Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Let Slip the Dogs of Misunderstanding

The films of Wong Kar-Wai come closest to breaking the kinesthetic
boundaries of cinema through their visual emphasis on tactility--the
clash of textures--and Wong's elliptical narrative and editing style.

Surely no good can come of this vague generalizing about "representations of women" among major European filmmakers...
though, in spirit, of course i sympathize with the grandeur of your initial premise: that with the passing of Bergman and Antonioni, we've lost two of the most generous, penetrating, nuanced and multivalent perspectives on the subject of women in the history of film. But we're attempting to cut a pretty wide path through a particularly thorny patch of the cultural landscape, no?

I'm the last person in the world who wants to get bogged down in a pseudo-feminist/post-postmodern debate about "male gazes," "logocentric canons," or suitably pro-women agendas; however, i think we should again shift the attention away from questions of excellence or validation towards creating an understanding of the methodologies or aesthetics at work. You've offered a fine point of departure, i think, in your appreciation of Antonioni and L'Avventura in particular. Also in your dissenting opinion about Rohmer. It's neither here nor there for us to try to convince others that there are or are not other film artists out there doing similarly fine work; however, the thing is whether we can first agree on a common language of interpretation. To wit:

You: In short, Rohmer makes women strange by keeping them at a distance, Antonioni and Bergman let their actors show what they really are, and if it looks strange, so be it.

I guess what i'm looking for from you is a clearer statement of HOW you think Bergman or Antonioni (but also, presumably, Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Ozu, Renoir) are able to "show what (women) really are." I think your Nostalghia treatise is exemplary in that regard, but i wonder if you could summarize your stance in the context of these other two directors.

Now for my rousing defense of Denis, Wong and Rohmer and my woeful admission that i really didn't put much thought into this particular assemblage of pro-gyno power. Nevertheless, the gauntlet has been cast before me; i relish its import.

There's a school of thought that says we should be able to recognize the difference between a work of art made by a woman as opposed to one created by a man because of some fundamental difference in form, not content. Something about the way the authorial consciousness is formed or the way constructive values are differently applied in practice. I have always felt: hogwash! but a couple films by Claire Denis have me doubting my opinion.

I think I've raved to everyone i know about Nenette and Boni but it's almost impossible to see anywhere or even find. Luckily for us, we have the internet and Youtube. I hope I'm up to this but here's a scene from the movie which does, i think, everything you claim that Antonioni does in his masterpiece:

Please, please, please, please work.

In Nenette and Boni, but also in Beau Travail and Vendredi Soir, her camera is exceptionally patient, observant, nuanced and sensual. Why is this different from a music video? Because, as in the case with Wong Kar-Wai, Denis' aesthetic is not, as it is sometimes crassly assumed to be, aimed at being merely "attractive." I mean, just look at the thing for godssake! The first time you watch it, it's possible you might simply take it for a typical Hollywood "meet-cute" with Vincent Gallo gamely checking out a shy but seemingly willing Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. But the length of the shots is problematic, for one. In particular, the length at which we hold finally on VB-T as "the Baker's Wife" seems to run counter to the first rule of narrative propulsion: keep the story moving.

The more you watch her uncomfortably avoiding then meeting the camera's (and ostensibly Vince Gallo's character's) gaze, the more we are taken OUT of the narrative and into the immediacy of the preganant moment. Wow. We get to actually watch this woman's mannerisms, the toothiness of her grin, her neck, the charming journey from a toothy grin to compusure to the eruption of a smile. In other words: we actually get to observe this woman (who? the Baker's Wife? or Valeri Bruni-T?) being herself.

Sigh. I can already hear the Mulvey-ian clamor at my back: male gaze! male gaze! objectification! Sigh. If you call that objectifying, you must think that DaVinci was a lecher. Objectifying is when it doesn't matter who the person is as long as she's/it's a woman. Who could ever reduplicate Valeria's performance? It would have to be someone who was just as playful, self-conscious, cheerful, shy and optimistic as her. Even then, would she have the same masculine jaw and the same flash in her eyes? There's another scene from this movie discussed at length at Reverseshot.com which is worth reading. Also with VaIery B-T. I don't agree exactly with the specific semiotic reading of the scene but i stand firmly in agreement with the author's appreciation of Denis' sophisticated and nuanced technique.

Here's the link:
I might add that Denis does something very, very unusual and, i think, different from what a male director would do. In both scenes, as Hoover also points out, she gives a slightly unbalanced emphasis to the female subject over the male. Unbalanced in terms of time on screen. However, and i think this gives the lie to the whole "male gaze" issue, there really is no unbalance in terms of significance or priority in terms of point of view.

In my clip, for example, we linger longer on the woman but watch again at how the camera does that pan-up-the-body thing to Vince Gallo. Then, we hold on him waaay longer than we need to in order to get the point that he's checking her out. It's as if the director herself were taking Vince Gallo in just in the same way he is taking in his future wife. And, in fact, we can't help but notice the angularity of his features, the decidedly un-sailor like facial hair, and those eyes... After watching fixedly, we even see him recede from the camera, ostensibly to take in more of his subject.

It's a nice little counterpoint to her performance, don't you think? I mean, she sort of steals the scene--because of her charm, her beauty, her performance--but there's no way to construct some kind of hierarchy in terms of prioritized POV without stretching the limits of logic. The watched is no less powerful or strongly identified than the watcher: she's just prettier. But even that is probably false since it overlooks the powerful stylistic symmetry of his neat, white uniform and her delicate, blue top; his slightly unkempt hairiness and her revealing neckline and unblemished skin; his comic-sad eyes and her comic-happy expressions; his unwavering stare and her repeated attempts to meet it. That, my friends, is fucking art!

I'm fucking exhausted from writing that, by the way. Can I write part two about Wong and Rohmer later? Also, I want to see if my embedding worked... more later.


J. Knecht said...

This is why I would always cringe when my teaching instructors at this stupid school would tell me to show clips instead of entire films, because entire films are too long. I believe you when you say this clip is like the scene I mentioned form l'Aventurra, but for all I know it could be, "typical Hollywood "'meet-cute,'" as you put it. Without context it is difficult to say.

In A Year of 13 Kangs said...

What?!? Have you heard nothing of what I've said? This clip clearly differentiates itself from other films through the elements I explained about mannerism, patience and contrast. The genius is palpable and it starts with how much Denis is willing to trust her actors and just dwell upon them.

J. Knecht said...

So sensitive. I am not disagreeing. I am merely suggesting that it is ill advised to expect a clip from a movie I have never seen to irrefutably demonstrate your argument.