Some people's passing calls for tears, sentimental displays, epiphanic anecdotes. But, in other cases, this seems like an offence to everything that person stood for. The death on 13 May of the great, truly cosmopolitan educator/theorist/critic Paul Willemen has, so far, found very little echo on the Internet, apart from Catherine Grant's assembled tribute, and an obituary by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.
Is this so surprising, when we remember that Paul, in his essay collection Looks and Frictions (1994), railed against the vast majority of films for the way they deny "any access at all to some engagement with the forces shaping the world we live in, as we are stuck with our noses up against samples of warm and wonderful humanity emoting in close-up"?
It would be more appropriate to put his prodigious, always political ideas to some good use. I had many disagreements over cinema aesthetics with Paul but, at theatres right now, I find myself confronted with something that interested both of us: frontal frames, those now very familiar compositions in which characters (often very many of them) are lined up stiffly, gazing (often wordlessly) into the camera. Wes Anderson, among others, has made such planimetric framings, as David Bordwell calls them the signature of his style, and he exploits them in virtually every scene of Moonrise Kingdom.
What's it all about, this frontality? Just a stylish, cool affectation? A tiny 'tweak' of the classical code of Hollywood film language, allowing some 'direct address' into the camera, a small frisson of 'breaking the fourth wall'? In the interview with Chantal Akerman published last year by the Viennale and reprinted in LOLA, she gives the technique a different kind of depth: "I tend to film things frontally... when you avoid low angles and subjective shots, you avoid fetishism... You put two souls face to face equally, you carve out a real place for the viewer". For her, it relates to a Jewish sense of ethics, and the Self/Other philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.
Paul Willemen's explanation of frontality followed a more materialist track, but it, too, honed in on a curious gap or conflict between two kinds of filmic systems. Paul grasped all films as arising from a "dialectical interplay between presentation and representation, spectacle and narrative, showing and telling". But, within each specific cultural time and place, the dialectic will pan out differently.
Paul posed two major "regimes of subjectivity and looking" in cinema: a pre-capitalist (feudal or medieval) regime; and a capitalist one. Capitalist looking, in and through cinema, is all about individuation ("warm and wonderful humanity emoting in close-up"), in order to cover up the dominant role of capital itself in society's formation. Pre-capitalist looking is something much starker: its seemingly 'primitive' visual quality of frontality comes from its acknowledgement of some grand authority (God, the King, Stalin...), and the need for social subjects (including film spectators) to submit to this authority — literally, through the gaze allowed by the angle or position of the camera. One glance at any Sergei Paradjanov film (like The Colour of Pomegranates, 1968) confirms the survival — sometimes strong, sometimes weakened — of this pre-capitalist look.
Suddenly, thanks to Paul Willemen, Wes Anderson's films are now rather less charming to me: all that stirring stiffness, that inarticulate emotion in his work is always tied to a positively feudal hangover of the idea of a noble class, special individuals, aristocratic dynasties and mini-empires — people we are asked to adore and even worship. It is salutary to switch over to the uglier, greyer, grimly comic frontal frames of Walerian Borowczyk (Goto, the Island of Love, 1968) or Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Martha, 1974) in order to access "some engagement with the forces shaping the world".