Friday, 16 May 2014

On wonderment in cinema

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Max Weber has appeared on this blog before, the previous time regarding his ideas about ideal types. This post is related to another idea of his; that in the modern era society, through rationalisations and secularisations, are experiencing a loss of enchantment, of the mystical, the irrational. The term he used to describe this modern phenomenon was Entzauberung (a term previously used by Friedrich Schiller), meaning disenchantment or demystification. In a speech from 1917, "Science as a Vocation", Weber explained it as that the modern person believes "that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted."

I would like to borrow this idea and apply it to cinema, or rather; I would like to suggest that we can talk about a kind of cinema, from a number of filmmakers, that have kept this sense of the magical, the irrational. Note that "enchantment" is not referring to something necessarily joyful, but something mysterious or spiritual or strange, so calling it a cinema of enchantment might give the wrong impression. Better perhaps to call it a cinema of strangeness, or wonderment. In his book The Art and Politics of Film (from 2000) John Orr suggests that Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov, Aleksandr Sokurov and others working under communist dictatorships brought in a new style of filmmaking, which used religious symbolism to undermine social realism ("a fusion of the marvellous and the tragic") and Orr calls this "a cinema of wonder" (he also includes Theo Angelopoulos and a few others). That is not what I am talking about though, my scope here is much larger.

One example is Jacques Tourneur, a filmmaker I have written about before, and who made films where there is generally found a sense of the otherworldly, of ghosts and monsters, and also uncertainties and ambiguities about what is real and what is imagined. A contemporary example is the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in whose films ghosts, apparitions and spirits mingled freely with ordinary mortals.

Tropical Malady (2004)

Hayao Miyazaki is another filmmaker who likes to show gods, monsters and fantasy-figures go about their daily business.

Spirited Away (2001)

It can be found, of course, in surrealist films or magic realism, or a cinema of abstractions. But it can also appear in films that are ostensibly realistic. Films in which there are no embodiments of magic or wonders but that have what might be called a pantheistic view of nature and the world. Terrence Malick is a contemporary example of this, as in The Thin Red Line (1998). He has even made a film with the title To the Wonder (2012), although in Malick's case that sense of wonder can occasionally feel overbearing. Another example is the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in which nature seems to be imbued with a life-force of its own, and where every place has a sense of magic and wonder. In their films the spaces in which the characters find themselves deeply affect them in ways they do not understand. See for example A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) or Gone to Earth (1950).

I Know Where I'm Going

Black Narcissus

One common way of letting the audience share the characters' sense of wonder is by close-ups of their faces. In the case of Steven Spielberg's films (which are generally built around a sense of awe and wonderment) it has given birth to the expression "the Spielberg face", zooming in on the face of a person looking up at something wondrous, scary, or both, which happens more or less in all of Spielberg's films.

François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Filmmakers who might otherwise be seen as more materialistic, like Michael Mann, can also include such moments of wonder. With Mann it is often related to animals (as I have written about before here). This clip show such a moment, an encounter with two coyotes in downtown Los Angeles. After this neither man is the same any more.

Ordinary, daily life might sometimes feel dull and filled with inordinate amounts of concrete, and one of the joys of art is to bring forward other dimensions, to enchant the world, or re-enchant it, to suggest that we are not all there is. It can also be subversive, as magical realism often is. It is not a religious thing, although for some it undoubtedly is, and neither is it about a belief in aliens or ghosts, just that there is something beyond the logical and the rational, something that is undefinable, but intuitive and emotional. We do not always understand what is happening to us and why.

The strange encounter with a wolf in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

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