This week’s column will be a complete and utter shamefaced excuse for me to talk about something I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while now, an idea I’ve been developing which, whilst not completely original, touches upon what for me is the enduring fascination of cinema. To me, cinema is an art form which happens to be the world’s foremost medium of popular entertainment: unlike any other art form, its existence is completely dependent upon commercial success. A great painting need not sell; a great novel may not make the bestsellers lists: but the artist will paint again nonetheless, and the novelist may well be published again. If a film director makes a film and it bombs, or fails to gain widespread critical approval, that’s it: as far as their career is concerned, it’s game over.
What, however, does cinema constitute at its core: what is the act of watching cinema when boiled down to its rawest form? What cinema is, in my opinion, is not a place where crowds of teens go to munch popcorn and drool over the latest heart-throb, sex-bomb or special effects laden blockbuster. Nor is it a place where intelligent, cultured, appreciative and respected audiences go to see and discuss the latest masterwork from an auteur, or the latest foreign gem discovered by knowledgeable critics on the festival circuit. Cinema can be both of these things, of course, but at heart what cinema really constitutes is the act of a group of people, most of which who’ve never met and will never speak to each other, gather for a collective visual/dramatic experience in which they sit in reverential silence in a darkened room, and watch things that they either should never be permitted to see, or to see presented in a heightened reality that which they see every day. The former of these subjects is demonstrated by cinema’s great preoccupation with murder and special effects: we are granted a unique opportunity to see aliens from outer space, or a man strangled with some piano wire. The latter concern is demonstrated by this week’s new release, “Le Quattro Volte,” which I’ll discuss momentarily. What I’m trying to say, though, is that any attempt on the part of cinema to draw attention to the fact that the very act of watching cinema is a clandestine, borderline seedy business merits special attention and consideration.
This act of drawing attention not just to the artifice of cinema, but to the pure practice of what watching cinema involves on a spiritual and psychological level, is what I like to call Meta-cinema. This term of course derives from meta-theatre, which is similarly the act of a play acknowledging the fact that it is a piece of theatre, and thus places the idea of theatrical artifice under the microscope. Perhaps the most famous practitioner of meta-theatre is Bertolt Brecht, though he dubbed this idea “Epic Theatre” and in fact manifested his ideas in his direction more than his scripts: which leaves Shakespeare as the greatest champion of meta-theatre in written form. Think only of how many metaphors pepper Shakespeare’s play which refer not only to the theatre, but to the specific theatre’s owned by Shakespeare’s company, for example The Globe. The best example is probably the prologue to “Henry V.” These opening lines to the play have a member of the company step in front of the audience apparently sans character, and politely ask the spectators to compensate for the limitations of the theatrical space with their imaginations. This is meta-theatre.
Meta-cinema is slightly different, since to continue this example the impossibility of portraying a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt on-stage is overcome by the film medium, as both Olivier and Branagh have demonstrated. The way in which meta-cinema sees films examine their own existence as a piece of cinema is much less concerned with questioning the artifice of the form, although this element is still present in various works. It’s particularly resonant in any film which presents an artificial or alternate reality, such as “Inception” or “The Matrix,” as this idea is inextricably linked to the questions of building and existing within a virtual reality. Meta-cinema in fact is more about reflecting the act of watching films within the film itself, with all the complexities of subjectivity, scopophilia and voyeurism laid bare to an audience even as it indulges in these apparent vices. The greatest example of meta-cinema that currently exists naturally comes from Hitchcock, in the form of “Rear Window.” In this film, Hitchcock has crafted his own artificial reality in the form of a clearly studio-constructed set of a block of flats. James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photojournalist observes this world through the lens of a camera, whilst Hitchcock watches him through the lens of a movie camera, and we watch both of them watching by looking up at the cinema screen. At first the peeping tom is engaging in harmless voyeurism, taking an active if slightly unhealthy interest in people’s private lives, lives he should not be privy to, and crucially he invents his own scenarios and fantasies which his unwitting neighbours quite literally act out, in the same way that he is the acting conduit to our scopophilic fantasies: he is after all romantically attached to Grace Kelly, the most beautiful woman ever to grace the silver screen. Of course, casual voyeurism evolves into deeply obsessive scopophilia when Stewart believes he is watching a man cover up his wife’s murder, and in the same way that dramatic action on a cinema screen is compellingly watchable Jeffries cannot divorce himself from what’s happening: he cannot turn his gaze away from the window. What the cinema audience is allowed to see, the most private existences of characters and the most extraordinary of actions, is never morally questioned because our distance from the action is assured and our voyeurism will not see us hoisted by our own compulsive petard: unless a horror film creeps and embeds its way into your nightmares, of course. In “Rear Window,” however, the amoral act of looking at what we shouldn’t be permitted to see is made clear to us, when Stewart nearly gets himself and Grace Kelly killed when the murderer returns his incriminating gaze. Hitchcock taps into the same primal and deeply cinematic fear that Hideo Nakata so successfully exploited in “Ring:” that perhaps we aren’t as safely distanced from the things we’re seeing as we’d like to think, and that they can reach out from the screen and touch us.
Following the world’s longest paragraph, I’ll now talk about how “Le Quattro Volte” fits into all of this. I confess I wasn’t quite blown away by this film, it felt to me too conscious of the fact that it’s an experiment and frankly owed a hell of a lot to the likes of Tati and Weerasethakul to earn the praise of originality that has been attributed to it, but nevertheless it does have a lot to contribute to my meta-cinema argument. For those who don’t know much about the film, it’s effectively a silent piece in which the narrative focus is on the mundane daily existences first of a goat herder, then a new-born goat formerly under his charge, then a tree under which the baby goat briefly shelters, and finally a burning heap of logs cut from the aforementioned tree. There are three major meta-cinematic ideas present in the film. Firstly is that of not showing us what we shouldn’t see, but of heightening what we see every day. Think only about how our sense of perception, of time and place, has become tempered by photography and documentary footage: it’s difficult to think of WWII and your imagination not see the conflict in black and white. Our historical and contemporary reality has been completely overthrown by an image reality, which govern our perception of the world. You may never have been to Egypt, but you’ll know what the Pyramids look like: how many generations before ours have been afforded that kind of knowledge? In any case, “Le Quattro Volte” spurns dramatic narrative in favour of a simple and basic depiction of Italian rural life, yet the natural imagery of the countryside landscapes is beautifully, nay exquisitely photographed. The very fact that the film is so visually striking is calling attention to the way cinema glorifies the natural world: we can see similarly beautiful rural vistas if we just drive to a national park, but doesn’t it always look that little bit better on film? “Le Quattro Volte” knows this to be the case, and revels in our preference for a glorified image reality in place of geographical reality.
Secondly is the idea of character in cinema. Why are actors the most salaried and elevated cogs in the filmmaking wheel? Their responsibility in the filmmaking process is actually incredibly minor, yet we raise a great or popular actor into the levels of near deification. The reason for this is that, for all the visual splendour of film, and for all the artistic/industrial work which goes into film production, our scopophilic instincts in watching cinema require an on-screen conduit for our attention, a diegetic doppelganger, an idealised other. This is again something that demonstrates Hitchcock’s considerable meta-cinematic tendencies: when were his leading men anything less than suave and charismatic, and when were his women anything less that icily beautiful and enigmatic? Hence our attraction to the human presences on screen: the actors. Again, “Le Quattro Volte” exposes and challenges this fundamental connection by forcing us to connect with non-human entities as our major dramatic figures: we instead become intimately acquainted with a goat, a tree, and some logs.
Finally there is the idea of film as a tool for fictional creation itself. Since we know that cinema has on one hand become part of the image reality that has come to define our visual perception of the world, is it not curious that the fictional film is so much more popular than the documentary? In most cases this is because film is satisfying its other cause, to show us drama that couldn’t, and hopefully will never, feature in our daily lives: but in the mundane narratives featured in “Le Quattro Volte” this easy get-out clause must be rejected. The film tells a story, but to what extent is the story truly fictional? Of course an actor is portraying the goat herder as he goes about his daily business, but how can you train an animal to deliver the heart-breaking performance the featured goat gives? You can train it where to move to, and when, but you can’t coax from it the cries of anguish, or the melancholy look in its eye. Similarly with the tree and the logs, this isn’t pretend in the way acting is pretend: the tree really is cut down and killed, and the logs really are burned. Again, the film seems to be crossing an intriguing line, whereby the protection an audience derives from the fact that they are seeing nothing more than fictional constructs on a screen in undermined, and ultimately removed.
That was a very long blog, and if you made it to the end you deserve a prize. Unfortunately the prize will itself be metaphorical, so if you’re reading this give yourself a gold star. How literally you interpret either the gold, or the star, is up to you.