Paris Letters #86
Why Most Movies Suck
I recently saw Knight of Cups by Terrence Malik. The film had its weaknesses: an weak protagonist, a reliance on sexual stereotype (an endless parade of hollywood eye candy) and moments of overdrawn sentimentality. But there was something nourishing about the film that others seem to lack. Of course the film received an incredibly low rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which it didn’t deserve: there were extraordinary luminous moments and it had a very fine and tender regard. Also, there have been countless films made in LA, but I don’t think many capture its luminous and abyssal quality so deeply.
Today movies (mostly) suck if you haven’t noticed – even highly regarded ones, such as Woody Allen films. The characters in Woody Allen films don’t live in the world, they live in ‘minds’. It’s an entirely mind-world, with New York as a stylized backdrop. Of course, Woody Allen films are better than most because of their wit and clever or tragic descriptions of human psychology. And yet every character in Allen’s universe is a lost soul – a fragmented being – living entirely in the ‘talking’ or self reflexive part of the mind – a hell of self consciousness. The human mind, cut off from everything but its own machinations and fantasy is never really happy and always neurotic as Allen’s films show us. To be happy the human must connect to the larger, not merely human, world.
Film is usually about gleely escapism rather than genuine artistic liberation of course: passive entertainment generates more dollars than serious art – which is always participatory. While good cinema might not be dead, there are only a handful decent films every year, and these usually come from places like Turkey or Korea. Other countries recognise how impotent Hollywood films are these days, and the pervasive emptiness they represent. What a relief to watch a good film from Iran or India! We gets the sense that real humans, not just plastic people live there.
A great film, as I see it, is a field of vision made of transformational light: the play and poetics of image are more important than language or even the story. But in most films these days, the camera is zoomed in on the ugly realism of human psychology and language – to the exclusion of everything else. People talk and describe and emote rather than live and feel – they are doomed to live apart.
A great film can never be a mere record of facts and incidents. The problem with cinematic realism is that it is dull and flat. Cinema needs to be sublime and visionary, not just to record what Werner Herzog calls ‘an accountant’s truth’. I resonate with Herzog’s vision that cinema should express ecstatic truth. The other extreme in superhero or saviour films are lacking any realism or gravity.
In a Terrence Malik film the human is subsumed in a larger spiritual and material world. The world of animals, of vegetation, of sea and sky, are as much a part of the pallet as the human. In Knight of Cups main character is mostly mute, he finds snatches of illuminations from the air, hears the voices of angels and demons disguised as human beings. He lives within nature in the larger cosmic sense, in its blisses and its terrors. The cinematography gives us space to contemplate, to dissolve into beautiful and spacious landscapes; accident and improvisation are included in the tableau. Words and narratives dissolve fall into space and rise to the surface again; they undulate, they shimmer, they are transparent rather than opaque. There is real poetry in this kind of film.
Terrence Malik’s ‘Thin Red Line’ is the only war film I’ve seen that includes the natural world, in its devastation and beauty. He show the horror that war creates for birds and other mammals, insects, meadows, trees – the entire context of life. Every other war movie I’ve seen, even the best ones – like Stanley Kubrick full metal Jacket – put the human being in the center, but Terrence Maliks characters move in and out of the center – they are often on the periphery, as we are. A Spielberg movie is far worse, because it looks for a ‘greater meaning’ in patriotism and other rubbish, but is entirely humanocentric and message oriented, with the same old heavy handed morality tale of human sin and redemption. The camera is focused on ‘the human story’ and that is the artistic mistake. The human story is ultimately a disappointing and pathetic spectacle if isolated from rest of creation.
Movies will only be good again when the director moves his camera towards a larger holistic vision, and not a merely humanistic or all too human one. Movies need Gods and demons, they need spiritual depth. They have the potential to be contemplative, to nourish – and the essential ingredient is space. But most films are narrow and claustrophobic, like dreaming other people’s dark dreams. In those dreams or nightmares we do not participate, but sit in the dark, lost in circular hells of human psychology, are bombarded by sensation and special effect, or the endless mind babble.
Movies mostly suck because they are thieves of our imagination: the healing power of the mind to make penetrating images. With some rare exceptions.