May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 31, 2009
Don Quixote – now there’s a loaded character for a filmmaker to take up. Whether Spanish director Albert Serra is a genuine man of vision or a tilter at windmills, credit him at least for the wit and self-understanding to choose the Man from LaMancha as his breakthrough feature subject. Of course, as soon as viewers realize that Serra’s Honor of the Knights (Honor de cavalleria, 2006) sets this beloved character adrift without the familiar narrative — or any narrative at all — they may join the naysayers calling Serra a conman. Or they may join those hailing him a genius. Certainly these irreconcilable perspectives will entrench further with the release of the director’s newest film, Birdsong (El Cant dels ocells, 2008). Once again, Serra takes a well-told story – of the Magi enroute to Christ – and untells it. For in truth, almost nothing happens in Alberta Serra’s films. These two films are largely made up, as the skeptics will insist, of shots of people wandering around in open spaces.
Of course, the same skeptics might (pretty fairly) describe much of Abbas Kiarostami’s work as consisting of people driving around in cars. The Iranian director admits his affection for that mode, while demonstrating it, in his documentary self-portrait, 10 on Ten. The enclosed space of a car, he says, creates an intimate setting for natural, personal disclosure. Obviously, one person’s intimate space is another’s claustrophobia. Roger Ebert, in an infamous review, describes his ongoing debate over Kiarostami’s mad method with fellow Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a Kiarostami defender. That other such defenders include master directors Godard, Kurosawa, and Scorsese moves Ebert not a bit. He remains convinced they’ve all fallen for an auteur with no clothes.
Meanwhile, poor George Sanders was nearly driven crazy by Roberto Rossellini’s singular vision – or lack of it – in the actor’s co-starring turn with Ingrid Bergman back in Viaggio in Italia. Bergman’s biographer dismisses that film as a failure (“a triumph of mind-numbing, elegant emptiness”) – the last in a string of increasingly dull and incoherent wastes of Bergman’s talents, sadly hijacked by a fast-talking Italian playboy pretending to be an artist. One character in Viaggio speaks of la dolce far niente – a particularly Italian concept: “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Rossellini’s sweet nothings went on to number among the most influential films in the history of cinema, something the aforementioned biographer shrugs off as “inexplicable.”
He’s far from the lonely minority in such naysaying. Indeed, I love Italian comedian Nanni Moretti’s gentle, if resigned, take on the particular lonely quest I’m considering here. In his short The Opening Day of Close-Up, Moretti plays a Type-A theater manager thrilled to be screening a Kiarostami film. But despite his nervous micromanaging of the projectionist, the receptionist, and even the snack bar, Moretti finds Close-Up unable to spark the merest percentage points of interest among multiplex customers who overwhelmingly prefer The Lion King and Speed.
No doubt, if many viewers can’t see what’s so visionary about the quixotic visions of Serra, Kiarostami and Rossellini, it may be that no explanation is possible. On the other hand, plenty of us have traveled our own bumpy road on the way to learning to trust the eyes of those who claim, in the face of skeptics, to see evidence of things unseen. It seems worthwhile to consider these filmmakers together (especially as Serra seems to be taking up the heroic quest of the other two) and offering some perspective on the journey into so-called “contemplative cinema” from the saddle of this Sancho’s donkey.
Back when I was even more of a novice at international films, I became aware of the then-peaking excitement about Iranian cinema. Eager to keep pressing ahead into new territory, I checked out Taste of Cherry. At the time, I didn’t know about Ebert’s review of the film, but mine was essentially the same: after a couple hours driving around with this guy looking for somebody to help him kill himself, I was ready to volunteer. Indeed, just as I’d felt I was getting the hang of subtitled films, I’d felt I’d been driven by Kiarostami into a brick wall.
Then, a couple years later, I lucked into that most precious of gifts: a press pass to the Chicago International Film Festival: and with it, the luxury of sampling films I might never have risked the price of admission. Among these was a new documentary by Kiarostami, about an AIDS clinic in Uganda. I figured I owed this buzz director another try, and this film turned out to be not nearly as challenging as the last – but ABC Africa frustrated me nonetheless. It seemed to violate that unspoken contract between audience and filmmaker: to supply me with information as economically as possible. At one point, this filmmaker left his digital video camera on a windowsill during a nighttime rainstorm – in other words, the screen was completely black, for an eternity. I was outraged. I GOT it, I thought. The rain. The darkness. The thunder. I was ready for What Happens Next. But I was left sitting there, feeling like Kiarostami really was less genius than crazy – worse, that he was enjoying some kind of inside joke I was left out of.
Then, finally, it happened: lightning struck, and I don’t just mean in the movie. For a split second, the jungle outside the window lit up, then the screen went black again. But I saw the light. I tore up that contract about film being mostly about information. I finally understood that What Happens Next was merely one pleasure of cinema, and maybe not even the greatest. C. S. Lewis said that plot is a net to catch Something Else. In an unexpected flash, Kiarostami illuminated for me that Something Else – and left me hungry for more. Not long after this epiphany, I managed to get ahold of the new VHS release of Kiarostami’s film Close-Up. When I came upon that famous shot of the aerosol can rolling and rolling and rolling down the hill – lightning struck twice. I was inside the joke! This guy really was a genius. He was playfully (yet seriously) interacting with notions of the real vs. artifice, then ripping back the curtain of artifice to confront me with reality in a way I’d never even considered was possible. It took my breath away.
The alchemy of neorealism has always involved touching the transcendent through the commonplace – via little people, ordinary settings, mundane problems. Rossellini’s St. Francis offers a striking variation, inasmuch as it employs a near-mythic figure transmuted by the plain, earthy style into flesh. Of course, the most perfect subject for this miracle should be the Incarnation. Yet screen depictions of Christ are usually the opposite of Word-becoming-flesh, rather giving us abstract divinities detached from the mundane world – and thereby missing the central point of the story. For me, neorealist tellings (as in the case of Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew) have the greater success rate in matching form to content when it comes to embodying the Incarnation – along with, paradoxically, iconic stylizations (including claymation!): which would seem the polar opposite of neorealism. Icon makers deploy a deliberately non-realistic style as their method of grasping the transcendent. The recent films of Albert Serra combine iconic and neorealistic technique to achieve a strange amalgam of styles that will leave some viewers scratching their heads and become for others, a means to deep contemplation.
Serra begins with some of the most indispensable mythic figures in the Western tradition – Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the Holy Family, and the Three Kings.
Yet to say Birdsong is ABOUT the journey of the Magi is to mislead, since Serra has almost no interest in ABOUT-ness or plot – even less than Kiarostami or Rossellini. All Serra wants is IS-ness. Or, to quote a mountaineer friend, it’s not about the summit: it’s about the climb. If plot is a net to catch Something Else, Serra goes hunting without a net. Serra wants to operate in the space between plot points, which seem to fall before and after the duration of his films. The restrictions of narrative become clear once they’ve been shed: a tremendous freedom is afforded in this space for sculpting in time: to allow the light to fade into twilight, or the moon to rise in real time, to study figures as they vanish and reappear over distant horizons, and to follow the shadows of clouds as they sweep relentlessly over the landscape.
Birdsong sends off plain-drawn Magi on foot – without camels or caravans or any other baggage of conventional verisimilitude. The kings travel field and fountain, pausing frequently to rest or consider their path or marvel at beauty wherever they find it – that last is Serra’s modus operandi: the gift this wise man wishes to pass on to us. It seems no coincidence that what little dialogue there is in the film touches wispy subjects like clouds and dreams – especially the observation that this strange business of dreaming involves the interpenetration of symbols and realities in ways otherwise impossible. In Serra’s dream-space, the iconic becomes incarnate in the utterly mundane. When the kings finally approach the Christ child, they pile their crowns to the side and prostrate themselves: these aren’t symbols, these are old men, face down in the rocks and dust, before the hot, sweaty Mother of God, the chubby Word sleeping on her lap.
How profound is a revelation that wise men should find transcendence in such humility! For me, the paradox of the Incarnation raises the possibility of an explicitly Christological theory of film. Yet I love the nearly offhand (and everything in Serra is nearly offhand) image of the kings straining to discern the Star through the dark clouds of night: how well I know that feeling! Later, they reflect on how tough their journey has been, echoing the feelings of anyone who’s managed to stay with them this far: This is hard, they agree.
Serra’s earlier film, Honor of the Knights, is one long pregnant pause. My favorite sequence is where the Don wanders around a windy field and orchard, stopping now and then to look up and listen – the moment captures an almost unbearably ambiguous expectation. Somehow, it reminded me of the scene in Germany, Year Zero where Rossellini sends his young actor wandering the ruins of postwar Berlin. Any perceived similarity may have to do with these filmmakers’ utter faith (which is rewarded) in the purity of image, but also the pureness of these particular images: a child in the rubble looking for lost innocence, an old man in windblown nature, waiting. The latter immerses us in that most paradigmatic experience of contemplative cinema: wind gusting through grass and trees, and in this case also fragile wisps of white hair – matter moved by the Immaterial.
Meanwhile, as Quixote waits for God, stubbornly at his side, Sancho waits for Quixote. Oh, for the patience of Sancho Panza! He puts up with so much: following his master on adventures only he can see, receiving gentle upbraiding from Quixote for his blindness. Sancho’s reactions – so low-key as to barely register – occasionally suggest he has his own theories about why he doesn’t see or hear everything the Don does. But he hangs in there, whatever his motivations for doing so, long suffering, faithful, non-judgmental. There’s always been something deeply moving, deeply human, about this particular iconic relationship, between the Knight of Infinite Resignation and the Knight of Faith.
“Look up at the sky,” the Don more than once urges his stolid page. “Say something to Him and he’ll listen. Ask God for strength. God is above us.” The provocative juxtaposition of faith and madness falls into a familiar philosophical groove – one that becomes more profound the deeper one plows into it. The Don may be disoriented when it comes to which way the sun is rising, but he has uncanny capacity for orienteering by the beauty and meaning it represents to him. Quixote finds beauty and meaning everywhere – in a sunrise or a dip in a cool stream, in a tree. With patience and affection, he tries to teach Sancho to see, too. I’m wary of romanticizing craziness, but there can be no doubt that madness is an indispensable metaphor for the absurdity of human ideals – the dignity of dust! – and the mystery of existence. Surely the madness of poets, prophets and saints is essential to preserving all that is human — and both relentless rationalizing and reckless debunking a threat to all we hold dear.
Knights, even more than Birdsong, eschews narrative bric-a-brac associated with the source material. There’s a sort of plot point in there, but nobody who’s made it that far into the film will care that it doesn’t lead anywhere or resolve. It does give Sancho a chance to be tempted, like Christ in the wilderness, with doubts about his commitment to the Don. Quixote himself, in the original story, ends his life disillusioned, denouncing his ideals – tragically. (Of course, if we do consider this a tragedy, that should tell us something about our world and ourselves.) Even here, the Don seems haunted by something that seems to just elude his grasp. Is he straining to apprehend the voice of God? Or whispers of his mortality? Or qualms about the reality of his own ideals? Serra rides the current of ambiguity to the end – yet the faith and determination of Quixote as he commissions Sancho to carry on their work is profound and inspiring.
In obvious ways, Don Quixote seems as essential a figure for contemplative cinema as St. Francis or Christ. In the case of the first two, both are knights or ex-knights or would-be knights, certainly Kierkegaardian knights – who see things others disparage as delusions – with obvious connections to the third figure. It is, of course, possible that they’re all deluded and I’m deluded, too, in thinking that the sort of films described here have helped change my way of being in the world. But I honestly believe that these filmmakers have helped cultivate in me a greater sense of the rhythm of contemplation. They’ve helped me become a better listener, or at least to begin to relax my need for narrative – which may actually be something of a survival skill in this postmodern world; it certainly seems essential in being able to suspend judgment to receive others for who they are. Indeed, it is this capacity for pure appreciation that one finds in Francis or Don Quixote, connected to a rich imaginative sense and faith in the goodness of things: both seem the necessary prerequisite to the making and the receiving of contemplative films.
Without a doubt, following after these cinematic Quixotes on their dubious adventures has had an impact on my ability to appreciate other kinds of films. Watching conventional (read: plot-driven) films, I often find myself wishing the director would leave the camera on a particular shot for a few seconds longer — giving me the chance to more fully immerse myself in the material elements of the scene – and cursing the filmmaker for cutting too quickly, or using image as mere window-dressing for plot points, or as an illustration for an idea. And when I begin to sense the hot breath of that pressure of obligation so many plot-driven directors seem to feel — to keep shoveling information my way — I tend to give up on the film altogether; it all begins to feel like one of those budget tours where the guide rushes the group along at breakneck pace, without giving anyone a chance to really see anything. Indeed, what I’m talking about has to do with the difference between being the worst kind of tourist and being a pilgrim.
I’d be lying, though, if I said I’d mastered the contemplative mode and that there weren’t moments when I “flee the immediacies” with the fast-forward button. I still get fidgety with certain directors and clutch my diversions like those uptight characters Rossellini so loved to strip of theirs. Again, I appreciate Nanni Moretti’s spotlight on the heart of my own tormented condition. In his Caro Diario, Moretti plays a writer obsessed with fleeing the noise and folly of civilization for desolate places until he reaches Stromboli – which of course is the same island Rossellini marooned Ingrid Bergman in Pascalian panic. On the same volcanic slopes where Bergman’s character confronts the Abyss within and without, and ultimately surrenders to Something Else, Moretti is driven to beg passing tourists for updates on an American soap opera to which his TV-addicted traveling partner has suddenly realized he can’t live without after all.
Believe me, I have my moments. Especially when I see those whose greater capacity for receiving on arcane wavelengths makes it clear they’re seeing things I’m still missing. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss them as delusional. That will always be Sancho’s temptation. But Sancho’s stubborn faithfulness, despite his wavering faith, continues to inspire me. I’ve already had too many undeniable adventures to give up the quest now. In the face of the skeptics, I can often only quote another ex-blind man after his own encounter with a mad prophet: Whether he’s a sinner or no, I don’t know. All I know is I was blind and now I see. Or, to use the words of one of Serra’s awestruck three kings: “If you look carefully, you’ll discover certain things.” Or in the words of Serra’s Don himself: “Think about God’s work, Sancho. God has given us this. We have to try. Knights are invincible. Because you know that God has given us the strength to do it.”