Saturday, January 30, 2010

Battle in Heaven

(Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Germany/Belgium, 2005)

*2nd Viewing* - - I missed the boat on this one the first time around, and I think now that I'm about ready to board the SS Reygadas. Basically, my beef was that Reygadas was playing fast and loose with lots of formal tropes and devices that other filmmakers had shown much more care and nuance while employing. The hairy, sweaty, corporeal focus of Dumont, combined with mystical intimations of grace, redemption, (Dumont again), a preference for longish, meditative takes (yes, Dumont, yet again) and the use of non-actors (guess who?) were all there, but felt mishandled and slipshod. I'm exaggerating the proximity to Dumont's films - there are plenty of other filmmakers who employ these techniques, and the tearless gaze at the affect-free faces of nonprofessional performers has its greatest precedent in the work of Bresson.

The fact is, I've never been fully convinced of Bresson's techniques, and the way they have been employed by his aesthetic and spiritual descendants. Partly, its a matter of predisposition - for me, a generous and well-crafted performance is one of the signal joys of movie watching, so when a filmmaker disposes with this I always feel just a bit out of sorts. It all goes back to the Brechtian thing, as private Joker would say. How much are we willing to believe in this artificial world? Remove the emotional lives of the characters, and it's a significant impediment to the suspension of disbelief. In the case of Reygadas and others like him, secondary questions of self-consiousness arise. It's not the kind of non-acting and fourth-wall busting we see in Godard, where part of the pleasure is from the theatrical irreverence. We're kept on the exterior of the film's world, but drawn into the experience through a kind of intellectual kinship, like being privy to an inside joke - thus clearing the way for a possible emotional reaction as well. Brecht, and Godard after him, weren't anti-emotion, but they were very interested (concerned may be a better word) with the terms under which the audience gave its collective emotions. They wanted an experience that combined a critical attitude with a sense of feeling, and believed this wasn't a contradictory proposal. I don't think it is, either, but I don't think the devices that were used are always successful - Godard's films can be smug and overly blithe about engaging the audience, and his analytical gamesmanship can get pretty damn tiresome.

But Reygadas is after something different, I think, something like a middle ground between emotional indulgence and critical distance. His films are more intuitive, more lyrical, more openly ingenuous about the characters and their predicaments. His formal shagginess isn't to draw attention to the process of filmmaking itself, to the physical relationship between the audience and the film. He's not interested in meta-questions or theories about fantasy, detachment, etc, and he certainly isn't the playful intellectual riffster that Godard has been for so long. It is, rather, an aesthetic device to establish and work through the thematic underpinnings of his films. This all sounds overly schematic, I know, but it's a crucial distinction. Reygadas wants us to see the film - the artifice, the camera flares, the grain of the film, the awkward stiffness of the non-actors - but he also wants us to see through the film, to a posited realm of Truth. This is heady stuff, and it can easily lapse into self-important junk. Reygadas has a better grip than I previously thought, though, and I think he achieves a great amount of success for all of the risks he takes.

Here's another crucial distinction - Reygadas has more in common with Apitchatpong than he does with Lisandro Alonso. He uses long takes, yes, but he isn't a minimalist, and he isn't interested in the same kind of hyper-formal approach. Again - the self-evidence of the film - grain, lens flares, shakiness, characters who stare into the lens and then away, deliver their lines flatly - this is all in aid of a very specific effect - not the creation of a critical distance from the situation of the characters, but to elevate the situation to an almost mythical level, and to create awe in the minds of the viewer.

It's a difficult proposition, and it doesn't always work. There are times when it's difficult to tell if Reygadas is just being absurd, and just how seriously he wants us to take Marcos' plight. The other chief obstacle is the nature of film itself - certain genre tropes, the occasional echoes to melodrama, film noir, and the like, create a dissonance that isn't entirely productive. This is why stepping outside of genre is tricky - so deeply is it entrenched in our collective consciousness that adequately transcending it (if that is indeed your intention) is a very tricky high-wire act. I'm thinking of Anna's dalliance as a prostitute, her sudden murder at the hands of Marcos, and the occasional nods to interior struggle suggested by the dialogue - these things aren't as jarring as they were the first time around. That's largely due to taking the film on its own terms, which is tough at first viewing, especially for a film like this.

All in all, though, I'm very glad I had the occasion to revisit and reasses Battle in Heaven. The next step, which I'm looking forward to, will be a re-viewing of Silent Light - a film of less corporeal provocation but even more aesthetic provocation that left me similarly befuddled. I'm counting on an eye-opener.

***I should also remark on the other elements I liked - his grounding the story in a political context, which we need more of in cinema (something that Dumont largely eschews), his excellent taste in music (even if it is occasionally a bit too much), and his commitment to the blood, sweat, and tears - what Cornel West would call the "funkiness" that is integral to a spiritual work of art. I'm not sure about this at present, but it seems to me that Dumont is occasionally too severe in his treatment of the body, perhaps a bit too bleak in his focus on the torment of the flesh. Another lyrical filmmaker who could use more of the funkiness is Terrence Malick - adore his work though I do, I am receptive to the criticisms that occasionally he is a bit too austere, chaste, and blissed-out, which can result in an aesthetic remoteness. He could learn a thing or two from the ugly, smelly, dirty, torrid quality that Reygadas work includes. I also think that while it is a source of some internal dissonance, the working from a foundation in genre is a good instinct - at it's most basic level, Battle in Heaven is noir; a botched kidnapping and the resultant disorder - and then Reygadas builds this into a mythical, spiritual work of cinematic expressionism. Overheated on occasion, but evincing very strong instincts. Another cue perhaps taken from Dumont's use of the policier as a framework for L'Humanite.

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