“Importance” has always been an albatross around cinema’s neck, or the neck of any popular medium of art. The trouble isn’t that it forces artists to shoot for the middle (not middle America or the middle aisle but the middlebrow, aesthetically speaking), but that it so often precludes surreptitious variances in tone and style, it douses cinema in a layer of pummeling pragmatism and assured complacency. It primes a film for the belief that the narrative it is telling, the content of the art, is so essential and valid that playing with the form in which that content is presented becomes tantamount to heresy. It asks us to accept the known, the obvious realm of “content” and narrative, at the expense of the dangerous realm of style and form.
Case in point, Costa-Gavras’ first English language motion picture, 1982’s Missing. In its most piercing stylistic gesture, Costa-Gavras announces his film with a bold lurch and a haunt when an idealistic reporter, refracted through and ensnared within a car window, fades into blackness as the thrusting premonition of a military vehicle crawls toward him in the mirror. In the reporter’s place, we’re treated to the usual entombed text about this being a “true story” (no two words signal the death knell of art in cinema more boldly), along with a subtle knife-jab on Costa-Gavras’ part, a twist of the “true story” blade: “some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and also to protect the film”.
Now, “to protect the film” is fighting words, and Costa-Gavras is categorically at his best when his art is nothing but visualized fighting words. Missing, however, seldom rises above its truth value to the point of artistic provocation, instead degenerating to the assumption that its moral value is enough of a fight. It envisions its moral and content, its essential truth, its realization that the US participated in violence in the Chilean coup of 1973, as a gift to the world and lets the train stop there. Here arises the trouble with “truth” and “importance” in cinema; it tends to exist at the level of content only, and never form. The truth value arises as an end-point, a pronunciation, with the film before it nothing but dead air, a delaying tactic to withhold the truth until the audience is sufficiently aware of its importance, sufficiently under the spell of the film’s moral value. Rather than using its form to explore, problematize, question, analyze, agitate, or deepen its understanding of its content – the fact that the US participated in the Chilean coup of 1973 – the film simply acknowledges the latter and wipes its hands clean, sublimating form to content and calling it a day.
The form of the film – the shot structure, the editing rhythms, the mise en scene – are themselves delaying tactics because the film’s imposition of value is considered solely in terms of its end-point, the conclusion of its screenplay. The cinema itself is an after-effect, a delivery mechanism but not an experience in itself. To compare, Costa-Gavras’ masterful 1969 release Z, a similar work about political dissonance, inscribes the mental architecture of political discord and dislocation in vertiginous cinematography, disruptive, cluttered mise-en-scene where potential weapons animate out of every corner of the screen, and almost subliminally scathing editing inoculations that warp our temporal, cognitive processes to render the world itself askew.
In Z, the corrosive form of the film constructs and destabilizes the content, which is in a dialectical harmony with the form, rather than master of that form, as is the case with Missing. Cinema ought to deal in not only new knowledge but new mechanisms of knowing, new experiential lexicons for interpreting dissonance, consternation, and paranoia, which is where form is supreme and why a film like Z survives not only as a wonderful leftist tract but as a worthwhile artistic object to this day. When content controls the film, as in Missing, we are always limited to preexisting mechanisms of knowing, controlled by the conventions of knowledge acquisition and ultimately reduced to narrative conclusions, endpoints, and ideas as the only viable knowledge. In Z, we are actively engaging in the experience of distortion and disruption as perception and experience are constantly being defined and redefined by the film itself. The film – its shots, its edits – are the meaning of the film, because the fluid bedlam, the disturbed transgression of our perception, is the meaning.
One could say that we “learn” by Missing’s conclusion that the US government backed the repressive Pinochet regime in Chile and participated in the murder of US citizens, perhaps a shock to audiences at the time. But the film treats this knowledge as an end and not a means, limiting itself to the discovery of information about a current event rather than an exploration of the perception, the experience, the unknown dislocation of that event, or of any event in general. We “learn” a truth in Missing, but the way we learn this truth is disappointingly conservative and un-experimental. This latter realm of experimentation, which Z subsumes itself to entirely and which Missing only hiccups into from time to time, is the realm of dangerous, provocative cinema, the realm Costa-Gavras mastered long before Missing, but which – perhaps because of the film’s self-important insider knowledge – eludes him here.
The prismatic entrapment and fluid, free-wheeling mania and chaos of his vision of political turmoil as an event that ultimately dissociates us from ourselves, the realm of Z, instead evaporates into thin air in Missing, a work content to watch, passively, as two characters, the reporter’s wife and father, search for the reporter, only to learn that the US is fallible after all. We do not learn anything by watching them pursue this quest, except the final exclamation point of the film’s conclusion. The experience of the cinema becomes the delivery mechanism of a fact, not the focal point of experience in itself.
Whatever pulse throbs within Missing is almost solely coursing through Sissy Spacek’s and Jack Lemmon’s veins, playing the wife and father respectively. Spacek, adrift in type-casting as ghostly aliens throughout the ’70s, emerges as an untrammeled aggressor, an angry woman with a vision that dances between the personal and the political. And Lemmon proves so good at displaying the bitter, toxic alpha-male callousness he always boiled up out of his arteries when directors weren’t asking him to mug for the camera. There’s a sourness to Lemmon’s portrayal that informs a vision of American masculine complacency just coming to terms with its own its own embittered conservatism, finally looking beyond the pale to envision the horrors of its own jingoism.
Costa-Gavras isn’t necessarily asleep at the wheel, mind you. A shot of the two intrepid, accidental adventurers trepidatiously walking through a swamp of dead bodies is dealt a death-marked blow when the camera slowly crawls upwards to reveal an upper-level of corpses transformed into dehumanized shadowy enigmas through the translucent ceiling. Elsewhere, Costa-Gavras’ backgrounds, as they always were, are occasionally alive with discord and the sort of barely-hidden pandemonium so commonplace in his films, but the film’s attitude toward this frustration remains too equivocal. The relegation of the death caused to the Chilean population to the background of the film may be either an artificially-enforced safe distance primed for the film’s white audience or a reflexive, caustic critique of the way even sympathetic whites in foreign lands themselves relegate the death of brown people to the background of their minds. But the film’s attitude is too confused to hint us toward which, its form too anonymous to explore its own contradictions even in tentative ways.
Maybe pragmatism befell the beast – perhaps Costa-Gavras felt the material was so combustible that adding the nitroglycerin of his unhinged cinematic style would erupt it beyond the point of recognition. But, while pragmatism may have its (tentative, tenuous, usually questionable) defenders in politics, it can often be an enemy of art. A fine thriller though it may be, there’s precious little in the film that could not have been achieved through a crisply worded newspaper editorial. That’s the trouble with content controlling form – the trouble with just about all modern television, despite what most modern critics will tell you, and the trouble with most Oscarbait. The “cinema” of the piece is a circumstance created by the medium’s popularity, not its artistic profundity; movies become means to convey existent information to more people, not dialects for exploring new knowledge or consciousness.
Those who argue that the popularity of the cinema is enough to validate the importance of something like Missing only reveal their unstated contempt for the medium when they fail to note the sheer fact that filmmakers like Costa-Gavras, or even Oliver Stone a few years after Missing, assembled political tract, firebrand entertainment, and social conflagration into unbeatable cocktails of social awareness and experiential vigor. Popular entertainment and genuine challenge are not mutually exclusive, but you wouldn’t know it from Missing.