Ballet mechanique (Léger): Painterly origins of avant-garde cinema experiments.
Meshes in the Afternoon (Deren): An end to "sentimental monkey tricks" in the movies and a beginning of "tricks" of a sublimely cinematic kind.
"Wavelength" (Snow): A zoom the length of the room structures this example of anti-narrative cinema.
Serene Velocity (Gehr):
Earth (Dovzhenko): Displaced narrative and fugue of faces.
Paisan (Rossellini): One episode in a centrifugal narrative.
Tokyo Story (Ozu): Still life.
Scorpio Rising (Anger): "Found" and quoted material — photograph or cinematograph?
Images from Gus Van Sant's Last Days
The protagonist is seen only in banal moments, stumbling about in a big house and its grounds. He seems drugged, although we never see him taking drugs.
His agent calls to get him to agree to a tour, but clearly he cannot make decisions.
A salesman from the Yellow Pages asks him to renew an ad, presumably for some kind of machine shop. The vendor ignores that he's wearing a black dress. Later two young Mormons come to the house but others talk to them.
Time-looping: the protagonist comes upon a drugged-out woman...
... in two different shots, seen in two different ways. He is indifferent to her condition but props her up.
In a room that once might have seen creative energy, a bandmate tries to engage the protagonist and perhaps borrow some money.
Profane resurrection: Van Sant shows the spirit rising from the body in the shed.
Images from Tony Takitani
The child Tony studies art and shows an aptitude for precision and thus for illustration.
As a man, his work becomes his life, until he marries.
Tony serves Eiko a meal that is a work of art. Both he and the camera eye delight in deliberate visual presentation.
The design of their contentment.
Eiko's designer shoes, a metonym of her...
... compulsive or repetitive buying.
Tony's old man, the jazz man.
Eiko's thinking of clothing she just returned — to economize and thus please Tony.
The fatal accident that follows is depicted in a narrative ellipsis with just this simple graphic visual of a car hood and the brief sound of abrupt braking.
Black and white and gray, in color. Equally laconic narratively is Tony's return home carrying Eiko's ashes in a cardboard box, shown with almost no action in a stylized and muted visual composition.
With the clothes gone, all that's left for Tony is a Hopper-like naked room — and for us, the return of materialist cinema.
Interrupting narrative: a brief history
A recurrent motif in the history of avant-garde film is the idea that the medium need not have become a narrative, representational form at all, but could instead have modeled itself on other art forms, especially painting and music. A history of avant-garde cinema can in fact be constructed in just such terms, counterpoising the origins of orthodox or mainstream narrative film in literature and theater with the painterly, poetic, and musical origins of the first avant-garde experiments on celluloid. In doing so, one would be elaborating a gesture made much earlier by, among others, Fernand Léger, Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, and the art historian Élie Faure, who said that
The most extreme statement of this “anti-narrative” sentiment appears in the work of the “structuralist-materialist” filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s such as Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and Paul Sharits (themselves preceded by the “absolute film” of Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and Oskar Fischinger). They emptied their motion pictures of apparent content in order to draw attention to how a particular aspect of cinematic technique functioned, or to emphasize film as concrete material rather than as a medium for imitating actions and conveying emotions. The subject matter of the image thus became unimportant, and instead the image's function was to act as a formal unit of predetermined design. A film could then be structured in terms of its image content (abstract, or concrete in the case of an empty room, a corridor, or a landscape), duration (using time and interval as structuring principles in themselves), formal juxtapositions created through editing, and so on.
But, surveying the history of avant-garde cinema as a whole, it would be more accurate to say, not that cinema has simply expunged narrative altogether à la the structuralist-materialists, but that it has displaced, deformed, and reformed narrative over the years in such quasi-mainstream yet otherwise disparate films as Earth (1930), Paisan (1946), Tokyo Story (1953), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and Mystery Train (1989). Partly this occurred through the very cross-fertilization among the arts toward which Léger, Dulac, Deren, and Faure had been gesturing. That is, poets, painters, musical composers, circus performers, architects, dancers, choreographers, photographers, cartoonists, sculptors — any but professional or commercial moviemakers — became models and sources for the radical shift in the aesthetics of film narrative. For just one example, avant-garde cinema often privileges, not narrative lines, but land- or cityscapes, constructing them according to a collage aesthetic. Expressed in such a film as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), as well as in the creations of the Dada artists Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch, the technique of collage — together with its cinematic twin, montage — dominated the avant-garde in both visual art and cinema. And this should not surprise us, since cinema and the avant-garde (especially avant-garde cinema) each create works out of fragments.
To wit: the principles of editing in film differ little from the principles of collage in art. Both involve the layering or arranging of visual fragments in relation to one another to create a pictorial whole. Höch aligns a photograph of a baby’s head on top of an advertisement’s picture of a doll’s body and in this way creates a single figure. Similarly, D. W. Griffith’s parallel editing aligns two simultaneous actions into a single narrative moment that articulates the complete event in time, even though it is actually occurring in two distinct places. Indeed, the very essence of film is its assembly of fragmented images (each individual frame) run together quickly before the human eye so as to create the optical illusion of movement. This is true of all film, of course, whether avant-garde or conventionally narrative, fiction or non-fiction. The most linear Hollywood movie uses shot-reverse-shot techniques, derived from Griffith, which fundamentally fracture the otherwise straightforward progression of the narrative. Feature fiction does this even as Kenneth Anger’s underground film Scorpio Rising (1967) does: it disrupts its “biker” narrative by juxtaposing footage of it with “found” or quoted material like re-photographed television-program excerpts and cartoon clips.
In fact, even an advocate of cinematic realism like Siegfried Kracauer recognized the essentially fractured nature of film. Despite his insistence in Theory of Film (1960) that cinema is fundamentally the representation of physical reality — the straightforward recording and revealing of the visible world — Kracauer does not just describe film as an art form that favors unstaged reality and random events, in addition to having a “tendency toward the unorganized and diffuse.” He also describes a film as a fragment of reality that
In other words, for film to present reality, it must simultaneously and paradoxically draw attention to its own lack of reality. Or, put another way, for film to present a non-realistic vision, it must simultaneously and paradoxically draw attention to its own ultimate derivation from reality.
All of the above is by way of an introduction to a group of films I’d like to treat, each of which, in one way or another, itself bridges the gap between the avant and the garde, the non-narrative and the storied, the abstract or abstracted and the representational. The first is Gus Van Sant’s latest film, Last Days (2005), because, of the five pictures I’ll be discussing here, it is the most extreme in its rejection of traditional narrative and the only one that omits romance, that perennial staple of popular entertainment. To be sure, most of Van Sant’s eleven films are so remote from conventional filmmaking that they don’t even appear to be attacking convention; they simply exist in themselves and as themselves. He has sometimes ventured into the world of established practice, as in the case of Good Will Hunting (1997), which even attracted the attention of Oscar. But truer to this director’s spirit or essence is Gerry (2002), which consisted of two men (both named Gerry) wandering around in a desert for 103 minutes. Somewhere in between lie Elephant (2003), a de-dramatization of the Columbine school massacre, and My Own Private Idaho (1991), which transmuted some Falstaff-Hal scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV into an encounter between a drugged-out U.S. (male) hooker and a rich kid.
Unique among artists of his kind, Van Sant has a sizable public (one way to bridge the gap between the avant and the garde) — he has to have, or else HBO wouldn’t have co-produced Last Days. Some of the reason why he attracts that audience, I’d say, is the implicit despair that fills his films. It's a despair with which he can make his viewers feel existentially deep without having to think about it (more on this later). And much of Van Sant’s appeal has to be related to rock music, since his soundtracks are in some degree where his pictures are located. This is true of his new picture as well, which uses at least two songs as part of its very texture. Further, Last Days was suggested by the 1994 suicide of rock star Kurt Cobain, of the band Nirvana. Van Sant concludes with a note acknowledging that Cobain’s life and death had suggestive power for him, but the director also states that the film is fictional.
His use of the word "fiction" is a paradox, because the film has no fictional elements — in the sense of plot, anyway. Almost nothing happens, so much so that the story consists of having no story, in apparent reaction against a typical rock biopic like Oliver Stone’s Doors (1991). As in Gerry, Van Sant has stripped away virtually anything that might be considered narrative or drama. All we do is follow a young adult for a couple of days while he wanders around his country mansion in a narcotized state. We also accompany him on dozy walks through the woods or remain with him while he lounges about with four hangers-on, while he sometimes eats something, sometimes dresses in drag, sometimes strums his guitar, sometimes answers the door (to find himself, on one occasion, face-to-face with two Mormon missionaries). Little in Last Days indicates that this mumbling, bumbling man is a big rock-star icon like Cobain. The film gives fewer hints about the reasons for his general stasis. And at least part of the film's atmosphere, I’m guessing, is that his being in the state he’s in is its own explanation: if you want psychology, go see . . . Good Will Hunting.
All of which, for me, makes this work a cinematic version of John Cage's music. In Cage’s 4’33’’, for example , a pianist sits at a piano motionless for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, during which all we hear is what the pianist is not doing, or playing, whatever that may be. Since one can easily make the case that music is a means of intensifying us aurally, one can then extend this argument to say that Cage merely gets the notes out of the way. Somewhat similarly, Van Sant presents otherwise representational or realistic material for us to see and hear, but its purpose, it seems, is to concentrate, avant-garde style, on what is not said and done.
Until close to the end of Last Days, that is, when Van Sant puts his daring in reverse. The young man, who has often lain down during the film, lies down again on a floor, and this time he dies. We know this because, in a double-exposure shot, his naked body arises from his recumbent figure and ascends. Such a device, which would have seemed saccharine even during the era of silent film, is howlingly dissonant with the film's style up to this point. The shock is not that Van Sant slipped here, but that he didn’t slip: he did it deliberately. He thus makes a stylistic joke that not only breaches the mood of Last Days, but also laughs at its implicit theme of present-day spiritual vacancy or existential despair. Employing the dynamic of negation so common to the avant-garde, Van Sant manages to give us two negatives. He shows us that he’s against the idea both of stylistic or tonal consistency and thematic unity. And, to top his act, he does so by deploying the means of convention or tradition — the one that combines sentimentality with religion in this instance — to vitiate the avant-garde concerns of ennui and anomie, being and nothingness, fear and loathing and the sickness or the senselessness unto death.
Van Sant inculcates the protagonist's virtual non-performance in Last Days clearly as a part of his dogged negativism. In the leading role, Michael Pitt is neither good nor less than good, for such categories cannot be applied to what amounts to an enactment, in which Pitt simply mopes along druggedly for the film’s ninety-seven minutes. In this way, he complements Van Sant’s intent to purge his picture (very much as in Gerry, which, in this director-screenwriter’s view, forms a trilogy with Last Days and Elephant) of compliance with usual cinematic expectations, thus pleasing “advanced” viewers who want a holiday from those expectations. But Van Sant goes even further than to valorize non-performance in Last Days. In keeping with his avant-garde “plot,” he even tries to disrupt what little narrative the film has.
As in Elephant, for example, scenes that are shot in long takes from a single angle are revisited or replayed from new, different angles. Moreover, it’s difficult to “tell time” in Last Days — the movie may span more than a few days, but it may span less; parts of it even seem to take place out of chronological order. And, as in Gerry, the camera’s attention is frequently diverted from the narrative, the stasis of the film's main character, to some detail in his immediate environment that is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Add to this mixture direct sound that allows background noise to filter through, decor that has no designer (none is listed in the credits), and natural lighting (by the cinematographer Harris Savides) that makes the rocker’s mansion look like one vast, ill-kept rehearsal space. You have a recipe for avant-garde nirvana — or a film that appears to be as suicidal, as self-negating, as its zombie-like protagonist.
A relatively new Japanese film, in its own quite different way, is another instance of style as the meaning, less-than-meaning, or even un-meaning of a work of art. Tony Takitani (2004) is the eighth film by Jun Ichikawa and the first one of his to arrive in the United States. It was adapted by Ichikawa from a short story by Haruki Murakami (published in translation in The New Yorker of April 15, 2002) — a slender, ethereal piece of fiction whose style Ichikawa honors in his own minimalist way. For one thing, the picture is only 75 minutes long; for another, the director embraces Murakami’s third-person narration, only rarely endowing the characters themselves with speech or dialogue. It is the calm, detached voice of a narrator that propels the slim narrative of Tony Takitani forward.
Tony Takitani is a successful technical illustrator in contemporary Tokyo. (He got his American first name from a friend of his father’s.) Alone and self-sufficient since childhood, when his mother died and his father, a jazz musician (and former prisoner of war), was frequently playing gigs on the road, Tony leads a stoic life in which he shuns emotions as illogical and immature. However, when he meets, falls in love with, and marries a younger woman named Eiko, Tony comes vibrantly alive, for the first time understanding — and fearing the return of — the loneliness of a solitary existence. But soon he discovers that Eiko has a mania for buying designer clothing — dresses and coats as well as shoes. When the two of them are in Europe, especially Paris, the wife continues her compulsive buying spree. So crowded, in fact, does this couple’s house become with Eiko’s clothes that they have to convert an entire large room into a closet to contain the many fruits of her shopping sprees.
After accepting his wife’s mania for a time, Tony begins to worry about her obsession with high fashion; so he asks Eiko to economize. The result is that, out of respect and love for her husband, Eiko decides to return some recently purchased items to an upscale boutique — and is tragically killed in a car accident on the way home when she gets distracted by the vivid memory of the dress and coat she now can no longer call her own. Thus does Tony find himself alone again, desolately sitting in his wife’s closet gazing at her vast collection of haute couture — each item being the ghost of a soul she had long since given up to the devil of chronic consumption.
Essentially, this is where Murakami’s story ends, but Ichikawa tacks on an ending in which Tony places an ad in the newspaper for a woman who fits Eiko’s measurements — and therefore her clothing — perfectly. One might prefer the ending of the short story, but one can understand the iron — and ironic — logic of Ichikawa’s ending. For it puts Tony in the position not only of finding another woman, a new companion to alleviate the emptiness of his isolation, but also of creating in effect another Eiko whose clothing will ultimately come between them again. His deceased wife’s clothing will thus “make” Tony’s new woman in more ways than one.
What I’ve described may sound like the core of an absurdist, Ionesco-like farce (The Chairs, say), but nothing in the film is played for comedy even if the effect of some scenes is humorous. Instead, Ichikawa treats the story in a cool, almost scrutinizing way that, because of its combination of narration and visualization, goes beyond the detached description to be found in Murakami’s original tale. To wit: every scene in Tony Takitani is performed as if it took place on a removed stage, with minimal furnishing and spare lighting. (In fact, the production designer Ichida Yoshikazu built a small and simple theatrical stage on which to shoot, altering its angle and changing its interior to indicate a change of place.) And the recurrent voice-over keeps the characters and action at a fixed distance from us, not too far away yet not too close. This distance is paradoxically underlined by the device of having the characters finish the narrator’s sentences. Furthermore, the film’s color is so decolorized (by the cinematographer Taishi Hirokawa), so muted in order to match the characters’ muted emotions, as often to appear black and white.
Especially important here is a repeated horizontal movement of the camera, from one spare tableau to the next, which seems to take us through the story as though we were looking through an album of someone else’s pictures (come to life). When a scene finishes, the camera glides to the right, past a thick black band, to the next shot. This happens continually even if the next scene is set in the same place as the one just finished. And while all this goes on, a melancholy piano score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto) picks gently at the silence, even as Ichikawa’s images, like Edward Hopper’s paintings, implacably highlight blank spaces more than they do anything else.
The reference to Hopper — mine as well as Ichikawa’s, in interviews — is apt. Hopper’s paintings of New York street scenes and interiors have always conveyed a mood of estrangement, loneliness, and desperation through their depiction not only of a mere one or two anonymous, non-communicating big-city dwellers, but also of the vast and indifferent emptiness that surrounds them. For his part, Ichikawa even goes to the length of having his leading actors, Issey Ogata (in real life, a stage actor by profession) as Tony Takitani and Rie Miyazawa as Eiko, play two roles each. This tactic decreases the number of people in the film (and also our ability to empathize with, or get close to, his characters). It also increases Tony’s isolation, as it were, by having Ogata play the parts of both Tony and his father.
The effect of Tony Takitani, in sum, is strange, for it makes the director of this picture, if not its protagonist, then certainly an active presence in it. We cannot be much moved or amused by the leading characters, despite the substance of the film’s clothing metaphor. That is, clothing is a kind of “second skin” which seals us off from the outside world even more than we might otherwise might be. In that sense, clothing also — it could be said — is like the accumulated and embellished mainstream movie narratives of the last century. Specifically in the film, in Eiko’s case, clothing is a materialistic attachment which gets in the way of her relationship to other human beings. We are held, however, primarily by the way this movie is made, as we would be by a genuine or purer structuralist-materialist film, and thus by the intelligence that created such a style. Not many of us, I think, would want to see many pictures made in this manner, but this one is an intriguing glance at the director-as-demigod, deigning to treat human frailty with almost imperial sway. (Another title of Ichikawa’s, Dying at a Hospital, 1993, suggests a similar demonic strategy.) Ichikawa assumes that his art justifies such scant material. The importance of the material lies less in the characters themselves or their story than in the way they and it are framed by a camera which unapologetically, even apostolically, stands in for the universe at large.