There was genuine discussion in the late 1990s about the revolutionary possibilities of digital technology. Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg‘s “Dogme 95 Manifesto”/experiment had proven that highly regarded filmmakers could tell compelling stories beyond the constraints of the industry’s machinery. David Lynch is an early in this movement, using digital cameras for his Interview Project (2009-) shorts like Rabbits (2002) which he posted on his website, and eventually his next feature, Inland Empire (2006). Mike Figgis is another digital evangelist; he made the highly inventive digital feature Timecode (2000), and wrote a how-to guide on digital filmmaking.
By the early 2000s, ‘digital’ had solidified into an aesthetic choice akin to black and white. No established filmmaker embraced the freedom of digital filmmaking with as much gusto, however, as Steven Soderbergh; he championed the RED One MX digital camera and used it to shoot Che (2008) and Contagion (2011).
It was the immediacy that appealed to Soderbergh, the ability to recreate the qualities of the traditional filmmaking method without the necessary elaborate set-up. He took full advantage of the speed and adaptability of this form of filmmaking in Full Frontal (2002), which was shot on digital video in under a month. Full Frontal dismantles the Hollywood mythos as much as it deconstructs the conventions of mainstream American filmmaking; the promise of Hollywood is revealed to be even more paltry when shorn of all its gloss. The early ‘00s marked the point at which Soderbergh decided to eschew the possibility of becoming a Hollywood journeyman, choosing instead to intersperse commercial fare with offbeat passion projects and stylistic experiments.
Full Frontal extends the satirical thrust of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) but takes aim at the means of production. The limitations of the Canon XL-1s camera render Los Angeles in an entirely different light, casting the city in sombre, autumnal hues. Its ghostly tones stand in contrast to the ‘film’ within the film, Rendezvous, with its tasteful lighting, precise compositions, and overwrought score. The cultivated blandness of Rendezvous highlights the discrepancy between the artifice of the production and the lives captured in all their messiness on digital video (DV). Soderbergh’s methods favour motion over composition – when the camera is stationary, there is a surreptitious quality to the framing, settling wherever there is space. Light frequently floods into the frame, inundating the characters, and shots lose focus. Soderbergh gives himself up to the aleatory possibilities that are imposed upon him by the technology.
Naturalism is fostered by the limited setup, the slightest actorly flourish is amplified by the surrounding murk. Seeing actors like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in this context strips them of their star aura and reminds the viewer how a star is the articulation of a mechanical process, lit and composed into immortality. Full Frontal uses the antagonism between the denizens of Hollywood and the productions taking place around them to examine the degree to which the performance extends into everyday life, and how the city is one enormous soundstage, a flat canvas that proffers a Polaroid version of reality. Coleman Hough’s screenplay explores the depths of absurdity to which drama reduces life – symbolised by the play Arty (Enrico Colantoni) stages, based extremely loosely on the life of Hitler, called The Sound and the Fuhrer, in which history becomes a vehicle for the questionable acting chops of its star (Nicky Katt).
Full Frontal sought to determine the extent to which a narrative is directed by its images, how much beauty has become an impediment to telling compelling stories – shots here are outlines; the story is propelled by what is said; the hazy representations are there to lend weight to the words. Those trapped within the ambit of showbusiness are shown in their least flattering light, their desperate striving becomes ugly in the unforgiving glare of the digital lens. Soderbergh’s love for Guided by Voices may have been the impetus to create work that is ramshackle yet real. His attempt to puncture the fantasy went too far for many, but it was the start of a process that continues right up to him shooting High Flying Bird (2019) on an iPhone 8. Soderbergh has always been willing to risk commercial failure in pursuit of an unmediated image.
Michael Winterbottom achieved a similar visual reduction in 9 Songs (2004), using digital cameras to show the bare actuality of the sex act with considerably more tenderness than Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s sexually explicit revenge thriller Baise-moi (2000). The same intimacy began to be applied to the act of violence. Crime films like Joe Carnahan’s Narc (2002) sought to replicate the digital aesthetic in its visual grit and frenetic camerawork. With its chilly ambiance, sparse lighting, and bursts of handheld spontaneity, Narc dipped its toe into the low-key mood of the early ‘00s while cleaving to the old conventions. It is a strategy that has served the producers of ‘prestige TV’ very well: repurposing old genre models.
Slow cinema began to gain prestige in the ‘90s. Drawing on the elliptical styles of Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Andrei Tarkovsky, directors like Béla Tarr, Pedro Costa, and Lisandro Alonso created an ambient form that stretched causality to its limits. In the slow cosmology, scenes became continents to themselves, unfolding according to their own momentum. Gus Van Sant had turned his back on the same blandishments extended to Soderbergh; he used the cachet of his Oscar nomination for Good Will Hunting (1997) to get a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998) made on a conceptual whim. Then he embarked on his ‘Death Trilogy’’– Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005) – which is imbued with the opacity of slow cinema.
Gerry offers a cinema of interstices; it draws its insights from what is visible; like the smear on the windscreen illuminated by the sun, and lent it a beatific glow. There is no revelation, no exposition, no lesson; it is a gradual unfolding with sparse emotional cues – courtesy of minimalist musician Arvo Pärt. Gerry is concerned with endurance, and the multifarious paths to ‘the thing’ that will elucidate the journey for its hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck). Damon and Affleck remain as impenetrable as the landscape they inhabit; we can only speculate on their relation to one another by the nuances of gesture, expression, gait, and spatial alignment. It is the opposite of Full Frontal; language is useless here; dialogue is almost an intrusion. Like all of the protagonists in Van Sant’s Death Trilogy, the hikers are walking towards something they fear but cannot avoid, driven by the fulfilment of a deadly quest.
The landscape is where the revelation resides in Gerry; it is blissfully indifferent to human agency, a mechanism of death that is to its Gen X characters what it was to the hippy dropouts in Zabriskie Point (1970) – the terminus for an ideal. The extended wide shots Van Sant utilises allow the eye to edit within the static width of the frame; focusing on a plane, isolating details, ascribing your own significance. Because Van Sant establishes no fixed centre, everything in this vista is in flux; the form becomes capable of admitting ambiguity, languor, protraction. The enormity of the desolation the lost hikers face is brought home by the silence that enfolds them; Van Sant harnesses silence, understanding its disruptive properties. ‘The thing’ remains forever fixed in the distance; promising a satisfying resolution, the catalysing incident, the dramatic break. Gerry’s use of movement betrays the illusion of motion; the hypnotic crunch of the hikers’ synchronized footsteps underscores the loss of a comprehensible horizon.
Another low-key subgenre to emerge in the early ‘00s was mumblecore. The first wave of mumblecore films took the so-called hangout movie – typified by the likes of Richard Linklater‘s Slacker (1990) and the Coen Brothers‘ The Big Lebowski (1998) – and eliminated the story elements to pursue pure interaction in such an understated way that it was often difficult to decipher. The term eventually became more nebulous as its main voices grew in competence and ambition, but Andrew Bujalski can lay claim to being the godfather of mumblecore. Bujalski’s debut feature, Funny Ha Ha (2002), set the template for mumblecore. Funny Ha Ha follows recent college grad Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) as she flits between temp jobs, attends parties, goes on awkward dates, and struggles to express her feelings for Alex (Christian Rudder), who is already attached.
Bujalski’s approach is almost wilfully amateurish with its grainy 16mm photography and non-professional actors – it is an approach Bujalski would return to with Computer Chess (2013), which he shot on analog videocameras. Funny Ha Ha is a perfect summation of life on the cusp of adulthood. Marnie has chosen to defer the big decisions, to be swept along on the current of life, and this drift is encapsulated in the film’s imprecision. The camera hovers noncommittally in the middle distance, and the overlapping dialogue from unschooled actors seeks to mimic the awkward back-and-forth of everyday conversation. But the informality which Bujalski fosters is a means of concealing the depth of emotion coursing beneath all this fumbling.
Bujalski’s approach sets out to emulate the lassitude of his characters, their inability to find a way out of their inaction – these are not bold or heroic people, they fear the fall-out that may result from decisive action. Their refuge from the ennui and deflation of the adult world is a studied distance; to swathe themselves in layers of irony, to smirk back at the disappointments and compromises. Funny Ha Ha revels in the dead time that is usually excised; it is an old baggy t-shirt of a film – casual, comfortable, if not presentable. Marnie and Alex cannot live up to rom-com archetypes; there will be no happy ending, self-consciousness prohibits true feeling from finding its voice. But the irony is that the form has moved toward them. Fellow mumblecore alumni the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg now find themselves at the sophisticated end of the relationship comedy; and the low-key sensibility is evident in the work of Lena Dunham, Alex Ross Perry, the Safdie brothers, Kelly Reichardt and Greta Gerwig.