2013: Delirious Bombast Art house flirtations with gut-level 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


1. TRENDING (HYSTERICALLY)

If there was a notable trend (trend, trend, trend!) in the cinema of the Year of Our Lord 2013, then one could locate it in the sudden irruption of the bombastic within the oft-sleepy confines of the art house. It was most clearly embodied by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which was noted both for its aggressive violence (the quintessential content of the bombastic mode) and for its aggressive use of style (its quintessential form), but the earlier months of 2013 saw the release of two arguably diametrically opposed films that nevertheless both encompass the breadth of the tendency: former enfant terribile Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, produced through Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. It should probably be noted that this sort of irruption is hardly unusual, dating back at least as far as the birth of Soviet Russian cinema and probably further. So what, then, makes the current flavor oh so contemporary? (Trend!)

In the mainstream cinema (or whatever), bombast continued as usual, of course, furthering the slow plateau of a tentpole cinema built on technological progressivism that continues at the exponential rate of hard drive capacity, with all the concomitant excitative diminishing returns both industries seem to share. We’ll set those aside. The continuation of a decade-long trend doesn’t tell us much.

2. DEFINITIONS

Bombast is an affective varietal of sensual quality, or at least it is when it comes to film. The term describes a particular reaction to a particular cinematic experience, one that, like its much-abused cousin, “lyricism,” arises neither from the form and content of an individual image nor from its location within a temporal or narrative context. Nevertheless, it is simple and accurate enough to describe bombast as emerging out of a particular, peculiar confluence of the two, which is as easy to describe with a phrase or two as it is difficult to pin down with anything approaching formalist rigor. If lyricism can aptly, if insufficiently, be described as “a series of tranquil film images cut together in a languorous manner,” then it is equally apt to describe bombast as “a series of irruptive film images cut together in an irruptive fashion.” And if the concept of a lyrical cinema has traditionally described a blend of international art film that devotes itself to a sustained mood of quiet contemplation over a healthy meal of elegantly cascading imagery (usually involving nature), then a concept of a cinema of bombast in all likelihood describes one that devotes itself to a violently inconstant mood of incessant (re)stimulation over a gut-wrenching meal of jagged thrusts of imagery (often involving explosions and/or boobs.)

3. IMAGES

At first blush, Spring Breakers and Leviathan share few similarities — the former a Florida-set day-glo confection about breasts and the American Way understandably, if foolishly, marketed to teens, the latter a hardcore piece of “sensory ethnography” detailing the daily goings-on of a fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts — but the reactions of audiences pointed toward a common syntactical core. Spring Breakers makes use of tropes of the cinema of bombast in a fairly standard way, its thundering score underlining forceful depictions of brutal violence, wanton drug use, and casual sex, while also deploying an excessive array of culturally loaded signifiers to strengthen its overblown affect — Gucci Mane plays a carbon copy of himself, one-time preteen Disney idols defile themselves for a putatively Catholic audience, and James Franco apes RiFF RaFF (even if he continued to claim elsewhere that he was actually drawing inspiration from a far less well-known Floridian rapper called Dangeruss).

Spring Breakers

“Bombastic” is as much a descriptor of affect as it is of content, as much a modality of filmmaking practice and nervous system response as diegesis. It’s the subtle way in which the film draws its editing patterns from both the abstruse filmography of Korine himself and films like Crank 2: High Voltage (2009) that points toward its odd overlap with Leviathan’s ostensibly high-minded investigation of space. Although Spring Breakers was marketed primarily to mainstream teen audiences (amusingly and appropriately by A24 Films in coordination with VICE Media), it’s no wonder that it found its most appreciative audience in the more youthful end of the vaguely art house market, slotting it neatly into the scope of our analysis.

4. MORE IMAGES

It’s not Spring Breakers’ cornucopia of breasts and heavy weaponry that tag it as a member of our emergent trend, but the manner in which those breasts were offered up for our enjoyment. How were the breasts like a boat full of dead fish? Opening scenes tend to contain the purest expression of a film’s guiding formal principles, and Spring Breakers opens with a montage sequence of a beach party shot on hyper-saturated 35mm, beer poured from replacement phalluses into gaping mouths and jacked-up breasts bouncing in slow motion. The sky is very, very blue. Set to Skrillex’s massive hit “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” with its recurring “Oh, my God!” interjections and car crash transitions, it plays out in luxurious drifting shots, cut together in true montage fashion, with little to no allowances made to continuity editing and maintaining only a tenuous relation to space. It ends with a harsh cut timed to a sound effect of a pistol cocking.

Leviathan, on the other hand, begins with a long take, a hazy digital smear of black slowly giving way to a bright smudge of red that reveals itself as the rain jacket of a crewmember hauling ropes out of the ocean. The sound is horrifically harsh, digital recordings peeking into the red. The bombast here is in the almost mythic emergence of the throbbing and convulsing environment of turbulent water groaning out of the gaping abyss, an effect heightened by the darkness it emerges from. If Hans Zimmer, he of Inception (2011), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2003), and, all-too-fittingly, 12 Years a Slave fame, is the reigning king of bombastic soundtracking, the reason is clear — like Skrillex and the innate aural production arising from the interplay of sea and machinery, he plays thundering percussion and kinetic melodies against relative silence. Blunt emotional capacities. Contrast.

Leviathan

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s link to our trend becomes clearer later, as the film devotes increasingly long amounts of time to finding extremely unusual ways to film dead fish. The resultant images of a camera cast aside without operator into a pile of fish heads is at once categorically bombastic — dead fish/strange angle/too close — and bombastic on a level of meta-play — the postmodern trope of the camera released from the artist in its goriest form.

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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