To Have Done with the Contemporary Cinema

The current notion that 3D somehow radically changes, or will save, cinema—either by dragging it further toward some aesthetic destiny or just by bringing more asses into the theater—is the kind of apocalyptic idea that comes out of a crisis perception, as happened before during the crisis of the early 1950s, when Hollywood studios were desperate for some gimmick to lure viewers back to the box office; let's call it Bwana Devil Syndrome.

A film must be untimely to be worth talking about.

Face (d. Tsai Ming-liang, France, 2009).

I used to mind being called a journalist. It seemed demeaning and beside the point of what I wanted to do and believed I was really doing, sometimes, which was criticism. Now I’m way up in my ivory tower (a flimsy one, which you access by a ladder that you have to remember to pull up after you) and am rarely asked for my opinion on anything that happened more recently than forty years ago, and I wish I were a journalist again. Journalists have lots of advantages. They get free stuff and invitations. Many people respect them even though they despise them. But the most important perk of all is that the journalist is free from a worry that haunts the rest of us: whether or not we are contemporary.

No one can challenge the journalist’s claim to be contemporary. Journalists work in the very factory of the contemporary, at its “heart machine” (a term from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a film that tried to beat the contemporary by anticipating it). They make the contemporary contemporary. That their labor has market value is their clear justification. Paid to write about what just happened or is about to happen, journalists are embedded—there, I’ve used a word with very contemporary overtones and it’s only the second paragraph—inside capitalism, deep inside.

So deep that maybe journalists might be the least alienated among us—but that word has too non-contemporary a sound. Another word might be better: say, the least expropriated. Of course this sounds like a paradox, but let’s try it for a moment: Giorgio Agamben says (in Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience) that experience has been expropriated and is no longer accessible. Could journalists be people who live so much in the day-to-day excitement and change of expropriated experience that they get to where it becomes, again, experience? This might be the biggest attraction of the profession: it gives a license to live through fully, to the end, the conditions of late capitalism, conditions that for most of the rest of humanity are distresses to be endured, but which the journalist faces with the intoxicating satisfaction of having helped perpetuate them. For the sake of this intoxication, people are even willing to give up getting paid.

The most expropriated of all (and therefore, by our trial paradox, the least) might be the journalist who is also a film reviewer. This is because of the nature of film, so close to reality and yet so far away, and sometimes the closer we feel it takes us to reality the farther away we are. In that sense, just putting the words “contemporary” and “cinema” together implies a connection that isn’t real. Yet people use the phrase; they seem to know what it means. No doubt it’s illegitimate to try to define contemporary cinema without first getting a handle on the contemporary. But whatever gets inside a film belongs to aesthetics; only outside films does a contact between cinema and the contemporary take place. Such contacts are fleeting but sometimes electrifying: Jafar Panahi’s imprisonment in Iran during the 2010 Cannes film festival; the news that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s departure for the same festival was being stalled by the Thai government (in the end they let him go, and he won the Palme d’Or); film critic Peter Brunette’s fatal heart attack at breakfast during the Taormina festival. . . . These things remind us that we live in some kind of world (whether we can call what happens in it “experience” or not).

The notion of contemporary cinema is problematic in another way, too. Since the 1970s, many people have been used to thinking of the cinema as post-revolutionary, or as an unfinished revolution, or as dragging itself on in a kind of zombie-afterlife pastiche-and-parody mode. First Godard and the French New Wave in the 1960s, then Fassbinder and the New German Cinema in the 1970s, declared in different ways and for different reasons that the old ways of cinema no longer worked. The early 1970s films of Robert Altman led a wave of Hollywood genre revisionism, whose tones of suspicion, condescension, and nagging doubt proved that even residents of Malibu were finding it difficult to go home again. With the creative paralysis of Hollywood in the 1980s came a tendency to view the cinematic past no longer as an inaccessible paradise but as a repository of recyclable clichés. In a later development of that same trend, the reimagination of 1970s American cinema as a golden age of auteur-driven filmmaking led to a new generation of directors working consciously with themes and images drawn from films from that period.

The cinema of the past forty years has undergone a transformation much like that of the real-estate agent Flitcraft, whose story is told as a parable in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (though not in John Huston’s 1941 film). Flitcraft was an ordinary family man who, on narrowly missing being crushed to death by a falling beam, understood that life was chaos and left his family and company, only to be found years later in a different town with a new name, job, and family. “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.” During the 1970s, the cinema got used to being in a crisis state. Then, at various times at various places around the world but by the early 1990s pretty definitely everywhere, it got used to not being in a crisis state.

The crisis/non-crisis view of cinema expresses a cinephilic prescription of what cinema is or in some essential way must be. Jim Jarmusch’s films are exemplary because they acknowledge, like Wenders’s great films of the 1970s and early 1980s, that classical narrative filmmaking has become impossible. Contemporary mainstream Hollywood cinema merely confirms this proposition with its endless remakes, sequels, sequels to remakes, and remakes of sequels, its grand-scale repetition-compulsion machine that has everyone wrapped up, from the crassest ex-TV-commercial director to the most revered auteurs, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino among them.

This cinephilic narrative has undergone refinement in response to two recent developments. First, digital technology has wrought changes that have been seen variously as augmenting the old powers of cinema, freeing film from the constraints and responsibilities of photographic realism, or spelling the artistic doom of mainstream cinema by condemning it to the pursuit of ever-more stimulating special effects. (The current notion that 3D somehow radically changes, or will save, cinema—either by dragging it further toward some aesthetic destiny or just by bringing more asses into the theater—is the kind of apocalyptic idea that comes out of a crisis perception, as happened before during the crisis of the early 1950s, when Hollywood studios were desperate for some gimmick to lure viewers back to the box office; let’s call it Bwana Devil Syndrome.) Second, it is sometimes suggested that the worldwide boom in independent, “art” filmmaking since the early 1990s, made possible by lower production costs and improving video image, has been more than just quantitative and that more good, even great, films are being made than ever before (at the same time as, thanks to DVDs and the internet, more films are becoming accessible than ever before).

Let’s stay in the realm of art film, since it’s there that we can expect to find the most contemporary of contemporary cinema, if we can live with the nagging doubt that this expectation derives from precepts of Modernism that are themselves out-of-date. Contemporary art film has its already established dominant traditions, the main one being the extending of photographic realism to the hallucinatory degree where the image is so saturated with reality that the viewer becomes aware of being faced with a gallery-installation subversion of documentary realism that throws the construction of reality back on the viewer—something that happens in Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth (outtakes from which two films were in fact repurposed for a two-screen video installation), in Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos and Fantasma, in James Benning’s recent DV work (Ruhr, Pig Iron). Those may be extreme cases, but something like this process virtually defines the terrain of contemporary art cinema, at least the best-known part of it, from Hou Hsiao-hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Jia Zhangke to Gus Van Sant (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days).

Since of the directors I’ve just named, only the last has ever had his work shown in regular, non-specialist movie theaters in the United States, it is difficult to ignore the sense that the terrain is a very fragmented one. One’s view of contemporary cinema at any moment depends not just on idealist aesthetic principles but on chance: the opportunities that films have to be distributed and that viewers have to see them. The possibility that chance should define culture being unacceptable, we tend to appeal to some kind of authority in these matters, and the film journalist, our expropriated friend, is, almost by job definition, the person whom we grant the right to define what the contemporary cinema is.

Journalists define contemporary cinema at either of two levels: by the films that are shown at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, and Rotterdam (and maybe a few other festivals) or by the films that get some kind of regular commercial release. Aesthetically, the first level is by far the more significant one, “by common agreement,” if I can be allowed to use the phrase in a context where who gets to agree on anything, and in what forum this agreement would be reached, are seemingly less and less matters of common agreement. The really significant, moment-defining films emerge from the festival circuit, whether they get a wide release or not (and they almost never do).

In On Film Festivals, a recent anthology edited by critic Richard Porton, several contributors advance the idea that each year, a certain number of important films are made. Mark Peranson thinks there might be “fifty outstanding films per year, films that any programmer or critic, personal taste aside, would agree are films that any self-respecting international film festival should show—works that will stand the test of time, or take the pulse of the time.” Robert Koehler, more conservatively, postulates that “a year with more than sixty [such films] is extraordinary, and that under forty is closer to the norm.” James Quandt is stingiest of all: “Any given year turns up ten, maybe twenty good-to-great films, if we’re lucky.” In fact, there is no festival anywhere that plays all fifty, all forty, all twenty, or even all ten of these films. During the one-to-two-year window of their festival existence, they will never all be in the same place at the same time. A few will open in regular theaters a few days after their festival premieres; some will eventually go around to museums. After a year or two most of them will be available on DVD for anyone who wants them.

If the outstanding films are never all visible at the same time until the window of their contemporaneity has closed, it means they are truly contemporary only for a small group of people—critics, programmers, and distributors. (The rest of us are like people looking at stars that appear bright but, in their own real time, may have already gone dim.) And if we indeed have a common agreement that this small group can declare what the contemporary cinema is, let’s acknowledge that the conditions under which they exercise their judgment are usually bad. Programmers see almost everything on DVD—usually in an office, at home on TV, on a laptop—or else, like critics, at other festivals, often at the rate of three or four a day, a rate that pulverizes both discrimination and memory.

“The Decay of Cinema,” Susan Sontag’s much-decried 1996 lament for a golden age of cinema that she dates to the 1960s and 1970s (“the feverish age of movie-going….  For some fifteen years there were new masterpieces every month. How far away that era seems now”) expressed a certain truth. As defined by Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman, the cinema of the period Sontag eulogized was truly contemporary: its key works, made by artists who were nothing if not interested in defining their own time, were screened in theaters around the world and generally acknowledged as significant. Now cinema is pulverized, privatized, and personalized, and if this situation has resulted in much euphoria, it also results in much cynicism and despair.

The real crisis of cinema, its contemporary crisis, which Godard and Wenders foresaw well, is that the cinema no longer circulates within a common space and time but has withdrawn into that state of inaccessibility that, for Agamben, defines the contemporary and which he likens to a museum. “The museification of the world is today an accomplished fact…. Everything today can become a Museum, because this term simply designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing” (Profanations). It’s not accidental that museums have moved into film sponsorship with the involvement of the Musée d’Orsay in Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon, Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day, and Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours and of the Louvre in Tsai Ming-liang’s Face, or that museums figure as locations not only in those films but in other recent films from Costa’s Colossal Youth to Jarmusch’s Limits of Control.

The flip side of this museification is the impossibility of ignoring anything. The journalist exemplifies this condition, whose realm is the internet. The journalist is doomed to say yes to things, even in trying to say no, just by acknowledging them. And the internet is a desert of affirmation, where users, turned into private librarians, are almost forced to conserve everything out of fear that something might turn out someday to have value for somebody. (Just as the festival programmer and the critic, knowing they may be wrong, hold on to DVDs of films they didn’t like.)

It’s hard to see a way out of this predicament, and in the meantime we’re thrown back on the old time-defying formulas. At some level contemporary cinema comes down to a willed untimeliness, to a hunch, which any of us, no matter how far displaced from the institutional centers and paradises of cinema, might have, that whatever film we’re seeing, there are probably enough other people around the world seeing it for us to call ourselves a culture. A film must be untimely to be worth talking about. Certainly there’s no point (apart from purposes of cultural commentary) talking about films that need massive publicity campaigns to generate the illusion of a timeliness they will quickly lose (because it’s only the time-less-ness of an imaginary requirement to be seen). Were any of Robert Bresson’s films, from Les anges du péché in 1943 to L’argent in 1983, “contemporary”? And yet, they are (and not just because so much “Bressonian” audiovisual media has appeared in the nearly thirty years since he made his last film that Bressonianism can feel like a cliché of modernity). The contemporary is a hunch, a surprise, the pleasure of lighting on something that feels like it came from some place where the world still moves, something that has its own idea, surpassing our conceptions (which are necessarily old ones), of what the contemporary is.

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