Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Long Take on Ruben Östlund and Involuntary

It’s no doubt hard to imagine a time when Swedish cinema wasn’t just about sadists and the broken individuals that pursue them. Sure enough there is a Swedish film industry apart from all things criminal and in the shadow of all this attention is a really rather brilliant film called De Ofrivilliga (or Involuntary to give it’s English title) that’s about to get a UK release. Five separate stories interwoven across and hour and forty minutes which, to quote the director Ruben Östlund, all build on the question of  ‘how is the individual affected by the herd mentality.’

Which is to say, how far would the individual go to not lose face in front of their peers? The conceit is simple, but the realisation nuanced, exploring a number of situations which not being universal are none the less recognisable in an abstract sense. The patriarch of the family gathering, refusing to admit the need for medical attention after taking a firework right in the eye; the tweenage girls leaning on a young man, a complete stranger, to buy them alcohol; the teacher ostracised in the staff room for speaking out against the transgressions of a colleague;  the recognised actress who can’t admit to having broken a coach toilet; the ‘lad’ who can’t reconcile his friends for having gone just too far. Each scenario is a unique approach to the same question, and watching the subject of each quietly writhe in subjugation is agonising yet perfectly recognisable. The fact that the film is shot in agonisingly long takes, consistently in extreme long-shot, or framed in such a manner as to exclude the majority of the action, really locks the viewer into every excruciating moment of discomfort.

Some might take this as a springboard to discussing how the pangs of individual concern throw a spotlight on the enshrined national responsibility towards social welfare, but this isn’t Wallander and all Swedish cinema is not just about the collapse of the Swedish Model. Not to underplay or under-read the film either, it’s just that Östlund’s filmography is far from conventional, and the stylistic influences he brings to bear aren’t so much Bergman and Sjöström, but by his own admission draw more from Youtube and extreme sports filmmaking. This is not to be glib or contrary either, as there’s a clear line of influence stretching right back to Östlund’s first break making off-piste skiing films.

The kind of fare in question is the sort you used to find on expensive vhs tapes, sold from behind the counter in skate and ski shops, and Östlund made a name for himself in the mid-nineties. His approach was marked by eschewing the fast cut, slow-motion-heavy ‘white powder porn’ of most skiing films,  and instead drawing on the unbroken aesthetic of skating and snowboarding videos. To borrow a well-worn truism from introductory film courses everywhere: Every Cut Is A Lie, but especially so in stunt driven extreme sports. With the cameramen perched on distant peaks, tele-photo lenses gazing across the valley, you don’t get any second chances and come missed jumps, broken bones, or even avalanches, whatever happens you keep on rolling. The effect is terrifying in it’s own right, and set to an upbeat soundtrack of mid-nineties Swedish indie-rock, the complete package is part travelogue, part music video, and bizarrely compelling irrespective of your prior interest in skiing.

His love of filmmaking came to supersede his interest in the subject, and his outsider filmography was his ticket to three years at the School of Photography at the University of Gothenberg. His approach persisted even in his graduate work, and in his 2002 documentary Familj Igen, in which Östlund reunited his divorced parents of 23 years, the 59 minutes of the film is broken by a mere 21 cuts. By the time he moved onto his first feature film the application of the extended take becomes a dangerously effective device in fudging the lines between fact and fiction. The provocatively titled Gitarrmongot [literally The Guitar Mongoloid, but you can replace Mongoloid with Spastic or any other equally un-PC playground barb] takes an even more disparate collection of characters and follows them as they go about their lives in Gothenburg. Some of it’s staged, some of it’s not. Some characters have their faces blurred out in a way which suggests they refused to sign an image-release form. Unless told otherwise you could easily mistake it for an open form documentary, much like the Finnish Living Room of the Nation. It’s not, but then you can’t say it’s a wholly fictional film either.

This merry melding of categories and expectations, a willingness to simply mess around with form is perhaps why I’m growing to like Östlund so much. I’ve not had a chance to see his latest short film Incident by a Bank, but it’s technical conceit alone is enough to really make me want to see it. A failed bank robbery, shot in high resolution digital (4K in case you care) in a single extreme long-shot take across a public square, with the narrative reconstructed by focusing the frame on specific actions within the fixed shot. Editing by means of pan and scan, if you will. Maybe I’m just curious out of a purely technical aspect, but a Gold Bear at the Berlin film festival gives me hope that it’s more than just a gimmick.

The shower of critical accolades and festival awards has also given Östlund enough of a platform to be technically experimental, and to stand by it. In a bizarrely informal breakfast programme interview on Swedish television Östlund was quietly taken to task for his ideology in approaching film. Gently pilloried for being internationally lauded but still overlooked by the Swedish Guldbagge film awards, Östlund gladly took the Swedish establishment to task for shunning non-conventional cinema. When asked what his main creative influences were he readily cites Youtube as his first port of call: an infinite sourcebook of staged and un-staged human emotion, both in terms of the viewer and the viewed. Allowed to cite a specific film Östlund asks the show to screen the clip Pygme Jerboa from Youtube, showing  a kangaroo mouse filmed by it’s doting owner.  To quote Östlund himself:  ‘In terms of vitality there isn’t a scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which can even measure with this clip.’ This isn’t said with the straightest of faces, but Östlund remains none the less earnest in highlighting how dead he feels the Swedish film establishment is.

When he says that his next film (called Play and currently in production) is primarily inspired by the Youtube film The Battle at Kruger you have to take him on his word, albeit with a pinch of salt of course. He’s no ‘Enfant Terrible’ but like his formal and aesthetic forebear Lars von Trier, you can’t take Östlund on his every word. There’s a humour and a openness in his approach to filmmaking, and goodness knows that’s something Swedish film is calling out for. A young Swedish director to get excited about is a very rare thing indeed, and hopefully there’s more formally interesting stuff to come.

If Involuntary is screening anywhere near you then you’d be well advised to seek it out.

Involuntary has it’s UK release on the 29th of October, and will be screening as such:

In London at the Apollo West End, the Odeon Panton Street and at the French Institute’s CinéLumière

Outside London at Zeffirellis (Amberside), The Filmhouse (Edinburgh), The National Media Museum (Bradford), and the Chichester Cinema at New Park.

[PS: If you’re at all curious about the film, do yourself a favour and skip the trailer and just watch this short film instead. It’s an obvious precursor in exactly the same vein as Involuntary but without giving the film itself away. It’s also a cracking short film in its own right.]

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Gaming the Perspective on Film Reviews

Describe a film as being ‘like a videogame’ and you’ll immediately set my alarm bells ringing. Positive, negative, it doesn’t matter, the comparison will almost always open up a can of troublesome associations, and I really have to fight the knee-jerk reflexes of my inner teenager from wailing ‘BUT YOU DON’T GET IT, MAN’. I obviously haven’t a clue how familiar any one critic is or is not with the medium, and I’ve gotten myself in hot water before by decrying those obviously not L337 enough to know what they’re talking about, when in actual fact they are more than qualified to their own readings. Channelling these teenage frustrations more constructively, it becomes clear the issue is rather how agonisingly fluid the descriptor is, and that using the term unqualified denies any meaningful signification beyond the surface of either medium. The term shouldn’t be limiting in its application, and by engaging with it beyond the clichés we can perhaps touch upon the strange morphology between the two.

To wit, some examples:

Enter the Void is just like a videogame. Not in the obvious frame of being like a run-and-gun action game with its’ fixed first, then third person perspective, but rather that it’s just like Tetris. No, it’s not about the arrangement of tessellating blocks into an orderly fashion to a thumping Russian electro-folk soundtrack [no, not even on a structural level] but rather it has a persistence of vision, sound and unconscious engagement which lingered well beyond the immediate experience of interaction. I say this as someone who consistently plays the Tetris (averaging maybe 5 minutes a day) and as a consequence I consistently experience the Tetris Effect. Which is to say that in moments of daydreaming or slight boredom I tend to unwittingly visualise the organisation of falling blocks. It’s not hallucinatory, nor disarming, it’s just handy half-conscious alarm bell for when something is starting to push my patience. I’m told it’s just another mode of half-conscious problem solving, much akin to how I’ve had the very question of this blog-post rattling about in my head for the last 24 hours. On another level it’s like that agonisingly persistent ear-worm, that bloody tune you just can’t get out of your head. Only I get it with Tetris, and blocks.

Again the glib reading here is that ‘Tetris brushes on the edges of hallucination, therefore it is like Enter The Void’, but that’s not it either. The comparison is that both pose an indirect problem, and that you leave the experience picking it apart in the back of your thoughts. A strangely pertinent scientific study has revealed that playing Tetris can reduce the risk of flashbacks for those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, and while traumatic is to exaggerate the effect of Enter the Void, it does at least underscore my point that both are functioning on levels which your average film doesn’t even come close to. For that I absolutely love the film, even if it is a bit of a slog in its unfettered 2 hours and 40 minutes runtime.

Next case in point is Ben Affleck’s rather zippy heist movie The Town, which again is just like a videogame. More precisely it’s just like any heist mission you care to mention from the Grand Theft Auto series. The dynamic between the central characters, the structure of the heists, the getaway car-chases with the tension of desperately trying to out-run cop cars in a sprawling urban environment. Or more succinctly still, a number of conflicts building in scale towards a rather disastrous and seemingly impossible final conflict, punctuated by scenes of internal group conflict, and bookended by a number of dead-end shoot-outs. The parallels may seem cursory, but the connection had a real resonance that fails the usual description of being ‘like a videogame’.

Of course the whole GTA series is ridiculously indebted to any number of crime films that have come before it, so it’s easy to say it’s just another regurgitation of the previous generation’s heist dramas. But this isn’t just Michael Mann through yet another prism, as he deals in quite a separate package of subtexts and narrative drives. To define the ‘feel’ of a film is always a slippery task, but The Town is definitely in the same sphere as GTA. To take the general barbs of criticism used in describing a film as being ‘like a videogame’ it didn’t feel or look like a cut-scene, and the narrative wasn’t subjugated to the Crash-Bang-Whollop of its action sequences. Perhaps on a simple level it comes down to the film being action-based and set in the working class ‘burbs of the US East Coast.

To take the very same barbed club, a film which lives up to the criticisms of shallowness and general thick-headedness is the recent Resident Evil: Afterlife, which to it’s credit makes no apology for this, revelling merrily as it does in the use of some clever 3D. There is no plot, there is next to no drama for the actors to engage with, and even the action sequences don’t make much sense in the grander scheme of things. Which is not to say that the film isn’t shamelessly entertaining.

The complication then comes in that Resident Evil is still a work of adaptation, drawn from a recognised series of videogames, and by said measure is not really like the original videogames at all. It’s not a jittery-nerve journey of nigh abject terror, but a clumping great action film built on the husk of an otherwise brilliant game franchise. The brilliance of the games is not defined by a lack of plot or by godawful acting, but rather on running around a haunted house with only six bullets in the clip and two points to save your game. This doesn’t stop critics judging it in terms derivative of a videogame, but it would be just as false to judge the novelistic aspects of Blade Runner on the back of its own source material in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The abstraction is so distant that the moniker ‘like a videogame’ becomes too hollow to actually bear any significance, and it’s quite tiring having to defend a medium on the back of such a distant (and slightly inbred) cousin.

The interrogation behind describing a film as novel-like is however a bit more rigorous, and a formalist approach can provide genuine insight to how loyal the structure of a film adaptation is. Arch-Formalist David Bordwell does a very fine job of breaking down both The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Polanski’s The Ghost in terms of pacing, and how the four-act structure of each reflects the conventional pace each holds as page-turning thrillers. Yet transpose this thinking to discussing a videogame and it’s rare that discussions ever go beyond the usual sheen of what we see on screen.

Case in point, the wonderfully enjoyable Scott Pilgrim vs The World is (over)saturated in referents from the world of videogames, and even jumps through a few hoops of the save-die-reload logic that gamers know so well. Less discussed is its function as an adaptation, and author Bryan Lee O’Malley has said the books (and consequently the film) owe a considerable debt to the structure of shōnen manga; the comics of action and romance aimed at teenage boys, filled with love rivals, fights and ongoing grudges. Not to get stuck in the trap of pursuing ever more obscure frames of reference for it’s own sake, but describing Scott Pilgrim as being broken down into ‘stages’ or ‘levels’ has perhaps less to do with Super Mario and more to do with Naruto and Death Note. But enough with the increasingly oblique references, the point is still that you shouldn’t just settle with the first referent that comes tumbling along.

Gaming as a whole is defined by its diversity of output, and when the glibbest of critics use ‘video game-y’ as shorthand for films being plotless and CGI laden they’re really just flagging up their own ignorance. I’m not denying that gamers have to endure a lot of narrative-scant talking-mannequin dramas, just for pities sake don’t use that definition as the measure by which to critique other media.

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