eliminate “the boundaries between states.” The poet is of course referring to the political borders that instigate war between nation-states. But he could just as well be thinking of the limits that preserve states of being. Cinema can no longer survive by maintaining hard limits between states, whether medium or digital image, fact or fable, theory or criticism. In order to reconstitute itself against the self-negation described by theorists, cinema has to become something else entirely.
The neutral vanguard has already pointed the way, mostly by abandoning the concept of documentary—which is linked to the possibly outmoded documentary image—in favor of the archival image, with its capacity for accumulating objects in advance of accidents and emergencies. If the documentary image is supposed to record a fact—or to provide a document meant to verify the occurrence of some event—then the archival image is by comparison much more flexible. The archival image is able to contain both fictional and non-fictional artifacts. In this sense it is metaphorically related to the library or museum, Foucault’s warehouses of accumulated time. And the museum space has become a preeminent setting in contemporary art cinema, whether in Costa’s In Vanda’s Room, Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), Jarmusch’s Limits of Control (2009), or Tsai’s Face (2009).
It is telling, then, that Foucault lists the boat or ship as the model heterotopia. Perhaps roused by the heterotopias of the neutral vanguard, two older masters of cinema, Godard and Aleksandr Sokurov, have constructed their own archival ships. These arks—the cruise ship of Film Socialisme (2010) and the museum of Russian Ark (2002)—suggest that even now these directors believe in cinema’s life after the flood.