2013: Delirious Bombast Art house flirtations with gut-level cinema

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At the same time, the relation of the bombastic to melodrama is clear, as is the divergence: melodrama arises from an overabundance of character and conflict, bombast from an overabundance of visual and aural stimuli. Dumb level affect. But Leviathan is not Dead Man’s Chest, nor is it Xavier Dolan’s transwoman epic Laurence Anyways, arguably another example of 2013’s flirtation with the overblown and a stunning piece of filmmaking in its own right, but one that nevertheless slots more into the continuity of the melodramatic tradition than it does with a “pure” system of bombast. The difference is located in editing practice, in the disregard for special continuity. Action bombast locks us into a narrative and spatial space for the sake of clarifying kinetic through lines, but for all the kineticism of Spring Breakers and Leviathan’s cinematic styles, neither makes much room for continuous action across shots, leaning more toward our lyrical style of cutting. One could call it an intellectual montage pattern, excepting for the fact that neither film makes any particular direct appeal to an intellectual analysis across cuts, but rather one built on the images themselves and their immediate affective power.

Opening the scope of our analysis to return to Only God Forgives and to include Claire Denis’ 2013 film Bastards, the implications become clearer, as do the particular differences between years of bombastic art house and previous examples of the same, such as much of Godard’s later output, with its use of loaded imagery and the sudden irruptions of unmotivated titles and sound cues keyed explicitly to furthering intellectual arguments. Only God Forgives comes pre-loaded with an intellectual theme, to be sure, but it’s such an amusingly first-level Freudian one — Gosling avenges his brother’s death so that he can fuck his mother’s gaping womb/womb — that any attempts to read the film through such a lens flounder in obviousness. The film’s power, when it manages any, arises instead via rendering its themes in monolithic terms through a slow-boil approach to montage and a baroque sense of production design. Single-minded overdeployment of thematics as bombast.

Only God Forgives


Bastards, meanwhile, refuses a traditional involvement with its seedy thriller plot through a resolutely elliptical approach to narrative editing. But it also avoids the promise of pure bombast by withholding any images that openly display a gothic intensity prior to its final montage of lo-res digital shots of sexual depravity and exploitations, which rip the film away from its dully tasteful Euro-art house traditions into a far more complicated, if far more direct, appeal to the gag reflex.

If there’s anything these films share, it’s a melding of the kinetics and ruptures of bombast with a digressive and, well, lyrical style, as summed up by the trailer to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (also 2013), which, set to Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” and featuring no-good teens and an aggressively foregrounded but besides-the-point plot, almost out Spring Breaker‘d Spring Breakers itself.


On one level, it’s still post-2000, and we’re still mired in genre-fuck games, where film genres smoosh together as easily as musical ones. But why did we respond so strongly to these particular examples, at least at websites like this? Was it just that the combination was still fresh enough to push new buttons? Or was there a political and/or aesthetic resonance beyond that? At first blush, the political is out the window — Spring Breakers makes a show of forgoing the political for a newfound engagement with the sensual, and Leviathan avoids making what would seem to be obvious statements about mechanized food production for the sake of spatial interrogation — and any aesthetic “progress” in these films is easily written off as the aforementioned genre play.

The answer, perhaps, lies in a concept of the sensual experience as the ultimate goal of these films, with the adoption of various modes as the means rather than the end, and bombastic tendencies becoming the means through which these modes are channeled toward a highly specific end. Only God Forgives is a thriller as thriller more than it actually thrills; Spring Breakers is one of the most fully boob- and violence-oriented films in the history of the form; and Leviathan is about the sensations a fish boat creates rather than any function a fishing boat might have. The Bling Ring, at its best moment, approximates the joys of teen theft, and even Bastards is only successful when it finally becomes a snuff film rather than a film about snuff films. The lyrical and digressive qualities of these films function as much to evade direct sociopolitical interpretation as they do narrative ones. The proverbial “takeaway,” such as it is, is all surface, but it feels commendably so.


Sex and violence, in this case, are notable not because of cultural associations with transgression or depravity, but because their definition is one largely composed of sensual qualities and affects. An obsession with violence and gore is in no way a notable trend in the cinema in any year, either in the art house or otherwise, but what made a subsection of this year’s films distinct was their infatuation with what sex and violence feels like. There’s no point in hailing a lack of political engagement as the new frontier, but by the same token, it’s hard to find a film this year that threw itself into issues of race, gender, and the military-entertainment complex more deeply than Spring Breakers, save maybe Lee Daniel’s The Butler. There’s a sticky core to the hedonism and willful disengagement of this year’s crop of art house bombast that points toward a circumspect way of approaching the fragmented first-world zeitgeist, and that core has something to do with a notion of sensual specificity.

Spring Breakers


Spring Breakers channels its sensuality through a particular intersection of an array of US stratifications — race/gender/class/subculture/etc. — and Leviathan’s single-minded focus on exploring the space of one specific boat ties its affective qualities to a particular experience of that particular space. In both cases, this localization feeds back onto the mode of its portrayal, and the result are films at once void of intellectual argument and yet almost ludicrously “faithful” to its source. Complicating matters is the fact that this “source” is nevertheless highly qualified — an Orientalist vision of Thailand, pop culture’s image of Miami, the filmmaker’s/academic’s conceptualization of a fishing boat — and the loop feeds back over and on itself once again. What’s left, then, is a high localized sensuality nevertheless unbound from any lived experience and caught up in pop culture’s torque — yes, even Leviathan.

An infatuation with surfaces. The confusion of pop pleasure and lyrical drift. The retreat from the transcendent functions of film into the immanent and then tossed into the flows of bombastic pleasure. If there’s a philosophical outlook these films share, it’s certainly nihilism, with their rejection of meaning in favor of the brutal here and now, and the films, with their resolute primacy of sensuality, also share the tendency of the best strains of nihilism in burying themselves in context while abnegating the transcendent possibilities inherent in attaching outside contexts to brute truths.


And so, yes, these films are hopeless even as they revel in their glorious and/or horrific sense-scapes, their closed worlds. Another function of bombast, not yet discussed, is its encompassing tendencies, the directional fullness of its emotive aesthetics. These films posit sensorially complete worlds, empty of meaning even as they are full of resonance and context. And ultimately, that was perhaps both their power and why they resonated in 2013, far too long into the lifespan of an artform that, despite its continued massive popularity, often seems to be on the verge of creative death. In some way, they return to the central and deeply simple function of film and its power to evoke — for the sake of pat and inaccurate cohesion, let’s briefly mention Lumière and his stunning train station of 1895 — while taking as their content the desperate complexity of an unknowable present.

Our (“depraved”) sex, our dead fish, our genre-tagged murder, and our insatiable desire for entertainment — the last, crucially — are the subject of these films. But these subjects are found not in an extratextual aspect, but in their material unfolding. And that material, unsurprisingly and appropriate for its bombastic frame, is age-old shock elements, still alive and kicking. In the case of most of these films, it was more of an attempt at a mode rather than a successful embodiment of one, but all of these films were nevertheless this year’s best approaches to the monstrous and sublimated sensualities of the present in our aging cinema.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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