Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stellet Licht: Film Forum, through January 20, 2008

Amid the first wave of response to Carlos Reygadas's remarkable Stellet licht (Silent Light), I seem to have been primarily interested in structural issues when I wrote about the film in my 2007 Toronto wrap-up in Senses of Cinema:

"Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' Stellet licht (Silent Light) is one of the acclaimed Cannes titles that has already received extensive coverage - and yet commentators have had difficulty finding a conceptual framework to integrate such hot-button aspects as its conspicuous borrowings from Dreyer's Ordet (1955), not to mention the seemingly self-sufficient virtuoso tableaux that begin and end the film. It's becoming increasingly clear that Reygadas skews more postmodernist than modernist, and perhaps his suggestions of a unified aesthetic enterprise (like the clock that is stopped early in the film and started again after the climax) are red herrings. The extraordinary physicality of his camera style, and his fascination with large-scale systems (natural, organic and mechanical), serve largely to defamiliarize the world; and his visuals can be seen as an attempt to remove camera movements and compositions from their traditional interpretive role, and to invest them with a weight and a physics that renders them autonomous."

After a second, exciting viewing at Film Forum last week (and after a year to get over the shock of Reygadas's nervy appropriation of the Ordet ending), I am less inclined to regard the "autonomy" of Reygadas's images as an aid to postmodernism, and more inclined to regard it as a stylistic end in itself. No matter how structured or unstructured a story he might work with, the impact of his cinema will always reside at the level of the image, of the moment. For some filmmakers, one would need to show an entire movie to provide evidence of their greatness; for others, a scene or a stretch of dialogue; for others, a juxtaposition of elements. For Reygadas, a single image, almost any image, will do. The power of his films does not have to accumulate.

If, as I wrote in Senses of Cinema, Reygadas uses shot duration and editing to ensure that his images are not the servants of the narrative, this can probably be attributed to an instinct for purification. Having attained an exceptional imagistic power, Reygadas prefers to simplify around this power in order to showcase it, rather than to complicate it by an accrual of effects and purposes. As a result, even when a cut in his films is noteworthy, the individual shots on either side of the cut have a sufficient existence of their own; editing in Reygadas does not create sequences that are more than the sum of their shots.

What's going on in these self-sufficient shots?

  • Unlike many contemplative directors, Reygadas likes short lenses. When he films a thing – a person, or an animal, or a piece of machinery; the same effect obtains in all cases – he gets the slight but palpable effect of space bending around the thing, as if the thing exerts a gravitational force that appropriates the image.

  • Reygadas cares about placing the thing within the visual context of the world: the landscape or the background is almost always clearly depicted in the shot. But the dominance of the foreground thing in the composition is increased by the short lens.
  • The stature of the foreground things is often given an added monumental quality by camera angles, both upwards and downwards.
  • Having given such weight and physicality to the foreground thing, Reygadas then sustains the shot longer than needed to convey information. Often he suspends the movie in a contemplation of the thing, without other compelling narrative interest. He conveys powerfully the feeling that every object he films merits solemn consideration.
For me, the power of Stellet licht isn't necessarily a function of how engaging the story is, despite Reygadas having swiped one of the most compelling story resolutions in the cinema. One of my favorite scenes in the film is almost abstract: an extended sequence of the family's children bathing in a swimming pool, with only a small connection to the story established near the end of the scene. The contrast between the children's easy improvisation and their imposing, otherworldly mass in the frame is uncanny.

Reygadas doesn't take much from Ordet except for the ending. Interestingly, the story of Kaj Munk's play and Dreyer's film is essentially about faith, whereas Reygadas's story is essentially about love and commitment. The ending of Ordet is more of a piece with themes established earlier; the ending of Stellet licht is a more of a radical transformation of the story that went before.

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