A Book Review by Dávid Szőke.
Author Thomas M. Puhr concentrates on the cinematic narrative of predestination, our futile attempts to escape it, and our fear that, after all, forces greater than us direct both our internal lives and our interactions with our outside world. The book brilliantly argues that film mirrors these fears.”
“Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” suggests the title card of Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013), a movie about repetition, control, entangled identity, and external forces that inhibit our free will. In Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema, from Wallflower Press’s Short Cuts series, Thomas M. Puhr concentrates on the cinematic narrative of predestination, our futile attempts to escape it, and our fear that, after all, forces greater than us direct both our internal lives and our interactions with our outside world. The book brilliantly argues that film mirrors these fears, since each character, their personalities, their relationships with one another, and the arc of their stories, is dominated by a filmic narrative, which decides on the course of their actions, their thoughts, and their fate. The nineteen films discussed, most of them we can easily categorize as horror movies, examine the idea of predestination, whereby the characters move like some miserable puppets on the strings of higher authorities. Departing from the case studies of three movies, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), the author examines three essential aspects of determinism in film: how movies capture fear from the uncanny in their visual narrative, how their use of still imagery represents deterministic concepts, and how our fascination toward the aesthetic of violence and predestination on film inspires filmic representations.
The first part explores the individual and the shades and ambiguities of his identity, the constant struggle to escape the confines of persona, and the Homeric journey through life, where fate presides over choices and relationships. Discussing Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004), and Under the Skin (2013), which Puhr identifies as three parts of the director’s “Identity Trilogy,” the author argues that each film has something in common to say about identity: that in their efforts to assume an identity that is conflicted with their basic nature, each character fails. Rebirth is a frequently reappearing theme in Glazer’s films, which, I believe, not only implies that we are inescapably chained to our mysterious persona, but this leitmotif also points to the cycle of life, a return to a primary existence.
The theme of νόστος (return) is commonly used in Ancient Greek literature. In Greek society, the ones who returned from the seas – i.e., went through several battles with the elements, were challenged by many temptations, and survived – were regarded in heroic terms. In Homer’s Odyssey, returning home elevates the hero’s identity and rank to a new level. The second chapter of Puhr’s book discusses the Greek concept of return, through two films, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), as “inverted riffs” on Odysseus and Sisyphus. As Puhr claims, both Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis and Paul in After Hours are entrapped in some nightmarish loops, and their journey concludes with an ultimate return to their hostile and intolerant world.
The author examines three essential aspects of determinism in film: how movies capture fear from the uncanny in their visual narrative, how their use of still imagery represent deterministic concepts, and how our fascination toward the aesthetic of violence and predestination on film inspires filmic representations“
The book’s second part directs attention from the modern person adrift to the issues of family and the duality of identities. In the third chapter, the author discusses the use of visual tableau in Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) and in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). Set in a hermetically sealed space and time, these movies challenge the notion that the only escape from destructive individualism is to regain control by adhering to a group, whereby the most fundamental group, the basis of our entire social structure, is the family. While Hereditary and Us show us how family units can be disrupted by dangerous external forces, in Midsommar, the price of belonging the cult, the idyllic family, is the total physical and mental sacrifice of the individual.
Although the theme of doppelganger occupies a particularly strong presence in Us, this theme is only examined in detail in the fourth chapter. Discussing Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013), Puhr points out that one’s identity cannot exist in complete isolation but is always impacted and shaped by others. Duality reveals itself in the encounter with our other half, and from this encounter, as both Bergman and Villeneuve seem to agree, inevitable chaos emerges. Drawing parallels between the visual narratives of these two films, Puhr asks the question: How can the idea of free will be even conceived, if one’s actions are dictated by internal deterministic forces?
In the third part, the author revisits his notions about circular storytelling and discusses societal breakdown in film narratives. In the fifth chapter, his focus is on remakes, which he calls inherently deterministic, since their goal is not to make something new, rather than to make something again. He identifies two films, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) and Michael Haneke’s American Funny Games (2007), as “obsessively faithful” remakes, as they remain so close to the originals that they freeze the freedom of the actors, the filmmakers, and the characters. He argues that although remakes cannot escape the narrative and visual constraints of the original movies, they have the potential to manipulate our emotions and reactions to them, since we tend to derive the same guilty pleasure from watching and re-watching terrifying scenes.
In the sixth chapter, the idea of a circular narrative reappears, which the author discussed in detail in the second chapter. Relying on deconstructionist and Marxist language theories, the author analyzes the oppressive and deterministic potentialities of language use in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2017). Here, again, the parallels between Homer’s Odyssey can be effortlessly detected: like Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis, Don Diego de Zama is entrapped in a world of bureaucracy that thwarts his efforts to get his transfer to Lerma where can reunite with his family. Freedom, says Puhr, is an illusion, as those who manage to break away from one form of social traps can easily find themselves in another. Puhr illustrates this view with the opening scene in the movie, where a prisoner, who, upon his release, runs against a wall following his release, and then recites a parable on a fish that spends his life swimming back and forth, vulnerable to the water that seeks to cast him to dry land and spending his life in a constant battle with it.
The final chapter explores how contemporary trends in genre cinema responds to our inner anxieties, our fear of entrapment and stasis, the fixedness and finitude of life cycles we as audience attend to while sitting in the darkness of a movie theater, and the sense of the past, present, and future weaving together, especially in movies like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), or in most of the films discussed in this study. Finally, the author claims that movies like Midsommar or Kill List have some purgative effect, presenting us a sense of catharsis instead of despair and maintaining a necessary intimacy, yet distance, whereby our enjoyment to watch gruesome scenes are satisfied without us having to experience them. In a brief case study of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), Puhr examines how these trends find place in contemporary mainstream film, arguing that the film’s approach to time as the main constraining force shows that mainstream cinema reflects our fear of being spatially and temporally entrapped and our sense of finitude.
Although the author refers to it in passing, behind his analyses it is not difficult to recognize some analogs with the global anxiety triggered by COVID-19. The lockdown, the inflation, the extremely high rate of unemployment and, not least, the diseases caused by the rapid spread of the epidemic, all contributed to the resigned feeling that we had lost control over our existence. Yet, the book implies that even though these analogs are apparent since the movies discussed in this book were made before the outbreak of the pandemic, they point to a more general realization that our freedom is not absolute, as exemplified by the Holocaust, the atomic bombs, September 11 and, more recently, Russia’s war against Ukraine. In contrast to our real-life experiences of horror, catharsis in movies provides us with the strange delight that, although we witness to violence on screen, we are no part of it. As Puhr explains it with much eloquence, after the film is over, we leave the darkness of the theater, reborn, hoping that our life, however predetermined it can be, offers for us some better alternatives.
Dávid Szőke holds a PhD from the University in Szeged in Hungary. He is currently researching counter narratives to antigypsyism in literature and culture at the Heidelberg University, Germany.