Active Ingredients: Maintaining a story through recycled film clips
Side Effects: Misuse of form; Distracting music; Reductive gender roles
[Final Cut - Ladies and Gentlemen plays as part of the New York Film Festival's "Cinema Reflected" sidebar on Monday, October 1st.]
Just as DJs can repurpose music to create something qualitatively new, just as artists can assemble found material into a collage, so too can a filmmaker create a brand new film without shooting any new material. Montage films have existed for some time, but with digital technology and over 100 years of recorded images to remix, artists are now more equipped than ever to experiment with the unlimited new effects that can be created using found footage. Montage films are a perfectly valid art form, and they can be masterful in their own way without owing anything to the fragments that comprise them. Like all art, however, the form must be used for a purpose to succeed, and, if nothing else, Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen demonstrates the wrong way to make a montage film.
For this project, Hungarian director György Pálfi has culled from hundreds of different films to tell cinema’s age-old tale of love. The man—passionate and obsessive—is played by Jackie Chan, Jimmy Steward, Woody Allen and scores more; the woman—sexual, pure, motherly and long-suffering—by Julia Roberts, Jessica Rabbit or Faye Dunaway. They fall in love, have explicit sex and start a life together. But soon jealousy, war and some other contrivances threaten their matrimonial bliss.
Pálfi shows competency in rudimentary editing. Cutting across film history, he never loses his narrative thread, and the film’s legibility proves the power of the cinematic illusion. That is to say, Pálfi’s experiment works: it was possible to construct a narrative out of fragments of film after all. But the same is true of any movie. The real question, then, is not whether the project works, but whether Pálfi’s artistic idea is sound. It isn’t.
The power of montage films, it seems to me, is that they can take preexisting footage, shot for one specific reason, and uses it to create a new effect. The genius of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, for example, is that each clip no longer retains its original meaning, but combines to suit Marclay’s new purpose, to examine the force of time in film. Final Cut, meanwhile, doesn’t attempt to extract new meaning out of its clips. An actress crying signifies Pálfi’s amalgamated protagonist crying; a man running signifies Pálfi’s amalgamated protagonist running. Each clip is played solely for its original purpose, with the same banalities, the same contrivances and the same annoyances. Even worse, Pálfi stops at merely recreating a cinematic love story, instead of using his form to question or analysis it. As a result, the film celebrates cinema’s troubling, archaic gender roles without subverting them.
There’s no limit to the ways in which images can be repurposed. They can be combined and reconfigured to tell any story, to make any point a filmmaker could possible want to make. Pálfi just wants to see Charlie Chaplin dance to “Disco Inferno”.