Congratulations to Marilyn Ferdinand (Ferdy on Films) and Farran Smith Nehme (Self-Styled Siren) for the just-concluded Film Preservation Blogathon. The event's aim was to raise money to preserve blacklisted filmmaker Cy Endfield's noir The Sound of Fury (1950). There is still time to donate to this cause: Please see the Facebook page of For the Love of Film. Marilyn and Farran, thank you!
I've been wondering: What does it mean for a film to be difficult? Are there multiple ways in which films can be difficult? To put the question to myself in a more personal and subjective way: What are some films or filmmakers that I find difficult? And why?
I recently watched Andrei Rublev (1966), a remarkable and quintessential work of cinematic modernism. It can be called difficult for many reasons: it's three and a half hours long; the narrative is episodic and discontinuous; the film is structured in the form of chapters but often there is little idea of how much time has elapsed between them; there are dozens of characters, and the relationships between them are not always clear; to complicate matters, the same actors turn up in multiple roles through the film; Tarkovsky frequently drops narrative and character in order to focus on the elements (earth, air, water, fire) in an immersive, tactile way. In and beyond matters of plot, action, character and psychology, Tarkovsky poses challenges to interpretation, especially given the central theme of the spiritual -- the non-material, the intangible -- that runs through the film.
Robin Wood has a wonderful passage on the subject of difficult cinema in a 2004 essay on Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep. It appears in a section he titles "Confessions of an Incompetent Film Critic." Let me quote it at some length:
For people of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s/50s on an exclusive diet of classical Hollywood cinema (with the occasional British movie), the European ‘arthouse’ cinema always presented problems which linger on even today, a simple basic one being that of following the plot. This is not because the plot is necessarily complex or obscure, but, frequently, because of the way in which the characters are introduced and the action presented. When I grew up there was remarkably little serious criticism available (not much beyond the weekly reviews), and film studies courses in schools or universities were not even thought of. I was seventeen when I saw my first foreign language film (Torment/Frenzy [Hets, 1944], by Alf Sjöberg, from an early but already characteristic screenplay by Ingmar Bergman). I knew from the reviews that it would carry me far beyond anything I had seen previously, both in style and subject-matter, and my hand was trembling when I bought my ticket. I believe I had great difficulty following it (my first subtitles, not to mention extreme psychological disturbance). Fifty-five years later I still have the same problem when confronted with the films of Claire Denis (or Michael Haneke, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien…). The habits acquired during one’s formative years are never quite cast off; when I showed I Can’t Sleep to a graduate film group last year, my students corrected me over a number of details and pointed out many things I hadn’t noticed, although this was their first viewing of the film and I had already watched it three times. A classical Hollywood film – however intelligent and complex – is dependent on its surface level upon ‘popular’ appeal and its action must be fully comprehensible to a general audience at one viewing, covering all levels of educatedness from the illiterate to the university professor. (The same was of course true of the Elizabethan theatre – see, for example, the conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, wherein a character explains his/her motivation, reactions or thoughts to the audience). One of the cardinal rules was that every plot point must be doubly articulated, in both the action and the dialogue; another was the use of the cut to close-up that tells us ‘This character is important’; yet another, the presence of instantly recognizable stars or character actors. All of these Denis systematically denies us. It is a part of her great distinction that her films (and especially I Can’t Sleep, arguably her masterpiece to date) demand intense and continuous mental activity from the spectator: we are not to miss a single detail or to pass over a gesture or facial expression, even if it is shown in long shot within an ensemble, with no ‘helpful’ underlining and no 'spelling out' in dialogue.
It is the particular distinction of Denis’ cinema that sets it apart from – almost, indeed, in opposition to – the work of many of our most celebrated ‘arthouse’ directors: Bergman, for example, or Fellini or Antonioni. Their films are rooted in autobiography – not necessarily in any literal sense, but in terms of personal introspection – whereas Denis left autobiography behind with Chocolat, and even that film is notable for its poise and critical distance, its objectivity. Where Bergman or Fellini seems to be saying to us ‘Come with me and I’ll tell you my secrets, share my experiences – how I feel about things, my thoughts about existence’, Denis issues a very different invitation to the spectator: ‘Come with me and we’ll play a game, albeit a serious one. Let’s see how much you can notice in what I decide to show you, how you interpret what you see and hear, what connections you can make, how much can be explained and how much remains mysterious and uncertain, as so much in our lives remains unclear. I’ll allow you a certain leeway of interpretation, because I don’t always understand everything myself, not even my own creations, though I’ll be as precise as possible…’
On the one hand, I agree with Wood that filmmakers such as Denis and Hou are difficult. In comparison to (say) popular cinema, the demands they place on us are sometimes of a different order. And yet, when I experience each new work by these filmmakers, the difficulty I feel in making sense of them is counterweighed by the feeling of deep pleasure I take in the very ambiguities, uncertainties and mysteries that make the work difficult. In the end, the overriding impression that lingers is not one of the work's difficulty but of its rewards, and the pleasures it brings.
But there is another, more personal and subjective sense in which cinema can be difficult -- when certain films or filmmakers pose problems especially for us as individual viewers, problems that don't seem universally shared by other film-lovers. For example, even though they strike me as very interesting, I find that I have to work hard to grapple with and 'tune into' the few films I've seen by Jacques Rivette. (Confession: I haven't seen Celine and Julie yet.) Many of the cinephiles and critics I admire are devotees of his films, and this leads me to believe that I've not yet found the secret 'key' to, the 'way into' his work. The films hold me at arm's length; I've not discovered how to 'align' with -- and resonate with them yet.
I recently read Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay on Rivette's films, "Work and Play in the House of Fiction." It helpfully begins with this epigraph from Whitney Balliett:
[Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz] causes earache the first time through, especially for those new to Coleman's music. The second time, its cacophony lessens and its complex balances and counter-balances begin to take effect. The third time, layer upon layer of pleasing configurations -- rhythmic, melodic, contrapuntal, tonal -- becomes visible. The fourth or fifth listening, one swims readily along, about ten feet down, breathing the music like air.
Apart from the brief ensemble passages written by Coleman, there is no composer behind Free Jazz, hence no composition; the primary role of Coleman as leader is to assemble players and establish a point of departure for their improvising.
Rivette's role in Spectre is similar, with the crucial difference that he edits and rearranges the material afterward, assembling shots as well as players. And the assembly is one that works against the notion of continuity: sustained meaning, the province of an auteur, is deliberately withheld -- from the audience as well as the actors. [...] We watch actors playing at identity and meaning the way that children do, with many of the games leading to dead ends or stalemates, some exhausting themselves before they arrive anywhere, and still others creating solid roles and actions that dance briefly in the theater of the mind before dissolving into something else. Nothing remains fixed, and everything becomes ominous.
Although I haven't seen Spectre or Out 1, there are many interesting observations and insights here. I think I may have gathered some clues to help me with my next Rivette encounter.
I'm curious to hear from you: What do you think are some ways in which films can be "difficult"? And, subjectively speaking, are there certain films or filmmakers that you find difficult? And why? I'd love to hear your thoughts on anything related to this large subject.
A few links:
-- Zach Campbell recalls an Andy Rector post on Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950) and uses it to comment on the film. Also: Dave Kehr has an interesting review of the newly released Losey noir The Prowler (1951).
-- Jeffrey Sconce brings Christian Metz's film theory to Ida Lupino's Not Wanted (1949) in his post on the "quasi-diegetic insert".
-- From Ignatiy: the new episode of Ebert Presents; and his post "Cabinetry," on the Liam Neeson Euro-thriller genre.
-- Two Jonathan Rosenbaum-related items: a podcast of an interview he did with Colin Marshall; and a newly written introduction to his book on Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.
pic: Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep (1994)