From the Everyday to Stasis

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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Paul Schrader helps us understand the filmmakers who film the invisible, observes Dutch film critic Leo Bankersen.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes after you have seen a movie you get the curious feeling that what you’ve been watching was not what you’ve been watching. Or to be more precise, that the things happening on screen were actually of no real importance, just a kind of cover-up for something more intangible, something in a secret dimension. I’m not referring to the matrix here. ‘Those’ virtual dimensions are rational logic compared to what seems to be the case here.
As I said, it doesn’t happen often, but recently, after a press screening of Lisandro Alonso’s new film liverpool, to be shown in the Spectrum section of the Rotterdam Festival, some muffled giggle could be heard. As if we all sheepishly had been waiting in vain for the Queen to appear and now jokingly tried to hide our disappointment. How silly of us to expect some dramatic resolution. Alonso — we should have known better.
In his debut la libertad (2001) this young Argentine filmmaker pictured a day in the life of a wood-cutter. Though at first sight a rather conventional low budget picture, it’s quite striking how Alonso stubbornly sticks to a neutral depiction of the daily chores and refrains from any dramatic or emotional development. Even more mysterious was los muertos (2004) in which a man, after being released from prison, goes on a trip to find his daughter and in the end seems to dissolve into thin air. Leaving us grappling for meaning, as is happening again in liverpool, about a sailor travelling to his village after years of absence.

Other recent films also startled us at some point. Carlos Reygadas confronted us in stellet licht (2007) with a real miracle. The depressed husband in Amat Escalante’s debut sangre (2005, produced by Reygadas) has a semi-religious experience when leaving his dreary surroundings for a walk in the countryside. And who could have predicted the fairytale-ending of the grim drama le silence de lorna (2008) by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne?
Different as these works may be, on closer inspection they have some traits in common, properties that were already described by Paul Schrader a couple of years before he became famous as the writer of the taxidriver screenplay. His Transcendental style in film (1972) is an impressive book-sized essay in which he analyses the work of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (tokyo story, late autumn), the austere French director Robert Bresson (journal d’un curé de campagne, pickpocket) and the Danish expressionist Carl Dreyer (ordet).
Schrader admits that one could evaluate these films from the perspective of the psychological drama, but then argues that it makes much more sense to see them as examples of spiritual art. Films that are determined by a desire to express the transcendent, something that is beyond our tangible reality and experience. About the transcendent itself nothing can be said of course, which is why many of these films silently end with a frozen frame.
It turns out that despite their widely differing backgrounds these three filmmakers found a common path to lead the viewer to the point at which conflicts are not resolved as in a conventional drama, but rather transcended by the awareness of a greater whole. The way Zen can accept paradoxes.
Schrader describes this as a three step process. The first step is called ‘The Everyday’, a meticulous but dull representation of everyday living, with a lot of attention to detail but very little emotion, plot or meaning. Then, when everything seems all right in this uneventful universe, the dull surface cracks. This is ‘Disparity’, a growing sense of uneasiness culminating in a sudden outpour of emotions or a miraculous, unexplained action or event. This contradiction between ‘Everyday’ and ‘Disparity’ leads to ‘Stasis’, the final moment of transcendence, where acceptance is more important then explanation. Some would like to compare this to a religious experience – the less religiously inclined might call it poetic.

Heartbreaking song
The first time I realized that all this is less idiosyncratic as it might seem was when I saw this process at work in John Huston’s masterpiece the dead (1987), based on James Joyce’s story about a Twelfthnight party in Dublin. After many cheerful but rather shallow conversations (‘The Everyday’) one of the protagonists accidentally overhears an heartbreaking song (‘Disparity’) which leads to a deeply moving and poetic reflection upon love, life and death, while the screen shows falling snowflakes in the darkening night (‘Stasis’).
Reygadas follows a comparable road with stellet licht, his tale of love and betrayal in a community of religious farmers, loosely modeled after Dreyers ordet. The use of non-professional actors and the rather emotionless acting stresses the neutral character of the ‘Everyday’ and links Reygadas with Bresson, one of the other filmmakers from Schrader’s book.
Fully realized transcendental films remain rare, but certain elements can sometimes be found in unexpected places. It’s surprising to recognize how in breaking the waves (1996) Lars von Trier uses inserts of landscapes (reminiscent of Ozu) together with outbursts of music to evoke a sense of disparity. The sudden outburst of compassion and the strange ending in le silence de lorna make perfect sense when viewed from the perspective of ’transcendental style’. You don’t have to be religious to realize how the Dardennes invite the viewer to believe that human goodness is possible.
A kind of transcendence-light can be found in two new Mexican films from the Reygadas-school, both to be shown in the Bright Future section of Rotterdam. In el árbol by Carlos Serrano Azcona we follow a divorced father on his desperate ramblings through the city until he is unexpectedly saved by an almost magical event of pure beauty. Enrique Rivero’s parque via shows the ‘Everyday’ at work in the meticulously depicted life of a simple housekeeper who is taking care of a large, empty villa and cannot imagine himself to live in the outside world any more. He too, meets with some kind of miracle.
So, watching liverpool, our mistake was probably that we didn’t surrender to the rather trancelike way our sailor stumbles through life, and didn’t recognize the unexpected moment of ‘Stasis’ which Alonso situates somewhere halfway. Still, it’s difficult to decide whether we should call this film mysterious or crystal clear — and maybe that’s just the point of it.

Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen is a Freelance film critic.

Powers of ten VI
In the American animated film toy story ii (1999) a doll that never left its box at last finds happiness in the possession of a child. That he will be damaged during play, well, that is all part of the game. Nothing should escape history. toy story is a children’s movie. Perhaps it contains, via the well-established means of identification, a tough lesson for children. They will get damaged too.
toy story delivers this message happily. A French film for adults is angry. In irréversible (2002), one sees a murder, a fight, a rape, a party, a petting session, a young woman on the grass in the park while children play around her. These things are shown in reverse order. At the end of the film, just after the beginning of the story, a text appears on the screen: ’time destroys everything’.
Gaspar Noe’s anger is justified. But when one looks at life this plump, one is not even capable of a Pyrrhic victory like pop, civic or racecar. Todd Solondz tried in his movie palindromes (2004), but it is even more disheartening. Would it be possible to make a movie with a real palindrome plot? A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Bianca Stigter