Cinematic Zeitgeist: Foregrounding the Visual in The Artist, Tree of Life, and Hugo

Film still from The Tree of Life (2011). Source: Cineffectpodcast
The world of cinema-- its inner workings, contentious history, and visual imperative-- is having quite the moment this year as a subject of filmmaking. Perhaps this is not so surprising considering just how many vital connections exist between the cultures uniting the history of early cinema as a new and emerging technology and the dynamic culture of new media that we inhabit today. These are also the questions fueling much of my own research, so I am always amazed at just how well the cinematic zeitgeist reflects this connection. At its core, film is a visual medium, and the visual turn so instrumental to so much of today's screen culture is finding its way into the conceptual underpinnings of many award-winning films. Looking over the roster of films nominated for a wide cross-section of this past year's awards, three stand out as directly engaged with conversations around the visual drive of cinema: Terence Malick's Tree of Life (2011), Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist (2011), and Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011).

It is a shame that the first time I saw Tree of Life I was sitting on a plane and experiencing the unique world of Terence Malick's film on an 8" screen. Still, I was thrilled to get the chance to view the film that had won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes in May 2011 (kudos to Lufthansa for featuring foreign and independent films on their personal movie viewing devices!). Coming back on that long flight from Frankfurt to Vancouver, I settled in for what I was told by others would be a film that has no clear narrative but attempts to convey the origins and meaning of life through the memories of the main character. As the film unfolded before me, I was taken with the sheer visual thrust of the opening sequence in the film-- a movie that has virtually no dialogue for 10-20 minute stretches, but somehow succeeded in moving me into an altered state where my own thoughts intermingled with the pictures taking shape before my eyes. I can only imagine how much more visceral that response would have been seeing the film on a gigantic screen, but the film has since stayed with me and I find it difficult to describe to others, simply saying: "Just go see it." Geoffrey O'Brien's brilliant review of the film sums it up best, describing The Tree of Life as a moving representation of memory and experience itself: "As in all that follows, the effect is of seeing a memory staged, indelible in the realism of its details but edited and compressed over time, the relevant bits run together and the dross filtered out: the world as processed by the mind, with finally only the bright bits magnetized by emotion remaining to flash against darkness."

My experience of The Artist was perhaps less profound, but it did capture so much of what I try to describe to students about the radical transition from silent to sound motion pictures. So often people approach silent cinema, and black and white picture-making, as a kind of retrograde or outmoded form of the medium, but it is exactly the history of that transition which remains so misunderstood and poorly represented in the canon of film history. Instead of a progression and a revolution in filmmaking, sound in particular was met with much resistance, especially among avant-garde and art-focused film directors who asked important questions of what would be lost with the intrusion of dialogue and the subverting of the visual techniques so important to the art and early experimentation of motion pictures. The Artist does an amazing job of raising these questions and providing the audience with a glimpse of the tensions felt and experienced at the time. But even better, Hazanavicius trusts that the contemporary audience can think through these ideas via a black and white silent film-- a radical move in itself, but one that has paid off and captivated audiences from across a broad spectrum of the viewing public (even for those who didn't "get it" that the film was mostly silent). The NYT film review does a good job at examining just how vital the "wordless" film actually is.

And finally, the film Hugo completely caught me off guard. I found myself going to see it after being convinced that this was possibly the best use of 3D as a conceptual tool in filmmaking this year (something that Werner Herzog, for example, executes brilliantly in Cave of Forgotten Dreams), and also after hearing Scorsese's lovely acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, where he saluted the many unknown filmmakers and experimental artists of the early cinema after winning the award for best director. To use the world "magical" may seem a bit cliche, but I walked away from Hugo convinced that Scorsese had recreated the wonder and newness that the first audiences of film probably experienced. Utilizing the immersive 3D technology to its maximum effect, the film brilliantly reveals the illusionary aspects of both the technological and visual elements of early filmmaking through the latest forms of those same technologies. I literally caught myself several times removing and playing with my 3D glasses to try and figure out how the effects were shaping up in front of my eyes. As Richard Brody aptly argues in his review of the film in the New Yorker-- a movie he categorizes as "cybercinema"-- Hugo is a "reminder that realism and artifice aren’t opponents or opposites but the very systole and diastole of cinematic life."

Further Reading:

Alcolea -Banegas, Jesus. "Visual Arguments in Film." Argumentation 31.2 (2009).

Marchessault, Janine ed. Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema. University of Toronto, 2007.