Losing The Plot

in 39th Chicago International Film Festival

by George Perry

Arguably, cinema is the greatest medium of storytelling ever invented. The capability of conveying a story through moving pictures is one of man’s most ingenious and welcome innovations, beginning in 1896 with the few seconds of Lumiere film in which a trick is played on a gardener watering his roses.

It is surprising, given this great medium, that so many film-makers today feel that is no longer necessary to develop a linear narrative. The camera merely observes the passage of time, the interaction of characters, without ever allowing a satisfying conclusion. The New Directors section at this year’s Chicago Film Festival exemplified this trend. “Never Get Outta the Boat” (Paul Quinn) is a film about a Californian halfway house for drug addicts in which a group endeavours and fails to achieve rehabilitation, and it ends more or less as it begins, the audience having watched the bleak existence of a sad community in what appears to be an authentic statement. Yet it is not a documentary.

“The Island” (Constanza Quatriglio) is a rites-of-passage account of a youth living on an island off Sicily, and his ambivalent attitude towards the traditional business of fishing which is the mainstay of existence. The film-maker is a documentarist making her first fiction feature, and she spends more time showing how the fishermen weight their huge nets with quarried stones and haul in their churning tuna catch than in dealing with the onshore dramatic storyline which is so light in incident that it could otherwise have been disposed off in one reel. This is the kind of film where the camera will linger on someone who has departed from a quayside conversation until that person is out of sight, supposedly a device that represents truthful reality. Excepting that in real life we do not watch people walking away from us until they are no longer visible.

A Hungarian film, “Forest” (Benedek Fliegauf), revels in its plotlessness, bookended with lengthy shots of people entering and leaving a shopping mall. In between are a series of inconsequential vignettes featuring people we have seen earlier, such as a lesbian who is asked to look after his dog by a man about to kill himself, a woman plagued by the trauma of an abusive grandmother, a man justifying his regard for pornography to his frigid girlfriend. The film-maker shoots everything on handheld DV in extreme close-up, so we are never even aware that the characters have shoulders let alone allowing us a sense of place. It seems like an anti-film.

That trend also prevails in “Salt” (Bradley Rust Gray) made by an American in Iceland. That much of what goes is hard to discern on screen may well be due to the absence of light in Iceland, but does it explain the absence of composition and editing? The camerawork with its ludicrous zooms, pans and even occasional sideways lurches, is so amateurish that a five-year-old with a video camera could produce better images. If this is art, it is that of the unmade-bed school.

Some of the greatest documentaries also managed to be fully-developed stories. Flaherty’s celebrated epic “Nanook of the North” has a powerful narrative. Alas, it is deemed an old-fashioned style. Some documentarists today favour an interactive approach in which the film-maker becomes part of the on-screen action. Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield are names that spring to mind. Then there is a third category, the let-it-all-happen approach which has been taken to the limit by television’s interminable variations on the “survivor” theme. There have been brilliant practitioners such as Frederick Wiseman whose editorialising was subtle but evident.

Of course life is in reality untidy and unresolved. Unlike our favourite fiction films there are no happy endings. However contented an existence we enjoy it ends in growing old, becoming enfeebled and dying. Fiction, however, demands resolution. Which is why the Chicago jury was greatly attracted to “Olga’s Chignon” (Jerome Bonnell), a Rohmeresque study of relationships in a bereaved family with its blend of wit and sadness, and “Pieces of April” (Peter Hedges) in a which a prim suburban family from New Jersey grits its teeth for a Thanksgiving dinner in the ratty Manhattan apartment of an estranged daughter. The first won the award, the second a special mention. Both films told a compelling story with an appropriate conclusion. That skill must never die.