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Altering Eye

Robert Phillip Kolker

Preface to the New Edition

Texte intégral

1The Altering Eye is a book about the most fertile period of filmmaking in the mid-twentieth century. This was a period of rediscovering cinema, of returning to zero (as Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed) and advancing beyond the conventions of the Hollywood style. Not merely advancing, but revolting against it. On the level of form and with a vital, largely left-wing political force, filmmakers worldwide explored their art, pushed its limits, made it articulate, eloquent and complex. Audiences responded in kind, their curiosity and desire meeting the imagination of filmmakers to form a nourishing film culture.

2While writing the book, there was every indication that the cinematic phenomenon I was discussing was an ongoing process. But just before publication, two of the major filmmakers discussed in the book died: the Brazilian Glauber Rocha in 1981 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982. Their deaths seemed to signal, or at least occur simultaneously with, an equally premature demise of the very film culture that swept across the world from the end of WW II until that decadal moment. The New German Cinema, the last movement in the wave that began with Italian neorealism blew itself out. Its most talented member was dead. Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders seemed to drift off into less creative spaces, though Herzog has found his footing in a number of amazing documentaries. In France, François Truffaut, a founder of the New Wave, died in 1983. Godard, after having brought about the second seismic change in film after Italian neorealism, went into a kind of exile and returned no longer as a perpetrator of a new cinematic vision, but as a narcissist of form. (He may have been this all along, but the formal experimentation he carried on in the 1960s pressed forward on cinema worldwide and changed it; once changed, Godard himself was changed—by the very cinema he helped create.)

3It seemed that the energy that coursed through European and world cinema in the 1960s and 1970s diminished. Some of it was transferred to the United States, where an auteur cinema steered by the successes of Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, gained a brief foothold. But even in the U.S., the 1980s saw a decline of an active film culture, a reassertion of the Hollywood style, and a growing antipathy on the part of audiences (and therefore distributors) for subtitled films. The brief boom of experimentation in American film seemed to occur simultaneously with a waning of interest in the cinema that ignited the boom. But the boom itself was over. What disappeared was the sense of a movement, of a wave of filmmaking experimentation, an intoxication with what could be done cinematically that marked the period covered in the original edition of The Altering Eye.

4Energies became dispersed. Left-wing filmmaking went into decline. But, what emerged in the wake of a movement were some individual auteurs, filmmakers who carried through some of the work of their predecessors or explored new territory. Distribution of their films decreased through the 1990s as ”art house” cinemas in the US disappeared. Their work remained on the festival circuit and, with rare exceptions of screenings in New York and a few other U.S. cities, viewers have had to turn to DVDs to see what was happening in cinema worldwide. The result is that much has not been seen, and anyone interested in what is happening in international film must carefully follow the programs of various film festivals and cross-reference them with online DVD rental companies. The queue that used to form in front of an art house in the 1960s for the latest film by Antonioni or Godard is now the online queue for film titles waiting to be mailed by Netflix or Blockbuster—assuming that they have been distributed on DVD at all.

5But it bears repeating that even though production and reception of international cinema has declined, extraordinary films are still being made. Movements as such may no longer cohere, but individual directors are still at work. There may be—at the moment—fewer explorations of cinematic possibilities, but many of those filmmakers who still regard their medium as a means of critical expression follow in the wake of the movements discussed in The Altering Eye. Let me note just a few.

6In Belgium, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making films that combine an instinct for neorealist visual politics with a fondness for the quiet, expressionless, emotional films by Robert Bresson. The last sequence of L’enfant (2005), a film in which a confused, reactive adolescent attempts to sell his illegitimate son, ends, like Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), with a redemptive gesture between the boy and his girlfriend across the dividing barrier in a prison visiting room. Unlike Bresson’s, the actions of the Dardenne brothers’ characters are often frenzied, but their activities advances their ends only in small increments; their emotional lives smaller still. Part of their hopeless frenzy is represented by experiments with point of view. For example, the camera in Le fils (2002) remains, almost throughout the length of the film, behind the central character’s head—more accurately, behind his ear, so that we see his profile and the space in front of him. The camera pivots as he turns, moves as he does, mostly frantically, running, climbing, grasping, as he tries to calm his own agitation, to keep ahead of his emotions, when he discovers that the boy he has hired as a carpenter’s apprentice was the murderer of his son.

7The Dardenne brothers maintain a close connection to neorealism, the formative influence of post-WWII European cinema. In L’enfant they pursue their characters through the streets of Seraing, which, as they choose to frame it, appears the least attractive city in Europe—dark, damp, soul-killing. As in Le fils, the action is frantic as Bruno (Jérémie Renier—the character’s name itself recalls Ricci’s son in Bicycle Thief) moves to sell his baby and then, when his girlfriend collapses in despair, to retrieve it. Travelling by motor scooter, running on foot, hiding in the freezing river with a young accomplice (a real-time sequence that is as painful to watch as it must have been to film), the mise-en-scène of L’enfant doesn’t absorb its characters into their urban spaces, but allows the grimy streets and grimy characters to coinhabit. The characters are less products of the streets as its creatures.

  • 1 Quoted by Ed Sikov, On Sunset Blvd: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (New York: Hyperion, 1998), (...)

8This of course has been the hallmark of postwar cinema and is the base of the arguments developed in The Altering Eye. Building on a neorealist ground, post-WWII European filmmakers have been intent on creating narrative spaces in which figure and environment interact. They do not privilege the human figure; they avoid closeups; they abjure over-theshoulder sequences. Instead, they want to see the world whole, to allow, as Bazin (very much the patron saint of postwar international film) theorized, cinema to emerge from the effacement of cinema, Hollywood cinema specifically. By avoiding the conventions of the Hollywood style, filmmakers were freed (as Klaus Kreimeier said of Carl Meyer) to think with their eyes.1

9The Dardenne brothers burrow through the history of postwar film to come up with anti-family anti-melodramas in which disenfranchised, marginal characters wander—or sometimes hurtle—through the streets on painful passages of minute self discovery. Other filmmakers move at a slower speed. The remarkable Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, makes road movies that are as much about the red sand and patches of pale green that constitute the Iranian landscape as they are about the characters who travel through it, all the while talking and listening. His camera is interested in figures seen as part of their environment, in what the mise-en-scène tells us. What the narrative as a whole tells us is open and unresolved. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) is a neorealist film set in a Kurdish village in Western Iran. A man from Tehran—possibly a movie director—comes to observe a ceremony, possibly the burial of an old, ailing woman. Purpose, however, is not Kiarostami’s interest. The processes of village life: a woman doing chores, observed through a doorway; a young lady milking a cow in a dark cellar; a young boy taking his exams; an old poetry-reciting doctor making calls on a motorcycle; a hunchback covered entirely in black; a woman covered entirely in grass. The man from the city has no effect on all this. The modern world is almost beyond his reach (whenever his cell rings, he needs to get in his car and drive up the high point of the village, its cemetery). At one point, he thoughtlessly upends a turtle, leaving it on its back. Kiarostami’s camera returns to the creature as it quickly rights itself and lumbers off. Kiarostami’s is an inquisitive cinema, a cinema of negative capability, absorbing what he and his characters see, without judgment, though at the same time with a sharp political eye. The narrative of The Wind Will Carry Us follows a classic city vs. country template, though the ”country” here is in an enclave of the barely tolerated Kurdish population. The film stresses the incomprehension and incommensurability of the two cultures (three cultures, actually, for all he shows us is alien to Western eyes), while at the same time observing the irretrievable otherness of the peasant community, figured no better than in the scene with the woman milking her cow in a pitch dark cellar. Education makes a mark, as the young boy befriended by the main character keeps taking tests at school; but change seems unlikely on any side. Kiarostami’s is a cinema of stasis and of a political unconscious that rumbles beneath his films with no eruption in sight.

10Kiarostami seems to take as methodology André Bazin’s notion of the director as passive observer of an ongoing world. People and events pass by; the camera observes, listens, takes note. The viewer’s job of reading these images and sounds is complex, because, as I noted, they must be filtered through a culture—cultures, actually—quite foreign to many viewers. Kiarostami plays upon this foreignness, but the effect is not to put his viewer at a disadvantage or to exaggerate the ambiguity of his open-ended narratives. Rather, he coaxes us into a desire for meaning, a desire to penetrate the alien landscape and its figures, to comprehend the sadness and durability of his characters.

11Sadness and durability are not qualities of the characters created by, to my mind, the most interesting figure to emerge in recent European cinema, the Austrian director, Michael Haneke. In his interrogations of narrative, he is the heir to Godard; in his insistence on the ambiguity of the image and our perceptions of it, Antonioni; he is also, to use a good Americanism, a wiseass—sarcastic, funny, ironic, and ready to play games with his audience. His films are often about violence—physical and emotional—played by or upon middle-class characters who are at or brought to their wit’s end. Some, like Erika in La pianiste (2001), are insane; most are mad by nature of their middle-class existence. The family in The Seventh Continent (1989) falls to pieces and in so doing takes their world to pieces, smashing their belongings, flushing their money down the toilet. Benny, in Benny’s Video, kills a girl with a stun gun used in to slaughter pigs. He tapes it and shows it to his parents, who go to great lengths to hide his crime.

12Haneke’s later works are more complex, their politics expanded from the family to the effects on the family of a more global history of violence and deracination. Code Unknown (Code inconnu: récit incomplet de divers voyages, 2000) is a moving collage of diverse characters from Paris, Romania, and Mali, whose fractured lives and loosening connections to their origins are represented as broken links in a chain of coincidences, of bad behaviors, of partial reconciliations, and large missed chances. The ”unknown code” of the title refers to the numbers on keypad that allow entry into the apartment of Anne, a central character—an actress—in the narrative. But the synecdoche spreads: none of the characters can remember the code that might bring them home; they all act out parts mostly foreign to them; they are lost. A young girl whose origins are in Mali is told that a relative has returned to Africa. ”Where is that?” she asks.

13There is a hint of optimism in Haneke’s most recent films. Suturing the fragments of Code Unknown is a group of deaf students playing and dancing to an infectious drumming rhythm. Perhaps because they cannot hear the fracturing dialogues of their parents, perhaps because they are privy to a new harmony of a diverse multiculturalism, they seem to be spared. Likewise in Caché (2005), the children seem to indicate a way out of—in this case—a destructive curse of history visited on the parents. The film plays out an obsession of Haneke’s—the video recording of horrendous violence. In this instance, the source of the recording is unknown: the videos simply appear and bedevil the Laurent family. Their lives are under surveillance; they don’t know by whom or why. (Haneke tips his hand early in the film, when he permits the shadow of his camera to be seen on the wall of building outside the Laurent’s house from where the surveillance images are being taken. The ultimate act of surveillance is done by the filmmaker, made for the ultimate voyeur, the film viewer. Hitchcock knew this.)

14The history that haunts the film is the French repression of Algeria, and in particular the bloody massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris that occurred in October, 1961. The oppression and misreading of Muslims echoes down the years to the present, and the surveillance eye that is kept on the Laurent family is the bad conscience of the West. It is guilt, and self-righteousness turned on itself. The narrative content of Caché is as complex as the mise-en-scène. The viewer watches a film of a family watching videotapes of their activities, made by an unknown eye, which is, of course, the eye of the filmmaker. Small narrative hints are offered. Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) was brought up on a farm. His parents took in an Algerian, Majid (Maurice Bénichou), orphaned by the October massacre. Georges convinces his family, by the violent act of beheading a chicken, to get rid of Majid. In his search for the origin of the videos, George discovers Majid living alone in a tiny flat. On one of his visits, the camera assuming the position it holds in the surveillance tapes, Majid, in an utterly surprising and majestically horrible move, slits his own throat, leaving a brilliant line of blood splatter on the wall. It is an act that repeats the beheading of the chicken and is foreshadowed by the post cards that accompany the tapes, showing a streak of blood.

15The film does not answer the riddles it proposes. The unblinking stare of the surveillance tapes becomes, in the end, inseparable from the long takes of Haneke’s own gaze on his unfortunate characters. The penultimate shot of the film is—presumably—a dream Georges is having about Majid’s being taken from the family farm. It is done in the same distant style as the other ”surveillance” tapes and suggests that all of them are in fact images of Georges’s bad conscience. The final shot of the film is a longer still, taken from across the street of the Laurent’s son’s school. Children gather on the steps, and there appears nothing extraordinary in this ordinary day’s end event. It is another view of the all-seeing camera. Unless you pay very close attention. In the upper left of the frame, the son appears and is greeted by another son—Majid’s. They talk for a bit and walk off. What goes on? Have the two children conspired in making the tapes? Or is it rather a reconciliation of the next generation, an end to history’s paranoia?

16In a simple and extraordinary sequence in Code Unknown, Anne Laurent (played by Juliette Binoche, whose character has the same name in Caché) is harassed by some young middle-easterners in the Metro. The worst is young man played by Walid Afkir, who plays Majid’s son in Caché. He is firmly dressed down by an older Arab, played by Maurice Bénichou, who plays Majid in Caché. Between the two films a balance seems to be reached. The points of view are of generations—deracinated, out of place, seeking their place, bedeviling the superficial well-being of the native bourgeoisie—finding their way or ending it. Haneke is not advocating a banal multiculturalism as much as he is examining the given of a diverse European population and the tensions, bad faith, and bad conscience it creates.

17The tensions (and occasional bad faith) created for an European filmmaker are of a different order. There is the constant lure of Hollywood and its promise of a larger audience. As far back as the New Wave, when Truffaut was offered the directorship of Bonnie and Clyde, new European directors had to struggle with the urge to break into the American market. Truffaut resisted, although he did make an English language film, Farenheit 451 (1966), as did Rainer Werner Fassbinder with Despair (1978) and Querelle (1982). Michelangelo Antonioni went to America for Zabriskie Point (1970). Werner Herzog has been shooting for the English speaking market for some time. Haneke has gotten off to a rocky start in his quest for an English speaking audience. He chose as his first venture a remake of his 1997 film, Funny Games, perhaps the least successful of his work thus far. Funny Games is a home invasion film, in which two menacing teenagers terrorize and kill a helpless middle-class family. The sense of threat and menace is unremitting; the sadism only briefly qualified when Haneke has his killers address the camera or use the TV remote control to rewind the action when one of them is shot by their captives.

18The original failed to be more than menacing and sadistic, putting the audience in the helpless position of witness to atrocity. The remake, faithful in most respects, fails as well. The fine irony present in most of Haneke’s other films is nowhere to be found in Funny Games, or is their complexity. The remake seems to be a simple act of self-exploitation and perhaps self-doubt that an American audience could not respond to the ambiguities of image making realized in Code Unknown or Caché.

19But this need not be the case. When Won Kar-wai, the Hong Kong poet of people in small rooms, made his American film, My Blueberry Nights (2007), he did not abandon any of his visual complexity, even if his narrative does end more sweetly than his other work. By and large My Blueberry Nights is of a piece with his Hong Kong Films, especially In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). His images are saturated with neon and pastel colors; his camera held close to the figures, even when he is photographing them from the opposite side of a window or screen. He shoots in wide screen, but his images are constricted, escaping claustrophobia only because his camera is in almost constant motion and the emotions of his characters outstrip the rooms that contain them. Wong Kar-wai’s films are about the intransigence of movement, the return of the heart to stasis, of small episodes of happiness amidst lingering unease.

20Won Kar-wai’s is a painterly cinema; he is a maker of dreamscape’s curiously more akin to the work of Stanley Kubrick than any of the other filmmakers discussed here. Their films are in no way alike, but they both exist on a hypnagogic plane of color and shape, not quite real, not quite hallucinatory, edging toward both.

21I began by saying that there are no large movements in international cinema. The fact is that there are a few very small movements of interest. There has, in recent years, been a group of Latin American filmmakers, who are working sometimes together, sometimes crossing over into the English language market, and almost always producing films of interest. The screenwriter Guillermo Ariaga specializes in overlapping, multiple character narratives in which chronology is skewed and events fall as if by guided coincidence. He has worked with director Alejandro González Iñárritu for Amores perros (2000) and Babel (2006), but perhaps most successfully with the actor Tommy Lee Jones, who directed Ariaga’s script for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a contemporary Western that is a challenging critique of the anti-immigrant feeling loose in the United States today. The film is told through a narrative of revenge in a landscape both unforgiving and edenic. Jones and Ariaga create desert spaces in which Fordian sentimentality is replaced by the realism of the fantastic and the obsessive.

22The fantastic is also the province of Guillermo del Toro, who has successfully managed a Hollywood career with his Hellboy comic book character films (2004, 2008) and two magical realism films about the Spanish Civil War. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) both use the neorealist perspective of children, who attempt unsuccessfully to evade the horrors of the war, but are forced to confront it because of its ghosts or through the guidance of mythological figures. Luis Buñuel stands in the background of The Devil’s Backbone and Jean Cocteau’s ghost movies quietly through Pan’s Labyrinth.

  • 2 It could be argued that Dogme 95, proposed by a group of filmmakers in Copenhagen in 1995, might b (...)

23Rather than a movement, this loosely confederated group of filmmakers might perhaps more accurately be called a seedbed of cinematic talent, influential, ephemeral, likely to go their own way.2 Their willingness and ability to influence and take part in American film makes them unusual among the filmmakers discussed in The Altering Eye, but the fact that they exist at all indicates that the spirit of inquisitive filmmaking, shared among a number of directors, still exists. And while the period of filmmaking innovation covered by the original edition of The Altering Eye remains unalterably over, there remains a more disbursed, less cohesive, but still energetic creativity worldwide to counter an American cinema that seems to become less adventuresome by the year.

24RPK, October 2008


1 Quoted by Ed Sikov, On Sunset Blvd: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (New York: Hyperion, 1998), p. 45.

2 It could be argued that Dogme 95, proposed by a group of filmmakers in Copenhagen in 1995, might be considered a movement. But it strikes me as a movement more petulant than cinematic and honored largely in the breach. The first item of its ”Vow of Chastity”—that shooting must be done on location—was quickly abandoned by one of its main founders, Lars von Trier, whose best film, Dogville (2003), is something of a Brechtian work, shot in the studio using abstract suggestions of sets.

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