The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema

We just came through a pretty tumultuous year for movies, and for the media and the entertainment industry in general.

The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

1. CINEMA: DEAD AGAIN

MZS: We just came through a pretty tumultuous year for movies, and for the media and the entertainment industry in general. Although it’s not possible to cover everything, I’d like for us to at least touch on some of what I think were evolutionary highlights—moments, movements, trends or developments that altered movies, or how we perceive movies.

Right after the first of the year, David Denby tried to to get at a big part of this—specifically the effect of technological change—in his New Yorker piece “Big Pictures.” But it didn’t satisfy me. In fact, parts of it were so out-of-it that they reminded me of an old episode of Gilligan’s Island where the castaways run into a Japanese soldier who wanders out of the bushes where he’s been for 20 years not knowing that the war is over.

KU: “I went to LA, and here’s what I’m bringing back to you New Yorkers—the world is ending.” It’s the sort of thing I expect from him. I recall Jonathan Rosenbaum pointing out in his book Movie Wars that both Denby and David Thomson declared movies dead one week, and then, when L.A. Confidential came out, they resurrected them.

MZS: In fact, Denby, who was one of the guys I admired and read very closely coming up, has declared movies dead on more than one occasion. Declaring cinema dead is a favorite hobby of critics. Armond White’s done it, I’ve done it. Peter Rainer, who’s now at the Christian Science Monitor, did it back in 1998, when he reviewed Armageddon for the now-defunct Los Angeles New Times. But that’s the salient point here: Denby’s piece reads suspiciously like what Godfrey Cheshire would call a “Death of Cinema” piece. Even though the intent of this New Yorker article is supposedly to suss out how the delivery system that brings movies to us is changing, what really comes through is a kind of mourning for the way things used to be.

KU: If, indeed, things used to be the way he remembers. But Denby’s already made up his mind. His enthusiasm is in the past.

MZS: Writing about the experience of watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on a video iPod, he writes:

Pirates has lots of wide vistas and noisy tumult—a vast ocean under the dazzling sun and nighttime roughhousing in colonial towns, with deep-cleavaged prostitutes and toothless drunks. What I saw, mainly, was a looming ship the size of a twig, patches of sparkling blue, and a face or a skull flashing by. The interiors were as dark as caves. My ears, fed by headphones, were filled with such details as the chafing of hawsers and feet stomping on straw, but there below me Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom were dueling like two angry mosquitoes in a jar.”

That’s a really funny description, but it fails to take into account what I like about watching movies on an iPod, which is that sense of intimacy. And yes, of course, when you’re dealing with something that includes a number of wide shots, an iPod is not the way to experience it. But there are compensations, and one of them is the sense of the movie being inside your head, which you can only get when you watch a movie with headphones on. And then, over and above that, there’s the idea of literally being able to hold a movie in the palm of your hand, which I think is just incredible. I think the thrill of that, the intimacy of that, really does compensate for the lack of scale. And I say that as somebody who loves the big screen experience, and who ten years ago never would have imagined myself saying something like that. But I do watch movies and television programs and other things on my iPod, and I enjoy it. It’s a different experience, it brings out different qualities in what you’re experiencing. Which is not to say it’s how I’d like to watch Lawrence of Arabia, because it’s not. But I’ve watched a lot of stuff on the train going to and from work, and loved it.

KU: Something I read a while ago that strikes me now is a piece on Titanic where the writer talked about how the film was shot so that it could be masked for both television and theatrical exhibition and not lose anything.

MZS: Right. James Cameron always shoots in Super 35mm, which has an image that’s 4×3 originally. But he simultaneously frames his movies in the viewfinder so that, for theaters, he can crop out a narrow, rectangular piece that matches the dimensions of CinemaScope, which has a 2:35 to 1 aspect ratio. So the whole time Cameron is shooting something, he’s simultaneously envisioning a movie that can be shown in a wide, narrow format in theaters and also on standard, squarish TV monitors, without losing what Cameron thinks is essential information. Basically, Cameron is making sure he can always cut a narrow rectangle out of an almost-square. As he shoots, he’s picturing his movie in two formats.

KU: It calls into question something you and I have often talked about, which is, “What is a true CinemaScope film and what is a mock ‘Scope film?”

MZS: True CinemaScope horizontally squeezes a wide rectangular image into a more squarish frame of 35mm film. Then, when the movie is projected in theaters, a ‘Scope lens in the projector will unsqueeze the image, to re-create that wide rectangular frame. True CinemaScope uses the entire film frame. But cropped Super 35mm only uses part of the frame, a rectangular swath of it. That swath is then squeezed during post-production and printed to film or DVD, then it’s unsqueezed again when you watch the movie. Aren’t we wandering far afield here?

KU: I was about to bring it back: You said you didn’t want to watch Lawrence of Arabia on an iPod, and no, you wouldn’t, because David Lean didn’t think to compose simultaneously for CinemaScope and also for an iPod.

MZS: Right.

KU: But I wonder, what is in directors’ heads today when they think about all the different modes of exhibition? What does that create in the product? Is it a detriment? Is it a positive? Is it all of these things at once?

MZS: Then you get into a really thorny area for classicists, perhaps an area they don’t want to go, which raises the question, “How critical is the aspect ratio of the frame to whatever it is that the filmmaker is trying to express?” And the obvious answer is, maybe it’s not as critical as we think. If, in fact, you can simultaneously compose for a theatrical print of CinemaScope dimensions and a 4×3 image that can show on a standard TV or an iPod, and preserve most of the information that you think is essential and not feel you’re compromising too much either way, then maybe the aspect ratio is not crucial.

And this brings us to what I’d really like to talk about: What do all of these technological changes, and the reaction against them by folks like Denby, tell us about the essence of cinema? What is the essence of cinema?

When Godfrey Cheshire wrote his “Death of Film/Decay of Cinema” article, one of the most important pieces of film criticism published in this country in the last 20 years, he identified not just what was happening, but what choices we were going to have to make as consumers and as patrons of the arts. And what he was getting at was that we need to rethink our frame of reference—we need to rethink our terms. He later gave an example in a review for the North Carolina Independent of Toy Story 2, which was created entirely without film, then printed to film for theaters, most of which did not yet have digital projection in 1999. In the review, Godfrey said that throughout his career, he’d habitually referred to any feature length motion picture as a film, and now felt he needed to break himself of that habit, so he made a point of referring to Toy Story 2 as a “movie,” because for Godfrey, the essence of cinema was bound up in film.

But now, is it? When we say “cinema,” do we mean film, and do we always necessarily have to mean film? And beyond that, do we have to mean all of the things that have traditionally been associated with film, namely a film projected in 35mm in a theater for a paying audience of strangers?

KU: I would say no. Film is where it all began. However, there have been all kinds of film used in production, and all types of film processing. Jacques Tati was one of the first people to use video for a feature, in his movie Parade (1974), though I’m willing to bet there are examples even before that.

It occurs to me that one of the problems with what you call “classicists”—especially in America, but probably abroad, too—is that, for them, the Hollywood model is the dominant model.

MZS: Let’s define what you mean by the Hollywood model.

KU: Narrative storytelling, genre, actors performing a plot—

MZS: Meaning a goal-directed narrative?

KU: A goal-directed narrative, a goal-oriented story. Something akin to that. And perhaps awards recognition can be brought into it as well—something that’s seen as the end result of all of that.

MZS: And when you talk about the Hollywood model, I assume you mean not just the movies that come out of Hollywood, but perhaps the cinema that comes out of other countries, which is often either aping Hollywood or attempting to react against Hollywood?

KU: What I’m talking about is the tendency of critics to hold Hollywood up as the high standard against which everything must be measured, even though they criticize it heavily nowadays and talk about how it’s not what it used to be. In this way, Rosenbaum was clearly onto something when he pointed out how Denby and Thomson declared movies dead and then used L.A. Confidential to resurrect them. I do my best not to be closed off to the potentialities of any motion picture: “Hollywood films”, “Foreign films”, “Avant-garde films”, “Home videos”—at a very basic, gut level these distinctions are anathema to me.

One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen is Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu, which is a five-sequence video. Funny, I was just reading The Hollywood Reporter review of the movie before you called, though I won’t deign to call it a review, because it’s basically just a snarky takedown of it. And then there was something on the blog too, where Sean Burns got on, and he was talking about Children of Men, and how shocked he was that you and I and some other people didn’t like it. “I thought this board was full of Brian De Palma apologists,” he said, and (the coup de grâce), “If the rest of us “squint really really hard” might Inland Empire look slightly less like it was photographed inside a toilet?”

MZS: Man, that hurt.

KU: Then Odie came back in another thread, “If Lynch pulled a Warhol, and shot three hours of my toes, scoring the “footage” to Nina Simone, critics would hail it a masterpiece because Lynch’s name was on it.” Myself, I think that if David Lynch’s name wasn’t on it, said “footage” would look, sound, and feel completely different.

What Inland Empire proves to me—a belief I’ve long held—is that the camera betrays the true intent of the person who’s using it. They can state their aims and goals but, as Spielberg has shown, stated aims don’t always hold water, which is why I wish he (and Tarantino, too), would just shut up some of the time. That’s one of the reasons I admire Terrence Malick so much, because he doesn’t speak—he just lets the movies talk for themselves. It’s also why I appreciate Robert Altman’s view of his movies as children that he’s nurtured up to a point before they just up and walk away from him. The point being, I think, that when a director’s name—or the name of whoever you consider the auteur—is on a film, they have created it, it’s unique to them and you have to deal with that.

2. FILM & VIDEO

MZS: In that spirit, let’s focus on a few movies that are undeniably expressions of a singular viewpoint, and that all have one conspicuous thing in common. I have an asterisk next to this moviegoing year, so there are probably a lot of movies that I should bring into this discussion that I can’t, but five of the movies that I saw this year that made a really, really strong impression on me were shot on video. And they are all movies where the fact that they were shot on video was intentional, and integral to what the movies are and what they wanted to achieve. Those five movies are Superman Returns, A Prairie Home Companion, Iraq in Fragments, Miami Vice and Inland Empire. They were shot with different types of equipment, different budget levels, different aims. I’d like to go through them one by one and try to get at what I think video brought to each movie.

In the case of Superman Returns, which was on the high end of the scale, shooting on high-definition video was a means to exercise tighter aesthetic control over a big-budget superhero movie, from the digital effects to the color scheme, and probably to keep costs down, though the budget on that movie was so enormous that I can’t imagine it saved them very much. I read a lot of reviews of that movie. Few of them mentioned that it was shot on video, which is a tangential issue that I’m not going to harp on too much, but it annoys the shit out of me that many critics who believe cinema equals film only point out that something was shot on video if they didn’t like it. If they did like it, they don’t deign to mention it in their review.

KU: Maybe they don’t notice it.

MZS: I’m not a mind-reader, and I wouldn’t presume to guess. But I do think that if you’re in that camp, you need to be consistent on this point and address it whenever it comes up, even if it means a throwaway parenthetical, because the alternative is hypocrisy. What we’re talking about here is the essence of cinema and whether film is what defines it. My point is, while Superman Returns is not that different in its style from many grandiose, imaginatively produced superhero pictures, what’s special about it can be somewhat traced back to the decision to shoot on high-def.

But then you get something like Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion. In Altman on Altman, he talks throughout about how picture is not the most important thing. That’s a heretical thing for an auteur to be saying, but he says it over and over and over again in that book. He talks about how, when he was making McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he put multiple fog filters over the lens to degrade the image as much as possible. He wanted it to be murky, he wanted it to be hazy, he wanted it to be as difficult as possible to make out details. That was part of the aesthetic. Sound was more important to him than picture. Movement of people within the frame, and the seeming randomness of it, was more important to him than tight classical compositions. All of this stuff is very intentional, just as it was intentional for Cassavetes.

So it was not a shock to me at all when Altman gravitated toward video—first in the 80s with projects like Tanner ’88, then again with high definition when he shot The Company—he claimed it, loved it, shouted his love from the rooftops. In A Prairie Home Companion he uses it to cover rather than shoot his actors, to get in there with them in a way that’s very intimate even for him, to open up and explore a limited interior set in ways that remind me of the small films and the TV work that he did in the 80s, particularly play adaptations like The Dumbwaiter and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.

Then there’s Iraq in Fragments, which Steven Boone did a great job of explicating technically and aesthetically, and which achieved impressionistic, visionary effects with nonfiction footage that were likely only possible because the movie was shot on video. Obviously it’s the documentary filmmaker’s tool almost by default, because of cost, portability and relative unobtrusiveness, but there’s a powerful sensibility to that movie nonetheless.

I’m kind of moving up the chain here in order of the radical intent of the director, so the next one has to be Miami Vice. Michael Mann has often been criticized for being slick, particularly in the first half of his career, when he shot mostly with a single camera and micromanaged every frame, from the lighting to the décor. Supposedly he once re-shot an entire scene from The Insider because he didn’t like the tie a particular actor was wearing. But all in all, The Insider was looser and more spontaneous than anything he’d made before, and so was Ali, the first Mann film to use high-definition video in certain scenes, a fact that few critics noticed at the time. Robbery Homicide Division, Mann’s short-lived CBS show that was shot on high-def, was a natural outgrowth of the looser style of The Insider and Ali, and it predicted where he was going to go with Collateral, which mixed 35mm film and high-def video, and then Miami Vice, which was shot almost entirely on high-def.

On all three of these productions, Mann shot with multiple cameras, he used available light whenever possible, even during street scenes at night, and if somebody’s face was in shadow at a moment when they were saying something important, or if they were slightly out-of-focus as a result of the project being shot on the fly, he didn’t give a shit. In Miami Vice, which takes that approach further than anything he’s ever done, if there wasn’t enough light in the shot, he just cranked up the gain on the camera, which brings out detail but also increases the amount of grain in the image, which any professional DP will tell you you’re not supposed to do in a dramatic feature—and here’s what blows my mind: he left the grain in! There is software that can go through the finished cut of a movie, shot on film or video, and remove grain; there’s a way to make the texture consistent from shot to shot. Yet Mann apparently chose not to use it.

Detractors of Miami Vice sometimes complained that there were differing levels of grain from shot to shot, particularly in the night scenes. Well, put two and two together. If Michael Mann is a technical obsessive, which he certainly is, that stuff would not be in there if he didn’t want it to be in there—if he didn’t want you to notice it. And then next question is, why does he want you to notice it?

3. REMBRANDT’S CRAYONS

KU: I’d like to leap off from that to the David Lynch story that About.com critic Jürgen Fauth (aka “muckster”) posted on the blog, which is apropos of this. Following up on a discussion of whether Lynch’s use of consumer video was the movie equivalent of a painter trading oil for watercolor, Fauth wrote that mini-DV was

“…a different medium with different (blurrier) results, with its own aesthetic properties. It’s a choice….

Here’s what Lynch says about it in his upcoming book Catching the Big Fish, under the heading of “DV Quality”:

“The DV camera I currently use is a Sony PD-150, which is a lower quality than HD. And I love this lower quality. I love the small cameras.

“The quality reminds me of the films of the 1930s. In the early days, the emulsion wasn’t so good, so there was less information on the screen. The Sony PD result is a bit like that; it’s nowhere near hi-def. And sometimes, in a frame, if there’s some question about what you’re seeing, or some dark corner, the mind can go dreaming. If everything is crystal clear in that frame, that’s what it is—that’s all it is.

“And high-def, unfortunately, is so crystal clear. I saw a piece of film on the screen in my mixing room shot in high-def; it was some kind of science fiction. And in the background I could see wood screws in what was supposed to be a metal console. It’s going to be far more difficult to build sets for high-def film.”

If you look on YouTube, you’ll see a short that Lynch made before embarking on Inland Empire, featuring some of the same supporting cast. It’s called “Room to Dream.”

MZS: Right.

KU: It’s his video experiment. Eric Rohmer collaborated on a similar short right before he embarked on his own digital production, The Lady and the Duke—that was called La Cambrure (The Curve), and it’s on the Criterion Moral Tales box set. “Room to Dream,” I think, is a great title, because what it’s suggesting—and what some of the Inland Empire interviews with Lynch suggest as well—is that he used the Sony PD-150 because the blotchiness and the darkness of certain areas of the image make people wonder what’s going on there. It’s like you can’t see that part of the frame. It’s imperfect. Room to dream.

MZS: It’s imperfect, and that’s particularly noticeable in wide shots. It’s telling to me that so many people who did not like the movie hammered Lynch for the lack of resolution in the image. Here again, though, we have to ask ourselves, “David Lynch, who is as much a technical perfectionist as Michael Mann, and absolutely as anal as it gets when it comes to composition and lighting, decided to shoot with about the lowest end prosumer video camera, the workhorse of the independent documentary filmmaker—why did he do it?”

KU: Not for the same reasons, I think, that Gary Winick set up the company InDiGent: to essentially make movies on video that they couldn’t afford to make on film. There were more economic reasons behind that decision. With Lynch, I think it was an intentional artistic choice.

MZS: It was an intentional artistic choice. If he’d wanted to, he could have shot on high def. That would have solved the so-called resolution problems and given him some of the freedom that he wanted, but not all of it, because the lighting would need to be subtler and the camera would have to be bigger. He wouldn’t have been able to—and here’s that phrase again—hold it in his hand.

KU: It’s interesting, of course, that both the means of capturing the image and the means of viewing the image can be held in your hand.

MZS: That’s right. You can stand there with your actors and show their work to them almost instantly on the camera’s flip-out monitor without even waiting for a playback from a video tap, which is what they’d use to check their work on film shoots. That not only lends a sense of intimacy and momentum that doesn’t exist on film shoots, or even high-def shoots, it encourages a more free-flowing collaboration between the directors and the actors, who are more likely to suggest dramatic changes in a scene or a sequence knowing that it won’t be quite as time-consuming or expensive to change things up as it would have been on a film shoot.

I want to come back to the lack of resolution, though, because I think it’s a make-or-break proposition in Inland Empire. What are the things that lack of resolution does for Inland Empire? Chief among them is that it lends a certain haziness, an indistinctness, to the entire movie. For me, Inland Empire comes closer to the sensation of remembering a dream than any movie I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’m not talking about the act of dreaming, which none of us can truthfully testify to, because all we have to go on is our memory when we’re awake, and that’s always hazy. We may describe a dream as “intense,” but what are we talking about? Not necessarily the visuals. More likely the emotions, which we’re also remembering later, not experiencing present-tense. For me, I find that when I try to recall a dream, certain images are a little bit fuzzy and, on top of that, they may take on the form and the look of whatever media I was experiencing before I went to sleep: movies, television, etc.

Lynch understands this. When he puts dots over people’s faces so that you don’t quite know who you’re seeing or what they’re involved in, or when the movie’s lack of resolution reminds you of surveillance footage or a homemade porn tape, or a reality TV show—there are scenes following Laura Dern in and around her house that intentionally seem designed to recall reality TV shows—this, too, is intentional.

KU: I think we should discuss something you pointed out to me, which is that Inland Empire was not simply shot and then projected on video. It was shot on video and then transferred to film.

MZS: That’s right. There are qualities to Inland Empire that cannot be produced by film alone, that cannot be produced simply by projecting video directly onto a screen. You can only achieve them by combining film and video. Lynch knows this, too; there are hues and textures in Inland Empire that I’ve never seen before in any movie, film or video. He’s not just pushing the properties of film or video, he’s pushing both of them, to see what he can come up with. I’m curious to see, when this movie comes on DVD, if it’s going to be a transfer of the film print of the video, or if it’s going to be a straight transfer of the video itself, without the intercession of film. Knowing Lynch, I suspect it’s going to be the former.

KU: Video and film together.

MZS: Yeah. I think so. A film print of the video. The filmmaker Greg Pak, who has a great site called Film Help.com, has written quite extensively about film-to-video transfer. On the post-production menu of the site, there a useful “Case study” of transferring Pak’s Mini-DV feature Robot Stories to 35mm film. Pak talks about the chemical process of exposing film—how no matter what you’re putting on celluloid, even if it’s a record of a video image, the celluloid itself somehow alchemizes the image. Pak writes:

“Transferring to film gave the black parts of the images true blackness. So I found that when watching close-ups of characters, I could lose myself in their eyes. I wasn’t looking at the image; I was looking into it.”

The process brings out things that were not visible to you when you were just looking at it on a tape. It’s almost like it fills in the blanks to the degree that it can. And it makes the result a hybrid. It’s not film, it’s not video, it’s something else.

Lynch will, I’m sure, shoot again on video. He’ll probably, despite his statements to the contrary, shoot again on film as well. Either way, it’s important to talk about this stuff, because when you do, you can’t help getting pulled away from the old binary distinctions: either video or film. You also force yourself not to take the word “medium” for granted when having these sorts of discussions.

When people talk about the “medium” of cinema, it’s understood that they’re talking about celluloid. But I think the word “medium” confuses the issue because there are two different ways to look at the word “medium.” We can take it to mean the actual substance that is used to fix a work of art, whether it’s celluloid or, say, oil paint, or watercolor. Or we can talk about a means of transmitting ideas—in which case what we’re talking about isn’t the physical substance of film, but the language of film, the language of cinema.

When I use the word “medium” to describe cinema, I’m talking about a visual language in which shots and cuts are used to tell a story or convey an idea or emotion. I’m not talking about the physical substance of celluloid. To think that the essence of cinema is bound up in celluloid is a mistake, one that we’re going to look back on in 20 years and think that we were very retrograde to have embraced. To me it’s a semantic blunder that leads to a conceptual one. It’s like saying the essence of literature is paper or, more precisely, that the essence of visual art is oil painting. The essence of visual art is not oil painting; the essence of visual art is visual art. Visual art can be made of oil paint, or it can be crayon. In the case of Inland Empire, Rembrandt decided to work with crayons.

KU: As far as painting goes, we’re always told that there is a historically recorded Renaissance, and I wonder if—towards the end of that period, whenever people decided it was—there were a bunch of “Death of Painting” treatises? And of course, did painting die? No. It’s still ongoing, which suggests to me that movies will continue as well, in a variety of forms and formats.

MZS: It may be possible that what we perceive as death is in fact just one stage in our evolution. I don’t think that the current establishment of critics whose tastes and opinions were formed in the ’60s and ’70s are going to rush to embrace this notion. And there are a lot of younger critics who I think adhere to that school of thought as well—Mike D’Angelo, for instance, who’s about my age, and with whom I’ve argued this topic. His enthusiasm for Sin City notwithstanding, he’s very much a “celluloid equals cinema” type of guy.

Such preconceived notions are only natural considering that for the first 100 years of its existence, cinema was a story recorded on celluloid, shown in a dark theater to a paid audience of strangers. The generation that was born after 1980 does not automatically equate that with cinema. They grew up with videotape. They grew up with cable television and later with DVDs. They are used to popular entertainment, moving pictures, being available to them in a form that they can hold in their hands, a form that they can put in their backpack, in their pocket, or load up on their computer. They don’t have any less appreciation for the language of cinema than their elders—they’re just not encumbered by the preconceived notions.

4. PARADIGMS LOST

KU: You talked about the establishment having a certain view. I question myself if the alternatives to the establishment are even living up to their “alternativeness,” for lack of a better descriptor, in discussing these issues. I feel terms like “establishment” and “alternative” are a somewhat antiquated product of the ’60s and ’70s that have managed to persist and linger. I wonder if that dichotomy is more harmful now.

MZS: Well, it is. It’s a little embarrassing at this point to still be debating the issue of whether or not a movie is less of a movie because it was shot with a camcorder; and whether television can be art; and whether series television is inherently less worthy of attention than, say, your typical mainstream Hollywood genre film. People who catch themselves talking in those terms should cringe and correct themselves, because it’s 20th century thinking.

KU: I think this connects to the Caveh Zahedi thing I keep mentioning to you, that back-and-forth on Zahedi’s blog between the filmmaker and Nathan Lee, who reviewed Zahedi’s movie I Am a Sex Addict for The New York Times. Lee categorized the film as a “minor triumph of sincerity,” which Zahedi interpreted as meaning that his movie was a minor work. In their exchange, Lee clarified, “’A minor triumph of sincerity’ was not meant as a backhanded compliment. ‘Triumph’ isn’t a word I use lightly, modified or not. There is a triumphant quality to your cine-confession (no small feat), the defining quality of which I take to be sincerity. ‘Major,’ however, the film is not (in my estimation), and a step too close to lazy blurb whoring. I hedged the phrase to calibrate my opinion with exactitude, not superiority.’”

Later, Zahedi came back with this:

“As for the major/minor thing, it all depends on what one values in a film. What do you, personally, consider major?

“For me, what constitutes a major as opposed to a minor work is something that embodies a paradigm shift. It has very little to do with a certain notion of quality or craft. Warhol embodies, it seems to me, a very radical paradigm shift, whereas the quality or craft of his films is arguably quite low. Spielberg is, I think, a minor artist, because despite the undeniable quality and craft of his films, none of them embody a truly radical paradigm shift. This is why Godard is a major filmmaker and Chabrol a minor one, or why Weerasethakul is a major filmmaker and Ang Lee a minor one, despite his obvious talent.

“The reason I disagree with you on the major/minor issue is because I believe that my films, despite their undeniable weaknesses and limitations, embody a paradigm shift.

“John Pierson once said of one of my films: “I don’t even know if one can call it a film.” This hurt my feelings at the time, but looking back on it, I think it was a great compliment.

“The problem with any paradigm shift is that it is inevitably seen through the misprision of the previous operative paradigm, and is thus inevitably misread.

“This was true of Warhol’s films, certainly, but also, to a lesser extent, of the films of Godard and Weerasethakul.

“My contention is that you do not in fact really and truly understand my film because despite your perspicaciousness, you are still seeing it through the looking glass of a previous paradigm, and the film represents something paradigmatically new in the cinematic landscape, something for which there are not yet any viable categories.”

I think the paradigm shift Zahedi mentions is of crucial importance. As critics, as viewers, as fellow artists, if we’re talking about minor and major works, then we’re missing something.

MZS: That’s true. It’s like when Altman accepted his honorary Oscar last year and said, “To me, I’ve just made one long film.”

This all feeds into the idea of a continuity of experience that occurs on two sides of the realm—in the life of the artist and in the hearts of the spectator. That continuum, I think, has become increasingly clear with the explosion of Internet film criticism. What you see when you read Internet film criticism is criticism that is not constrained by word count. You don’t have to cram it into 30 or 60 seconds or less, like a lot of TV-based reviewers do. The presence or absence of a still picture illustrating the text, or the decision to run the piece on the front of the section versus inside—none of this stuff has any bearing anymore, it’s all about the content of the piece. Not only can you go long if you want, you can do multiple posts on the same film, or on the same director. You can write about a movie that’s 30 or 40 years old and connect it to something today, and nobody can say boo to you. You can illustrate your essay with frame grabs, to indicate visually exactly what it is that you’re talking about. Or you can refer readers to YouTube if there’s a relevant clip up there. Or if you have a lot of server space you can pull your own clip and hope the studio doesn’t sue you.

What we’re talking about here is an ever-evolving experience of media. You don’t so much consume it as dip into it. It has no beginning. It has no end. It has no past. It has no future. It is in that continuous present that you talked about in your Miami Vice review. For an internet critic like, say, Dennis Cozzalio, an old film directed by Robert Aldrich and the new Peter Jackson version of King Kong are equally present-tense. Dennis is a little bit older than me—he just has the reckless adventurousness of a college kid in this respect. Internet-based criticism doesn’t just encourage this type of thinking, it demands it. To be an Internet-based critic is to be free of previous paradigms—except the new ones that you can’t see right now, because you and other Internet critics are actively in the process of constructing them.

5. CANON FODDER

KU: Your saying that reminds me of something I read in the Rosenbaum/Adrian Martin-edited book Movie Mutations, where Rosenbaum said, “… a big stage in my education about Iran was learning from Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa how Bresson could speak directly to the experience of post-revolutionary Iran—not only in A Man Escaped (1956), which deals directly with the French Occupation and Resistance, but more generally through the notion of souls in hiding.” I think that touches on what you’re getting at with the eternal present idea: movies are not just enslaved to the periods in which they come out in.

MZS: Right, and that automatically strikes a major blow to the idea of a hierarchy or a canon.

KU: Did you read Paul Schrader’s canon article in Film Comment?

MZS: I did.

KU: And how did you feel about that?

MZS: I think Paul Schrader needs to get out more.

KU: (laughs) Well I guess that pretty much settles it. Ryland Knight and I were talking about it. He disagreed with a lot of what Schrader had to say, but he felt that it was intentionally written as something that would spark debate, and so on that level it was worthy of consideration.

MZS: I think any critic who provokes an argument or discussion is doing at least part of their job right so, yeah, I commend Schrader for that, but again we’re talking about, to borrow Zahedi’s phrasing, a filmmaker viewing new paradigms through the lens of what he’s always known. I mean, this is a guy who has very eclectic tastes in genres and in periods, but when you look at his picks for the Schrader canon, we’re still talking for the most part about classical narrative models.

KU: And we’re losing people like Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol.

MZS: And we’re implicitly excluding filmmakers who do radical things within the context of formats that are quite well-established. Circling back to where we were a minute ago, I think that to have been made within the commercial exhibition system, Miami Vice and Inland Empire are, hands down, the two most radical works of popular culture to have appeared on American screens in 2006. Nothing else comes close.

On this wonderful blog called “My Five Year Plan”, the film critic Brendon Bouzard suggests how—and you kinda got at some of this in your review, too—that in Mann’s films, the basic aesthetic unit is not the scene, not the sequence, not the shot, but the moment. The moment can be defined as that wonderful cutaway of those kids’ legs passing in front of the hubcap when Crockett and Isabella are obliquely discussing their future. Or it can be the final shootout, which I believe clocks in at eight or so minutes; that whole sequence counts as a moment in my book. I’m talking about an attempt to obliterate traditional concepts of time, traditional concepts of a storytelling unit or of a three-act structure or of an arc or of a goal-directed narrative or even an idea of an individual, discrete personality that’s not an extension of the environment. You know how in Mann, as in Malick’s films, and as in Wong Kar-wai’s films, the universe seems to be flowing in and out of these characters, and kind of jerking them around like puppets on a string? This is not an arbitrary, “artsy” storytelling tic. It’s a philosophical position. It’s an artist’s direct response to cultural and technological changes that are happening all over the world, changes that are altering not just the means by which we experience and evaluate popular entertainment, but the thought processes by which we define ourselves as individuals and as a species.

Picking Miami Vice as his #1 movie of 2006, Bouzard writes:

Miami Vice is an absolutely critical work on the nature of identity in a globalizing society…Form and function offer perfect balance—the slickness, the flatness of the film’s digital compositions—the way the infinite expanses of Miami skyline captured by Dion Beebe’s ViperStream cameras seem to recede into palpable abandon. Are we all surface? Is there any inner life to be found anymore, or are we crude automatons? How do we find our own redemption?”

He goes on to write:

“It’s the only film of the year that truly attempts (and succeeds) in bargaining new syntactical approaches to cinematic language. It moves so far beyond the formal confines of its genre and mode of production that it feels entirely rare—this is the movie Mann has spent his entire career moving toward, [and was] only able to produce because of past successes. Never again will he be granted as much freedom as he is here, and he knows it—he uses every frame of the film, every beat, to flesh out an entirely self-contained universe teetering between surrealism and brutalism. Miami Vice is the most exploratory and revolutionary work of its year. And it’s my favorite. I’m consumed by it emotionally and enthralled by its explosive energies.”

These are all very valid and very important things to be getting at, and the fact that Mann is doing it in the cops ‘n’ robbers movie is mind-boggling. We’re moving beyond geography, beyond space, beyond time, beyond race and ethnicity. Nobody knows where we’re going, but in their own way, movies like Miami Vice are reflecting the collective journey. They’re not just regurgitating the same structures, the same assumptions.

KU: You’re talking about movies made in the Hollywood model, the popular culture model, that are avant-garde in various ways. I know you have a great deal of love right now for The Good Shepherd, so where does that fit in?

MZS: Well, The Good Shepherd is an oil painting. And I love me some good oil paintings. I know it’s a cliche and every fucking critic in the country has probably said it by this point, but it’s the truth: it’s a Godfather movie. And it’s about the unacknowledged, invisible upper layer of our world, the true ruling class in this country, which is propertied WASP males and the institutions they’ve constructed around themselves. That is a hierarchy that has eroded somewhat over the decades, but that’s still essentially running things. The fact that this movie gets at it—and gets at the idea of an ethnic and class pecking order, and a gender pecking order, and a geographical pecking order, and insists that these are all facts of life that are going to erode slowly, if at all—is as impressive in its own way as Miami Vice and Inland Empire, which are much more radical in their form.

KU: So there needs to be room for films that are advancing things aesthetically. But is The Good Shepherd advancing things or is it adhering to something that’s already been done, but doing it very well?

MZS: I think it’s the latter. But at the same time it does kind of circle back around to what we’re talking about, which is the idea of time, of historical periods, of discreet chapters in American history being arbitrary markers that are often enforced in order to get us to forget, to put things behind us, to believe that a certain era was different than the one we’re living in now. That’s what I mean when I say that this a politically radical movie, for a mainstream movie. It’s about what happened in a particular era, but it’s also about what keeps happening. It’s not about what’s changed, it’s about what’s never changed. Stylistically, it’s not even as adventurous as, say, The Battle of Algiers or Army of Shadows, but to be a $60 or $70 million Hollywood movie chock full of stars, playing in multiplexes all over North America, it’s mad crazy 1975 radical.

KU: Let’s bring this around to distribution. Does The Good Shepherd only work within the context of the Hollywood business model context, the multiplex model, or as a personal experience? Do you feel that it would work as well on your iPod?

MZS: I think it would, because so much of the story is told through juxtaposition of shots, many of them are close-ups, and also it’s a heavily-narrated movie—a lot of the information is conveyed through dialogue. So yes, I think it would probably work on an iPod. Something essential would be lost because the photography is so dark, and so far the iPod does not handle high contrast very well. Gordon Willis is fucked on an iPod.

But to answer what I think is your larger question, no, I would never say that a work is inherently less worthy of note because it doesn’t advance the ball aesthetically for cinema, whatever we define that to mean. But I do think that there needs to be a level playing field. And I think that there is an unfortunate, in some cases almost unconscious strain of thought in criticism in this country that penalizes people who take risks with form of any kind, who deviate in any way from the classical Hollywood model, however you define it. In Miami Vice there were complaints that the characters were thinly drawn and that the story was hard to follow, and that there was a lot of time spent on things that didn’t advance the plot. To which I respond, “Yes, and so what?” Let’s not penalize risotto for not being a cheeseburger.

Again we come back to the intent of the artists. When you engage with any work of art, particularly a work of art that’s trying to do something even marginally different from what’s come before, you first have to meet the artist on his terms, not yours, and ask yourself what is the artist trying, intentionally, to do here. Why are they making the choices they’re making? Is it a happy or unhappy accident? Is it incompetence? Or is there perhaps a conscious aesthetic strategy? That’s why I bring up the deliberate mismatching of grain in night shots in Miami Vice and the fact that there are some important scenes between characters in that movie where the focus on one of them is slightly soft. In addition to the other things Bouzard lays out in his writing on the movie, Mann is calling your attention to the video-ness of video. It’s like he is trying to undermine, in some cases even destroy, our assumptions about what a good movie is, in order to reveal that there is more to a good movie than a nice crane shot or a kind of classical mise en scène, or a three-act structure, or a goal-directed narrative about a hero’s progress.

6. NEW CARRIAGES, OLD ROADS

KU: Where did this idea of the classical narrative come from? Is it traceable back to Griffith? Is it really a product of the studio system? Are people too influenced by ’70s filmmaking at this point?

MZS: No I don’t think so. But people who hold up the Boomers’ formative moviegoing years as the aesthetic peak of filmmaking conveniently forget that most of the ’70s movies that we know and love were basically classically structured, linear narratives. There are certain exceptions to that—off the top of my head, some of Antonioni’s work, 2001, All That Jazz, that wonderful Stanley Donen picture Two for the Road, Point Blank. I know you could cite a lot more examples. Still, many of the movies that we think of as highlights of ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s cinema, including work by Spielberg and Scorsese and Coppola and Hal Ashby and Arthur Penn and other giants, are, by the standards of Miami Vice or Inland Empire, pretty conservatively directed. Most of them even have a neatly regimented three-act structure that Syd Field could teach in a class.

This is not to denigrate those films in any way—a lot of them are great, great movies—but rather to suggest that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the cat’s been skinned mostly one way for so long, and critics have been explicitly or implicitly sending the message that there’s only one way, that a lot of viewers out there have absolutely no idea that there are alternatives, however modest. These great ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s movies I’m talking about were products of the same mindset as films from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, the 1940s. They’re products of the very same mindset that made movies possible as a popular phenomenon—which is to say, an assembly line mindset, characteristic of a wealthy, industrialized nation. Filmmakers who worked outside the system had to try to either adhere to that model or fight against it and define themselves in opposition to it—and that was never easy.

There was a New York Times Magazine story many years ago about how standards are established. It was about why Microsoft’s computer operating system was the dominant one at the time. Along the way it talked about why roads were a particular width. I really fixated on this part of the article because it explained so much more than roads. All over the world, the article said, roads are more or less the same width, and they’ve been the same width as long as there have been automobiles. Before that, they were the same width when there were horses and wagons being drawn on them. The standard width of a road goes back to the construction of the earliest roads thousands of years ago. They were built wide enough to accommodate one wagon—or for a major thoroughfare, two wagons, one going in each direction. Because the underlying structures of transportation had been decided upon and literally laid down, any future upgrades of roads, and any future innovations in transportation technology, had to take the standards into account, because it was simply too expensive and too bothersome and too mindblowing to redefine what a road was. All these factors combined to make it impossible for a person to just wake up one morning and suddenly say, “I think I want to make a carriage that’s one meter wider than the norm.” If you do that, you’re not gonna be able to drive on the road.

These are the same realities that have governed filmmaking, commercial filmmaking, all over the world for a hundred years. The technical, material and aesthetic standards have been laid down. The industry, the media and audiences are all used to them. If, so to speak, you decide to design a car that doesn’t fit on the road, or perhaps a vehicle that’s not designed to drive on roads at all, you pay the price. If, like Zahedi, you make a movie that embodies a paradigm shift, however minor, it’s harder to convince people to loan you money to make it, it’s harder to shoot it and finish it, it’s harder to sell it to distributors, it’s harder to get it mentioned in the media, and it’s harder to get it seen.

KU: Although the boundaries seem to be breaking. It’s like the knife has been slipped in without a lot of people even realizing it. Miami Vice is, I think, an avant-garde movie and it’s bankrolled and made in a commercial context, which is rather incredible. But there are probably a lot of examples of that. It’s also knocking down ideas about plot, and how plot functions within a movie, asking if the story needs to come to a completely satisfying end. Maybe the fact that the story falls apart can be part of what makes a movie great. This is the case, to my mind, with The Black Dahlia. There, as in much of James Ellroy’s fiction, the plot tends to get lost, but because the plot gets lost the lead character or characters come to the forefront.

MZS: Well, form ought to always follow function, and I think form absolutely follows function in that movie. The Black Dahlia is another movie that I would call radical, because the function of the movie is to tell a story from a singular point of view, literally from inside the head of this character of Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). And it’s a story that’s colored not just by Bucky’s emotions in the moment as he experiences those events for the first time, but also as he recollects them later. He’s revising his own feelings towards his experiences as he tells us the story, and that accounts for the movie’s shifts in tone within a sequence or scene or even within a particular shot. It accounts for the shifts in style, and in some cases the ellipses in the narrative. Those are qualities that The Black Dahlia has common with Miami Vice and INLAND EMPIRE: they all find ways to obliterate our sense of time and space. They all take place in what you’ve called “a perpetual present,” where everything from narrative to emotion to our sense of time itself is in a constant state of flux.

KU: Both novel and film are set up as stories that the Bleichert character feels can be resolved. The ultimate tragedy—if you want to call it a tragedy (maybe it’s a triumph, or maybe it’s both simultaneously)—is that he realizes it can’t be resolved. Everything he knows is a quagmire and clusterfuck that he, and we, just have to navigate.

MZS: Right, or as Ellroy is fond of saying, “Closure is bullshit.” And I think if you put Miami Vice and INLAND EMPIRE and The Black Dahlia on a triple bill, in many ways they’d feel like brothers—or sisters, as the case may be. Certainly there’s no substitute for a neat, efficient forward-moving, well-told story. I love the Coen Brothers and{C}—with a couple of exceptions{C}—that’s all they make. Hitchcock only makes that kind of movie, for the most part, and when he doesn’t{C}—for example, Psycho{C}—boy do you notice. But it bugs me that what is arguably, in its overall aesthetic, De Palma’s most radical, big-budget movie got basically bitch-slapped in this country. There was a similar critical befuddlement—not universal, but pretty widespread—over Miami Vice. Even a lot of the reviews that liked it dismissed it as a glamorous, empty-headed fashion show, and didn’t take any notice of the filmmaking or what Mann might be trying to say with it.

KU: I find that when I watch these video films, or video movies, that are coming out, my feelings and emotions are engaged in ways that I haven’t experienced before, that are really very new to me, and I’m loving navigating it. I think what critics need to have is a curiosity about every era that they are going through. I also believe that with each piece you write, you need to reinvent the wheel. To take account of where you are in the world and where the world is in relation to you. I don’t think Denby did that in his New Yorker piece. I think he was trying to be a reporter, in the sense of, “I go out and I interview people, and I use their quotes to support something that I’ve believed since 1980.” You know what? I’m gonna say 1977, because I see he mentions Star Wars in the article as another divisive marker, and I think that needs to stop. The idea that Star Wars killed the movies is ridiculous.

MZS: If you go back and look at Star Wars now, it looks as classical as Casablanca. It seems slow, square and linear. At the time there were criticisms that it was too fast, too shallow, not interested in character. These criticisms were leveled against Spielberg’s movies in the ’70s as well.

7. “I CAN’T WAIT TO GET HOME AND CHOP SOME WOOD.”

KU: Bringing it back to Lynch, I think that before INLAND EMPIRE, his best movie was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. That was so insanely radical for the medium of film, and I think with INLAND EMPIRE he has just gone into some kind of new stratosphere.

MZS: None of us have caught up to Lynch yet. And why do you think he seems to be in such a great mood? He fuckin’ knows it.

KU: But I don’t get the sense that he lords it over everyone. I think he genuinely, selflessly wants people to come to where he is.

MZS: I think so too. He has a very generous spirit.

KU: I often think of a video I saw on his Transcendental Meditation site where he was being introduced at a seminar by a friend of his who said (paraphrased), “I was riding in the car with David just the other day. He turned to me at one point and said, ‘You know, I really can’t wait to get home and chop some wood.’ And I asked, ‘What do you mean, David?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean, what do I mean? I can’t wait to get home and chop some wood.’”

MZS: (hysterical laughter) Well that’s about as in the moment as you can get.

KU: He wants to chop some wood. You know that’s the kind of mindset that I admire and try to emulate—the simple pleasures and profundities.

MZS: I want to double back on something that you mentioned, when you talked about how you find that movies shot on video seem to be more engaging or more intimate in some way. I have to think a lot of that is because the camera doesn’t just record light, it records emotion. And any professional actor who has worked on a traditional film shoot and then worked on a run-’n’-gun movie that was shot on video will tell you that it’s more exciting to work on video because there’s less of a machine rumbling along. There’s less money at stake. There are fewer people standing over your shoulder. The collaboration between the director and the cast is more intimate, more spontaneous, and it’s just more open. It’s very spontaneous, and I think that sense of immediacy that you get is because they’re in the moment, truly in the moment, and they’re not thinking, “Holy shit, I’ve got three tries to get this right, otherwise we blow our day.” I wonder if that sense of freedom and excitement isn’t somehow captured in the images themselves.

KU: But let’s bring that back to something like Superman Returns, which cost upwards of $180 million, but was shot on video. Is that an example of video trying to be film? Or do you think that that also has a hit-’n’-run kind of quality?

MZS: Oh certainly not, because there were so many special effects involved that that thing had to be planned down to the millisecond.

KU: Just because you shoot on video doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a hit and run thing. To me, it’s another choice on the artist’s palette.

MZS: It is another choice on the palette. And it’s a much more economically and logistically friendly choice, for almost every filmmaker. And I think as resolution improves{C}—and here’s another thing that the cinema-equals-film adherents are just gonna have to face up to—as the hi-definition video image keeps improving, and as the process of editing and manipulating the image becomes more sophisticated, directors are going to be able to simulate any kind of film stock that they want. It’s a matter of time. Right now you can go through Photoshop and make a digital picture that you shot last week look like an 1880s Matthew Brady photograph, and if you’re not somebody who’s spent time in a darkroom, you’d never know. A synthesizer can call up sampled horns—stored recordings of actual brass—and create a new sequence that is actually made with real horns, but assembled in a computer, and who the fuck would know it’s not “real,” except for an audio engineer? Eventually{C}—I don’t know when, but could be five years, could be 10, could be 20—post-production software will be able to do an incredible simulation of film with digital video, if that’s what the director wants. You’ll be able to choose what speed film you want, whether it’s Kodak or Fuji, and whether the film is fresh out of the can or if it’s damaged from sitting in the trunk of somebody’s car for ten years.

KU: But do you think that maybe we do know subconsciously with certain of these things? Can we really be fooled that it’s not film?

MZS: Well, possibly—if we’re looking for tell-tale signs. I think you can still make a case that vinyl sounds warmer than a CD. There are still people who can distinguish the sound of a digital recording of a scratchy vinyl record from the actual record being played. After a point, though, such distinctions become interesting mainly to technical obsessives, because the essence of the work lies elsewhere. On CD, the sound quality is so amazing{C}—so deep and so subtle in ways that elude vinyl{C}—that in a general sense, you gotta give the edge to CDs. And over and above that, these distinctions are academic, because you don’t have a choice. Unless you’re a band that wants to make a vanity statement by putting something out on vinyl or perhaps hoping that a DJ will pick it up and use it in a club, there’s absolutely no reason to record anything to vinyl, and everybody knows that. It’s a nostalgic act, and you know what? The listeners don’t care anymore. You can treat that as a tragedy if you want, or you can simply accept it as a fact, and realize there is more to music than the substance it’s recorded on.

KU: So comes a point where it’s better to accept the mutation, to deal with it and move on?

MZS: Yeah. And I don’t think our accepting it or rejecting it makes any difference to the mutation. I mean, we don’t really have a say in this. No one ever had a say in it. We don’t need to be worrying about this so much because when we talk about cinema, we’re not talking about a substance, we are talking about a language. And what can you do with a language? You can do whatever you want.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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