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Time and Tempo

by Nicholas Rombes

Incoherent Cinema

Isabelle Huppert in Elle (Photo by Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

In his 1986 book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, film theorist Robin Wood explored, in a chapter entitled “The Incoherent Text: Narrative in the ’70s,” just how and why so many seminal films of that era were — ideologically — incoherent, unable to maintain a sustained and coherent vision of their protagonists as well as their fictive worlds. Wood did not mean incoherent in a pejorative sense; he wasn’t referring to movies that “failed” or that were poorly made. And he wasn’t talking about films that were deliberately chaotic or incoherent, but rather films that subconsciously reflected and distorted larger repressed social anxieties. The 1970s in the United States — characterized by the war in Vietnam and its anarchic conclusion, Watergate and the delegitimizing of the presidency, the rise of black militancy and other liberation movements and economic stagnations — were themselves incoherent, a rough transition between the apex of the idealistic counterculture and the resetting of pragmatic conservative values during the Reagan era.

Wood singles out Taxi Driver as an exemplar for many reasons, but especially because of the film’s unsteady relationship to its protagonist, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). “The central incoherence of Taxi Driver lies in the failure to establish a consistent, and adequately rigorous, attitude to the protagonist […]The film cannot believe in the traditional figure of the charismatic individualist hero, but it can also not relinquish it, because it has nothing to put in its place,” Wood writes. Travis doesn’t mean anything in the way that traditional American heroes and anti-heroes mean things; his ambiguities stretch to the point of incoherent noise. The closest analogue to this in recent cinema comes not from the U.S. (where generally conservative narrative and aesthetic choices funnel even the most radical stories into familiar spectacles), but rather Europe. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle are two notable examples from 2016, both featuring finally unknowable (which is to say fully human) protagonists, Ines (Sandra Hüller) and Michèle (Isabelle Huppert). Both in terms of tone (both films ricochet between melodrama, comedy, absurdism and an undefinable feeling of no-holds-barred-ness) and character psychology, Toni Erdmann and Elle might be best understood against the backdrop of the fracturing of the EU and its long buildup (“there is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher said in 1987). Although we are too close to the historical moment of these films’ production to say, it may turn out that the beautiful sense of anarchy of these films is directly related to the fractured (incoherent?) sense of Europe as a unified identity.

There is no equivalent in mainstream (does that term even carry any shared meaning anymore? The subject of a future column) U.S. cinema; we have become experts at keeping the chaos of reality at bay and channeling it into familiar narratives and aesthetics. Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Moonlight, Arrival, Hidden Figures: these films (some of them deeply nostalgic and some of them reactionary) rely on well-worn tropes of suffering, redemption and a sort of confessionalist purging that squares it all up. (Paterson is a curious exception, unless you see its protagonist as simply ambitionless.)

The lack of contemporary incoherent U.S. films tells a tale. The last wave of ideologically unstable films coincided with the emergence of consumer-grade digital camcorders, such as Digital8 and MiniDV. A clutch of films released between 1997 and 2002, including The Blair Witch Project, Gummo, julien donkey-boy, The Cruise, 28 Days Later, The Last Broadcast, Session 9, Bamboozled and Tape (many inspired by the Dogme 95 movement) represented the high point of unforced anarchy. These films did not use incoherence as a structuring principle but rather were, to return to Robin Wood, “incoherent within themselves.” That is, to greater and lesser degrees, they were organically scrambled during those first few years before the digital moving images had cohered enough to form the basis for a conventional digital aesthetic. It was inevitable that a film like David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac (apocryphally tapeless, filmless, shot digitally) would “legitimize” feature-length digital by defanging it and rendering it indistinguishable from the visual logic of conventional 35mm films.

But there’s more to it than that, and the what-fors and what-ifs of that more to it remain, for now, speculative and theoretical. Could it be that the proliferation of moving images across ever-expanding platforms and screens means that incoherence is no longer to be found in individual films (i.e., Taxi Driver) but rather in the curatorial choices that viewers must make? For we are all curators of our own self-reinforcing experiences now. The atomic leveling of access to every conceivable visual artifact means that, for some time now, genres that once were siloed apart from each other now rub shoulders, each one just a single click away: mainstream movies, hardcore pornography, music videos, snuff films (the atrocities of war, cellphone footage of massacres, police shootings), political spectacles, cartoons, “Google it” problem-solving tutorials, weather cams, surveillance feeds, author interviews, etc. We no longer need incoherent films; the need they once satisfied has now been met, over and over again.

A psychotic nation dimly recognizes itself in its art, sensing that there is something there, some dark truth unavailable in other discourses. Paul Virilio, in his 2012 book-length interview The Administration of Fear, suggests that our digital era is characterized by constant panic: We are always behind, catching up, reacting to the latest terrors and outrages. “We are the objects of daily masochism,” he says, “and under constant tension.” If, in the analog past, we found dim release from this strain in incoherent films, today’s films — with rare Toni Erdmann-like exceptions — rush to manage and order and aestheticize chaos at every turn in ways that are deeply, and invisibly, conservative.

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