Blog #3/20 – The Invalidity of Beauty
By Pedro Butcher
It is interesting to note that the filmmaker most commonly associated with the words “beauty” and “elegance” in contemporary cinema, Wong Kar-wai, was barely even remembered in the Critics’ Week debate that brought these words to the table, and that when one of his films was mentioned, this was not In the Mood for Love (2000), maybe his most iconic “beautiful” and “elegant” movie, but the previous Happy Together (1997). Only cinematographer Hélène Louvart remembered one of the Hong Kong director’s films (but she didn’t even say the director’s name) after the debate’s mediator, Devika Girish, while formulating her last question, insisted on using the word “beauty” after it was thoroughly and almost unanimously rejected as a valuable term by the three members of the panel (besides Louvart, director and cinematographer Sebastián Lojo and film critic and programmer Dennis Lim).
The formulation of the panel’s theme seemed indeed confusing, but it was somehow provocative (as we could see by the reactions to it), and, most importantly, the two films that made the program definitely fit the discussion. Los Fantasmas, by Sebastián Lojo, and America, by Garrett Bradley, even if in extremely different ways, are “beautiful” films dealing with quite harsh realities, making careful use of light, tracking shots, and choreographed movements in their approach to these realities.
In Los Fantasmas, Lojo follows Koki, a young man from a lower middle-class neighborhood in Guatemala and some characters around him. In many ways, it is easy to identify Los Fantasmas as a film directed by a cinematographer, but it would be unfair to disqualify it in these terms as you can easily sense that formal control, here, is attached to a search for a personal expression—and that there is an attention to the characters that goes beyond pure formalist ambitions.
Garrett Bradley’s America, on the other hand, is an experiment around memory and invisibility that alternates images from a recently restored silent movie (Bert Williams’s Lime Kiln Club Field Day, made in 1913) with free, symbolic recreations of events that marked the history of blackness in America, but were barely or never recorded on film. Though different paths and strategies, it definitely shares with Los Fantasmas the same formal control and a search for a certain “beauty” – understanding “beauty”, here, as a highly political choice in the sense that it seeks to do justice to the themes and characters being portrayed, which were historically often subject to a vision confined to stigmas and exploitative approaches.
It also comes to play, of course, with the old tradition of an image that, under the pretext of denunciation, takes a look at poverty in an aestheticizing and exploratory way – the burden that follows, for example, the work of photographer Sebastião Salgado, and a kind of approach that was harshly demolished by Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo in their fundamental short Agarrando Pueblo (1977). That is not the case, however, of Los Fantasmas or America.
The debate most of the time revolved around the validity of the use of the terms “beauty” and “elegance” – especially “beauty”, as Dennis Lim put it, as a word so deeply associated with the language of capitalism and advertising, and, in a broader view, a question that philosophers have tried to answer for centuries without success. Sebastián Lojo preferred to speak of a “control of the form” and explained that he would never go for the “beautiful”, but rather for a “language that is specific to the film”, citing film-makers that develop practical strategies to obtain some formal effects, such as Pedro Costa, who spends years and years with the same characters, or Hong Sang-soo, who gives the actors the dialogues in the same day of shooting.
Dennis Lim pointed out that calling the work of a filmmaker simply “beautiful” could be highly unjust, which may explain the almost total absence of Wong Kar-wai in the discussion. Hélène Louvart echoed him by stating that “beauty is not my cup of tea”: “it is something you have to feel, rather than see. Of course, we change reality when we film, but we don’t want to make it beautiful, maybe slightly more elegant”.