I was discussing the “mystery” of Holy Motors with Jose (Pop Matters, Movies Kick Ass) and I mentioned that I justified any potential obscurity in the film by telling myself that it was just glorious magic, even though I felt it was a naïve copout to do so. Jose astutely responded that “magic isn’t naïve, it’s very complicated because it defies our better judgements” – and that just set my mind of whirling in so many directions. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing metatheatre this semester in my Drama class at University, but more and more I find myself feeling as if many films recently have been consciously, and self-reflexively commenting on themselves and the way we experience them. So, those words from Jose took on especial significance when I considered that to some extent movie magic operated in that same ineffable way which is nuanced and special while defying our judgement.
Considering Holy Motors opposite Frankenweenie might seem to be an exercise in futility but both encapsulate, for me, the impossibilities that movies make possible. Still, Holy Motors is significantly more interested in the machinations of film in the truer sense. We spend a day in the life of Mr Oscar as he travels around in his limousine going from job to job inhabiting various “characters” at everyone. The reason I’d plucked magic out as my way of making sense of Holy Motors was because I suspected that were it in animated form we’d have been more willing to buy the impracticability of its events. Journeys into the uncanny are more accepted in the animated because we’re willing to reject realism there. As it were, without ever explicitly pronouncing on what we’re watching – and why – pronouncing on what Holy Motors is an exercise ripe with possibilities. There are elements (the final “conversation”, Oscar’s last job, elements of the Merde arc) which seem to descend into Theatre of the Absurd. Most prominent, though, for me – and evoked by those chilling opening shots in the cinema – is the promise of movies specifically (and art a greater level) allowing us to explore a myriad of places in the blink of an eye. I call those opening shots chilling because that shot of the sleeping audience in front of the theatre screen suggests so much. Have audiences reached a state where they’re blindly going to the movies and ignoring the wealth of possibilities it presents us with?
It’s that specific arc which I find manifested in a slightly different form in Frankenweenie. There is glorious “magic” around us, but many are unwilling to take note of it. Rzykruski, the mentor of our protagonist, is chased out of town because the townspeople are willing to discuss the true reach of science. Science is not truly magic, but they both exist in that realm close to the supernatural (imagine what a Jules Verne or HG Wells text might have seemed to readers of their time). At a pivotal moment in Frankenweenie Rzykruski tells Victor – “People like what science gives them, but not the questions it asks.” Is Burton expounding on the same issue which Carax suggests at the beginning of Holy Motors? Are the masses willing to show up in the theatre to observe but when the film begins unwilling to open their eyes to its possibilities? Occasionally taken with the visceral but disinterested in the questions below?
It’s a bleak outlook and one which the film’s final moments mirror as the machines begin to congregate on the near end of their usefulness. Is Carax opining on the losing battle film is fighting with digital? Or does the lament go deeper in worrying about the future of film – in all formats? And if the outlook is so pervasively bleak how can I cheer on its conversation on movie magic? It’s because sandwiched between two potentially bleak perspectives the film is a literal offering of what cinema has the ability to do. Just observe the disparity in the first two jobs Mr Oscar has – traipsing around as an old beggar woman to some bizarre stop-motion like film, and all within a few minutes. Both scenes seem authentic even as we’re indomitably aware that they’re not. It is a literal encapsulation of the magic the cinema has in transporting you, seamlessly, from moment to moment. If done right. It’s why I’m further inclined to think of Victor’s science project with a movie inclined mind. For his science project to work, Rzykruski tells, it must come not just from the brain, but from the heart. Call it a trite truism if you must, but it’s an essential part of the artistic journey.
Perhaps the most profound arc for comparison between Holy Motors and Frankenweenie is just that – the question of the heart’s place in good art. Mr Oscar is at the end of his “career” it seems; Victor is just beginning his. Victor’s unabated thrill at getting his “experiment” to work becomes just a bit melancholy when considered against the rote way which Mr Oscar goes about his business. Holy Motors never descends into abject despair because Oscar is aware of this and questions the loss of the magic. It’s never a journey in sadness because he’s trying to find his way back to the magic at the end of his career just like Victor is trying to hold on to the magic at the beginning.
True, Frankenweenie is much more palatable than Holy Motors. But, stack almost any recent film against Holy Motors it might still look palatable). The magic in both make me think of them together, though – even if I saw them more than a month apart. Holy Motors leaves you asking “what”, Frankenweenie leaves you asking “how”. There’s an element of the unbelievable which accompanies the dénouement in both films – but for better, not for worse. Maybe I’m attaching my own thoughts to the films, yes, but the resonance in both films of that ostensibly inexplicable existence (and power) of magic is just the way I’ve become to see films. My appreciation is still bathed somewhat in that sort of wide-eyed admiration for the medium – but like Mr. Oscar’s travails the movies take us a myriad of places in the blink of an eye, and like Frankenweenie when at its best it has the power to do the impossible. With the overwhelming deluge of cynicism ready to fell online film criticism I’m beholden to Burton and Carax for making me remember that sometimes illusory but sometimes profound thing called movie magic.
Holy Motors: B+
Did either film make you ponder on the magic of the cinema?