“In the Future, No One Makes Sense”

A Prometheus Review

It’s hard to look back at Ridley Scott’s films and find some connecting thread. While his brother sits back and makes “Neo-Noir as Moving Instagram” over and over again, Ridley has avoided any obvious gimmicks, or even loose thematic threads connecting his films. His strengths are circumstantial. He has a ridiculous attention to detail and a strong relationship with his actors (he’s directed several Oscar winning performances). But it’s Ridley’s chameleon-like directing style makes him the perfect choice for any science fiction film. He’s competent enough to pull off the vision without letting his own bag of tricks get in the way of the concept. So it should be no surprise that Prometheus is well directed. The visuals are striking, the pace accelerates from pensive to explosive at an exponential rate, and the acting is riveting and drenched in emotion. But for all of Ridley’s sound and fury, there’s a troubled script underneath it all that seems to signify nothing.
It seems on the surface like there are a number of masterfully dramatic personal moments, all building towards some elaborate mystery, but by the time the final curtain is lifted you look back and realize that there was no mystery building. They just wanted to show you all those great dramatic moments. The trick was finding some sinew to connect all the emotional beats and unfortunately the connective tissue is really weak. Fassbinder’s terrificly obtuse android is great but his motivations flip every other scene. Watching Noomie Rapace bounce from one unspeakable terror to the next is loads of fun, but after a while you can’t help but wonder “why is she doing any of this?” To which Damon Lindelof answers, “Because you want to see Noomie Rapace freaking the fuck out in her underwear.”
To which I can only answer, “Yeah. I really do.”

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The best director alive

The way that some people show me the world is often as thrilling or more so than how I experience it. Minutes into It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi I was in another world. One of primordial darkness and disorienting passage from place to place, the world made flat so that Philippe Grandrieux's camera could pass over its surface with the ease of an air hockey puck across the table. He films the world with more perception, detail, grace and most importantly a sense of appreciation for what it all means in front of his camera. He gets more than we see. This may sound like a rather timid admission; the world's a beautiful, terrifying and stimulating place and I would never say that I'd prefer to see it on a screen than in reality (at least not all the time), but film can show you the world in a way that you can never experience it firsthand. Film can, in certain hands, show a version of the world that is aesthetically specific, and to my way of thinking, better than the way we experience it, if one can quantify these things. It's obvious enough to say that the way we see things will never be as crisp as the cinematography of Roger Deakins. But I mean to go a step further and say that the mark of the greatest filmmakers is presenting life in a sensorily recognizable fashion and doing our point of view and sense one better. In other words it's a version or vision of life that I wouldn't at all mind jumping into. Would that my vision were as clear as Emmanuel Lubezki's camera lens.

 Which is my way of saying I have a rather stiff set of criteria for great filmmakers. I want people whose versions of reality best anything I've ever seen. People who look through a lens and see something the rest of us can't. This leads us down a tricky path; style v. substance. What I'm talking about here probably sounds like I'm more interested in the way somethin shoots, rather than what they shoot. That's only partly true. A simple (if reductive) way of thinking about film is that there are two kinds of great director: John Ford and Orson Welles. Ford thought of the best way to tell the story, Welles used the cinema like it was one more device with which to perform his magic. His most distinctive films drip with his influence, as if he had simply extended his arm and recorded it with his hand like he was casting a spell. Ford had a painter's eye and a way with his actors, but he never threw himself into his work with the same youthful zeal as Welles. He never forced his camera uncomfortably close to his actors, never used the full potential of cinema. Ford does the best job possible; Welles was looking to explode the possible.  You know a Ford film just as you know a Welles film, but you'd never mistake the passion evident in The Chimes at Midnight for that in The Searchers. I love Ford and I love a sturdy, beautiful story, but what puts me in front of a movie screen is the possibility I'll see someone who knows something I don't; who uses the cinema in a way most of us have never dreamed of. If this person also tells a beautiful, sturdy story, all the better. I like a film that thinks, as Kent Jones puts it, that connects with history even as it writes it, a film that changes with every viewing.

So, what exactly are we talking about. There are directors who have a unique voice, whose fingerprints are all over the film, as if they'd sculpted the environs from clay. Wes Anderson, Godard (pre-68 and again post-78), Byron Haskins, Frank Tashlin and Kihachi Okamoto all have perfect, distinct handwriting; Whether through cutting, framing, design, all of those things or more, you know it's them. That's important to me, but what's more is that I connect with them. I appreciate Okamoto's sense of humour, his assured compositions, the way he frames people as if they were gods or jungle cats, I like his machine gun editing and that he shoots like he knows his films will move like someone were changing the reels with a baseball bat. I like that he did this in the face of a Japanese masterclass of filmmakers like Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kinoshita and Ichikawa, whose respective styles weren't so much different from the viciousness of Okamoto's as they were reverse polarity. He engaged with recent Japanese history in a more brutal way than any one of his peers dared to. But what holds him back from becoming the best in my estimation is that he rarely conversed with other filmmakers and other films. He blazed his own trail and did a first rate job writing history in fire, but I'm too in love with the medium to ignore its place in an artist's output. You need to love the cinema as passionately as you make use of it. Okamoto flirted and joked with Japanese film, but the deadly serious business he got up to when he set his mind to it was insular from the tradition he stood outside of. Byron Haskins had a similar problem. Though he filmed with boyish enthusiasm and had an immaculate sense of how to capture his luscious production design, he was telling stories. Pure and simple. He just did it better than most.

I was asked lately who my favourite living director was. Luckily I'd just figured that out a few days ago after my first viewing of Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve. In my opinion, Grandrieux has the most vital point of view of any director alive. Every frame is his, through and through. And he's engaged with the medium. He speaks to it delicately while plowing through norms and constraints. His film on Masao Adachi and his plan to make more films about politically engaged filmmakers proves it beyond my assumptions about his influences. His films echo with the whispers of Jean Epstein, Krzyzstof Kieslowski, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Stan Brakhage, though his voice is loud enough to overpower them. He puts his camera in darkness and places no one else has ever explored. He allows no distance from subject and audience. Faces take up the entire frame, withholding secrets and revealing truths. He uses the medium like no one else on earth and seems to understand something about its potential that escapes the rest of us. In other words, a unique and neccesary voice. The artform would be poorer for his never having picked up a camera, though as I'm sure he'd tell you, that was never an option. That's not to say he doesn't have stiff competition. Terrence Malick essentially invented a kind of artistic American cinema that people will continue borrowing from for decades to come (I count myself among his acolytes/scavengers). Both Agnes Varda and Marco Bellocchio have a way with cutting and framing that makes even their slightest or most confusing stories seem absolutely thrilling. Not to mention that they've made more classics than are produced in a given year, respectively. Varda has a view into romantic and familial relationships that cuts to the heart of any issue, weaving impressionistic tales of longing from our inevitable foibles. Bellocchio has a bite that rivals Okamoto's, but a dark poetry in place of his Japanese peer's assaultive montage and bloody politics. Bellocchio plunges headfirst into troubled waters he knows he can't still; his aim isn't to find cures for the Italian political ills he dramatizes, merely to find an entry point in the discussion. He's essentially performing an autopsy on the Italy he grew up with, and hoping we can prevent the disease next time. But it's not all darkness, he sympathizes and humanizes even the strangest and lowest creations; look no further than Vincere, a story that really has no clear heroes, and see what he makes of every character. No one is simply a villain, nor is anyone without fault or blame. And then of course there is Tomas Alfredson. Having never been able to find a complete version of his first feature, I can't say for sure he's always been a genius, but I can tell you that he, like Grandrieux, gets something that the rest of us do not. His absolute control over his images is unquestionable. He seems to have directed the dust in the air around his characters. He owns all of it, quietly and without hubris or distracting pride. He examines the past and then recreates it perfectly. He makes the world cinematic while seemingly making it ordinary. That's a rare talent.

You can't exactly say "best" about anything, though god knows I do it all the time. Really, what's important is knowing about yourself what you're looking for. You learn a lot about yourself when you realize what you value in artistic expression. And furthermore if you figure out what you love recognizing in the work of others, you figure out what you want to say yourself. Studying Grandrieux and his influences has opened a world of possibilities I wouldn't otherwise know about. When you discover that there are still places unexplored, it revitalizes my (your, whosever) drive to tell stories unlike anything ever told before. I've seen them. I know that there are people making films in ways that I'll never know how to do. It's at times like those, when I've just finished a film by Philippe Grandrieux,  Terrence Malick, PT (and Wes) Anderson, Agnes Varda, Marco Bellocchio, Tomas Alfredson or anyone who pushes the medium into new direction, that I'm most excited to pick up a camera again.