I saw a German film the other day, JERICHOW, which I liked. It really highlights how different American art house films are from their European counterparts. First of all, it was refreshing to see an experienced film maker making a mature film. I’d seen his last film, YELLA, and that was even better. This film was essentially POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, but it never felt like a remake and it wasn’t quite the same.
Jerichow has what a critic might call “deliberate pacing”. When I read this in a review, I usually translate it as “slow”, but it doesn’t always mean that. The real masters have a way of using longer takes and simple set ups, of knowing exactly what they need and not wasting any time. Look at Almodóvar films, which no one would call slow. They are full of life and he doesn’t need a lot of shots or cutting or even coverage to fill them with that energy.
A film like Jerichow is a little slower than Almodóvar, but it isn’t boring. There’s always something going on. It takes a little adjustment to the pacing, because my film diet is predominantly American these days (not by choice, mind you.) Also, the interests are different: there isn’t this obsession with “tight story” or continual twists. He takes a moment with a woman sitting in a car, and lets your emotional response be your guide; we know what’s going on, the actress is great, it’s just not something that would be given a chance in an American film. There’s plenty going on, but most of it is under the surface.
There are not a lot of shots in a film like this, and the results are a film that does have a more relaxed pace than anything you will find in an American film.
Less shots equals less money. This film had a German star, but I doubt it cost more than a couple million and it could have cost less than half a million. It’s a real testament to what you can do for little money.
Why is it that in America, when they have a limited budget, they resort to that handheld, fake naturalism that you could pick up watching CSI? I don’t think there was a handheld shot in Jerichow. The camera didn’t move much at all and when it did, it was very transparent, you didn’t notice it. Yet the film had a style. It had direction. You always felt that you were in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. It never seemed generic, which is what I get from someone using that unimaginative handheld look.
I’m always amazed when I see one of the great European films from the late 60’s or 70’s. Look at BLOW UP. It’s got such a cool, laid back pace. It didn’t cost anything. It’s arty and the characters are cool, there’s hardly any plot. It’s not paced or cut dramatically, or over-dramatically, you might say.
So maybe there is a tie between the big budgets that Americans need to make a movie and the their need to hyperventilate and keep pace with Hollywood. When you think about, isn’t that frenetic American style the equivalent of an actor overacting?
Keeping up with Hollywood, rather than separating itself from Hollywood, has led to the many of the problems indie films are having today. Maybe part of the problem is the films themselves.