Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Cinema of the Literal and the Cinema of the Obfuscated

The cinema of the literal and the cinema of the obfuscated. Both have their charms, and methods, and we have moved from the former to the latter as our capability for understanding cinema has evolved. We can probably trace the origins of the obfuscation method back to Godard, with his immortal experiment in cutting out the middle to cut to the chase. Yet his contemporaries were big fans of the literal. Truffaut, for example, is the most obvious example of the literal. Everything in the frame is everything we need to do. When it is concealed from us in Le Dernier Metro that Deneuve’s husband is hidden underneath the theatre, this is not obfuscation, it is simply allowing us to observe her actions before we come to know her. The same can be said of Le Fils, where the exact reasons for Gourmet’s pursuit of the young boy, despite the audience presuming some malicious intent, are actually poignant and heartbreaking. Nothing is obfuscated here. There is no mannerism so to speak; all is revealed in good time, and it is simply the requirements of the narrative framework that have been conjured up that mean all the necessary information is not revealed at the exact point we need it.

The cinema of the obfuscation is somewhat trickier to pin down, and it has its roots in excessive stylisation; no bad thing at all. Take the shot, for example, in The Silent Storm where Lewis’s hand reaches across the table to grab the young lad. The focus of the scene is three-pronged; symbolically, it could tell us a lot, with the young man in the centre, trying to depart to follow the woman he is interested in, and the husband reaching out, and restricting him from doing so. A fine shot. But an artist working in the cinema of the literal would have instead framed it as flitting between the three faces, and focussed on the anger of Lewis, the lust of the young man, and the conflict of the woman in some kind of order, as opposed to containing each in one shot.

Steve McQueen, in particular his work Shame, is a master of obfuscation. Inasmuch as he focusses on movement and action with his central actor, a lot is also held from us and we are led to fill in the gaps by ourselves. The true extent of his addiction is never spelled out to us. In the scene where he runs across New York to escape his sister having sex with his boss, the literal moment is him running; it is never spelled out, for example, just why he is running. He is escaping, yes, but is it because he is made uncomfortable? Because he is scared of becoming aroused? Scared of trying to join them? Does this show contempt or desire for his sister? Or both, one feeding into the other.

Only a fool would deny Shame to be a great film. But its greatness arises from its atempts to let the viewer decide what is going on, in the face of the deliberate obfuscation of the director. The dictum of “show don’t tell” comes to mind.

A similar tactic was used in PTA’s There Will Be Blood and the Master. Both fine films; both films where we have to fill in some gaps ourselves, because information is deliberately obfuscated.

It must be said that this is not borne out of a contempt for the audience; rather, a trusting optimism that the viewer will be content enough with the work and patient enough, to engage with it on the level of trying to read what is being obfuscated. Here it must be said that the cinema of the obfuscation is more penetrative because it delineates a direct engagement with the text on the level of guesswork, perhaps, or maybe a better term than guesswork is simply engagement.

Yet the cinema of the literal can itself yield deep rewards, when the literal is engaging enough. The best example of this is in the silent films, particularly Jeanne D’Arc, or Potemkin, where the information is fed to us bit by bit.

In this sense, the cinema of the literal will always bear more of a resemblance to the theatre (do not forget “Metro”’s theatrical setting!) because theatre, often, is literal, because theatre lacks the ability to do what film can do, which is show us one thing but depict another. That is to say; a filmmaker can have one thing in the frame, but can frame that shot in such a way, with such calibrated mis-en-scene, that the crying is not the thing being conveyed. This is harder to do in theatre because the open nature of the theatre means it is harder to police what is being seen by the audience, and so it has to tend to the literal. But a filmmaker has absolute control of the frame, and so can use it to any ends he desires.

This is not meant to decry or decamp one method as being better than the other; there are also other methods, multitudinous methods. But I hope this describes them adequately. No doubt this is a topic to which I will come back to at a later date.

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