Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Holy Motors (2012) as a success, even in its failures

After yet another hour-long session surfing NetFlix, trying to decide on an Instant film to watch, I settled on Holy Motors, a big-spectacle plus high-concept art film that showed in an unexpectedly wide range of theaters here in NYC in 2012. Having synthesized a number of write-ups and synopses, I pretty much knew what to expect. I enjoyed it. Also, because this is me, I have thoughts.

I have to give props to this film for its wild abandon and its vibrant vision of the world. First of all, it's a tantrum of artistic release... second, it's a metaphorical universe, built from scratch, where the substructures (the production, the preparation, the paperwork, the assignments, the transportation) are cunning, but banal -- a superfluous reality, stagnating beneath the fantastic world of the imagination. As a call to arms of spectacle, the movie works great.

The whole film's tone and approach is sort of summed up in the crazy light-show in the big studio green-room... it starts off goofy and sarcastic, so self-consciously ridiculous that you can just feel the delighted mocking of the whole production crew behind every oversold ninja flip. But when the latex-suited female enters, it drifts across the line into seriousness, or at least earnestly sexy weirdness, as a way of informing the audience: yes, I mock, but I also genuinely adore the power of this medium to make you feel things. And then, bam, it ends, and we're on to the next thing.

Also, I couldn't have asked for a better interlude than the wild musical romp at the center of the film, a sequence reminiscent of Fellini and Gogo Bordello.

The misgivings I had about Holy Motors were actually similar to the ones I had about another 2012 film, the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas. In short: all those little vignettes, while presenting lovely tributes to the various permutations of cinematic storytelling, had to be reduced to abbreviations and imprints, lo-fi echoes of great ideas. I know this was unavoidable, given the constraints of the feature-film and the mission statements of these omnibus films. Still, seeing (in Holy Motors) an isolated fragment of a Jodorowskiish beauty-and-the-beast, or (in Cloud Atlas) a quick condensation of an hyperkinetic postmodern fable of love and liberation and cloning... it just serves to draw attention to its own incompleteness, to give us a cropped window into a larger, more beautiful film that we'll never get to see.

The problem isn't just because of time available. It's because to really feel the full force of a cinematic vision, we have to inhabit it without distraction. In these two films, we are wandering across time and space and genre, so we never get to engage with a single fictional universe.

I guess, even in its failure to fully evoke any particular universe, both of these films are successful in communicating the meta-message they seem to be aiming for, at least partially. As much as self-contained fictions, they are essays on the irreducible multiplicity of cinema, on the impossibility of turning a great film into a small part of a big ol' omnibus. Both films are somewhat less than the sum of their parts, I think, but that the failure itself contributes to another message: isn't it beautiful, being in control of this medium that's so rich, we can't even get its stories to fit together on a single canvas? If that's what you guys were saying, Leos Carax and the Wachowskis, then okay, cool. I got it.

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