‘Hereafter’ and the Aesthetic of Place

Hereafter: The American Aesthetic

Hereafter: The American Aesthetic

A few days ago I went to see the latest Clint Eastwood film, Hereafter. I had heard mixed reviews of the film, but that never puts me off. I have yet to find anyone whose tastes in film match mine exactly, as expeditions to Blockbuster with any group amply demonstrate. So much depends on the mood I’m in. It was enough in this case to see Matt Damon and Cecile de France were in the film; sufficiently idiosyncratic casting to pique my interest.

And so off I went, and I did quite enjoy it. Quite a lot, in fact. Not so much for the storyline (“A drama centered on three people — a blue-collar American, a French journalist and a London school boy — who are touched by death in different ways”) but more for the surreal experience of seeing three aesthetic expressions in one film.

Hereafter: The English Aestheti

Hereafter: The English Aestheti

I have long been fascinated by the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of different film cultures. No surprise there, I suppose. It’s the same drive that makes me aware of the stage set and lighting of a theatre or opera production as much as the acting. But I have never tried to articulate these different cultural aesthetics. For a start, I am wary of generalisations. I suspect I have a very subjective response to this aspect which may or may not be shared by others depending on how visually sensitised they may be.

Here’s a rough attempt though. The ‘look’ of  French film is just so, well, French. A warmth, a lightness, a carelessness and a very expressive manner of film. The surroundings are invariably beautiful but it’s a beauty attenuated by chic edginess. English films are quite the opposite. They have a cold rawness. Bleak, harsh lighting. A gruffness. They are often painful to watch even when they are suffused with a warm, honest and optimistic acceptance of  life’s blows. And American films? Glossy, fabricated, smooth, professional, seamless. And I saw all three running in parallel in Hereafter.

Hereafter: The French Aesthetic

Hereafter: The French Aesthetic

I often used to wonder whether these differences were simply the natural consequence of prevailing culture, and how hard it would be for a director to pass off a film in a different cultural form and ‘look’. In the old days, the film stock used must have had a lot to do with it, and in this age of infinite variety of digital filters, it is probably even easier to attach a ‘look’. But I still think it’s a challenge, and what intrigued me so much about Hereafter was the flipping back and forth between these three parallel aesthetics. The greatest challenge came at the end when the protagonists all ended up in London. At this point, despite being set in England, the film sort of lost its English aesthetic, but wasn’t quite Hollywood. Matt Damon looked a touch out of place despite his extensive global travel experiences through the Bourne trilogy, and Cecile de France looked completely abandoned in a very French way.

I tried to find clips to show what I meant, but sadly failed, and the official trailer doesn’t do this aspect justice. So I’ll have to make do with three stills. I hope you get the opportunity to go and see what I mean if you haven’t already seen the film. And if you have, do let me know whether you sensed the same thing.

Advertisements

41 responses to ‘Hereafter’ and the Aesthetic of Place

  1. Until now this hadn’t been on my ‘list to see’, but you’ve made me change my mind. Whether I’ll actually get around to see it is an entirely different question of course!

    • gillianholding – Author

      If you do, please let me know what you think! It’s funny about mixed reviews, though, isn’t it? Once a seed of doubt is sown it just takes that bit more effort to go see…

  2. You made me think; I had never considered this, “English films are quite the opposite. They have a cold rawness. Bleak, harsh lighting.” Absolutely the case!

    Great post; cheers for being freshly pressed as well. MJ

    • gillianholding – Author

      Glad you enjoyed it! It was nice to have the opportunity to expand on this thought I’ve had for some time about film aesthetics, so you can imagine my delight at encountering a three-in-one!

  3. Okay I’m convinced enough. Gotta see (The thing is: Here in Bangladesh, there is no way of watching English movies on theater as they do not come in theaters. The only way is, you know, download 😀 ).

  4. Interesting observation about the look of films from different cultures. I’ll have to watch more foriegn films to see the phenomena for myself. There’s so much filmmakers can do to influence the feel and mood of a film with lighting, angles, set design, color, and film stock.

    • gillianholding – Author

      Absolutely. That’s why I was so fascinated by the differences here; I would love to know how much was intentional and how much simply a reflection of real-life light/atmosphere etc.

  5. As you talked about the varying styles of film work, I was thinking about “Hero” starring Ziyi Zhang, Tony Lueng Chui-Wai, Maggie Chueng and Jet Li. Here, various colors are used to define characters. I am putting “Hereafter” on my watch list.

  6. I have not seen this particular film, but you are so on the money regarding the look of films from different countries. I would add that Spanish films are very colourful and very modern looking almodovar being quintessential- and maybe has been most influential in the look of Spanish films.

  7. “…cold rawness. bleak, harsh lighting”

    I’ve always thought that there’s a similar difference between british/english tv drama and the way that the north of england is portrayed vs London, for example. Similarly, how almost every tv programme set in the north is described as “gritty northern drama”…

    Really interesting post!

    • gillianholding – Author

      I agree there is some tedious stereotyping of the North; I now wonder though to what extent the stereotype is actually consciously sought rather than appearing as an inevitable consequence of the prevailing ‘local’ aesthetic. Most cases are probably more due to a clichéd view, I suppose…

    • gillianholding – Author

      Thank you! The best thing about freshly pressed is a sudden real engagement within the blogosphere. I am extremely appreciative of each and every comment!

  8. I love French and English films. Or for that matter any foreign films. Yep it is a different feel but it makes you feel like you are really there. I’ll have to put this on my netflix queue.

  9. Thanks for a very interesting post and congrats on being FP! I don’t think I ever thought about films being defined culturally in those terms before, but now that you so elegantly put it in front of me, you’re so right! ! And yes – I will definitely try to see “Hereafter”.

  10. I was trying to decide whether or not to go see this film. I did not expect it to have three very different feels (each for a culture). I can normally tell which culture has the highest impact on something, but I don’t know if I have seen a film that that kind of contrast based on culture. I might have to go see HereAfter just for that.

  11. Totally agree – was watching a gangster movie in the prohibition times tonight and discussing the ‘look’ of it with my buddy… funny to see this now. Even looking at your stills it’s obvious, the different look. And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  12. interesting. you’re so right about the depressing undercurrent in English films, the casual chic of French and the glossiness of US (the latter is pretty obvious). An interesting issue is when US try to do gritty or quirky – it still has that manufactured glossiness about it. Compare that to Australian or NZ films which are just naturally quirky not matter what they do, or Eastern European films which are depressing no matter how funny, or Russian films which are expansively melancholic, or Spanish films which are infused with lusty and slightly pervy sensuality no matter what the subject. Generalisations also but dang it’s true. I think the real feel of it is difficult to replicate to be honest as these things go deep and subtle.

    • gillianholding – Author

      Thanks for that; v interesting about the E European and Spanish output with which I’m much less familiar. Interesting too that you feel it is hard to replicate. Makes Clint Eastwood’s direction here more intriguing still.

      • I’m sure a really serious film buff (or even an Eastern European or Spaniard) might accuse me of generalisation…. Nevertheless to be that impression is very distinct. Ah so this is Clint Eastwood. Clint can do gritty. Clint can do anything.

  13. I saw ‘Hereafter’ at the start of Feb while I was in Belgium. They have dual subtitles for French and Dutch when English is being said, so when Cecile de France and co. were speaking French, there wasn’t any ‘need’ for English subtitles. Frustrating for me! Luckily a friend was able to translate on the fly for me, not that the story was engaging, in fact the screen play was pretty poor! What I enjoyed, was watching Eastwood’s directorial skills, which I have always found able to generate maximum effects with minimum effort.

    Your observations are enlightening as I failed to pick up on the differing styles between the three stories (probably because I wasn’t engaged in the stories!). But thinking back, the shifts in style, tone and even colour were definitely there. Thanks for shedding light on a new layer of brilliance within a highly flawed film. It almost makes me want to go back and watch it again to see what I missed out on!

    • gillianholding – Author

      How frustrating to have watched in those circumstances. Interesting though that even afterwards, you can recall the differing styles and ‘feel’ of the storylines.

  14. I really enjoyed this movie on many levels when I saw it. Now after reading your post I have to see it again to truly appreciate the atmosphere. If a movie sticks with me I know it’s good – and often I’ll find myself thinking of a scene in this one. Well done, interesting perspective!

  15. There are only two sorts of movie: arty ones, and ones that at least make an effort to to tell a proper story. All foreign ones are arty.

  16. i had “hereafter” on my list of must-sees for 2010, but missed it in theaters because of a hectic work schedule. your post has made me even more bummed i missed it! i was thinking about this idea of aesthetics while watching “The King’s Speech,” which had such a “british” look about it. i’m often struck by differing production values while watching international films, but i thought i was the only one!

    great post, and congrats on FP : D

  17. I am amazed by how you nailed it on the descriptions of the different film types for America, England, and France. I’ve never been able to quite put that into words, but it just “feels” like an English movie, or American movie, etc…enlightening, and I am intrigued to go watch it and see them running parallel! Thanks for a thoughtful review…they seem so hard to find…I’m with you, I like weird movies but also some big or classic movies…nothing really consistent.

    • gillianholding – Author

      I really am not sure now. I assumed when i emerged from seeing it that they had been; I mean, this is major big stuff, and to me it was so striking it had to have been intentional. Then the more i thought about it, the more i wondered if it was just ambient aesthetics? Maybe the US stuff was studio based, and the English stuff was filmed in a London council estate on a cold day…I should scan the credits acrefully and see whether there was seperate art direction for each location, i suppose!

  18. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed! I watched Hereafter primarily because of Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon, but I love your observations about cinematic look-and-feel. I am a huge fan of mise-en-scene too.

  19. […] ‘Hereafter’ and the Aesthetic of Place (via Life and Art) Posted on 18 February, 2011 by Jarle Petterson A few days ago I went to see the latest Clint Eastwood film, Hereafter. I had heard mixed reviews of the film, but that never puts me off. I have yet to find anyone whose tastes in film match mine exactly, as expeditions to Blockbuster with any group amply demonstrate. So much depends on the mood I’m in. It was enough in this case t … Read More […]

  20. […] ‘Hereafter’ and the Aesthetic of Place (via Life and Art) A few days ago I went to see the latest Clint Eastwood film, Hereafter. I had heard mixed reviews of the film, but that never puts me off. I have yet to find anyone whose tastes in film match mine exactly, as expeditions to Blockbuster with any group amply demonstrate. So much depends on the mood I'm in. It was enough in this case t … Read More […]

  21. Larry

    >>I really am not sure now. I assumed when i emerged from seeing it that they had been; I mean, this is major big stuff, and to me it was so striking it had to have been intentional.

    Clint Eastwood is American cinema’s greatest living director and his cinematographer Tom Stern is one of the best American artists in this field (look at his work on Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby). Of COURSE it was intentional. One of the ways this very European movie chooses to tell its story (and yes, I know it’s an American film but the feel is undeniably European arthouse) is by emphasizing the social and economic backgrounds of its three characters.

    These characters, their lives, the worlds they live in – these are far more important than the plot in Hereafter, which would normally never be the case in any other American movie. I was particularly struck by one shot showing Marie and her lover making their way down a winding staircase in a plush restaurant and the walls are mirrored so all this opulence is reflected back in all its glory. It’s a very apt visual symbol of a culture for whom a materialistic ‘now’ is everything and which fears discussing death – as Marie discovers to her cost.

    I liked Hereafter a lot. For me it was the best American movie of last year . It was thoughtful and tender, exceptionally well crafted and in so many ways departed from the Hollywood norm. Eastwood’s direction is like a summer breeze, so light and gentle you’re barely aware of it and again in total contrast to the bombastic directorial style that is so in fashion today. Probably the most underrated movie of the year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s