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Contemporary Cinema?  

Joe McElhaney


I was born in 1957, the year Charles Chaplin made A King in New York. Chaplin was 68, allowing A King in New York to be seen as the film of not only ‘a free man’ (as Roberto Rossellini famously put it) but an old one, playing a deposed aristocrat who wishes to ‘revolutionise modern life and bring about a utopia’.  


As I write these words, Manoel de Oliveira is premiering his most recent film, The Strange Case of Angelica (2010). Oliveira is 101, making the Chaplin of 1957 seem comparatively youthful. I have not yet seen Oliveira’s film but I have no intention of missing it, even though this will involve an activity I enjoy less and less: going to the movies.


Be it the multiplex, revival theatre, museum or festival, the viewing of films in a collective environment involves an atmosphere of enforced ‘discovery’ of new experiences, new technologies. As my academic colleagues attempt to keep up with every imaginable change in the culture of images, I comfort myself with the thought that the necessary work on this ‘revolution’ is being done.


Instead, my relationship to contemporary cinema can be dominated by a passion for aging filmmakers, the older the better: Rohmer (deceased, but just barely), Resnais, Rivette. And who older (and perhaps better) than Oliveira?


But when does a contemporary filmmaker become an old one? It is not simply a question of biological time. The Chaplin of A King in New York is roughly the same age as, if not younger than, many active filmmakers today: Scorsese, De Palma, Cronenberg, Polanski. But these talented contemporary directors remain attached to the idea that one must make accomplished films, as though convincing themselves that they are as relevant as ever.


The Chaplin of A King in New York could not care less about such matters. In fact, the great aging filmmaker possesses an assurance that is so internalised, it no longer needs to be insistently announced in every sequence. This is not the transparency of classicism but something else, as though both modern and classical forms are giving way to that which cannot yet be categorised.


The films I speak of allow for extended moments of physical awkwardness (in A Talking Picture [2003], for example, the amateurish way that the ship’s passengers scatter when told that there is a bomb on board, or the entire presence of John Malkovich, deliriously miscast as the ship’s captain); long stretches of dialogue covered in simple two-shots or alternating singles in which the actors often barely move or make eye contact with one another, the delivery of the spoken word sometimes drained of conventional expressiveness, all of this allowing every word to acquire an unexpected weight (A Talking Picture again, where what is spoken is part history lesson/part philosophical dialogue); an eroticism all the more powerful because, in being so relentlessly pursued and postponed in relation to social forces, it retains a transgressive possibility (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon [2007] for youth, Don’t Touch the Axe [2006] for adults, Belle toujours [2006] for the old); and a conception of time that is invariably bound up with history, with a past, no matter how distant, that affects both the present and the future, even while the present folds back on to the past. Resnais was always the master of this, but when applied to a twenties operetta like Pas sur la bouche [2003] such ‘trivial’ material acquires a dimension of enormous historical and political force.


My relationship to these films may be little more than the last vestige of a certain auteurist cinephilia, unwilling to detach itself from beloved objects of the past. But for now, I want to call these films the works of ‘free men’ attempting to ‘revolutionise modern life and bring about a utopia’.


This piece first appeared in Cahiers du Cinema. Espana, no. 38 (October 2010), as "Trabajos de hombres libres". 


from Issue 1: Histories


© Joe McElhaney, October 2010.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.