Flying back from my visit to the Jeonju festival, with 9 hours to burn up, I found Michael Haneke’s Amour among the films on tap to fill the little LCD screen in front of me, and having been encouraged by a few friends to see it, I flicked it on. Admitting that the context was questionable, along with the visual quality of the screen, I took a deep breath, trying to set aside my a priori assumption I would not like it as I haven’t liked any other film of the very few I have seen of his, and figuring for sure it would be way too conventional in form for my tastes. I was not disappointed in that regard. In what seems his stripped down quasi-minimalist manner, Haneke is really a by-the-book rather, well, conventional, filmmaker. He shuffles the deck a little, in this instance opening the film (contrary to what I think I recall from the critics who say it begins with a concert sequence) with the narrative’s last shot: firemen break into a nice Parisian bourgeois apartment of an older kind, and find a man dead on his bed, self-gassed, flower petals arranged about his head. This is presumably a wicked avant-gardism suggesting high art or something like that. From there the story proceeds in rather clockwork manner as our heroine has a stroke, and her husband must then cope with the quick declension to follow – loss of memory, another stroke, a wheel-chair, helping at the toilet and changing diapers, stressing out, and rather predictably as Haneke presents it, finally doing a mercy-killing, followed with taping up the house and getting around to the film’s opening shot. Winner of a Palme d’Or at Cannes, and swooned over by critics (including some who were previously hostile to Haneke’s signature épater les bourgeoisie audience and who cooed over the seeming shift to some hint of human compassion in this work), Amour is really a rather normal Euro-art-house film, tracing its lineage back to Antonioni, early Chantal Akerman, and carrying on through a long list of others who work in the same stripped down (but conventional) style, seen, say of late, in the so-called Berlin School. And yet, despite the modesty (the dour perhaps non-lighting) it is still by-the-numbers industrial filmmaking: there’s establishing shots, a cluster of conversation cross-cutting over-the-shoulder sequences, and strictly conventional film syntax. Not one shot or sequence shows the least originality or shifts the cinematic language in any way. Haneke’s tiny little narrative time shifts, or “it’s in his mind” sequences, have been worked almost since the beginning of cinema, and certainly to far richer and denser effect in the hands of Alain Resnais (Muriel) and many others. That he is lauded for taking on the matter of getting old and dying is one thing – bravo, Michael, for taking on this non-commercial matter and not making a sappy soft-focus piece of syrupy sentimentality. One thumb up for that. Now – from someone you have cited as being an influence – here’s a kick in the butt to make a film that isn’t essentially conservative.
Arriving back in Portland my friends happened to have obtained a copy of The Master, by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of America’s answers to the Euro-artfilm crowd (along with the Coens, Lynch, Payne, etc..) I’d never seen one of his movies, though I’d seen some clips on the net of There Will Be Blood, and had decided not to see it owing to my usual aversion to Hollywood slick/false production values. But, what the heck, this was for free and I needed to stay up late to get into the local clock. Again, this film had arrived with ample critical hosannas, though there were those less pleased. Like Haneke, Anderson is a practitioner of a kind of stripped-down conventional cinema syntax, though he fully utilizes the Hollywood gloss factory of sumptuous (and false) lighting, sets clean enough for Disney (here a scene in which a parade of never-touched-by-dirt classic cars sit in polished splendor pretending to be the early 1950′s). Similarly the clothes and all the rest are spotless and fraudulent. Which for a film which is presumably about life is in deep error. Also unlike Haneke, Anderson periodically opts for the artsy camera angle (artsy here only because these stick out like a sore thumb in the midst of the quite conventional balance of the film), ones which could have been lifted out of, oh, my Slow Moves (1983), or Rembrandt Laughing (1989) or All the Vermeers in New York (1990); little excursions into abstraction except that Andersen yanks them away rather quickly, and returns promptly to the well-coiffed theatrical talking heads.
And those talking heads! Joaquin Phoenix has been cited for his bravura performance, one which in my contrarian eye is a perfect example of actors acting and looking very much like they are acting. Here Mr Phoenix adopts a kind of left-tilted mouth sneer which oscillates wildly, sometimes clearly a consciously forced matter, and sometimes evaporating away. Likewise he sports an absurd body gesture, with his hands on his hips, arms akimbo, elbows leaning forward. A bundle of transparent acting mannerisms which our critics seem to think is good “acting.” I’d suggest they look at some Japanese films to see some good acting – say Kurasawa’s High and Low, or Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Cafe Lumiere: in the former, done in extreme wide-screen, Kurasawa has tableaux of 10 actors or more on screen, each inwardly using their entire being to embody their character; in the latter, the father, without seeming to do anything (unlike a flailing American “method” trained actor would), silently contains his character’s explosive anger but makes it readable to the spectator through real acting. Phoenix instead takes his bundle of mannerisms, and, in several terrible scenes, wildly flails about in one of the worst examples of the damage inflicted by Lee Strasberg’s famed acting studio. Mr Hoffman opts for a more subdued performance, though it too is all too clearly “acting.”
Not content with this acting, his mise-en-scene and costumes, Anderson also lathers on a nearly continuous track of music (Jonny Greenwood), alternating between rather artsy classical sounding stuff, jazz, and old pop and jazz tunes of the era (Ellington, Strayhorn, Berlin, etc.) . He leans on this musical crutch as hard as any Hollywood block-buster does, and seemingly almost more so. (Note: Haneke’s film is absent music with the exception of the concert scene at the outset or when someone is actually playing music.) Despite all this, Anderson’s film, for all its transparent effort to be “serious,” is seriously boring and an effort to sit all the way through. The “story” is diffuse and meanders. The content ends up being a head-scratcher, not because it is “deep,” but just the opposite, because it is shallow. Of course a gaggle of critics perceive all these things as proof that it is a masterpiece of some sort.
That these films are lauded by critics, given awards, and accorded pages and pages of blather, points towards the general conservatism which has overtaken our society, almost globally. Anything genuinely creative will be suffocated at birth, ignored or ridiculed should it survive, while cooky-cutter theatrical films like these will be celebrated. One need only glance at the output of the current hot “art” event in NYC, Frieze, to get the gist of it – art is now a matter of the old end-game of imperial Rome, bread and circuses. The tribe gathers, fashionably dressed in black, nibbling on 4-star chefs’ costly snacks, as the CO2 level tilts over 400ppm, our government shreds the Constitution before us, and the oligarchy which now runs the show sucks in all the wealth, strips the lower 90% of all economic and political power, and the stupified, glazed-eyed public lets itself be led to the gallows.