I am off tomorrow morning to Indiana for a lecture on Monday at DePauw University; very excited, but sad to miss the end of the New York Film Festival. Thankfully, I was able to see two films at this week's press screenings and they turned out to be my two favorite of the festival; Michael Winterbottom's hilarious Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and the closing night film, Caché by one of my all-time favorite directors, Michael Haneke. I want to talk about both of these films as each in turn represents an intellectually rigorous sense of play (in the case of Winterbottom) and an austere, powerful thriller (in the case of Haneke) and both are unlike any film you are likely to see made by an American. The proof is in the pudding; While the fall season features sturdy, well-made American independent films like Capote, The Squid and The Whale, and Good Night, And Good Luck (all of which were discussed on this blog), each of these films draws upon well-tread directorial techniques, stories, and genres without establishing an original narrative vision or style anywhere near what is accomplished in Caché or Tristram Shandy.
Before discussing the specifics of these two films and the choices these artists make that distinguish them from their American peers, I think it is important to take a look at the state of the American independent film. In his report on the changes at Paramount Classics, Eugene Hernandez hits the nail on the head when he states:
'Gone are days when "classics divisions" competed to acquire and release foreign language, documentary, indie and art pictures. With the exception of Sony Pictures Classics, the divisions have evolved into mini-majors making bigger budget, star-driven movies and aiming for Oscars.'
Obviously, this has been going on for a long time. The product that companies seeking to make a profit choose to manufacture should come as no surprise; there is no question that conventional, star-driven vehicles are going to appeal to a broader audience and make more money. The disappointment that continues to resonate for me is not corporate interest (which seems obvious), but the career-oriented interests of American artists. There are fine examples of truly independent American films that represent a unique artistic temperament; I look at directors like David Gordon Green, Lodge Kerrigan, or a film like Phil Morrison's Junebug and see that there are American artists with distinctive, compellingly American voices. But, just like their foreign brethren, there are not a lot of commercial opportunities for these films. This occurs, it seems to me, not only because studios seek to find populist "hits" and make a lot of money, but also because, in America, success is defined not in terms of quality, but in terms of box-office. And so, one eye on the camera lens and another on Variety box-office rankings, lots of independent 'artists' end up not really having what it takes to make art. Independence and art are not the goals of the studios, the filmmakers, the actors, or the films themselves. Instead, most independent filmmakers choose to replicate genre films, to ape the style or subject matter of an already commercially successful filmmaker because the goal is not cinema. The goal is money. We see our lives as Hollywood movies, in the strict terms of convention, and not in terms of art (although the two are not always mutually exclusive). The other system that is sorely lacking from a true American independent movement is, of course, the co-production system. Where are the networks of independent producers who care about the quality of films? I know there are lots of individuals out there, but where is the American equivalent of an independent co-production? Of course, everyone wants to be successful, to be a star. But on what terms and at what price to American cinema?
So, with Eugene's clear assessment of the state of the mini-majors ringing in my head, my own concerns and doubts about the state of the American indie echoing loudly, I settled in to my screenings. First up was Tristram Shandy. Is there a filmmaker with a more diverse career than Michael Winterbottom? Welcome To Sarajevo, Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People, In This World, 9 Songs and now Tristram Shady; I am not sure I can name six films more unlike each other by anyone, let alone a single director. Certainly, there is a distinctive aesthetic at work in each of these films; a hand-held, intimate style that clearly transcends subject matter. This same style works well in his adaptation of Laurence Sterne's classic novel. With this adaptation, Winterbottom shows that the novel is essentially a story about writing a book about an undocumentable life; he then transposes that conceit to the film itself, making a film about making a film about an unfilmable book about an undocumentable life. This has been the subject of another film which resonated throughout the screening; Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep. As in that film, the attempt to re-create a great piece of art leads only to on-set dysfunction and a movie that turns in on itself; the story of the film, its characters, and the subject of the "movie-within-the movie" wind in and out of each other like a mobius strip.
Of course, Tristram Shandy has something else going for it altogether, Steve Coogan and the excellent Rob Brydon. This pair of actors, playing perfect deadpan off of one another's improvisations, absolutely dominates the screen with their chemistry. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Steve Coogan is probably the funniest (and most under-utilized) actor working today. I can only shudder to think what might happen if Hollywood decides to continue to use him in films like the Jackie Chan vehicle Around the World In 80 Days; we are lucky he has not been found out quite yet. In Tristram, he plays the cool, confident version of himself that was on display in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes; the entitled star who knows what he can get away with when his ego is challenged. But the surprise (for me, anyway) in the film is Brydon as Coogan's 'co-lead' and perfect foil; the co-star always seeking the unattainable allure of the leading man, and passively aggressively undermining him at every turn. Winterbottom does what any intelligent director of these actors would do; he focuses on the visual and narrative relationships between book and film while letting his stars cut loose. In the end, he has produced a hilarious, self-aware film about art, creation, and its relationship to our real lives.
By contrast, Michael Haneke's Caché is less concerned with tying things together than slicing them apart with an ice-cold precision. Hands down my favorite film in this year's festival season, Caché is the story of a 'bohemian bourgeois' Parisian couple who receive frightening videotapes of their own apartment by some anonymous stalker who has put them under surveillance. These tapes, which the characters rewind and fast forward on screen in search of clues (calling to mind Haneke's own famous use of the rewind button in Funny Games), come wrapped in haunting drawings and are meant to instill fear in their recipients and the audience. It works. There is no filmmaker I can think of who can create more dread and anxiety with a fixed-camera long shot than Haneke; he has done it before in Le Temps du loup and in the excruciatingly terrifying Funny Games, and Caché only adds to his reputation as the master of urban bourgeois dread. What I find most compelling about Haneke is the way he makes his incredibly long, rigorous shots seem so natural and effortless yet simultaneously full of possibility; one gets the feeling watching Caché that danger lurks in every corner of the frame. When the camera remains so intensely static in the work of a filmmaker like Tsai Ming-liang, I tend to spend my time patiently combing the image for meaning, getting lost in thought and observation. With Haneke, I am thrust to the edge of my seat for fear that something really, really bad is about to happen. What is so fascinating, then, is that when the fateful moment invariably arrives, it is absolutely shocking in the best sense of the word; it feels earned, unexpected, and horrifying all at once.
At the press conference this afternoon, members of the press expressed a great deal of frustration with his techniques and narrative strategies and were seeking an answer to the film's open-ended, unresolved story. But Haneke remained rigid in his refusal to not only provide answers, but also not to offer his own interpretation of his films. Instead, he launched into a defense of his strategy to make audiences interpret things for themselves, to finish the film in their own minds, and do some real work to create meaning from the tightly focused ambiguity. Those who have experienced the criminally under-seen Le Temps du loup will recognize this strategy; in that film's final shot, the story's ultimate meaning is perfectly smashed into a thousand possible pieces. Caché operates in a similar manner, although its milieu is more familiar; the nuclear bourgeois family in its natural, privileged setting. Haneke underscores this point by highlighting and criticizing the fear that the Laurent family (played by an excellent Daniel Autieul and a scathing Juliette Binoche) is experiencing by using the television screen as the great mediator. As the Laurents struggle with how to handle their stalker, images from the war in Iraq flicker across their TV screen and put their relative comfort into sharp relief. It is not a subtle point; so wrapped up in the anxiety of what might happen to them (and justifiably so), the monolithic violence of war passes without comment.
The War Within: Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as George in Michael Haneke's Caché
These strategies work in concert with one another so effectively that there is an entire philosophy about human behavior in the world and its role in artistic creation on display. But Haneke's films don't make arguments, they instead present a comprehensive rejection of argument in art by illustrating life through tense, dramatic fiction. I didn't get to ask him about his thoughts on taking on American bourgeoise life and culture as a possible subject or location for a future project, but maybe that's just absence talking. Without a system willing to reject the populism of the market place in support of truly challenging movies, and artists willing to ask more compelling, difficult questions with their films, how can we restore American independent film? Has it ever even been here?
Rob Brydon as Captain Toby Shandy and Steve Coogan as Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom's TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY