Movie City Indie
The fleet dreams of Joachim Trier’s three features, Reprise; Oslo, 31 August; and now Louder Than Bombs define the Norwegian director as one of the most cinema-savvy of contemporary filmmakers. Playing with formal qualities while also baring the darkest emotions, Trier’s style, allusive as literature, elusive as lyrical cinema, accomplished with a regular crew of collaborators that include co-writer Eskil Vogt and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, is virtuosic but intrinsically ragged. First, you think, how is this moment, this shot, this patterning, this music cue, so beautiful, so odd and then so true, and so often so emotionally devastating?
Louder Than Bombs (now on DVD and Blu), the 42-year-old writer-director’s exquisitely tender first English-language film, takes place in upstate New York three years after the death of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) as three generations of men still cope with her loss: father Gabriel Byrne, new professor and father Jesse Eisenberg and a closed-off teenage son (Devin Druid) feeling first stirrings of longing for a girl he doesn’t know how to approach. (Ordinary People and Woody Allen’s Interiors are among the many inspirations Trier cites.) Grief eddies, mourning lingers, yet signs of life are everywhere, starting with the opening shot of a father’s finger in his newborn’s tiny paw.
Speaking from Oslo on a cold, sunny day in mid-April, the self-described “film nerd” tells me about capturing the light in his characters’ eyes, with Ihre keeping a 35mm camera on his shoulder, using only a fixed, prime lens.
TRIER: I think a lot of credit is due to Jacob, the cinematographer. Let me talk about him for a second because we’ve worked together since we went to film school in England and shot all the feature films I’ve directed. There’s something about the eye on the big screen. It’s a theme that I’m interested in, I’m interested in the fact that close-ups are unavailable on TV, to be honest. I mean, they are there but they don’t mean the same thing as on a big screen. So you the special opportunity when you’re doing intimate character portrayals, you can get really, really close to people. That’s what I call cinematic acting. When you see the revelation of emotion in the eyes of actors. That may sound perhaps a bit cheesy, but let’s be honest, that’s what cinema can do. You can’t really do that onstage or in a book. To actually see humans that act emotion, and you reveal it. I think Jacob Ihre is very particular in his way of working handheld. Gabriel Byrne gave him credit by saying that he had never worked with a cinematographer that was so involved, which means he’s there, he knows the blocking, he’s emoting, Jacob, I’ve seen in our collaboration both start laughing and start crying during scenes we shot, because he’s very engaged with what’s going on. Which I think he doesn’t laugh too loud or weep too loud But that matters. There is a tradition, you know, this tradition, this kind of close-up esthetic in Scandinavian cinema, from Dreyer through Bergman. On some level, I love being serious about that.
PRIDE: Another device is to hold on a character at the end of a scene, not particularly reacting, but just being observed unbeknownst. There are several gorgeous moments like that, including one close-up of Huppert held for a minute or so. Tell me about holding on someone, not particularly reacting, but just being observed unbeknownst. Thinking of Jesse at the end of the scene with the ex-girlfriend in the hospital, also at the end of the scene where he discovers his mother’s hotel room photos on the last memory card. In editing choices, how much do you work on holding that extra moment?
Yes. Yes. It’s funny that you ask, because this is a big deal for everyone, it’s a big deal for Eskil, who I write with, for the editor, Olivier [Bugge Coutté], and for Jakob, too. We call it a ‘loaded close-up.’ It means that it gives space when something dramatic happens or something is at play, to leave a moment of connectedness with not quite articulated thought in a thought, links the audience to a character, almost like punctuation. Where you think, hmmm, what did that mean for the character, what would it have meant with me? It’s where that space of identification would be unknown in the other. That sounds terribly intellectual, I’ll try to be more specific. The idea of using that interpretative curiosity which is at play in human storytelling and cinema and seeing if those close-ups can create a space for interpretation in the face of the other. It’s something that’s not unique to what we do, but, yeah, it’s interesting, I haven’t answered this question before, you ask great and very specific questions here, I wish I could come up some examples from other filmmakers, but I’m sure this is at play a lot. Look at something like Ozu, he does it differently, sometimes he’s only looking at the members of the family speak around he table. The contemplation of linking in with the listener, or the contemplative parts in heated discussions. It’s very poignant, it’s very powerful. You can even do it with a single character, where an event is going on, and you go to the character in that contemplative moment after. I’m interested in that, but it shouldn’t be overused. Because in a way, you say, here’s something at play, cut to… Nothing! But that nothingness is filled with the human face and therefore you have to then ponder the choices of the character. There’s also a dramaturgical effect involved, of brainy people are leaning a little bit forward in their seats, okay, what’s going on now, what are they thinking, rather than give all the answers.
And a viewer will fill in the pause, the thought, how we would be scrutinizing the circumstance if we were the ones standing in front of them.
That’s the goal, exactly. Exactly, Just what you just said. That’s the goal. With Louder, we push that pretty far, and some people like that, and some people don’t, let’s be honest. It’s the film I’ve made so far that has the most, where I get the most different responses. I have people who look at it from the parent’s’ point of view, someone else from the child’s point of view, the adolescent, the mother, the absent party. I wanted this film to have that kind of interpretative possibility, of identifying with different characters, and having different angles on the story.
There are two extreme slow-motion scenes, of several cheerleaders against a blue sky being tossed into the air, and the younger son’s trying to picture how his mother died three years earlier in the car crash. What were the speeds of each shot?
There are two different speeds. Of the cheerleaders, we something like 150 frames per second, whereas on the car slow-motion, we used a few digital shots, we used a Phantom, and I think we were up to like 800 frames per second. So they’re quite different. The cheerleaders are sort of the max on 35 cameras. The other is a digital camera. The mother is being imagined dying from the point of view of the youngest son, which doesn’t quite know what happened to her. So he’s imagining an angelic exit from the world through the levitation of the car. The other scene that you’re describing is the adolescent erotic discovery of the female form. Of the women. Which is rather beautiful but still has more linkage to reality. It’s more tactile and present in his life, whereas the mother is more of an absence. I felt that it was fitting to bring the cheerleaders closer to the look and feel of that scene where he is looking at them, where with the mother, it’s an imagined, further styled idea of someone. But the question you’re asking leads to, specifically, how formal choices create themes. So the theme that goes on in the film, for the young character, is linking between grief and sexuality. The eroticism and death, there’s something so pure about the mind of you g characters that allow me, as a filmmaker, to talk about more complex linking because there allowed to think more spontaneously, less judgmental, more free, than a lot of the more intellectualized older characters in the film. There’s some purity about sexual awakening of this kid while he’s pondering on death. To me, I don’t know. It just seems logical these things are linked in young lives. Was it Swift that said sexuality and death are the only concerns of the serious mind? [laughs] So here we are.
The next note I had was “tactile, erotics.”
We’re on the same page. [laughs] Here! I found the quote. It’s in the Nicolas Roeg, “The World Is Ever Changing,” which I read recently and Nicolas Roeg, it’s very to the point in dealing with these themes and a formal approach to them. And it says here, the opening of a chapter, “Sex and death are the only things that can interest the serious mind,” William Butler Yeats. There we are.
There’s a night scene where the girl the boy admires is goofily behind a car, taking a piss on the ground, we see the stream and then we finally see him, he turns to camera, there’s white light on his face that immediately strikes a pendant tear, the whole scene becomes about the tear. Discovery and play and then—just a tear.
I agree. It’s a great observation, I don’t know what I can say about it. That scene to me is one of the most important in the film for reasons that I don’t know quite how to explain. I’ve had a lot of people explain to me what they felt, and all those interpretations are valid, and I’m pleased with it. That scene does what it should do, it means something to people, but it’s hard to define. Which is what we’re aiming at.
I was leading toward the idea of how does one collect and collate inchoate images and suggestive images, not sexually suggestive, merely suggestive. Those two elements together are bound together for formal reasons, emotional reasons, liquid reasons. It represents but it doesn’t mean, if that’s not taking it too far.
This is cinema! This is cinema. This is the big discussion that you have. This is why Tarkovsky hates symbolism, he says cinema is not symbolic; it’s not a fixed sign system where interpretation is created through semiotic signs. Cinema is, and I’m stopping to quote Tarkovsky now and thinking aloud with you, cinema is the an observation of things that play around us, also in what we perceive as reality, yet they are given different meaning when recontexualized in a system of a movie. But it’s a more physical experience of something. Also working with elements that can react instinctively, the sense of pee on asphalt, the sense of an eyes and a tear, the sense of the context of these images, is the evening where a young man learns something important about his mother’s death, yet also discovers an erotic proximity to the girl he’s infatuated with in high school, who seemed unreachable even earlier that day. These things are colliding. And then putting these very basic physical experiences that on some level we can all smell and imagine because we kind of know what those liquids are, together that creates something that I find more poetic than to put them into a fixed order of representation of specific, locked meanings, of symbols, y’know.
And the physical consummation between two human beings is a commingling, becoming one liquid moment, like the lyric, I’ll stop the world and melt with you. He has this burning sensation but it’s in his eyes.
You talk with your collaborators, you sit in the swing out in the back yard, how do the first stirrings of images, of fragments come? It sounds like you try to make as instinctive and as non-literal, but those pieces have to be assembled and become a script and a movie.
I’m fortunate to work with Eskil Vogt. So we’re film nerds and we’re really good friends. We sit and we talk for a long time and that makes us sometimes very, very argumentative and clear about what things mean. But we both leave space for something that we both just nodded to, and never quite dissected that we will fight for until the end of the film. Which means that sometimes we help each other shield, like the fire extinguisher scene in Oslo was something that I felt like doing, and he instinctively understood it, without us having to talk about what it meant. The peeing scene in Louder is very similar, we both felt what it could mean without having to ruin it by explaining it too much. Then I fight as a director to keep that scene intact throughout the whole process. But at the same time, other scenes we are very articulate, we completely dissect and justify why are they there in that order, so it’s a mix between the two. But Very often, ideas arrive through a week of talking about something and then coming up with an instinctive idea. Almost like in therapy. Suddenly something arrives and you just recognize its importance without knowing exactly what it is. And then since we share tastes in cinema and we dig the same things, we can both nod when it’s Eskil and me that comes up with it, and go, that’s cool. That’s great. That’s interesting. Let’s fight for that. And then we try to find a way to use it in our tour. The process is very simple, but creating a story out of it is our continual challenge. We don’t make the most commercial films, to be honest, and it’s complicated, because they’re not great to pitch always, it’s hard to get the finance because they’re made with a bit of feeling that we’re getting away with something. It’s like we’re smuggling something we shouldn’t be allowed to, we’re supposed to have a clear story that you can pitch and be easily conveyed and all this stuff. How do you convey peeing and fire extinguishers? It’s very complicating. It’s an ongoing debate we have, to fight for these moments that are risky. We don’t really know if it’s gonna work.
And in the Oslo, 31 August fire extinguisher scene, it’s a burst, an odd little burst of the sound of the cloud from the extinguisher, but it’s mostly silence around it. It’s an emanation as much as an action. That’s cinematic; you’re excluding sound while you’re seeing a bold, inexplicable image that’s physically clear.
You know the scene in the Mirror by Tarkovsky where the kid is swimming? It’s one of the scenes where I really learned about sound. The kid is swimming, it’s a memory moment, like all of that film, and we just hear the breath of the kid and you hear a dog far away, barking, which is a very Tarkovskian way of using sound, and everything else is silent. There’s no sync sound, there’s no water or wind or any of that. The breath and the dog. That creates a very specific, almost hyper-subjective use of sound. The world “abstraction” really means, “to remove,” and very often it’s about that. Not adding for abstraction, but knowing just what two or three simple things to keep. It means something more.
Creating images in a world teeming with them. I’m always pleased to see a filmmaker is not inspired by the most basic list of photographers, but draws on other contemporary fine arts. You’ve talked about Saul Leiter and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. How does photography feed the voracious director’s eye?
Well, it’s a big question at the moment. My little sister, Ellie Trier, is a photographer and she’s now the editor of a Norwegian photo magazine. She worked at aperture a while. We talk a lot about what happened with photographers now that everyone takes a photo a day and puts it on their Instagram. In a strange way, I also feel Terrence Malick has been coopted by perfume ads, for a while. Everyone’s now doing someone touching something with their hand, I’m guilty of it, too. Feet in the sand, all these quasi-tactile things that someone like Malick revolutionized. I think when we all saw Days Of Heaven or Thin Red Line, there was something so fresh about the wind and the leaves and all that stuff, same as with Tarkovsky. But where do we go from here? So many images are used without being given thematic context, without being put into the possibility to show a bigger meaning. They are just thrown out like glimpses of something, and repeated for their stylistic use. It’s challenging. A good photograph will strike you, it happens, it’s poignant. I don’t mean to be snobbish, because I’m sure there are geniuses working out there without even knowing about their talent and just putting stuff on Instagram every day, and they might just be the greatest photographic talent in the world right now. Who am I to judge? But it’s an interesting question. Where do we look now? My shelves are full of photo books, yet we are overly exposed to still photographs everyday. I seldom take specific ideas from photographers, but I’ve learned about light and shadow and framing from still photography, but I must say, ultimately, I’m a film guy. I learn about cinematography from the great filmmakers, looking at Gordon Willis’ movies over and over again is where I got really intrigued by cinematography.
This D. W. Griffith quote is long, but good, from 1948: “What the modern movie lacks is beauty—the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms in the trees. They have forgotten that no still painting—not the greatest event—was anything but a still picture. But the moving picture! Today they have forgotten movement and the moving picture is all still and stale… The moving of wind on beautiful trees is more beautiful than a painting. Too much today depends on the voice… Sometimes the talk is good, often very bad. They’ve taken beauty and exchanged it for stilted voices.”
Yes, the wind in the trees matters, it really does. It’s in the early films of the Lumière brothers, you get a sense of wind and something tactile. There are these experimental dance movies that have been found, Méliès filming dancing with a woman in a white gown, it’s other famous. You get a sense of movement, of motion. It needs to be prioritized. If you enslave cinema to only make narrative points all the time, or use close-ups for emotional effect, you lose the contemplative possibly of cinema, which is so poignant, going back to your question of the close-up and going back to the wind in the trees.
We’ve now reached what in Norwegian time is 6 o’clock, which is terrible. Is there anything we could round off with?
I’ll leave you a line from my notes, what I’m trying to take from the way you talk about your films, what I take from them, is to be virtuosic but intrinsically ragged.
Okay! [laughs] Thank you. Will you write that in your piece?
What I’m happy about doing more films is that I’m having a sense that a very few of you, but some of you guys who really work on conveying cinema, and that of course have interest in my kind of movies, keep asking, and keep wanting to talk to me when I make these films. It’s fun.
Please note the download link. Via Sissydude.
I’ve seen Almost There, Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky’s splendid, elusive minor miracle of northwest Indiana nonfiction a few times in the past year or so, and I’m still not sure why it carries so much power. That it’s specific yet elusive, its dense range of fear and hope? There’s much to consider about outsider art, loneliness, mental illness and brightly colored graphomania in its innerworldly portrait of now-eighty-three-year-old Peter Anton, an elderly artist living in squalor in the wet, fetid basement of his parents’ house, moldering atop his art-stuffed living-dying quarters. There’s a delicate and beautiful dance in this seven-years-in-the-making engagement with an elderly Northwest Indiana outsider artist. The movie transforms before our eyes, as it did for the filmmakers over its protraction production. One of the most luminous, evocative choices made was to incorporate images not only of Anton amid his art inside his moldering dump, but of the surrounding landscape, often industrial, at all hours of day and night (captured by photographer David Schalliol). But primarily, it’s a dance between a willful subject and filmmakers who intend not to stray too close but ultimately can’t help themselves. Anton lives not only in poverty, but also in squalor, in a falling-down house left to him by his parents, and the ethical question of how involved the filmmakers ought to be, in light of his circumstances, grows uneasy. ‘I’m not your subject,’ Anton bursts out at one point, ‘I thought you were my friend.’” [More here, including on Schalliol’s techniques.]
Almost There plays through July on PBS stations nationwide.
The full moon
reflected in water,
contained in the bowl,
and the thirsty man
deep in sleep.
What a pity
I was not a good host
for the snowflake
that settled on my eyelid.