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Youth (Tom Shoval, 2013)   

Adrian Martin


  I think very strongly now that the more spectacular you are, the more you are absorbed by the things you are trying to destroy. You don't destroy anything at all, and it's you who are destroyed because of the spectacle. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1969) (1)   1. Jonathan Cott, ‘Jean-Luc Godard: The Rolling Stone Interview’, 14 June 1969.

If the last year’s worth of heated debate around László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015) has taught us anything, it’s this: many people are extremely suspicious of cinema’s potential for providing spectacular immersion – if they are not entirely predisposed against it, from the word go. But there is, after all, something extraordinarily counter-intuitive about assuming a stand, in the name of cinema, ‘against spectacle’ (as the title of a recent book puts it, and as Godard summed up such a stand in the immediate post-1968 sentiment quoted above). There is no single essence to cinema as a medium, apparatus or art, but intimately bound up in its core workings is an inescapable element of spectacle. A projected film, before it’s anything else, is a sheet, a plane to gaze at, whether big or small. This gazing – in a completely natural, inevitable way – implies hopeful fascination, potential entrancement, especially when married with a soundtrack. To deny this formative element of spectacular fascination from the outset, to set oneself against it with all one’s might (whether as critic or artist), can sometimes be understandable in certain historic conjunctures – it can even be heroic in its extremity, as some militant filmmaking proves. But it will always be a perverse undertaking, flying in the face of this or any audiovisual, screen-based form.


The immersive part of the spectacular equation is something relatively new to have evolved in cinema production, across many genres and in many countries. What I’m thinking of here is a specific trope or figure: the handheld camera that sticks (more or less) ‘at the back’ of a mobile character, as if glued as close as possible to their head, neck and shoulders, barrelling after them as they cross streets, file down corridors, race from one significant site to another … There are already many variations of this trope evident in world cinema, wielded to different expressive ends: what the Dardennes do with it, as they follow the desperate lunges of their characters into workplaces or woods, is immediately distinguishable from what Gaspar Noé does with it, mimicking the out-of-it, where-am-I-now lurching of his anti-heroes from one hallucinated space to the next; and that differs, again, from the more strictly Hollywoodised use that Kathryn Bigelow makes of the trope in The Hurt Locker (2009) or Zero Dark Thirty (2012).


However, what unites the various manifestations of immersive spectacle in contemporary cinema is a desire to raise the ante of traditional screen realism (whether construed in external-objective or inner-psychological terms) and situate us, as viewers, in an extreme intimacy with a central character: we experience situations and sensations just as they do, as they flash up around the bewildered subjectivity-point; we have no wider knowledge of events or contexts than they do. (In Son of Saul, the trope is given a particularly intense twist, as Saul is constantly, literally wrenched, manually, from one vector or goal to another.) This is the heightened audiovisual rhetoric of an ‘in the moment’ or ‘you are there’ viewing/listening experience. It can be done well or badly, used well or badly, depending on the individual film. (Sean Baker’s Tangerine [2015], for example, seems to me a weakly executed instance of this current style.) But it should not be dismissed from the get-go as fatally spectacular.


In the negative Cahiers du cinéma review of Son of Saul by Jean-Philippe Tessé (to cite only one prominent and fairly typical example), we can observe how a particular critical logic structures reaction to the film, and what is made of that reaction later, in the process of writing and rationalisation. Placing the movie as the tent-pole of a veritable ‘cinema of immersion’ that the magazine has set out to interrogate, a strict linkage is made between this immersive experience and a presumed ‘ask no questions’ attitude that amounts to the ‘destruction by spectacle’ void which Godard evoked in ’69. The spectator is ‘impressed’, crushed, evacuated of thought! Nemes’ particular achievement in aesthetic stylisation – his ‘mastery’, another quality viewed dimly by the current Cahiers crew - thus generates suspicion in the critic, even if the craft of it is ‘incontestably brilliant’:


  It all generates a true sensorial whole, a maelstrom of images and sounds, an impression of confusion and speed that produces a forceful and oppressive effect on the spectator, an effect of immersion, which reduces the concentration-camp universe to the dimensions of an experience: it’s as if you were there, so that you can now weigh up what is literally unbearable. We sense genuine malice in this filmmaker, who is perfectly conscious of the stakes of this representation … (2)  

Jean-Philippe Tessé, ‘L’expérience Auschwitz’, Cahiers du cinéma, issue 716 (November 2015), p. 34.

The dramatic stakes are ostensibly set a little lower in Tom Shoval’s Youth, but the characters’ actions, and the way the film depicts them, still resonate. After a Funny Games-style blast of loud rock during the opening credits, the movie settles into that eerie, music-less ambience that marks so many screen dramas in the contemporary immersive tradition. From its first images, we are plunged into the type of anxious follow-shots that imply the presence of a backstory without spelling it out – as with the Dardennes, we know we will have to wait for any fill-in exposition of goals and motives to arise when it can, in the naturalness of the forward flow of events. Two teenagers: a guy stalks a girl who has just finished school for the day. We assume a scary case of sex predation, which turns out to be an entirely wrong assumption – and this sets a pattern for how Youth will play against the expectations set by its seeming genre of ‘naturalistic urban thriller’.


The film plays a captivating game with its unpredictable balance of everyday detail and suspenseful, dramatic episodes. The everyday sphere in question is a family in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv, facing serious financial trouble. Shaul (David Cunio) and Yaki (Eitan Cunio) are twin brothers, the latter on leave from his military service – and thus legally able to carry a rifle. Their kidnapping of Dafna (Gita Amely) is an attempt to extort money from her wealthy family. Much of the film is devoted to the dense, finicky, time-mounting-up business of keeping her still, silent, but hopefully still alive, in a basement that is uncomfortably close to the activities and sites of their daily life. And even before that: transporting her to the makeshift cell requires a public bus ride! This pair of guys make mistakes: Shaul inadvertently calls out Yaki’s name in front of their captive; they don’t anticipate various kinds of resourcefulness on Dafna’s part.


But whenever the film seems to be about to veer into purely generic thrills and become a tense, psychological power game of oneupmanship, another element kicks in and rearranges the premise. Dafna fears rape or some other form of violent attack, but the guys’ frustrations and anger never (mercifully) take those particular forms. A scene in which we wonder whether Dafna can survive being bound and gagged by amateurs is answered, on another plane, by a head-spinning revelation about the nature of her relationship with her parents – a detail in itself ordinary (if surprising), but completely derailing of the kidnapping scenario. A family dinner sequence in which the brothers anxiously await a mobile phone message is sent in another direction by the pesky intervention of a little girl. (The film is a brilliant essay, in-between its lines, on the role of telephone technology in everyday life.) This constant back-and-forth between the eventful and the quotidian is mirrored in the role that American popular cinema (such as the Nicolas Cage vehicle Seeking Justice, 2011) plays in the unfolding scansion of events: pumped-up ideals and fantasies come into collision with every kind of slip, contingency and interpersonal misunderstanding.


Youth inevitably evokes allegorical or emblematic readings in terms of national politics – this Israeli everyday is intensely ‘militarised’, Dafna asks the twins if they are Arabs – but it sticks close to the parameters of its small, circumscribed world. In this ‘physical cinema’ that Shoval, in an interview, extols – ‘One of the most substantial qualities of cinema is that you can see bodies move. It is all about movement, and the movement tells you everything about the character’s psychology. The physicality offers a pathway into the soul’ (3) – the real pay-off comes from an unexpectedly charged gesture between Yaki and Shaul near the film’s end: their uncomfortable, endless embrace, somewhere between a wrestling match (recall Jacques Doillon’s woefully underrated Mes séances de lutte, 2013!) and a desperate cry of filial love. Is this a ‘cinema of immersion’? Sure, as long as we don’t automatically rule out the possibility that, in the linear sequencing of events, in their staging, presentation and juxtaposition with neighbouring scenes, we are able to deduce – just as much as in more obviously distanced, classical drama – a wider context, a more comprehensive balance of judgements beyond the subjective moments lived one at a time, so banally or fiercely, by the characters.

  3. Neta Alexander, ‘Interview: Tom Shoval’, Film Comment blog, 18 August 2015.

from Issue 6: Distances


© Adrian Martin, May 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.