Valuing Cinema in Uncertain Times

By Dario Llinares

Lately, I have been experiencing a sense of inhibiting apprehension when attempting to write about cinema. Writer’s block is not an accurate description, more a deeply demotivating ambivalence. This psychological barrier has taken the form of a self-reflexive need to justify the value of writing about film, the art form I love, rather than just getting on a doing it. These struggles emerge from a deleterious sense that film, in these uncertain times, does not warrant the energy, attention or emotional investment that any kind of critical or contextual writing requires. The uncertain climate has, for me, brought into stark view both the realities of the divisive culture in which we live and broached questions about what should our roles be as social actors and citizens. Part of that is the recognition of choices we have in how we devote our time. Therefore to focus one’s critical attention on film has recently felt like indulging the privilege of burying one’s head in the sand. The philistine mantra of “it’s only a film” is one that cinephiles of all persuasions are used to defending against, but the spectre of this maxim has haunted my recent attempts to get thoughts onto the page. 

Efforts to overcome these intellectual boundaries have been further impaired by a self-imposed sense of obligation. That I am somehow duty-bound to produce a far-reaching explanatory opus that restates the value of cinema in the present moment, which, once completed, will free me to make highly articulate and socially relevant interventions. These justificatory knots are also tightened by an awareness of the no so latent narcissism of this entire mindset. There is no escape from the fact that my comfortable life has, compared to most people, barely felt a ripple of disturbance due to the recent political carnage (although I do foresee that changing). I smell the malodorous whiff of pomposity and self-regard even suggesting that my pronouncements warrant such symbolic gnashing of teeth. This nexus of doubts and equivocations have, over several months, undermined many attempts to get back in the writing saddle. This, then, is the result of a more stream of consciousness process, starting with a version forcibly jotted down in a notebook to try overcome the mental blockage. 

Such internal dilemmas have been all the more frustrating for two more material reasons. Firstly, I have been intending to start a new written blog on The Cinematologists website for some time. This aspiration became even more pressing in my mind after a discussion between myself and my co-host Neil about the implications of the current political carnage during our recent Robocop episode. Questions about the point of film criticism and analysis, the status of cinema in the cultural landscape, and how one might attempt to shape one’s own subjectivity to find a sense of value in film as a vocation, have been central to our podcast discourse from its inception. Indeed, starting the podcast was perhaps an implicit reaction to such undercurrents. Secondly, I have seen many films over the last year or so that have been fascinating and inspiring as singular examples of cinematic artistry. This reaffirmed my belief that film, as much as any art form, retains a vitality and significance in interrogating the fundamental relationship between society, culture and human experience.

Two films from last year particularly - Son of Saul (László Nemes) and Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) - have lodged in my mind. They are at opposing ends of the cinematic spectrum in both form and content but they both epitomise the experiential and intellectual value of film in addressing the light and the dark of human condition. There are unique stories unfolding in specific social contexts but they evoke universal themes regarding the interrelationship between social structure and the nature of being. Nemes’ brutally unrelenting holocaust drama, an atrocity that has been extensively depicted in film, forges an uncompromising level of intimacy with evil. The story of an Auschwitz prisoner who is one of the Sonderkommandos (inmates who empty the gas chambers of bodies and salvage valuables), is a harrowing in its immediate depiction, but even worse when you attempt to contemplate it. Saul (Géza Röhrig) thinks he recognises his son among the dead and is determined, despite the ever-present mortal risk, to give him a religious burial. Aesthetically striking is the use of close-up, a rudimentary yet quintessential visual tool, it acts in the film as a forensic lens, counterintuitively pushing the horrors of death to the periphery of the frame and focusing remorselessly on the gaunt face of the protagonist. We see in minute detail how the mask of stoicism betrays a crushing fear fused with resignation. The close-up symbolically traps Saul but also the audience.  The claustrophobic pressure of the framing negates the space to retreat and distance one’s self from Saul's ipseity; the film insists that the viewer confronts the heinousness of humanity. 

Géza Röhrig in  Son of Saul

Géza Röhrig in Son of Saul

In contrast, Paterson is a film which allows the viewer to escape into a milieu that unapologetically romanticises the everyday. However, this elegant story of a local bus driver who writes deeply personal poetry during the liminal breaks in his routine, touches on the sublime without tipping over into cliché or sentimentality. It conjures up the singular and explicit pleasures to be found in aesthetic beauty, be it poetry or cinema. But even more impressively the direction amalgamates these two forms in a manner that does justice to their visual and textual roots while idealising the innocent process of creation. Indeed, the lesson that the creative journey is not a means to a definitive goal, but a way of making sense of our solitude offers that fleeting, redemptive chance of connection.  A film about the beauty in the everyday, the profundity in the simplest conversation, and the search for acceptance could be painfully saccharine especially but Paterson's wistfulness is more like a cleansing breath of cinematic oxygen. If Son of Saul is the bleakest warning cinema can evoke, where humanity is stripped down to the elemental, existential choice: life or death, Paterson makes the prosaic poetic by reminding us that connection and love are found within our search, not at its end. 

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in  Paterson

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in Paterson

Although this article has in no way assuaged all my doubts, it has provided a sounding board that will instigate further questions, and hopefully some answers, in the entries to come. That is my hope and intention. Certainly, just by invoking the effect that two superb films had on me, I have regained a certain clarity as to the vital role the cinema, and art, in reflecting on and challenging the human experience. In the end, it is artistic expression, in whatever form that takes, in its creation, experience, and even criticism, that helps to centre our subjectivity and orient it in relation to others. That is its value, and it cannot be understated. 


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