Enigma variations

Enigma variations – genre films

William Johnson

MOVIE WATCHING MAY be physically passive, but it involves considerable mental activity – and not just for those of us who scribble notes in the dark. There’s not usually a sense of effort, for two reasons: the activity fits right in with our survival instincts, and it gives us pleasure.

To survive, human beings have to be aware of crucial details in the barrage of their perceptions: for our ancestors, say? bending grasses that could signal a saber-toothed tiger; for us, the corner-of-the-eye flicker of an onrushing car. With movies, the stakes are only comprehension or bafflement instead of life or death, but our minds still work the age-old way. Movies throw a mass of details at us and, unless they’re on video, we have to catch them on the fly, the same as out on the savannah or Main Street. Who are these characters? Where are they? What year, what season, what day, what time is it? What’s going on? What do those words or gestures really mean? Nearly all movies begin by throwing such questions at us, and our brains hum happily as we pick through the details for clues to piece together. And if the movie turns predictable, we may switch to hunting for errors, mannerisms, unintentional laughs or accidental felicities.

Some movies, though, raise mental activity to a higher level of pleasure, even to an epiphany. They take a lucid but tantalizing approach that reveals only gradually, and never fully, what’s going on. I call this genre film blanc because it’s almost the mirror image of film noir. While noir also reveals the “facts” only gradually, it ends by explaining them in full; it unfolds in shadows rather than clarity; its narrative usually hinges on calculated deception rather than the ambiguities of human behavior; and its mood gravitates toward paranoia. Where noir closes in, blanc at its best keeps opening up. even with a downbeat ending. By maintaining a balance between narrative transparency and opacity, it offers us the continual pleasure of finding new clues and rearranging them into new patterns.

For not entirely obvious reasons, major Hollywood releases rarely approach that kind of balance. Of course, big budgets demand big box-office receipts, which require broad dramatic appeal rather than subtlety. For some three decades, too, the Code militated against ambiguity in such crucial areas as sex, law and order, and moral institutions. Not surprisingly, the one Hollywood classic that probably comes closest to blanc was directed by that ingenious Code-teaser Hitchcock – though even he couldn’t make it a box-office smash.

Vertigo remains powerfully ambiguous to this day. Just ask a group of critics if the film is misogynistic or not and a debate will boil over. Either Hitchcock relishes making Judy (Kim Novak) suffer, or else he’s exposing the crazed sexism of Scotty (James Stewart). In the best tradition of ambiguity, both may be true.

Here, briefly, are the film’s other blanc credentials. Much of Vertigo takes place in broad daylight. The drama seems to come to halt in the middle (after “Madeleine”‘s apparent suicide) and then take off in a new direction. Hitchcock reveals the basic mystery Judy’s complicity in the murder of Elster’s wife – well before the end, replacing the occult overtones of the first half with perverse obsessions (including Judy’s fatal attraction to Scotty). Hitchcock also outflanks the Code and compounds the ambiguity by having ex-cop Scotty hound the accomplice to death while ignoring the murderer, who appears to go free.

With the end of the Code, big-budget Hollywood bypassed the Vertigo-type approach on its way to the opposite extreme – letting it all hang out. Yet there’s no a priori reason why violent action and special effects should preclude ambiguity and unpredictability. Tarantino flirts with them in Pulp Fiction, and Multiplicity offers a glimpse of them with its interplay of Michael Keatons (until collapsing into a tawdry plot). As for sex, Michael Tolkin makes it an integral part of his astonishing near-blanc foray into religion, The Rapture.

In fact, subtlety and complexity – qualities close to blanc – belong to the natural condition of movies. With increasing technological sophistication it takes an ever greater effort to attain not only simplicity but also sheer vacuity. Independence Day may aim at a blendering of sensation and sentiment, but some grit and fiber still come through. On the grit side, although the aliens are supposed to have a vastly superior technology, their warplanes cannot, like those of Earth, launch missiles that lock onto their targets; on the fiber side, the (implausible) encounter between presidential entourage and protocol-innocent nerds aboard Air Force One produces a stimulating clash of vocal tones and styles of discourse.

All the same, only one recent major production, The English Patient, comes anywhere close to blanc throughout. Not that it takes full aim at ambiguity, since any puzzles left unexplained in the end (e.g., Why does nurse Hana isolate herself with Almasy?) can be seen as plot devices (To enable Almasy to reveal his past). At the same time, the crosscutting between the burning colors of the desert and the soft pastels of Italy continually refreshes our perceptions and implies a wider mystery than we actually see. Likewise the film tosses in many details that may be intended only to add color – such as the rescue van that passes stranded Almasy and Katharine in the desert, or the soldiers’ Christmas party in Cairo – but which also help to thicken the mystery. And the unshown but vividly imaginable death of Katharine alone in the cave ruffles the otherwise neat ending with its reverberations of horror.

Anything closer to blanc than The English Patient will almost certainly ring few bells at the box office. Take To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 90), whose blancness hinges on the sudden death of Harry Mention (Danny Glover). Before that, the film seems to be taking shape as a family drama headed for horror, with Harry as the catalyst of disruption who won’t leave. Afterward, his corpse won’t leave either, but it becomes an object of humor rather than horror, and seemingly a catalyst of reconciliation. Though most critics gave the film rave reviews, it attracted a disappointingly modest audience.

The problem with blanc at the box office stems not just from a lack of bang-bang but also from the difficulty of giving it a catchy, pull-’em-in summary. Full-blooded films blancs are almost invariably independent or foreign, with relatively or absolutely low budgets. At best they get a national arthouse release: more likely, a screening at one or two festivals or specialized venues. Vicente Aranda’s Libertarias (95), for instance, had only two New York City showings? at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

THEN AGAIN, LIBERTARIAS is a bit of a ringer as films blancs go. For one thing it is bang-bang – though its foreign historical setting, the Spanish Civil War, muffles any blockbuster appeal. (Libertarias were Republican women soldiers.) The two previous Aranda films I’d seen, both heavy on sex and melodrama, led me to expect some pro-Republican pap spiced with … well, sex and melodrama. While the film is indeed with the Republicans, not only figuratively but also for the most part literally, it doesn’t whitewash them. The opening. with Republicans sacking a church and a mother superior distributing money to help her nuns escape, suggests that we’re going to follow naive young Sister Maria as she outwits the godless enemy. But she takes refuge in what turns out to be a brothel and is “liberated” along with the prostitutes by a group of Libertarias. One of them, Pilar, takes pity on Maria and protects her.

So yes, there’s already a hint of spicy sex and melodrama, and Aranda struggles (almost successfully) with the temptation to add more. Yet the tension between perceptiveness and the itch for crude effect catches just the right tone for revealing the contradictions and unpredictability of war. Irruptions of humor and weirdness heighten the uncertainty: one Libertaria goes into a trance, speaking with the voice of a dead male anarchist to criticize the current leader. until Pilar slaps her and she reverts to normal. Like the Libertarias, the viewer is never sure what will happen or how people will behave next.

Even though Maria makes herself useful and picks up anarchist ideas from her new companions, she’s shocked to see a bishop executed and churches despoiled. In a brilliant metaphor of the precariousness of idealism, a Republican soldier harangues the Nationalist troops through a megaphone, urging them to join the side that stands for liberty and equality: but after some rude retorts he quickly descends to cursing and name-calling. Meanwhile the Libertarias are having a struggle on their own side, as Republican leaders try to order them out of combat and into the laundry.

The small band of Libertarias with Maria seem to bear charmed lives. Then a man brings a live sheep for their food. As he prepares to cut its throat, tenderhearted Maria runs into a hut. At that moment a wave of Franco’s Moroccan troops breaks in. Maria hears screams, sees Pilar’s throat slashed, and is seized by a soldier who starts to rape her until an officer intervenes. Because a rosary is found on her, a priest asks her who she is; but she says nothing. Thrown into jail with other Republican prisoners (one of whom says they’ll be shot), she kneels in grief beside dying Pilar.

Many films tell us “War is hell,” hut with the plight of Maria – thrown into an alien world and torn by different allegiances and affections – Libertarias brings the cliche to deadly life. It manages to do so paradoxically because it avoids a solemn tone, making continual shifts of mood and pace that leave us uncertain of Aranda’s serious/sensational impulse.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (96) also derives from historical violence (though only a single, nonlethal act), but it has a buoyancy that’s worlds away from Libertarias. I’d be tempted to describe the film as simple and charming if its simple charm didn’t induce vertigo.

Moment purports to recreate the real-life incident in which Makhmalbaf, as a 17-year-old anti-Shah activist, tried unsuccessfully to seize a policeman’s gun: both ended up wounded, Makhmalbaf by gunshot, the policeman by stabbing. Twenty years later. when Makhmalbaf advertized for would-be actors for Salaam Cinema, the policeman was among the thousands who responded.

In Moment, Makhmalbaf chooses one aspiring young actor to play his younger self and assigns the policeman to cast and train his counterpart. Makhmalbaf also needs a young woman to play the cousin he was in love with, whose job was to befriend the cop and distract him from the attack. “Makhmalbaf” happens to have a cousin that he is in love with, and she is cast. But the policeman also fell in love with the cousin and planned to give her a potted flowering plant on the day of the attack. When he discovers, during the shoot, that she was setting him up, he walks out in anger and has to be persuaded back.

The film ends with the climactic scene as the “cousin” and “Makhmalbaf,” with a knife concealed under flat-bread, approach the “policeman.” “Makhmalbaf,” who earlier showed reluctance to wield the knife, hesitates. Then, in a flurry of action, he uncovers the weapon and thrusts it forward just as the “policeman” picks up the potted flower and thrusts it forward. Freeze.

It’s quite obvious that both the details of the incident and the “production scenes” around it are fictional. But the onscreen presence of Makhmalbaf and the policeman. along with the knowledge that the two did clash in the past, creates a virus of reality that infects the whole film. After a transition from a “staged” scene to a “production” scene I often had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching a documentary – and even then I’d wonder whether a few details (such as the site of the attack) might be real. That ambiguity is playful (as is much of the activity “behind the scenes”), but it also enables Makhmalbaf to rewrite the past – not by denying it but by using it as a palimpsest for an idealized version. That’s why the dance of reality and fiction in Moment is at once so clear, elusive, and exhilarating.

TO SOME EXTENT, Kohei Oguri’s Sleeping Man (96) touches both the clarity of Moment and the turmoil of Libertarias, since it combines a thoroughly rarefied narrative with a succession of disconcerting details. After falling in the mountains, a man named Takuji lies at home in a coma. Some people in the town are affected directly: his parents; Wataru, the somewhat retarded man who found Takuji’s body; the boy Ryu, who likes to peer at Takuji through the window; and the Electrician (I never discovered his name). Takuji’s friend since childhood, whose occasional reminiscences give us our only clues to the sleeping man’s waking self (independent-minded? slightly eccentric?).

The film also takes note of many other townspeople. Most appear only in brief vignettes – like the young couple having a noisy row while a motorcyclist watches. When the woman strides off and the motorcyclist rides after her, she suddenly turns on him with a yell that topples him to the ground. Accustomed to movies in which “extraneous” scenes turn out to advance the narrative, we may struggle to connect such vignettes to Takuji’s immediate past and future without success.

One character has a larger role that seems destined to interact with Takuji. This is Tia, a foreign singer at the town’s main bar. (She’s played by Indonesian actress Christine Hakim.) Tia has a couple of almost wordless encounters with the Electrician and refers briefly to Takuji when Wataru talks to her on the street. Her only sustained conversation is with Ryu’s mother, to whom Tia mentions casually that she lost her children in a flood in her homeland. Near the end of the film, she wanders into the forest and disappears.

Tia and Takuji never meet because their lives run in parallel. While Takuji sleeps, Tia sleepwalks, drifting through the film without emotion (which the death of her children may or may not explain). Tia vanishes on her sleepwalk: Takuji dies in his sleep.

In a typical narrative, Takuji’s death would be an anticlimax. Here it’s the opposite. Sleeping Man erupts with half a dozen stunning scenes, of which four bring paradoxical energy to the disappearance/death of Tia and Takuji. In Tia’s first scene, she’s in the bar singing at a microphone. Suddenly the screen goes black and the sound dies away. For a moment it seems that our projector has failed. Then hubbub breaks out from the patrons and the manager rushes around with a flashlight. but Tia remains calm, already detached from life around her.

The counterpart for Takuji occurs as Ryu is peering at him through the window. In a closer shot, a horsefly crawls out of Takuji’s nose and buzzes around the room. Shocked, Ryu runs off to an old man he knows, who tells him that a flying animal can represent the soul – as if Takuji’s soul is already leaving his body.

When Takuji dies in reality, his parents and the Electrician are standing beside him. Cut to the view outside the window, where a dust devil several feet high twirls along in a neat line. This shot, startling enough in itself, triggers the film’s most frenetic sequence as Mother rushes outside crying that Takuji’s soul has left and they must call it back. The three of them shout; they bang pots to drive the soul back to the body; and the Electrician climbs onto the roof to head it off at the chimney. All to no avail.

The counterpart of that scene for Tia occurs as she sits motionless in the forest. Behind her, a huge tree falls sideways across the frame and hits the ground with a tremendous crash. Tia shows no reaction: she has already withdrawn from life. As the old question goes, What happens when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it’? We are there to hear it, but Tia has faded away.

In a film as lucidly mysterious as Sleeping Man it’s tempting to extract a fool’s gold of symbolism out of almost ever; scene. If there’s a true golden nugget, it comes to light early on, when a man comments that Takuji does nothing but sleep. Takuji’s mother retorts, “You’re awake, what do you do?” That Zen-like question suggests that everyone runs the risk of sleepwalking through life – of following Tia’s route without her awareness. With its many vignettes, the film lets us reflect on what Takuji’s neighbors are doing while awake. And on what we ourselves are doing.

All three films make us conscious of being awake as we watch – even as we become involved in the narrative and the characters. To varying extents they discourage us from making final judgments about characters and issues. They keep us alert with apparent digressions, such as the brothel and the mediumistic trance in Libertarias, disputes and filming interruptions in Moment, and the vignettes of townspeople in Sleeping Man. And while the narratives differ widely in form, they all follow trajectories that avoid both predictability and contrivance.

Although I consider Moment of Innocence e Sleeping Man two of the best films I’ve ever seen. my purpose here is to highlight the fascination of film blanc, not to elevate it over other types. After all, not only do several noirs remain among my all-time favorites, but I also admire many films with unambiguous and predictable narratives – a group that includes Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Welles’s Othello. There’s no reason why tastes in films shouldn’t also he enigmatic and unpredictable.

William Johnson is New York Editor of Film Quarterly.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group