Lit Cigarettes: The 1990s
Film Theory in the ‘90s
I seek to know your look, mirror your gaze … and to know your desire. These words form part of the breathy voice-over track for a short film on Australian television titled The Touch (1999). It is an ad for cat food.
Cigarettes, Matches, Flames
All the art and craft of 1990s movies is condensed in the way that characters light and smoke their cigarettes. Did it start with David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990)? In close-up and slow-motion, the cigarette gesture (suddenly surrounded by total, abstracting darkness) resembles a forest fire or an apocalypse; while, on the soundtrack, the Dolby engineers fill our ears with aural intimations of a vast explosion, a plane taking off, or the breaking of the sound barrier. The spectacle of the cigarette instantly transforming itself to a wobbly trail of ash is so sensational that Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) invents the gag of “quick burning paper”. Lighting, smoking, burning as the flame of lust, abandon, dissolution, sin, obsession, absorption – all that is gloriously asocial, politically incorrect, cool, wasted, devastating. Martin Scorsese smoke, Chow Yun-fat cigarettes. Or simply whimsical, ephemeral, philosophical: Wayne Wang & Paul Auster’s Smoke (1995). At the very end of the decade, all 1999: Lesley Stern’s The Smoking Book; and passionate references in Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (the 90-year-old guy who has been smoking cigars for 85 years); Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (a woman who calls herself Smoke – “because that’s all my life is”); Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (spark of the soul or the libido?). Also a militant anti-smoking film: Michael Mann’s The Insider.
Those lit cigarettes are among the popular transitional devices of ‘90s cinema. A strange and depressing trend: ordinary, dully filmed dialogue scenes are spiced up, at the very start and end, with flames, hallucinatory inserts, sudden glimpses of larger flashbacks, sepia-toned material, slow-motion, a quick wash of dissonant, atonal music. It’s the mannerist moment, the expressionist breakout, the concentrated fireworks display of style, poetry, intensive meaning. Australian cinema has made it a national compulsion: Paul Cox started it, and everything from Terra Nova (1998) to Holy Smoke follows. Only Scorsese, John Woo, Mann and Peter Weir (at least in Fearless, 1993) have been able to build complete structures, signature styles, upon such transitional devices.
Walk the Walk
Wenders nominates one of his all-time favourite music videos: “Unfinished Sympathy” (Baillie Walsh, 1991) by Massive Attack. One shot for the entire length of the tune: singer Shara Nelson walks along several streets, the camera in front of her, tracking backwards. Modern cinema is ambulatory, from Roberto Rossellini and Ritwik Ghatak to (in the ‘90s) Nanni Moretti, Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Sandrine Veysset, Quentin Tarantino. Strolling is aleatory, open-ended, everyday; and fiction is across the street, down the stairs, around the corner: one reaches its realm gradually, slowly, step by step, and one extricates oneself just as carefully, retracing those steps to re-find the world. Amazonian Pam Grier on the conveyer belt, then off it, now walking, now rushing into the storyline at the beginning of Jackie Brown (1997); Bruce Willis pacing down the street, down into the hellish basement (and eventually back out again) in Pulp Fiction (1994); Moretti encountering Jennifer Beals while out for a stroll in Caro diario (1994); everyone (and their long lost backstories) wandering, dancing and intersecting in Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995); Julie (Guillaine Londez), forever the flâneur in Akerman’s Nuit et jour (1991). Robert Kramer (died 1999) made a film called Walk the Walk (1997). At his final public appearance before his death in 1992, Serge Daney advised: “To walk well today, you need an [Manoel de] Oliveira leg and a [Raúl] Ruiz leg”.
Talk the Talk
Gurus of the independent (not avant-garde or experimental) feature scene preach to all feral hopefuls: the formula for a cheap, involving movie is to have a number of characters in a confined space, like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), like John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979). Unity of time and place; the ensemble effect for colour. So: six people in a room, a hall, a garage; at a party, at home, at the mall, at work. The result: a decade of talky movies, which try to be vaguely like Éric Rohmer or Mark Rappaport or classic screwball in their verbal dexterity, but end up like TV sit-coms or the worst of Woody Allen. Kings of the New Talkie curse: Hal Hartley (when he’s static), Whit Stillman, Kevin Smith, Tarantino (by default).
A cop with a gun, facing Frank White (Christopher Walken) on a hurtling train in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990): “You can’t run forever”. Frank’s magnificent reply: “I don’t need forever!” Why doesn’t he need it? Because he is scarcely alive, already a phantom, undead, pale like the Thin White Duke and lean like Nosferatu. He joins a ghostly brigade of dead or near-dead men who stalk ‘90s cinema: the simple, plot-twisty, Twilight Zone kind, from Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) to Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense (1999); but more profoundly and hauntingly, all the descendants of the zombies in Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), spectres whose spluttering, flickering existence is equated, literally or figuratively, with the cinematic apparatus itself: Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995); Matthew Modine in another Ferrara, The Blackout (1997); Brad Pitt in Fincher’s Fight Club (1999); Bill Pullman in Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). And at least two fugitive, split, Pandora women in this bunch, thanks once more to Ferrara: Lili Taylor in The Addiction (1995) and Asia Argento in New Rose Hotel (1998). For the Spielbergian arm of world cinema, ghosts (in Ghost , Truly, Madly, Deeply , The Sixth Sense, etc.) allow a cozily domestic reinvention of 1980s Possibilism.
Possibilism? Back then (in the ‘80s), all that was needed was to dream of a Better Place (some Disneyfied Utopia) in order to tumble into it forever more; now, you can stage a return visit to the place you left (there is rarely God or Afterlife in commercial cinema, only a site-unspecific Limbo), and swiftly set right all the pain, misunderstanding, unfinished business, words left unsaid. It’s pure wish-fulfilment fantasy. In the more tortuous dead-man itineraries, great, gaping holes are left in the narrative fabric by jagged waves of guilt, denial and various psychosomatic disorders of blindness, amnesia and self-laceration: the sins of guys who just can’t ever say no, and regret it the rest of their lives.
Female anti-heroes – as opposed to villains – are a relatively recent occurrence (whereas male anti-heroes have ruled the roost since at least film noir in the 1940s). Women toward whom one has an instantly ambivalent relation: fascination and awe mixed with reproval and fear. You love them and you hate them, complexly. For around three decades, the soggy cargo cult of neo film noir has hailed the bad girl, the femme fatale. She who lives for desire, for kicks, for transgression, for sassy attitude and magnificent, one-liner put-downs: Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1993), Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich (1999). This femme at least has glamour on her side, which is no bad thing. Asian cinema has given this figure a political-soap spin: Gong Li in Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Shanghai Triad (1995), or the army of courtesans, couriers, go-betweens and gangsters’ molls in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s or Edward Yang’s Taiwanese films, play the sex-card within intricate, treacherous games of power and survival. Then there’s the death-driven burn-out on a bender, the scandalous free-lover, going right to the end of the line: supremely, in Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999). Or the many contemporary descendants of Madame Bovary, lost in their mad dreams, kicking against a miserable domestic prison, easy prey for smooth-talking drifters (romantic melodrama crosses into noir territory easily here), from Kylie Minogue in The Delinquents (1989) to Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
It is more of a challenge for everyone, however, to deal with the really unruly women: the anti-social, non-negotiable, shrill, impossible, draining ones. Children of the Revolution (1996), I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), To Die For (1997), Feeling Sexy (1999), most Jane Campion movies: however one rates them as films, they play on levels of fraught familiarity, of grudging respect, of constant irritation that are hard to shake: here are our bad mothers who neglect their kids, our flighty sisters, our most difficult friends, our ex-lovers. They are chained to us, whether we like it or not. But what territory is there still for these anti-heroines to conquer? Surely, at least, this: is there any woman in ‘90s cinema like the man in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), who carries around and compulsively re-enacts the Original Sin on his soul, who makes us wonder about the degree of connection or disconnection between what he is (a loving, single father) and what he was (a brutal, monstrous, inhuman killing machine)? La Femme Nikita (1990) or its remake, Point of No Return (1993), and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), approach such dissociative splits in mythic female psyches: but they are still comic strips (however rousing), not grand, profound or pathetic tragedies.
There is a hilariously matter-of-fact moment in Oliver Stone’s grotesque neo-noir U Turn (1997) when Sean Penn, victim of coitus interruptus out on a barren, burning, dry plain, has to quickly run around the other side of a tree to jerk off and get it all over with. It is as if, with this gesture, an entire modern era of angst-ridden films about wretched men and their tragic sexuality (James Toback, Paul Schrader, Sergio Leone, Michael Cimino) comes to an abrupt halt, entirely expended once and for all. From that point on, men and their uncontrollable spurts, worries and detumescences will become the stuff of comedy: There’s Something About Mary (1998), American Pie (1999), Detroit Rock City (1999) – and Human Traffic (1999) where the hero, doubled and wearing a Mr Floppy T-shirt, watches himself fumbling around in bed.
One story played out three times, with three different outcomes and destinies: Run Lola Run (1998). One story seen from the viewpoints of several different characters: Go (1999). A group situation broken up into the dream-projections of its various protagonists: Living in Oblivion (1995). A destiny happening in two parallel universes: Sliding Doors (1998). Shuffled chronology giving us effects before causes, deaths before destinies: Pulp Fiction. Especially tortuous mystery plot with hidden pay-off: The Usual Suspects (1995). A character who turns out not to have been there all along: Fight Club. Whether speculative what-if concepts, it-was-only-a-dream tricks or narrational games, a particular impulse has driven the ‘90s: to splinter stories into prisms, mechanisms with multiple, mobile parts. It has allowed new modes of surprise, a playfulness, rhythmic and montage possibilities, leaps from one level to another. But the trend works to keep its more radical influences and extensions in the shadows: Ruiz, Rivette, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Julio Medem, David Cronenberg, where doubt of all kinds (aesthetic, metaphysical, social) corrodes the very status and substance of plot and character as postulates, givens, necessities (something which the more popular films, finally, never do). And this trend is hardly – as the latest buzzword decrees – an interactive cinema for the cyber age: which thriller of the ‘90s is more prismatic than Citizen Kane (1941), and how can either escape being finite works that unfold from beginning to end, unmade and uninterfered with (mercifully) by us?
The All-Knowing Unknowing
In 1992, after The Simpsons and before South Park, a media student protested: “Hey, why do we have to learn to critique or expose or see through mass media anymore? We’re not fooled, we know all that stuff already, because pop culture is so self-aware and self-referential these days!” Apotheosis of Pop’s pose of all-knowingness: Wes Craven’s Scream series (1996- ). Watching Teaching Mrs Tingle (1999), from Scream’s young writer Kevin Williamson, brought home the problem with such postmodern smartness. It is a form of sophistication utterly lacking in subtlety or suggestion. Williamson has apparently never heard of every script manual’s one deep idea, namely subtext: the art of concealing or understating a scene’s specific point or topic. Instead, everything is militantly declared, on the surface: if Williamson employs irony, he has his characters labour the point by discussing dictionary definitions of the term. When he alludes to The Exorcist (1973) in the image of Tingle (Helen Mirren) tied to a bed, he is not content to let the viewer grasp this connection: these teens not only explicate the reference, but drearily act it out as well. There are no longer any secret themes, secret stories or secret centres to these all-knowing pop movies – as there almost always is in Atom Egoyan, Cronenberg or Claude Chabrol.
The Futile New World
Movies, pop culture, technological innovations: all these regularly promise to take us into a New World. The new worlds of (for instance) sampled music, of digital imagery, of Japanese anime, of the Internet, of “fast fiction”. “It’s only when you encounter something really new that you realise how bored you’ve been” (Kodwo Eshun). And for a few fleeting moments, these revolutions seem real: we surely experience new perceptions, sensations, information. But then the short-term thrill wears off, and the same old, futile world – with its dreary habits, conditions and limits – reasserts itself, as ever. This was a theme for Serge Daney; as early as 1966, in relation to Jerry Lewis’ The Family Jewels (1965), he wrote: “We slide toward a new world. Strangely, it is a question of our world, futile and familiar at the same time” (La Maison cinéma et le monde, Vol I, p. 57). Sixteen years later, on the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart (1982), he returned to the idea, comparing its drama to the simple business of putting on a new pair of glasses. At the start, “the world is suddenly beautiful, clear, hyper-real”. But then the truth sinks in: “Mediocre perception, routine daily life, small dreams, nondescript stories”. No Dolby-wired film ever sounds as good after the Dolby demo-logo. And IMAX 3D is exactly like this: with the miracle goggles on, the film (any film) at first seems wondrous. It is a Bazinian wonder: the natural world beckons to us in its luminescent, infinite depths. But then the story kicks in: usually some parable of Innocence, Beauty, Lust, Greed, Compassion and Wisdom, narrated by an Everyman accompanied by children and clowns on the Road of Life. As Jean Epstein exclaimed in the ‘20s, every time his beloved photogénie appeared and just as suddenly disappeared from the screen: “All is lost”.
Dance Fools Dance
A great moment in ‘90s cinema: the montage in Clueless (1995) that shows Cher (Alicia Silverstone) realising that she has fallen in love with Josh (Paul Rudd), climaxing in a flashback of this guy dancing very stiffly and daggily amid a wild teen crowd. There is no kind of dancing in movies more glorious than this kind: where people start jerking their bodies around, eyes fixed in a vacant stare, grimly intent on having a good time or looking cool – but, in fact, completely lost to themselves, gone in the flow, oblivious to how they really appear. In Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), two girls doing an exhibitionistic, “hot” dance with each other forget their gazing boyfriends, forget everything around them. In American Pie, Jim (Jason Biggs) is goaded into dancing by the East European babe on his suburban bed, Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) – and his hopefully raunchy gyrations are at that moment beamed to all his schoolmates via a seeing-eye computer. One laughs at all these dancing monkeys, but not out of a sense of superiority; one can only love them, for the identification factor is total.
Back to the Future
Gilles Deleuze (died 1995) commented at the dawn of the decade on the rise of sound-byte arts journalism: “Aesthetic judgment becomes ‘it’s delicious’, like a little snack, or ‘it’s a breakthrough’, like a football penalty”. Nonetheless, one often hears the complaint these days – particularly from the film industry’s exhibitors and distributors – that critics are “out of touch” with the taste of their readers. This is the era of target audiences, of niche markets, of streamlined information: giving people exactly what they want to know, see and hear. The age of consumer flattery. In such a savage democracy, it is bad for anyone to be (or become) an “authority”, evil for anyone to pretend to know more than anyone else, inappropriate for anyone to guide or teach. Everyone – as they say – is a critic; everyone has an opinion about movies – and who is to say that mine is any better than yours, heh buddy? And this much is true: authority is never simply given, invested by a State, a Church, an academic degree or by the fact of being an appointed talking-head on the nightly TV news; every critic must win the bestowal of authority from every reader, and continue to win it, every damn day. But this does not mean that all critics are equal, and that each is condemned to speak only to those readers or listeners who are happy to hear what they already know. Jacques Laurent comments:
There are two brands of film criticism. The first kind could hang a shingle announcing “good plain fare”. It doesn’t make waves, agrees eagerly with the tastes of the general public and is practised by people for whom cinema is not a religion but a pleasant pastime. And then there is an intelligentsia that practices criticism in a state of anger. The intelligentsia I am referring to sees itself as being, or wanting to be, in a state of belligerence. All attacks are worthwhile since the god of cinema will recognise its own. Whether approving or disapproving, these critics are always angry because, judging films according to ethics and aesthetics evolved at the Cinémathèque, they are perpetually at war with middle-class criticism and frequently in disagreement with box-office receipts – in other words, with the public.
He wrote that in 1955.
© Adrian Martin January 2000