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Some thoughts on The Machinist/Haute Tension/Fight Club

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Jan. 3rd, 2007 | 04:18 pm
posted by: xeroxchamp in mr_reviewface

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”
The irony is that this classic line from Fight Club is being spoken to an imaginary character; so for the speaker as well as the audience, receiving that real smack in the gut that was requested is now rendered physically impossible, lest the audience do like the “protagonist,” and just smack themselves. As long as films persist in giving literal roles to the once-subtle multiple elements of the central character, film is pretentiously cheapened and falls prey itself to the same vacant irony.
When Christian Bale, in the Machinist, holds a knife to an apparently corporeal incarnation of his inner “guilt” (who has threatened the life of an imaginary child), what, then is the audience to identify with? The “protagonist,” Christian Bale, has been demonstrably mad, as every eerie note for the last hour and a half has been screaming toward our senses, so do we instead wish for his antagonist to overcome him? How can we, if that antagonist is not revealed to be an avatar for his madness or a symptom of his own? There’s a mistaken presumption that this inability for a lack of identification leads somehow to intellectualization, but what ideas has such a situation really given us, psychologically, beyond the obvious: that dimensions of unreality may lead to madness (fair enough), and also to sloppy screenwriting full of faux-epiphanies? Such a problem always ends in such a thick coat of self-questioning that it unsettles a medium whose chief strength is in its presentation of verifiability.
Cinema’s great challenge – and limitation – is to purvey the architectural dimensions of inner states of being and experience. While books can elicit identification through intellectual and narrative descriptions, film takes the more difficult path of seducing its audience with a concealed narrative voice and temporal suggestions, rather than overt themes and messages. For an example of a genre of films that often explain away their art, observe nearly any play-turned-film, and the wordy weight that the filmic narrative almost universally collapses under (A Streetcar Named Desire, anyone?). Conversely, in the 1970’s, the French and Italian New Wave films, particularly those of Truffaut, were adequately described as psychological effects in search of causes, following the story where the characters led it. Maintaining our example in French, the true opposite of such wonderful films would be that club-footed antecessor, Haute Tension (English title: High Tension) wherein a girl chased by a serial killer finally crosses that regrettable postmodern line in which she discovers she IS the serial killer who she’s been running frantically away from the entire movie. And as she turns to fight him/(her?), so the cinema, too, has turned backwards to discover a new type of insulting film, wherein the film’s true psychological causes obviously and inartistically merely reverse the audience’s expectations for the causes they know and throw the truth and morality of Effect out the window altogether. This new type of film could only exist in a dimension exasperated with the subtleties of handling a pantheon of characters each as refractory dimensions of their central protagonist or idea in the film.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a fine example of cinematic multiplicity. The reprehensible villain thrives on reckless sadism. The young girl is counter-intuitively innocent, and merely seeks to survive. Each of these identities heralds an aspect of the human character that we all know deep within our most primal selves. The work would be infinitely cheapened if the director had mistaken himself for clever and revealed all the characters to be one and the same; (and what the heck, they’re all a Texas house, too). If the aim of this new, “who’s who” type of film is to demonstrate the good and bad possible within even those that we trust the most, why not establish the varying conditions under which a person is good or bad, as the most recent example, the X-men films, have done? It seems that at the last moment, the makers of the Machinist realized this new genre’s trivial nature and decided to try to pass the film off as a character study in retrospect (though still marketing it as a thriller). What the audience and critics lambasted about the Machinist is attributable to the pain of somebody being told they were sold a clever twist, and afterwards being unable to straighten the twist out long enough to make anything at all worthwhile from the experience of having viewed it.
If a film establishes an unreliable narrative voice, nine times out of ten, the actuality of the situation becomes meaningless as the film wears on, as each previous episode is re-conditioned for new and ambivalently chosen continuities. Underlying an eventual acceptance of these changes is an ungratified desire to see the true actuality of the situation unfolded. Haute Tension does try to fill this void; later flashing back to show the one-time “heroine” axing the gas station attendant, and company, but by then it’s too late. How do we know the director won’t reveal later that she was actually Merv Griffin, and twist the twist just for the sake of adding another one? Our sacred pact with the movie has been betrayed.
Perhaps the only cinematic work that succeeds in this manner is Fight Club, for specific reasons. First and foremost, it is a black comedy, and all comedy is better suited to an unreliable narrative voice than a tragedy: because tragedy is part of our everyday, and verifiable world while comedy benefits from an artifice. Within Fight Club, character is fully realized in proportion to the audience, as well as the maintenance of a truth to a specific thematic message. At the end of the movie, we’re left knowing completely what happened and why, truths we cannot unhesitatingly admit for Haute Tension or the Machinist.
In short, film must once again decide if the sound of meaning is more worthwhile than a meaning itself. Must every person be a different person to achieve a tragic fugue? Would this passage be substantially different if I were to change the writer’s name? If each character occupied a differentiated metaphysical slot in the narrative, in and of only themselves, the audience would be left to connect the dots of meaning on their own, and have their intelligence complimented besides. If the filmmaker tries to do it by lining up those dots for the audience, as if characterization were a forcibly-blending magic-eye, we’ll all continue leaving the theater a little more blinded. Let’s instead leave the theater of non-characters gladly behind us and return to our beautiful selves and all the effects they cause, instead of our confused non-selves, and the pretension to meaning behind them.

My reviews:

Fight Club: A-
The Machinist: C
Haute Tension: D

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Comments {1}


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from: mferkinwalter
date: Jan. 6th, 2007 09:33 am (UTC)

You make a lot of very vaild points as to the internal logic of film, but let's be honest here; a twist gets people to talk about a movie, no matter how lame it might be. Both The Machinist and Haute Tension get overly hyped to the indie crowd, and for the simple virtue of being non-mainstream entertainment and choosing a differing narrative structure, they are exhaulted.

What I'm saying is that, as long as it isn't immediately objectifiable, most people crave half assed twists like those described rather than a movie that deals with this sort of scenario without the trickery.

Where do you think A Beautiful Mind is within this mash? It, too, presents the 'characters are representitives of the main character,' but basses a lot of this on fact and comes clean on the deception early on in the movie. Or is it even comparable?

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