May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 29, 2005
(Ed. Note: This was originally published in The Matthew’s House Project.)
Is this really just a Detective remake?
“My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.”
Last year Sokurov’s Russian Ark stalked memorably across many top ten lists with its long and low hallway shots. Proving that the best films are often just great ideas in action, he simply let his specially built camera pan pensively through the vast cultural landscape of the Hermitage in grand arcs and deep focus. Kubrick did the same thing a few times through the hallways of The Shining, arguably every bit as perceptively as Sokurov albeit without all the historiographical fuss. Perhaps now we could add Pat O’Neill’s recent The Decay of Fiction to this small list of films that make good use of corridors.
All comparisons stop here though. The Decay of Fiction does have a history to tell, but one that may take us in the opposite direction of Sokurov’s Russian marvel. O’Neill’s history is a recitation of slow decay rather than meaningful disaster. The location of the film, the infamous Ambassador Hotel, closed in 1989 and was slated for demolition several years later. Watering hole for America’s brightest and site of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, this crumbling icon becomes the background for an awkwardly cinematic adventure. Waterlogged and eroded, wallpaper dangles in the breeze through broken windows and cracks in the sidewalks crawl up the steps and into the once opulent foyer. From scene to scene the shadows of vibrant palms slip over the brown lawns from dawn to dusk in a matter of seconds, and the empty pool becomes a blank page for the quick shadows of clouds. O’Neill gives the building a biology of its own, and through the time-lapse shots we watch time beat mercilessly like waves at its eroding husk.
Across this canvas, a poignant architectural narrative in itself and a remarkable metaphor for American cultural decay (like a worn Fitzgerald novel), is painted a befuddling mural. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as a collage. A pastiche of wayward bars from classic noir soundtracks, random bits of intensely melodramatic dialogue stolen from now classic American detective scenarios, and pristine ball room gowns glimmering in black and white beneath the sculpted necks of America’s original beauty queens. The moldily technicolor hotel is occupied by these ghostly black and white figures and their decontextualized dialogue, all familiar to us by nothing other than the texture of memory. So much so that we need no story to lay these bits of dialogue into, they simply unfold with the suspense of good noir. The mood is set, and these snippets are hung on the flaking walls like portraits of an irretrievable era that we have all lived through.
In The Decay of Fiction, O’Neill forges a visual language that is at the same time sensitive and horrific. It is as clear as a bell, with classic American undertones. But at times it bares its teeth with a bite of what the avant-garde is best at: producing unsettling experiences by means of everyday elements. Thus the film often reads like someone speaking out of both corners of their mouth.
Many times O’Neill’s “blink and you miss” time-lapse camerawork lingers on the drapes of various windows, ecstatic and limp all in the blink of an eye. These exquisite panning shots are meditative and alluring. Almost brooding. And this mood dominates the film excepting several numbing intermissions, nonsensical sequences spaced logically throughout the film. Suddenly a man with an unnaturally large head engages in a frenetic semaphore exercise against a deep black background swarming with an inexplicable array of similar objects. Or random objects dance in double and triple exposure against a monochrome hum and the hotel and its occupants fade briefly from our vision. As the film builds on itself and forces one to linger thoughtfully on the narrative fragments and gently haunting imagery chained together, it keeps cascading into these raging nonsensical sequences that could only be described as: Decay. In one final and exhaustive abstract gasp, the film shatters itself before it returns to a final tour of the poorly aging structure.
In his own words, O’Neill makes sense of this all:
“I am interested in exploring the boundaries of believability. The narrative tradition insists that, no matter how fantastic the story, its surface must be seamless. By contrast, I call attention to the artifice, all the staged aspects, and allow the well-worn stories to slip over and through one another. The film’s intention could be described as wanting to take stories off the screen and into the imagination. I like to work within the gaps between reality and story, to look at what is going on around the story, its context, and to make that a part of my conversation with the audience.”
Experimental cinema isn’t usually high on people’s must-see lists, probably because it requires such a great deal from the viewer and often offers little return. But permit a brief illustration in its defense: We seldom laugh at people we overhear speaking foreign languages to each other because even though we may be hearing jibberish, we know they are communicating with each other. Avant-garde cinema often operates along the lines of such polite pragmatics.
O’Neill establishes a consistent grammar throughout the film in the re-imagination of these bits of romanticized detective story and intrigue. In time this narration becomes meaningful enough that he is in turn able to fracture it, he is able to break it into pieces until we find a few “gaps between reality and story.” Precisely the same principle is at work in Godard’s Detective, a late homage to the crime thillers he was so fond of in his youth. Theoretically the only difference between the two is that the hotel in Godard’s doesn’t fall apart at the end. In these films both Godard and O’Neill riff on a sense of crime, a sense of noirish verve that ends up having no truly scripted basis. And in both, the repetition of these intriguing bits become little more than points of suspicion along the way to a final smirk at narrative closure.
But to bring it back to the Bresson quote, both O’Neill’s and Godard’s film never actually seem to come back to life again. Like the flowers in Proust’s tea, Bresson’s film do bloom (“come to life”) again in the consciousness of the viewer, an instant memory of sorts. In comparison, O’Neill and Godard in effect produce a stillborn cinema in these films. They want to discover and nurture filmic seams in their work, but once we begin to stumble over the narrative gaps they are intent on exploiting, we aren’t given any more ground on which to regain our footing. O’Neill’s film is the practice of a sort of decay that Bresson’s films studiously avoid. Not that this is a priori a point of criticism, maybe he really is on to something.