Liberal/Miserable

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Directed by I.B. Mizrable

The
most emblematic bit of action in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Rosetta
occurs twice, and both times it’s not of great thematic moment, just curious–oddly
curious. The Belgian film concerns a teenage girl who’s obsessed with getting
a job, and who occasionally fishes in a river near the trailer park where she
lives. Twice during the movie, someone falls into the river and has to struggle
their way out. No, not just struggle: struggle.



We’re obviously not
supposed to regard their thrashings as anything strange, but I found it impossible
not to. Rosetta is quite as dottily obsessive as its heroine, though
in a different way: it has a ravening mania for naturalism. The Dardenne brothers
are former documentarians, and their film uses documentary techniques to create
the impression that what we’re seeing is incredibly close to real life.
Yet that river isn’t like any real-life river I know.


It’s a middling little
thing, not the Rhone at flood stage or some other raging torrent. But the people
who fall in sure act like it is. Though they’re never more than 4 or 5
feet from shore, they splash and flail and throw their arms around wildly like
Capt. Ahab about to be sucked into the briny depths by Moby-Dick. The first
time this happened, I thought, "What’s with this river–is it
magical?" The second time, I realized: no magic here. It’s a rhetorical
river.


As such, it unwittingly
reveals the truth of much that surrounds it, which is a truth fundamentally
at odds with how I assume the Dardennes want us to understand their film. Regarding
the way Rosetta presents people, places, situations and (implicitly)
society and the world at large, we’re obviously meant to accept, and even
be impressed, that the film shows us "how things really are." Such
is the constant urging of its naturalistic style. But naturalism here functions
as a deceptive veil that disguises the film’s crucial distortions regarding
nature (e.g., that river), the "nature of things" (i.e., in contemporary
society) and human nature. And these distortions all stem from the fact that
the film’s drama is essentially, though unadmittedly, and perhaps even
unconsciously, rhetorical: rather than trying to discover and show us aspects
of life as it is, the film molds life to fit its own preconceived ideas.


Those ideas are, at base,
Euro-leftist of a tiresomely familiar sort. But that’s not the chief source
of my complaints against Rosetta, which strikes me as a grand summation
of things that are about to make European art cinema disappear down the wormhole
of history. Ideological orientation aside, Rosetta is simply boorish:
fusty, precious, self-satisfied and totally humorless. As the friend I watched
it with said, "Godard could’ve presented the same polemic with half
the bother, and it would at least have had wit."


Indeed, the Godard of Vivre
sa Vie
(etc.) could easily conjure up a pretty heroine whose travails illuminated
the social conditions surrounding her, but who personally was much more than
a mere cipher for those conditions. Alas, the Dardennes’ Rosetta (Emilie
Dequenne) is just such a marker. When we first see her, she’s let go from
the job where she’s been a trainee, and flips out. It seems she’s
a little mentally unbalanced and so has a rabid fixation on being employed,
which, not surprisingly, she has a hard time remaining.


This premise alone should
suggest a lot about Rosetta’s rhetorical tilt. Life reduces to material
existence alone, says its reductive materialist philosophy. Capitalism, the
bad ogre, not only forces proles like Rosie to live by meaningless employment,
but also withholds enough jobs to keep its wage slaves docile and desperately
dependent. Please observe one thing, though: no one you know actually resembles
Rosetta. Her mania over employment is, shall we say, a tad theoretical. She’s
representative, supposedly, without being at all typical, which is because she’s
a little crazy–or something.


Thus do we see the Dardennes
subtly cheat at the outset, distorting commonsense understandings of human nature.
Of course, since this particular distortion mirrors the central flaw of leftist
political philosophy of the past two centuries, perhaps we should be magnanimous
and excuse it as, say, Marxist poetic license.


Even making that allowance,
the fictional world we find ourselves in remains tediously deterministic. Much
of the film’s time is occupied by naturalistic noodling: Rosetta changing
from her shoes to her rubber boots, knocking around the trailer park, checking
her fishing lines, asking for jobs, hassling with her whorish, alcoholic mom.
The story’s really crucial actions are few but striking: Let go from another
job, Rosetta is befriended by Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), a young man who runs
a waffle stand. She repays his kindness with betrayal. Knowing he sometimes
shortchanges his boss, she rats on him, takes the job he loses, and then forfeits
that one too.


Here again, we learn something
new about human nature. Common experience might suggest that emotionally needy
people who receive help tend to be if anything excessively grateful, not viciously
treacherous. Rosetta’s scenario, obviously, amends that with the
superior wisdom of highbrow theory, to wit: damaged, desperate proles tear each
other apart like rats in a cage, because theory says they do. There’s a
funny, unintentionally revealing passage in the press notes where Jean-Pierre
Dardenne recalls, "The actor who plays the part of Riquet asked us: ‘But
why do I do all this? Because I’m stupid?’ We replied that there were
no reasons: ‘You’re not a fool. You’re just like that, the way
the script wants you to be.’"


The poor actor. He wants
to understand his character’s actions in terms of the ways people actually
behave. He must be told, like a child, that human behavior has nothing to do
with it; the characters act this way because the script says they do.
You could scarcely find a more concise description of bad art’s processes
than that.


The American film reviewed
here last week, The City, also concerns poor people caught in harsh economic
straits, and its vast superiority to Rosetta obviously began in the fact
that the filmmaker, David Riker, spent several years living among the Hispanic
immigrants to New York that the film concerns. As a consequence, The City’s
stance toward its subjects is humble, multifaceted and genuinely perceptive.
According to Rosetta’s press notes, it began with the Dardennes
sitting down to write their script, an effort to follow up on the success of
their first dramatic feature, La Promesse (a far better film than Rosetta,
yet one that subtly anticipates its problems). The idea of doing a bit of research
seems not to have occurred.


The result, not surprisingly,
is a film that feels like it has never been anywhere near a real trailer park.
A film that constantly reveals what it actually is: a vision of lower-class
life made by and for comfortably middle-class people who don’t care to
look beyond their own prejudices and assumptions. Naturally, makers and audiences
alike prefer to see themselves as sympathetic to their social inferiors. Yet
behind that nominal concern lies an unresolved mixture of contempt, fear, condescension
and sentimentalization, all of which effectively and pervasively demeans the
subject while privileging the viewer: the Dardennes’ implicit self-congratulation
at imagining pathetic Rosetta also translates as flattery for our earnest attention
to her woes.


There is a word for all
this: miserabilism. It’s a very fashionable stance nowadays in some circles,
but God help those who have to sit through much of it. The sun never shines
in the realms that European filmmakers like the Dardennes describe. No one ever
smiles. There’s never a cheery word or a joke. Capitalism’s death
rattle drowns out every note of the world’s music. Society’s unfortunates
experience no solidarity or friendship, only abuse and betrayal. Even rivers,
you must notice, really suck.


Literally and figuratively,
the terrain of Rosetta is an imaginary landscape, and if it were clearly
identified as that, I would have far fewer problems with it. The film’s
obsessive naturalism, though, resists precisely that identification, and thus
itself becomes a big part of the problem. This is the same naturalism that’s
become like a pandemic fungus in Francophone art cinema in the last decade,
a highly artificial style that dourly refuses to admit its artifice. In that
refusal, it can be seen as exactly the opposite of the Brechtianism that, in
vastly different ways, informed the work of both Godard and Fassbinder, who
never let you forget the highly self-conscious and individual means they used
to transform reality.


Ironically, the purveyors
of today’s fashionable, naturalistic miserabilism harken back to these
very predecessors, Godard especially, for their legitimacy. Yet Godard himself
has punctured the pretensions of Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, et al., by deriding
them as "the children of Canal +" (the French tv channel and art-film
producer) and I have no doubt he’d say the same of the Dardennes. To double
the irony, the Dardennes are obviously indebted to Iran’s Kiarostami, yet
Rosetta also lacks the foregrounding of filmic concerns and authorial
attention that distinguishes his work. Indeed, though its pretensions know no
limit, Rosetta is actually a big step backwards in cinematic sophistication
from the precedents it would most like to be associated with, Kiarostami and
Godard.


The fact that a work of
such gaseous self-importance and fetishized mopiness won the Palme d’Or
at Cannes and was a selection at the New York Film Festival says a lot about
the increasing cluelessness and irrelevance of such events, and about the reasons
American cinephiles are now turning off to European films in record numbers.
Though Rosetta’s miserabilism has a built-in constituency on the
Continent, on these shores it’s too easily identified as that most unappetizing
of current phenomena: the art film as castor oil.



Reeling
Whenever
a film as great as David Lynch’s The Straight Story comes along,
my pleasure is always tempered by the feeling that I’ve missed noting and
paying adequate tribute to many of its manifold glories. One such aspect of
The Straight Story is its astonishingly beautiful lead performance by
Richard Farnsworth. For a few words about that I want to turn the floor over
the Kent Jones, the associate programmer of the Walter Reade Theater. The following
is from an interview Kent did with Farnsworth for Cahiers du Cinema.
My thanks to the author for his permission to excerpt it here:



"I don’t really
think much about it," said Richard Farnsworth. "People ask me how
I get into a character, and I don’t have much to say to them. I just learn
my lines and let it happen. I don’t care much about ‘motivation.’"



I reassured him that I was
just asking the question because I felt like I had to, and we had a good laugh.
All you have to do is observe Farnsworth onscreen–listen to his liltingly
calm voice with its slight quaver and watch his serene face, aged in the western
sun, and his innately graceful manner of just being–and you know that all
questions of "acting" are moot. I will never forget the shock of seeing
him on the screen for the first time, in Alan Pakula’s very laconic 1978
western Comes a Horseman. This was the first major role that Farnsworth
played in movies, an industry in which he had worked since the mid-30s as a
stuntman.


"I worked on Gunga
Din
, on Gone with the Wind, Red River with Howard Hawks…made
six movies with John Ford, first was Fort Apache, and I doubled for Henry
Fonda–we’re about the same size. I doubled for Hank a lot. And I worked
on Ford’s last western, Cheyenne Autumn."


…Farnsworth’s
presence on screen has always moved me, even in a mediocre film like Misery
or a failure like The Two Jakes: Whenever I watch him, I have a strong
sensation that movies are simply a part of life, and that artificial barriers
erected for the camera amount to so much vanity. Almost anything can be acted,
except what can’t be–the sense of a life lived, the way that an individual
life inscribes itself on the face, the body, the rhythm of one’s movement.
And this can be fully disclosed to the camera only by someone in a state of
calm, the kind of calm that Richard Farnsworth exemplifies. To stand before
the camera without effort or pretense or distanced observation is only possible
when there’s nothing left to hide, and self-revelation has become a natural
part of existence…


In The Straight Story,
David Lynch does something that no director has done before, something very
intelligent and, I think, passionate. He has set his entire film to Farnsworth’s
rhythm, not just physically but mentally as well. The Straight Story
may follow the path taken by the late Alvin Straight, the man who drove a sit-down
lawnmower almost 400 miles, from Iowa to Wisconsin, to visit a brother from
whom he had become estranged. But in fact, it also follows the path of Farnsworth
himself, taking care not to commit the error of almost every other film ever
made about old age by speeding up the process of self-discovery and forcing
the moments of epiphany. Of course, it’s precisely because Lynch has an
actor who holds the screen without apparent effort that he can make his film
in this manner, allowing the silent pauses in the conversations just as much
weight and importance as the words themselves.


Farnsworth may be the only
actor in movies today whose serenity actually carries a force… "I never
had a chance as a leading man," he told me. "My knees were always
knocking together, my voice was too high, and my face wasn’t right."
And perhaps he wasn’t ready, either. Because it’s the traces of wear
and tear on Farnsworth, of a hard life that’s been fully understood, that
finally make him so mesmerizing and moving on screen. I doubt there will be
many moments as exquisite this year as the one where Alvin Straight drives up
a hill in a rainstorm and pulls into an old barn for shelter. The visual precision
of Lynch’s and cinematographer Freddie Francis’ widescreen framing–you
get the precise slope of the hill, followed by the boxlike frame of Alvin’s
shelter on the lush, green midwestern landscape under a cloudy sky–is one
part of the scene’s beauty, and Farnsworth’s contemplative angle on
life and the world makes up the other.


In The Straight Story,
life and the world, time and space, merge, and Alvin’s journey becomes
genuinely metaphysical. This is an effect that is much sought after in films
about people near the end of their lives, but it’s fully and honestly achieved
in The Straight Story because of Farnsworth and everything he brings
to the role, and it crystallizes in this one small moment. As in every other
scene, the physical labor of going the distance from one place to another is
central, and the effort it takes betrays a life of punishing exertion. But Alvin’s/Farnsworth’s
relaxation at the summit affords him a pleasure both simple and profound: of
being able to stand and simply look at the world, without fear or anxiety, and
feel himself a part of it.


..