Monday, April 13, 2009

Let's Get Irrelevant!

Is this a film or filmed theater? Bergman struggled monumentally with the same
fundamental problem as Ibsen: how to bring the elemental fury of the inner world
alive for a viewing audience. His answer was through dramatic precision and
sublime acting.

I hope everybody has missed me and has been enjoying J. Knecht's mapping of the intellectual universe. For those of you keeping score at home, he argues that an enlightened view of aesthetics precludes "understanding" and "explication" and, instead, relentlessly returns our attention to the question of new forms. (Is it better to say "expands our horizons"?) Because of the inherent problem of evaluating new forms with old methodologies, Knecht is apt to dismiss authority and the highly-acclaimed while slyly substituting contemplation of his own pet canon. Fortunately, he is usually correct and mostly self-deprecating. However, that doesn't mean that I'm not getting bored!

I've decided to go against everything that everyone holds sacred and to create a Power Ranking of Great Directors based on my current mood of magical whimsy. Hold your venom, you bagel-eating philistines! It's all in the name of unsettling your biases and inflaming your passions. Here we go!

The rules: This is a Power Rankings analagous to preseason sports rankings that project a team or player's overall value based on various categories, such as passing yards or turnovers. Most art critics have an inherent problem with the term "Greatest" but I think it's mostly due to laziness. Surely we can agree, for example, that Rembrandt is a greater painter than Gaugin and we can point to several formal categories in which Rembrandt's best paintings simply surpass or transcend the works of the latter. I am likewise attempting to formalize a discussion of "top" directors by uniformly applying a formula for greatness while remaining open to changing the terms or the relative value of these aesthetic categories.

The criteria:
a) FORM: a signature style that reveals innovation or technical/artistic mastery of the mechanical aspects of filmmaking (i.e. visual, sound, editing)

b) THEME: complex, mature development and expression of thematic material (objective weight/value of specific thematic motifs deemed to be irrelevant)

c) ACTING/DRAMA/STORYTELLING: consistency and refinement of acting performances; emotional resonance of internal narrative/characters (possibly a red herring but I propose that narrative filmmaking is superior to documentary for the reason that fiction is superior to journalism; I propose that all great directors choose narrative for this reason to formally exploit this distinction between truth and artifice as a primary vehicle for their expression; therefore, I posit that a director's handling and development of characters and the internal dramatic narrative is paramount to the success and scale of his achievement)

d) KNOWLEDGE/CONCRETENESS/REALITY: hear me out--a great director offers so much more than technical innovation, thematic richness and human drama, she brings a refined appreciation for the details of the world, concrete knowledge of things and situations that is rapidly being lost in the ironically named "information age." Surely, Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without his immense understanding of politics and the law, trade and commerce, farming, fashion, history and the military. A director certainly need not be a scholar but, like Rilke's angels, she is bound by the same mission as the returning traveler: to impress and edify us with intimate knowledge of the world.

10. Ingmar Bergman

Formal Greatness: C+
Thematic Greatness: A-
Dramatic Greatness: A+
Greatness of Knowledge: B

Several honorable mentions neglected here in favor of Bergman (Angelopoulos, Dreyer, Fellini, Herzog, Hou, Marker, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Wong), largely due to incomplete viewing. But on the other hand, how can you argue with Bergman's inclusion? Even though I have not seen half of his films, Bergman is in my estimation, along with Ozu, the supreme master of classical dramatic narrative form. Not a bad performance in either oeuvre and many, many legendary ones. His heralded theater roots provided him with the gifts of pacing, dialogue, composition and a knack for handling actors. Nevertheless, these roots themselves had to eventually be outgrown and his work with his actors become the true focal point of his enterprise before Bergman became truly "great."

Even with Nyqvist at his side, Bergman's genius for theatrical realization always overshadows his formal/technical innovation. Deft with comedy, spectacle and the most intense drama, he has a visual tendency towards prettified symbolism a la Seventh Seal. (Strangely, I find the narrative structure of Bergman's early and middle films virtually indistinguishable from the Kurosawa's pot-boilers.) Hard to complain when a film is as satisfying as Wild Strawberries, however, Persona seems to mark a conscious shift in Bergman's priorities towards resolving his themes through other possible means, culminating somewhat in the refined lavishness of Cries and Whispers.

In my mind, Scenes From a Marriage ultimately surpasses Persona as his experimental masterpiece, not through technical innovation, but through the relentless insistence on distance and performance. These two formal innovations are Bergman's greatest achievement in that by loosening the restrictions of time and delving ever deeper into his actor's souls, Bergman arrives at a cinema (albeit originally intended for television) that at last matches the ferocity of his themes (faith, suffering, the distant promise of love) with an experience for the viewer that roughly mirrors the rawness and discomfort of his characters. The title, for me, marks a radical departure from Bergman's comfort zone of formalized drama and instead evokes the kind of actorly exercises with which he would be equally familiar, but perhaps less willing to film. But instead of merely watching pretty actors suffer and torture each other, we become complicit through time and closeup in their momentary flashes of emotion and insight. (The standard here is not "rawness" of acting but the use to which that acting is put and I see no reason to draw comparisons to the acting in Cassavetes, which is equally superior.)

Knowledge of the world in Bergman is mostly limited to the internal realm of the yearning soul (can that really be called knowledge?) and the relationships between men and women. His example lets me illustrate the inverse connection between the strength of his "themes" and his "knowledge." Themes such as solitude, suffering and the existence of God hint to a form of artistic transcendence that demands not only intellectual rigor but a great degree of innovation to avoid mere signification and involve the viewer in a lived experience of transcendence. Bresson has much the same project and he tackles it through rigorous editing and dramatic minimalism. Bergman, on the other hand, tends to show people in anguish and doubt, paralyzed or inflamed by their passions. He tends, in other words, to act his themes out. Although no one can question the authenticity or rigor of Bergman's examination of faith, I am saying here that his expression of this theme tends to be less than, say Bresson's or Dreyer's who sometimes achieve a kind of epiphany for the viewer through the power of the image or editing, rather than the power of the drama. That, to me, is another order of genius. Bergman's merit, I think, comes, like a solid veteran, from his unflinching dedication to his themes.

As a result, I rate Bergman's contribution of knowledge to be only average. He shows us intimate rituals and daily, lived interiors but I can't help but feel it's all set decoration. Has he ever been genuinely interested in the work people do, for example, outside of the relationships they trap us in or the way they symbolically reflect our souls? (Thus the profusion of professors, priests and maidens.) His actors and his sets are always so handsome and impeccably dressed; in other words--artificial. On the other hand, by Fanny and Alexander, all of Bergman's dramatic, symbolic tendencies seem to culminate in a kind of Hamlet-esque reflection of itself that is singularly beguiling. The layered orchestration of family life, ritual and fantasy in this film approaches the highest achievements of Tarkovsky and Kiarostami for me. I cannot help but wish that, like Fellini, he occassionally indulged in more childish reflection instead of trying to be so grownup.

Ultimately, his actors are Bergman's shining achievement. Through his devotion to their bold and nuanced performances, Bergman lays bare the inner lives of men and women as the cinematic counterpart to D.H. Lawrence (or at least August Strindberg).


J. Knecht said...

And thus begins our alternative to David Thompson's standard Biographical Dictionary of Film. Well done, 13 Kangs.

In A Year of 13 Kangs said...

What? No disputing my categories? Surely I couldn't have been THAT lucid while I was in my sleep-deprived frenzy.... You disappoint me Knecht.

J. Knecht said...

No, your categories are fine. Plus there's the added bonus that your criteria can also be used inversely to indicate the worst filmmakers. Since I have been arguing with one Rainer Maria, who saves his ramblings for me and me alone instead of bothering to post them, about the relative value of David Lynch's movies, I am especially heartened to see that your little categories help me to define him as the worst ever.

100% film school film style made up of nothing but references to other movies and clever twists on genre conventions? - Check.

Utterly embarrassing acting that has no basis in human behavior? - Check.

Themes that amount to whatever ideas Lynch is interested in; movies you can't watch if you don't share his intellectual preoccupations; movies that are not the least bit interesting if you haven't read the same books about psychology that Lynch has? - Check.

I would add only that experiential knowledge, or what might be useful to call "non-knowledge" in this context is as at least as important (and probably more important) than knowledge as you have it in your fourth criterion. Considering Lynch, for instance, his films drop an assload knowledge on top of the viewer's head, but he fails to balance with non-knowledge (perhaps what you mean by reality?) Ultimately this is what renders his "knowledge" particularly un-knowledgeable in my opinion (not to be confused with non-knowledge).

Basically I think you need to keep the categories separate or else present a continuum between Reality/Truth as Knowledge and Reality/Truth as Experience, with those filmmakers approaching the Experience end considered greater than those approaching the knowledge end.

Think of the very best of the best: Ozu, Kiarostami, Tarkvosky, Dreyer, Bresson. Do their films contain and impart knowledge?