I’ve long favored films that feature smart, articulate characters battering each other with words. I like screwball comedies. I like Judd Apatow. I adore BROADCAST NEWS and I’m a sucker for an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.
It’s not hard to understand the hegemony of dialogue-driven, plot-heavy films. Movies begin with screenplays, and screenplays come from writers. But to proceed from the written word can push a visual medium towards acting like literature. Or radio theater.
These days, I’m finding myself more exhilarated by films that act like something else. Movies that move less, and linger more. Where characters may follow smaller dramatic arcs, but they are more finely observed. Films like Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT, Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (or last year’s AMERICAN HONEY), and Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN.
I will admit to some see-sawing in my seat during CERTAIN WOMEN. The film teetered on the line for me at times, probably crossing it during Michelle Williams’ arid little segment. But then Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone came along and more than redeemed things. Their silent horseback ride may be the most sublime thing that happened at the movies last year.
AMERICAN HONEY is probably an hour too long, and it doesn’t have an ending. But I kind of loved it. Even if at some points I felt like I was trapped in that van with those kids. Road trips require patience, and a taste for staring out the window just watching things go by. Your mileage no doubt may vary. But really, any film unspools as a collaboration between the filmmaker and you, the viewer. The less that happens onscreen, the more time there is to ponder what does. The question is, how much work do you want to do? How active a collaborator do you want to be?
In the past year I’ve also been catching up with the work of the late Chantal Akerman. After JEANNE DIELMAN (3 hrs 45!) and JE TU IL ELLE, I’m thinking Akerman may have gone too far toward rarefaction. With her long, static takes and prolonged silences, her narratives advance in such tiny increments they sometimes feel like a dare. I watched both films in a state of amazement, commingled with boredom and antagonism.
Enduring a three-minute shot of woman’s back as she scrubbed a bathtub, I wondered if I’d be a hopeless philistine if I called bullshit and turned the damned thing off (I didn’t, and made it all the way to the meager, if startling, climax of JEANNE DIELMAN). Akerman’s films are like homeopathy, there’s so little there. And like homeopathy, if you feel like they are working, it’s probably all in your mind.
This post contains spoilers for ARRIVAL.
ARRIVAL is one of those rare birds, a sci-fi movie for grownups. It’s aesthetically and conceptually elegant and at the same time very moving, and if you haven’t already, you should see it before you learn too much. Not that there is a huge and sudden reveal: there is no SIXTH SENSE moment. At least, there wasn’t for me: it was more a gradual, growing awareness of the story’s main premise and all its implications.
The protagonist of ARRIVAL is linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited to communicate with alien visitors who have appeared in our skies. As the story begins, language is seen by all the characters in the film as a means to an end. Slowly and simultaneously, you and the characters on screen come to realize language itself the point.
Central to the film is the notion that language shapes perception. As Louise learns to parse the aliens’ looping pictographs she also acquires their ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. Exploring this concept, ARRIVAL does that amazing thing science fiction can sometimes do: it re-situates you, offering a unique vantage point from which to consider the conscribed parameters of your human experience. After seeing it, your own inability to perceive events before they happen may feel to you a sorry limitation, like a kind of blindness.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs non-linear story structure to represent Louise’s expanding perception. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a fairly daring tactic that tosses the audience without warning or cues into key scenes in Louise’s future. A sequence in which Louise and a high-ranking Chinese general collaborate to avert global catastrophe is breathtaking, cross-cutting between Louise’s present and future while defying notions of cause and effect.
But the film is not just a think piece: in ARRIVAL, the intellectual and the emotional are unified, inseparable. For Louise’s newly expanded perceptions also allow her to foresee a great personal tragedy. Ultimately she embraces the choices that will lead to that tragedy, fully aware of the terrible cost. I found myself turning her decision over and over in my mind for days afterward. That says everything about the strength of the film.