The greatest art form ever conceived
In his introduction to “Ten Greatest Films of All Time (1991),” the late critic Roger Ebert wrote: “The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best (if you argue instead for dance or music, drama or painting, I will reply that the cinema incorporates all of these arts).”
Cinema is indeed a multifaceted medium with unlimited expressive and artistic possibilities.
That said, looking back on film year 2015 I want to single out some special moments of artistic achievement in notable films of the year — all with Oscar nominations. These are filmic components which are embedded in the larger work and which I think make us see and feel the film’s deeper meanings. Building on Ebert’s views of cinema’s emotional powers I could also argue that these smaller fragments — isolated from the film as a whole — are examples of just how inventive film art can be.
A perfect, choreographed objective correlative
Tim Hooper’s The Danish Girl is a drama with powerful and often startling imagery as it follows the psychological and physical transitioning of a man, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) to a woman. There’s one scene in particular that I found exceptional in its cinematic artistry and conveyance of complex, nuanced meaning.
The scene begins with Einar — now known as Lili — walking with a determined urgency down a Paris street. Cut to a darkened entrance hall where Lili pays an attendant for admission to a peepshow booth. Inside the booth, with Lili raptly observing, a stripper begins her rather shy performance. As her arms and hands float exotically about, gently caressing her upper body, a shot taken from the stripper’s point of view shows her refracted image in the peepshow booth’s glass window.
On the other side of the window we see that Lili has begun following the stripper’s movements in a precisely matched pas de deux. It is as though the two have become one being, their bodies magically coalescing. This beautifully choreographed mirror-image composition serves as a perfect objective correlative for Lili’s need to investigate the body language of an openly free woman and thereby come to a better understanding of her own still evolving identity as female.
The scene evokes a sense of deeply felt yearning that provides explicit and powerful access to Lili’s state of being at this point in her gender transformation. And it does so without words, and with the most sensitive of visual associations.
Narrative visual and aural inventiveness — “the Fellini way”
Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth, much like his Oscar winning The Great Beauty (2013), is laden with Fellini-esque references, including random departures from realism. Fellini was known for the use of disruptive visual imagery that embraced fantasy, surrealism, and dream modes as well as the free interplay of music and sound.
Especially notable is Youth’s narrative nods to Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963). Both films are set in a resort spa and both share thematic story lines with a focus on the ins and outs of creative expression. Fellini’s protagonist was a famed film director struggling to produce a new project. In Youth, long-time friends, movie director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and retired British conductor/composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), meet annually at a Swiss spa for fellowship and leisure conversations about the vagaries of aging.
Boyle is working on a script for what is to be his final film; Ballinger in the meantime resides nearby in relaxed solitude, letting everyone around him know that he has put his professional life behind him — forever. Pleas to perform his most famous composition, “Simple Song #3,” for the Queen and Prince Phillip are curtly refused as is an offer for a biographical memoir. But Youth — a film in which music scoring plays a symbiotic role — finds creative ways of letting the filmgoer discover that Ballinger’s outspoken dismissal of his past belies his true feelings.
Ballinger enjoys strolling and meditating in the lush wildflower meadows that surround the spa. One day he observes a herd of roaming cattle, their necks draped with clappered cowbells. Inspired, Ballinger imagines a pastoral symphony, which he composes in his head and conducts with pantomimic joy. What we hear is Youth composer David Lang’s original piece of music (“Wood Symphony”), created from the cows’ mooing, ringing neck bells, and other sound sources within the meadow environment. This adventurous use of lyric music reveals that Ballinger still harbors a strong emotional relationship with his past.
Also dramatically inventive and telling — in a “Fellini” way — is the introduction of a glittering piece of red cellophane wrapping paper. His fingers clutching the paper, Ballinger can’t resist turning it into a hand instrument that magically seems to coax out crackling color tones — a moment of solo musical improvisation that abandons reality and further evokes the mental state of a man who, despite his spoken words to the contrary, is unable to separate himself from the impulses that made him a great musical artist. Together these two superbly rendered cinematic moments in Youth augur Ballinger’s eventual return to a musical platform.
A visual trope: Tree symbolism as mystic expression
Director Alejandro G. Inarritu is not known for stylistic rigidity in his films — well-noted in last year’s Oscar-winning drama/comedy Birdman. The tendency toward flights of departure (pardon the pun) from screen realism has led to Inarritu’s film style having been labeled by critics “magic realism” or “mystic realism.”
Now comes from Inarritu what many will surely call the most harshly realistic film of 2015 — his remarkable survivalist/revenge epic The Revenant. Yet this is another work that does not rely entirely on realism. There are non-narrative elements and sub-textual under-toning that I found imbued the film with a mystic spiritual quality and intimations of fate. Native American ritual, poetry, and myth are brought into the narrative’s back stories. Most prominent is the metaphorical motif of a recurring shot of a cluster of trees that soar in circular majesty toward the heavens. The tree symbolism is introduced when Hawk, the son of frontiersman Harry Glass, urges his near-death father to not give up.
“Can you hear the wind, Father?
Do you remember what my Wind Mother used to say?
‘The wind cannot beat a tree with strong roots.’”
To reinforce the metaphorical “deep roots” importance of Hawk’s urging, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the upward-looking tree cluster from high-hat, ground-level camera angles. The far-distant tops of the trees appear to be reaching toward one another in a supportive embrace. Random inter-cuttings of the stately tree imagery serve as symbolic bridges between the ongoing, unimaginable survival struggles Glass encounters as he makes his treacherous journey back from “death.”
In a film that will forever be remembered for its awe-inspiring capture of nature-in-the-raw, Inarritu’s The Revenant finds a compelling visual trope in a cluster of ascending trees — a symbolic reminder of how strong roots, determination, and willpower — cannot be beaten by the wind or nature’s hostility. This symbolic tailoring is underwritten by the fact that Inarritu’s film eschews dialogue to a remarkable degree, relying primarily on what I have always thought of as being among cinema’s greatest appeals: faces, spaces, and chases. Classically, The Revenant displays all three: DiCaprio in perpetual closeup, surrounded by nature at its most beautiful and hostile, his journey compelled by the pursuit of a man who left him to die in an open grave.
The viewing encounter
These above moments of cinematic artistry are but a few examples of how the film medium, as Roger Ebert proclaimed, has so many diverse ways “for generating emotions in its audience.” Easing back into a theater seat and experiencing a film in its entirety is always the best way to watch a movie. But later reflection on the many smaller parts that stick with you, I maintain, can enrich one’s memory of the viewing encounter in special ways.