What are you searching for today? Is it something that you kept somewhere yesterday that you can’t find? Or is it something about how you feel today? Cinema and its multitude of narratives continue to exploit our consistent and more than often restless need to search for something or the other by placing their unique characters in situations where they also find themselves in some sort of journey, trying to find their way through a fog of obstacles. Conventional narrative films, like “Black Panther,” (2018) tend to lend their characters journeys that involve a search for something tangible that in actuality represents a search for their internal satisfaction. These films streamline these searches, clearly establishing the objective of these journeys, and even more importantly, showing the audience how the characters reach their respective destinations. Unconventionally structured films, like “Annihilation,” (2018) on the other hand, construct trips for their characters that lead them to directly address their inner feelings, relying less on providing clear and distinct answers for the finality of their searches. My favorite films of March involve both conventional and unconventional form of quests, both either leading to incredibly satisfying conclusions or memorably ambiguous destinations that may include even more searching.
Winner of the 88th Academy Award for Best Motion Picture, Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” presents a very conventional narrative that follows the four members of the Spotlight team in the Boston Globe in their search to find evidence against systematic child sex abuse in the Boston area committed by Roman Catholic Priests. A remarkably low-key film that honors naturalism almost always over grandstanding, McCarthy’s film establishes a classic investigative journalism template that allows the film’s characters to find the physical evidence needed against the perpetrators of a hideous crime to satisfy their internal search for societal truth and justice. The film rarely flags up this internal struggle for its characters, and the actors do a remarkable job of never getting into the over-dramatic territory. But, the film’s noteworthy understatement actually creates the opposite effect for the viewer. It provides them with a cathartic experience in which they both openly identify with the actual journey of physically getting all the papers and records that the characters get against the criminals, and crucially, relate to the internal search of attaining a sense of justice that they might not expect to achieve in real life.
Surprisingly similar to “Spotlight” in using an investigative narrative template to explore admittedly very different questions is Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” (2017) a sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi noir, “Blade Runner” (1982). In Villeneuve’s film too, the objective for the protagonist of the film, Officer K, (Ryan Gosling giving a typically excellent, underrated performance), is set clearly. The newly engineered replicant has to search for the only child born who is a hybrid of a human and an older replicant and “retire” it to stop a war from waging between the two-existing species on Earth. However, as we glide our way through the breathtaking landscapes of an eco-collapsed California (the production design and cinematography are astonishing even upon a re-watch), the search for K becomes increasingly internal, and the film makes that apparent to its audience. Akin to its predecessor, the film overtly addresses this internal search of Officer K, asking the audience to delve deeper to ask questions about how memories define us as individuals, and about what is actually means to human. The film provides definite, but most definitely surprising answers to these heady questions leaving you with both a sense of satisfaction and a lingering sense of sadness that instigated me to do some more internal searching after the film was over.
One of the few directors whose sole objective through his films is to ask the audience to introspect existentially is Terrence Malick, and the auteur continues to ask these questions in his incredibly divisive film “Knight of Cups” (2015). Employing a narrative that consists of “fragments, that never (really) come together,” Malick constructs a hypnotic odyssey with the help of some terrific classical music pieces and Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid camerawork in which Rick (an effectively affectionless Christian Bale), the protagonist, wanders through Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and of course, deserts and beaches trying to make sense of his life. Malick loosely suggests to the audience that Rick is searching for a “pearl” which he seeks to find through the help of messengers, seen in the form of various women who come and go through his life. However, the pearl isn’t a tangible object. It directly relates to searching for a forgotten feeling. As has become typical of Malick’s films of late, art imitates life here, plunging the audience into the fragmentary headspace of its lost character. The lack of answers may frustrate some viewers, but that is part of the satisfaction for me here. I feel the film’s form imitating the character’s feeling is almost purposeful here, and it always brings me back to experience this journey over and over again.
But, what if the film has no human character from which it can imitate its form? What if there is not even a single line of dialogue in the film? Are the characters still searching for something? The most distinct and challenging narrative puzzle I have seen in recent times is visual artist Scott Barley’s “Sleep Has Her House” (2017) that does still manage to retain this search for something even without a human presence. Presenting the (extremely) slow decay of a landscape seemingly only populated with what seems to be a goat with some mesmerizingly constructed long takes (that too from an iPhone!), and exceptionally eerie sound design, this 90-minute feature film to me felt like a lost landscape in search of its remaining breaths. But, crucially, my attempts to search for meaning in this purely audio-visual film brought me back to the realization that even the most obscure film narratives can engage us if they are made evocatively enough. I continue to think about the strangeness of Barley’s film because we tend to search for meaning even in what might be the most meaningless (or even unknowingly meaningful) things.