Monday, July 27, 2015

A New Installment Concerning 1970s Cinema Aesthetics

It has been quite a while, too long in my book since I have written on 1970s aesthetics. In so doing I should like to restate and reflect upon my two categories of condensation and immersion. In the culture of the 1970s, otherwise ordinary, middle class people began to explore most intensely and with an ethic of thoroughness all sorts of aspects of heretofore unexamined daily life. This could take the form of expressive therapies.

Among authors and cultural producers of all kinds - from lowly television directors to an Ingmar Bergman or an Andrei Tarkovsky, from Neil Simon to Sam Shepard - this took the form of a rigorous examination of certain themes of existence with a heightened sense of urgency. One of the ways I describe this is immersion: a preference for the experiential moment over a linear game plan or deadline.  Over and over again, in all sorts of ways, in 1970s films the creation of representation is given over to such moments. That they seem to stick out in an audience's mind is seen as a value rather than an excess.  This is in large part an extension of philosophic romanticism more generally, which means it has roots in the 19th century and also in American radicalism, particularly the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, the first feminist and civl rights leaders, the poets, the jazz musicians, the folk and rock musicians and many more.

One of the reasons why so many road pictures were made is that they are by nature episodic and inherently critical of the classical Aristotelianism that is one part of what I mean by "condensation." Think about Two Lane Blacktop, Five Easy Pieces, Ed Pincus' Diary, Jon Jost's Last Chants For A Slow Dance, Barbara Loden's Wanda, Vanishing Point, Peckinpah's Convoy, Corvette Summer, The Last Detail. Now on this list are high art, practically avant-garde pictures, lowbrow mainstream fare, and pictures in between. I don't want to make the claim that in this rather disparate group of pictures there are not classical things that happen to characters i.e. that there are not conflicts that are resolved in some way.  Scenes do appear for reasons of linear development and all the pictures listed have an overall structural integrity.

Yet - and this is crucial - in each and every single case there is the sense that such linear development is secondary to the moments. This is the episodic nature of the material. One of the things an episodic style can do is to create a sense of observational distance. We have to face change in and over time in such a way that we are forced to deal with difference. There is not the comfort of the unity supplied by stasis in location. By breaking from one scene or episode to another we are forced to relate to what we experience as a moment. This is quite similar to literature in which description is carried to fullest expression. This is in Proust of course who was the master of such prose style, but in a more modest and popularized form you even see it in John Updike who was greatly influenced by Proust. The complicated syntax of Henry James is yet another example. By heightening the syntax with the sort of subordinate clauses you get in Henry James, a real disruption of ordinary ways of representing human psychology occurs. The reader has to yield to the sentences on the page and make meaning with them. Henry James is an immensely immersive writer. He is also a disliked by many readers for this very reason.

Lets talk of immersion for a moment. It is sometimes best to use a very populist, almost "commercial" example. There is no better example of this than Paul Mazursky's film Harry and Tonto.
It is an interesting picture because it violates about every textbook rule of classical cinema storytelling. Story seems to surrender to episode. Harry meets colorful character after colorful character, various family members, drifters, hitchhikers. gurus, health food fanatics, hookers, even an old girlfriend who know appears to have a serious case of dementia and is in a nursing home. But what is the point of all of these meetings? We learn more about Harry, I suppose, and we get a real time capsule and documents of the times of the 1970s but mainly we feel various things about these episodes, our emotions accumulate and eventually the picture ends. The experience of the picture is not the result of a condensation that "telegraphs" us into a point not even an overall point about what aging is or isn't - one of the ostensible themes of the picture!

Now one of the things that is really interesting about this picture, and I'm going to go and say something quite radical here, is that the net effect and result of this picture seems to me so much more deeply valuable, affecting, humane, meaningful, than all of the perfectly plotted, high stakes, much more psychologically intricate and subtle, high publicized and critically praised pictures of the past thirty years. Indeed it is as if all of the rigor of, say The Matrix, Inception, The Usual Suspects etc., feels almost juvenile in their cleverness when compared with the sheer momentary focus on the "regular folks" we meet in a picture like Harry and Tonto.  

When I use the term immersion I mean that the material of the moment, for example in a shot, is the main focus of interest rather than a scene or a shot existing for another.

When I use condensation I mean that the material generated by the editing of shots and/or a forward momentum of linear action is the main focus of interest. Of course you can have both and neither is inherently more valuable than the other. In the 1970s immersion is exploited and explored for the maximum stylistic effects such a mode can achieve. It is also important to clarify that it is not a question of a character driven or narrative driven presentation. Many character driven pictures are completely condensed in style (most current biopics are completely condensed in fact. The one exception I can think of is Saint Laurent which is so utterly immersive it feels like it was made in the 1970s).

Or take Melvin And Howard by Jonathan Demme, which seems far more interested in all of Melvin Dummar's escapades as a working man, his problems in his relationships with his ex wife, the details of the town in which he lives and works etc. than in the dramatic suspense of whether he will get the monetary gift from Howard Hughes which is the starting point for the entire picture. (The opening scene with Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and Paul LeMat is itself an example of an archetypal 1970s episode, where the frank, emotional interaction of the actors becomes the entire point. "Real" and Natural" are the usual ways of describing it but I think immersion gets at this better because it avoids the value laden confusion that comes with the talk of being realistic, and as I have said before none of it is realistic).

Indeed Demme goes out of his way to deemphasize the narrative thrust of the entire picture -  the question of the Hughes will - and instead focus on colorful details along the way: for example, the weird strip club where one stripper has an arm in a cast and happily chats with the other stripper next to her while they work (one of the strippers- the one with both working arms is Melvin's wife, played by Mary Steenburgen), that is, until Melvin shows up to interrupt her show.  Now in one sense the scene accomplishes the goal of dramatic conflict and forward momentum but you just know that Demme is much more interested in the club, the patrons, the fact one stripper has an arm in a cast, the texture of the whole thing, than in either psychology or plot as either of these are normally understood. There is even a comic Benny Hill type of episode where Dummar is the milkman and is being seduced by a woman at home, all the while accompanied by some kind of bass heavy background music that sounds a blend of bluegrass and disco  It seems there for the comic color of it. I seriously doubt that if the picture were done today such a montage would even be included, unless there were a narrative consequence to it.

Demme wants the human comedy (the aesthetic details) to override other considerations (the state of Dummar's marriage, whether stripping is right or wrong, considerations that would obsess other directors more "condensed" than Demme). A perfect example is the outrageously comic and over the top performance by Dabney Coleman who plays a judge, in a courtroom wherein he warns Dummar that if Dummar is not telling the truth "I will have your hide." The fact that the judge talks as he does and looks as he does, especially with the well known Coleman mustache, is the point, not the suspenseful meaning of the scene. (Will Dummar get in trouble? Will he get his money?) It is an opportunity for a comic detail. Dabney Coleman's warning/summation is accompanied by a 360 degree shot of this court, one of the most ugly 1970s courtrooms you will ever see, and Demme makes sure that we really have to witness this court and Dabney's colorful presentation in it.

I mean it is very different that most suspenseful courtroom scenes, it is an anti-courtroom scene, almost a parodic comment upon the whole notion of "courtroom drama", because Dabney Coleman's delivery and that court itself seem to upstage the narrative thrust of the whole picture. It as if Demme is more interested in the fact that a judge would talk in such a way in a courtroom than in the overall function of the scene in a linear sense.

Melvin Dummar himself is a remarkably limited and problematic character, and it is of course in the nature of 1970s aesthetics to consider such a character worthy of the utmost consideration, and Demme does everything he can to present him to us with a sense of love and observational detachment. Demme as a director has little or no interest in doing anything to him or with him, or having him grow or develop in ways those characters around him might prefer. Demme wants us merely to look at him and deal with him as he is. We learn that Melvin Dummar is a dreamer and bad with money, and that his wife is hurt and disappointed by this but it plays out in such an observational fashion. Nothing is telegraphed. Demme  spends an inordinate amount of time on a company party and a lot of time is spent documenting the garish and kitschy variety shows and contests of the period, in particular a game show. It is as if Demme, (and in this he is spiritually kin to Michael Ritchie, Robert Altman and John Cassevettes) seems to value documenting a time and a place rather than representing a traditional psychological narrative.

This is what I mean by momentary "color" overtaking some lasting conclusion. Now according to the rules of Demme's game we do have a really well written script, (by Bo Goldman) but the writing plays by different rules than the more condensed kind of script. The script is interested in the observation of particular people in a particular time rather than narrative complexity. It is also interesting to note that as the 1970s ended Demme changed his style into a more condensed one. Think of Silence Of The Lambs or Philadelphia which are emblems of condensation, all forward momentum and high stakes conflict from start to finish.  (Only in Rachel Getting Married does he use a more immersive style akin to what I have been describing as a 1970s mode. It feels very much like a 1970s movie set in our current moment).

The question of how to film a scene and how different directors have done so is one of the most important questions in any kind of cinema studies. This is so for a very good reason: the decisive criteria in deciphering, understanding, and ultimately evaluating any work of art is how the work of art feels to us in linear time, that is, as we experience it. I use feeling here in the widest sense to account for thoughts instigated, moods set and so on. I believe this experience trumps any kind of retroactive or analytic reconstruction of it at a later date.

This is is why surface can be so important. Everything from how characters look to how they talk to one another, to how much environment dominates or recedes, to the lighting and colors and so on is all we really have to go on. Just as Henry James' unusual syntax is ultimately most important about his writing since it is what we have to actually read on the page, so too is Paul Marzursky's and Jonathan Demme's use of certain types of characters (humble ones immersed in the quotidian, to name but one quality), and use of certain types of environments and locations (ones shared by a wide, cross section of humanity and reflecting the tastes and budgets one would find, usually reflecting institutional or mass produced criteria) of ultimate importance about their pictures because it is what we have to look at on the screen. It would behoove critics and historians to turn their attentions more to these concerns than the more speculative and theoretical approaches that often take us so far away from the page and screen. While context might help, might further be necessary, it is insufficient if we are taken away from the sensuous experience of the work of art itself, whatever it may be.