Wednesday, August 7, 2013

 The Man without a Past - Aki Kaurismäki (Finland, 2002)

The Man without a Past get’s right to it. A man on a train (Markku Peltola) rolls and lights a cigarette, blows a puff of smoke and takes a seat in his compartment. His ticket punched, he gazes out onto night-lights passing by to the sound of an accordion. The train pulls into a station in synch with the leisurely weavings of the music. One shot follows another so unobtrusively and matter-of-factly that we are suddenly aware of the rhythm of the film as having a life of its own. At the same time it is just the rhythm of unfolding events. Thus the very functionality of the editing becomes a stylistic device. It both serves the events on display and obtains in its own implicit dimension. Kaurismäki's style is that of the self-explanatory. But its obviousness is inherently self-reflexive. This paradox of presentation as a holding-back is characteristic the dead-pan per se, and Kaurismäki is a master of it.

The magic of the opening sequence may be broken down into its elements: an understated, matter of fact, almost mechanical delivery of lines; a bare minimum of camera movements; functional cutting (montage); and no underscoring. The unruffled inevitability of the shot sequence produces a cantering andante full of pauses at once awkward and pregnant.The stilted delivery and restricted camera movement lend the pacing a salience on par with that of the performances. In this sense Kaurismaeki’s style is abstract. 

The Art of Less: Cinematic minimalism as State of Grace 

How does one account for the heightened reality of a film’s contents? All films showcase the same basic elements, and yet a strange alchemy, a mixture of influences lends a mesmerizing gravity to some. Fassbinder was a master of augmented presence, to frequently comical effect (Petra Kant, Bolwieser, Die Ehe der Maria Braun). Yet to equate the sense of reality materializing before one’s eyes with the brevity shot duration would be mistaken. It is not the brevity of a shot that produces the sense of strangeness, but its conspicuous duration. 

Just showing actors and locations becomes a stylistic element in virtue of isolation. It suggests that nothing more than the open aperture of a camera is involved, the fortuitous witness to unfolding events. The mystery is how the mere framing of bodies and faces acquires such awesome yet effortless emphasis in the work of certain filmmakers.

That duration may provoke humor as well deepen empathic resonance suggests that what it effects is context-dependent. To equate longer duration with added emphasis is questionable, as unexpectedly brief shots may linger in the mind by inducing frustration or mystification. Emphasis may just be the viewer's sense of being intrigued. The trick is to induce interest rather than test it. 

Preminger’s “objectivity” (his reluctance to isolate individuals in close-ups and counter-shot sequences); Bresson’s strictures about camera movement, apertures and emoting; Ozu’s boxing-in and Rohmer’s conversational bias also demonstrate the style of abstraction (focus through reduction of elements). Bergman’s Cries and Whispers demonstrates the power of not-showing (exteriors) so that when the sisters finally stroll in the garden there is a sense of heightened reality: the outdoors as paradise regained and state of grace. In all of these instances formal choices shape the perception of reality. 

Stylized performances of dead-pan rigidity and terseness augment the austerity of the camera’s motionlessness and the matter-of-fact editing to produce the impression of self-conscious simplicity.
 When ‘just showing’ the camera does not obtrude upon or actively shape the action; does not itself become an actor by 'pointing-to' the action. As stationary we are allowed to look without feeling manipulated. The motionlessness of the camera supports ambiguity by inviting active perceptual participation, almost as if the viewer were reading a text. 

Recall the part masks played in the ancient theaters of the world--their inanimate motionlessness draws attention to itself, prompting us to move towards it. A still camera induces the same attentive focus. 

The lasting impression left by Man without a Past was of the old woman singing about a park called ‘Mon Repos.’ A scene at once haunting and comical, primordial and quirky. Descriptions that apply to the film as a whole.

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