In Praise of the Present Tense


There's a scene in Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov's brilliant documentary THE MOTHER (watch here for free on The Auteurs) where Liouba (the eponymous mother) is busy in the kitchen, making a meal for her nine children. The milieu is working-class and the mood is tense. In the foreground, a man faces Liouba and they are arguing. Slowly the man turns to the camera, his face a mangled story of drinking, of disappointment, of being left behind. He realizes he is being filmed. "Fuck, you filming again goddamn it?" the man says in drunken contempt. "He's filming me, not you," answers Liouba. The shot continues for a startling two more minutes.

This acknowledgment of the camera is stunning, although not out of sync with the rest of the film, and sets the stage for its incredible final shot: a long hand-held close-up of Liouba as she tries to find her eldest son in a crowd. She implores the cameraman to stop filming; she must find her son. Life is not just the movie they are making. (Incidentally, the shot works as a striking metaphor for the pain of letting your children go.)

Usually when someone speaks directly to the camera, the effect is post-modern and can break a film's spell. With THE MOTHER, however, it is a lightning strike of Right Now, a moment where the film leaps into the instant, becomes more than something that happened while someone else was filming. It is a moment happening. The unpredictable becomes substance and the film enters the present tense, a place where cinema can make its most vital and visceral impact.

Cinematic concepts, like this idea of the "present tense," are often too abstract and can seem hyperbolic or grandiose. So let's be as specific as we can: this is not just direct cinema, not just about movies that follow characters and stories as they happen, not even just about documentary. (The amazing NY EXPORT: OPUS JAZZ, for instance, is a filmed ballet in the present tense, its effect achieved through the use of location sound and a lingering camera. While the film is obviously highly choreographed, its primary beauty lies, for me, in all the other things captured, the random observation, the struggle to hold a pose, the documentary-like gaze.)

This "present tense" in cinema is about achieving (through effect- this a manufactured thing) a sense of the immediate, the visceral, the direct; the camera often feels an instant behind, but it's always searching, always discovering, always trying to capture that fluttering and elusive moment.

The viewer is made to feel unsettled, grabbed by the collar and a part of what's happening, as if in a room while others engage in an intense conversation. The effect is anti-cerebral in that the decisions of the maker often seem buried and what could be called "the actualities" take precedent. This is an illusion, of course, because the achievement of this present tense is created or lost based on formal decisions by the filmmaker. Place and time and space inhabited are put into sharp focus. The radically specific is elevated and reproduced.

There are many ways this is achieved and there are many films that would do well to rely more on this present tense.

Jennifer Venditti's BILLY THE KID (trailer here) and Nuria Ibáñez's THE TIGHTROPE (write-up here) find it in long, following shots and conversations that are left to develop organically. In 45365, the Ross Brothers jerk away from perfect composition in bursts of poetic camera adjustment. The much-loved SWEETGRASS feels alive when the camera doesn't know the routine and Margaret Brown's THE ORDER OF MYTHS uses discomfort and a lingering eye to elevate the discussion of race that could easily seem cliche.

Jonas Mekas' AS I WAS MOVING AHEAD OCCASIONALLY I SAW BRIEF GLIMPSES OF BEAUTY achieves the present tense in its soundtrack. While dreamy super-8 memories filmed over forty years wash over the viewer, Mekas records his own thoughts, his own musical accompaniment, as the film is happening in front of him. The effect is like a director's commentary risen to the finest and rarest soliloquy of memory, loss and joy.

Meanwhile, Ondi Timoner's WE LIVE IN PUBLIC is fascinating stuff, but rarely employs the present tense technique, and suffers because of it. Most of the film plays like a typical MTV special, full of cuts with no context, rarely creating a useful sense of place or time. Later in the film, though, when Josh Harris' experiment of filming his everyday life is explored, something close to this present tense technique is used, creating a real sense of drama. With their relationship on the brink, Josh is trying to force his girlfriend into having sex. Timoner uses the surveillance footage almost exclusively and allows the fight to play out organically. The film suddenly feels immediate and happening, and the broader points about the effect of over-sharing on the lives of real people finally means something on a non-intellectual level.

Why does this matter? It matters because when films, especially documentaries, are overly planned and overly controlled, they can get reduced to simple realizations of an idea. The magic of cinema is the ability to capture the image of life that wasn't accounted for, wasn't planned or thought up; turning raw experience into meaning is the magician's science.

When a film feels like it's finding itself as you watch or when a camera is reacting to events, rather than overly anticipating them, a viewer gets a sense of actual life, of the expressive transcendent real. Anything can happen, everything is in play and the chaos and material clarity of being alive can be truly observed and examined.

Now, of course, a film can still be great without using this technique. One of my favorite filmmakers is the masterful Adam Curtis and his pastiche and voice over style is as different from the present tense cinema as can be. His essay films are driven by a tireless pursuit of ideas and are as startling, innovative and moving as anything ever made. Meanwhile, many filmmakers attempt to achieve this present tense and their films wind up boring and uninteresting. (How many mumblecore-lite films fail miserably trying to seem "real?")

In my own films, I have both shied away from this style (OWNING THE WEATHER) and relied on it heavily (KATI WITH AN I).

I am no absolutist. Not all movies need to work at this. But when they do, when the vital now can come into focus, a film can achieve something great.