Friday, June 15, 2012

Revelations above the border

How often do you get to see what might be the two best films of the last two years in the same day? While in Toronto at a conference yesterday, I had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life in a way I had never seen it before: at the magisterial Lightbox theater in Toronto, the cinematheque where the TIFF is held (a beautiful space only exceeded, in my experience, by the BFI in London). The sound was a revelation: I was hearing things in the mix I had never heard before (one particular sonic detail led me to completely rethink Brad Pitt's character and his relationship to his children). The digital projection was so sharp and translucent; I was seeing a depth in the imagery, and a luminosity to surface and skin, that had previously eluded my visual grasp. To say it felt like I was seeing the film for the first time is an overstatement - but it was close. It did feel, however, like an unrepeatedly perfect experience: if I ever see another Terrence Malick film in a cinema under such pristine conditions, I'll be surprised.

The quieter revelation came later that evening, when I caught up with Patrick Wang's equally (although differently) luminous In the Family (a 2011 film which is receiving its wide release in North America in 2012). I'll be cagey in my plot description, because I think the affective experience this film offers is most intense when you know very little about its central plot points. This film contains one of the most quietly beautiful performances I know of, that of Patrick Wang himself, playing the lover of a widower named Cody. I have never quite seen another character on film like Wang's Joey Williams before: through Wang's deft combination of image duration, flashbacks, and carefully chosen actors in supporting roles, his Joey emerges as one of the most fully realized, humanely generous, and subtly complex characters I know of in recent American cinema. Joey is the surrogate father of Chip, Cody's young son; after another tragedy befalls their family, Joey is left with the messy situation of defining what it means to be a homosexual father in a grossly intolerant social context. What is so remarkable about this film is that its anger is never worn on its sleeve, and it is never used to judge those characters that we feel Joey himself would be perfectly just in condemning. Wang simply lets us be with Joey and his son on the screen, and through Wang's mastery of duration and light (this is one of the most beautifully photographed independent films) the rightness of their lives together shines through. This is a remarkable debut, and I can't wait to see where Wang goes next.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Moving forward with film-philosophy

Ryerson University in Toronto is hosting the Varieties of Continental Thought and Religion conference next week, and I've been lucky enough to receive an invite to respond to Robert Sinnerbrink's new essay on The Tree of Life. This has given me the opportunity to rework some of my ideas about the film and also think about the state of film-philosophy more generally.

The interdisciplinary field of film-philosophy seems to have evolved to the point where we are wondering where next to take it, how to move forward with it. A recent discussion on Girish Shambu's blog queried the ongoing value of film-philosophy, wondering if perhaps the recent turn to philosophy by some scholars was yet another move to view films in the context of Grand Theory -- here is the philosophy, and there is the film that illustrates it. While there is always the danger of reducing the film in question to a set of preexisting concepts (John Mullarkey argues that this is, on some level, unavoidable), I think the best work in the field has been oriented precisely against this perspective. 

This is why the idea of response has been crucial to the most interesting recent work in this sub-discipline. In contrast to illustrative theories, Sinnerbrink has summed up the sensibility of film-philosophers who want the films themselves to have a place in discussions about them: "[W]e need to be open and receptive to the 'thinking' that films themselves unfold via image, narrative, and style," he writes, "and remain committed to finding thought-provoking ways of translating this thinking into a fitting philosophical idiom, perhaps evne one that might subtly transform what we take 'doing philosophy' (of film) to mean." (See page 43 in his essay "Re-enfranchising Film" in the collection New Takes in Film-Philosophy). The subtlety mentioned here isn't just about concepts: it's about the act of writing and talking about movies. When we describe films we do not merely perform a redundant act that 'replicates' the film in our discourse. We inflect our discourse with what the film has shown us; every descriptive act is a different kind of aesthetic response, prompted by particular films.

This is probably why Malick has been a popular director in these kinds of discussions, above and beyond his now rather dusty philosophical credentials (he translated Heidegger and attended Harvard over four decades ago). His films, I think, demand aesthetic response as a mode of viewing; they set the search for ideas in motion, and make the response to the aesthetic and natural world a part of their cinematic, thematic, and experiential texture.

In this respect, The Tree of Life might be the perfect film for the subfield right now, not because it cites theology or philosophy explicitly but because it takes the possibility of moving forward with ideas as one of its themes. Early in the film, the camera follows Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) as she answer the doorbell. She receives news, we will learn later, of the death of one of her three sons. As she reads the words Emmanuel Lubezki's steadicam remains in medium close-up, but from slightly behind and at a respectful distance. This handheld movement is fragmented by two jump cuts. As fragmented  as Malick's recent editing strategies are, his use of jump cuts is still relatively rare, so this is a striking moment: Like Mrs. O'Brien, the film has become momentarily unsure of its own continuity -- it is as if the film is placing the ongoing possibility of continuity, in the context of a personal tragedy such as this, under momentary question.

Chastain’s performance (and this is true of all the performances in The Tree of Life at different moments) is here pitched at a register we do not always see in film. As Andrew Klevan has suggested, film actors often suspend their characters above moments of revelation, on the one hand, and moments of withholding emotion, on the other. This is a tension between public disclosure and private reticence that is at the heart of dramatic narration in both mainstream film and art cinema (and, indeed, much social life). Directors will typically operate to one or the other side of this tension in the making of films; and Malick is, of course, one of the most respectful of directors, refusing to bind the emotions that pass across the faces of his characters to immediately consumable narrative information. But the performance here goes beyond simply disclosing the psychological content of affect or keeping it withheld. The character, understandably, is not quite sure how to respond, not sure how to go on living with the ideas about grace and nature that "the nuns taught us" (established in the preceding few minutes of the movie), the ideas which have hitherto symbolically defined her life and provided it existential continuity. She has nothing to disclose or withhold besides the simple fact of her devastation, and the character is not "choosing" to reveal this: it simply happens, forced by this tragedy. The question is now not which path is the right one (grace or nature) but whether or not this very idea, as a conceptual guide to experience, will survive her tragic loss. Just as Mrs. O’Brien does not quite know how to move forward here, the film, having itself been affected by her devastated presence, also invites wonder at how it might continue.        

Malick's movies are full of moments like the above, where passages that feel like affective wholes (such as the first few minutes of the film, which presents Mrs. O'Brien's childhood and her parenting of her sons as a kind of graceful bliss) suddenly give way to loss. All of Malick's films are about this loss of old worlds and the uncertain movement into new ones. Malick sees these "worlds" not in any grand sense, but in the tiny details of life, experience, and nature, themselves open to the responses of viewers. The question in The Tree of Life is not what something means at any particular moment but how we go forward with our preexisting meanings after making contact with something so affecting. This is probably the best way to understand film-philosophy, too: an ever-evolving structure of feeling and thinking that is perpetually affected by films, and is perpetually reshaping its structures (in subtle rather than grand ways) in the process.
Cited: Robert Sinnerbrink, "Re-enfranchising Film: Towards a Romantic Film-Philosophy," in New Takes in Film-Philosophy, eds. Havi Carel and Greg Tuck (New York: Palgrave, 2011), 25-47.