Mystery and Truth
Search Amidst the Cold – L'Avventura
Subverting Film Noir: Polanski’s Chinatown
Seven Scenes of Narration
Search Amidst the Cold – L'Avventura
“Each day we live through an ‘adventure’, whether it be a sentimental, a moral or an ideological one.”
Finding a Chinese translation that corresponds with the Italian title, L’Avventura, poses a bit of a challenge. The original title can be interpreted as an adventure, exploration, experience or an affair, all of which are suggested in the film. The mainland Chinese translation for the film’s title, Qi-Yu (extraordinary encounter) fails to capture the essence of the film. Closer to the mark, the Hong Kong translation, Mi-Qing (enigmatic affair) is both more poetic and ambiguous. Summarizing the film’s plot or theme in a hundred words poses similar challenges. On the surface, the film is about a group of friends searching for one of their female members who mysteriously disappears during an excursion to a deserted island. But as the search progresses, the clues that surface ultimately lead nowhere, leaving everyone even more confused. In other words, “Knowing the story doesn’t help”. Fortunately, the director offers a description: it’s a sentimental-moral-ideological quest that repeats itself over and over again. This new direction may not lead to answers but the journey and the unexpected situations that we encounter may inspire a multitude of emotions and thoughts.
In traditional narrative cinema, the characters are responsible for moving the plot forward; the plot consists of the experiences and destinies of the characters. Sight and sound serve only to enhance and develop story. Antonioni rejects these conventions in L’Avventura. Instead, he uses a series of settings to establish several chapters, which together constitute the film. The way the chapters or scenes connect to one another does not conform to the conventions of exposition: the dramatic arc, rising and falling action, climax and resolution. The dramatic shifts occur as the result of the interactions between the characters, their shifting emotional and mental states, and their surroundings. Sometimes the dramatic shifts follow logic: the change in weather on the island causes distress in the group, heightening the suspense after their friend goes missing. At other times, the shifts seem to defy logic. For instance, during the search of the missing woman, her lover and best friend become infatuated with each other despite being haunted by class consciousness and moral conscience. They oscillate between feelings of elation and misery. In the end, they lose their way. The film is a journey of emotions, as well as an expedition of love and faith that gives rise to intimacy and affection, friction and conflict, transgression and betrayal, remorse and self-reflection. Along the journey, these moments emerge so naturally and realistically that they feel like normal aspects of everyday life.
Perhaps daily life is about going back and forth between places and between people. The running time of the film is approximately 140 minutes. The first chapter focuses on the undefined love affair between Gabriele Ferzetti’s protagonist and his lover Lea Massari. After her disappearance, his romantic interest gradually shifts towards Monica Vitti during their search for the missing woman. This chapter almost lasts an hour and seems to drag on until something gradually takes shape; “the inability to sever ties and resolve the situation” becomes the main thread that runs through the film from this point onward. However, there is no ambiguity in terms of Antonioni’s execution; the director’s mise en scène is precise and the positions, poses, facial and eye expressions of his actors are all carefully orchestrated. He captures the emotions and the landscape in precise and nuanced ways, seamlessly blending the two elements together. The natural scenery – the deserted island, the cliff, rocks, the waves and the lone yacht, accentuate the bourgeois hypocrisy of the characters as well as their moods and anxiety. Their search efforts lead nowhere. But the female protagonist reveals her true feelings from the beginning. Meanwhile, the working-class characters appear modest and down-to-earth.
The second chapter centers on how the male and female protagonists use the search for their friend as an excuse to seek out and test each other. Together, they travel through several old towns and begin a love affair against the backdrop of rundown historical sites. The director shows the two characters meeting in a train station, a train, a church, a clock tower or even under the scrutiny of a strange crowd, underlining the conventions and social constraints behind their moral test of faith. Afterwards, they make love for the first time next to a railroad track as a train goes by. This scene is composed entirely of close-ups, celebrating intimacy, not lust.
The third chapter begins after they check into a luxury hotel. While the man goes to a party in search of sex, the woman stays in her room, alone, unable to fall asleep. She rises at dawn and goes in search of her lover in vast, empty hallways, only to catch the man in the middle of a tryst with another woman. She runs outside to an empty lot in despair. The man follows her to the lot and begins to cry. In the light of dawn, she stretches out her hand to offer him solace, a gesture of potential understanding and forgiveness. Under the careful execution of the director, the imagery alone is sufficient to convey what is going on, without relying on plot, dialogue or narration; the form is the content. L’Avventura begins as a realistic depiction of a relationship and gradually transforms into a portrait of mental landscapes, entering into the “realm of poetry” as defined by late Qing scholar Wang Guowei.
A film ahead of its time, L’Avventura
was met with ridicule by audiences when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. Discerning critics and filmmakers, however, jointly issued a statement in support of the film “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images”. Over 50 years have passed since its debut but the film remains as stunning and moving as ever. Like chilled champagne, the film is refreshing and its intoxicating bouquet is to be savored.
Subverting Film Noir: Polanski’s Chinatown
Polanski lost his wife Sharon Tate shortly after completing Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Tate, eight months pregnant, was brutally murdered by a cult sect. The distraught Polanski left for Europe. Several years later he returned to Hollywood to make Chinatown(1974).
Chinatown was nominated for several Oscars. But The Godfather Part II (1974) pocketed the big prizes. Chinatown took home Best Screenplay for Robert Towne. Though uncredited, Polanski was instrumental in the final shape of the script. He insisted on a Polanski-esque tragic ending than a happy one. The wickedness of human nature, and fate have been Polanski’s themes all along.
Chinatown is a film noir made in colour. Film noir is a crime or detective genre made in black and white. The genre had its heyday from the 1930s up to 1950s. Common features include stark city landscape, gangs, hardboiled detectives and femmes fatales. Though crime and moral corruption are widespread, social justice always prevails in the end. Polanski remarked that he did not make Chinatown “as a ‘retro’ piece or conscious imitation of classic movies shot in black and white, but as a film about the thirties seen by the camera eye of the seventies.”
Chinatown is trailblazing. It features state-of-the-art colour and widescreen photography, but carries a sombre tone. Loosely based on a political scandal in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, Chinatown has its protagonist in the private investigator Jake (Jack Nicholson). He is hired to investigate an extramarital affair. What seems like easy work gives way to corruption and conspiracy. We see bureaucrats teaming up with gangsters, tycoons exploiting water dams for their profits, murder and even incest. Chinatown subverts the genre expectation of a good-over-evil ending. Crimes go unpunished and there is no justice for victims. The struggle of good and evil is in reality a game of fate.
Positive roles are demythologized. The detective in a typical film noir can always crack the case with his wit. In Chinatown, however, Jake’s wit is his undoing. He fulfills the villain’s wish despite himself. Nicholson’s superb handling of the anti-hero blurs the boundary of good and evil. The crime buster is actually the accomplice. The malicious Cross tells Jake, “You may know what you’re dealing with. But believe me, you don’t.” The detective has been so sure of himself. Now he is just fish in the net. The heroine Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) is very enigmatic. We are led to believe that she is the typical, ensnaring femme fatale. As events run their course we find out that she is actually a victim. The ignorance of Jake aggravates the fateful end of Evelyn.
Objects like eyeglasses, cameras, photos and telescopes are tools for the eye. They are supposed to assist in the quest for truth. But confusing clues make them media of deception. These tools mislead our detective into wrong conclusions and keep him away from the truth. There is no voice-over in the beginning or the end of Chinatownas most film noirs do. But menacing dialogue is in abundance. The unforgettable scene where Jake repeatedly slaps Evelyn into confessing a traumatic family secret, is the fruit of the heated and incessant discussion between Polanski and Towne.
Nicholson was not yet the star of today. Jake’s appearance never tells us if he is the hero or the villain. His nose is covered by an oversize Band-Aid because his nose has been slit. In addition to the Band-Aid, rage and vengeance are on his face too. Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is even more roguish. Nicholson’s lusty eyes are all over the lecherous Dunaway. She makes her entrances wearing a mysterious wide-brimmed hat. It is difficult to say if she is a femme fatale or a suffering wife or mother. The possessive tycoon Noah Cross is played by the legendary John Huston, himself the director of noir classics The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston form the holy trinity of Chinatown. Polanski has a cameo as a thug who cuts Nicholson’s nose. The memorable scene is highly realistic.
The tragic finale takes place in Chinatown. The final crane shot pulls off from Nicholson, and looks at Chinatown from above. The bystanders scatter. Crime is just an everyday occurrence in Chinatown. The significance of the film title is now made clear. Crime and evil are in all strata of society, with Chinatown the symbol par excellence.
Seven Scenes of Narration
The marriage of film and narration is neither written in the stars nor created by chance; rather, the match is a historical and social fact, a cultural choice and direction. Many believe that film inherits the narrative tradition from literature. As we study the classics through narration this year (or vice versa), please allow me to take you back to the seven episodes in the evolution of narration, opening up another way to discovery: instead of using linguistic symbols, film tells tale in narrative image directly.
7. The premiere of L’Avventura in the 1960 Cannes Film Festival staged a fight between the supporters of classical drama and the forward-thinking filmmakers and film critics who appreciated the efforts of Antonioni and welcomed the arrival of the age of modernism. This was the modernists’ lonesome revolution in narration, which was born to die to be reincarnated, leading the traditional theatricality to demise and making the absence of story a story itself, losing the tale, dimension and then meaning, before finally breathing a new life into narration. The work allowed films to complete their peculiar journey by freeing film narration from the grip of the conventional ideas.
6. Though the French New Wave accepted the idea of literary narration, most filmmakers still kept a close watch on the destructive force of narrativity, finding living word in writing. With the polysemy of direct cinema and the liberty of live cinema, such as Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Pierrot Goes Wild (1965) or Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda’s vision in a new order resulting from alienation effect, film narration was endowed with possibilities.
5. André Bazin believed in the objectivity of the nature of filmmaking, arguing that what we did was simply to immortalize some past moments through film. Before proving the possibility of fabrication with the cinematographic vision in the present digital age, Bazin’s argument already fell apart on the spot, yet between the corresponding views of the Neorealism and the Post-Neorealism, he cherished the then “rare” authorship and backed up the art with a globalized notion, serving as a beacon for the industry even till today; as for the evolution of film narration, however, what he suggested was conservative.
4. Alexandre Astruc was one of the first to see film as language and literature. With the publication of The Birth of a New Avant-garde: la camera-stylo in 1948, he laid down the concept of “camera-pen” to develop the auteur theory and to indirectly recognize the genre theory, while at the same time he provided us an unscientific guide on film narratology in a simplified way. A serious discussion about film narration was not started till we accepted that written narrative study could not be applied to image directly; to follow the narrative path and to verify the narrator(s) in film was much more difficult than doing so in language symbols, yet much more intriguing…
3. Man Ray fired up the Dadaist party by making Returnto Reason (1923) to turn non-reason into the new reason, putting new and old shots together, exposing the film directly with pins on it and reversing composition; the work was probably not taken seriously by the artists in the party, who ended up in the police station, yet it was an influential transforming moment: the art stood its ground to be avant-garde, refusing to tell logical and reasonable stories but to pursue Cinéma Pur. Not that narrative film is not pure or Cinéma Pur is against narration, as when we know there is a mysterious dark side of the moon, we venture into it. Film narration, that is governed by reason on the surface, is always a child raised by a “Greater Reason” beyond our reach.
2. The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was praised as the first tale telling film that created film rhetoric and syntax, focusing on how the work initiated the narrative concept of “after” (continuity) and “meantime” (parallelism) in its editing and time/space management. While the sixth shot showing a passenger got shot was regarded as mise en présence and the eighth shot’s movement only a panorama, Porter placed our attention in the forest following the last bandit, running after him before showing the horses. Wasn’t this the moment when mise en scène soared high? Now is the best time for us to fully re-discover the greatness of The Great Train Robbery.
1. Many think drama and documentary were born with the birth of film. In the various versions of Exiting the Factory (1895) by the Lumière Brothers, the workers’ blocking was arranged, they didn’t look into the camera, not carrying their bags around and the shadows told that it is not at the end of a day, all the hints showed that this was exactly a “drama”, revealing its spontaneous-looking “unnatural” artistry. After the rehearsal of Exitingthe Factory, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) recasted “natural passengers on the platform”, narrativity had long been there and it was about the evolvement of composition, sense of time/space and event within 55 seconds.
Within the frame of strict linguistic meaning, film has neither grammar nor syntax, for it is not a language, but discourse, which has constructed its galaxy of possibilities and narration.
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