Friday 21 September 2018

On ambiance

When we watch films there are different things, different aspects of them, that we react to and to which we attach importance. It can be a performance, the music, the message, the set design. Although what it really is we react to, and why, is often unclear. Afterwards we usually try to make a coherent argument to describe our instinctual response, which is often subconscious, and we may or may not be successful in this rationalisation of our feelings. But there are many things that influence us that we might not realise or that we are unable to articulate. One such thing is a film's ambiance.

I do not know to what an extent this term is used within film criticism or academia, if at all, but for me it might be the most important part of the film, even though it is difficult to capture and analyse. I have been reluctant to use it in my writings because it is sometimes seen as a vacuous word in itself, something used my ad-men to describe a restaurant or hotel lobby, but since the word and the meaning I attach to it matters to me, and not in a glib way but as something very real and fundamental, I have used it on two occasions this year, as a way of sneaking it into the conversation. First in the article about Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem 1955) and then in the long article about Ingmar Bergman in the 1940s. (Although the first time I used it was actually already in 2013 when I wrote about Krzysztof Kieslowski.) This is what I wrote concerning Bergman, about Thirst (1949): "In general the staging, pacing and ambiance just feels distinctly Bergmanesque for the first time."

On the one hand it is rather straightforward what the word means, almost. Here is Oxford English Dictionary: "The character and atmosphere of a place." and also "Quality or character given to a sound recording by the space in which the sound occurs." Here is Cambridge Dictionary: "the character of a place or the quality it seems to have" The definitions are not exactly alike. Fowler's Modern English Usage, a fabulous book, is somewhat sceptical of the word: "It has now become a prime favourite of journalists and critics, usually as a pretentious synonym for surroundings, environment, milieu, atmosphere, and the like." ("Now" does not refer to 2018, my copy is the second edition from 1965.)

With regards to film I use ambiance to describe the overall feeling the film gives me, but not to say that the film was sad, or cheerful, or angry, but the combined effect of every single detail of the film. How editing, lighting, sound, line-readings, costumes, shot-length, camera angles, blocking, visual clarity, camera movements, colours, grading, actor personality, and other aspects work together to create this ambiance. The ambiance is unique for each film and it is not in the script but always the surprising end-result of the filmmaking process, something that grows out of the cumulative decisions taken during the making of it, from casting and onwards. This is where the magic can happen, something never taught but which happen through chance. Of course, the filmmakers make decisions that are more or less informed, intelligent, sensible or sensitive (some will be better than others) but as there are so many imponderables and moving parts you can never be certain how it will all come together in the end.

There is something mysterious with all art forms, with our engagement with it. But not just with art, it is the same with people. We may say that we like a certain person because she is kind, or generous, or has a good sense of humour, but we do not like everybody with those qualities equally much. Some we simply like more than others, and some we deeply love, and why it is this person and not that person is beyond us to truly comprehend because we would have to go down on such infinitesimal details to separate them, even subconscious reactions. Like-wise, Edward Hopper's paintings are very similar in technique, brush strokes, colours, motifs and so on but there are some I like considerably more than others. Their difference in ambiance is the reason.

Automat (1927)

Ambiance works on many levels. For example, there is a certain ambiance to be found in French cinema in general, but it will also change over time, so that one film from the 1930s has a different ambiance from one from the 1960s, and there can of course be more than one at the same time too. But this ambiance does not just come out of the place in which it is made. Allan Dwan's 1932 film While Paris Sleeps is set in France but it is not shot there and the dialogue is in English, as it is an American production. Yet its ambiance is strikingly French and not necessarily that of a typical Hollywood production of 1932. The same year Dwan made a film in Britain, Her First Affaire, and this has all the ambiance of a British production. So here the film is inflicted with the ambiance of its place of making whereas in While Paris Sleeps the ambiance comes from its setting, and probably from Dwan having watched French films for inspiration. Dwan is a highly gifted filmmaker but as of yet I have not felt a distinctly Dwanian ambiance, unless a chameleon-like (or Zelig-like) ambiance is his own unique quality. Although perhaps his later films like Silver Lode (1954), Tennessee's Partner (1955) and Slightly Scarlet (1956) exemplify a more consistent ambiance. (Now that is a great trio which is far from getting its due.)

While Paris Sleeps

But in general most filmmakers have their own ambiance, which could be seen as the one particular thing that really separate one from the other. There is in general talk of style and theme, but they can often overlap between filmmakers and many times they can be more in line with studios, genres, eras or movements. But the ambiance is different. Henry Hathaway and Henry King were both long-time employees at Twentieth Century-Fox under Darryl F. Zanuck and their films overlap in many ways. But they feel different. King is religious and Hathaway is not, which is partly a reason. King has in general a more opulent mise-en-scéne, stronger colours and more elaborate lighting patterns, and Hathaway has a more stringent and less gaudy style, and this also contribute to this difference. But it is also a question of movement, blocking, gesture, acting, attitude, humour and emphasis, all those things that are often not in the script but directorial decision made on the spot, from instinct as well as from personal theories about how it should be done. And every director will have their own ideas of how it should be done and therefore all directors are different, just as all other contributors to a film have their own ideas about how their particular contribution should be done. This is one reason why it is so interesting and enlightening to compare two filmmakers as superficially alike as Hathaway and King. Anybody can see that Claire Denis and Nora Ephron are different so there is not much excitement to be had from talking about that (as opposed to discussing their similarities), just as it is obvious how a film by Chantal Akerman is very different from a generic Hollywood film. But so what?

I said in my article about Ingmar Bergman's films of the 1940s that they felt different from one another. How his first film, Crisis (1946), felt closer to an American melodrama whereas his second film, It Rains on Our Love (1946), felt much closer to a generic Swedish film (with a touch of French poetic realism) and this is also a question of ambiance. It is partly about non-specificity, i.e. there is not much that you would have had to change if the script for Crisis were to have been shot by Universal in Hollywood instead of SF in Råsunda, but also partly about the less tangible things which are hard to describe but are just there, which is what ambiance is.

It can also change within films. To take a recent example, the opening sequence of Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard et. al. 2018) was really bad. It was tonally off, the dialogue did not work and there was no chemistry. But after the opening was over (where young Solo and the female lead Qi'ra are introduced) and the main story begins, after a sign saying "Three years later", it was like a completely different film. The ambiance had changed from one cut to the next, and what had been a bad film turned into a reasonably good film. I do not know if this was because of the chaotic production or what happened there, but it was interesting.

But ambiance is difficult because it takes a lot of hard work and effort to locate it and recognise it, and you have to watch a lot of films. This is not something that you can learn by readings books, it can only be picked up by watching films. If I watch one film from a country from where I have seen no other films, by a director of whom I have seen no other films, I can tell whether I like it or not but I have no idea where its ambiance comes from. I will be at a disadvantage. (This is something I find annoying when people write about Bergman's films of the 1940s and 1950s without having seen any other Swedish films of that time, yet do not take this fact into consideration in their analysis.) Yet, as I said above, ambiance is a central aspect of any film, and of any filmmaker's oeuvre; it should be at the heart of any auteur study.

Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami 1994)

But there is no right answer as to what a given film's ambiance is. That is part of the process of engaging with art (of whatever kind). I prefer to see our experience of, or engagement with, art as a process, or dialogue, between us and the art work, which tends to be unstable in what meaning we take from it. Ambiance is part of that meaning, might even be its meaning as art, distinct from whatever political or philosophical meaning we might see in the work. So I will just end this essay by suggesting that it is in a film's ambiance that the art of the medium is to be found. The ambiance is the art.

Avant-garde films or installations are often pure ambiance, as they have no story, narration or actors.

Friday 7 September 2018

Abstract and tactile

The other week I read Earning the Rockies, the latest book by Robert D. Kaplan who is an interesting thinker on geopolitics. That book is about how the geography of the United States has been the basis for its political place (or dominance) in the world. Kaplan is a deeply read scholar with impeccable credentials, and can discuss the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Romanian urbanity and 5th century Chinese warfare in the same chapter. But, and this is why I mention him here, while deeply embedded in political and historical theory he is also critical of a certain strain of academic writing/thinking for its detachment from the real world. He is the kind of writer who goes to the places he writes about, a traveller as much as a thinker.

In many different fields and disciplines there is a difference between what can roughly be called abstract theory and tactile theory. (Theory loosely defined.) It is not only in political science that this is a distinction worth making. It is equally applicable on film studies.

Within film studies I would define the tactile approach is being interested in the work itself and how it is done, being interested in the art of film and the physical object. It is also interested in the filmmakers and the audience as actual people, as individual human beings. The former, abstract theory, is by my definition interested in theory in itself, and in books about films rather than actual films. It looks at politics and ideology, and deals primarily in generalisations. It can often show an indifference to actual films, film history, filmmakers and audiences.

It is not an either/or thing, few are pure tactile or pure abstraction (Kaplan mentioned above is both as much and the star of much of contemporary cinema studies, Gilles Deleuze, could be said to be as well) and one is not automatically better than the other; it is partly a question of what you yourself are interested in. But it is not just a matter of preferences. It is a question of whether the thoughts and ideas that are presented come from research and genuine engagement with and knowledge of the material about which one writes. While I am more partial to the tactile approach myself it often happens when I read about a certain film or filmmaker that the object of study is not contextualised and therefore not properly understood and the value and uniqueness of the film or filmmaker is overestimated due to this lack of context and wider historic awareness. But abstract theory is on average worse. It can even be offensive in its lack of interest in the subject it is allegedly concerned with, i.e. film. (On occasion at conferences I have been tempted to ask "Have you actually seen a film?" after a paper has been presented, but as yet I have constrained myself.) It is a peculiar thing how it seems that many people within film studies who are researching and writing about it seem to regard film as uninteresting and even worthy of disdain. It is particularly dispiriting that many of those who give that impression, through their writing and conference papers, actually teach film studies. Imagine playing football (or soccer) and the coach is completely uninterested in the actual playing of football and instead only talks about, say, the politics of grass-cutting among Chilean peasants in "the post-political". A potentially worthy subject, but not if you are a football coach and is supposed to teach children how to play.

I have often pointed out that much of what is being taught and written about concerning film history is a collection of myths and mistakes. One strong reason for this is that so many do not bother to watch the films, even the films that they themselves write about, and this combined with the general disinterested approach to the subject means that it is rather rare for academic writing to go deeper than a random Wikipedia-entry when it comes to actual film history or practice. The book or article might be insightful and knowledgeable about whatever political theory is being discussed but not about films, either in themselves or about film history. Instead one myth or distortion after another is repeated and taught. In the rest of this post I will focus on one such area, writings about auteurs, since I have recently read several recent articles and new books in which "auteur theory" have been discussed.

Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Ernst Lubitsch

Of all these books and articles, not a single one of them gave an accurate description of it. Rather the opposite. It was not a case of simplifying for expediency but getting the basic facts backwards. Most said that "auteur theory" argued that auteurs were filmmakers who wrote their own scripts and did not make genre or mainstream films but unique and personal films. This might be how the writer in question defines an auteur now but, as I said, this is almost the opposite of what Truffaut, Godard, Sarris and others argued. What they said was that auteurs could be found anywhere, not least among mainstream genre filmmakers, and that even when they did not write their own scripts their personalities came across in their films. If you pretend to provide a history of thinking about auteurs then at least study the issue first. It is not a difficult subject, not quantum physics. Or, accept that you do not care enough to actually research it and say nothing more about it.

As an example, in Sonatas, Screams, and Silence by Alexis Luko (which I previously singled out as the most interesting of a recent bunch of Bergman books) there is one page (p. xxv) about the history of auteurism, which she claims begins with Truffaut's 1954 article A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema and that Truffaut "called for a revolution" in that article. He did not. He was praising some filmmakers whom he liked, such as Bresson, Ophuls, Tati and Becker. He then added "it so happens — by a curious coincidence — that they are auteurs who often write their own dialogue and in some cases think up the stories they direct" and he compared their films favourably to the films written by the team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (and a few others). He was not suggesting a new kind of cinema, but was praising a certain kind of cinema that already existed. That is completely different. (Truffaut's article is one of those that are referenced by many but understood (or even read) by few.) There is no recognition in Luko's summary that this view of filmmakers far pre-dates Truffaut's article. The summary is so perfunctory it would have been better not making it at all.

In the recent edited collection The Global Auteur (eds. Jeremi Szaniawski and Seung-hoon Jeong) there is also an effort to give a summary of the history of auteurs. "As is well known, the 1950s Cahiers du cinèma critics initiated the political positioning of filmmakers' authenticity as equivalent to artists' authorship in other media." it says in the introduction (p. 2). That statement is not true. That discussion was initiated much earlier than the 1950s, it was there already in the late 1910s, in various countries and by various critics. It continued to be debated among French film critics in the 1920s, American film critics on the 1930s, British and Swedish film critics in the 1940s. There was nothing new in that respect with the Cahiers group. The Introduction later argues that "today's auteurs are philosophical thinkers who are also politically attuned observers and apt craftsmen or artists." (p. 9) which on the one hand is a bold statement from those who a few pages earlier had criticised the "semi-religious myth of independent creativity" (p. 4) and on the other hand confusing for it would suggest that earlier auteurs were not those things but if they were not then what were they and why and when did this shift from one stage to another take place?

The various chapters of The Global Auteur have their strength and weaknesses (I particularly liked William Brown's chapter about Michael Winterbottom), and for reasons known only to the editors no women are among the included auteurs, but now I want to continue focusing on the Introduction by the book's editors, partly as an example of abstract theory. The piece contains no thinking about film at all, it is only jargon and clichés, but more to the point was that there was so little connection (if any) between actual filmmakers and the theoretical constructions about them. They ask why it is relevant to talk about auteurs today and give this answer: "Because its agency is a causative force to activate an engagement that subjectively concretizes a certain universality of this global matrix of film discourse." (p. 5)

Later they argue that "Methodologically, their mapping can be not just a synchronic arrangement of various auteuristic positions, but also a diachronic narrativization of their agendas and motifs, pathologies and impasses, failures and potentials in the dialectic process of raising questions and seeking answers from the critic's perspective." (p. 7) They further say that "This yields a cognitive mapping of the political matrix that could reveal an unconscious ideology or paradigm and its cinematically virtualized reality through an aesthetic imaginary, as well as its political potential or deadlock when confronted with actual reality." (p. 9) This discussion throughout the Introduction is only interested in theoretical constructions about auteurs, and the actual filmmakers barely figures in that discussion.


There is nothing really new to say about filmmakers in general; it has always been, and will probably always be, the case that film is a collaborative art form but that frequently one person is the central figure, whose vision and techniques dominate the finished film, and this person is usually the director (whether or not they also have screen writing credits). This view of it has also been common among critics and others since at least the days of Lubitsch, Ince, Griffith and Chaplin. (Not about all films and all filmmakers, but about many of them, which still remains they case today.) Everything beyond that, whether you call it "auteur theory" or "auteur-structuralism" or "transnational auteurs" or "global auteurs" or "neo-auteurs" or "post-auteurs" or "third wave auteurs" or "vulgar auteurs" or whatever are theoretical games which does not change, or relate to, the actual making of the films, to what happens during pre-production, production and post-production. Filmmakers working today do not differ on average from filmmakers working in earlier eras, and there is no need for any random book about filmmakers to make an excuse for how things are different now and why we need new ways of theorising the auteur or to argue that something is more relevant than ever. (But there can be new and different ways of looking at individual filmmakers of course, from the tactile approach.)

The arguments are rarely new or different either, it is mainly just a new vocabulary. At any given time in academia, as elsewhere, there are certain fashionable words that are used, over and over again, until they lose their appeal and are exchanged for other words. You probably noticed some of them in the quotes above, such as "mapping," a current buzz word. "Re-imaging" and "re-thinking" are also popular, which usually refer to taking a perfectly good and useful term or phrase and give it a new meaning for no apparent reason. And by doing so watering it out until it becomes devoid of actual meaning, and needs to be "re-imagined" again.


Considering what I do professionally, I naturally spend a lot of time reading about films. It rarely gives me any pleasure though. I am much happier when reading about geopolitics and evolutionary cognition. It is a peculiar thing. All of this bothers me both on a professional level, not least with regards to the students who have to endure the teaching and the required readings of so much poor stuff, and on a personal level. I take films, and the studying of them, seriously and get offended by those within film studies who do not.

That quote from Truffaut above is slightly misleading. It is a fairly recent translation (I do not know the exact year) but made long after "auteur theory" became a thing. Obviously when Truffaut wrote it "auteur theory" was not a thing. The original text says "ce sont pourtant des cinéastes français et il se trouve - curieuse coïncidence - que ce sont des auteurs qui écrivent souvent leur dialogue et quelques-uns inventent eux-mêmes les histoires qu'ils mettent en scène" and nobody at the time would keep the word "auteurs" as it stands but translate it to "writers" most likely, or possibly "authors". So reading that translation gives the impression that Truffaut is coining a term, when he is actually only saying that some of these directors were also writers. This is a larger issue, which I might explore on a later date.