JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Back to the future, or
the vanguard meets the rearguard

by Bert Cardullo

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

“there will some day be an end of the cinema considered as an offshoot of the theater, an end of the sentimental monkey tricks and gesticulations of gentlemen with blue chins and rickety legs.”

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

“precludes the notion of completeness. Its frame marks a provisional limit; its content refers to other contents outside that frame; and its structure denotes something that cannot be encompassed — physical existence.”

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.

Last Days

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.

Tony Takitani

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.

3-Iron

Even more extreme in his silence than Tony and Eiko, the male lead of 3-Iron (2004) never says a word, while his female counterpart speaks only three words near the end of the film. In this they appear to be part of both a linguistic (or non-linguistic) and a narrative experiment by 3-Iron’s writer-director, the South Korean Kim Ki-duk. He not only makes his characters virtually silent in an otherwise sound film, but also tells a story in which their silence acquires primary thematic significance. 3-Iron, like the director's previous picture Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003), is thus different from Kim’s other nine films (dating back to 1996). (I’m thinking here of Wild Animals [1997], The Isle [2000], and Bad Guy [2002], but in particular of Crocodile [1996], which tells the story of a man living at the edge of the Han River in Seoul who saves a woman from trying to commit suicide, but then proceeds to rape and abuse her — until an odd sort of relationship develops between them.)

3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring contain little dialogue and focus on marginalized or disenfranchised characters who operate outside the main currents of middle- and upper-class Korean society. The latter is a kind of Buddhist pastoral that, in its emphasis on forgiveness and redemption, takes on a spiritual aspect absent from Kim’s earlier, sometimes sex-and-violence-filled cinema. And 3-Iron is an unconventional love story in extremis, yet one that, largely through its silences, takes the spiritual (as opposed to carnal or corporeal) element in love — and life — seriously. The spiritual here is not a stylistic joke, as it was in Last Days. It has something to do with dreams and reality, subjective vision and objective facticity. Thus it partakes of a subject that, to speak only of film, can be traced back to two avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 1930s: namely, German expressionism and French surrealism.

In the first part of 3-Iron, we meet a young man named Tae-suk, as slender and supple as a dancer, who breaks into a number of Seoul’s more comfortable homes when their owners are away but never steals or damages anything. He simply lives in each house as long as he can, bathing and eating and watching television. As a sort of recompense for the owners’ unwitting hospitality, Tae-suk waters their plants and does the laundry; he even fixes things that may be broken, like a clock or a bathroom scale. Then, when he sees that the rightful residents are returning, this lone drifter slips out, onto his motorcycle, and moves to another empty house. How does Tae-suk know no one is home for an extended period of time? He hangs handbills — restaurant take-out menus, to be exact — on the front doors of houses, and if, in the course of a few days, he sees that a particular flyer has not been removed, he knows that the owners are away and he can enter. Naturally, since no one else is in these scenes in vacant homes, Tae-suk never converses.

Just as naturally, we quickly begin to wonder about the reasons for his behavior. We are ready to treat it as just a prankish aberration until he enters the residence of a young married woman named Sun-hwa, whose husband is away, and part two of 3-Iron begins. Tae-suk doesn’t know at first that she is there: she hides from him out of fear, yet follows him about the house, fascinated. And since Sun-hwa is hiding, these two don’t converse. Telephone messages inform us that her husband is desperate to see her, that he is en route home and longs for his wife despite the coldness with which she has been treating him. (With good reason: Sun-hwa’s face is a patchwork of bruises that she has received at the hands of her abusive husband.) Yet she remains focused on, and spellbound by, this silent, precise, strangely gentle intruder, who is startled one night to find Sun-hwa, no longer afraid, standing by his bed staring at him. Even then they do not speak. Each simply accepts the other’s presence — his that of a “punk” housebreaker, hers that of a model by profession — indeed, seems to want it.

Still, Tae-suk withdraws before Sun-hwa’s husband appears. When the latter does appear, a middle-aged man named Min-kyu whom his wife clearly dislikes, he tries to make love to her — against her will. (He is the kind of man, if there is such a kind, who keeps his glasses on during lovemaking, or the attempt at it.) Tae-suk then intervenes to help Sun-hwa, and it is here that we get the reason for the film’s strange title. Almost thoughtfully, Tae-suk takes a 3-iron from Min-kyu’s golf bag and drives three balls into the husband’s stomach, making him double over. Such an action risks the ludicrous, or would risk it if Tae-suk’s behavior up to now had been conventional. Since it is not, we can view this particular addition as one more oddity. Min-kyu, of course, remembers his treatment at Tae-suk’s hands and later gets the chance to use it himself on his erstwhile assailant.

Golf and the driving of golf balls recur throughout the picture, not just in these two instances. Apparently, well-heeled Koreans, like their counterparts in Japan, have a passion for the game so strong that for them it has elements of a rite (a particularly silent one, I might add). The golf club has an almost ceremonial glow — an earthly glow, and a secular rite, which are meant to contrast starkly with the preternatural rite of passage Tae-suk and Sun-hwa undergo and the transformative glow they take on. All the more so, paradoxically, because of the parallel Kim makes between the title of his film and the lives of his two main characters. For a 3-iron may be one among a number of special golf clubs, but it is also the least used or most neglected of clubs — except in this picture, and except in the cases of Sun-hwa and Tae-suk (as opposed to the third member of this triangle, Min-kyu), whose own respective neglect and marginalization are turned to almost otherworldly use by Kim.

Back to this world, for the time being: after giving Min-kyu the golf-ball drubbing, Tae-suk waits on his motorcycle outside Sun-hwa’s home. She comes out and mounts the rear seat of the bike, but again nothing is said. They simply ride off together — to another empty house that he knows awaits them. Matters darken only when, in one home the couple enters, they find the body of an old man who has dropped dead. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa wrap the corpse formally and bury it in the garden. However, when the dead man’s son comes looking for his father and finds a pair of intruders instead, he has them arrested. Sun-hwa is released to her husband, who takes her home; but Tae-suk is imprisoned after he confesses to the body’s whereabouts, and this marks the start of part three of 3-Iron. (We don’t hear his confession, but we do see the beatings by police that make him talk.) An autopsy eventually reveals that the old man died of natural causes, so Tae-suk is set free.

Yet some of the film’s most extraordinary sequences take place in his cell. Even though it is white, concrete, and unfurnished, Tae-suk finds ways in this little space to conceal himself from his warder. And it is these quasi-metaphysical sequences that help us fully to comprehend not only Tae-suk’s somewhat amused tolerance of the world as it is and his desire to become invisible in it, but also the mystical bond that he forged with Sun-hwa in part two — a bond that itself contrasts with the worldliness of the city through which it winds. Indeed, it is this couple’s very silence that helps to intensify the sense that they are airy dancers to a music only they hear, as they glide through the pedestrianism of everyday life. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa thus suggest visitants, figures in very real surroundings who are self-created abstractions. These creatures who seem to have been waiting for each other are self-created because they believe that the world exists precisely in order for them to disregard it, however much they may understand its practical workings.

What is being dramatized in 3-Iron, then, is an attempt at otherness, the recognition of a private state of mind that may accompany us (as less-than-extreme, or more earthbound, variations on Tae-suk and Sun-hwa) in our trudging dailiness but that we shunt aside so that, daily, we can carry on with the trudge. And what presses Tae-suk and Sun-hwa is not just a hope for escape from the humdrum; it is fidelity to the private self. These two want to live in some measure like others, yes, but they also want to feel untrammeled by the world outside them. It is as if Ariel, released by Prospero, had found his mate in this picture and decided with her to escape life’s tempest. Tae-suk finds Sun-hwa again after he himself is released from jail, and it is 3-Iron’s final sequence that provides the climax to a film which, for a good portion of its ninety-five minutes, seemed only to be neat and clever — not much more than a sophisticated twist on the general run of housebreaker films out of Asia, like Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) and Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour (1995). But from the entrance of Sun-hwa to its closing scenes between her and Tae-suk, 3-Iron stops being merely clever: it opens up on an eternity that these two characters themselves join to create.

The conclusion itself is eerie yet touching. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa are reunited after he gets out of jail, but she is the only one who can see him. Sun-hwa is with her husband at home, where Tae-suk is also present — and not present: for Min-kyu senses his presence but is unable to see him. Sun-hwa and Tae-suk will thus have their own marriage even while her marriage to her first husband goes on. And it is through the fidelity of Sun-hwa and Tae-suk, each to his or her own private self, that they have managed simultaneously to make a private union for themselves.

One possible explanation for this ultimate union-within-a-union is that, during his time in prison, Tae-suk achieved a higher level of consciousness where he exists on a mystical plane at the same time as he retains the capability of taking on a physical form at will. Or the contrary: during Tae-suk’s imprisonment, Sun-hwa achieved — during her own connubial imprisonment — a higher level of consciousness that enabled her to will him into physical form at the same time as she could spirit him, as required or desired, to a mystical plane. Moreover, 3-Iron’s final image, of the two of them standing on a scale that reads “0,” reveals that Sun-hwa herself has entered Tae-suk’s mystical realm, if not through her own agency then through the considerable powers of Tae-suk.

All physically impossible, you say? Yes, but that’s precisely the point. What is physically impossible need not be spiritually so, particularly in so representational a medium as film where the spiritual can appear corporeal or tangible. Kim obviously knows this, which is why he leaves an escape clause, if you will, for those viewers irretrievably wedded to the material world. A caption at the end of 3-Iron talks about the difficulty of differentiating dreams from reality, which allows for the possibility that one of the leading characters, even each of them, is unreal or oneiric. Ah, it was all a dream, then. Or at least part of it was. But which part, and whose dream was it? That of someone inside, or outside, the picture? (Again, the film gives no visual indications of a dream world.) And is it only, finally, in the quiet of dreams that we can preserve our private selves, unimpeded by the wake of the world? 3-Iron doesn’t say. It just methodically ingests the golf-club business and turns the ritual of this game into an ethereal nod to the vernacular below — or apart.

In the end, the insinuating, strangely enchanting quality of 3-Iron is irresistible, not least because it is distinguished from the start by the wraithlike, black-clad body of Jae Hee (a.k.a. Lee Hyun-kyoon), rippling through empty houses as Tae-suk, and by the equally tacit yet supplely expressive countenance of Lee Seung-yeon as Sun-hwa. They are backed up, as they had to be in their dialogue-free roles, by the natural sounds of Seoul-city, as well as by Slvian’s mood music for piano and violin in combination with the melancholic tones of a female vocalist. But Jae Hee and Lee Seung-yeon are aided even more by the color cinematography of Jang Seung-back. Doubtless cued by Kim himself (a former painter who studied art in Paris and who also edited 3-Iron), the color scheme has a slightly unnatural green tint and a muted, flat look. These qualities make the images appear sylvan and primitive, but only in the sense that, as in medieval drama, they depend for their depth or perspective less on a human (camera-) eye than on the all-transcendent consciousness that oversees the film in addition to pervading it.

I’m not necessarily talking about God or gods here, religion or faith, but I am talking about a higher reality than the kind most materialists and secularists recognize — a reality toward which, among avant-gardists, the symbolists aspired in their paintings, plays, and poems in reaction against the literalness, sordidness, mundaneness, and topicality of realism and naturalism. This is precisely the kind of higher reality toward which Tony Takitani himself did not aspire, seeking instead to overcome his arid isolation only through physical union with a woman, never to cultivate his lone or private self and then join it to another’s in celestial harmony.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I can’t say that the next film I consider, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), is concerned with any transcendental or ultimate realm of experience. I can say, however, that it shares three concerns with 3-Iron: the oneiric, the romantic (again, in the soulful or spiritual, questing sense more than in the physical or lustful, orgasmic one), and the interior — or the interior of our minds as distinguished from the exteriority of the world around us.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the work of the director Michel Gondry and the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Gondry is a Frenchman who made his reputation with music as well as advertising videos; who has directed fiction shorts and at least one previous feature film in the United States (Human Nature, 2001); and has two full-length pictures forthcoming or still in production whose titles seem to suggest that he is continuing to explore this kind of subject matter — The Science of Sleep and Master of Space and Time. Kaufman, who also did the screenplay for Human Nature, is known for his bizarre ideas, as especially evidenced by his scripts of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). But both these films were self-reflexive without being self-reflective, offbeat without really being — like genuine experimental works — off the beaten path. Eternal Sunshine changes all that.

First, the title itself hardly reflects back to the film world, as do Malkovich and Adaptation. It is the third line of stanza fourteen of a twenty-five stanza, 366-line epistolary poem by Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717), and it is spoken by a nun in praise of her chastity:

"How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d."

So right away, the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind announces that this picture means to be both offbeat or eccentric and important. Second, the film’s first shot is of a man sleeping, waking, and getting up. Ordinary enough, but why does the image seem to tremble, then? Why did the director use a handheld camera for such a commonplace beginning? The film which follows is an explanation, and something more — not a wallowing, as the opening momentarily suggested, in cinematic self-display.

A third signal in Eternal Sunshine, even odder, is that, after the first two hints of strangeness, the story does not begin strangely. The oldest Hollywood plot blueprint is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and this picture is so obedient to the first part of that blueprint that it is initially baffling. Why, prior to “boy meets girl,” did we get those two peculiar opening signals? What happened to the bizarrerie that permeated Being John Malkovich and Adaptation? However, just as we start to wonder if Kaufman has succumbed to convention after the flashy start, his screenplay lurches off the well-worn road of “boy meets girl” — not into mere flash, but instead into the light and the reflection of its own true self.

First, let’s get back onto the road for part one of Eternal Sunshine. Well, almost on the road, for part one could be either a dream or a memory on the part of the male lead, or an unwitting repetition of their shared past by both the male and female leads: more on this later.

A meek, unassuming, thirtyish man named Joel Barish lives on Long Island and commutes to his job in Manhattan. One day, moody because of woman troubles (especially on this Valentine’s Day), he unexpectedly bolts from the station platform where he is waiting for his New York-bound train and scoots over to the other platform for a train headed to Montauk, on the eastern end of Long Island. There, on a lonely, wintry beach, Joel sees a young woman walking past him, and she sees him. They do not speak, but soon they encounter each other accidentally in a diner, on the station platform, and on the otherwise empty return train. We can almost hear the plot needles clicking, especially since the dialogue is 1930s-cute, with the requisite mod candor of the twenty-first century.

The woman’s name, we learn, is Clementine, and she is uninhibited: hence Joel’s perfect other half. She is wearing an orange sweatshirt when we first see her, her hair is blue, and her lack of inhibition, we later learn, extends to sexual promiscuity. She and Joel hit it off very well, as we follow them rapidly through a considerable period of intimacy. But the 1930s formula gets a jolt, for the qualities that initially drew them together become hurdles and then barriers until in the end Clementine decides that Joel is too boring for her, and he concludes that she is too needy. By the time the film’s opening titles appear, these two are breaking up. Although there is no terrible quarrel, the break-up is painful and abrupt enough for both Joel and Clementine. So painful for her, in fact, that she seeks the services of a doctor.

This physician, however, is not a psychotherapist or psychiatrist, but a specialist in memory erasure. And Kaufman’s story now zooms from romantic comedy into science fiction as we learn about the work of brain specialist Dr. Howard Mierzwiak. He, together with his associates Stan and Patrick and nurse Mary (the four of them form a company aptly called “Lacuna”), will for a fee electronically eliminate all of an individual’s memories of another person. Clementine undergoes this procedure to forget Joel. It is successful, for when he and she meet one day in the bookstore where Clementine works, she treats him cordially enough but unfamiliarly — so much so that she kisses someone else in his presence. Thus do Joel’s woman troubles mount, since he has by no means forgotten his darling Clementine. Yet what can he do at this point, except follow her lead and himself visit Dr. Mierzwiak?

Predictably, the good doctor advises the unhappy Joel to erase his memories of Clementine: then all will be well again, or at least even. Dr. Mierzwiak’s new process will induce Joel’s mind to revisit all his experiences of Clementine and annul them one by one. Desperate at the same time that he is curious, Joel agrees to the treatment. Part two of Eternal Sunshine becomes to a large extent the Clementine-erasure in his brain. It is here also that the film becomes its true self, for, from this point until the finish, most of Eternal Sunshine exists inside Joel Barish’s head, in the nebulous and the evanescent, the scary blendings and the ludicrous reversals, the anxieties as well as the wish-fulfillments of remembrance-cum-reverie. Joel thus revisits snatches of his life with Clementine in somewhat warped form, even as the doctor’s process is rubbing her out of his mind:

Clementine (whose hair during this “dream” sequence goes from blue to orange to bright red to green) even makes appearances in errant old memories of Joel’s:

And all the while that Joel is under, he — or rather we — can hear Dr. Mierzwiak’s technical assistants as they hover about his inert body.

Now many films have attempted to portray dreams or memories, but usually they falter because they are simply conventional narratives of the flashback-kind or sets of symbols depicted in soft focus and embedded in “surreal” imagery (as in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, 1930, say). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has the only dream or “induced-memory” sequence I know that convinces — it is something like traversing a kaleidoscopic nightmare. Its success here is due to Michel Gondry’s virtuosity, together with Valdís Óskarsdóttir’s superb editing. Charlie Kaufman alone may have written the final screenplay (the original story from which it derives was the work of Gondry, Kaufman, and Pierre Bismuth), but it is hard to believe that he forecast on a word processor every visual nuance, light storm, and incongruous juxtaposition that we see in the movie’s dream sequence. No, Gondry is the ultimate artist we have to turn to here.

The whole long passage of Clementine’s mental erasure in fact is something like a cadenza in an early concerto, in which the composer (Kaufman in this case) prepared the way for the soloist (Gondry) — who then took over on his own, here buttressed by Jon Brion’s delicately beautiful, eclectically atmospheric musical score. In the process, Gondry takes Eternal Sunshine far past science fiction into cinematic efflorescence. For he shows us, more seductively, more compellingly, than other directors have done, how the freehand juxtaposition of filmic frames can capture on screen the flashes in our minds that slip between the words. He thus indirectly iterates a truism which needs iterating. Not only is film primarily a visual medium but, more important, no other artistic medium can capture as well, in motion, serially and cumulatively, the unfettered imagistic workings of the human mind — workings that are beyond, or perhaps above, verbal expression.

At the last, Joel has second thoughts about the work being performed on his brain and tries to wake himself up, as well as to retain fragments of his happier Clementine memories. But Dr. Mierzwiak and his assistants strive otherwise, and they prevail. We then see Joel waking up in his own bed (as the doctor had promised), as part three of Eternal Sunshine begins back where the film began: in a repetition of its opening shot. And now we know why the camera was, and is, handheld: Joel himself is trembly after having been through the nightmare of mental erasure. But when did the “surgical” process begin? Before the movie started? If so, this makes us wonder whether the romance of part one of Eternal Sunshine is an unconscious replay, by Joel and Clementine, of their first courtship. Without any memories of each other or of the failure of their first try at a relationship, did they become attracted to each other once again?

Indeed, this is the case, as we decipher that the film started out of chronology — about three quarters of the way through its entire story — and that what we were watching was not the original courtship but its clone, if you will. Thus Kaufman and Gondry open Eternal Sunshine with ostensibly conventional romance so as to draw in the conventional audience, only to spring on them their true, unconventional aims. What appears, therefore, to be a somewhat upbeat or optimistic ending — as the dreamily united Joel and Clementine walk away from us down that identical, wintry Montauk beach until they disappear and the screen turns to sheer snow-white — is no such thing. It’s the prelude to the agonizing break-up we’ve already witnessed. Hollywood moviegoer, you’ve been had, albeit in the service of a genuine subject, for a change (as opposed to the gimmickry of a memory-loss picture like Memento, 2000). The film indicates that the quintessence of life is non-resolution between the insides of our heads and everything on the outside that surrounds us, between subjectivity and objectivity. It also conveys the idea that our memories, even if (or precisely because) they are malleable or erasable, may somehow exist apart from our deeper impulses, urges, instincts, or desires — which cannot be purged. And those memories and deeper impuses bespeak our animal origins in ways that Eternal Sunshine, for all its romantic trappings and quasi-religious title, endeavors to illumine.

That illumining is greatly assisted by Ellen Kuras’ cinematography, which sheds very little sunlight on the proceedings. In part, there's a lack of sunlight because the film is set in winter, in part because, as much as possible, Kuras uses what few available light sources are open to her (as opposed to lighting, or over-lighting, the set herself). The result is color that is so spare, so muted or de-saturated, as to appear slightly out of kilter — like some of Joel’s mental operations. I’m not yet prepared to go so far, as some critics have done, as to compare Kuras’ work with that of Sven Nykvist, who worked his share of miracles for the wintry cinema of Ingmar Bergman. But I am ready to say that she well understands that cinematography — aided as it is here by Dan Leigh’s production design and Gondry’s off-center, sometimes even jagged compositions — can be a form of visual poetry which quietly and incrementally lends a film meaning. Especially a film that purports to be a lively romance, yet is set in the dead of winter, in the coolly antiseptic world of a science dead to the ethical implications of what it is doing.

Jim Carrey might not have been anybody’s first choice to play a leading part in this would-be romance, but he becomes mine retrospectively. Who could have believed that the unbearable smart-ass of such pictures as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Ace Ventura (1994, 1995), and The Cable Guy (1996) could become an actor of some depth, some sorrow, some hunger for verity — certainly enough required for the bittersweet romantic comedy that makes up such a large part of Eternal Sunshine? Carrey sent some signals of this change in The Truman Show (1998) and in 2001’s The Majestic (in which Carrey’s character loses his memory completely as the result of a car accident), but even in these films there was room for a bit of the self-display that he had shown in the past. Here there is no gram of exhibitionism, of mugging and cavorting: Carrey wants only to burrow into the moment and come up displaying — his character.

Kate Winslet plays opposite Carrey, as Clementine, and her performance proves that, contrary to what we might expect of a cinematic virtuoso, Gondry is a knowing director of actors. For Winslet is the woman who played the young Murdoch in Iris (2001) and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995), so her giving body here to a light-comedy figure — of the type that Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne used to play so effortlessly in the 1930s — had to have been helped along by Gondry. Consider: a Frenchman directing a Brit not only to create, for her, a different kind of character, but also to speak with a convincing American accent in a cast that otherwise consists only of American actors.

Among them is a pert Kirsten Dunst in the role of Dr. Mierzwiak’s nurse, in love with the married doctor and herself the victim of one of his memory erasures — after she has sex with him. (She also has sex with one of the doctor’s two associates, while the other associate lustily pursues Clementine with inside information about her garnered from Joel’s “brain-lift.” So much for the romance in romantic comedy.) Before the sex, she quotes to him the line of poetry that is the title of this film, and, guess what, he, too, knows that “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!” comes from Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard.”

Though there clearly are no nuns in this filmic narrative, the title — unlike these medical professionals’ knowledge of it — seems to have more than a tenuous connection to the picture’s action. Hence Dr. Mierzwiak’s knowledge of Pope’s line may not be so contrived as nurse Mary’s, after all. For he is the prime mover in this business of removing “spots” from people’s minds, a business that places him, together with science, in a designer role that God for his part would never accept. Eternal sunshine belongs to Him, the holy, and the heavens alone, and the fact that there is little of it in Kaufman and Gondry’s earthbound film speaks for itself.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) itself is earthbound and maybe time-bound, too. Its standard is stated in the middle of the picture when the director of a center for modern art tells her assistant that her criterion for selecting pieces is that they could not have been made in another era. This film, like those pieces, is most assuredly of our time. Here are a few things that happen in it that could not or would not have been depicted in a fiction feature made just a few decades ago:

These moments and some others like them are proof of a basic assumption on the part of July, who wrote and directed and plays a leading role: that she would not treat the bizarre moments of her film with either bravery or bravado. She assumes that her audience, like herself, is at ease in this era for — or perhaps because of — all its flouting of the moral code on which many of us grew up. In this, of course, she differs from avant-gardists (in all the arts) at the turn of the twentieth century, who found themselves in the reverse position. They weren’t at ease in their era and felt the need to make a brave, even bravado-filled, attack on all its basic assumptions about family, religion, psychology, morality, and causality. July herself has made short films and videos and done some performance-art pieces which place her among such avant-gardists, if only in the sense that these works exist outside the formal strictures of conventional artistic creation. Me and You and Everyone We Know, however, is the creation of someone who may have been working outside such strictures but has now moved, with as much of her unmediated self as she could take with her, into narrative if not quite mainstream filmmaking.

That self is immediately visible in the way July’s first full-length film begins: as if it were completely discarding traditional design or form. Me and You and Everyone We Know starts discursively, seeming to deal with whatever interests it next, its camera always curious about details along the way. Opening with a photograph of two lovers gazing at a sunset to the accompaniment of the tremulous cadences of July as she narrates an imagined scene between the pair, the movie cuts to a glimpse of a man captivated by a bird in the branches outside his window — a man who then proceeds, as I point out above, to set his hand on fire so as ceremoniously to mark the end of his marriage. But before long, July adds to her discursive manner — without losing it — some solid story strands, one of them based on the characters from the opening scenes, Christine (played by July) and the soon-to-be-single Richard. And before the picture is halfway through, it has become a romantic comedy.

Still, Me and You and Everyone We Know is a long way in texture and tenor from even the less conventional romantic comedies we know, such as one that is contemporary with it: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s as if July were chuckling twice in making the film — at her avant-garde coterie, which was beguiled by her freehand style into following this ultimately symmetrical work, and also at her new general audience, who, after they were readied for arcane art, had narrative convention slipped over on them. July’s background in the field of avant-garde art has thus given her a view of film that is bracing for the rest of the film world. That is, she treats film personally, independently, idiosyncratically, even disturbingly, as she would any other artwork. Yet as with some modern, fine art, a gentle, knowing cleverness suffuses her cinema in such a way that it is able to take us in — in both senses of the term.

Once the “take-in” is under way, we learn that Richard is a shoe salesman at a department store in a bleak district of Los Angeles. He and his wife, who is moving out at the start of the picture, have two sons, the boys mentioned earlier: fourteen-year-old Peter and seven-year-old Robby. It is part of such a film’s very mode of being that no one ever mentions that this is a biracial marriage: Richard is white, his wife is black, the boys are mocha. Never, at the beginning or later in Me and You and Everyone We Know, are marital disputes, father-and-son abrasions, or neighbors’ comments ever colored by racial reference. This is not because we now live in an United States untouched by racial divisiveness or discrimination. Rather, any reference to it would be out of key in a movie so extraordinary or inclusive that a father could set fire to his hand as an act of commemoration. In other words, a prosaic social-problem picture this isn’t.

Enter Christine, who is a struggling artist trying to place one of her videos in the local museum for modern art, headed by the woman (named Nancy) to whom I have referred. Meanwhile, Christine supports herself by using her car as a taxi to transport the elderly. One day she takes a customer to buy a pair of shoes, and in the shop she meets Richard, by whom she is sexually struck. Though he deals with Christine only as a cool salesman, she is dazzled. (He examines her blistered feet and then sells her new flats with the line, “You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.”) The rest of the film is largely concerned with her attempts to get a response from him. Thus, for a change — the kind of change we witnessed in 3-Iron, in particular — we get an emphasis on the quest or adventure in romance instead of just the typical courtship, coupling, and promise of marriage. After one of Christine’s failed attempts to interest Richard, she disconsolately scrawls “FUCK” on her windshield as she drives away. As a result the standard movie shot of watching a car’s progress through its windshield — as well as the standard movie romance’s measuring of a relationship’s progress by how much time the couple spends together in the bedroom — gets an added element or twist.

Less of a subplot than a sexual and decidedly unromantic counterpoint in Me and You and Everyone We Know is the story of Rebecca and Heather, the two fellatio-minded junior-high-school girls. They attract the attention of Andrew, Richard’s sales colleague and neighbor, whose way of enticing this duo is to put up salacious placards in the window of his apartment. After practicing on Peter, the girls decide to take Andrew up, but he hides in panic when they knock on his door. There is another counterpoint — not concerned with sex though vaguely related to it — with even younger participants. Robby makes friends with a girl about his age named Sylvie, who is collecting things for her marital hope chest. He decides to contribute . . . Even Michael, the elderly man whom Christine chauffeurs to the shoe store, gets into the act, for, like her, he seems to have been rejuvenated (or infantilized) by a serendipitous romance of his own into a permanent state of wonder.

Through much of the above, lazy, pillowy music (by Mike Andrews) — sounding as if it were made by Fisher-Price instruments — accompanies the action, both (it seems) to cushion the fact that only the main story or plot, concerning Christine and Richard, reaches any sort of conclusion, and to suggest a child’s playful or whimsical perspective on life. For make no mistake: Me and You and Everyone We Know is as much about play as love, about fortuity more than linearity. Thus the film allies itself in spirit with the childlike marvel and impishness, spontaneity, randomness, and improvisation central to so much avant-garde art from dadaism to abstract expressionism. That is why July can depict children’s sexual lives here without moralizing about them or turning them into forbidden games or unfortunate rites of passage. They are part of the fabric of play of the movie as a whole, even when by chance they intersect momentarily with the sex (or fantasy) lives of adults like Andrew and Nancy.

July herself subscribes to the view that Me and You and Everyone We Know takes on a child’s playful, expectant point of view — the very kind, this film implicitly argues, that we adults could use more of in our goal-oriented, over-scheduled, leisure-deprived lives. She has said that her movie

“was inspired by the longing I carried about as a child, longing for the future, for someone to find me, for magic to descend upon my life and transform everything. It was also informed by how this longing progressed as I became an adult, slightly more fearful, more contorted, but no less fantastically hopeful.”

And nowhere in Me and You and Everyone We Know is this conjunction of the fantastically hopeful and the majestically transformative more apparent than in the film’s ending.

Early one morning Richard finally telephones Christine and asks her to come over to meet his sons. As he rushes to tidy up their apartment, he takes a framed picture of a bird (on which Robby had colored) outside in an attempt to hide it in the shrubs. At that moment Christine arrives, suggests that Richard put the bird — or its picture, it doesn’t matter which in the aesthetic by which this film breezily operates — in the branches of the tree outside his window, and helps him to place it there. Robby then wanders outside to find that the tinging sound he habitually hears at this hour does not come from the streetlight (as his mother had told him), but from a man tapping a quarter on a metal signpost as he waits for the bus that will take him to work. As the man boards the bus, he turns around and gives the quarter to the watchful Robby, who begins to tap with it as the sun rises on as delightful a first film as I have seen in a long time.

So delightful that it put me in mind of the similarly aimed drama of William Saroyan, whose effusive play titles The Time of Your Life (“In the time of your life, live”) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (both works from 1939), like that of Me and You and Everyone We Know, tell you everything you need to know about the nature of the art you’re about to encounter. In July’s case, what her title could not have prepared you for is the quality of her film’s acting — which is all that it needs to be, and more. Heather and Rebecca, for example, are played by Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend, who have the unnerving competence of people otherwise too young to have had much professional training or experience. This is even truer of Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff as the two sons, Peter and Robby: both of them precocious but unself-conscious, focused yet playful, serious at the same time as they are relaxed.

The casting of John Hawkes as Richard is another matter: it is obviously part of July’s intent both to disguise and to undermine convention. Hawkes is a perfectly good (and professional) actor, but, with his vulpine face, he is not at all a romantic lead — nor are very many romantic leads shoe salesmen. And his character seems to know he’s no leading man, as when Richard shyly asks his boys,

“Objectively speaking, if you weren’t my children, would you think, ‘That guy looks okay’?”

There is more to July’s use of Hawkes, however, than a proof that non-beautiful people fall in and out of love. She is subverting the very requirement that a man moving toward or away from love (both in the soon-to-be-divorced Richard’s case) behave like an alternately ecstatic and brokenhearted Romeo. She also she subverts, through her film’s cinematography (by Chuy Chávez), the requirement that a romantic comedy look like a piece of brightly colored eye-candy. This romance is set in drab bedrooms and shabby malls, and features naturalistic long takes in contrast to the snappy or perky cutting — as well as upper-class settings — to be found in such screwball comedies as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The Awful Truth (1940).

One quality Me and You and Everyone We Know does have in common with the best romantic comedies, particularly of the screwball kind, is the spanking fresh tang of its dialogue. July is not quite ready to move into Preston Sturges’ league, but the following lines — spoken in wonder by Richard to his children after he unwraps the bandage around his hand (the one to which he had set fire) — give hope:

“It’s so sensitive; it needs some air; it needs to do some living. Let’s take my hand for a walk.”

July is ready, however, to join a relatively small if not always select group: that of writer-director-actors. (There is a fair number of actor-directors — let’s take Kenneth Branagh, for one instance — but when you add screenwriting to the mix, the list thins out to such an extent that I’m forced to name someone like Woody Allen.)

Besides the fact that her writing is whimsical without being precious, that her directing in her first feature film is intimate without being cloying, and that she has handled her younger actors remarkably well given some of the things they are called upon to do, July’s own performance is startlingly delicate. Her acting consists of fine-filigree, small-scale work that is filled with intelligent glances, subtle inflections, and reticent gestures (a style, by the way, that is the fruit of one hundred years of film plus half a century of television). She thus convinces us that the wispy, flower-like, wide-eyed woman-child we see and hear is only a hint of the real woman simmering inside. July wisely seems to have realized, moreover, that without her warming presence, Me and You and Everyone We Know could easily have turned into a cold, quirky, even dismal Todd Solondz-like experience about the sexually-cum-romantically dysfunctional landscape otherwise known as the United States.

I’d like to close by commending July on her move, temporary or not, from performance art into quasi-narrative filmmaking. In a sense, she has it both ways in this picture, for Christine herself is a performance artist who also makes videos of her work. But performance art, on stage, for me has long marked the death or at least the senescence of avant-garde drama, since it cultivates or even deifies postmodern performance as an art unto itself, apart from or superior to any a priori text. Performance art thus privileges the theatrical event's indeterminacy and unpredictability over the text's finish and fatedness. It also privileges dramatizing the self over self-consciously exploring the nature, limits, and possibilities of human drama (a drama already the most naturally reflexive of art forms). And, for this reason, the problem with performance art is that of all inwardly-drawn or -directed arts. They tend toward a narcissism bordering on solipsism, and embody less of the relativity, subjectivism, or flux of modernity than its fragmentation, disjunction, and estrangement.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of a performance-art film or video, but with this difference. Such art is no threat to the dramatic text, and may in fact have more in common with performance art in its original incarnation in the late 1950s, as visual art that was “performed” by objectified human bodies. Hence Christine’s desire to place her video in the local center for modern art, not to re-perform it before, or even show it to, a large, live, theatrical audience. Indeed, in one sense performance art on film or video has more in common with conventional narrative moviemaking than with experimental avant-garde cinema. For the latter, in its extreme manifestation, becomes abstract film from which the “thingness” of this world and the human form are banished, as they never are from mainstream movies and as only the thingness — the recognizable, outside world — is sometimes removed from a performance-art film or video.

I suspect this is the chief reason — the fear not only of narcissism bordering on solipsism, but also of abstraction become abnegation — that July, Gondry and Kaufman, Van Sant, Kim, and Ichikawa have all walked the tightrope in their respective films between the opposing sides, or opposite extremes, of tradition and rebellion, imitation and invention, the world as it is and the world as we think, dream, or imagine it to be. After all, this is where most of us reside, most of the time — somewhere in the middle — and it’s about time more movies started reflecting that fact.


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