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It’s a commonplace of film theory that the gaze of a camera is more invasive than it is cooly objective. D.W. Griffith was aware of this tension. If A Drunkard’s Reformation (1909) represents his early faith in the power of cinema to produce moral improvement, presenting the titular drunkard’s reformation during a theatrical performance, by the production of his later picture True Heart Susie (1919), Griffith has tempered his enthusiasm for his medium and nuanced his understanding of the camera, an object that is morally ambiguous in its voyeurism.
We see, in Susie‘s closing scene, that Susie (Lillian Gash) finally kisses William (Robert Harron), her long-pursued childhood crush. She receives a peck in an intimate close two shot. The pair pull apart and we see amazement and pleasure on her face. Griffith, perhaps feeling that he is unjustly invading this private moment, pulls his camera back, reframing to a more discreet wide two shot. Finally, he cuts to an inter-title, entirely removing the pair from our (and the camera’s) gaze.
By forcing Susie and William’s absence upon us, Griffith acknowledges the transgressive nature of cinema. We are allowed to see the characters’ most intimate and private moments; this luxury becomes obvious when the embracing pair are removed from the silver screen, when we are not allowed to look.
In Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), many of the images are similarly – in fact, on occasion, more immediately – voyeuristic (in the etymological sense of to see without being seen). We watch a girl and a boy playing in the street with a crushed can, builders doing very little and the Queen Mother unveiling a statue to a crowd. The picture is a mosaic of shots captured on an almost always static camera with an unnamed narrator providing a commentary. The design is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), which consists almost entirely of still black-and-white photographs. It also brings to mind the tradition of cinema vérité. Keiller is unique, though, because he doesn’t seem to mind if his camera is detected. While it often isn’t, it certainly is from time to time. Passers-by glance down the barrel before walking on.
In fact, though, people don’t often figure in this picture. The majority of the shots are of London – its architecture, its literary curiosities and its banality – and the protagonists (the Narrator and Robinson) are both unseen. In this mode, the writer/director establishes another relationship between the camera and the subject matter that is interwoven with the more expected voyeuristic mode of filming. Every now and then we feel like the camera has arrived too late. When he speaks of meetings, we become aware that his cinema is one of absence. Like Griffith’s final inter-title, the Narrator provides a commentary on an event that is not to be seen. In a shopping mall, as the camera moves up an escalator, he mentions a friendly man with whom Robinson spent a few hours (though later, when he tried to call, he only reached a public telephone box). It’s jarring to realise that this event is long since passed and that all we are left with is second- (or third-) hand report.
The film is more engaging because of this shadowiness, a quality shared between the Narrator, Robinson and many of the events detailed. Keiller sets up a trail to be followed, pynchonesque in its slipperiness and aptly suited to the Narrator’s theme of social degradation. The best has past or is, at least, not now.
Winter’s Bone (2010) is only the second feature from Debra Granik. To produce a film of this quality early in her career is impressive, though not unique. (Jacques Audiard comes to mind, if you only want a contemporary example.) At the surface, the film feels, for the most part, relentlessly real: without flinching Granik presents the brutal life of an impoverished family based in the Ozarks. The more I think about the picture, though, the more this notion of unflinching realism feels challenged. In arguably its weakest moment, Winter’s Bone brushes with almost-allegory: the army recruitment officer stands more like the physical representation of the audience’s concerns and Ree’s (Jennifer Lawrence) uncertainty than a genuine character, guiding her away from the false escape of the army and back to her problems at home. More often than not, though, the realism is undercut in a satisfying way.
The jostling of different story-telling modes is perhaps no more apparent than in the emotional climax of the film, the moment gracing the promotional poster above. Ree has been taken, blindfolded, to the location of her father’s body. This scene is the end of her quest. Her search for her father has, so far, been reminiscent of one of Pynchon’s sprawling novels in which a serpentine route through various settings only manages to circle around the desired end; we’re wondering, up to this point, if Ree’s father, like “V.” in V. (1963), is impossible to find. Uncertainty, surrounding V. right to the end of the novel, is brought revoltingly to a close in the picture when Ree must grab and hold her father’s dead hands. Rooted in sensuous experience, it’s an overwhelmingly real moment for Ree: she cannot escape the new found physical proximity of her long-absent father. The emotion of this sensation – felt by both Ree and the audience – almost falls into comic farce when Merab (Dale Dickey) has to chainsaw the hands from the corpse. Is it unflinchingly real or simply laughable that the moment is played out not once, which may have sufficed, but twice?
What I mean is, while there are obviously two hands that need to be separated separately, Granik could have taken a filmic liberty and merged the two resulting noises into one, shifting the focus from the action itself onto Ree’s reaction. It should be noted that we barely see the hands at all; the bodily separation is almost entirely felt through what we hear. As it is though, we’re given two separate (predominantly off screen but audible) moments of brutality that force us to concentrate on the dead man’s hands. Ree drops one of them and, again, while this action feels, on one level, staggeringly realistic, Merab’s reaction to the slip puts a comic pressure on the heightened emotion of the scene: it could all quite easily collapse into ridiculousness.
But, for some reason, it doesn’t. Instead, it achieves a balance that works and it feels reductive to praise the realism of Winter’s Bone without acknowledging the other narrative modes (for example parody and allegory) and literary models (a search, mythological echoes) that compete in the picture.