Wednesday, February 4, 2009

in medias res & f(am)ilial ambiguities: Cassavetes, Hou, Martel

"It has been rightly said that every scene in a Hou film is in medias res, coming in at the middle of things, the middle of an event, a situation, an interaction. ...Cinema has other great masters of the in medias res approach, and I will cite, in passing, two by way of comparison. Their hot styles are seemingly different from the cool Hou: John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat. What must be emphasized, in this light, is a special, radical aspect of the mystery generated by this perpetual coming-in-at-the-middle-of-things in all three of these filmmakers. In the traditional catching-up work of backstory exposition, there is far more at stake than simple plot clarity or orientation for the viewer. Exposition is also a deeply social and ideological process. Conventional exposition is, fundamentally, a way of sorting out as quickly as possible, and unambiguously labelling everything and everyone we see - and this labelling always goes on in terms of given, standard, assumed social roles.

Think, as an example, of all those dinner or breakfast table scenes at the start of mainstream American movies, where the first words you hear from someone's mouth are invariably something like: 'Don't talk to your little sister like that - listen to your mother - your father has an appointment and will drop you off at school', etc. These words, in their most profound motivation, exist to stamp out or police any bothersome ambiguities about who's who, and who is doing what with who in the typical family setting.

This is exactly the kind of certainty, the system of assumption - socially prescribed and inculcated assumption - that Cassavetes denies us when he alternates between brother and sister (without telling us so) in Love Streams (1984), or that Pialat denies us when he starts a film like Get Your Diploma First (1978) with a travelling shot of a bot and girl whom we can't definitively say (yet) are lovers, siblings, friends, or simply strangers sharing the same space. And it is what Hou, more gently and slyly, denies us with (for instance) that business about the assumed-mother-who-in-fact-turns-out-to-be-stepmother in Cafe Lumiere. Once a filmmaker withdraws this easy, automatic recognition of social types and social roles, many things become possible, in the film as well as in our heads: all sorts of social and interpersonal relations can be experimented with.

Hou films his dinner-table or restaurant scenes with a kind of maximum suppression of expository, explanatory information, and by the same token a maximum openness to all the instant possibilities of interrelation, of reshuffling of intersubjective identities - what Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to as 'the glory and terror of becoming' in Hou's work."

HG (Haden Guest): The characters in your films always seem to already know one another.

LM (Lucrecia Martel): I’ve never thought about that, but it’s true. I never wrote anything where people didn’t already know each other.

HG This is really important, because there is always a certain ambiguity between your characters. We don’t know exactly what their relationship is, familial or otherwise. Often times, characters are vaguely implied to be “cousins.”

LM That allows me to return once again to the “What exactly is reality?” theme. The sociology manual says, for example, that this man is the father of this baby because he engendered it, and that this woman is this man’s wife because they’ve gotten married. But families don’t have any law, or rule book, and relationships can be anything at all! If you spy on your family through a camera, it’s not easy to tell who’s who.

HG Freddy and Helena, in La Niña Santa, for example, are side by side in some very provocative positions in bed. Naturally, one assumes that they are—

LM Lovers.

HG And we are left with that impression, even after we know that they’re brother and sister.

LM As a matter of fact, in Love Streams, the Cassavetes movie—

HG I wanted to ask you about Cassavetes.

LM First of all, a lot of Gena Rowlands’s characters remind me of my mother. She raised seven kids…. Women who dedicate themselves to their children, truly and with love and passion, go a little bit crazy. It’s inevitable. There are a lot of things in Cassavetes’s films that seem familiar to me. When I saw Love Streams, I sometimes said, “They’re brother and sister!” just thinking about my family. Gena Rowlands says, “Streams of love cannot be held back.” They go where they go, and I love that idea.

You can take an establishing shot of relationships, but I never take those shots because it’s very important to me that the spectator sees that things in the world are not as reason dictates. No one is a father simply because they have a son; they are a father because they care for a son. If you read the most orthodox American script guidebooks, by the tenth minute you’re supposed to know who all the characters are with clarity. They always give the example of Pretty Woman: by the tenth minute, I know that she’s a prostitute, and that he’s a rich man…

HG Right, they’re narrative formulas. Another way you reject that idea of defining characters is through their sexual ambiguity.

LM Of course. Desire is something that can’t be governed, that someone can feel toward any person, really. It is always much easier to think of someone in terms of desire than in terms of sex. Everything is complicated if we think in terms of sex. Desire is always above the law, beyond limitations. Desire is precisely where we see that the world can be anything.
I always try to make the camera see like a ten-year-old child. I do that consciously, because in that way I can observe things without prejudgment, with more curiosity, without condemning. In La Mujer Sin Cabeza, it’s a little different, because it’s as if the whole movie were in her mind.
(BOMB, Issue 106, Winter 2008)

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