The nominations for the ninetieth Academy Awards will be announced this coming Tuesday, which I will, by self-set tradition, use as impetus to begin counting down my selections for the ten best films of 2017, six weeks or so after practically everyone else has already completed the task. While I’ve never been one to take umbrage with the notion of ranking films (in fact, I find it to be a useful exercise in sorting out my intellectual and emotional reactions to the art in question), I do dependably burble about my mixed emotions when it comes to the instinct to find prevailing trends within a cinematic year. Now, I write up an introductory post to serve that purpose, a step I realized I required when, ten years ago, I let the observations invade the review of an individual movie.
It will take a minute to get to the film at hand. Do bear with me.
I’ve mentioned before that I find pieces that identify trends in cinema to be faulty. While I believe that filmmakers are aware of and influenced by what their peers are up to, especially those who push the envelope most majestically, there are also artisans who are operating independently trying to get the most of the material they’ve chosen to work with. Influence takes time and any evidence that members of the vast, sprawling film community are simultaneous preoccupied by any given topic or stylistic approach is more likely to be simple coincidence than some grand mind-meld. This aren’t the old studio days and Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Haynes aren’t bumping into each other at the lot commissary to chat over Monte Cristos about how to best employ the latest editing techniques. The patterns in film are there because we imagine them to be there, just as assuredly as a smear of ink on a white card doesn’t actually depict a phallic-shaped monster. Stephen Holden can write in the New York Times about Sweeney Todd as a commentary on “the age of Al Qaeda”, but he can keep that rabbit hole for himself and any other hatters mad enough to follow him into it. The great films of 2007 exist in 2007 because of the vagaries of release schedules, not because some benevolent movie god grouped them there because they matched up nice thematically.
This is on my mind in part because this will almost certainly be the last lengthier review I post before embarking on my own annual excursion into backwards counting, admittedly another sort of fruitless grouping. But it’s also because I find myself throwing my better judgment down a flight of steps and marveling at the wildly inventive messiness that serves as the common denominator to some of the year’s most gratifying films. The audacity of the shifting identity study that is I’m Not There feels completely kindred to the anti-plot verisimilitude of The Savages or the resolute ambiguity of Zodiac and it’s easy enough to anthropomorphize the films enough to imagine them staring on admiringly at the fully intentional tonal spin-out of There Will Be Blood‘s cataclysmic final scene. You can say these filmmakers are challenging the rules, but it’s more like they’re operating as if rules never existed.
One last, but central, reason this is on my mind is that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly represents another entry in this list. Tally up another one for questionable choices that are the very point of the film, an overt awkwardness that fuels the film’s considerable power. In some ways, it feels like Diving Bell is the epitome of this sloshing creativity. Of course, part of the reason it feels this way is because it’s the most recent film I’ve seen that I can hold up as an example.
Director Julian Schnabel works with Oscar-winning The Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood to adapt Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir about living with “locked-in syndrome” after a catastrophic stroke. Bauby was about as paralyzed as a human being could be, effectively limited to movement in only his left eyelid. Eventually, a painstaking method of communication was developed which involved others reciting a modified alphabet to him until he blinked at a certain letter, spelling out his words piece by piece.
For a significant length of time at the beginning of the film, maybe the first reel or so, Schnabel places the audience inside Bauby’s inert form. The extended opening plays out as stylized point-of-view shot as physicians and therapists bend over the bend and give dour pronouncements, countered only by the internal voice of Bauby which has no means to reach the world. It is a cheeky filmmaking trick and it goes on for too long, well after the point has been made, the discomfort imparted as well as it can be to people who can bobble their legs on cushioned theater seats for personal assurance that they remain mobile. And yet, once Schnabel abandons this limited perspective (timed to coincide with the point in the narrative when Bauby has decided to stop pitying himself for his condition), it opens the film in ways that otherwise may not have been achieved. It is in part relief, but it’s also the welcome schism of contrast. The world of the film, still painfully confined, seems oddly free and diversions into fantasy are more welcome because they’ve been earned in the stasis of the opening. As with the films namechecked above, the fearless riskiness engages the mind with a dizzying challenge.
I can’t say that every choice of Schnabel’s yields the same rewards. His attempts to make the metaphors of the title visually explicit are an unnecessary distraction. We don’t need an image of Bauby in a diving suit floating motionless in a blue expanse of watery nothingness to understand his isolation after a heartbreaking phone conversation with his housebound father. It’s an exclamation point that drains the emotional impact from the scene.
Subtlety is only an occasional guiding principle here. Schnabel, from the overt technique of the opening to the flights of imagination he allows Bauby to the occasional shots clearly framed with an artist’s eye (red hair whipping in the wind comes to mind), is engaged in a manifest dialogue with the audience. There is no attempt to make the directing choices invisible to the viewer. Instead, they are there, big and bold, pushing you to consider them as they are happening on screen. You’re not intended to fall into the narrative, immersed in character and motivation and mood. You’re to admire the technique and assembly of well-chosen frames as if it were unspooled from the metal reels and strung up on gallery walls. The movie is a challenge, at times maybe even to the very way we watch movies or consider their impact. That may keep the movie from becoming a full-fledged achievement. The paradox is that it’s also the aspect that makes it so intellectually thrilling.