Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bleak Banality

Australian films in recent years can be (perhaps a little unfairly) reduced to two types. The first concerns the Aussie ‘naivety films’ (eg. Crackerjack, Crocodile Dundee, The Castle). They usually employ the typical colloquial outsider who doesn’t quite fit in to his surroundings but whose innocent naivety assures him of social triumph. Essentially the fish out water story adjusted for Australian colloquialisms.

In recent years, this type has seen a reactionary slew of more artistically ‘serious’ films – films that still revel in Australian banality but tell it through a precocious bleakness, which is somehow profound (eg. Jindabyne, Lantana, Somersault). Occasionally, a winner emerges, such as Chopper, whose bleakness perfectly suited the disturbed view of the friendly but delusional Aussie protagonist; or The Proposition, where the film’s detachment was mirrored in its vast and rugged landscape, existential plot and dialogue, and visceral violence and imagery.

As the latest ‘bleak’ Australian film to be critically lauded, Noise has a lot of qualities. It’s well directed by Matthew Saville, with interesting use of sound-scapes and a tense and haunting opening sequence; the performances are subtle and realistic, especially Brendan Cowell and new comer Maia Thomas – all as far as it goes. This is the film’s problem. It contains within it its own limitation. It strives for a level of profundity that it ultimately fails to achieve despite having the structural coordinates all in place.

Paul Byrnes of the Sydney Morning Herald called Noise “a film with a lot on its mind”. To that I would add, yes, it is a film with a lot on its mind, just not much to say. This is precisely the cause of its banality. It is thematically and stylistically loaded but it doesn’t cohere into anything substantial artistically. The direction is ponderous and languorously paced and it wants you to know that. This is a film with a lot on its mind after all. It’s thinking about…stuff.

The problem of the film is that its bleakness can’t distance itself from its banality. Instead of presenting this banality in a disturbing or contrasting light, it reifies it through a pseudo-ambiguous tone. The bleakness thus becomes overbearing as precisely as it is under-whelming.

The film touches generally on various themes and stylistic notes but ultimately leaves it up to the viewer to fill in the disparate gaps. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this but it treads a fine line. Few films can effectively achieve this ambiguity on an artistic level. Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick are two masters at sublime ambiguity and, on the other side of the spectrum, Robert Bresson, Michael Haneke and Gus Van Sant (in his ‘Death Trilogy’) manage to turn this ambiguity into something bleak yet still artistically coherent.

Why doesn’t Noise work then?

While the style of Noise is to keep a certain distance, a ‘bleakness’, this jars with the acting style, which is much too ‘natural’, ingratiating and familiar (the colloquial motifs). In contrast, the ‘spiritual detachment’ of say Bresson (as with the other directors mentioned) de-psychologises the performances, resists audience sympathy and focuses on physical movements. For Van Sant’s films in particular (a director whose ‘bleak banality’ bears the most similarity to Noise), the dialogue is always sparse. Despite a certain naturalness, it becomes thoroughly alien in quality. With Van Sant, dialogue or the pretensions of characters are not privileged in any way. As one critic said of Bresson, “characters do not motivate into action; they simply move. Yet these movements are not without dramatic construction or significance.” The common style these films share is a symbolic materialism, an aesthetic detachment between the characters and their actions. Noise fails to make this distinction, thus lending itself to banality. The same applies to the narrative structure. As much as Saville may have intended otherwise, Noise’s tense dramatic moments contrast too much with the banality of the other scenes (whereas one could say in Bresson, their significance is equalised). There is a certain artistic schizophrenia here. Noise engages in a bleak spirituality that privileges banality, but it also retains a psychological and dramatic hierarchy whose affect contradicts with that banality.

Half way through the film, Cowell notes that the brain still functions ten seconds after you die and for those ten seconds it must seem like an eternity. He muses that heaven or hell would be what you think of yourself in those final ten seconds. “So if think you’re an arsehole in those ten seconds then you would be in hell”. As the film reaches its inevitable conclusion with that final transcendental shot, the film shifts to black and we are given ten seconds to think about what this means before the credits start rolling. It encapsulates the way Noise leaves a lot of strands unanswered (or underdeveloped). Those last ten seconds of blank screen are not so much for the character as they are for the film itself. It may seem like ‘you be the judge’ but for me it was a disavowal of artistic responsibility: ‘This may all be crap but I’ll let you decide on that’. Profound?

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Has Zizek finally lost it?

There's been quite a internet ruckus building over the latest Zizek film review. Academic bloggers, even supporters of Zizek, have objected to his reactionary (and, to be honest, dull) interpretation of the box office smash, 300.

In his review, Zizek performs his typical reversal of a popular 'subversive' theory by celebrating its complete opposite. 300 has been widely criticised by film critics and leftist commentators (not to mention Iran itself) as being a fascist allegory of American militarism and their fight with Iraq. Of course, Zizek argues that, on the contrary, the film is an example of the true revolutionary left battling the Evil Empire and goes on to propose the reclamation of discipline and sacrifice by the left against the hedonistic forces of Capitalism. As Steven Shaviro points out in his excellent responses to the article (here and here), this is Zizek's contrarianism at its most infantile, "an idiotic macho one-upmanship", a simplistic reading that comes across as no better than that of the loonies from the Christian Right.

Criticism of Zizek has usually been reactionary or formalistic, from the sophisticated (see David Bordwell) to the ignorant (see Johann Hari), but this latest round of criticism has been refreshingly intelligent and substantial.

From K-Punk:

What irks and disappoints about Zizek's tiresome reversal of the 'accepted leftist orthodoxy' on 300 is not so much the reversal itself, but the poverty and banality of the concepts it has yielded. Not every standardly-held view is worth reversing, and the meagre conceptual fare that Zizek's contrarian stance has produced proves that this is the case in respect of 300.

To Daniel:

Is there really nothing fascist about these values? Could a party that held discipline and the spirit of sacrifice as values - as opposed to simply strategic/organizational principles - really be called a leftist party? To my mind, the thrust of Zizek's claim here rests on a fundamental misunderstanding

And, since Zizek fails to pay sufficient note to the film's sexualised and racialised fascist tendencies, this from Dana Stevens' review in Slate:

Here are just a few of the categories that are not-so-vaguely conflated with the "bad" (i.e., Persian) side in the movie: black people. Brown people. Disfigured people. Gay men (not gay in the buff, homoerotic Spartan fashion, but in the effeminate Persian style). Lesbians. Disfigured lesbians. Ten-foot-tall giants with filed teeth and lobster claws. Elephants and rhinos (filthy creatures both). The Persian commander, the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is a towering, bald club fag with facial piercings, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.

The only real reference Zizek pays to these fascist aspects is in regards to the Spartan's 'eugenics program', in which any less than perfect infant is hurled off a cliff. Zizek's view?

But what about the apparent absurdity of the idea of dignity, freedom and Reason, sustained by extreme military discipline, including of the practice of discarding the weak children? This "absurdity" is simply the price of freedom - freedom is not free, as they put it in the film.

I'm a fan of Zizek but I have to wonder: has his dialectical system finally reached its limit? Has the old man gone crazy?