Is the filmmaker tyrant, aesthete, ringmaster, or hermit?
For whom does an artist create? It is a question frequently put, perhaps more to writers than to others, and perhaps the most common answer is “for myself.” Writer Will Self, in a Guardian interview, said, “I don’t really write for readers . . . . I think that’s the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer. I mean, I’ve said in the past I write for myself. That’s probably some kind of insane egotism but I actually think that’s the only way to proceed – to write what you think you have to write.”1
Stanley Fish, in a New York Times account of his reactions listening to Colm Toibin interviewed and questioned by admiring readers on the radio, summed up Toibin’s attitude thus: “It’s the craft that is important, not the emotions it may have appropriated along the way.”2
If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about. Writing is about crafting sentences and building them into paragraphs and building the paragraphs into arguments and narratives. What [the interviewer] Rehm and her listeners were proffering was a rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification: I write so that you will feel better or I write so that the world will become a better place.
Toibin was saying, I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do. Of course, the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.
The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.
Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.
While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.
Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.
Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.
One may argue to oneself that the written word achieves all of its realization in the inscription itself, in the passage between the inscriber and the inscripted medium. The writer’s mind reads even as it writes; the writer is first reader. A writer may thus tell himself that he writes only for himself. Meeting his own standards as writer and reader almost simultaneously joined in the act, he may claim hermetic fulfillment in the act of creation. With startling similarity, Alfred Hitchcock told Charles Thomas Samuels in 1972, “I know every shot we’ll end up with because the planning stage has been so complete. What mystifies me is why so many other filmmakers need to see things on the screen before they edit, whereas a musician can hear his music simply by looking at the notes and lines of his score. Why shouldn’t we do the same?”3
For Hitchcock, a storyboarded script was like a musical score, the viewer no other than himself, like the composer with cocked head hearing the music of his score in a mental ether. Samuels challenged Hitchcock: “Yet there are other sorts of films. André Bazin argued, for example, that deep focus and long takes left the spectator free to choose the elements he wished to pay most attention to and thus were to be preferred.”4
Replied Hitchcock, “Is a listener free to choose the notes he’ll hear? If you free the spectator to choose, you’re making theater, not cinema.”5
That last suggests where Hitchcock goes prescriptively wrong, in conceiving one art in terms of another, but his vision is clear: not only is he his own ideal viewer, but in a kind of artistic tyranny, (“After all,” says Samuels, “your films work precisely because they manipulate the spectator.”6) he will reorder his viewer’s vision and reception of the film into his own.
Hitchcock’s confidence, then, beyond any material career concern about box office, was that the viewer would end as an extension of him. A writer cannot have that confidence, as every page is read in the deep focus of the selective imagination within the long take of devoted time. One notes, too, that the writer who writes only for herself nonetheless publishes, interested, whatever her claims, in the readership of others.
* * *
Among significant filmmakers, there can be few for whom locating the value of the work in its effect on the viewer can have been greater than for Steven Spielberg. Most emblematically in the Indiana Jones films, re-creative of 1940s short adventure serials with their episodic cliffhangers and no form of serious artistic purpose, the viewer’s reception is paramount. The throbbing notes of the Jaws shark motif was earlier offered to satisfy no inner muse. Jaws, too, is credited as a historical turning point in American film, the genesis of the current serial blockbuster, youth-oriented Hollywood that had always been, on a lesser but more varied and creative scale, very much an entertainment business anyway. Spielberg, a practical (compared to Scorsese’s more scholarly) student of the Golden Age, became the directorial entertainment kingpin of the new Hollywood he helped create. Then, beginning with the 1985 The Color Purple and most assertively with 1993’s Schindler’s List, Spielberg reached for artistic seriousness.
Certainly, Spielberg had heard the criticism that his prodigious talents, from one perspective without peer, were those of a showman, not an artist. As Peter Biskind would later encapsulate this critique, as a précis of Pauline Kael, Spielberg was “infantilizing the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.”7
When Spielberg began trying to answer this charge, he did not too obviously reach into a foreign realm, beyond a natural extension of himself, like Woody Allen pressing Neil Simon through a glass darkly and extracting Ingmar Bergman. Yet the complication of Spielberg’s own natural preoccupation with the audience dogged his first serious effort, The Color Purple, and every artistic aspiration after. Those of his films with artistic ambition, even Schindler’s List, about the Holocaust, are always accused of sentimentality.
But what is the ground of sentimentality but a preoccupation with emotional effect on the viewer, as the filmmaker judges it from the effect on himself? As Hitchcock turned his own fears into audience anxiety, Spielberg touches the audience’s feelings by knowing his own emotional needs. In The Color Purple, that need was first to beautify an ugly world. Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, called the film “a grand, multi-hanky entertainment that is as pretty and lavish as the book is plain. If the book is set in the harsh, impoverished atmosphere of rural Georgia, the movie unfolds in a cozy, comfortable, flower-filled wonderland.”8
In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10
Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?
Stanley Kubrick, who abandoned his Aryan Papers film project in the face of Schindler’s List, said, “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?”11
Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, said after his death, “Steven’s film is about Jews who lived, and just a few. If you tell the whole truth in the film, which is the only way you could honor all these dead people, and be respectful enough, you would have to tell the whole truth,” which, she said, would be “absolutely unsurvivable.”12
Most famously, Claude Lanzman has essentialized this critique of Schindler’s List, in opposition to his own Shoah. In contrast to the rescue of Spielberg’s film, “In Treblinka, or in Auschwitz, the possibility of salvation was inconceivable.” Further, he said,
The holocaust is unique in that, with a circle of fire, it builds a border around itself, which one cannot transgress, because a certain absolute kind of horror cannot be conveyed. To pretend that one is nevertheless conveying it makes one guilty of an offence of the utmost rudeness.
. . . .
One can pose yet another question, about the ‘fashion’ of the just. This is clearly a fashion, launched by the Americans and the Israelis. One has stepped over to the other side. From now on there are more and more people who saved jews. If there were so may just people to save jews, how then can so many jews have died?
. . . .
As far as I am concerned: I wanted to construct a form that acknowledged the generality of the people. It is the reverse from Spielberg for whom the extermination is a setting: the blinding black sun of the holocaust is not stood up to. One cries when seeing Schindler’s List? So be it. But tears are a kind of joy, a katharsis. Many people told me: I cannot see your picture, because with Shoah it is impossible to cry.13
My intent is neither to adjudicate nor simply mediate disputes over the nature of Holocaust representation.14 The intent is to clarify that for Steven Spielberg, contra Toibin via Fish, craft has no importance independent of the “emotions it may have appropriated along the way.” The story from Primo Levi in If This Is a Man is that having reached thirstily through his cell window at Auschwitz for an icicle, a Nazi guard knocked it from his hand.
“Why?” asked Levi.
“Here there is no why,” replied the guard.
Audiences, however, long for an explanation, an accounting, for reason and a reason, and Spielberg, in fulfillment of this desire, will give it to them. His is precisely an art of “external justification,” of consolation and comfort. From this intent to console and comfort arises Spielberg’s impetus to fulfill the viewer via an experience of sentiment, which easily leads to sentimentality, and even – with more genuine sentiment, as at the end of Schindler’s List – to what may be challenged in its aesthetic cogency. It leads, also, to that tendency oft-noted in Spielberg toward false, or multiple, endings.
In Lincoln, the sentimentality is present from the very introduction of the title character in the film’s second scene. We see him first from behind, revealed to us in the shadow of night raised on a platform above the troops who approach him. He is already Lincoln the monument. The soldiers below, a pair each of black and of white, provide an easy schematic of the honorific legacy: the white soldiers revere Lincoln, having already memorized the Gettysburg Address; one black soldier, grateful and good humored, also hero-worships; the second black soldier, radically demanding, will not offer undue regard, though he, too, admires the president, as is confirmed when he picks up the white soldiers’ halted recitation of the famous speech, trailing away backwards into a cone of light like a hoked-up modern troubadour on a 1960s television variety hour. The camera pulls back as Lincoln turns into three-quarter, back-lit profile, memorialized for the ages.
In this, as in so many scenes, Spielberg is our modern John Ford. He gestures in the very opening Jenkins Ferry battle scene, as he has since Schindler’s List, as he did in the groundbreaking combat sequences of Saving Private Ryan, at the most brutal reality – as Ford would do out of the harsh frontier.
“Don’t go in there, boy . . . Don’t let him look in there, Mose. Won’t do him any good,” The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards commands after slugging the young Marty to protect him from the sight of an Indian massacre.
But we will always be reminded with Ford, as we will, in the end, with Spielberg, of the motivating ideals and the moving virtues that redeem the cruel world. Viewers may be temporarily discomforted, but they need never be disillusioned. We will see an imperfect, human Lincoln playing hard politics, managing a difficult marriage, slapping a disobedient son, but we sit in the theater before that screen to be comforted and confirmed in our reverence, of that the film’s second scene leaves no doubt.
In the multiple endings, too, we can read the crowd-pleasing filmmaker.
The first one, the ending Ford probably would have gone with, gives us the ungainly Lincoln from behind loping rustically down the White House hallway for his night out at Ford’s Theatre and first apotheosis.
“I don’t understand why it didn’t just end when Lincoln is walking down the hall and the butler gives him his hat,” actor Samuel L. Jackson said. “Why did I need to see him dying on the bed? I have no idea what Spielberg was trying to do.”15
Before the famous deathbed scene, however, Spielberg gives us the assassination itself. Does it seem obligatory? To whom? We can almost anticipate the avoidance of the scene at the theater.
“We just knew we wouldn’t show the assassination, because it would sensationalize the story. It would have suddenly focused the movie on the shooter, not the president,” the director explained.16
Yet the murder is inextricably linked in association to the theater, so Spielberg offers instead another play at another theatre, with Lincoln’s son Tad attending, and for this momentarily disoriented viewer, looking for Booth’s leap from the presidential box that doesn’t come, attention is drawn to the shooter by his absence.
Still, as Jackson notes, there is, if one is attempting to meet expectations, a third ending, the deathbed scene: “Now he belongs to the ages.” But the scene is so rushed, so perfunctory, because obligatory, because it’s only one in a line of final notes offered to please a constituency, that it is devoid of any effect.
The final ending is the one no doubt aimed at the most serious of viewers, those trained in its history and its moment. The time was right for a significant filmmaker’s new take on the great man and the great American crucible. Whatever Lincoln‘s aesthetic merit, the nation’s political and journalist class received the film with enthusiasm and ongoing discussion, and the close on Lincoln’s second inaugural address, after we have already heard of his murder, seen him die, is aimed at those students of history. In Lincoln, Spielberg seems to have internalized multiple viewerships and aimed by his endings to please them all.
* * *
It is difficult to argue in contrast that Paul Thomas Anderson does not also think of the effect on his viewers, but of pleasing them surely only as they are his projected ideal viewer admiring the craft, and of comforting and consoling them surely not. Anderson’s high regard amongst cineastes is precisely because of his artist’s devotion to craft above all else. Revising Fish, is there any doubt that Anderson would say, “I make films because making things out of image and sound is what I feel compelled to do,” regardless of the effect on anyone?
There is reason to believe, though, that for Anderson “regardless of the effect” is not a neutral stance, but an aggressive one. He not only does not care if viewers are unresponsive to the ingratiation of his art – he does not offer it. He not only does not offer it – he challenges the viewer’s response to initial repulsion. Certainly, since Boogie Nights, sexual and all kinds of excess and literal deviance have been the foci. In that film, Eddie Adams becomes a porn star on the basis of his extraordinarily large penis. In Punch-Drunk-Love, we have a romantic comedy – preciously termed in the film business a “rom-com” – about a rageful and eccentric manufacturer of toilet plungers whose pursuit of a love interest is complicated by his call to a sex hotline for companionship. There Will Be Blood depicts the conflict of monstrous and fanatical ego, both secular and spiritual, brought to absurd and bathetic climax. Along the way, the dissonant, staccato and percussive soundscapes of Jon Brion and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood have evolved as a prickly barrier to entry. It is as if Anderson actively confronts the viewer’s capacity to like his films – their characters, their lives, their world – or even feel enlarged by exposure to them.
The Master goes further. More than There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, with their colossal egoism, or Lancaster Dodd in The Master, whose ego’s regulating drive is directly for control over the impulses of others, The Master‘s Freddie Quell, little more than an id on legs, is probably as visibly and actively repellent a character as ever vivified on film. Even physically, with his hunched, skinny frame, like a mantis ready to spring and devour its sex-mate, he is disgusting to observe. Most of the film consists of Dodd’s repeated and repetitive efforts to assert his ego in control over Quell’s id, which cannot be quelled.
One can imagine the audience for such filmmaking to be just that kind that will admire Anderson’s craft in the absence of any interest on his part for what needs they may wish to fulfill through art. Yet Anderson goes further still. In a few dramatically uneventful but painstaking scenes, at the start and near the end of the film, he seems actually to set up warm tonal pregnancies completely at odds with the actual world of his characters. One may feel prepared, emotionally, to be touched, only to end up as some variation of pissed on or left empty handed.
The entire setup of The Master visually recalls the warm, gold-toned mid-century America of countless films re-creative of that wartime, a halcyon if depressed America that servicemen left behind and returned to hopeful yet altered. In an image out of so many films The Master is otherwise nothing like, we see Quell lying stretched out over the waves on a warship’s safety net, reading the archetypal love letter from home. Yet conjuring this heaven of home and the waiting dream of love so typical of the traditional American war film, the film provides only the flimsiest reason to believe that even the illusion of home and love were ever real. Quell, we are led to understand, was clinically altered by his service, yet there is little evidence of a more integrated personality before the war. He acts out in lurid dysfunction against the visual topography of an emotionally vivid world, but the contrast between Quell’s damaged personality and the warm hues of the world he moves in remains disjunctive. There is no sense of rupture or surrounding loss, merely disconnection.
Very near the start of that longer opening setup, we see Quell on a beach with other sailors, on R&R. He hacks at coconuts with a machete. We are offered a homoerotic vision of sailors grappling on the sand in bathing suits. Then Quell joins a group of sailors surrounding a sand sculpture of a naked woman near the water’s edge. To this point, and by the behavior of every other sailor in the scene, we have nothing other than the representation of young men at their most typical, juvenile sexual grossness. But when Quell arrives he actually makes contact with the sculpture, descending to fuck it in humps against the mound of sand. He fingers the sand woman’s vagina. Oddly, the sailors around him do not much react. They do not join him in his world in Dionysian fervor nor repel away from him; they merely look on, only vaguely registering his presence and his act. When he walks off, just one sailor even casually looks after him, as if any odd member of their party had decided to get up and go. Anderson does not commit to a product of the elements he has brought together, neither the sordid world that would reflect Quell’s repellent sexual monomania nor the world that would reject him as Anderson apparently wishes not to do.
Quell then stands ankle deep in the ocean, hunched grotesquely, crab-like over his partially lowered trunks jerking off frantically into the ocean.
What does Anderson expect from his audience in response to such scene-making, such atmospherics belied by only the disruptive yet isolated behavior of his protagonist? Surely, to say that “to locate the value” of the work “either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick” cannot apply. Anderson may appear to be a filmmaker driven only by his concern for craft and his own standards for it, but how can we believe that he does not imagine the crude shock for his audience of his character’s behavior or the tonal discombobulation surrounding it?
The vacancy, the incoherence at the heart of these depictions becomes, finally, the focus of another scene near the film’s end. The author of the love letter was Doris, a much younger girl Freddie had some kind of unbelievable relationship with before the war. It is unbelievable because, though he is uncharacteristically calm, prewar, in Doris’s presence, it is impossible to imagine Freddie in genuine and quotidian relationship with anyone for more than a few minutes, or with anyone other than Dodd, who is just a separately embodied warring part of himself.
Before heading to England for what will be a final rupture with Dodd, who will gesture in the scene at lost possibilities between the two that feel completely manufactured, Freddie returns home in search of Doris, to whom he never returned after the war. We encounter in that scene the same manufactured – it is hard not to feel, fraudulent – sense of loss. In soft spring air, Freddie ascends the outdoor stairway to a second-story apartment in a suburban Massachusetts neighborhood. It is Doris’s mother who answers the door. She tells Freddie, after an absence of seven years, that Doris has married and moved away. The two linger in the doorway in a slow, gentle exchange. The scene is suffused with regret over lost promise and painfully missed opportunity, the departure from us of what inevitably goes – splendor in the grass, which is precisely the film, by Elia Kazan, this scene recalls, in its ending encounter between Warren Beatty’s Bud and Natalie Wood’s Deanie. Except in that film there has been a realized love and a genuine relationship; there is, in the obstacles the couple faced and to which they succumbed, an earned sense of loss to justify the honeyed sorrow on the screen. No such objective correlative is truly offered in The Master. Like the score’s musical staccato and percussive off-beats, these unexpected and unintegrated emotional tones are jarring. Such emotions hardly seem the business of which the film is about.
While much further still could be considered about what are Anderson’s preoccupations in The Master, the evidence grows that in contrast to Spielberg’s wish to comfort his audience, it is Anderson’s wish to discomfort it, and that far from an accidental byproduct of the filmmaker’s attention to craft and his own muse, that discomfort is a goal – not the “wrong end of the stick,” but the stick itself.
* * *
If one is to speak of film and audience discomfort, however, one must speak of the filmmaker who, Dennis Lim of the New York Times wrote, “has made an art of exploiting audience discomfort,”17 who, in receiving the 2013 Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts, was declared “the poet of the cinema of discomfort.”18
In reviewing Haneke’s Caché (2005), A. O. Scott wrote that “one of the most exquisitely sadistic European filmmakers working today has deposited his audience at the Hitchcockian junction where voyeurism intersects with paranoia. We are at once innocent and complicit, as if the idle curiosity that brings us into the theater authorized a malignant form of spying.”
Amour begins with a long, uncomfortably sustained, and static shot of a theater audience looking at the stage – but also looking back at the film audience – during a piano recital.
“I give the spectator the possibility of participating,” Haneke says. “The audience completes the film by thinking about it; those who watch must not be just consumers ingesting spoon-fed images.”19
Voyeurism and paranoia, spying and empathetic identification with the spied upon, encoder and decoder, artificer and consumer of the artifact: these have been as much the subjects of Haneke’s filmmaking as the particular narratives of any film. The modern history of discomforting shock in art is almost precisely one hundred years old to the day, a day when Le Figaro printed a press release predicting that that evening’s premiere of The Rite of Spring would produce “passionate discussion” and an “unforgettable memory.”20 One cannot argue that Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Stravinsky created without thought of the audience response – though they hardly anticipated the full nature. What Duchamp created with Fountain four years later did not so much perform its function when he conceived it, as only when he submitted the urinal for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917, and arguably not even until it was denied as art and rejected for the exhibit by the work’s first audience, the show committee. It would seem an impossible claim for Haneke to offer his filmmaker’s equivalent of Self’s “I don’t really write for readers” or to ratify Fish in thinking it somehow off to “locate the value of the writing” to at least some significant degree “in its effects.” If the viewers of a Haneke film are not in some measure upset by what they view, then he has misjudged them, and the substance of his art, formed as it is from Haneke’s perception of his audience’s complacency and blindness, will be altered and diminished.
In Haneke’s Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000), a film about multiple levels of human miscommunication and misunderstanding, the film’s opening serves as a kind of ur-miscommunication, a key-scene for unlocking understanding of all that follows, which is the many ways that people fail to decode the intentions and desires of others – who they are as individuals and as representatives, with their representation imposed upon them. In the scene, a young girl pantomimes before off-screen viewers what I read as fear, first retreating and then cowering in it. Revealed next is a group of children on the floor before her who have been the audience for this pantomime. As in charades, they now try to guess its meaning. However, these children, it appears, are deaf, so they sign their guesses of the pantomime’s meaning. The children, the girl indicates, are repeatedly mistaken, leading about midway through the effort to a look of genuine distress on her face.
The viewer cannot know, to start, that these children will reappear in the film; the mode of the film has not yet been established, not even as narrative. If a viewer such as I does not know sign language, then even the legitimacy of the signing and the deafness of those using it is in doubt. One child pantomimes; the other children sign. Probably mistakenly, I first read the appearance of distress on the face of the one girl as deception: she does not wish to reveal that her meaning had been so quickly and easily understood. But her distress, which does not disappear, may be her reaction, on the contrary, to being misunderstood, to being unable to communicate.
Code Unknown is replete with scenes that represent and comment on viewership, often, as in the opening scene, of an individual communicating with others off-screen, more than once in relation to a camera: being filmed, dubbing over film, shooting surreptitiously and then recording voice-over. The film’s representative shot, typical of Haneke, whether tracking or, more commonly, static, is from an emotionally remote middle distance, into and out of which relevant action may occur and pass. In one such scene, we watch at some length the door to an airliner in the process of boarding. Flight attendants and other personnel mill about the entrance as passengers arrive in clumps to enter and move out of view. Any viewer who has been held up in line to board a plane has witnessed such activity. Then, with no fanfare, just a few more people in the unsteady stream, some police arrive escorting a previously encountered but unidentified woman, who was simultaneously central and peripheral to a Paris street disturbance in which she was innocent of any wrongdoing other than being in France illegally. We understand, as she moves into the plane with all the others, that as the only person from the street scene to suffer consequences, she is being deported.
Such cool camera minimalism is reminiscent, as style, of the prose of a writer like Raymond Carver. We might believe we are seeing not a god’s-eye view, but one neutral angle on the world from the multiplex of perspectives that make the total: this is what transpired at these coordinates in space during that span of time. But of course, Haneke is the god of this world, and he created man and woman and their action, placing it in or out of the frame as he chose to do. A work of art is an argument, not a proof. However audiences may view what appears on screen, prompted by Haneke if not dictatorially led as Hitchcock would have it, Haneke has been structurally preoccupied with the nature and ethical weight of their viewing.
In Amour, then, after the problematics of encoding and decoding in Code Unknown and of surveillance in Caché, we find continuation of those themes with the added duality of entry and exit: transgressed boundaries, containment or entrapment, escape. Near the start, Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Georges and Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne return home from their cultivated evening out at the recital to discover in the jimmied door that that there has been an attempt to break and enter their apartment. As a plot element, this is a red herring that leads nowhere, but it instantly recalls an earlier flash-forward to emergency workers breaking into the apartment after the couples’ deaths. After the opening night out, the film, like the elderly and then infirm couples’ lives, becomes restricted to their apartment. The much-discussed pigeon scenes are focused in the first instance on Georges’ guiding the pigeon out of the apartment through the open window, back into the air shaft from which it flew in. In the second instance, much nearer the end, rather than lead the pigeon to escape, Georges traps the bird, first in the hallway, by closing doors to other rooms, then in the blanket he throws over it. Of course, Anne, from her stroke, becomes trapped in her own body.
Most mysteriously, and most determinative in how one may come to understand the film, are the escapes at the film’s end. Georges determines that Anne will escape the tortured entombment of her condition by his smothering her to death. He thereby escapes his own condition, too. In a final flight from all social connection – this end has been that of two paired lives, independent of almost all outside support, even from a daughter – Georges plans for no funeral, but bedecks his wife’s corpse on the slab of their own bed. We discover after the fact that he has enclosed her (and himself, too?) in one section of the apartment and locked them in. When the emergency workers break in – in fact, at the beginning of the film – the apartment odor is foul, perhaps from Anne’s rotting corpse, perhaps from gas. The lead worker covers his nose and opens windows. When he joins those who first reached the bedroom where Anne lies, he sees that a window is already opened. Did they open the window? he asks. No, is the answer.
Our sense that Georges, too, will be discovered dead, likely in the small bedroom off the kitchen, originates first in that another choice for himself is simply unimaginable under the circumstances. More specifically, we see him before the film’s final scene arise from his bed to the sound of water running in the kitchen, where Anne, already dead, stands waiting to lead him out of the apartment, reminding him as they head to the door, as a mate will most commonly do, not to forget his coat, which he turns back to retrieve.
Beginning with the breaking of the fourth wall when our own film audience stares directly back at the film’s theater recital audience, the idea that the filmmaker and the film stand separated and aesthetically emancipated from their audience is demolished in Amour. Culminating in the accumulated enclosures and escapes, producing one kind of strong audience reaction or another, the notion that a film is a self-contained artifact, an object possessed of its maker’s craft and not by its nature fashioned with interest in how it is received, becomes untenable.
Writers and other solitary artists may conceive themselves, in Joyce’s formulation, “like the God of the creation … within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” They may imagine each work a Grecian urn, a “silent form,” a “foster-child of silence and slow time” awaiting each time its encounter with that ideal reader, internalized and projected at the time of creation, who will both wonder and then know, reading the art object, “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?”
Creators of performing arts will not likely so conceive themselves. They may imagine they do, as Hitchcock in his self-fashioned tyranny of angles and cuts sought to recreate in each audience his ideal viewers, who should not be autonomously free to choose where in the work of art they direct their attention. But even in that intent the audience is acknowledged, to what external effect the director may purposely lead it. Films and their creators operate in relation to audiences that are distinct and separable from them. In the decision to provide a musical score by John Williams, by Johnny Greenwood, or no musical score, the filmmaker is in each case exercising a choice that is not simply an enactment of the film’s own internal demands. The filmmaker is irresistibly considering the response of the audience and an external justification. If this is so, if filmmakers create in relation to the audience, then it is unavoidable that our analysis and evaluation of filmmakers and their works include that relationship.
- Elizabeth Day, “Will Self: ‘I Don’t Write for Readers,'” The Observer, 4 August, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/05/will-self-umbrella-booker-interview, accessed 20 May, 2013. [↩]
- Stanley Fish, “Why Do Writers Write?” The New York Times, 11 February, 2007. [↩]
- Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons: New York 1972), 234. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, (Bloomsbury: London, 1999), 343-44. [↩]
- Janet Maslin, “Film: ‘The Color Purple,’ from Steven Spielberg,” New York Times, 18 Dec. 1985, http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/15/reviews/spielberg-color.html, accessed 20 May 2013. [↩]
- See A. Jay Adler, “The Altered State of War: Heaven, Hell, and the Structure of the Combat Film,” Bright Lights Film Journal, no.45 (2004) https://brightlightsfilm.com/45/war.php. [↩]
- Ibid, par. 33. [↩]
- Kubrick to Frederick Raphael, Stanley Kubrick Archives, ed. Alison Castle, (Taschen, 2005), quoted in A. J. Goldman, “Eyes Wide Open,” Haaretz, 13 Aug. 2005, http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/features/eyes-wide-open-1.167674, accessed 20 May, 2013. [↩]
- Christiane Kubrick, interview by Tom Happold, 10 Aug. 2010, the Guardian, Film Talk Index, video. [↩]
- Claude Lanzmann “Opinion,” NRC Handelsblad 26 March 1994, 11, quoted in HUM 29, Approaches to the Humanities (Spring 2007), University College Utrecht, trans. of Dutch by Rob van Gerwen. http://www.phil.uu.nl/~rob/2005/hum291/lanzmannschindler.shtml [↩]
- For a comprehensive examination of how Schindler’s List is the filmic center of such dispute on the issue, see Miriam Bratu Hansen, “‘Schindler’s List’ Is Not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory,” Critical Inquiry, no. 22 (1996). [↩]
- Steven Zeitchik, “Movies Struggle to Find ‘the End,'” Los Angeles Times, 31 Dec. 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/31/entertainment/la-et-mn-hollywood-endings-20121231, accessed 12 May 2013. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Dennis Lim, “Looking Directly at Life’s Decline,” New York Times, 25 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/26/movies/michael-haneke-discusses-amour-at-the-cannes-film-festival.html, accessed 17 May 2013. [↩]
- “Michael Haneke, Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts,” Prince of Asturias Foundation press release 9 May 2013, on the Prince of Asturias Foundation website, http://www.fpa.es/en/prince-of-asturias-awards/awards/2013-michael-haneke.html?especifica=0, accessed 17 May 2013. [↩]
- Peter Conrad, “Michael Haneke: There’s No Easy Way to Say This . . . ,” The Guardian, 3 Nov. 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/nov/04/michael-haneke-amour-director-interview, accessed 18 May 2013. [↩]
- Will Robin, “Hyping a Scandal,” Reflections on the Rite, https://www.theriteofspringat100.org/, accessed 17 May 2013. [↩]