"What happens when I view a film?"
This was a question I had been thinking about for some time. I'm an admitted cinephile, I watch more movies than anyone I know. And just to be clear, this is not something I’m proud of; it's an urge from the shadows, a craving. There’s something unwholesome about it. But I started to wonder—what happens to me when I satisfy this craving? In particular, what happens when I satisfy a craving for a violent film?
One way I tried to understand the film experience was to survey some of the well-known theories out there. Of those, a few not only resonated, but significantly broadened my understanding of the medium. The ones by Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze come quickest to mind. But there was still something else, something more personal, that I had intuitions about and had never seen expressed in quite the right words.
My second approach was to observe my own responses to films. If I couldn't match my intuitions with others' words, perhaps I could do so with my own. So I started one of those by-now-antiquated writing platforms: a blog.
The point of the blog, originally titled "Films Viewed in 2017," was to record the thoughts I had to, as the title suggests, the films I viewed in 2017. Good or bad, new or old, artsy or popular, if I watched it during the 2017 calendar year, I would record my observations, no matter how minute, into at least mildly coherent form. Ultimately, I wanted to see if I could spot any themes or patterns that could be shaped into...if not an answer, than at least a working theory about what happens when I view a film.
This was all derailed though because I was only able to keep up the writing for half the year. One day I simply didn't have the drive to write another post, so I stopped and didn't pick it up again. At the time, I assumed that was because I had lost interest in the original question, but the issue may actually have been that I had begun to arrive at my “working theory.”
The idea is, in essence, this: When I view a film, I enter a world. That's it. It sounds simple and maybe it is, but in the months since stopping the blog, I've continued thinking about the idea of a film-world. What follows is an attempt to make the rough shapes of this idea a bit sharper.
This text focuses primarily, but not entirely, on films released in 2017. By way of a disclaimer, it is not academically thoroughgoing. Also, the notion that films can be thought of as worlds is not exactly original, but hopefully the spin I put on it is. For a more scholarly study of similar concepts, I would recommend Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema by Daniel Yacavone and The Reality of Film: Theories of Filmic Reality by Richard Rushton. Here, however, are my ideas:
First, a few words about worlds...
What are these things? What are worlds?
This question could of course be answered in many ways, but I'll phrase my response like this: Worlds are the forms of energy I encounter in time. Worlds are the way the energy of people, nature, and culture, to give a few broad examples, are bracketed by my mind to fit into time. To give a few specific examples, currently I am in typing-on-computer-world, but typing-on-computer-world can be quickly morphed by another world with its own uniquely shaped energy: talking-on-phone-world, eating-a-salad-world, watching-breaking-news-world, entering-a-condo-world, or suddenly-facing-down-a-tidal-wave-world. All of these worlds become worlds because our minds server and reassemble space into formed chunks, worlds. As we exist in time, the mind has to be selective; we don’t have enough processing power in our brains to grasp the entirety of everything. And so the brain severs and reassembles, severs and reassembles, endlessly shaping the energy around us into the smaller worlds through which we continually exist at any given moment. These worlds are conjured from external sources, like, say, a big red ball in front of my face, or internal sources, like a moment when I imagine the big red ball in front of my face. Or when I imagine the big red ball in front of my face in the 19th century, or Ancient Greece, or in the year 6709. My mind is agnostic as to which of these big red balls is more real because it all ends up as worlds—the location where my experience happens to be at any given moment. And I exist as a world too. As I move through time, other worlds are forced to bear the brunt of my world energy. Worlds pass through me and I pass through them, layering worlds one on top of another, every day, countless times a day. Some of these worlds are impactful only for the duration of the encounter, while others aren't noticed at all. And others still are powerful enough to linger in my mind long after the encounter, perhaps even traumatizing me.
The focus of this text is on film-worlds.
Like all worlds, film-worlds occur in here, in my mind. Film-worlds, in fact, provide a decent metaphor for the way the mind builds worlds. In both film and conscious experience, a complex apparatus brackets and selects out what details of the broader world are most important for my own world to interpret and respond to.
Borrowing from the field of cognitive science, the film theorist and historian David Bordwell describes the film viewing process like this: images/sounds flow in and schemata shaped in my mind through both evolutionary processes and cultural influence then frame these images/sounds to make hypotheses about what sorts of things I might encounter next. Just as it would happen in the real world (or, as I'll refer to it in this text, the "world of the flesh"), if I see a shot in a film of someone looking sallow and holding their stomach, I have schemata built into my mind that infer this person is hungry. If I then see shots of the person passing a bakery, looking in the window, down to their empty wallet, and, finally, over to the door as the baker rushes outside, chasing his dog, leaving the store unattended, I have schemata that anticipate a conflict: will the person steal bread from the bakery?
Conflict. Conflicts like the one in the above example are key for successfully conjuring film worlds. When I imagine a conflict—will the person steal the bread or not—my mind is invited to envision multiple versions of a world: one where the person steals the bread, one where the person resists the temptation, one where they're caught by the police, and a potentially endless number of other versions. Without conflict, the world would be flatter, thinner, and less able to hold my attention. The more possible worlds I'm invited to imagine through conflict, the larger the world can become.
This understanding of film viewing as an act of imagining different possibilities was also stressed by the filmmaker and theorist Alexander Kluge. In texts such as "On Film and the Public Sphere" (1981), Kluge, following the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, focuses on the importance of the space between shots. In order for a film's grammar to make sense, my mind, according to Kluge, has to create a connection, an imagined world in that space, filling it all in, and adding to it. The resulting world I imagine is the world I actually experience and absorb into my world and my world view. Because of this, those interested in discerning the social and political effects of film should be concerned with the "film in the head of the spectator" rather than the light shining on the screen. It's "in the head" that I become an active participant in the making of a film-world. And importantly for Kluge, that participation can lead me to imagine the sociopolitical status quo or encourage me to imagine more productive alternatives. This in-the-head process is not unique to film. Like all worlds, Kluge writes: "Film takes recourse to the spontaneous workings of the imaginative faculty which has existed for tens of thousands of years."
Now, before getting too carried away about film, I should admit...It's no secret that feature films are being replaced in culture by memes, VR, podcasts, video games, television, social media, short form video, and so on. In short, the movies are going the way of the opera or the novel. Once this process of mass-cultural decline gets going, there's really no turning back; as viewers less-steeped in film culture bring less-complicated schemata to the viewing of a film, the resulting film-worlds (at least in feature-length form) that can be imagined, much less distributed, will also be less-complicated. However, we're not quite there yet. There's still a level of power in a film-world that, for me anyway, remains unrivaled on a mass level. Not to sound overly nostalgic, but this is especially true if the film is viewed in a darkened theater with an audience. For example, I saw two 70mm screenings of Christopher Nolan's 2017 film Dunkirk last year, not for the post-Brexit British patriotism, but for the immersive experience of being cast into World War II. The hours I spent in the Battle of Dunkirk (along with a handful of other film experiences I had in 2017), were more powerfully engrossing than any other cultural form I can remembering experiencing last year.
To realize a film-world so thoroughly requires a powerful filmmaking ability and Christopher Nolan is able to deliver...But here is something else I've come to believe about films...That power is where the danger lies also. Sometimes the world I imagine can have a less-than-desirable impact on my world. I'll return to this idea at the conclusion, but to expand a bit more here, films are generally harmless, but sometimes they can leave an impact. A complicated example is the 2017 film Detroit. That's a violent film-world with ostensibly good, even brave intentions that nonetheless conjures a world of conflicts so dark and misanthropic that they can adversely effect my own world. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her writing collaborator Mark Boal cast me in the midst of a race riot in 1967 Detroit. Even more than in Dunkirk, they create a bodily "you-are-there" experience. With incredible verisimilitude, I watch the people of Detroit rioting and the corresponding, far more brutal police response. The fact that these groups are divided on racial lines becomes the film's obsessive point. In the bus ads for Detroit, it was claimed that "It's time we knew" and "This is America." And, indeed, by passing through this horrifyingly violent film-world, I did learn about a political and historical moment that was new to me, and distressingly relevant; however, in a film-world experience, especially a bloody, upsetting one, there's always collateral damage that accompanies the transmission of any intellectual concepts. Those violent moments in which I recognize the evil in my own society make a forceful point but, in the case of Detroit, that point doesn't meaningfully evolve or build the world of the film beyond its first appearance. What does continue building, and what I'm left to process for two-and-a-half hours is rather, for the most part, the affect of black bodies being brutalized as an aesthetic spectacle. Kathryn Bigelow is perhaps the great active filmmaker in the United States right now, but watching her latest film left me with some questions. By imagining a world like the one in Detroit, what am I actually absorbing into my world? What would someone that's not thinking critically about films absorb? What would someone who's experienced police brutality first-hand absorb? And, perhaps most importantly, of what we did absorb, what, on balance, are we then sharing with other peoples' worlds? I'll return to these questions below, but wanted to bring them up now. In an ecology of worlds, I have the power to choose what worlds I'll imagine and absorb. This isn't a call for censorship or abstention from complicated films, but rather a certain type of "ecological world-awareness." Just because the energy of a film-world interfaces with my imagination doesn’t mean it can’t impact my body's actions; it can. And further, just because I view a film-world in private doesn't mean my private absorption of the world can't later become public, spreading its energy from my world to others'; it can. Committing violent acts as the result of watching a film would clearly be the extreme example of how this works, but, I believe, our worlds absorb film-worlds in all sorts of ways.
Engineering a Film-World
Before thinking through the ethics of film-viewing in any more depth, though, let's first take a step back to acquire a better picture of how film-worlds function on a more granular level. By doing so, we'll have more vocabulary to pinpoint what happens when a film-world impacts my world, be that impact helpful or harmful.
So...How are film-worlds built?
Well, there are two rules-of-thumb from which all else stems.
The first of these rules is this: To build a film-world, never stop building the film-world. During the runtime of the film there should never be a point at which I know the point at which the world's boundaries end and I know what this world has to offer, in full. This world-building is most obviously associated with story and character, but it could manifest in many ways, such as the film's visual style. No matter how the film builds its world, though, it has to keep building, evolving, if for nothing else than to cue me to the idea that its energy could go on forever, that it too is an actual world. If the film-world doesn't do that and its conflicts circle around themselves, settling on a point, the world will cease to become, to evolve, and it will instead collapse.
One of the most tried-and-true ways to build a film-world is to carefully manage the exposition, or the background information that provides context for the characters' conflicts. If the world can start small and gradually open, like a flower blooming, telling me more and more information on the situation in this world, that will help sustain the building of the world. An example of how this can be done is 2017's Split, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Initially, Split develops a world vis-à-vis the exploration of protagonist Kevin's multiple personalities. As I move through the scenes, each of Kevin's splinter personalities becomes more of a character with his or her own conflicts and narrative through-lines. However, as the mechanics of the plot unspool and I get the gist of how the multiple personalities connect and relate to the young women Kevin's most insidious personalities keeps captive, this sense of a building world slows down and conflicts start circling around themselves. I begin to feel like scenes are repeating the same points and there's no more exposition to understand. That's when seams in the world begin to appear, its energy dissipates, and I start to feel the urge to exit. What, in the end, sustains Split as a film-world, though, is that, in actuality, there's another conflict coming, another avenue to imagine different forms of the world, and this final twist acts as a twist on the whole idea of the "Shyamalan twist". In an instant, Split dramatically expands its world to encompass an even larger one. I won't spoil the (admittedly nerdy) twist, but do want to underline the fact that Split sustained itself because, just when I thought it was going to stop building, it opened an entirely new level of viewing it as a world, in the process becoming part of a larger universe. In a sense, that paradigm-shifting leap is the power of a twist ending in any film, the way it suddenly takes a more macroscopic view of things, like having gone through life only experiencing Earth on the ground and then one day seeing it from outer space, as a world in a larger solar system, a galaxy, and so on. A whole new array of conflicts present themselves. This last-minute scaling-up in the world can penetrate a blast of energy into my world because it catches my defenses off-guard.
Needless to say, a leap like that or even the flow of a more everyday film-world experience has to be built with some logic. If the roof of a house is haphazardly jerry-rigged up four feet higher on one side than it is on the other, and there's not enough roofing material to hold it all together, the roof will collapse. Likewise, if a film-world's characters are having a screaming fight in one scene and happily eating spaghetti bolognese in the next, and there's no explanation as to why that sudden emotional shift occurred, the film-world will collapse because there won't be enough logical consistency to prop it up. A film-world has to be structured carefully, lovingly.
For example, all the steamy sex of 2017's Fifty Shades Darker ends up feeling muted because of the bizarrely executed emotional logic of the protagonists, Anastasia and Christian, breaking up, and then Christian creepily buying all of the photos of Anastasia at an art show, and then her almost instantaneously agreeing to get back with him. Not that all of this couldn't happen, but the way the film's conflicts are portrayed felt illogical, unimaginable. In turn, its energy dissipates and the film-world falls apart. Perhaps it's a cheap shot to critique Fifty Shades Darker at all, but the previous film in the franchise, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, was just as ridiculous in its plotting, but presented its conflicts with an overall emotional and logical consistency that allowed the energy of the kinky sex to feel like enjoyable camp.
But anyway...question: If a film-world does collapse, what is it exactly that it collapses under?
The quick answer is boredom. If I don't feel like conflicts in the film-world are evolving, the tinge of anxiety associated with boredom enters my world and collapses the world's grip into it. I begin to look around, down to my phone, anywhere to find another world to interact with and quell this feeling of boredom. But behind boredom, there's a more general concept. And this leads us to rule-of-thumb two: Time is the filmmaker's enemy. When a film-world collapses, it collapses under the weight of time.
You can think about it this way: I sit in a room, not talking, looking straight ahead, watching a screen for multiple hours. It seems implausible that my mind would allow me to project a whole world around these images. And yet it happens. It's not an in-the-flesh world like a mountain, but it's there, confronting me, enveloping me in its presence. If the film-world's energy is powerful, I slip into it. The feeling of time in the room disappears and the energy commingles with my world. However, if the film-world stops building or is built poorly, time fills back into the room and destroys the film-world, shooting me out of its boundaries. Time, for a film-world, is therefore something like entropy, a force that adds noise to the clarity of the world's signal, breaking things down, demanding more and more novelty from the world.
Now this is not to say that a film-world need be jam-packed with endless plot twists or a huge cast of characters in order to sustain itself. It just has to, as I've been saying, continue logically building its series of conflicts in a rhythm, evolving things, drawing me in deeper through the entire runtime. In 2017's The Florida Project director Sean Baker tells a minimally-structured story about a young mother and her daughter living in The Magic Castle, a budget hotel outside of Orlando, Florida. Not a whole lot happens in terms of plot twists or dramatic character development and, yet, the world sustains. This is in part because Baker keeps building out secondary aspects of the world and intersecting them, coming back to them, drawing me in deeper through the world around the characters. He takes me through guests rooms, the manager's office, the cleaning staff closet, the neighboring hotel, upscale hotels, local restaurants, dollar stores, foreclosed condos, the local natural world, the private lives of myriad characters, and so on, right up until the final series of erratic shots that expand the film-world even further, both geographically and emotionally. By the point of that finale, I felt like I had not only been transported into a world, but gotten to know the lay of the land. By doing this, by creating this broader context around his minimal story and character conflicts, Baker allows the story and characters to feel more maximal. If he hadn't done that, I might have felt the weight of time too much, gotten bored, and snapped out of my immersion.
That snapping-out-of-the-world sensation is not unlike Dorothy peeking behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz; in an instant, she feels the magic timeless world transform into a fake constructed object and it all comes crashing down. But in The Florida Project that doesn't happen. The world defeats time.
Before moving on, one digression: Film-worlds can identify themselves as fake, constructed, postmodern objects. I didn't mean to suggest in the previous lines that being identified as fake or constructed automatically makes a film-world collapse. It's just that the film-world has to manage that information about itself so it doesn't destroy itself. The Wizard of Oz is an example of a film where that happens. As much as the themes of the story nudge me to view the humdrum, constructed reality behind all the cinematic wizardry, it, nonetheless, crafts a secondary world with its own conflicts that I've also been entering, albeit on a more under-the-radar level. More recent examples would be postmodern comic book films like 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, or, even more explicitly, the previous year's Deadpool. The super hero action genre in which these films operate is by now well-tread, so they set the characters in conflict with the genre, breaking the fourth wall, commenting on cliches in order to open up new types of energy: mirrored corridors that acknowledge the fact that they are fictional. I may think I'm escaping a film-world when I view it as constructed, but, in cases where it works properly, I'm actually only being drawn into a different type of world, a different set of conflicts, ones that happen to be meta-aware.
But to return to the basics of film-world engineering...We're going to need some tools.
In order to build out a world through its full runtime, the filmmaker requires more than just imagination, they're going to have to master some of the tools of the trade. Examples of tools are flashbacks, fades to black, telephoto lens shots, and CGI animations. There are obviously many more. For the sake of this text, let's narrow things down to a handful of overarching tool categories, or "toolkits." We can focus on three. The first is story, which I've already brought up. But beyond story, I'd also like to think about a film-world's texture and performance. Story, texture, and performance.
Here's an image that may be helpful in thinking about these three world-building toolkits: First, try to imagine a film-world as a literal world, a 3D object floating in space. We can then break down the overall presence or gestalt of this world into three primary components. The story can be thought of as the world's overall form—how large or small, complex or elegant it is; the texture is the world's ambient landscape—how damp or dry, fuzzy or jagged it is; and, finally, the performance is the world's gravitational field—the force that draws in my attention and holds me there.
Let's dig a little deeper. We can start by taking a look at the last of these toolkits, performance, first:
Acting for film is a bizarre task. The primary goal of screen-acting isn't necessarily to be realistic or develop chemistry with other performers, but to draw me into the world of the film. Performers capture my glance and keep me grounded within the world's orbit. If the performer is a bonafide movie star, this gravitational field effect becomes even more powerful, ultimately acting like a black hole. Just as the gravity of black holes ruthlessly attracts matter in the physical world, movie stars suck attention into film-worlds. In fact, maybe they shouldn't be called movie stars, but "movie black holes" because they don't project out, but suck me into the world of the film.
To think a bit more about this...As I scan a landscape, any landscape, what catches my eye more than anything are other people. Perhaps this is due to instincts formed through evolutionary processes, like how at the most basic level of human psychology, my genetic material cues my mind to be perpetually on the lookout for potential dangers or potential mates. It requires a person with a particularly strong aura to ground my attention like this. And just as a screen story expands the world through conflicts, so too does a screen performance. As I said before, a conflict allows a world to expand in my mind because it demands that I imagine multiple outcomes, multiple versions of the world. When the two poles of a conflict strike and strike again and then do it again in a rhythm, my mind keeps enlarging the world, staying in its rhythm, shuttling between the poles deeper and deeper. Examples of conflicts in a performance are the way the star’s eyes project both domesticity and wildness, honesty and deceitfulness, or beauty and smarts. If one side of the conflict overwhelms the other and the star’s eyes settle on one thing: "good" or "bad," then the world stops building, I'm cast out of the performer's gravitational grip, and, in turn, out of the world.
One reason movie stars generate so much power is that their conflicts travel from film to film, echoing with deeper and deeper energies each time they appear in a new film. A younger movie star that some viewers can't stand, but, for me, conveys a strong conflict is Ryan Reynolds. He's angel and devil, innocent and guilty in equal balance and when these poles conflict with one another, energy is created. He keeps the viewer’s attention. In the early scenes of the 2017 sci-fi film Life, Reynolds' conflict gives the film its eponymous force, but after his character dies early on, the film's life seems to die too, relying too much on a computer animated killer bug to generate energy.
Of all the movie star's tools to express their conflict, the most important hands-down are their eyes. The movie star's eyes are the event horizon, the point of maximum conflict within the image. They're viscous and slippery and communicate deepness: I'm sucked in. When the movie star cries, the event horizon is open to its widest point. As Elio cries before a burning fire in the long final shot of 2017's Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Gudagnino uses budding movie star Timothée Chalamet's eyes to open a final chasm into what was already a well-developed world. The force of the star's conflict sucks at my world with maximal force. The filmmaker has to be careful, though. If they have a scene where a character cries, they need to be sure the performer's conflict is generating enough energy to earn that moment. If I see the performer cry and it feels backed up by a merely lackluster energy, it will be a calamity for the film-world, worse than if they never cried at all. I'll be repulsed by how fake, how unimaginable their conflict is and the world will collapse.
I should note that, as in the case of Timothée Chalamet, a movie star doesn't need to be a celebrity or have a pre-existing screen persona. In some cases, the pull comes from watching a new star born. Gal Gadot in 2017's Wonder Woman was a relative unknown who succeeded in doing this. She fills the screen and pulls me in. So too does Daniela Vega in 2017's A Fantastic Woman and Tiffany Haddish in 2017's Girls Trip. That said, when a star does bring a pre-existing screen persona into the film-world, that pulling thrust can be greatly accelerated. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep actually double this effect in 2017's The Post. The trick of that film is to turn eat-your-vegetables dramatic material into a seductive, engaging film-world. This happens by the stars sucking me in and, despite my instincts, keeping me grounded there through the power and depth of their conflicts. Streep's conflict is that she's a conservative woman who secretly yearns for adventure; Hanks's conflict, meanwhile, is that he's a normal man with secretly abnormal depth who never wants that secret revealed. Another established movie star who delivered a powerful performance in 2017 is Daniel Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread. Day-Lewis's conflict is animalistic masculinity versus civilized femininity. In The Phantom Thread, that conflict becomes, in some ways, the subject of the film. The amazing thing about all three performances I just mentioned—Hanks, Streep, and Day-Lewis—is how they all bring so much of their past work onto the screen, yet are still able to fully immerse themselves in the specific character and world of the given film. As much as I see and feel the gravitational weight of Daniel Day-Lewis on the screen, what I end up feeling more is his character, Reynolds Woodcock. One of the worst things that can happen to a film-world is when the star's energy doesn't match or help build the film-world, as a whole. If I'm watching a film and feeling a person "acting" in front of a camera as opposed to building-out the overall film-world, that mismatch in energy will cause the world to collapse. The actor Jon Hamm sometimes finds himself in this situation. Despite the fact that his performance in the television series Mad Men was mythically deep and set the series' entire tone, other times he's appeared on-screen, such as in 2017's Baby Driver, the strength of his persona seems to clash with the world that the filmmakers are trying to build. In fact, times that he has worked as a performer outside of Mad Men are when the clash of his persona and the world is so obvious that it's played for laughs, as in television collaborations with Tina Fey in 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Now, as mentioned, after the movie star has sucked me in, they must never relent in their commitment to the idea that, like any other actual world, the world of their character persists through the battering of time. They must never stop building, moving forward, staying present to me just like a real person would. In 2017's Good Time, Robert Pattinson achieves this. What's remarkable is that he's able to do so without significantly evolving his conflict. Typically there has to be an evolution in the star's conflict, an “arc,” even if that arc is subject to stubborn resistance. Day-Lewis in The Phantom Thread captures my attention because, although he desperately clings to his need for independence, he ultimately succumbs to his deep need for mothering. Robert Pattinson in Good Time, by contrast, remains at one continuous register: a singularly powerful yet fiercely private ball of energy. His rhythm is a drone. In every scene of Good Time, Pattinson's eyes communicate a surface-level focus on survival to the next moment, the next escape. At the same time, they suggest a deeper level intelligence, an endless plotting out of a larger strategy, an escape plan. Through it all, he's tight, anxious, ungiving. If the "good time" of the title ultimately refers to open communication and acceptance of others, Pattinson's eyes shut all of that out, never letting anyone in, always staying a step ahead of everyone else, always on the knife edge, always in the solipsistic "bad time" of Hell. You'll never see his character cry, he'll never open his eyes that wide, but he and his directorial collaborators The Safdie Brothers keep sucking me in until the end anyway.
The movie star is the bluntest object in the world-building toolkit. Many successful films of course lack movie stars, or any human performers at all (such as 2017's Kedi), but if you want the easiest way to suck an audience into your film world, find a movie star. That said, once a movie star has me pulled into the world, I need somewhere to land and stretch my legs. If I can't do that, I'll flounder and the world will collapse. This ambient landscape around the star is what I'm calling here the film-world's texture: its harshness, softness, dampness, dryness, or any other textural descriptor you want to throw in there. In my description of The Florida Project above, it was the texture that sustained the world. And as with every other aspect of a film-world, the engine that sustains the building of a texture is conflict. In texture, conflict is less clear-cut than in performance or story. If I think of The Florida Project as a 3D world, it's the textural conflict between the lushly poetic cinematography and the down-and-out vulgarity of prosaic Florida coastal life that ultimately generates as much, if not more, energy than the story's minimal shape or the stars' gravitational pull.
A film whose textural conflict functions in a similar way is 2017's Félicité, set in Kinshasa, the capital city of Democratic Republic of the Congo. That film-world is immediately defined through a powerful movie star performance by newcomer Vero Tshanda Beya. She's at once both earthy and ethereal and that performance conflict grounds me in the film. What holds me there is the complimentary conflict in the texture: bustling yet dreamlike; from street life, to night life, to domestic life, the vibrant jerry-rigged sprawl of Kinshasa conflicts with the gliding, poetic camera work and sound design to open a powerful word I inhabited for a couple hours.
Now, granted, in most films, the texture doesn't have this much responsibility, and there's not a clear conflict per se. The energy comes more from the performer or the story, and as such, the use of the camera or production design is more or less charged merely with corresponding to the human eye's interpretation of the external world. These "invisible" shots are then spliced together in the classical film grammar to communicate a coherent, psychologically consistent narrative. There's nothing inherently wrong with this as a textural approach. In a performer/story-driven film like 2017's The Big Sick, director Michael Showalter makes himself all-but invisible, letting these other elements create an effective emotional energy. But in a film like 2017's John Wick 2 or Mother!, the directors, respectively Chad Staheleski and Darren Aronofsky, free their cameras from a rationally-human perspective and use it to explore the conflicts in textures of their worlds in ways that expand the world. When this more expressive texture harmonizes with the story and performance, it helps build out the overall film-world rather than the world-killing sin of merely aggrandizing the filmmaker's sense of him or herself as a stylist.
Now it should also be said that effectively exploring a textural conflict like the one Alain Gomis creates in Félicité from scratch is very difficult, and many viewers, continually bombarded by media content all day on their phones, can't risk entering a fully alien texture for fear its energy will be too boring or too irrelevant for the needs of their own worlds. For filmmakers (or film financiers) with this in mind, it often becomes far more convenient and practical to build a film-world within the texture of a pre-existing film-universe. An example from 2017 is the way Star Wars: The Last Jedi built off of the forty years already spent building the Star Wars universe's story and texture conflicts. This latest film in the franchise, directed by Rian Johnson, uses the audience's pre-existing, almost ritualistic knowledge of the series' textural conflict—futuristic technology set against pastoral mysticism—to build what would otherwise be a much too complicated world. The key with these pre-packaged textures, though, is that they still have to evolve. A filmmaker should never allow the audience to know the world's texture in full. I should never have that power over the world, the ability to point at it and say "I know you"; on the contrary, the texture should have power over me. Of course, more often than not, producing sequels and re-boots is a cynical business, resulting in uninspired stories and performances that coast on familiar textures. But there are films like 2017's Logan, in which director James Mangold builds onto the textural conflicts of the X-Men universe by pushing the gritty realism of the texture far further than it had ever gone before. Another exception is 2017's Blade Runner 2049. In that film, director Denis Villeneuve takes the original Blade Runner's utopian/dystopian textural conflict and expands it temporally, geographically, and conceptually in surprising yet totally consistent ways. From the minimal elegance of Wallace's lair, to the riot of detail in the waste facility orphanage, to the rain-streaked holograms of Tokyo-fied L.A., Blade Runner 2049 uncovers the methods to expand one vast world even further. By doing so, it allows the reality-and-identity themes embedded in the original film's story to expand just as wide.
So far in my discussion of texture—be it an alien texture or one built on top of a pre-existing film-universe—I've mostly described large-scale landscapes. To be clear, though, the filmmaker doesn't have to develop a massive texture like the one in Blade Runner 2049 or Félicité. In fact, the texture could be confined to a single room, as occurs (for the most part) in 2017's The Death of Louis XIV, directed by Albert Serra. Led by Jean-Pierre Leaud's movie star performance as the aging Sun King, The Death of Louis XIV explores the angles and moods of this one room, never settling on a single way of reading its opulence, or its claustrophobia. The film is always turning and turning to the end, worming its way past the most obvious layers of interpretation, into deeper levels. As it does so, the texture indulges in Louis XIV's own material indulgences, bathing me in warm woods, velvety reds, and the soft lavender frizz of aristocratic wigs . However, because Serra knows that this visual decadence is not enough to sustain a film-world, he also builds out the textural landscape in the opposite direction, flashing imagery of a gangrenous leg or other sign of a decaying body. This textural conflict between decadent luxury and viscous death is what gives the film-world energy.
To digress...a word I just used in my discussion of bodily decay in The Death of Louis XIV was "viscous." I have some thoughts about this word. Earlier, when I described the eyes of the movie star, I also used the word "viscous." That wasn't an accident. "Viscous" is, for me, an important concept in film. It refers to a certain wet, organic under-the-skin realness in the texture that lends the two-dimensional images of the film-world a sense of depth equal parts compelling and repelling. Whenever a filmmaker shoots a movie star, it helps to get light in their eyes to show off the shimmering fragility, the viscosity. The viscous is, for me, an abundance of vision, an overwhelming blast of vision that in its intensity creates a slick hole in the screen for me to slip into at a fast, out-of-control pace. Viscousness is conflict. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: "The viscous is a state half-way between solid and liquid. It is like a cross-section in a process of change..." And elsewhere: "I want to get rid of the viscous and it sticks to me, it draw me, it sucks at me." The powerful attraction viewers seem to have toward sex and violence on-screen may not have as much to do with sexual or violent acts in and of themselves as it does with the desired/dreaded sight of the viscous. It's not blood or sweat, but the glistening sliminess of the viscous that, like a car accident, I can't seem to peel my eyes away from. The excessive visual quality of the viscous grabs me on a level below the surface, below intellectual reasoning. There's perhaps something coded very deeply in human experience, evolved from time immemorial for defensive or reproductive advantage, that the sight of the viscous speaks with. In contemporary pornography, the filmmakers often rely on the sight of extreme viscosity: lubricated, dripping all-over wetness and the damp insides of the body. Its not sex but the viscous that these filmmakers are showcasing. But often in these cases, the conflict of the viscous becomes too one-sided and the energy of the world dissipates, becoming merely functional. In mainstream films, when violence does come, the overwhelming combination of shock, repulsion, and delight is much greater when viscosity is released—a head being chopped off and blood spraying everywhere—than when it's not, when it's "dry". The same can be said in the difference between a dry-looking kiss and one that displays sticky saliva. A parent's instinct to shield their child from the sight of physical intimacy is stronger when there's viscosity. It's not the kiss, but wetted lips and the underside of the tongue that seem so intense. To some extent, the themes of the 2017 film My Friend Dahmer revolve around these very issues. We follow serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the year or so before he kills and eats his first victim. In addition to being a portrayal of irony-soaked "confident nerd" culture in high school, My Friend Dahmer explores how seeing the wet insides of organic things is the locus of Dahmer's later acts, not murder, gay sex, or cannibalism, per se.
Now long-lasting blast of the viscous, as occurs in Julia Ducournau's 2017 film Raw, will probably be too energetic for most viewers. As the latest update of the "New French Extremity" genre, Raw pushes the boundaries of on-screen viscous violence to, among other things, confront the viewer with the reality of eating animal flesh. In order to receive those ideas, though, I have to bring a lot of complicated schemata, to the table; otherwise it will, as I said, be too much, too energetic and I'll be repulsed. Because of this, filmmakers often employ storytelling techniques such as suspense to control the flow of the viscous and create greater conflict. 2017's It Comes at Night creates a small, claustrophobic suspense machine in which director Trey Edward Shults infuses every scene with as much threat of impending viscous energy as possible. One way he does this is through scenes shot in near total darkness. If the viscous is an overflowing abundance of visuality, the dark is its absence. When I'm in the dark, the threat and corresponding anxiety around the visuality of the viscous becomes greater.
Similarly, when the threat/desire is sexual viscosity, the corresponding control mechanism is titillation. In 2017's The Beguiled, director Sophia Coppola pairs a sticky, overgrowing Southern texture with a story about a handsome, sexually-potent enemy soldier recovering from a wound in a house occupied solely by women representing different stages of sexual desire. While the soldier is wounded, his threat is negligible but as he heals, the threat of his phallus becomes palpable among the women and the film's story is structured through increasing the titillation, the threat of sexual fluids being released increases in every scene until he either has to have sex with the women or they have to castrate him.
Another example of a filmmaker creating a conflict with the viscous can be found in the extreme bloody violence of 2017‘s Blade of the Immortal, directed by Takashi Miike. Through the world-weary affect of its star Takuya Kimura, the film connects its high body count with the melancholy of immortality; it makes the viscous banal so that the substance of the film-world becomes about that endless banality. Or there's the scene in 2017's Personal Shopper when Kristen Stewart’s character changes into her celebrity employer's sexy, revealing clothes and gets turned on enough to start masturbating. It’s titillating but when viewed in relation to the intentionally disjointed, disconnected scenes that all seem to explore themes of non-communication or communication with non-entities, the aloneness of this sex act becomes the qualitative affect that's communicated.
I discussed story earlier, in terms of how the management of exposition is one of the central strategies for building a world, but let's now return to this toolkit and look at it through some other lenses.
Story gives the energy of a film-world its shape. After the performer grounds me in the world and the texture gives me a place to stretch my legs, the story then shapes the landscape that my legs will traverse from there on out. The story's shape can be minimal or baroque in its complexity; it doesn't matter, all that matters is that its rhythm is shaped in such a way that as I follow its path, that path keeps building into a fully-realized world form. If the story is minimal, if there are just a few twists, turns, and conflicts in the landscape, I can grow bored and the film will collapse. Despite the incredible texture that director Terrence Malick generates in 2017's Song to Song, its story is very minimal, almost formless. If you're going to do this, each conflict has to have a lot of deep energy. In Malick's earlier Tree of Life, there is a primordial conflict between female and male, yin and yang, and that deep conflict creates enough energy to sustain that film's similarly loose narrative structure. In Song to Song, though, the deep-seated conflict is not as inspired so the film can't sustain its minimal shape and the world, for me, collapsed. However, in other instances a minimal story form can be elegant, such as the one used in Brawl in Cell Block 99, directed by S. Craig Zahler. The protagonist in that film, played by Vince Vaughn, has to brutally harm or even kill people in prison so that the authorities send him deeper and deeper into the bowels of the prison system until he at last reaches the final ring, the sort of "hell" of the system, in cell block 99. It's there that he can meet his most fearsome enemy and, in the process of defeating this enemy, save his wife. It's a very simple story, but every scene is driven by a central story conflict: the man has to destroy his own soul to save his wife. The two sides of this conflict are like two flint stones continually striking together to make a chain of sparks, energy, a world shape I can follow to completion.
Genres are handy in building film-worlds because they provide familiar story templates. Different genre templates tap into different energy conflicts. Of course each genre has different sub-genres, but here are some shorthand ways of correlating a few other genres to their basic conflicts: in horror life conflicts with death; in romance love conflicts with cynicism; in thrillers escape conflicts with confinement; in science fiction future conflicts with past; in comedy absurdity conflicts with seriousness; and in mysteries, logic conflicts with chaos. The way the story sets these sides of the conflict in opposition allows me to powerfully imagine different ways this world could build and, as such, sustains the building process. To take one other example of a genre...in the coming-of-age film, there is a conflict between the desire for childhood freedom, with its lack of responsibility, versus the desire for adult freedom, with its sea of open possibility. An example of a coming-of-age films that explores this conflict about as well as any other in recent memory is 2017's Ladybird, directed by Greta Gerwig. In each scene of Gerwig's film, based on her own coming-of-age in safe but boring Sacramento, the conflict twists around its nuances in logical yet surprising ways. It’s pleasurable but aching because the conflict is never quite resolved, or released in simple ways, and I'm sucked deeper into the vibrations of the world. That mood is infused in every page of Gerwig's script and in every facial reaction of her star, Saoirse Ronan.
Oftentimes films combine genres to draw energy from multiple conflicts. In the 2017 mystery/horror/coming-of-age film Happy Death Day, a college student relives the day of her murder over and over Groundhog Day-style. After getting over the initial shock of her situation, the student becomes an amateur sleuth, trying to cover as much ground before each day resets (that is, before she's killed again) in the hope of identifying her killer. In the process of investigating her own murder and evading her killer, she has to come-of-age and shed some of her childish viewpoints. While I followed her story, its energy came from the interplay of these three genre conflicts working in harmony.
A final, quick point I'd like to make about story is that there are different levels of my mind that stories can converse with. Sometimes stories converse with cerebral everyday waking life (2017's The Meyerowitz Stories), and sometimes they converse with archetypal dream life (2017's A Cure for Wellness). Some of the most powerful films are able to combine both, addressing evolution's most recent, high-level cognitive adaptations and its oldest, most primordial unconscious triggers. A film that triumph's in this regard is 2017's Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele. Peele addresses contemporary political and intellectual concerns, but often does so in terms of the unconscious by positing the protagonist's entrapment in "The Sunken Place", where he remains blinded to the realities of racial injustice around him. In contrast to Detroit, Get Out stands as the far more engrossing and more widely-absorbed film-world.
Absorbing and Sharing Film-Worlds
There are clearly long books that could be written to encompass every story, texture, or performance technique used in the building of film-worlds. What I provided is merely a snapshot to give a sense of how films can be thought of as worlds. The aspect of this theory that remains perhaps the most provocative to me is that when I, as a world, absorb a film-world, my world's energy changes. And not only that, but when my world interacts with other worlds, I, in turn, share that changed energy. And then that world, in turn, will share the energy in some form or another, and so on. If I was the only one to absorb a film-world, no one else would need to be concerned because the power with which I could share it would be relatively negligible. But what about a film like Get Out, where millions of people absorb and share that energy through the culture? What if the film-world is more dark and troubling than Get Out? What happens then? Beyond film-worlds, what happens when, in the United States, the population is forced to continually absorb the twisted cartoon energy of Donald Trump all day, every day for years? What does that do to American society?
To return to more modest ground to close this text, and to step away from the present, one of the final films I viewed in 2017 was The Maltese Falcon (1941), written and directed by John Huston from a novel by Dashiell Hammett. At the end of the film, a hardened San Francisco detective picks up the actual statue of the Maltese Falcon, the object everyone’s desired through the entire film. "Heavy," says the detective, feeling its weight. "What is it?" To which the private eye Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, replies in the film's final line, "The stuff dreams are made of." Indeed. The Maltese Falcon may at times be described as a harbinger of gritty noir realism, but, in fact, its success lies in its unapologetic drama of the unconscious--of the stuff that dreams are made--in which aspects of gritty reality are embedded in an almost non-sensical San Francisco dream landscape. Through this landscape, tension is created through a search for the unattainable object of desire. This object, in the form of the Maltese Falcon statue, is fought over by various symbolic archetypes, each of which maps out a place in the masculine-feminine gender spectrum. The master of this object is Humphrey Bogart, who's not acting, but producing a filmic archetype through his eyes. As one of the most potent of all movie stars, Bogart sucks the viewer into a world of incident, misdirection, and nightmarish shadow. In this world, Bogart, as the cool, knowing, and violent masculine archetype, reigns over all the feminized, cosmopolitan men and hysterical, double-crossing women. He is symbolized by the streamlined death of the Falcon, the hunter of the skies.
While I was viewing The Maltese Falcon it struck me as a perfect representation of the ideas I've formed by watching films in 2017. It has Bogart, one of the all-time great movie stars, to suck the viewer into a highly-conflicted black and white texture of stark lines, light, and shadow. And its story addresses me on a primordial, foundational level, on the level of dreams, of the unconscious, of what it is I should desire from the male sex. However, is the world proffered by Bogart's Sam Spade, with his thoughtless misogyny and knee-jerk violence, the type of world I want to aborb and share with others, now, in 2018? Are these my desires?