Saturday, April 3, 2010

Supercoherence, Revisited

[Spurred by a comment by Adrian Martin at Girish Shambu's blog, here's a revision -- maybe more accurately called a "re-writing" -- of an essay originally written for Tisch Film Review in 2008]

The Intruder (Claire Denis, 2004)

I would nominate The Intruder for the title of "most straightforward film ever made." Straightforward, in the sense that it has no pretenses, and that is not encumbered by anything: not by the usual patterns and models of framing, editing or just plain filmmaking, nor by traditions of narrative. The movie isn't structured along the lines through which we usually approach memory and experience. It passes over the "conscious" story, the way we think about our experiences, instead presenting a sequence of events and memories in the way we experience them. And it’s not concerned with who is experiencing what or why, or the usual delineations of character and time. It shows how a moment exists before we understand that it has occurred.

Since its raw material involves the filming of reality, cinema has always built itself and its structures on empiricism. But I believe that the reason we have movies is because our interests go beyond our senses. The camera is not an extension of the eye and the microphone doesn’t hear the world the way we do. At its heart, cinema is the idea of turning reality into a metaphor for itself.

The history of cinema begins with a complete unity of a plan and a moment (a single shot, a single idea), and then develops into increasingly complicated plans (casting orders, budgets, eventually screenplays) which in turn require systems (studio shooting, acting styles, crew hierarchies) for getting the fleeting -- "the moment of production," you could call it -- to conform to the plan. We invented directors after we invented something that needed directing, chief cameramen after we had plans that needed unity, editors when we had need for editing, movie actors when we invented something for them to act out. The holy plan-séquence was a way to maintain coherence between the moment of production and the finished film while also maintaining coherence with the original plan. The art of screenwriting, in its classical form, was the art of inventing structures strong enough to survive the ups and downs of the momentary.

But the defining trait of cinema as it moves into the 21st century is the relocation of coherence from the level of scenes to the level of moments -- the individual relationship between shots instead of the way those shots might be arranged to construct "dramatic action." We are discovering the molecular, maybe even the atomic level of cinema.

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