Monday, July 7, 2008
Text Vs. Texture
Most people who talk about films never go beyond "what it's about." In other words, the plot, which usually involves a cop, a love-sick woman, or some other misfit that needs to learn that what they are fighting against may actually be their destiny (and will facilitate them saving the(ir) world in the process (see "Iron Man," "My Best Friend's Wedding," or any other "mainstream" Hollywood film of the last 30 years)).
But films reveal other pleasures beyond the text of the plot. We're engaged not just by chapter and verse of the story (what happens), but how the story is embroidered and colored in the telling (what happens while it's happening).
In other words, the texture.
Some films are best experienced when you allow them to simply wash over you. Some films aren't about "whodunit" but rather, "howsthatmakeyoufeel?" I didn't like "Blade Runner" the first couple times I saw it, but without that narration - and no longer worried about whether or not it made cop-story sense - the "texture" of the thing got under my skin. It illustrates how some films should not be paid attention to - at least not in the normal 21st century way of seeing things.
Some other older examples best illustrate this. Perhaps because they don't make films like these anymore. Terrence Malick became an arthouse legend with his early "Badlands" and "Days Of Heaven," two films suspended in a perfect balance between incidental plot and fetishistic attention to random background detail. The texture overwhelmed - indeed was a more important part of - the text. (Both "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World" suggest star-casting somehow destroys the delicate balance.)
Stanley Kubrick increasingly embraced a background-over-foreground aesthetic, most completely in "2001: A Space Odyssey," reducing obvious plot beats to thematic subtextural (damn nigh subliminal) nuances. By the time of "The Shining," he was much more interested in the way Jack Torrence walked across that carpet than in cutting for standard horror-film shocks. (Frederic Raphael, co-writer of Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" admits the ending of "Eyes" was about nothing so much as that red-felt pool table. What was the film about? A walk downtown, really. Sure, nothing happens, but it's the way it doesn't happen.)
The textures is the world in which the plot happen. It's the indulgent camera moves that caress a baroquely designed set, it's the attention to the poetry of language that a (good) Mamet or Tarantino script wallows in, in spite of the scene supposedly at hand; it's the stream-of-consciousness, psychedelic cutting of Nicholas Roeg, not understandable in a narrative sense, but in an impressionistic one, one best viewed while under the influence of some mind-altering substance (wait - that's another post).
It's the background in "Blade Runner," that only comes to light and can be properly relished when the narration (which delineates a tangible and straightforward plotline in defiance of and in contrast to the subtleties of the piece) is stripped out (in any number of versions) to let the film breath.
Texture is the perfectly (and over-) rendered futuristic world of "Wall-E" in the first 45 minutes, with the glow of the sunset illuminating the detritus, before it becomes (strangely) more "earthbound" once it goes up into space; it's the lived-in feeling of the surroundings in Fellini's "I Vitteloni," and the lived-out attitude of Alberto Sordi, who is stuck there, never to escape.
It's the extra 45 minutes added to "Apocalypse Now" with a more relaxed rhythm to explore and deepen the compelling and fatal journey down the river, with all the stations visited before finally finding Kurtz.
This isn't to say that a film addresses either text or texture. The texture, ideally, enhances the text. Every film has a different balance between its text and its texture. Once you're able to discover how much a film is telling you a story, and how much a film is showing you a world, you'll meet it on its own terms.
The studios today don't seem to trust the audience - or the films - to go on a journey that isn't specifically driven and motivated by character arcs, plot turns, or explicit explanations of each action beat.
Almost every film reveals some magical texture that goes beyond the literal plot. I remember seeing (the original) "The Love Bug" (1968) which created for me an enchanting and coherent tapestry in which a Volkswagen listened to what Buddy Hackett told it.
I was young. I don't remember how that film ended (text)(probably someone realizes his destiny was what he's fighting - etc.), but I still remember enjoying watching Dean Jones riding in the car while it followed Michelle Lee with no one in the driver's seat (texture).
A scene that may not have been on the strict spine of the plot, but that captures the world in which the film created.
Films I saw as a kid have contributed more to this concept than any other thoery or academic text I've read, or lecture I've heard. I used to "go with" films more when I was younger.
I wonder if I didn't enjoy them more.