J.R. Jones’s summary of the Colombian feature Chasing Fireflies (which appeared in our coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival) hits on an unfortunate cliche of contemporary art cinema. He writes:
A churlish old water rat, living on the Caribbean coast and guarding a salt mine, receives an unexpected visit from his puckish teenage daughter, whose mother has just passed away. This sad news constitutes not the story’s premise, as you might expect, but a major plot revelation—sorry about that, but you should know going in that incident is in short supply here.
It’s true that numerous major figures in movies today seem unconcerned with narrative incident. In their own ways, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Pedro Costa, Cristi Puiu, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have employed narrative as a framework in order to capture other, ineffable things—like the physiques and behaviors of their performers or the atmospheres of particular settings. Yet it’s important to note, as Jonathan Rosenbaum did in his Reader essay on Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, that such trailblazing directors arrived at their innovations by purposely subtracting attributes of filmmaking to which they’d grown accustomed. The problem with so many forgettable recent art movies is that try to re-create their innovations (or similar ones by equally important filmmakers) without making the effort to part with anything substantial.
I haven’t seen Chasing Butterflies, but Jones’s description calls to mind dozens of films I’ve reviewed in the past several years (the Turkish film Honey and the U.S. indie Starlet are two that come to mind), in which the only substantial thing left out by the filmmakers is basic exposition. The movies end up working like paperback mysteries, leading up to some revelation of character that belatedly provides context for an hour or two of generically pretty images and naturalistic sound design. That these films usually feel flat until the revelation comes suggests that the filmmakers don’t want to part with exposition either.
This structure can be put to good use, as evidenced by the work of Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso. The key difference is that Alonso has a stronger sense of character than most of his contemporaries, rendering his mysterious subjects in exacting detail. This gives his films a hypnotic quality—if they’re working for you, you quickly stop caring whether their mysteries get resolved. When Alonso reveals some essential piece of background information in the final moments of Los Muertes and Liverpool, it’s not to explain the preceding drama but to add new inflections to it. Puiu’s Aurora is another beast entirely, slowly constructing a narrative logic so monolithic and opaque that the final explanatory scene (as deliberately underwhelming as the monologue that closes Psycho) feels like a cruel joke on our desire to understand it.
This week I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing Hou Hsiao-hsien movies on the big screen two nights in a row; Doc Films screened Dust in the Wind on Monday and held their makeup screening of A Time to Live and a Time to Die last night. (Both were projected from beautiful 35-millimeter prints, giving me high expectations for the other Hou films playing this quarter.) These films contain so many scenes of downtime that they overshadow the major incidents that factor into the narrative—if you aren’t watching closely, you might think that nothing is happening. Yet there’s an obsessive pull that gives Hou’s images their power. The filmmaker isn’t observing scenes of life, but rather trying to realize experiences as they exist in memory. Hou explicitly frames Time to Live as autobiographical, but Dust in the Wind also feels shaped by an intensely private logic. When the filmmaker lingers on the family of Time to Live eating dinner, for instance, it feels as though he’s distending the shape of the story to make room for moments he remembers most vividly. Both Time to Live and Dust are as mysterious when they end as when they begin—they withhold key narrative information because so much else is clearly occupying Hou’s thoughts.