Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Law’s selections are refreshingly diverse….Most importantly, his collection is a testament to the importance of active viewing, of entering a critical dialogue with a piece of art rather than taking it all in at face value.”
“Ambiguity” is a go-to word in film criticism. It can be tempting – when tackling a particularly complex or challenging release – to throw the word around without much substantiation. Indeed, rather than opening the door to rigorous inquiry, the label all too often becomes a rhetorical crutch; acknowledging uncertainty should be a starting point, not an “answer” in and of itself. Hoi Lun Law both identifies this shortcoming and demonstrates its challenging (but fruitful) alternative in the excellent Ambiguity and Film Criticism: Reasonable Doubt (Palgrave Macmillan).
Law focuses on how a “plurality of meanings” emerges from “a multitude of aesthetic concepts” (17): the mechanics of ambiguity, one might say. This approach is perhaps the text’s strongest asset, as it allows the author to home in on discrete elements instead of tackling an entire film. He first considers a well-known scene in Yasujirô Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), in which Noriko’s (Setsuko Hara) facial expressions are juxtaposed with shots of a vase. This chapter functions as something of a tutorial, since Law deconstructs prior interpretations and distinguishes between those which make sweeping generalizations and those which “are guided by more nuanced lines of questioning” (43). The latter group – through a close reading of the sequence’s six shots – will realize that the vase is not in Noriko’s line of sight (43). A basic question (Why is she looking at the vase?) and answer (Actually, she isn’t) generate a question of finer nuance: Why would Ozu “trick” us with this technique? What is he trying to accomplish? The strongest answers are those which prompt further questioning.
This overview of Ozu establishes the framework for the rest of the text’s first section, “Pursuits of Reasons.” In “Perplexity of Style,” Law explicates a single POV shot in the otherwise documentary-style Ten (2002). Why would writer-director Abbas Kiarostami establish a particular set of constraints (most of his scenes consist of dashboard-level footage of characters sitting in a car), only to break away from them? Naturally, Law offers no definitive explanation, though he does suggest the aesthetic switch underlines the unnamed driver’s (Mania Akbari) “simultaneous concern and fascination with” (72) her passenger: a prostitute to whom she offered a ride. He also considers the deviation in terms of how it affects the rest of the story and “coincides with the driver’s moment of change” (76). We better understand the whole in light of its deviating part.
Elsewhere, Law addresses what he eloquently terms “the pregnancy of gesture” (87) in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). The film noir’s protagonist, Dix (Humphrey Bogart), repeatedly grasps his lover’s shoulders or face, which may sound inconsequential but provides insight into the character’s opaque nature. Just as Dix may or may not be a murderer, his gesture may or may not be threatening. We’re unsure of his intentions because he is, too: “His gestures of affection often resemble gestures of entrapment” (103). What makes this chapter so unique is how the author doesn’t address some obscure, difficult-to-notice detail. Instead, he picks apart the various – sometimes contradictory – implications of a conspicuous movement. “It is less about ‘the depth’ we didn’t previously see,” he clarifies, “than a fresh way of seeing ‘the surface’” (107; original emphasis). Ambiguity can be hiding in plain sight.
Law broadens his scope slightly in the text’s second section, “Drama of Doubt,” which opens with a close reading of Force Majeure’s (2014) last act. This decision to cover wider narrative ground (a good half hour or so, as opposed to a few minutes or even seconds) isn’t arbitrary; if the majority of Ruben Östlund’s social satire prompts us to condemn Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) for abandoning his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and two children during a perceived avalanche, the closing sequence reestablishes familial equilibrium “not through the reforming of Tomas but through the undermining of Ebba” (141). This undermining is achieved through the controversial final scene, in which Ebba has a panic attack during a treacherous bus ride and exits the vehicle without her family. Is Östlund simply copping out, or is he upending his moral agenda purposely? As Law puts it, “We are not sure whether Force Majeure is ‘confused’ or being confusing” (143).
Interpretation always runs the risk of overreading, and this critical doubt propels the final chapter, “Threat of Insignificance,” a playful inquiry into Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). The moment in question concerns protagonist Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) looking – almost imperceptibly – into the camera. Was this breaking of the fourth wall planted on purpose by the notoriously controlling Lang, or was it merely an overlooked production error? We’ll never know, but Law skillfully considers the ramifications of both possibilities before deciding that the intentionality (or lack thereof) behind the look is irrelevant. Regardless of why it’s there, the fact remains that the character looks into the camera. So, what might this mean? “Details in film can harbour unintended meaning and significance” (164), so to write the detail off as meaningless because it may have been a mistake is to take the easy way out.
Law’s selections are refreshingly diverse; I’m glad he chose to avoid obvious examples of cinematic ambiguity (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961; Mulholland Dr., 2001, both to which he briefly refers in the introduction), and his eloquent, engaging essays inspired me to seek out those which I hadn’t yet seen. Most importantly, his collection is a testament to the importance of active viewing, of entering a critical dialogue with a piece of art rather than taking it all in at face value. The push and pull “between our reason and doubt.…is at the centre of the criticism of ambiguity” (177). We must consider all of our critical responses – including uncertainty, confusion, or even frustration – if we wish to take full advantage of what’s on the screen.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.