I arrived as an intern at Hyperallergic with a background in film rather than fine art or art criticism. Although I had been exposed to the art world for quite some time, my critical eye had been developed through cinema studies and film production rather than a traditional art history education. I have always had a better knowledge of films and their history more than any other medium. Hrag suggested that using my background in film I recommend some films that I thought were essential or important for people in the art world to see.
The films I have chosen are not only incredible films, but also they are films I have loved for a very long time or they are films that I have grown to love after multiple viewings. A couple of them are stylish and cool (“Fallen Angels,” “Blow Up”), while others are extremely slow, difficult, and even tedious at times (“Last Year At Marienbad,” “Close Up”). However, they are all films that make the viewer think, and they are either films that comment upon film as an art form or are at the very least are aware of themselves as films. Hopefully people find the same joy in my recommendations as I do.
“Fallen Angels” (dir. Wong Kar Wai, 1995)
Wong Kar Wai’s films have a reputation for their music video-like qualities, their unhinged camera work, and cool visual style. They are loosely structured meditations on people and their surroundings constantly moving between the two in a symbiotic organic relationship. His characters are just as much defined by the world they inhabit as they define that same world. This is especially true in his film Fallen Angels whose dreamlike qualities create a directionless world that leaves its characters wandering through a heavy malaise. It’s useless to say what the film is about beyond being a study of people who feel alienated from the world they live in and who are desperately trying to connect to someone or something. There really is no strict narrative and without that structure the characters are given both freedom and too much freedom.
What I find so important about this film, however, is that since it’s so cerebral, much of the so-called dialogue is in fact voice over. That voice over becomes a commentary on the same images that it is actually detached from. Typically, voice over is seen as a shortcut in narrative films to explain something without showing it, but since this film relies heavily on its visuals, to use primarily voice over allows the images to exist on their own. The camera dances around its subjects as if driven by feeling rather than any sense of visual logic. Images, landscapes, people aren’t captured, but observed and commented upon.
“Blow Up” (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1968)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s stylish 1960’s film explores the differences and convergences between what is actually real and what is just perceived to be real. When fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) candidly shoots a couple in a park he later discovers, upon developing the photos, that he has inadvertently photographed what appears to be a murder. With only his grainy, blown up photos as evidence he goes back to the scene of the crime and discovers a dead body only this time he does not have his camera. When he returns to his studio he finds that it has been ransacked with all evidence of the supposed murder stolen except for an extremely grainy photo that his friend says, “looks like one of Bill’s paintings.” What appears to be so cannot be proven but his belief in what took place motivates him to continue looking thereby perpetuating the idea that it did in fact happen. The camera appears to have created something that otherwise could not have been perceived thus exploring art’s ability to uncover truths that the naked eye could not see. Is art capable of revealing truth when there is no verifiable physical evidence?
The film ends with Thomas watching a band of bohemian-looking mimes miming a game of tennis on a tennis court. When one of the mimes hits the imaginary ball over the fence, it lands by Thomas. After a beat, he picks up the “ball” and throws it back to them at which point the camera dollys in on his face. Slowly and very subtly, the actual sound of a tennis ball being batted back and forth is heard as Thomas watches the game intently. By implicating himself in their game he has in some way made it more real, thus the actual sound of the ball. It is only by believing its truth that he is able to actually hear it. However, a moment later the camera cuts to an overheard shot pulling away from Thomas and there is no longer any sound of the ball. It is only through his subjective perception that the sound or the ball exist and when separated from that point of view the reality dissipates into nothingness. His belief, or what he believes the photographs captured, does not make what he believes he saw true.
“Last Year at Marienbad” (dir. Alain Resnais, 1961)
Alain Resnais’ famously confusing film blurs the line between memory and reality. During a gathering at a chateau a man tells a woman that they had met at that very same place one year ago. His story of their meeting the year before aligns so well with where they are at that moment that it becomes almost, if not totally, impossible to tell the difference between the film’s flashbacks and what is currently happening. There is almost no visual or verbal anchor to distinguish between shots of the film narratively. The story the man tells the woman at the party is really the only clue the audience has into what is happening but it is so confusing when complemented with the films images as to accomplish almost nothing. His story is fed to the woman, forcing her to remember, although she doesn’t, as if implanting the memory into her artificially. His insistence makes it seem true and the repetition of the same shots of the same locations over and over suggests different moments in time.
By completely circumventing all narrative conventions, Resnais creates a haunting space that seems to exist in a temporal vacuum. Without any way to distinguish between what is the present, the past, what’s real or a memory, it ends up existing uniquely on its own rendered impervious to any real interpretation. This is not to even mention the many visual contradictions or recurring lines of dialogue spoken by unrelated characters. All questions are useless. The film foregrounds the triviality of interpretation through the ambiguity.
“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm” (dir. William Greaves, 1968)
An experimental documentary directed by William Greaves that confounds any sense of the word by conflating different layers of reality and perspective into one film. Beginning with a scene between what is presumably a married couple in a park, the film then introduces the filming of that scene as another layer. Then there is the layer of the film being shot as a whole, including the documenting of the filming of the scene and the crews’ commentary of the film as a whole. By loosely presenting a scene between two people with no apparent ending, the continual rehearsal and filming of the scene becomes a narrative in and of itself among the director and the cast and crew.
Probably the most profound scenes, however, are when the crew gathers in a room away from the film’s director and its actors to discuss the actual purpose of the film that seems to have no purpose. The crew, in many cases, comes to the conclusion that the meta nature of the film and the loose indeterminate structure that William Greaves has designed is responsible for their decision to come together and have an open discussion of the film. So although Greaves was never explicit in his intentions, his machinations lead to a more communal response to his art, subsequently becoming part of the film itself. Certain crew members even suggest there is no way to know whether Greaves engineered or scripted their meeting either.
The film culminates in the seemingly random appearance of a homeless artist whose ramblings about art and life fit almost too well into the overall themes of the film, leading one to suspect even more the supposed reality of each of the layers.
“Close Up” (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1991)
Iranian Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close Up documents the trial of a man, Hossain Sabzian, who defrauds a family by impersonating a famous Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The film begins with a journalist and two soldiers driving to the family’s house to arrest him. It is already difficult to know whether this is a fiction or nonfiction film at this point if only because of its cinéma vérité style. However, the film soon clearly states that it is a reconstruction of actual events where all the key people from the original events play themselves. Although the film primarily takes place during the trial of Sabzian, it casually flips between the court case and the day of Sabzian’s arrest.
What unfolds is a seemingly simple dramatization of the original events that turns out to actually be a complex meditation on art, the cinema, and different levels of representation and acting. By covering a trial involving a man who impersonated a director and then using him to play himself, Kiarostami creates a scenario where he is playing himself playing the impersonator. He creates different layers of characters that are not quite true but not quite lies either. Since everyone is playing himself or herself it becomes a somewhat true representation of what happened but with the caveat that now the people are referring back to what originally happened. Kiarostami’s presence in the courtroom where he is asking questions and his visit to Sabzian before the trial also confuse things. By asking questions Kiarostami foregrounds his own direction and thus creates an awareness of his hand in the representation of the original events. Thus, it exists in the space between documentary and narrative whereby Kiarostami is able to reveal something unrepresented in the real events via his manipulation of the people. Ironically, he also uses Sabsian’s impersonation and manipulation of the family as a commentary on how artists employ those same tactics in their art.
Seeing escapism or immersion as inherently manipulative and wrong, Kiarostami disavows that kind of filmmaking. Instead, he avoids emotional tyranny by making films that generate reflection and self-awareness. It is a film that must be responded to and thought about rather than just consumed. It is no longer about escaping reality, but confronting it. This is represented to its fullest extent when the final and most sentimental scene in the film is wrought with technical difficulties preventing an actual emotional response.