Culture Warrior: The Something or Whatever About Good and Bad Ambiguity

Culture Warrior

Ambiguity is no stranger to the arthouse film. Over fifty years after a group of daytrippers never found their lost shipmate in Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the ambiguous ending still retains the power to frustrate, confuse, anger, and challenge viewers. Continued controversies over ambiguity in narrative films point to Hollywood’s enduring dominance over the notion that films must be coherent and contain closure. However, the convention of closure can be a maddening limitation for filmmakers who intend to ask questions with no easy answers, or pose problems with no clear solutions (assuming that such answers or solutions exist in the first place).

But ambiguity can take on a variety of forms, and with different degrees of effectiveness. Sometimes a film’s ambiguous hole can be more fulfilling and thought-provoking than any convention of linear causality in its place, but at other points ambiguity can become a handicap, or a gap that simply feels like a gap. Here are a few films from the past year that engage in several modes of intended ambiguity.

Good Ambiguity

Effective ambiguity inspires provocative questions framed by the narrative. Films that use effective ambiguity inspire the thought processes of their audience – not only “making room for interpretation,” but providing several possibilities where interpretations can be directed without endorsing one specific answer. One of the best films of last year was Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. The film chronicles a day spent between two people who may have only recently met, may have had a dense history together, or may in fact be an active long-term couple. The two characters’ engagement in seemingly playful performances of “couplehood” quickly morph into serious and heavily emotional acts of unpacking baggage. What histories are these characters bringing in to engage in such raw emotion – the history of the person sitting across from them, or someone else from their respective pasts? This answer is elided from us, but it’s not the answering of the question, but the posing of it, that’s important.

Certified Copy, after all, is not a dramatic mystery to be solved (is one interpretation of the couples’ status more significant than the other?). Instead, the film’s thematic connection is deeply intertwined into the question itself, which is posed during a lecture provided by the character of James (William Shimell) at the film’s opening: what is the difference in emotional value between the copy and the real if the copy feels real?

Certified Copy was one of the biggest conversation-starters during last year’s arthouse circuit. It seemed everyone who saw it had a different take on it, each choosing specific lines of dialogue or detailed moments in order to substantiate and defend their interpretation. That such ambiguity can provoke this type of conversation is only a testament to the film’s delicate strength. But what Certified Copy ultimately poses is that the answer doesn’t ultimately matter. There is no emotional difference between the supposedly real and the imitation of the real. It’s the ambiguity itself that provides the film’s meaning.

Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff engages with ambiguity in a different sense. Dramas chronicling the expansion of the West on a small, intimate scale carry with them the inevitable implication of the arrival at the destination as the film’s natural conclusive point – the end of the characters’ journey should also be the end for the audience’s. However, the audience in this case is not provided such satisfaction. Our traveling 19th century troupe only encounters a small victory – one that promises salvation but does not guarantee it.

This ending, however, is thematically appropriate for a film heavily preoccupied with various types of uncertainty: the group is uncertain about the intents of their tall-tale-telling guide Meek; the group is prevented from understanding the Native American they encounter on the trail, and they are wary of his intents; and finally, the characters are uncertain, at any given moment, as to where they are and where they are going. Each mountain and hill and distant visage carries with it potential promise and devastating disappointment. A turn one direction could lead to water, city, or endless miles of more desert. A film about the most uncertain of American journeys could only end with such ambiguity.

Bad Ambiguity

I don’t want to blanketly characterize the following ambiguities as bad, for both of these films are associated with talent (Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender; Tilda Swinton) that I otherwise admire and have faith in. However, the ambiguity present in these recent, critically lauded films for me reduced their potential power rather than providing thematic depth or opportunities for audiences to explore and intuit further.

The problems of ambiguity in McQueen’s Shame and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin are deeply intertwined, as both involve the issue of motive and biography. Shame’s Brandon Sullivan is a sex addict seemingly without a past. While a character of his past, his sister, does visit him without warning, her presence gives no answers as to where he came from or how he became the conflicted and broken man he is. It’s strange that we as audiences are privileged to Brandon’s secret debilitating addiction, humiliations and all, but we are as shielded from everything pertaining to his life anytime before the opening of the film just as many of the other characters are. All that is left is intuition and inference for this compelling (because of Fassbender’s performance) but otherwise empty cipher. He’s simply a privileged man with a privileged addiction.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the motive problem is more pronounced – not the motive for the school massacre per se, for that seems strangely in step with what little we are given about the character – but the motive for why the titular character existed from birth as an enduring psychopath with an uncanny ability to create manipulative schemes well beyond his age. The book Ramsay adapted is told from the first-person perspective of the Kevin’s mother through her diaries after the incident. Through this literary device, the mother’s memory of Kevin inferentially changes because of the incident itself, creating a seed whose personality makes the incident seem causal, yet he seems bereft of any “original” causality (i.e., what made him evil in the first place).

But where such a device may work for literature, it doesn’t translate readily to film, where even a character’s flashback is, intentionally or not, rendered into a more multi-perspectival than specifically subjective space because of a camera that can occupy more than one subject position. Kevin then becomes a character without humanity whose caricature prevents any means of dealing seriously with the horror of his actions. A film that attacks the audience with formalized irony and posturing distance, We Need to Talk About Kevin fails to address two compelling themes necessitate a proximity between character and audience: the theme (largely unaddressed in cinema) of parents who don’t love their children, and the multivalent ramifications of meaningless large-scale violence.

I hesitate to denounce wholly the ineffective ambiguity of either of these films. Both Shame and We Need to Talk About Kevin deal with themes that films rarely have or will. Each of these films refuses the reductiveness of causality – they would have been worse, not better, had their characters been conveniently pathologized in the most traditional of Hollywood fashions. But in each of these cases, the films remove causality and fail to put something else in its place, alienating viewers through ambiguity rather than engaging them.

Ambiguity is a delicate device that can open up a film to limitless interpretive and meaningful possibilities or seal certain elements of a film shut, denying an audience access to exploration, much less actual answers.

This may or may not be the link to more Culture Warrior

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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