Post Tenebras Lux won Carlos Reygadas best director at Cannes last year. Here, DW Mault argues it is a film helping light the way for Cinema’s next evolution…
Is there a more perfect conundrum as explanation for cinema and its true transcendental nature which the title of Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux gives us? Post Tenebras Lux’s English translation from Latin is: After Darkness Light, and this gives an idea of what cinema is and should be. Cinema is the art of reality, the medium in which reality’s beauty is captured, where you can film marble or a face, or record someone’s voice, a sunset, the innate beauty of what you’re contemplating.
When people ask the banality that is the question: Why cinema? It is Post Tenebras Lux I would point them towards. To attempt to explain is to do a disservice towards it. It’s Lourdes for cineastes, it’s a film that can make the blind see and the lame walk… Cinema needs to represent a different reality than the one forced upon us by the hegemony of Anglo-Saxon narrative. We exist not in a narrative world, a la Michael Gove and Niall Ferguson, and their ideas of history being one thing after another, ad nauseum infinitum, but with the idea that life is cognitive not narrative.
Why, then, is a preference for conventional narrative still so prevalent within cinema? Just as popular fictions hold on to narrative models which are, in essence, derivations of nineteenth-century realism, so too do the majority of filmmakers. The philosopher Galen Strawson has identified and critiqued these ideas in his provocative essay Against Narrativity:
I argue against two popular claims. The first is a descriptive, empirical thesis about the nature of ordinary human experience: “each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’… this narrative is us, our identities” (Oliver Sacks); “self is a perpetually rewritten story… in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives” (Jerry Bruner); “we are all virtuoso novelists … We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character… of that autobiography is one’s self” (Daniel Dennett).
The second is a normative, ethical claim: we ought to live our lives narratively, or as a story; a “basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative,” and have an understanding of our lives, “as an unfolding story” (Charles Taylor). A person “creates his identity [only] by forming an autobiographical narrative – a story of his life,” and must be in possession of a full and “explicit narrative [of his life] to develop fully as a person” (Marya Schechtman).
Awareness of the ways expression is bound by visual, computational, sound, and other nonverbal media, is heightened in Post Tenebras Lux, and is necessary for Cinema to evolve as THE artform of the next century. Cinema is more than a 100 years old now, so a lot of the conventions can be overcome. PTL is not a narrative film, rather a cognoscitive one, about direct feeling and experience. Many people feel these connections to different levels of reality as totally natural, and the film is a mix of different perceptions of time: The present. The Past. Projected images of the past and the future. And then there is the reality which exists but is not in front of our eyes, that’s the rugby for instance.
Ahh, the rugby… Well PTL is a film that features 25 sequences of images from life among a middle class Mexican couple, the labourers on their farm, English schoolboys playing Rugby, a badly sung (but beautifully heartbreaking) piano version of Neil Young’s It’s A Dream, and a couple of coups de cinema… I (as is my want), aim to get you to see this piece of supreme of art knowing next to nothing about it, that way you will be changed forever; as it’s a film that answers nothing and forces you to place dreams in the real world and vice versa. If you want to see things the way they are, use your own eyes. Reinterpreting reality is important, so much cinema has become a kind of circus, it’s high time to separate from that and embrace film as an art of presence. If you want an image that looks like what you see with your eyes then don’t watch a film.
The idea of meaning is a nonsense that leads down a cul-de-sac of no escape. The purpose of a film is not to tell a story, you need a story to build something else on top of what exists, as Reygadas says: “We have to get away from the idea that cinema is like going to the circus, where you see it once and have to like it. A film is like a piece of music or a great wine, with some things you just have to take time to get to know how they work. To me, the real proof of the quality of a film is not what the critics say, not how many prizes it wins, not how many people go and see it, but what happens when you see it twice, five times, 50 times. And each time you see something you didn’t spot before.”
PTL is a shocking film to see in the current cinematic climate; going to the cinema nowadays is just like going to the circus. A film is something that should be listened to from beginning to end. Cinema should totally be divided between something that’s closer to a Pagan deity and something that’s a circus. Reygadas gives us those brief moments in which the truth is experienced, this truth is never absolute; it’s approached almost tangentially. Declaring a philosophical, religious, or social truth will turn it into dogma and therefore will prevent it from being experienced as real; it will always be normative. On the contrary, what feels real is poetic, ineffable, open-ended. Truth, by definition, is intangible.
It will be a surprise to ultimately hear me acclaim PTL as a film about Intimacy. An intimacy that doesn’t reside, as most shallow bourgeoisie think, in your own world, or in your nether regions. Intimacy is inside, intimacy is your values. Intimacy resides deep inside your soul, not in your body. Some people think exposing yourself is a terrible violation of intimacy. That’s not intimacy at all, it’s fucking convention.
This is what art is, and should be the emotional violence of intimacy; with one romp in the shower, Reygadas both downplays and elevates sex in life and cinema, “eating, drinking, having sex with others are basically the most important things we do in life. We’re told to follow certain sexual rules because strong emotions are tried to be controlled. I think we have tried to control sex so much that this time of humankind we have the least sex ever. In that way we have so much pornography and so much promotion of sexuality visually. You see the news or any kind of stupid television programme and everyone is looking like a pornstar, it’s ridiculous.”
This film made me think about an Albert Camus letter:
I don’t know what to do today, help me decide.
Should I cut myself open and pour my heart on these pages? Or should I sit here and do nothing, nobody’s asking anything of me afterall.
Should I jump off the cliff that has my heart beating so and develop my wings on the way down? Or should I step back from the edge, and let the others deal with this thing called courage.
Should I stare back at the existential abyss that haunts me so and try desperately to grab from it a sense of self? Or should I keep walking half-asleep, only half-looking at it every now and then in times in which I can’t help doing anything but?
Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?
Well, have a cup of coffee and do not kill yourself, at least until you’ve seen Post Tenebras Lux.
Post Tenebras Lux plays as part of FACT’s Discover Tuesdays and will play Darkness Into Light on May 28th