Follow the Fleet
This is the text, fully restored and only lightly revised, of a Masterclass lecture delivered via live Zoom for the Valdivia Film Festival (Chile), Monday 5 October 2020. During its broadcast (archived here), my voice was mixed under that of my brilliant simultaneous translator, Juan (Jay) Miranda (acting my speech out, in spirited Spanish, within a tiny, embedded screen that only I could see) – with the result that no English-language version has ever been available to watch and hear. Here’s what I said.
Because of the state of the world right now, I am presenting this to you via a live Zoom link. Zoom gives us some good things, and it takes some good things away. What it gives is that I can speak to you from another country in live transmission – from Barcelona, where I live these days. What Zoom takes away is the easy use of visual material, such as film clips. So it will just be me, my head speaking on this screen, for around the next 60 or so minutes. I thank in advance my valiant translator, Juan Miranda – who previously translated me 12 years ago at the Valdivia Film Festival, when I could travel there in person.
I have happy memories of that event back in 2008. One reason was the publication of a book organised and published by my Chilean friends at the festival – Qué es el cine moderno? or What is Modern Cinema?. It was a collection of my essays concerning, mainly, the momentous changes in cinema after World War II and into the 1960s, with the French Nouvelle Vague, Brazil’s Cinema Novo, the work in Italy of Michelangelo Antonioni, and so on. Cinema Modernism, in short. It was about what led up to those changes – the previous classical cinema – and some aspects of the legacy of those changes in the years after the ‘60s. So it discussed filmmakers including Abbas Kiarostami, Manoel de Oliveira, Naomi Kawase and, naturally, Chile’s own Raúl Ruiz – who I have studied and written about for many years of my life, as I am still doing today.
For this Masterclass, I understood my task to be a reflection on some contemporary trends in the cinema of the 21st century. To update the account in my book, in a way – to see if we are in some phase collectively that’s not simply Modern (or Modernist) Cinema or even Postmodernist cinema, but, maybe something else that is a little harder to name and describe. Something a bit more elusive, something a bit difficult to see and to touch – but also something very necessary for us to understand.
So, I am not going to attempt a survey of all the many different styles and themes, countries and artists, in filmmaking today. I don’t think that would be really worthwhile; it’s too much like simple reportage. We need more than a survey – we need another kind of reflection on cinema. A manifesto? Not exactly; nothing so certain or triumphant. That’s why I’m going to concentrate on one, single theme, one word, that I think is important: lightness. I shall explain to you what I mean by that term in a moment.
But first, let me confess something. How did I happen to choose this idea of lightness? Did it come from a theoretical investigation, from philosophy or aesthetics or literature or some spiritual reflection? No! It came to me in a dream – the very same night that Raúl Camargo, the director of the Valdivia festival, asked me to give this Masterclass. I saw the basic schema, in points and headings, of my entire lecture in a dream, and I scribbled it down in a blue notebook the moment I woke up – in a now barely legible, scrawled handwriting.
I did this because, if there is one thing I have truly learned in my over-40 years (so far) as a film critic and writer, it is this: trust your unconscious, because it knows more than you do. Your unconscious is ahead of your conscious self. It is guiding you, mysteriously, laying out the signs, the traces, of the path you must follow. So, I am faithfully following it today.
The word follow also appeared in my dream. And it triggered the memory of a film title inside the dream (I am always dreaming about films, and my dreams are also very cinematic, sometimes complete with credits, screens and movie projectors). I remembered the old movie title Follow the Fleet. That is an American musical from 1936 starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In that film, “the fleet” refers to ships, sailors on ships, a fleet of several or many military ships. But my dream was pointing to another, deeper meaning of the word fleet in English.
You might know the word fleeting, which means ephemeral, vanishing. More particularly, fleet means being light on your feet, easy, quick. It refers to a certain quality of gracefulness, and the ability to make smooth transitions from one position or gesture to another. Just as in the dancing of Astaire and Rogers. So this message from my dream was to follow the fleet – that is, to find a quality of lightness, and to discover what that might mean. That’s exactly what I am going to do for the rest of this Masterclass!
When I talk about lightness in cinema, I don’t mean comedy – although comedy can certainly be part of it – and I don’t mean just entertainment, what we call in English “diversion” or “light entertainment”, which is the kind of entertainment you want when you don’t want to think about anything, when you just want to chill out and relax. I have nothing against either comedy or light entertainment, or what Italo Calvino calls “frivolity”. But the kind of lightness I’m looking to define here can be quite serious, and it also can be very thoughtful – deep, in fact. I’ll come back to the question of depth in a light film, because that sounds like a paradox.
So, the kind of lightness I am looking for in cinema is fleet. It can move quickly from one level to another in a film, in any possible direction. Lightness is about staying agile, remaining airborne. So it’s not what Milan Kundera called “unbearable lightness” (in his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being), so light that you just drift off the face of the earth and never drop any anchor. What I’m after is, if you like, bearable lightness – workable, productive lightness. And, logically, that means not getting weighed down, never becoming too heavy. But, I hasten to add, I am not setting up some absolute and false opposition between lightness and heaviness in cinema. There are times when we need the feeling of heaviness, too, and there are great heavy films. I could give another Masterclass, another year, extolling the importance of Heaviness! But that is not the feeling that is guiding me today. Lightness is leading the way.
My reflection starts with an image evoked in a book: Catherine Millet’s 2008 memoir Jealousy. The central subject or content, which is largely sexual in nature, does not concern us here today. But what I remember, what I really retain from this book, is a single, metaphoric image that Millet uses to describe the effects of the personal trauma she experiences. As many people who study trauma from many diverse perspectives have testified, trauma doesn’t hit you all at once – you don’t feel it all, the full force of it, in a flash, instantaneously as it happens. Rather, the effects of trauma on an individual (or even on a collective, social group) come later, in stages – in successive waves and reverberations, sometimes in clear glimpses, but mostly in deformed versions or displaced representations. There is always a gap, a delay, a deferment in our “processing” of anything that huge and significant. I shall return later to this important idea of displacement, and the emotions attached to it. Let us simply note, in passing, how central the motif of trauma is, at every personal, political and historical level, to so much contemporary cinema: the films of Lucrecia Martel, Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso and so many others.
Here is how Millet describes the delayed, displaced or deflected effects of trauma in Jealousy. She asks us to imagine an earthquake at the bottom of the ocean. The earth moves, the signals are scientifically recorded, we may feel and even suffer the consequences wherever we are on land, close or far away. But the earthquake ends, things settle down, and (as the saying goes) life goes on as “normal” (and we all know how strange and unfamiliar the word normal has become since the Pandemic began!). Millet asks us to imagine this: the bed of the sea, the bottom of the ocean, has been disturbed. Things might have moved or realigned underneath it, in the depths of the planet. But what is the visible sign of this? Months later, after the registered earthquake, a single rock or stone dislodges itself from the place, the configuration it has been held in for hundreds of years, and it slowly floats to the surface of the water.
That delayed sign of disturbance, she suggests, is the image of trauma. In her own story, that is how trauma finally hit her, long after the rational, intellectual encounter with the revelation of a difficult, hard truth: a single thought or association dislodged itself from the depths and swam to the surface of her conscious mind, completely unravelling and devastating her. So we could say this is an experience that is light – that stone is a tiny, minimal element, and the event of its rising is, in itself, ordinary and unmelodramatic – but at the same time it is deep, because of what it brings back by association, what it catalyses.
Before I explore this idea further in relation to lightness and contemporary filmmaking, I also want to open a little parenthesis and comment on the ideas of progression and evolution in film history. Because broad changes or developments in film history are also not direct or immediate. I think we have the bad habit, sometimes, of attributing important, sweeping changes in film history either to the arrival of particular, significant films; or to specific external events in the world and its history.
In the first case, we say that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) or Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) hit the world of cinema like a bomb and changed it forever. What a reassuring romance or fantasy this is! No single film, not even a group or movement of films, grips everybody’s consciousness at once and changes cinema immediately and forever more. Change in cinema, deep change, happens in a much slower, more gradual, more subterranean way.
Look at the happy appearance of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) in this very edition of the Valdivia Film Festival – it is one of the greatest films ever, a revolution in its own terms, but it calls to us now from 50 years ago, when it was not truly seen, appreciated or understood. Wanda is an example of the stone that finally dislodges from the bottom of the ocean and – if we are lucky – enters and affects our consciousness. In that case, it took some of us 50 years to be ready for it. There is a lesson in that.
In the same way, cinema does not instantly, immediately change because of external factors. Film history is full of such sweeping claims, that (for example) the end of the Second World War changed cinema; or that the invention of digital technology changed cinema and the very nature of the cinematic image. These claims are worth exploring, but they should never be taken as total, determining explanations of the evolution of the art of film. Changes come much more slowly, over time, in a subterranean way, in a capillary action, jumping here and there in their effects and influences.
Currently, we are living in a difficult period when it has become very easy, almost seductive, to say that reality instantly impacts on cinema and changes it forever, with no road back, and no nostalgia necessary. We read in many places that the Pandemic has changed cinema, that the Me Too movement has changed cinema, that Black Lives Matter has changed cinema. (And television too, but that’s not my main subject today.) Or rather, people claim that these things, these situations have changed our needs of cinema, what we want and what we demand of cinema. Now, don’t get me wrong, don’t misunderstand me: in every situation of society, matters of civil rights, human rights, industrial conditions and fairness have to be improved, fought for and legislated, no question about it.
But I do think there’s a danger, in the midst of this necessary ideological fervour, of a misplaced and misguided set of demands getting placed on art and artists of every kind. Essentially, I’m referring to the demand that art must now be the reflecting mirror of the better, even Utopian world that we dearly want to see come into existence. But cinema, for instance, is not a straight mirror upon reality; rather, it is – as the new Raúl Ruiz/Valeria Sarmiento film shows us! – an espejo deformante, a distorting or deforming mirror. And what cinema shows us is always deflected, displaced, transformed, metamorphosed.
Now I will try to get closer to the heart of my chosen topic of lightness. But first, a few quick references, because, naturally, I am far from the first person to ever ponder or wonder about this idea. I sometimes stumble upon a statement of this kind: that Alain Resnais, in the final decades of his filmmaking life, sought, above all, an effect of lightness; or the great actor Isabelle Huppert declaring: “I value lightness above all else”. And then think of some of the very heavy films she has acted in, like those by Michael Haneke! To achieve lightness of spirit inside those movies must really be quite an achievement.
Another example comes from one of the most enchanting, life-giving books I have ever read: Why Duchamp (note: no question mark in that title!) by the Italian artist Gianfranco Baruchello in collaboration with the writer Henry Martin (no relation to me). This book is nominally about Marcel Duchamp but, really, it’s about everything. One thing it’s definitely about is lightness. Things are of interest, Duchamp told Baruchello in their private exchanges, if they can be approached from a point of view that is “very light”, playful, a point of view that can be swiftly altered or turned upside down. Baruchello testifies:
Duchamp himself has the butterfly quality that he ascribed to Apollinaire, and he possessed it to a greater degree, he had the capability of flitting from this to that for reasons that finally aren’t reasons at all, an ability to do something simply because he felt like it.
Baruchello derives his own approach to art making from this: he muses on “what the mind can learn about itself when it learns that one of the things it can do is to be totally arbitrary”. Just like I made the arbitrary decision to let my dream dictate my Masterclass!
Most substantially of all, Calvino devotes the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium – the set of lectures he wrote in 1985, he last year of his life – to lightness. I didn’t remember that when I scribbled down my dream, even though I love this book! All of Calvino’s examples in that brilliant essay are literary, and I won’t recycle them here. But where he begins is also, more or less where I begin: lightness is about the subtraction of weight.
I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities. Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.
Let’s get to cinema. I want to use as my guide a book that has been around since 2008, and many people have referred to it – but I don’t think anyone uses or mines it enough. It’s a deep, rich book: Turbulence and Flow in Film: The Rhythmic Design by Yvette Bíró. Yvette, whose work I’ve had the pleasure of publishing, is a screenwriter, essayist, novelist and teacher. She has worked with many fine filmmakers, and influenced many more. Her marvellous, much-translated book of screenwriting exercises co-written with Marie-Geneviève Ripeau, To Dress a Nude: Exercises in Imagination (original Hungarian edition 1996), is a rich resource I recommend to every creative person in any field of the arts. But Turbulence and Flow mixes screenwriting principles with film criticism and analysis, so it has a special importance for me.
Let me try to summarise Bíró’s basic approach. She is someone who has lived through and involved herself in the whole adventure of modern cinema from the late 1950s until the present moment. She respects the craft of classical storytelling, but she is above all committed to poetic expression, its depths and its mysteries. Bíró begins in Turbulence and Flow from the assumption that all events in life, in the world and in history, are incredibly complex in their formation. She draws from what is called complexity theory and also from scientific chaos theory. The essential lesson she takes from these various fields of knowledge is that nothing that happens has a simple, direct, one-to-one cause. There are many factors, many causes, working in a difficult-to-determine relationship. There are factors internal to people (their psyches, their personal histories) and there are external factors, the things happening to them, over which they have little or no control. There are micro factors and macro factors.
For Bíró, the most powerful moments in cinema are moments of change, moments when something alters: a mood, an atmosphere, a situation, a person’s behaviour. For these moments to be truly rich and surprising, they must also be complex, enigmatic, ambiguous. She finds these powerful moments in films by Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Yasujiro Ozu ... but also Harmony Korine, Gus Van Sant and many others.
Life as depicted on the cinema screen is a matter of the twin forces or rhythms of turbulence and flow. We are back in the sea, with Millet’s stone rising to the surface. The flows can be calm or rapid, and often predictable, foreseeable. We think of everyday life, normal routines, as a flow. Turbulence is something else: it’s catastrophe, trouble, action; or it's a thrill so exciting that it disturbs and maybe overturns the normal routines, as love does. But turbulence is not just an explosion out of nowhere, with a single, mechanical cause. It is an array of forces, of drives, slowly gathering together, unseen, until they (like the stone) force their way to the surface. Bíró calls this the process of “imperceptible accumulation”. And, once again she stresses what she calls the “temporal discrepancy between cause and effect” in any complex situation: the tears that I cry today may be the final, turbulent outpour of a trauma witnessed or suffered long ago.
I am not being wholly abstract here. When I was very young, and before I started reading film theory, I received my own life lesson about this discrepancy between cause and effect. In my family, we had a cat – this cat had adopted us, it moved into our backyard after the neighbour’s house burnt down. My mother (who died from cancer in 1985) dearly loved this cat (as did I), and she lavished much of her attention and care on it. One day, we found the cat dead in the yard – it had simply passed away, in its usual spot, from old age or some undetected sickness. But my mother did not react. She did not even speak about it. She went about her daily business, her flow, as if nothing had happened. That seemed a little strange, weird. But the cat’s corpse was cleared away (by my father), and forgotten. Or so I thought.
Then, many weeks later, all of us in the family happened to be watching the news on TV. There was a segment on the news concerning a horse that had fallen over during a race, and had to be ‘put down’, i.e., killed. This was not an atypical news story in the sport section; in fact, it happened all the time. So I really wasn’t paying much attention to it. But suddenly I became aware that my mother was rigid, staring at the screen from her chair; her face had turned deep red and her body was shaking. Before I could ask her what was wrong, she turned, pointed a brutal finger at me and began shouting: “YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THAT HORSE, DO YOU? THAT POOR, DEAD HORSE! THAT HORSE IS DEAD AND YOU DON'T CARE AT ALL!” She shouted like this for several minutes, in a hysterical rage, and nobody could calm her down.
I just unwisely used the word hysterical but, in fact, Mum’s behaviour was very logical and understandable, and I immediately grasped it without any help from Sigmund Freud: she was finally releasing her grief and sorrow about our cat, and she was also turning her own initial cold or indifferent reaction – obviously, that was the immediate denial mechanism she needed to survive this trauma – into an accusation against the rest of us, that we felt nothing! The film critic in me says: what a scene! But, of course, when your mother is staring at you with eyes choked with rage and shouting at the top of her lungs, you don’t exactly feel like you can say: “Dear Mother, what you are experiencing here is a complex displacement …”!
But life is full of such complex, secretive displacements, and Bíró thinks there should be more of them in cinema, too. For her, the greatest question in drama (or comedy) is: “How and why have we ended up where we are now?”. Rather than forge ahead in a perfectly linear and clear cause-and-effect path – as many screenwriting manuals advise us to do – she thinks we need to dwell on the past as a deep well of complex, multi-factorial causes; we need to dive into that ocean and try to sense or feel where the turbulence came from. The future cannot be predicted or projected, held down or held to plan; it will unfold from the constant dialectic of the predictable and the unpredictable, order and chaos.
With my partner and collaborator Cristina Álvarez López, we have also been working on a theory of flow and turbulence. We call it the moves. It’s a way to understand how striking, captivating scenes in films work. A move is when something unexpected happens, somehow, that changes a scene, transforms it, takes it into another atmosphere, another mood, another condition. It could be the surprising gesture of a character, but it also be a movement or reframing of the camera, a change in lighting or sound design, a shift in the bodily posture of an actor – anything can be energised into marking or creating a move. There are small moves and big moves. A move takes the fictional situation, with its various elements and co-ordinates, and completely shakes it up, rearranges it, transforms it.
Cristina and I derive some inspiration on this matter from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who describes a scene from Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. In this scene, the character of Nastasya, in the midst of a tense, domestic power struggle, impulsively decides to hurl a bag of one hundred thousand rubles into the fire. This woman, according to Agamben, is not guided by “anything like a rational decision or a moral principle”, by anything that is predetermined by will or reflection, but rather appears to be “gripped by a delirium”. This moment of decisive but blind action, fantastic and unexpected, henceforth changes everything in the lives of the characters, as well as in Dostoevsky’s narrative itself. Everything gets redefined; and the work itself is transformed in the process; it goes to another level. As the mighty team of Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson once said, the duty of a film, wherever it begins, is to somehow manage “go into a new space”, open up some new zone of mood and description – to metamorphose itself.
But maybe moves themselves are still too direct, too punctual, to entirely capture the fleeting, complex thing I am after here. We need to look not only at the moment of the move, but also what precedes and follows it: the turbulence beforehand, the ripples and transformations afterwards. In his brilliant book on the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, George Toles painstakingly evokes the process (the idea of which he borrows from poet Robert Duncan) of poetic emergence. This is the change – in the situation, in the atmosphere, in the given configuration of things – that prepares a move, clears the ground for it, raises our receptiveness to the possibility that something unusual and unfamiliar may well be about to happen.
One of Toles’ key examples is the opening scene of Punch-Drunk Love (2002), in which a rapid succession of weird, startling, surreal details – including a van delivering a harmonium onto the pavement in front of the main character played by Adam Sandler, and a horrific road accident that is never seen or mentioned again – pave the way for a man’s bottled-up life to be finally cracked wide open. Emergence, explains Toles, “occurs in the aftermath of an extreme disruption of film convention, a scrambling of narrative logic, or an abrupt departure from daylight sense”.
Toles calls this a visionary process. But we should be careful not to imagine this as a matter only of spectacular, sublime, awe-inspiring or crushing visions. Not every filmmaker is Werner Herzog or Alejandro Jodorowsky! Visionary experiences happen on an everyday level, too (and thank heavens for that!). Another filmmaker who was, in quite a different key, a master of such poetic emergence in the quotidian world is Jacques Tourneur. The main events in his plots are always underplayed straight, even flat – just at the same level and in the same flow as everything else in the film (Monte Hellman directs in a very similar way). But it’s the slight turbulence of build-up provided by a longer-than-usual take, or a previously un-deployed camera angle, or a sudden chaotic flurry of movement and detail within the frame that announces, ever so subtly, that something is about to happen, that something is about to change. Quiet, unassuming masterpieces like Stars in My Crown (1950) – the story, in part, of a tragic epidemic – teach us, over the long haul of film history, how to really sense these subterranean (while completely material) structures of interwoven imbrication and slow revelation.
The examples I have given so far are all very dramatic, but I also want to stress that comedy, too, is deeply involved with my concept of lightness. A good example of a very funny film that constantly takes us to a new level, and into a new space, is Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016). There are so many surprises in the unfolding of this work: the central characters (father and daughter) do things you didn’t expect them to do, and go places where you didn’t expect them to go. Like the great scene where this strange duo walk into a party where they don’t know anybody, the father starts playing the piano and the daughter belts out “The Greatest Love of All”. What a miracle that scene is! It is as if these people are constantly in flux, and the film is in flux with them.
A similar example occurs in another great film that mixes drama and comedy in an extraordinary way, Nanni Moretti’s Mia madre (2015). There is the sequence of a gathering, a little party on the film set, where an American actor (John Turturro) begins dancing in an amazing way. The vibration he sends out affects everyone in the room, and it takes the film itself off into a new mood, a new intensity. In relation to these two examples of Toni Erdmann and Mia madre, I find myself in immense sympathy with the previous editorial team (2009-2020) of Cahiers du cinéma, who celebrated these particular films, as well as the recent, often richly comical films of Bruno Dumont and Leos Carax. In the Cahiers view, the characters in these films are not rigid, clearly delineated constructions: they are like the vessels that receive transmitted intensities, that suddenly incarnate possible or virtual fantasies spinning off the initial premise of the film. The energy of music and dance is crucial to this particular vision of cinema.
As Bíró would say, if a “move” moment in a film feels right, if its feels truthful, if it works for us, it’s because it has gotten beyond the purely horizontal, linear dimension of cinema and opened up the vertical dimension of complex, intertwined causes. And we will need to explore those causes, because we don’t necessarily understand the reasons straight away. The experimental filmmaker Maya Deren often contemplated this interplay of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of cinema, which she considered to be the basis of filmic poetry.
Bíró doesn’t discuss lightness as such, but I see a great deal of relevance in her ideas to my notion of lightness. Lightness in cinema, I remind you, is about the ability to be fleet, to move fast, to move to other levels, to transform. I will talk now about these various levels.
One legacy of the modern cinema from the 1960s is montage or collage – the bringing together and clashing of clearly distinct, different levels. Filmmakers including Godard, Dušan Makavejev, Glauber Rocha and Vera Chytilovà were geniuses at this. They would set up distinct blocks – blocks of fiction and documentary segments, for instance – and then juxtapose them, with often stunning effects. Many filmmakers continued in this vein after the ‘60s. However, when I speak about the effect of lightness, I am evoking a fundamentally more fluid situation: we can pass from staged fiction to documentary, or from waking life to dream, or from present to past, almost surreptitiously, without even knowing it at first. It can happen as a move inside a scene, even inside a single shot, at any rate inside the flow of the film, and of its loose story line. So many filmmakers today, including Martel, Alonso, Angela Schanelec, Marco Bellocchio and Miguel Gomes are working with this intuition. Jean-Claude Brisseau (1944-2019), too, was a master of this visionary technique.
I earlier mentioned the digital revolution, as one of those technological factors that some people think immediately transformed cinema history. Everything to do with the digital realm is important, but its deep impact has been slower, more gradual. I will refer to an example from a filmmaker highlighted in Valdivia’s 2020 program: Ana Poliak. When I saw her film La fe del volcán (The Faith of the Volcano) back in 2003, I was struck by what the digital camera allowed Poliak to create and achieve: an extreme effect of lightness, where, as the scenes followed people walking and talking, the film constantly slipped from the flow of everyday, documentary reality into hints of drama, conflict, intrigue – and then back again, from turbulence to flow. I sensed then I was seeing the quiet birth of a new style, a new form in cinema. This form continues to develop here and there around the world, unpredictably. That is an example of deep, genuine change in the aesthetics of cinema, across several decades. Such change doesn’t happen overnight.
Poliak’s film is one of the many in the 21st century that fit the description of what Jacques Aumont in his book Le cinéma et la mise en scène (2006, 2nd edition 2010) calls a cinema of encounter. People wander through city streets or forests; they bump into friends or strangers. Some of these encounters may change their life, or they may just be banal or amusing time-fillers. That’s chaos theory in action for you! At their richest and most dramatic, the films of the Dardenne brothers give us these incredibly complex, mysterious moves of the sort I have been describing: a woman hesitates before saving a drowning man in their masterpiece Rosetta (1999); or in Lorna’s Silence (2008), another woman decides impulsively to save a junkie from his own deadly drives by suddenly stripping off her clothes and distracting him. Each time, we are plunged into the ocean of: why, what forces, what factors have prompted this move?
Another aspect of the cinema of encounter, and of its lightness, is the quality of openness, open-endedness: the sense that the story could go anywhere, at any moment. That, in a sense, is the opposite to a certain kind of depressing code of realism or naturalism in cinema, a code in people, situations or society that always remain grimly, implacably the same. It can be a species of misery – miserabilism, as it’s called. A bad heaviness – really bad, sometimes. Mike Leigh’s films, for instance (which I don’t like much). All the stuff in which – as Jean-Pierre Gorin once said (somewhat unfairly) of Rainer Werner Fassbinder – once the first images, sounds, situations and premises have been proposed on screen, there’s “nothing in reserve but all the obviously depressing moves”. That’s what Ruiz described as relentless, downward slope dramaturgy – something he always endeavoured to resist, reverse and complicate.
Roland Barthes once suggested that this particular species of realism can hypostatise meaning, can stop dead the quality of playfulness in a film, by resolving everything into the same, unbending tone. Barthes also mentioned fictional characters: realist fictional characters are those locked into a single, foreseeable, perhaps tragic destiny. They will always act and react in the same way. But the cinema of encounter starts from a completely different premise.
When Stéphane du Mesnildot reviewed Léonor Sérraille’s Jeune femme (Young Woman aka Montparnasse Bienvenue) in a 2017 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, he commented on a phenomenon bigger than this one movie. He describes a scene on a train where the central character, Paula (Lætitia Dosch) is mistaken by Yuki (Léonie Simaga), a stranger she doesn’t know, for someone else. So Paula plays along with the mistake, and impulsively decides to simply become this other person. She thereby escapes her realist destiny, her fixed self! As Mesnildot states, Laura is no longer trapped in her “fatal marginality”; rather she places herself “at the start of an adventure”. Adventure is another word that can be associated with lightness. It’s like the set-up in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), where a similar identity-game of mistake or delusion morphs into a strange, crazy, completely undecidable relationship-reality between two people. Mesnildot commented:
In this bifurcation [of the plot of Young Woman], a spectre that haunts the film is definitively rejected: the spectre of naturalistic French cinema, with its succession of miseries … Paula must avoid the trap of the determinism of social fictions that fix their characters (and above all, their female actors) in exhausting pursuits, lying in wait for the moment where they are about to demolish these characters.
That is well said! And it relates to a field far wider than just French cinema. The films of my birth country, Australia, could, for instance, do with a lot more adventure and a lot less realism, in this light spirit.
I would also pursue the same reflection in relation to film genre. Like the film which is a montage of blocks, there has been an often lively effort to clash more than one genre in a single film: to bash against each other comedy and drama, musical and thriller, melodrama and gritty realism, horror and teenage romance – whatever the combination might be. However, I am looking, these days, for something that is far more rare: the film of no genre, or rather, a film that slips so easily and lightly from the hint of one genre to another that we end up escaping the weight of the reigning, limiting conventions in each or any of the genres. That’s the zone where filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Eliza Hittman are working today. Or in a more domestic, non-fictional zone, it’s what Rita Azevedo Gomes is doing in her small, non-spectacular, intimate films like Correspondences (2016).
Or: think back again to the magnificent example of Wanda, risen like a phoenix from the ashes of film history. What is the genre of that film? You can call it a realist portrait, an art film, a road movie, a criminal heist, a couple-on-the-run film … and you wouldn’t be completely wrong with any of these descriptions. But you would never be completely right, either, because Wanda dances away from its genre determinations to find its own unique tone, intensity and soulfulness. And even though it’s the bleakest of films, it’s not miserable: its darkness gives the viewer an energy, a vision, that is complex, hard to explain in any categorical way.
Complexity, in the way Bíró uses this term, is always going to involve ambiguity, mystery. But we have to be careful – as filmmakers, critics or viewers – not to exhaust this ambiguity, to want to solve it like a riddle. As Hoi Lun Law suggests in his excellent Ambiguity and Film Criticism: Reasonable Doubt, we have to inhabit ambiguity, explore it, keep the mysteries alive and afloat.
We are seeing many films today (and even some TV series) where their baseline reality is in question from the very start; the status of this reality seems to be shifting, morphing in unusual directions all the time. But it worries me when films – here I’m taking recent Netflix examples – including Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow (2020) and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) end up revealing themselves to be puzzles or what’s known as mind-game films, where we arrive at a kind of solution or answer to the riddle of “what’s really happening here?”. That spoils these movies for me. Why can’t the films leave us puzzled, the way David Lynch is unafraid to do? Then the moves would never be settled, and the gestures of transforming lightness would keep reverberating, vibrating in our minds.
To finish, allow me to loop back to where I started, with the publication in Chile of my book What is Modern Cinema? in 2008. In the introduction I especially wrote for that book, I made extensive use of an extraordinary text by Roland Barthes from 1979, titled “Caro Antonioni” – “Dear Antonioni”. In fact, I’ve already quoted from this text again today, on my way through this Masterclass, I cannot stop myself from doing so! “Caro Antonioni” is a public lecture in the form of a personal communication, a letter. There are few works of film criticism that are as great as this one by Barthes. It enriches and inspires me every time I re-read it, whenever I revisit it across the passage of years.
Barthes begins the letter by nominating what he calls “the three virtues that … constitute an artist”. These virtues are vigilance, wisdom, “and the most paradoxical of all”, fragility. Something like what I am calling lightness is attached to all three of these virtues, but especially to the last one: fragility. And also to another intriguing word that Barthes uses: luxury. Near the end of his letter, he writes:
The artist’s activity is suspect because it disturbs the comfort, the security of stable meanings, because it is at once extravagant and gratuitous, and because the new society, in search of itself by many different systems, has not yet decided what it should think, what it will think of luxury.
For Barthes, choosing one political ideology or another was not a solution to anything, and especially not art.
Our fate is uncertain and this uncertainty does not have a simple relationship with the political solutions we imagine for the troubled world; our fate depends [instead] on that monumental history which determines, in an almost inconceivable manner, no longer our needs but our desires.
Once again, the primal image of the stone dislodged from the bottom of the monumental sea, beckons to us. The flow and the turbulence. The churning complexity of things. The poetic emergence. We cannot mirror the world, let alone solve its problems, through a social decree that presumes to fix the quality and quantity of its surface representations. I suggest that we need a lightness in art, in cinema, to best approach what Barthes described as the vibrations of phenomena. “The object represented vibrates”, wrote Barthes to Antonioni, “to the detriment of dogma”.
And that’s also what my dream told me, when it told me to follow the fleet.
Giorgio Agamben (trans. Jeff Fort), Profanations (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, “The Moves: Precise Sequences of Emotion”, Transit, 27 October 2013,
Jacques Aumont, Le cinéma et la mise en scène (Paris: Armand Colin, 2006).
Roland Barthes, “Caro Antonioni”, Art & Text, no. 17 (April 1985).
Gianfranco Baruchello, Why Duchamp: An Essay on Aesthetic Impact (McPherson & Co., 1985).
Yvette Bíró, Turbulence and Flow in Film: The Rhythmic Design (Indiana University Press, 2008).
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Mariner Books, 2016).
Hoi Lun Law, Ambiguity and Film Criticism: Reasonable Doubt (London: Palgrave, 2021).
Adrian Martin, Qué es el cine moderno? (Santiago: Uqbar, 2008).
Stéphane du Mesnildot, “L’aventurière”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 738 (November 2017), pp. 46-47.
Catherine Millet, Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M. (New York: Grove Press, 2011).
George Toles, Paul Thomas Anderson (Illinois University Press, 2016).
© Adrian Martin 4 & 5 October 2020