This post is, while a freestanding note on Carax’s ‘Holy Motors,’ also in response to commentary from Parhom Saeidi on the same film. You can find the original post here.

I’m always cautious when I hear that a film is “about film.”

But Holy Motors springs from the present media culture in general, and thus: the present culture at large. The Cinema is in there somewhere. And Carax treats us to clips, ghosts, literal flickers from early cinema.

This calls to mind no one so much as Tom Gunning, and his 1986 paper describing an early “cinema of attraction” (attraction borrowed from Eisenstein.) Gunning said that early cinema did not attempt to establish an illusion of the real, or even a voyeuristic relationship between spectator and film.

Instead, the early cinema relied on exhibitionism. Every film image declared an awareness of the spectator, and the image performed for that spectator, based on what images would be pleasurable to consume. (Narrative wasn’t even on the table.)

To re-appropriate a platitude (maybe one rapidly approaching exhaustion:) the cinema of attraction was engaged in showing, rather than telling. Storytelling, even at its most visual and ascetic, was a game of construction and calculation, while the cinema of attractions sought only to present images, and to wallow in the way they were transformed by the process of image-making.

In fact, it was born out of a worship of the image-making mechanism. To name one mechanism, the cameragraph was new. Showing was not only “enough” but “a lot.”

(It hadn’t occurred to me that Carax might have a device of his own to relish, but now I think it may be the mechanism of digital image creation. Carax takes the digital camera and elevates it (enshrines it for worship) by removing it from the contemporary obsession with storytelling. After all, the digital camera was born into this flow, while the film-camera grew (or rather, shrunk) into it.)

Holy Motors shatters the cloudy pane through which we spy on characters. Even the term “fourth wall break” is too timid, as it relies on the paradigm it stands in opposition to for definition. The “fourth wall break” implies the existence of a fourth wall, where Holy Motors aspires (in its finest moments) not to have one at all. It is in perpetual revolution, and the fourth wall is perpetually being erected and torn down. Like the light in the room, you’re more likely to notice it when it becomes abruptly absent.

The film follows a performance artist whose various modes have been documented tirelessly in the blogosphere already, and necessarily here by Parhom (see above for link.) The film consists of the ordering of his performances along the time-scape of a limo ride through Paris. Here I submit to you a Melies quote that Gunning also cites:

As for the scenario, the “fable,” or “tale,” I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretense for “stage effects,” the “tricks,” or for a nicely arranged tableaux.”

Like Melies describes, Carax’s disinterest in his character’s “real” life is evident. The film really takes on life-of-its-own when delivering its “attractions,” and these are all of the above. Holy Motors fairly bristles with tableaux, as when a naked Denis Levant, erection throbbing, lies his head in Eva Mendes lap and goes to sleep.

Holy Motors fairly bristles with tricks for our amusement. These digital “tricks” are simultaneously gentle and uncanny, and wallow in joyous subversion of the digital image as an authentic and immediate representation of the real. I submit to you: a conversation between the retired limos, at the end of their work day. They blink and speak to one another in closed dark garage. Their speaking has no narrative purpose, tells no story, and indeed, our main character is not even present. This is because Carax is no more interested in his character than he is in subverting our expectations about the necessity of “character itself.”

As is evident with the release of the Star Trek Into Darkness teaser yesterday, the veil between voyeur and spectacle has thinned. We have now returned to attraction in some ways, but still rely on exhausted narrative signifiers for our pleasure. The law-of-diminishing-returns screams to be heard above the pounding synthetic tones– the same ones vigorously aped in every “big” movie since The Dark Knight‘s joker theme: WAAAAUMP. WAAAAUMP. All the while, the voice of a color-by-numbers villain preaches vaguely about impending chaos.

It’s only in this context, the poverty and bottle-necking of the commercial cinema, that Holy Motors makes sense. Instead of pretending to be about character and story, and then offering primarily digital destruction and/or spectacle (Cloverfield, Avatar, Star Trek, 2012, iRobot, Transformers, Inception, numerous superhero films and, most probably, World War Z) Holy Motors offers more lovingly constructed spectacle that restores the spectator to a place of heightened awareness.

Paradoxically, Holy Motors may be described as dream-like because it wakes the spectator, raucously, from the drowsy fog of the modern commercial cinema, which thrives on a sleeping audience.

Already a notorious sequence, Carax stages Levant’s “coitus dance” with a female performer in a motion capture studio. This literally digital dance is performed in an otherwise empty room. That is, even though the spectacle is beautifully choreographed, there is no one present to enjoy it except the performers. Where is the spectator?

But of course, the film has long ago acknowledged, in no uncertain terms, the location of the spectator. Holy Motors opens with a shot, apparently from behind the screen, of a movie theater packed with spectators (optimistic for an art film.)

The film is engaged not in storytelling, but in performance. It is constantly insisting that the cinema is not dead, and that as consumers of digital media, we can still ask to be shown the incredible, rather than be told the same stories over and over, the scale only ever increasing in terms of finances (Avatar being the most criminal and, to some extent, critically martyred, of these) and ubiquity of distribution (Disney will be spamming your Netflix experience for the next ten years.)

To go back to Tom Gunning (last time, I promise,) a quote:

“In fact the cinema of attraction does not disappear with the dominance of narrative, but rather goes underground, both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films, more evident in some genres (e.g., the musical) than in others.”

Which brings us to Kylie Minogue, singing to no one so much as the audience, in Holy Motors. Denis Levant is present, and wanders through the same space at the same time, but the performer is really doing so for the camera. And the other side of the camera is us.

The musical, by its abandoning pretense of reality, acknowledges the hungry spectator, and feeds them directly. The Avatar of the protagonist is shattered, and we can remember for a moment what it’s like to see something for the first time, and to experience it first hand, rather than be told about it so often, and so loudly.

-Max Berwald


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