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Post Tenebras Lux (After Darkness, Light, 2012) has a sense of incompleteness or fragmentariness. The chapters or episodes appear to be arranged at random by the director and his wife and editor Natalia Lopez. Jonathan Romney (2013: 74) contends that the film is exciting for its sketch-like quality of potentialities, possibilities, and the combinations of images. The viewer is invited to the “Carlos Reygadas Experience” (Dargis 2013) to collect or toss aside whichever elements of the audio-visual display they prefer.

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After the premiere of Post Tenebras Lux at Cannes in May of 2012, the audience apparently booed and jeered, then, several days later, Reygadas was awarded the Best Director prize.[1] Despite the initial boos Reygadas maintained confidence in his work, stating that a film is “a reflection of who you are when you made it” (Koehler 2013: 15), but he also re-edited the film after Cannes, which involved merely cutting a few scenes.[2] This is not a new method for Reygadas; the director consistently reviews, re-evaluates, and re-edits his work.[3] More importantly, this re-working demonstrates Reygadas’s proximity to Romney’s above assertion that Post Tenebras Lux is a work of potentialities – at the premiere, says Reygadas, he “never felt the film was finished. I need the public exhibition of the film myself to rethink things. The process isn’t closed” (Koehler 2013: 15).

Such an explicit attempt at keeping the filmmaking process open resulted in an exceptional film in Reygadas’s oeuvre. In 2006 Reygadas spoke with Jonathan Marlow about his then latest feature Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005). Reygadas asserted that he is “not a storyteller”, but rather a creator of worlds, a creator of “a perfect universe” (Marlow 2006), albeit a universe of possibilities to be unfolded in the minds of his viewers. This universe was not fantastic, i.e., in the genre of fantasy, although his characters’ interactions, Tiago de Luca contends, are productively “impossible.” These impossible couplings, as de Luca observes, fall within a realist style which requires some heavy unpacking. But Post Tenebras Lux complicates the director’s prior self-definition as a creator of universes (in a realist style) by eschewing realism and pushing his provocative yet superficially contradictory statement to Karen Badt (2006), that he is “no slave to realism,” well beyond what was filmed in his first film Japón (2002), and the second, Battle in Heaven.

His 2012 feature works with dreams, fantasy, desire, and achronology. Reygadas is therefore somewhat of an experimental filmmaker, but not so far into experimentation that narrative has altogether disappeared. “My cinema is tremendously narrative,” the director states; “There’s always a clear line that connects” (Koehler 2013: 13). Yet Reygadas wants viewers to come away with a feeling or sense of the work rather than following or identifying with a story, plot, or character(s). He is dismissive of deeper meanings directors instill in films, and for that matter, viewers who attempt to read too much into a work. Reygadas does enjoy debating and theorizing the meaning of his perfect universe(s) with interviewers however – this way he too participates in the meaning-generating quality of the cinema.[4] For the film’s capacity to generate multiple kinds of viewing, and simultaneously eschewing meaning in favor of producing perceptual and bodily sensations in spectators, Post Tenebras Lux is often described as “challenging” and “difficult.”

The most difficult films for Vivian Sobchack are those that refuse even conventional difficulties. These works transgress narrative logic or cinematic specificity and “make sense” to us, “sensuously, experientially, in the phenomenological ‘now’ of seeing, hearing, and touching (if always also at a distance)” (Sobchack 2014: 51). It is inappropriate to decipher one of these films, nor be simply shocked by their displays of actors’/characters’ bodies (in moments of pleasurable or painful ecstasy). Sobchack argues for the importance of “meaningfulness” in the sense of “being present to” an object, thing, person, or for our purposes here, a screen and its images.

I am not interested in the contestation the narrative poses, as a strenuous and intellectual effort to comprehend, but the test Reygadas proposes – he demands spectators rid themselves of their desire to put the pieces of the film together and replace that mode of viewing with a more sensuous experience, which of course still demands an engagement with the story, as it serves as a link to cognitive continuity.[5]

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Narrative Excess

After his first two features Reygadas became known for shocking viewers with his graphic displays of sexuality between likely and unlikely couples. Particularly Battle in Heaven, which features an obese dark-skinned Mexican man receiving fellatio from a rich, young, and white girl, followed summarily by their real onscreen sex, as well as that same man’s sex with his fictionalized obese dark-skinned wife. Post Tenebras Lux takes a different approach, even when it turns to sex, portraying it in a rather subdued manner compared to the director’s prior features. But the controversy and debate around the film was not its sexual provocations; rather, “the film’s biggest provocations are its aesthetic and narrative liberties,” film critic Dennis Lim wrote in 2013.

Amongst the episodes, stripped as they are of any deep meaning or cause-and-effect logic, are sequences which are dreams, flashbacks, flash forwards, even concepts and desires that add to the sensorial quality of the feature as a whole. “Instead of progressing from one event to the next,” Lim writes and quotes his interview with Reygadas, “[the film] drifts among ‘all the levels of perception,’… which include ‘dreams, things you long for, memories, an imagined future, the conscious present, a reality that is beyond us.’”[6] Ever the enigmatic director, Reygadas mentions to Lim in a separate interview (2012), “The film is about fantasy, but probably the [sex] scene is reality, who knows?” Provided Reygadas’s account of his film, its narrative challenges, and our own curating of these sequences, the concept of cinematic excess serves as a starting point to address the narrative of the film.

With Post Tenebras Lux, as well as in his earlier features to a lesser extent, Reygadas offers an experiment in cinematic excess. Kristin Thompson has explained this concept in detail in her 1977 essay on the topic. Her opponents are those who find a cinematic device used without narrative motivation disturbing. Arguing for the legitimacy of cinematic excess, for Thompson, is to champion the specificity of cinema – images and sounds for perceptual play ([1977] 1986: 133). For Thompson there are no rules that govern when a device should be used, such as an exceedingly long take, to motivate the narrative (1986: 135-136). This is clearly the case in Reygadas’s films as we are required to restrain ourselves in linking the episodes themselves to some kind of cause-and-effect logic. The arbitrariness of the sequences, the gaps in time, and the lack of context and situatedness in the sequences render them excessive – we could argue to the extreme and say the entire feature is without narrative motivation, is a pure work of cinematic excess. We will see that Reygadas’s film demands a new mode of viewing, one where the images function individually, themselves expressive of the capacity for film and spectator’s perceptual play. We could attempt to heed Thompson’s advice (1986: 141) on encountering the excessive film in the following analysis:

Once the narrative [of an excessive film] is recognized as arbitrary rather than logical, the viewer is free to ask why individual events within its structures are as they are. The viewer is no longer constrained by conventions of reading to find a meaning or theme within the work as a solution to a sort of puzzle which has a right answer. Instead, the work becomes a perceptual field of structures which the viewer is free to study at length, going beyond the strictly functional aspects.

In absorbing oneself in the episodes presented in Reygadas’s film, I can both engage with what is there as a perceptual play while also studing the individual sequences and their relationship to the whole. Interpretative readings of the film fall short as we consider instead the shock of an utterly arbitrary narrative.[7]

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Cinematography

The appeal to sensation repeats itself in critical reviews of the film. Manohla Dargis, Rayns, and O’Hehir (2013; 2013; 2013) each compare it to a drug trip – perhaps the sensuous experience par excellence – and Dan Sullivan contends “Reygadas aims to evoke pure sensation[,]… make the viewer truly feel the audible and visible” (2013: 67).[8] It was the director of photography’s accidental discovery of a lens which made this possible. For most of the exterior shots, and a few interiors, Reygadas and his DP Alexis Zabe (who also worked on Reygadas’s cinematically beautiful Silent Light) employed a bevelled or refracted lens. This lens is slightly curved so that (the camera’s and spectator’s) perception is drawn towards an inner circle, creating a “halo-like effect” (Lim 2012), and a ghostly doubling of whatever appears in fringes of the frame.[9]

For the director, this produced “an amazing effect” (Koehler 2013: 15); for film critic Peter Bradshaw (2013) it was “annoying and absurd.” I am in the former camp, particularly when it is deployed for stedicam and handheld shots. It blurs the motion of the figure onscreen at their peripheries, dissecting the all-too-perfect figure-ground dichotomy of HD quality cameras and images. These sort of “horrible images,” says Reygadas (Lim 2013), “go further than the actual eye can see.” The clear intention with Post Tenebras Lux was to revisit and reinterpret the aesthetics of reality (Lim 2012) and the lens was a stylistic means that helped the director accomplish this.

An aesthetics of reality would also be more attuned to the levels of perception which exclude the human as visual object. In some films the narrative motivation calls for such shots, but since we have nearly done away with narrative here, Reygadas would prefer to focus on landscapes, non-human animals, or pieces of nature that serve no other purpose than for viewers to take in their beauty. It is this lack of a human something in the frame that again evokes the sensuous engagement with Post Tenebras Lux.

In the opening scene for instance, the refracted lens on the steadicam at times seems to take Rut’s point-of-view. The shot is low, at the level in which the infant can encounter the playful dogs firsthand. The shakiness of the camera seems to accentuate this POV-shot, particularly when there are reverse-shots between Rut’s POV and that of a cow or dog, or when the dogs run around and avoid bumping into Rut/the camera-operator. After some minutes of exchange between what we think to be POV shots and shots featuring Rut in frame as object for our viewing, a long shot of the animals has Rut enter the frame unannounced. This long shot dismantles our former certainty of the camera position(s) – in Craig Epplin’s words (2012: 299), in Reygadas’s films the camera often appears to line up with a character’s gaze only to then deny us their POV as it drifts back to reveal them or, as I mentioned here, has the character enter the frame. Writing on Japón, but similarly applicable here, Epplin argues that Reygadas’s camera erases the human subject, questions the human subject’s centrality in narrative film. We see this in the opening scene as well as many others (our introduction to Seven, the many shots of dogs and trees, a Devil, the frequent use of post-action lag, the long take of waves gliding up to the sand in the beach episode). “What I find noteworthy in Reygadas’s films is the way in which the camera seemingly does not know how to treat human subjects, either becoming bored with them and drifting away or linger on them far too long, and how points of view often seem to suggest the protagonist’s gaze but are then revealed to be slightly off-center” (Epplin 2012: 298; cf. Lahr-Vivaz 2008: 148). Reygadas’s semi- or quasi-documentary aesthetic transcends the boundaries of the camera as factual observer of the world and our perceptual treatment of the point-of-view shots which are often used to establish a direct relationship between character and spectator.

To further this effect Reygadas consistently employs a hand-held camera in his films. Although many static shots are seen in his oeuvre – whether Reygadas teams up with Diego Martínez Vignatti as director of photography (Japón and Battle in Heaven) or Zabe (Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux) – instances in which a shot would normally cut and bring us to a new camera setup and thereby repositioning itself to further contribute to the narrative’s momentum, Reygadas’s shots often extend against the logic of narrative or character identification, as explored in the last section, and unarguably challenge our spatial awareness of where the characters are going and what they are getting into. In Battle in Heaven the camera follows Marcos’s trek as he pushes through persons in a crowded subway station; the camera tracks right through a subway turnstile and eventually loses track of him altogether. In the 2012 feature, we travel behind Juan and Natalia in the sauna as they search the hallways for the Duchamp room. As they enter the Hegel room, the camera pursuing them continues directly inside; the camera tracks at waist-height, inches from one patron’s flaccid penis, then breaks the threshold of the room and tracks to a medium shot of a young girl who gazes at what we can only guess to be in the direction of the new guests, Juan and Natalia. Behind her is yet another bored-looking older couple. But with this tracking motion our attention is shifted as Juan and Natalia disappear from the frame, sidestepping to the left. The spatiality of the room is not established before we lose contact with the protagonists. Reygadas does not grant us this ordinariness in our cinematic experience.

This constantly renewing set of spatial, temporal, and perspectival co-ordinates intertwines “the levels of actor, character, and audience,” writes William Rowlandson (2006: 1033) on Japón, and we should add to these three levels that of the relationship between spectator’s body and film’s body. No more is this apparent than with the wandering camera; we see how the film’s body deviates from a humanly enabled camera. The latter should retain its interest in the film’s protagonists, aid spectators in their comprehension and engagement with a human-centered story, and represent something. Reygadas has called these aesthetics filmed theatre. On the other hand, certainly the film’s body – as camera in this instance – is operated by a cameraperson, yet the images express themselves with obvious curiosity and with little regard for bridging the gap between spectators’ desire for narrative momentum and character identification.

For Barker the film’s body and spectator’s body orient themselves in space with musculature, a given set of physical co-ordinates that come near to and are spatially separate from other persons and things. “We comport ourselves by means of arms, legs, muscles, and tendons whereas the film does so with dollies, camera tracks, zoom lenses, aspect ratios, and editing patterns…. We mark our position in relation to space by such things as shoulders and hips, whereas the film’s frame is marked off by the edges of the celluloid strip, viewfinder, screen, and theatre” (Barker 2009: 77). There is thus expressive and perceptive capacities for both viewing and filming; the film expresses itself to us and in turn we express ourselves bodily in our reception of it.

Barker argues that long tracking shots allow spectators to empathize with the film’s body’s musculature. With the lens nearly brushing the flaccid penis and then crossing the threshold of the Hegel room, we watch and feel as the camera comports itself in the world, and finds what interests it, i.e., the young girl. As the steadicam traipses through the soccer field with Rut, in the bobbing close-up of Seven atop his donkey, or when we track alongside Juan and Natalia in the sauna, “we feel those movements in our muscles because our bodies have made similar movements: we have whipped our heads from side to side, moved slowly and stealthily, and stretched out our bodies in ways that are distinctly human but inspired by attitudes like those that inspire the film’s movements” (Barker 2009: 75). These are but a few examples of the ways in which Post Tenebras Lux is attuned to simultaneous and multiple levels of perception, in both filmmaking and its processes of expression and projection, and in spectators’ empathetic experience of the audio-visual displays.

 

[1] Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005) received “lusty boos” at its first press screening at Cannes (Dargis 2005), but did not receive any awards at that festival. Karen Badt (2006: 21) witnessed a standing ovation for the film at the festival’s public premiere.

[2] Reygadas in Higgins 2005:“After I make a film I psychoanalyse myself retroactively so that I can give explanations to journalists and film people. But I don’t believe in those explanations myself.” The deleted scenes are available on the Strand Releasing Blu-ray. According to Koehler (2013: 15) no significant changes were made to Post Tenebras Lux between the Cannes premiere and the Strand Releasing copy.

[3] All of Reygadas’s films underwent some re-editing after their film festival premieres. The changes to Japón (2002) were significant (Koehler 2013: 15) and Battle in Heaven was rejected by Cannes in 2004 then re-edited and re-submitted with acceptance in 2005.

[4] Interviews with Reygadas follow the same pattern. Interviewers search for meaning, or at least an account of personal expression, and pose explanatory questions to the director only to receive light-hearted responses such as: “You ask yourself what it means!” (Badt 2006: 23); “All of these explanations, in my opinion, are logical and they can be valid, but none of them is right or wrong” (Marlow 2006); “Technically, [your interpretation is] that. But you can expand it to something more” (Koehler 2013: 14).

[5] Some explicating and explaining will indeed be necessary to bring the experience of the film to language, but I am here interested in the first time viewer (or multiple viewings for the purposes of re-immersing oneself in the images and sounds).

[6] Koehler 2013: 11: “The film is about many things, including the perception of reality, of our dreams, fantasies, and in our direct experiences, and in the acknowledgment of the reality beyond what we see and hear…. As for the feelings people have from their experiences, and what these may trigger in our dreams, or subconscious, these are left more or less powerfully. And if we didn’t feel them we wouldn’t be alive.”

[7] Lahr-Vivaz (2008: 143ff) reads the excess of Battle in Heaven alongside the film’s class depictions and struggles with Mexican nationalism.

[8] Sensation has been Reygadas’s aim since his first film Japón (Gordon 2002; Matheou 2003: 11).

[9] Koehler 2013: 15: “What happens is the outside of the lens is polished and shaved so it becomes flat, and then it creates a refraction. It was a 25mm lens, and it reacts differently depending on the light and atmosphere, as well as the camera movement.”

This is following my post on comic book films and narrative exhaustion. Rather than speak to the film itself – I have very little to say about Godzilla (2014) – I want to speak about my experience of the movie theater.

Return of Godzilla, 1955-56

3D Return of Godzilla, 1955-56

Prior to the screening I was feeling slightly nauseated due to the weather and the fear of seeing another 3D film. I arrive 20 minutes early. It is the first Tuesday after opening weekend, Tuesdays being the day tickets are cheaper. To my dismay 20 minutes is not early enough for Godzilla – the legendary cinematic monster has nearly sold out the early show.

I now must wait 50 minutes for the next one to begin and, since seats fill up quickly, must venture into the poorly lit theater many minutes in advance. I would rather be in the lobby, outdoors, in the washroom until the film starts.

I briefly wait in a line, my first line in years. I take my seat and try to keep my eyes closed for some time, shut out the buzz of voices and store up the energy to intensely gaze at a darkened screen in three dimensions. I try to relax, knowing that in 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or an hour into the show I will be in some degree of physical discomfort – my eyes will burn, my head will ache, my stomach will turn.

Eventually the pre-show advertisements begin – not the advertisements that are prior to the trailers, but the ceaseless carousel of car ads, cola ads, and horribly interviewed celebrity spots that draw our attention away from the persons sitting next to us. A new X-men film, new gadgets, new music to dislike.

I watch ads and trailers; I’ve been in this seat for over 30 minutes and the film has yet to start.

The feature begins: buildings crumble, monsters attack, for some reason Juliette Binoche has an American-ish accent. My eyes begin to water; I remove the glasses and notice how much brighter the picture is without them.

I need a break.

I go to urinate and take my time ambling to the washroom and back again. I step over and across cinema-goers, try to watch my feet in the dark – perhaps the other patrons are as uncomfortable as me. Upon re-entering the theater, I smell popcorn, nacho cheese; half the audience is crunching some kind of junk food or slurping a sugary cola. The food smell mixes with the stench of sweaty bodies. Not abject, just more nausea.

The film eventually ends. I am relieved. The cool night air helps relax my tense body. Godzilla danced on my retinas in 3D for 30 minutes too long.

A week or two ago I had a similar experience with Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (2014). Why do we put ourselves through this? Where have the 2D screenings gone? Why have I paid an extra three dollars for extra discomfort?

I prefer leaving the movie theater.

My title comes from an interview with Mexican art cinema director Carlos Reygadas. He was upset by the current status of the cinema today, not necessarily the comic book genre. I think he meant that the fast-paced and panel-like films of today are far from the specificity of cinema.

I want to say something different than Reygadas. This post is a further consideration of “difficult” films. My current work is centered around the sensuous experience of art cinema, the difficulties certain films pose in terms of the cinematic excess or lack of narrative motivation. In this entry I want to discuss the feeling of exhaustion comic book films produce.

Image

We think the core of comic book films are their action, their choreography, their special effects – in a sense we could say there is something entropic in these images, a gradual decrease in the spectator’s energy available to devote to the barrage of fast-paced fight scenes. 3D has not made this experience easier. 3D films demand more from our bodies than most 2D film; they require that we engage our entire perceptual field. I have often left in the middle of 3D films – only to eventually return – and by the end of the picture I’m often physically exhausted, or worse. This is a documented fact of contemporary blockbusters.

So there is nausea because of perceptual instability, which I call exhaustion. A different sort of exhaustion would be in the narrative itself. In my recent viewings of comic books films, in the previous decade or so, the spectacle is not the foundation of the feature; rather, a complicated, dense, and intricate plot underpins these features. Our exhaustion comes additionally from our “keeping up with” the action, the characters, the twists and turns as bad guys become good and the good turn evil, as we travel across the globe and sometimes into space.

While the male lead still dominates the superhero genre, the number of characters seems to be increasing, allowing for a much more complicated plot to form, particularly in the features that now stretch over the two-hour mark (Captain America: The Winter Soldier [2013], Man of Steel [2013], The Dark Knight Rises [2012]). The best of the genre limit this feeling of exhaustion by utilizing humor, relishing in a plot twist, or with perceptual breaks (Batman franchise), while the worst commands the opposite (Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-Man [2012]).

Provided the requirement to sometimes break from my immersion in a film due to nausea, the 3D and special effects themselves therefore exceeding narrative motivation, it seems important to reconsider how to watch comic books films. I would call watching a comic book film a Thinking Through (I deploy these terms from Jenny Chamarette, but in a different way), whereby we must constantly re-situate ourselves in relation to the narrative, its characters, its twists and turns – we cannot get absorbed into this genre because it requires us to actively think about what is occurring (characters, plot, etc.). I oppose any sort of claims about the dumbness or ease in which these blockbusters are watched; instead, it clearly demands a high level of cognitive engagement. Comic book films are thoroughly participatory in this regard.

On the other hand there is a Thinking With films that absorb us. The aim of such films are not to engage our cognitive faculties – keeping up with the intricate plot and multiple characters, for instance – but spark a perceptual (bodily) experience. In such a film the experience is ruined once we begin to think through.

More needs to be said about narrative exhaustion in the contemporary superhero genre. For now it suffices to say that as much as a purely experimental work evokes entropy in its viewers, it would be important to theorize the intricate plots of the blockbuster in similar terms. These are different experiences to be sure, but I’m still rattled by the consistent exhaustion I feel in my recent viewings of Hollywood films (at the cinema). Perhaps I’ve grown accustomed to the slowness of contemporary art cinema or I find intricate plots more irritating than enjoyable.

Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days (2001)

Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days (2001)

Contemporary art cinema can be studied as a genre with identifiable characteristics. This is not to suggest that the work on art cinema as mode, style, and institution[1] is without merit. My interest is in spectatorship and reception, which inevitably leads to distilling and organizing diverse films into critical and experiential categories (a genre). The contemporary art film is not defined or limited by either commonplace semantic or syntactic elements, certain key elements which constitute a definitive genre; such an analysis would lead to national, political, ideological, religious, and aesthetic reductions (although, my focus on art cinema locates it within and part of dominant ideology, 21st century capitalism). While the definition of the art film genre resonates with an account of it as a mode, includes the notion of it as institution, and necessarily requires an account of directors’ styles, I find the framework of genre studies helpful insofar as it includes audience expectation and familiarity, and advertising and promotional components that will, in turn, comprise its definition.

In an effort not to replicate the mistakes of David Bordwell’s overgeneralizations in his definition art cinema ([1979] 2009), I would limit an account of contemporary art cinema to three core types, each type overlapping with the others to varying degrees: directors who employ a transcendental style, sexually explicit melodramas, and social and political satires, often shot in a documentary mode.

In my viewings of recent art cinema I have found that most participate in the following:

The contemporary art film is defined by, first, its programming and exhibition. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Rotterdam and Toronto are but a few of the cities a film can receive laurels, which would then be added to the respective film’s promotional materials, such as its trailer, posters, and DVD/blu-ray covers.[2] It is perhaps tautological to say that the definition of the “festival film” is a film that is exhibited at a festival; but its success at a given festival, or more correctly, its success at multiple festivals, function as markers of its status as art film. Inclusion within the festival circuit entails significant attention and promotion from film journals and magazines – Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, Cineaste, New York Times, Screen, all shares a focus on the festival film. It should come as no surprise that the festival winners are also those applauded, and ranked well, by these journals and magazines. Critics and theorists therefore work parallel to the festival circuit by promoting, championing, and categorizing the best and worst in the contemporary art cinema genre.

Second, the art cinema genre can be said to produce particular effects on the mind and body of the spectator. I follow Torben Grodal who suggests this body of films impacts the spectator with a certain quality of deep or existential meaning. The contemporary festival-circuit film, similar to the art films of decades prior, develops, comments upon, or problematizes notions of human nature, religiosity, sexuality, and oftentimes, in its most successful outputs, interweaves all three. In recent art cinema, distinct from the body of work comprising art cinema pre-1997, eroticism and a level of explicitness function alongside a narrative to give the events or characters a deep meaning.[3] The displays of nude bodies and of simulated and unsimulated acts of sex challenge viewers to find the meaning of the scene or feature since, programmed at a festival deemed fit for art, a work cannot, under such exhibition circumstances, be a work of porn. Porn has been defined and accepted as a genre intended to produce arousal or laughter in its viewers. There is a conflict then between the low-status of porn and the high-intellectualism of the art cinema. But more recent directors have attempted to contradict this bodily distanced spectatorship by gratuitousness, a gratuitousness paired with a story that requires explicit sex so as to appall spectators, or less frequently, warm their hearts.

Consider Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999) in which a brother and sister fall in love – their sex is then graphically detailed, much to an outraged public. On the other hand, Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) shoots same-sex sex to better understand the couple’s deep emotional bond and counter the bullying felt by the one character about her homosexuality. The scenes which cause sexual arousal are often paired with an illogical or complicated temporality, spatiality, and narrativity, about which I will say more below. Body and mind are therefore worked over by the art film in a generically challenging manner, generating an implicit demand on the part of the spectator to uncover a given film’s deep meaning.

On this last point, the simpler and less precise term frequently adopted by critics and theorists to describe deep meaning is narrative “ambiguity” coupled with irresolution. This third feature of the art film genre, ambiguity, is heightened by sparse dialogue, or dialogue which does not seem to advance the plot, a plot already difficult to pin down and identify because of the deeper meaning hidden within its recesses. A display of ambiguity also operates according to a lack of psychological depth given to the characters. The art film downplays intentionality and motivation, and in some films, depicts characters with atypical (sexual) desires. These characters are unreasonable and illogical in their acts and encounters. The plots do not thicken, but are organized more like tableaus.

The art film is therefore a “difficult” film.[5] Vivian Sobchack writes (2014: 50-51) that the challenge of some films – here she is referring to Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013) and To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2013), two of the most recognized art films of the year – is their refusal of narrative conventionality, namely, most other films can safely answer the question, “What was it all about?” while these two cannot. On the other hand, and this is the fourth trait of the art cinema,

[i]nstead of cognitive, reflective, and after-the-fact sense-making, [art films] make sense – if we let them – sensuously, experientially, in the phenomenological “now” of seeing, hearing, and touching (if always also at a distance). This is sense understood not as determinate meaning us the quite different “meaningfulness” of “being present to.” (Sobchack 2014: 51, italics mine)[6]

Given the ambiguity and opposition to classical narratives, the contemporary art film – and contemporary film theorists additionally – is concerned with producing sensations in the spectator, bodily responses that are the cause of a kind of thinking about the film after the experience. Thus the art cinema is a body genre but of an entirely different kind than pornography, horror, melodrama, or comedy. These genre films are said to cause arousal, fear, tears, and laughter in the spectator, but not for the purpose of engaging them in thinking about the content therein. Sobchack mentions (2014: 53): Upstream Color and To the Wonder’s “thematic vagueness and grandiose reach are sophomoric – I think of staying up in a dorm room until three in the morning futilely arguing over abstract universals and the true nature of existence.” She thus indicates a type of audience most suited for the art cinema, i.e., young intellectuals at university.

The fifth key component of the contemporary art cinema is the most contentious: style.* I recognize the plethora of art films and the breadth of style and the difficulties in listing general characteristics. Style does require some attention despite its vast differences amongst directors because the deep meaning embedded in the film is attributed to the director him/herself, or more accurately, the director as an auteur. One film functions as part of an oeuvre; a director’s body of work can viewed as a whole and analyzed in terms of its themes, messages, and style.

Finally, the art cinema films pinch from a variety of genres or cannot be pinned down and limited to a conventional genre with recognized semantic and syntactic elements – although the films can be viewed and evaluated along genre lines as this proposal suggests. In the art cinema one can locate various genres, from the western, to the religious film, to pornography, to horror, to documentary, but most seem to fall under the category of melodrama. What we do not see much of in the recent art cinema is comedy (Carax’s Holy Motors [2012] is an exception in some of its episodes, but it would be incorrect to call the film as a whole a comedy);  to contribute to the founding of a deeper meaning, a serious tone and approach must be consistently applied.

To put this last point in different words, the filmmakers in this genre make it difficult for critics and theorists to clearly define their work, epistemologically and in terms of its engagement with spectators’ sensations. However, this difficultly is part of its definition. Therefore art cinema, as a genre, may be best labelled as a hybrid – to discover which genres make up this hybrid quality would be the focus of study outlined here.[7]

But perhaps the contemporary art cinema is now changing.

 

* The stylistic devices most frequently used, including those previously mentioned, are:

  • Long takes and long scenes, shot with a static camera, creating and overall effect of slowness and contemplation;
  • Open spaces, long shots of landscapes, which impress upon spectators a feeling or demand of careful attention or contemplation as to the meaning of the image;
  • Tableaus are used rather than a cause and effect plot, heightening this sense of slowness;
  • For the most part non-diegetic music is excluded and often when non-diegetic music does find itself in a particular scene, the film is then cut to reveal that music as part of the diegesis; “natural sounds” are preferred and given a strong emphasis;
  • Non-professional actors who often resemble Bressonian models (a clear move away from the sentimentality and identification one is said to experience with a Hollywood feature);
  • An emphasis on the look/personage of the performer, recalling Sergei Eisenstein’s use of individuals for faces appropriate to the part;
  • Sparse or unmotivated dialogue and limited psychological depth of characters;
  • Extreme close-ups of faces are frequent, demanding spectators to find some interiority in a character when there is likely none to be found; extreme close-ups are also a challenge to Hollywood stars, the non-professional actors in art cinema not physically resembling actors in California;
  • Nudity, realistic sex, either simulated or unsimulated; oftentimes gratuitous and without direct relevance to the story (if a strong story can be identified), but a key part of the plot;
  • An unclear temporal frame or temporal confusion produce an ambiguous quality to the narrative, meaning, or message of the film; there is often no resolution at the end of the film, however, there is often a symmetry between the beginning and end of the film, linked by similar shots, locations, or motifs.
  • The deep meaning embedded in the film is attributed to the director, or more accurately, the director as an auteur (one film functions in larger body of the director’s work).

Thus the common stylistic components to an art film contribute to the common purpose or reception of it, i.e., its capacity for revealing some truth about human nature, social relations, or spirituality.

 

[1] Bordwell [1979] 2009; Neale 1980.

[2] Elsaesser 2006[?]: 97: “With every prize it confers, a festival also confirms its own importance, which in turn increases the symbolic value of the prize. Cannes, for instance, is not only aware of the seal of excellent that its Palme d’Or bestows on a film thus distinguished. It also carefully controls the use of its logo in image and print, down to typeface, angle, color coding and the number of leaves in its palm branch oval.”

[3] There are exceptions to my generalization, but these films were rare. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), , and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman (1982) are remembered as originators of an acceptable, if not contested, quantity and quality of explicitness unseen on the festival circuit of their time.

[5] Sobchack 2014: 50, for a quick summation of the types of “difficult” films.

[6] Sobchack continues on in this article to discuss Upstream Color and To the Wonder, more or less in the terms of the art cinema genre I present here. Where she falters is in marking differences between art films, particularly the one she liked better. For Sobchack, Upstream Color was enjoyed more because Malick’s film used imagery that is now stale. In different words, the poetry of the former was enjoyed to a greater degree than the latter. Given the ephemeral and contingent quality of such a claim, the opposite conclusion may well have been true.

[7] On French extreme cinema, a production trend which is largely part of what I have called contemporary art cinema, Martine Beugnet claims (2007: 9) that this “hybrid cinema” is “the most exciting forms of filmmaking… currently offered.”

Challenging/Difficult Films

The accompanying link to “Hard to Watch Films” barely scratches the surface of what we mean by the terms “challenging” and “difficult” or the coinage “hard to watch films”. The link seems to think “hard to watch” most often means graphic and disturbing content. It also categorizes some of the films as hard to watch because of their verisimilitude (Funny Games [2007]) and true accounts (Elephant Man [1980]), but both these categories of difficult film are still part of the overarching graphic or disturbing content films.

I appreciate Vivian Sobchack’s attempt (Film Comment, Jan/Feb 2014: 50) to categorize the varieties of difficult film:

There are those that are difficult to watch because of their explicit violence or graphic sex (Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible), or their extremely disturbing visceral effects (Kirby Dick’s documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist). There are also those that are pleasurable in their difficulty: cerebral “puzzle” films with intricate plots[1] and/or structures that require some effort to figure out (Christopher Nolan’s Memento, or Carruth’s debut feature Primer). Then there are films that are difficult because they push the limits of representation as far as it will go (Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and its mise en abyme of infinite representational regress). There are others that go even further and push the very limits of cinema itself (Derek Jarman’s monochromatic Blue, or Michael Snow’s La Région centrale). Most commonplace, however, are those films that are difficult to watch because they push nothing: they’re unchallenging spectacles devoid of thought, affect, and any reason, other than mercenary, for being at all (certain kinds of mainstream trash like… Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters).

The most difficult films, for Sobchack, are those that refuse even these conventional difficulties. These works transgress narrative logic or cinematic specificity and “make sense” to us, “sensuously, experientially, in the phenomenological ‘now’ of seeing, hearing, and touching (if always also at a distance)” (51). It is inappropriate to decipher one of these films, nor be simply shocked by their displays of bodies. Sobchack argues for the importance of “meaningfulness” in the sense of “being present to” an object, thing, person, or for our purposes here, a screen and its images.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012) are Sobchack’s recent examples. In my current work I’m thinking through Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012) as a similar kind of difficult film.

Other writing on Reygadas: Introduction to Battle in Heaven (2005),short review of Battle in Heaven.

 

Rut Reygadas in Post Tenebras Lux (2012)

Rut Reygadas in Post Tenebras Lux (2012)

[1] I nearly typed irritating plots, a clear indication of my film preferences.