Saturday, January 26, 2008

A few reasons why I think Jared Hess should be interested in Aki Kaurismäki's films

Why single out Jared Hess? Because we're all aware that he has significant skill and a fresh take on humor that caused a cultural tidal wave across the country (and I've seen "vote for Pedro" shirts in Eastern Europe). But its more than that.

Unfortunately, Jared Hess has become an icon for Mormon's, aspiring filmmakers or not. Hopefully we're not still under the illusion that one person makes a movie (we don't often talk about Jerusha or the producers), but Jared has come to stand for something than we all hope for: some kind of success without compromising "LDS values." There are red-flags all over what I've written thus far, but I hope you'll stay with me. I am not suggesting that "LDS values" are simple or universal, but his two features have been widely well received and lack obscenity, nudity or even allusion to it. A slap in the face to all claims of the rest of us sometimes less-gifted folk parading as abused moralists.

But I also think that humor is a tricky and ugly thing at times. A little self-revelation: I don't watch TV and I haven't really watched any for close to 8 years. Likewise, we weren't aloud to watch The Simpsons in my house growing up. One Thanksgiving break, Ashley and I decided to watch all of season 4 together. In the beginning, I didn't think I had laughed so hard, so consistently all my life. But then as we kept watching, episode after episode, I began to feel sick. It wasn't the laughter, because I had stopped laughing at that point. Neither was it the content of the jokes-- I think I got enough of what was going on and was sufficiently distanced to observe and appreciate. I began to realize that it was the form of the joke telling that affected me so centrally that I became physically sick. I had to stop the episodes to go to the bathroom and be sick. It was the pattern of joke-cut, joke-cut that wrenched me. You'd be surprised how different the editing styles are in television if you never watch it and only watch film. In my first exposure to TV editing there was no room to breathe. I couldn't laugh when I wanted to, I could only laugh when Matt Groening wanted me to. Not only was I losing on a "cease all your loud laughter" front, but I gave myself to be fully manipulated. And my organism revolted.

Abbas Kiarostami (the Iranian filmmaker, not the Finnish one yet) talks about "those" movies ' actually tak[ing] something away from you.' So I think about humor in very cautious terms. I thought that Wes Anderson was a step closer to what I think a more "Charitable Humor" would be, but on repeated viewings of The Royal Tenebaums I see the same joke-cut, joke-cut film grammar. I also feel the same sickness.

So when I recently saw Aki Kaurismäki's addition to "Ten Minutes Older: Trumpet" an ambitious omnibus dedicated to Chris Marker, among others, and a meditation on the passage of time, I was dazzled. Victor Erice's moved me to tears, and Werner Herzog's reached a profundity I haven't seen in any of his other films and one I'm not likely to forget for years to come, but Aki Kaurismäki's did something for humor that I hadn't know was possible: it encouraged me to laugh, but let me do so at my own pace and desire. Now this film, "Dogs Have No Hell," was only ten minutes, and season 4 was meant to be watched over months of time with commercial interruptions (an evil notion, if i might add), but I dare venture that watching this ten minutes for several hours straight would not make a visit to the toilet necessary. And I learned more about time, love, and interpersonal communication than I would from most mainstream features.

I think that Jared Hess has a gentleness in his filmmaking and in his world view to have him very susceptible to the mastery of Kaurismäki (in this article I will only be referring to Aki, as I have yet to see any of Miki's, his brother's, films).

But the two main reasons I make the comparison between these filmmakers are their use of characters and their use of actors.

One thing that stood out to me in the criticism surrounding both Napoleon and Nacho was that the director mocked his characters, notably less so in Nacho. I don't know that I completely agree with this notion, but it is for sure that they are not meant to be our ideals. Though I'm excited that they are what they are, much of the films humor come at the characters expense. This concerns me for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has gone through public schooling. Even when the movies laugh with the characters, they are still laughing at them. Or am I being too careless in this statement? I'm not completely sure on this, but it seems to me to be the case.

Kaurismäki, on the other hand (of whose films, truth be told, I've only seen four-- two feature and two short) who populates his films with humorously subtle, dead-pan characters, does not derive the film's humor from the characters, but from their situations. This is something that Jared Harris does better than Wes Anderson, I believe. But the difference is that I, for one, look up to Kaurismäki's characters, and pity their situations. Somehow I admire them and laugh at the film (an example is the genre-conscious medium shot- to- close-up movements. We laugh at the conventions, not the characters). But in both Napoleon and Nacho we either loathe or pity the characters as we laugh at them.

Which brings me to my final point: Kaurismäki requires dead-pan acting to accent the sheer precision of his meaning and rhythm. Though Jack Black refined Nacho, and I would guess Hess's filmmaking abilities, I found the picture struggling between to gifted and differing personalities. The contrast didn't bring harmony or counterpoint, but an unwanted muffle where both intentions were lessened because neither was subservient to the other. I think Hess would do better with the dead-pan that Kaurismäki requires of his actors.

Are my suggestions for a 'better cinema'? I don't think so. I don't know what that means, but I do believe that they look for a more 'Charitable' cinema. I have never met Jared Hess, but I respect him nd what he's done a great deal. But who am I to suggest this? It could be that Jared Hess is best friends with Kaurismäki, while I'm just dreaming about his 3 volume set that was just released in England in recent months. Whatever the case, I hope this will be some sort of spring board for the rest of us.


Gideon Burton said...

Folks at BYU's Theatre and Media Arts throw around the term "Cinema of charity" quite a bit and I'm not sure if the details of this are quite worked out. You raise the sticky ethical dilemma of whether one is charitable when a comedic film depends upon mocking the main character. Well, Christian morality would pull the rug out from under that possibility, but I think there is room to argue over whether Hess's Napoleon Dynamite creates disdain or affection for its hapless hero. I sense an admiration for innocence in both Napoleon and Nacho Libre's characters. Moreover, there is a celebration of the underdog, the outcast, the oddball, the one outside of the mainstream who has something substantial to offer. This is not to say I'm against LDS filmmakers learning from Kaurismaki or other fine filmmakers. On Meghan Mathews' blog ( I was musing about the way that Mormons represent other religions within their own films. Now that is a true test of the ethics of depiction.

Jeff Denison said...

I thought your blog raised some interesting questions. I don't know if you remember me but one time we traveled to the land of obey and pretended to be trains. I saw you in line for sesame street some time ago. Hope Poland is grand.

Th. said...


Even when the movies laugh with the characters, they are still laughing at them. Or am I being too careless in this statement?

No, I don't think so. But I think that there is still a significant difference between ND and, say, the Jon Heder vehicle The Benchwarmers (which I'll guess you haven't seen; I don't want to go into how I ended up seeing it. Twice.)

In ND, no matter which direction the laughter is headed, the makers of the movie still love the characters. In a crapfest like theBs, which supposedly celebrates nerd power, the whole point of the movie is to degrade the characters--all of them--without any suspicion that perhaps they are not wholly worthy of such degradation. To me, that's the difference.