On Coherence

On Coherence

By Nick Pinkerton

On the morning of the day that I had set aside to start sorting out my thoughts on the matter of Konsequenz in cinema—a word that I have been told simultaneously translates as “coherence” and “consequence,” and is also “notoriously untranslatable”—I was reading the text of an interview given by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1969 in New York City. In this masterful rhetorical performance, Pasolini reflects on the “stylistic contamination between literary language and dialect” in his novels; on the constant presence of the sacred in his films, the works of a nonbeliever; and the effect of “jumbled pastiche” found in both his writing and his cinematic work. When his interlocutor suggests that his parables operate in the “didactic form,” Pasolini protests: “Film doesn’t offer solutions, it doesn’t teach anything; it raises issues, offers reflections, makes observations. And it leaves the problem hanging, you see.”

So to the idea of coherence, Pasolini presents his “jumble and poetic feeling”; to the idea of consequence, with its air of the decisive and definite, Pasolini presents only more vexing problems. Yet Pasolini also has a method and a very personal, idiosyncratic reasoning behind the ingredients introduced into his jumble, which he elucidates in that rhetorical voice that Luigi Fontanella describes as “sharp and mercilessly logical… with the weight of unavoidable stones.” And if Pasolini claims not to offer solutions, can we say with any certitude that his body of work has had less consequence—if not in terms of achieving concrete social or political goals, which after all very few artworks can claim to do, but in terms of affecting hearts and minds—than a hundred unassailably doctrinaire films and novels that gesture clearly and definitively towards What Is To Be Done? This is not going to be a clear-cut matter, which is one reason that it’s sometimes a bad idea to start your day with Pasolini.

Maya Deren

Identification of stylistic consistency has been at the heart of untangling the skein of art history, of giving attribution where attribution is due, of identifying and elevating hero figures and then separating the brushwork of the Master from that of the assistants and the “Studio of…” It would also become central to the discourse that asked that cinema, all kinds of cinema, be considered as an art rather than an industrial concern. If a cultured audience could reasonably be expected to perceive the fingerprints of a Sergei Eisenstein or a Maya Deren on their work—both figures who left behind considerable bodies of theoretical writing to explain their methodology and approach—it would take somewhat more exegesis and argument to get across the idea that, even within films subject to the strictures of genre frameworks and commercial concerns, there could still be found at work identifiable personalities and philosophies and aesthetics: that a western by John Ford was not the same as a western by Anthony Mann or Delmer Daves or Budd Boetticher. “Auteurism” remains, I suppose, a loaded term in some circles, but it has never seemed to me a particularly controversial claim to make that films are made by people, and that filmmaking is, like any other form of art-making, a matter of proposing questions and making decisions, and that different practitioners have a proclivity towards proposing certain moral and aesthetic questions and making certain decisions as to how to address them, and that these tendencies are as identifiable as in their way as one footballer’s strike or one basketball player’s fadeaway jumper.

There are certain figures in film history who, in the coherence and consistency of their bodies of work, appear almost mechanistic, the example of Fritz Lang being the first that springs to mind. Lang was born in the Austria-Hungary of Franz Joseph, in 1890, and he died in Beverly Hills, in 1976, in the United States of Gerald Ford. He made films in Berlin and Hollywood, with excursions to Paris and India. The subjects of his films, and of course the language spoken on the set, changed according to his perambulations—his German films, at least those with a contemporary setting, dealt with German scenes; his American films, generally, with American ones. Their core concerns, however, and the visual language that he used to articulate them, would remain almost ludicrously consistent. Man was a plaything struggling in the grips of, to use Tom Gunning’s phrase, a massive and indifferent Destiny-machine which went on humming in cool indifference to man’s best-laid plans, and this plight was communicated in rigorous, precise, airtight screen grammar that belonged to Lang as surely as, say, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s prose style belonged to him. Lang’s final films, made upon a return to West Germany in the late 1950s, returned to some of his first: his “Indian Epic” circled back to material he’d once worked on with his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, directed by Joe May; his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, released in 1960, returned to the legacy of the arch-criminal Mabuse, the subject of two films he’d made in 1922 and 1933. The lone eye of Lang is merciless, unblinking, and all-seeing. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

I happen to love the films of Lang, with their hard, unbending lines, and I happen to love Pasolini’s jumble as well. I love some filmmakers who treat each new movie as an opportunity to rearrange familiar furniture, and some who treat each as an excuse to light out for undiscovered country. It is perversely funny to me that Michael Mann wrote perhaps a half-dozen lines of dialogue at some point in the late ’70s (“I do the time, I don’t let the time do me,” “Never been a hard time we can’t handle,” etc.) and apparently thought they were good enough to shoehorn into nearly every movie he made for the rest of his life. I enjoy, too, the manic, motley output of a Lino Brocka, and the improbable but nevertheless true fact that the same person could make both a wrenching melodrama like Insiang (1976) and a (incidentally melodramatic) paean to the male body like Macho Dancer (1988). Certain filmographies there are whose allure lies in their wonderful consistency of tone. There is a feeling that one gets from Jean Rollin’s films, a kind of weary lonesome dolor, that you can get nowhere else, and so returning to chez Rollin has for me an almost comforting quality, like putting on a beloved-but-threadbare jumper. At the same time, consistency of tone isn’t consistently to be desired. One of the great pleasures of Golden Age Hong Kong cinema, for example, is its almost total disregard for tonal uniformity, its willingness to carom between high pathos and knockabout comedy and violent, life-or-death action in the course of a single reel. (Watch Sammo Hung’s 1989 Pedicab Driver for a prime example of these whiplash pivots.) Part of the fun of art is that it has no rules, and what “works” for one artist won’t necessarily work for another, and certain splendid signatures can’t be forged, which is why Robert Bresson is great, and a great deal of cinema in imitation of Bresson is, put plainly, not. And then there are the one-shotters, whose highlights can’t be compared to later efforts, because of the absence—for any number of reasons—of later efforts. Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) appears to us as almost hermetically perfect in its solitary desolation, but who can say how that perception might be colored if it had been followed up by a brash sex comedy with Sally Kellerman?

What I suppose I am trying to say is that coherence is important in cinema, except for when it isn’t, but maybe it always is? I hope this clears matters up. In cinema, as in most any art form that you might name, I would say that there is almost a critical cult of coherence—or, rather, the valuation of a readily identifiable aesthetic consistency—that has been advanced with sometimes deleterious effects to the art and artists themselves. A coherent career has a real value in market terms: a body of work’s coherency may spring from a very pure place of personal preoccupation—let us say that there was nothing in the world more fascinating to Clyfford Still than those torn patches of solid color—but in effect it functions as branding. Gallery curators love this, and so do film festival programmers; it’s such a relief to know that you can pencil in the new Hong Sang-soo, because we know that it can be expected to generate a certain amount of interest, and because we know what Hong does. We know, too, that Céline is the guy that strings his stream-of-consciousness yammer together with telegrammatic ellipsis and that Francis Bacon is the guy that paints, to paraphrase Kingsley Amis, pictures of men screaming in boxes, and that Josef Albers is the guy that paints nesting squares, and that Yasujirō Ozu—at least the settled-in Ozu of later life, not the director of disconcertingly energetic pictures like Dragnet Girl (1933)—is the guy that shoots low-key domestic dramas with his camera placed at the level of someone seated on a tatami mat, and we might assume that in every case if these artists did the same thing over and over again, they did so because this seemed to them the proper and natural and most efficacious approach to the work at hand.

All of which is to the good. But placing a premium on coherence above all else can breed an intolerance of work which threatens to violate or otherwise problematize that coherence, though if we admire an artist one would suppose that this admiration would extend to trusting them to know when the time is right to pick up stakes and light out for new territory. In practice, we know that this is not always the case. A change in the recipe is disturbing to those who have become accustomed to a favorite and familiar flavor—recall the moment in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) in which Allen’s “Sandy Bates” is addressed by a fan who expresses enthusiasm for his films, especially the “early, funny ones.” Folkies were frustrated when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, cinephiles were thrown for a loop when the normally sedate Hou Hsiao-hsien went manic in his 2001 Millennium Mambo, and I am sure there are those who thought it a terrible mistake when Helen Frankenthaler started adding impastos to her “stain” paintings. Frankenthaler said, “Once one’s true talent begins to emerge, one is freer in a way but less free in another way, since one is a captive of this necessity and deep urge,” but to these bonds we can add still another manacle—the expectation to produce more of the same, and the disappointment that comes when that expectation isn’t met.

There are artists, like Lang, who can appear almost ironclad in their coherency, and then there are shape-shifter artists, like Frankenthaler, whose consistency lies, paradoxically, in their inconsistency. The essential element here is a certain consistency of character, what we might otherwise call “personality.” Because experience has told me that Sam Wood and Sam Mendes are pliable journeymen who impart little of value to anything that they touch, I believe that if anything they make has something of interest to offer, this will have happened independent of and almost in spite of them. Because experience has told me that Pasolini is an artist, or that Brocka is, or that Frankenthaler is, I am willing to believe that whatever they opt to do will be worth looking into, even if the results aren’t always of equal interest. And with certain artists, even that aspect of interest becomes of almost secondary importance. Rainer Werner Fassbinder famously said, “I would like to build a house with my films,” and this metaphor colors the way that I think about his filmography. I don’t like Chinese Roulette (1976) as much as I like Veronika Voss (1982), but neither are you necessarily supposed to feel the same way toward your plumbing as much as you do toward your front porch—nevertheless, they both have their functions. Another great personal favorite is the band The Fall, whose lone consistent member through a half-century existence was frontman and ringleader Mark E. Smith. The Fall went through more periods than Picasso—punk Sprechgesang, Country and Northern rockabilly bounce, the pop-inflected Brix Smith years, ’90s excursions into IDM and electronica—but throughout there was, quite literally, a consistent voice, Smith’s snide, incantatory Mancunian burr. The sort of coherent incoherence that I am trying to describe is well summarized by superfan DJ John Peel’s encomium for the group: “They are always different, they are always the same.” The Fall, incidentally, were notorious for their inconsistency as a live act, veering between catastrophe and inspiration on any two nights, and—here comes the paradox—there are those that would argue that this very volatility was responsible for the band’s extraordinarily long-lasting creative potency.

Whenever mulling over the matter of why I happen to like what I like, I have had multiple occasions to cite a phrase written 20 years ago by the critic Kent Jones regarding “the distinction between aesthetics that are handmade and those that are rented for the occasion.” This quality of the handmade is what I think of when I think about the coherence of a body of work. Everything need not necessarily look the same, or feel the same, but there should be a sense that the hands shaping the thing are; that it is part of the same project, an addition to the same house. This is probably romantic, and probably assigns too much importance to, in the case of cinema, the director, but I would prefer to err on this side of things to erring on the other.

In the world, the relationship between “coherence” and “consequence” is assumed—this is how we build trust. If someone is consistent in their performance, we trust that they will continue to be so, which is why strikers who can consistently put the ball in the back of the net are paid significantly more than those who are less reliable. If a politician has built a voting record that coincides with our values, we are likely to want to see them continue in office. If a roofing concern has been in business for 30 years, and offers a warranty on their product to boot, we might consider them to shingle our home.

In each of these cases, the coherence corresponds to a desired consequence—a goal, a vote cast, a sturdy roof over our heads. When we come to the matter of art, however, the issue becomes significantly complicated, because it’s very difficult to say what practical purpose art has, or is supposed to have. To some minds its purpose is, contra Pasolini, didactic, but if the accomplishment of social or political ends is the highest aim of art, it has a fairly dismal track record for doing this. We can point to outliers like Jacob Riis’s pioneering work of photojournalism, How the Other Half Lives, haunting portraits of poverty shot in the slums of 1880s Manhattan, and say that it played a part in policy-making through the impact it had on New York City President of the Police Board Theodore Roosevelt, and had a crucial role in the formation of the Tenement House Committee, but can we say that consequence was equaled by Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915), shot on the same squalid streets as Riis’s photographs, or Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2014), which begins with a montage of Riis’s pictures? And if not, must we then count them as failures?

Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money” (© GRANDFILM)

More often than not, the consequences we can hope for are nearer to those cited by Pasolini: art raises issues, offers reflections, makes observations. (To these I would add the inducement of pleasure, in a wide diversity of perverse varietals; I take pleasure from Catherine Breillat’s films, but it is a pleasure of a very peculiar kind, and one that I am not always in the mood for.) The method by which this is achieved can never be pure: in Pasolini’s jumble, there is no small amount of preparatory and theoretical rigor; in Lang’s tightly sealed rigor, there is an element of what Deren called the “controlled accident,” for films are made by inconstant people, not automatons, and a living set is something very different from a coolly constructed scenario. But if we gravitate towards certain bodies of work that seem coherent, it is because we have the expectation of this consequences: that we will be agitated by them, be amused by them, be ravished by them, as has been the case in the past. I know I can count on Céline and Deren and Breillat and Mark E. Smith and Fritz Lang and Sammo Hung to give me something, even if I don’t know what, exactly, it is that they’ve given me. Maybe this doesn’t seem like very much, but it’s also everything.