Monday, 1 October 2012

Mood You Can't Extrude

Sometimes the human condition is ineffable. Films can be very good at conveying some of this beyond-words human experience, occupying that unarticulated existential space we might feel, say, gazing silently out of a window as busy street traffic moves by, watching the tide roll in, or maybe floating in space (and who hasn't been there?)—feeling the world turn or pass us by. Those moments where, as humans confronted by our relationship with the world around us, we grapple on some deep, vague level with what exactly that means.

Some films offer gorgeous, vividly realised worlds, drenched in atmosphere, where we confront characters who find themselves existentially adrift in just this kind of way. Blade Runner (1982) is one example, the main character, Deckard, a kind of mercenary whose job it is to terminate rogue cyborg-like creatures called replicants, but who finds the line between human and replicant to be not entirely clear. Another is Ghost in the Shell (1995), in which Motoko Kusanagi, a human consciousness in a full cyborg body, questions whether she is really still human. Both have pretty much the same cyberpunk theme, and both frame these contemplations in a heavy cinematic and locational moodiness.

Deckard looking disgruntled in a neon-washed street

But Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell do more than that—they use this moody atmosphere as a substitute for the expression or exploration of genuine emotions, to keep the humanity of their subjects placed in ambiguity. In that sense, the films are very effective—a ruminative existential tone is set while their subjects remain compellingly inscrutable. Unfortunately, mood alone can only take us so far, and by never quite connecting with these externalised characters, we are alienated from them rather than understanding their existential crises subjectively. It leaves films that, for all their beauty and pensive posturing, only ever scratch the surface emotionally. (And on the cerebral front, so much time is spent standing around looking glassy-eyed that they're forced to make up for it every now and then with tumbles of clunky expositional dialogue.)

Drive (2011) is the same. Moodiness, muteness and meaningful looks all lend ambiguity to a character whose humanity, in its own way, is also at question. The nameless main character, stunt driver by day and getaway driver by night, is a kind of deconstructed action hero, one whose 'heroic' actions are tinged with darkness and compromise. It's worth noting the brutal violence and death present in all three of these films, a fine marker of having possibly left your humanity at the door, or suggesting of these characters a bit of existential hypocrisy.

The hero of Drive looking moody with a toothpick in his mouth

The Hollywood backdrop and accompanying retro stylings in Drive, evoking a cinema of the past, are present with a vague but not very solid sense of irony, re-establishing this nostalgic brand of 'cool' without ever really undermining it. This leaves it feeling like an affected stylistic choice more for the sake of itself than anything else, a presiding noir atmosphere doing the most for the actual substance of the film—that is, making it dark and moody. Whether the character ever really rises above this affected moodiness, though, I'm not so sure.

I came away from Drive 'getting it' about the hero/monster thing, appreciating the unusual retro flavour in its own right, and assuming that these slightly bizarre wordless exchanges with the romantic interest were supposed to be full of subtlety and taut with unspoken feelings, but ultimately it seemed like a somewhat tedious exercise in moodiness where nothing was quite as meaningful or as significant as it was probably meant to be.

The story itself was left feeling pretty weak—the relationship with the woman and her son, almost token roles, dealt with in a really perfunctory way (when it wasn't downright weird); too much dependence on shock violence to jolt some life back into the action; too much coincidence; and above all, a protagonist with not enough about him for me to really care, shiny as buttons with restrained emotion though his eyes may have been by the end.

Major Motoko Kusanagi looking impassively out of her bedroom window

For pure, distilled cinematic existentialism—existentialism as mood or ambiance—these films are great, or have their moments of greatness. Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, in particular, can hold you in a kind of existential trance. But I think all three of these films reach a point where they mistake mood and its ambiguous, suggestive qualities for actual emotional meaning and significance. It leaves them falling a bit short on an emotional level, afraid to breathe too much life into their characters lest they break their moody spell.

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