Half a century ago, the great film critic André Bazin described what he called "the myth of total cinema." In Bazin's vision, the history of film could be seen as a progressive movement toward an ultimate goal: "a total and complete representation of reality... the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color, and relief... a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time."
Bazin called this goal a "myth" for a couple of reasons. First, the ideal of a total representation of reality is just that, an ideal: something we can always strive for but will never fully attain. And second, Bazin believed it was the ideal of total cinema that drove the development of the actual technology of film, and not the reverse. Bazin said that the movies were not created by "the two industrialists Edison and Lumière," the inventors who are generally credited with actually making the first movie cameras and projectors. Movies are rather the product, Bazin maintained, of a group of now-forgotten dreamers: "the fanatics, the madmen, the disinterested pioneers" who were obsessed with the uncanny power of images.
Today, we might say that Bazin's myth of total cinema has come closer than ever to realization, only not in a manner that Bazin himself would have appreciated. For what has happened in the last half-century is that instead of the movies becoming more like reality, reality has become more like the movies. The world we live in is saturated with images, and especially with moving images. This is mostly because of television and video: there are hundreds of cable TV channels; thousands of movies available on VHS, laser disc, and DVD; surveillance cameras everywhere; lots of hyperrealistic, fast-moving video and computer games; and an ever-increasing number of webcams and streaming video sources online.
But it's not just that the quantity of moving images has increased over the last 50 years; it is also that these images have changed the nature of reality itself. Bazin thought that movies were trying to reproduce a real world that already existed independently of them. Today, this seems hopelessly naïve. Nothing exists independently of TV and the movies. Film and video don't reflect a prior reality; rather, they make the world over in their image. For instance, political campaigns and professional sports scarcely exist apart from television; they are enacted directly for the camera. "Reality shows" like Survivor go even further, by putting "real people" into situations that only exist as arbitrary constructions in the mind of some producer. This is what we call hyperreality, or postmodernism. Today we live in a world that can itself be described, ironically, as "a total and complete representation of reality."
The 20th century was the century of cinema, but the 21st century will be something else entirely. If life itself has turned into a movie, then what is left for actual movies to do? This seems to me to be one of the key questions facing filmmakers today. I don't think that there can be any single answer to this question, and certainly no answers can be given in advance. We can only wait and see what film directors actually come up with. Multiple replays of the same story, until the characters finally get things right, as in Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run? Simultaneous, single-take, real-time video feeds dividing up the screen, as in Mike Figgis' Time Code? Frantic pastiche of all conceivable styles, as in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge? Time and space twisted into Möbius strips and other strange topological deformations, as in the wonderful (and too infrequently shown) films of Raul Ruiz?
The Great Whatsit
All these strategies have their virtues, and doubtless more of them will be invented in the years to come. But I'd like to look at another, perhaps less evident, way that recent films have responded to the mediafication of everyday life. When our society is in so frantic a rush to put everything on camera, to make the world entirely visible and audible, then one possible cinematic response is to point to whatever cannot be seen and heard. Somewhat paradoxically, from the Bazinian point of view, film has the capacity to summon the invisible and the inaudible: to bring us close to the mysteries of the divine and the demonic, the dark and silent states of the body and soul. In a world given over to the mad proliferation of images and sounds, movies can also bring us to the point of blankness, to the edge of the abyss where vision and hearing are lost. They still have the power to show us, by allusion, implication, and indirection, what has been left out of Bazin's "total and complete representation of reality."
Actually, this is not an entirely new pursuit. Like so many things in modern film, it can be traced back at least to Orson Welles. What do we make of "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane, for instance? The last word uttered by Charles Foster Kane, it is supposed to be the key to the enigma of the newspaper mogul's life. The entire film consists of a reporter's unsuccessful quest to figure out what "Rosebud" means. We the audience, however, finally learn what the characters within the film do not: that "Rosebud" is the name printed on the sled that Kane had as a boy. We see this sled going up in flames in a memorable shot at the very end of the film. This object lies at the very heart of the film's narrative, but Welles only shows it to us at the moment of its destruction. It becomes, therefore, a moving emblem of futility and loss.
The dying Kane's utterance suggests to us that he was only happy as a child, before he was taken away from his mother and thrust on the path to greatness. We can doubt, however, as to whether this really is the final key to Kane's character. Not only is the sled itself destroyed, but the quest on which it has led us remains to the end murky and unresolved. Citizen Kane is the first film that not only tells its story in flashbacks, but actually takes place in the past tense rather than the present: the time of uncertain memory, rather than the time of action and understanding. What we do see and hear in Kane reminds us, ultimately, how little we are truly able to see, hear, and know.
Another classic film that plays on the edge of impossibility is Robert Aldrich's astonishing film noir of 1955, Kiss Me Deadly. Throughout the movie's dizzyingly paranoid plot twists, the Feds, various groups of thugs, and private investigator Mike Hammer all search for the location of a missing suitcase containing a valuable object, known to Mike only as "the great whatsit." This object finally turns out to be nuclear material. When the suitcase is opened, all we can see is a blinding radiance, accompanied by a high-pitched sound of winds roaring and (perhaps) human voices wailing.
The film ends apocalyptically, with flames, screams, and a nuclear blast, as the contents of the atomic Pandora's box are unleashed upon the world. One reason for the film's power is that Aldrich does not represent a mass of plutonium (or whatever it is) as just one object in the world among others. Rather, it is something so dangerous, so excessive, that the camera and the tape recorder cannot capture it and represent it. This substance cannot ever be included in Bazin's "total and complete representation of reality," because its very presence means reality's destruction. Most narrative films immerse us in an imaginary world, or else (if Bazin is correct) in the vivid reproduction of the actual, living world we know. Kiss Me Deadly is one of the first films to show us, as well, the limits of the world: its boundaries, its deficiencies, its fragility, and possible mortality.
Many recent films have continued and extended Welles' and Aldrich's explorations of the limits of representation, of the mysteries of what cannot be seen and heard. I have long wondered, for instance, if the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, whose contents we never see, but which appears to glow when it is opened, is in fact meant as an homage to Kiss Me Deadly. And to take a less familiar, but equally powerful example, Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine explicitly models itself on Citizen Kane, as it tells the story of a journalist trying to track down the glam rock idol of his youth.
The film immerses itself in pop culture nostalgia, but from a point of disillusioned distance. Haynes' hypercharged yet dreamy images, together with the film's excellent '70s soundtrack, do not try to recreate the past as it actually was, so much as they suggest how any such quest for re-creation is a fantasy, inflected by the quester's own sexual desires. Bazin thought that film could represent reality "unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time." Haynes suggests, to the contrary, that our inescapable subjective interpretations, and our inability to fully recover the past, always color our efforts to attain the real.
Seeing What Isn't There
A mysterious, unreachable event lies at the heart of David Lynch's Lost Highway. The film is split into two halves. These parts are shot in vastly different styles, though they both reference the look and feel of film noir: the visual motifs (shadows, nighttime streets, indirect lighting, skewed camera angles), as well as the themes and emotions (paranoia, misogyny, betrayal, and murder). The first part of the film is slow, creepy, brooding, and empty; the second is nervous, hyperactive, and tongue-in-cheek. Two actors (Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty) play the same male character in the respective parts; one actress (Patricia Arquette) plays two different female characters in the two parts.
The end of the film returns us, more or less, to where we were at the beginning. What holds together the two parts of Lynch's house of mirrors is the one event that belongs to neither of them: the male protagonist's apparent murder of his wife. We do not see this murder taking place, and neither actor's incarnation of the male lead can remember doing it. The murder may be real or imaginary; it may have been perpetrated by the protagonist, or by somebody else. It is like a black hole at the center of the film, sucking in whatever comes near it. The two parts of the film are like two different approaches to the same enigma, alternate visions of something that remains shrouded in darkness. Lynch seems to be suggesting that the cinema's Bazinian "reconstruction of reality" will never succeed in being "total and complete"; no matter how much we pile on the images and sounds, reality will still contain unplumbed depths that we are unable to recover.
As a final example of this cinema of absence, consider Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. The film is about an affair that may or may not have taken place. The characters played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are neighbors, drawn together when they realize that their respective spouses (whom we never see onscreen) are having an affair. Cheung and Leung gradually fall in love, but we never find out if they actually consummate their relationship. What we see instead are exquisite, fragmentary images of meetings and partings, possible befores and afters.
We see the same images, with minor variations, over and over again: We glance down long, empty corridors, or glimpse Tony Leung as he stands drenched in the rain, or watch Maggie Cheung from behind, her ass gently swaying in slow motion under her formal dress, as she climbs the stairs. The music for these scenes is low-key and sad: a repeated instrumental motif alternates with Spanish ballads of longing and loss sung by Nat King Cole.
The result of all these rhythms of sight and sound is a dreamily meditative film, melancholic and slightly feverish at the same time. Wong prolongs the moods of anticipation and reminiscence, of frustration and boredom and regret and loss. These feelings are so strong, and so elegantly rendered, that any fulfillment could only seem disappointing in comparison. Indeed, it has been reported that Wong at one point shot a love scene between Cheung and Leung, but he wisely omitted it from the completed movie. A film like In the Mood for Love violates all the precepts of Bazinian realism, but perhaps, for all that, it comes closer than ever to Bazin's ultimate goal. If film is to be "a recreation of the world in its own image," then it also needs to register those experiences of absence and loss that are so much a part of our being in the world.