|Posted by Sam Christie on January 22, 2012 at 5:00 PM|
Recently, while watching a film, a friend of mine leant over and whispered into my ear, 'this film is so ugly'. I was surprised, not because of the impromptu interruption, but because the particular film we were watching was a beautifully shot landscape film. It was the kind of film that can usually do no wrong. It turned out we were both thinking along similar lines.
They were similar but different lines though. I thought the filmmaker, in this case making a work about a landscape, a rural community, had been wrong to exclude the voices of those who worked the land. He favoured instead a poetic neo-realist lingering long shot instead of showing what the landscape contained. Almost everyone I knew, some of them film theorists, loved this film, seduced by the poetic pace, the painterly framing, but not my friend; she saw it as ugly. When quizzed she explained that it looked like an advert, that it looked as though the filmmaker had never been there, had never really felt the place for what it was. She saw the film as an exercise in technique, nothing more. We can, I believe, connect these thoughts by asking the simple question, ‘what was the filmmaker’s intention?’ If we knew his intention we could begin to appreciate the work for what it actually is.
Here’s my theory, and this is the theory of someone who makes films and faces all the challenges that are associated with that. This filmmaker, who lives in a city, wanted to make a film akin to the films of those he admires. My sense is that he’d watched the work of Raymond Depardon or perhaps Michelangelo Frammartino, no matter, he liked a style, he liked what rural landscapes could do when framed. Maybe he saw how easy it was to create beauty from landscapes like the one he filmed. But of course these landscapes, pretty to the eye, contain just the same level of complexity as you’ll find in the city. Far from finding malleable characters pleased to appear on the flickering screen, he found survivors, people who don’t take to being pushed about. My sense is he found resistance as an outsider and people declined to be filmed or interviewed. Because of this we don’t see the wonderful interviews of Depardon; instead we get long shots of trees. Far from being a conceptual choice, it was a pragmatic reality, an awkward improvisation.
I can’t prove it of course. It’s just a hunch and will remain so forever not least because this filmmaker declined to walk the reflexive walk. There was just no evidence of him in the film at all. My friend was right I think, he’d made a ‘painting by numbers’, quasi neo realist advert for himself as a filmmaker. Does it matter? Well to me yes I think it does,because filmmakers hold our attention in a way that comes close to subliminal and films, despite all theory to the contrary, present the pro filmic event as real. If this is the case the filmmaker has a responsibility, and a big one too. How many people left the cinema after that film thinking the landscape in question was nothing but wobbling trees, time lapsed lakes and people with one foot in the grave? The film was a fetish of rural life from the viewpoint of the city.
A priori intention matters. It is one of many tools that we, as the audience, can employ to unpack the work; to work out what’s really going on. Filmmakers are in an extraordinarily privileged position when screening a film; they’re speaking directly to us, many of us, who are assembled to listen. If the message in a film gets through, it can stay with us for ever and in some cases that message can be so coded by the nuances of the filmmakers life and background that in order to understand a piece of work we need to know who they are. Next time you go to a film, if you don't do this already, ask, "Who is talking to me and what are they saying?" That should neatly give the answer to the next question, "Why are they saying it?"