A few days ago, Roger Alan Koza's blog Ojos Abiertos posted a text by Argentinean filmmaker Nicolás Prividera claiming that the critical praise for Leos Carax's Holy Motors and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom was symptomatic of the 'exhaustion' of the film cannons that validate them.
As Prividera's text raises some interesting issues about the hegemonic –yet outdated– Eurocentrism in international film culture, TropicalFRONT decided to translate the piece into English and post it here to make it accessible to a larger audience, and to contribute to the larger debate on the need for criticism that take into account the tradition and influences of non-European cinemas. Thanks to Roger Alan Koza.
By Nicolás Prividera*
After the prophesied end of the world, it’s clear that when it finally does come it will be "not with a bang, but a whimper" as Eliot poetized. It’s something cinema has been preparing us for a while: the tiresome epic for an era in which "the old is not finished dying, and the new is not finished being born." For there are Old Europe and the not so young United States, under the weight of mandates they don’t know how to re-create (Europe was a common market before being a polis and "America" a land in which the citizens still defend their right to bear arms, as if living in an eternal western). Because that's what it’s about: reinventing tradition rather than succumbing to it. But I won’t get into here—even if film is our subject—the exhausted state of Old Hollywood and the New European cinemas, evident for at least two decades (not coincidentally, the time when Hollywood set aside '60s juvenilia and Europe sought new territories to discover and evangelize about).
I will take two films acclaimed for their apparent fresh air, even if this acclaim is only due to their eccentricity toward their respective canons. Which doesn’t mean they are ex-centric, but rather loyal representatives of the exhausted state of their traditions. That is to say they interest me for being symptomatic, by contrast, of one of the major problems of contemporary cinema and culture: the vacuous restatement of a tradition (whether that of classicism or the vanguard) turned into an empty shell, but supported by a legitimization system that keeps it alive artificially. And that Old Europe and the not so young United States are in profound crisis yet they still have the power to tell us not only what to watch, but how to understand modernity.
1. How Green Was My Valley
If Thoreau wanted to convert the insular world of Walden into its own continent, Anderson fashions from his island an (in?)voluntary metaphor of the Unites States. It’s for this reason Moonrise Kingdom is his most representative work as concerns the naïve reproduction of "America" as an island of Lost Children. Because this is not a portrait of lost childhood, but rather one of getting lost in an infantile gaze. (To understand the difference, just consider the films with children by Rossellini or Bresson: The Devil, Probably and Germany Year Zero are not infantile films...). And it’s that Anderson’s interrupted innocence is stripped of Ford’s savagery, as well as Capra’s idealistic wake (without the precipitated mix of both these masters that Spielberg pursues as recently as in Lincoln).
We can’t picture Anderson’s pasteurized Houlden Caulfields shooting their congeners, like those of Gus Van Sant. Yet neither do they rebel as in Melody (where British cinema redeems itself for once from Dickensian Realism, thanks to a tradition that has also created works that haven’t needed to give up imagination when talking about the end of childhood, like Alice and Peter Pan; this a good spot to claim another "minor" film, like Tideland by Terry Gilliam). This film had all the freshness and vitality missing from the predictable geometry of Moonrise Kingdom and its self-absorbed reconstruction of the '60s as "a moment in the land of happiness" (as the '50s were to '80s conservatives: enough to remember the idyllic past of Back to the Future, which included a direct reference to It’s a Wonderful Life). Retro is exactly that: the vocation of alienating one’s own era in the "happy world" of the past (happy even in the yellow tones and bittersweetness of nostalgia), but adding the anomie of the present. Kids from the '90s transplanted to the '60s: the kidnapping and death of History at the altar of lost illusions (now we could say that this altar which Antoine Doinel erected to Balzac in The 400 Hundred Blows somehow foretold that interpretation, which gets repeated with each dull imitation of Truffaut’s fifty-year-old-plus film).
2. The Phantom of Liberty
Something like this is also present in Carax, but how could it be otherwise with a spoiled young promise: juvenilia becomes decadence. Because the tradition of Holy Motors is something else: surrealism as an outbreak of the bad European conscience in a moment of crisis. We’re no longer dealing with a walk in unredeemed wild America but rather through the ruins of European civilization. A tour through the masks of a disenchanted and subjected imagination: subversion made part of the system, as an assumed legacy of the Pyrrhic victory of the avant-garde. The film, like its protagonist, becomes a slave to its agenda and its agency, and all that’s left is to surrender to its job with a grimace of disgust. Or perhaps it signals precisely that defection of art under late capitalism: the representation of evil does not deliver us from evil, rather it is evil itself in its deepest banality. For not even death can be assumed in a world that denies the discreet charm of tragedy.
An exterminating angel signals the phantom of liberty. The spectrum invoked by Carax is that of Buñuel, but less the one of the '30s than of the '60s: that one who, in the midst of parricidal breaks from New Waves, foresaw his own classic countercriticism, his warning against that obscure object of vanguard desire that awaited him at the end of the road: not being able to escape the invitation of the bourgeoisie. Carax is resigned to not being able to leave, but chooses to become an unwelcome guest: still, he becomes the life of the party, and Holy Motors is chosen by critics as the best of the year, although its surrealist classicism opposes the neo-Bazinism that dominates much of contemporary cinema. It’s that Carax offers them the perfect alibi, because by encapsulating himself in references to film genres, he ends up being recaptured by the obscure side of cinephilia. So what could have been a fierce criticism of European reason and its unfinished modernity becomes a funereal monument to the lights of the hand of the Lumière brothers.
Perhaps the great failed film of the year is Cosmopolis, which brings together Carax’s insomniac limousines and Anderson’s old young kids. But with Cronenberg there is neither innocence nor bad conscience, but a confinement (made up by dead gestures and false movements) in which the characters, exhausted or undaunted, cannot stop talking and speechifying as the known world collapses. And yet it is far more interesting than the rain of intimate films about the end of the world that invaded us (also from Europe—Melancolia—and the United States—4.44). But we already know that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
*Nicolás Prividera (Buenos Aires, 1970) is an Argentine filmmaker. He's directed the films M (2007), and Tierra de los Padres / Fatherland (2011).