Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Backs to the Wall: Alps and Shame

Both Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos and British director Steve McQueen have released massive international festival hits in the past few years: Dogtooth, a singularly unsettling allegorical black comedy, and Hunger, a transcendent chronicle of the IRA Prison Strike of the 1980's. With their latest films, one director has kept it low-key and local, and the other has gone American, keeping his Irish lead actor but moving to an NYC setting. The films, Alps and Shame, are both unmistakably their maker's, which is admirable for directors with only one previous feature (or in the case of Lanthimos, one obscure flop and one breakout success) to their name. Furthermore, they're also curious objects that suffer from very similar issues: they both tackle their ideas - fuzzy and vaguely complex in Alps, simple and familiar in Shame - in an oblique, non-confrontational manner, shying away from direct exploration and seeking to invite larger significance that's not warranted in the execution. But since I genuinely enjoyed their previous efforts, it's an example of sophomore slump that I greet more with interest and confusion than with frustration and hostility.

Following Dogtooth's primal scream of oddness and ambiguity, Lanthimos has decided to capitalize on the success of those traits and elevate them in Alps only a year later. Transplanting the social retardation and behavioral quirkiness of Dogtooth's suburban prison to a wider, more public and less specific milieu, Lanthimos reveals a group of eccentrics slowly and mysteriously, only exposing that which loosely connects them in an offhand bit of dialogue a third of the way through the film. It turns out that their regular meetings in a nondescript gymnasium are for an under-the-radar social service (deemed "Alps" for seemingly no reason other than to justify the title) that assists grieving individuals and families in the event of the sudden loss of a loved one by performing as that person and fully adopting their day-to-day routines. Aggeliki Papoulia, the brave actress who played the older sister in Lanthimos' prior film, is the performer we see most in Alps and the one who delivers said line of dialogue to an aging couple whose tennis-playing daughter was just killed in an accident. There's a cult-like strictness and dedication to the group that registers in Papoulia's consistent expression - which seems to suggest dread struggling to conceal itself beneath a collected exterior - and in her colleague Ariane Labed's nervous posture, a side-effect of her submission to a terrifyingly imposing dance coach played by Johnny Vekris who restricts her from graduating to pop music. Meanwhile, in episodes that are peripheral to the other narratives, members of Alps rehearse melodramatic, inscrutable dialogues to each other in clipped, uninflected tones as if amateur actors preparing for an audition, but they never break character.

The scenario is intriguingly flamboyant and fittingly bizarre, and as such it's a shame that Alps remains the mere skeleton of a film, a brilliant idea that was stillborn at the conception phase. Like Dogtooth, Alps presents a handful of motifs, metaphors, and subtexts to be sorted out, and specifically amplifies Dogtooth's concern for the influence of American media consumption on its characters. But rather than letting his ideas arise organically through the interaction of characters and environments, Lanthimos exerts a rigid conceptual grasp on every scene until the purpose of each individual shot is exhausted the instant an idea is effectively elucidated. What’s left is a series of repetitions of the same few notions, triggered with an approach to scene structure that grows increasingly coded and formulaic. Alps functions in the theoretical arena of spectatorship, aligning both the act of the griever and the movie-goer (in this film, everyone's an implicit movie-goer, reciting lines and ranking favorite actors and actresses) as false respites from death, fundamentally flawed attempts at forgetting that nonetheless ease the pain of reality. Unfortunately, there's rarely any basis of reality to assist the process of empathizing with these acts of profound selfishness. Lanthimos is too busy deflating his characters into controlled, undiscerning props (in order to warn against the mechanization of modern life that might result from projecting our emotions onto media) to examine the reactions of the married couple to their surrogate daughter, or to allow his main characters to contemplate the ethical implications of their service. As a depiction of a lopsided practice in an already lopsided world rather than a misguided venture unleashed on a convincing population, Alps neglects to confront the complexity of its themes as they relate to reality.

Because Dogtooth already took this route, it doesn't help that Lanthimos' treatment of the concept lacks the structural firmness of that film, which was a careful crescendo to a devastating final shot. Where Dogtooth's narrative assurance hinted at a conceptual assurance, Alps' insistent skirting around its major themes resembles the work of a director who is either too fuzzy on whether or not they make sense or too unsure of their legitimacy. Fittingly, the film waywardly shifts between its several mini-stories through fractured and vague cinematography, wherein only objects closest to the camera earn focus and the physical world is reduced to a smear of gray. When it's not hilarious - Lanthimos is better at making dark jokes of his characters than he is at drawing them as serious, if exaggerated, models of real human beings worth sympathizing with, which suggests a lot about his outlook on life - it's frequently dull and repetitive, evoking the feeling of a lecture that reached its climax early on and kept repeating minor variations on the same idea. What was seductive, suggestive, and horrific in Dogtooth is alienating, stiff, and preposterous in Alps, and unfortunately the film suffers from the feeling of being half-finished, its realization carrying only phantoms of the core ideas Lanthimos clearly wanted to tackle and its sense of ambiguity adrift from any semblance of cohesion.

Shame, on the other hand, is so coherent to the point of being simple-minded that McQueen's insistence upon creating an enigmatic, ambiguous atmosphere feels awkwardly disingenuous at best and utterly silly at worst. The entire film essentially advances the idea that Michael Fassbender's Brandon is a man whose seemingly high quality of living - a well-paying job, an uptown apartment with a panoramic view of the biggest city in the world, devilishly good looks - belies his emotional impotence and severe inner turmoil. Although this is the ultimate thesis, McQueen is persistent upon allowing the audience to try to tease out their own meaning by gesturing faintly in several different taboo-breaking directions - sex addiction, incest, corporate dehumanization - with ominous long takes and Duchampian blankness. When Brandon's predictably damaged vagabond sister Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan with an alliterative name that sounds like a whore's psuedonym) arrives to crash at his apartment with nowhere else to go, the past's infiltration of the present metaphor is literalized by Brandon's inability to get down and dirty with NYC prostitutes and spend quality time with himself due to his sister's presence. The rampant sexual thirst so forcefully telegraphed in the film's opening montage is suffocated, the male ego is compromised, and regular, unquestioned behaviors Brandon mechanically performs (ogling women on the subway, extending his encyclopedia of internet porn) are put into perspective.

Unlike in Hunger, a work of great empathy, McQueen appears to despise his main character here, taking every opportunity to bounce light off of bar tables to demonize him. Whether subsuming him into a generically flat and sanitary office environment or scrutinizing his clumsy attempt at dating with a newly single co-worker (Nicole Beharie) whose smiley excitement swiftly degenerates throughout the course of a dinner ominously punctuated by McQueen's languorously zooming camera, Brandon encompasses the Rich, Privileged, Unappreciative Schmuck that is seemingly ubiquitous in New York (his boss, David Fisher (James Badge Dale), is another sterling example, and represents the only character McQueen dislikes more). Eyes Wide Shut and Last Tango in Paris already peered into - as rapper Nas put it - the "N.Y. State of Mind," and these types of sex-addled characters in particular, in much subtler ways, and it seems that the one new inquiry McQueen is bringing to it is his questionable implication, when Brandon attends a hellishly red gay club in a ditch effort for satisfaction, that homosexuality is the lowest form of debasement for this kind of soul-sick urban individual.

What makes Shame tougher to swallow is McQueen's reluctance to pick up the great opportunities he lays down for himself to understand his character. Crystallizing his irritating diffidence here is a sequence about halfway through the film when Sissy takes Brandon's boss back to the apartment after a night at the lounge club where she had a gig. Upon hearing the muffled noises of cheerful sex in a room nearby, it appears Brandon is destined for one of the possible courses of action: 1) confront the two of them angrily, 2) passive-aggressively masturbate in his room, or 3) call up a prostitute to assert his power in his own apartment. He does none of the above, and instead fleas the scene to go for a jog outside. Given his visceral outbursts throughout the rest of the film (screaming at Sissy, provoking jealousy out of anonymous strangers), it feels less like a natural extension of his character than a cop-out by McQueen when given a chance to thoroughly explore the inner state of his character. He favors a technically complicated and lushly photographed tracking shot that simply illuminates Brandon's anxiety and drops the troubling scenario placed before him. In numerous other instances, McQueen resorts to his stylish aesthetic flair (and he has a great deal of it) in ways that purport to visualize inner conflicts but actually just de-emphasize and abstract them. What is left is a shell of a person and a conflict, the gaps of which are filled with repeated shots of Fassbender ruffling his perpetually feathered hairdo or crying out in the rain with a scrape on his face as the predictable downfall narrative reaches its fruition.

Just as Lanthimos devises esoteric codes and ciphers for his messages, McQueen shrouds in mystery a schematic script that redundantly exposes its character's primal sickness and aversion to emotionality. Both directors have taken a prior strength and applied it forcefully to new material only to reveal the specificity and shortcomings of that strength. Lanthimos' preference for broad allegory over narrative and characterization is jeopardized when aimed at a larger ensemble and a more diffuse setting. McQueen's artful detachment made poetry out of a historical event that was chiefly about collective action and brutality, whereas the same approach is rendered empty in the face of original material that favors individual introspection. Perhaps the bright side is that there is still great promise contained in these films that ensures future improvement: the squirmy comedy and dissociative editing in Alps (the superior of the two films) and the bold visual statements and skill with actors evoked in Shame. But the films' fear of direct engagement is their fundamental undoing. Quite simply, these are portraits of people with their backs to the wall in which the directors themselves have their backs to the wall, refusing to speak on the matter.


JeanRZEJ said...

'What’s left is a series of repetitions of the same few notions, triggered with an approach to scene structure that grows increasingly coded and formulaic.'

You've essentially just defined 'structuralist cinema'. I'm not sure how the relatively straightforward narrative of Dogtooth is any less formulaic, except perhaps that its formula resides not within-itself but in the thousands of years of drama that preceded it. At least it sounds as if Alps' form is self-actuating, which is certainly an intriguing idea. Of course, this same approach has been taken by a few recent films with similar subjects (Brownian Movement, Sleeping Beauty, to name two that I can recall), so maybe it's just another in a current trend. I'm interested to see what he does with the trend, though!

Carson Lund said...

Jean, I know you like Lanthimos, so I'll be careful. Structuralist cinema or not, Alps' repetitiousness is usually numbing and monotone rather than varied and cumulative like in Dogtooth. Daniel Kasman of The Notebook said it quite eloquently: that Lanthimos is "always serving to film an example of an isolated idea rather than build a cinematic world which contains ideas interacting." I find Dogtooth to approximate a bit of a narrative crescendo in spite of its thematic repetitiousness. I do encourage you to see the film though. It's quite interesting, and certainly something to think about.

JeanRZEJ said...

No need to be careful - there's no risk of your preferences subjugating mine!

It sounds like Kasman has identified an intriguing cinematic apparatus upon which many interesting things can be gleaned. In fact, he seems to have identified the very basis for structuralist filmmaking - to strip away the cinematic world in order to investigate only the effects of the cinematic techniques independent of their expected narrative points of reference. Of course, it seems that Lanthimos incorporates a psychological element into this apparatus.

As for Kasman, I will quote something that he wrote about another film which seems to follow a startlingly similar 'structural repetition' schema, mentioned before (I obviously didn't know that you were going to use Kasman, but it does show something interesting):

' When joined to a prescriptive-procedural scenario—as it is in this film, where a beautiful young woman separates her life into one half as doctor-mother-wife and one half as eccentric nymphomaniac, is then exposed, and has to deal with the consequences—a scenario that is a diagram, a closed, delineated path with no life on the sides, no details but ones that thunder and echo in the focused emptiness of the film world, the result is being left in profound boredom.'

JeanRZEJ said...

So, you see, Kasman hates the form that you seem to describe in Alps - and this is before Alps was released. Thus, I am not surprised. I also rarely agree with Kasman, and I think it is antithetical to art to reject any form outright. I hardly think Lanthimos or Leopold are expecting people to be on the edge of their seats with their films, but I do think that they recognize that being on the edge of your seat can be a great hindrance to the actual aims of their chosen cinematic constructs. In fact, if you watch the progression of Leopold's cinema you can see her gradually detaching from linear progressions into different forms of narrative flattening and detachment. I haven't seen Brownian Movement yet, but her earlier films got progressively more interesting to me as she moved deeper into Kasman's 'zone of discomfort'. It's certainly not something you're going to find in an exciting summer film, and you may not find it exciting at all, but all that really matters is that you (can) find something at all. If you don't (or choose not to try) then you won't enjoy the film. That is to be expected, but it doesn't mean that I won't (on both counts).

I didn't find Dogtooth repetitive, myself. I don't even know that themes can be repetitive - I always thought that point of a theme is to repeatedly touch on it implicitly so as to provide nuance that couldn't be found merely by explicating one's thoughts in text (dialogue). Perhaps the method of developing the theme could be repetitive, but a repetitive theme? I don't know. Anyway, in Dogtooth there's a clear progression which introduces the cinematic world as-it-is-known-to-the-inhabitants (note in the first scene you don't even see the inhabitants, just hear them, and then you don't see all of them, just see parts of them, etc.), then shows how that world is precariously at odds with the outside world, and then finally shows what happens when that precipice is reached (which, of course, is already hinted at by the absence of the brother, and the myth of the eldest will probably overtake that role in the meantime). Doesn't seem repetitive to me. Seems like a constant expansion, really. It's pretty minimal, so each element was noticeably distinct from each other element to me, but maybe when I enjoy something I don't feel something is repetitive (or feel that such repetition is anything other than an boon). What I do think is that Dogtooth certainly creates a cinematic world which contains ideas interacting, and I think that this cinematic world is a narrative convention that isn't really necessary for any psychological evaluation. What the film showed more than anything is that one's psychological needs simply adapt, not change entirely, given the conditions in the 'world', so you don't lose much (and perhaps gain the entire spectrum of possibilities) by being rid of the 'cinematic world' entirely. Instead of bouncing ideas off of a 'cinematic world' you bounce ideas off of an infinite spectrum of possibilities! In theory it sounds great. In practice, this sort of ambiguity works wonderfully and almost universally praised as a positive. Of course, this tends to be in small plot points (even on-the-nose Nolan is capable of ambiguous plot points!) instead of narrative structures (which create much greater voids/opportunities for contemplation, depending on your point of view, interest in the subject at hand, the skill of the artist, your capability of recognizing the skill of the artist, etc.). Like I said, I think it's an intriguing cinematic approach. I also think it will probably bore many given that narrative is more familiar and often more immediately entertaining to people, but I have no end of options for entertainment and so precious few for unrestrained creativity and formal ingenuity. Bring on those that bore Kasman to death!

Carson Lund said...

Look, I'm not ceding to Kasman outright and implying that he's right about all films of this type, nor am I trying to reject films of this type. I was merely using a quotation of his to illustrate what I felt didn't work in Alps. I haven't heard of Nanouk Leopold, but her work sounds fascinating. Michael Snow's Wavelength is a seminal, groundbreaking work that I do enjoy, and it's perhaps the epitome of structuralist cinema. I wonder if you'd consider Lucrecia Martel a part of this structuralist approach, because I happen to find her films remarkable. It's not a dismissal of the form, only a realization of a particular film that does not work within that form. You seem to be suggesting that all structuralist cinema is faultless, no?

As for Dogtooth, I do find it repetitious, if less so than Alps, in the way it unspools its theme. You're right that a theme cannot be repetitious in itself, only in the way it is executed. When I feel a scene's single, or primary, purpose is to elucidate that theme, and that approach continues throughout the film, that I consider repetitious. In Dogtooth, Lanthimos shows a man and a woman having dispassionate, mechanical sex: I know right away he's getting at the way that a restrictive upbringing (in a family, a society, etc.) can stunt an individual's awareness or sensitivity to their primal, human impulses. He shows two girls obliquely enacting a scene from Jaws; I know Lanthimos is targeting the ways in which media can define and distort these perceptions of the world. This formula of addressing the theme directly continues throughout his work, and it's precisely what I mean by thematic repetitiousness. I found it entrancing in Dogtooth, if only for the variety of ways that Lanthimos touches upon the themes, and uninteresting in Alps, because I always felt several steps ahead of the film, aware of what he was trying to do.

JeanRZEJ said...

'You seem to be suggesting that all structuralist cinema is faultless, no?'

You seem to be taking my tone as far more antagonistic than I feel like is due. Rather than saying that you're wrong... I would say that I think there may be something that I will see that you didn't (which is one and the same, if we do this whole 'film discussion thing', as something that you too may see upon a second look, perhaps with a new perspective, perhaps one aided by discussion). Maybe not, of course, but what's the point of that discussion?

I would alternately suggest that the conception of 'fault' in art is faulty. After all, the conception is inherently temporary (what one finds a fault today could and often does change into something rewarding and even essential), not to mention that a 'fault' implies some sort of 'correct' way of doing things, which is just silly. Those are just the schematics, though - more importantly I would say that I have no interest in those things that are 'faulty', which is to say not worth time defining fault in except to discover how one's own sense of 'faultiness' can and often will merely be an indication of narrow-mindedness. I could offer up a plethora of my own 'faulty' perceptions of 'fault', which is in fact why I find the practice to be so counter-productive (and absurd, by this point). I read several (as in at least 3) professional critics reappraising The Headless Woman upon seeing it a second time (as it was initially received tepidly by most). Initially they saw a litany of faults, but the second time they saw (or probably heard) enough to completely nullify what they originally thought were 'faults'. This says nothing about their own faults, I don't think, except perhaps an inability to commit enough time/effort (such is common in film festivals, of course) to getting from the superficial hangups to the broader picture which is so often beneficial for films like that.

As for Martel being a 'structuralist' filmmaker, the term itself is pretty specific and pretty anti-narrative, of which she has never strayed, but I've probably stretched it plenty already. She certainly shows the same sort of repetition of pointedly thematic elements in The Headless Woman that Lanthimos shows in Dogtooth, but it sounds like Lanthimos goes a bit more 'structural' in Alps, at least from what I have read (take several grains of salt, obviously).

JeanRZEJ said...

To think of 'true' structural cinema, though, I think you can relate back to your experience with Lanthimos. In Dogtooth you see the seeds of something and you can predict the sorts of behaviors that will result from the beginnings. In Alps it seems like you see something and you can predict that the same behavior is going to recur in the next scene, so you're already guessing at the style and content ahead. With structural cinema you don't even guess at content and it is inherent in the form that the style will remain the exact same, so if you're two steps ahead in Alps then in structural cinema you're immediately at the end looking back as the film catches up. And, really, that is why it is structural - there is only the way in which the exact same thing is put together multiple times to consider, the way it is structured. Perhaps you could say that Alps is 'behavioral structuralism'? You know what the behavior is going to be, all you can really think of is how the one behavior is going to be framed against the others' behavior. I get the same feeling when I watch genre films, except that they act as one long 'structuralist plot sequence' when looked at in a broad view across multiple films which unsurprisingly have the exact same plot. I personally think the whole idea of structural cinema is kind of silly as anything other than truly 'experimental' cinema (better for discovering than mastering) - but when the techniques are mastered and married into more of a 'maximalist' whole then it can be something special. Otherwise... it can be boring and unfruitful. But sometimes what is boring and unfruitful becomes amazing and fruitful, so I still wouldn't see the point in fault (and don't hold me to my current views of pure structuralist cinema - I reserve the right and hope to change!)

Going back to my original point - I see plenty of interesting potential for Lanthimos to 'marry' what originally seems like a 'boring, unfruitful' film with the sorts of structural touches that only tend to shine through with some perspective, some obstinate refusal to succumb to 'boredom'. But, you know, maybe not - but I'm not giving up, now or after I (potentially) find the film totally worthless. 'Cause I know how worthless I can be sometimes. Such is growth.