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The Revenant, immersion, and the cinema of punishment

The Revenant, immersion, and the cinema of punishment

Everything you’ve ever heard anyone say, ever read anyone write—or ever will hear or ever will read—about Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is entirely accurate. As Leonardo DiCaprio explained during his acceptance speech, upon winning an Academy Award, nary a vape pen in sight on such a serious night: it’s a “transcendent cinematic experience.”

It is an experience, yes: I recommend you watch it in IMAX while staving off a bladder swollen with pee, while nauseously drunk, gripping the hand of someone you love who loves animals, together squeezing all moisture from your bodies through the spigot of your desperately clasped mitts, afraid for two and a half hours that you do not love animals enough.

It is transcendent in that it seeks to be more than itself, yes. There is sound, there is fury, and these will wreck your insides, will rumble sickly, deep within you. There’s hardly any purpose to your suffering off-screen, or to Leonardo DiCaprio’s suffering on-screen, except to merge your suffering into one unceasing, all-encompassing stress nightmare. The Revenant fights to pull you out of your comfortable position as audience member, to hurt you into an abnegation of your distance as an observer. Iñárritu probably uses so much Christ imagery because Christ was physically tormented before he died, thereby eclipsing his corporeal shell. Spoiler alert: there will be blood—and then there is. Drink of it, Iñárritu commands, knowing you’ve already had too much to drink.

The story of the making of The Revenant is as notorious as the film itself

Though he got six weeks off in the middle of production because the cameras froze, and though he’s a wealthy, famous person who vapes, that is Leonardo Dicaprio suffering. His pain, we believe, is real. The story of the making of The Revenant is as notorious as the film itself: plagued with strife, rife with intolerable cold, crew mutiny, budget overruns, sickness—all to be expected from a director who acts like he has something to prove, insisting on shooting chronologically with only natural light. In turn, the film is a cinematic slog, an unadulterated translation of the pain the people involved with this film must have endured making it. Or, at least, that seems to be Iñárritu’s intent, to create something as immersive as any document of hardship can be, save hiring fur-clad, hirsute thugs to stroll up and down theater aisles kicking audience members in the head and berating their bruises.

In The Revenant, we unflinchingly follow Hugh Glass, stalwart fur trapper of the manly 1820s, from one incomprehensible ordeal to the next. From a battle with Native Americans to a bear mauling, from witnessing his son’s murder to being left for dead, Glass crawls to the ends of the earth to wipe fellow frontiersman Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) from the face of it. All the while, Iñárritu steels his camera with the vigor of masculinity, emboldens it to serve as audience proxy, as exhausted and in danger as any character it pursues. The Revenant is an agonizing film because Iñárritu needs his audience to soak in his agony, to drown in it, to maybe even be baptized by it. Glass’s obsession with revenge takes on spiritual shades the closer he gets to civilization, until it becomes his religion, giving him life. Vengeance for Glass is no longer any different from the act of seeking it—there is only the “seeing through” to a conclusion, a murder that hardly matters considering the grueling ceremony that preceded it.

A wealthy, famous person who vapes

And in the end, Leonardo DiCaprio looks at you. It’s OK—he looked at me too. He looks into us, all of us, straight into the camera, his beady eyes staring through our urine-bloated indifference to something, I guess, greater. Or not. Maybe I’ve been bred on too much self-aware cinema, but when a character breaks the fourth wall like Hugh Glass does, I can’t help but feel implicated in—blamed for—the kind of madness he endured for 156 minutes. As if he was doing this for me.

This brand of real-time immersion isn’t new in cinema—despite what many Iñárritu fanatics or the Academy would have you believe—nor is such blame. In Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, a 1962 response to the until-then very masculine French New Wave, we join a beautiful burgeoning pop star minute by minute as she awaits the results of a potentially devastating medical test. Halfway through, the titular Cléo (Corrine Marchand) sears the film into two by singing directly to the audience. She’s weeping, clinging tenaciously to self-control as she tries to make her way through lyrics mostly about how hollow she feels to be so admired, to be so defined by the way we look at her—so she looks back, and in that look she indicts us for looking. In one direct glance she abandons us to make our way through the rest of the film guilty, knowing as Cléo does that a bad test result could mean the loss of the beauty which defines her. This is our fault: not her illness, but the helplessness that accompanies it.

There is helplessness spattered like drying spittle throughout The Revenant. Glass, paralyzed and near-death, can only watch as his son is murdered; the audience, baited into sympathy, can only watch as Glass can only watch his son’s murder. Much of Iñárritu’s film toys with the natural helplessness of the viewer (any viewer for any film, in fact), implying that by watching we are culpable for what we are watching—and not just any kind of watching, he means, but the kind of watching The Revenant subjects us to: Participatory, intimate observation, plunged via uncomfortable close-ups and long takes and full-frame confusion and unrelenting violence into a time, place, and frame of mind which isn’t ours to inhabit.

Some directors are welcoming, bidding viewers to approach the glass. Ferris Bueller treats us as partners in crime—”They bought it,” he smirks at the camera—and Kevin McAllister explains to us, as a friend would to the toddler next door neighbor, the exigencies of sudden adulthood. In High Fidelity, we are Rob Gordon’s validation; in Animal House we are Bluto’s conspirator, confirmation that his voyeurism is no worse than our own; in Fight Club we are Jack’s wheeling superego. Woody Allen addresses the audience all the time, even if not directly, his viewers his sounding board for a lifetime of neuroses. Jordan Belfort brags to us, maybe even trusts us in The Wolf of Wall Street, while one glance from BIlly Ray Valentine in Trading Places assures us that he’s still on our side. Many of Spike Lee’s characters sound off to us, hoping that through anger and righteousness we’ll be able to seize the importance of the same, to raise our voices in unison. Not even Norman Bates needs our empathy: His final, simmering grin, closing out Psycho, isn’t so much a censure of society as a reminder of just how ordinary crazy can get.

But Iñárritu? Iñárritu grabs his characters by the scruff of their necks and slams their faces against the fourth wall, until our screens are smeared with face fluids. Our “presence” amidst The Revenant is violating—which is why Leonardo DiCaprio looks through Glass (natch) at us. Iñárritu is scolding us with those eyes. This is something we should not be seeing, though that realization comes in the film’s literally final moment. And our punishment is the film we just withstood.

Iñárritu grabs his characters by the scruff of their necks and slams their faces against the fourth wall

We probably don’t deserve this kind of treatment, of course, but it’s not clear that Iñárritu doesn’t think so. If we are so intimately part of Glass’s physical struggle, then we are also part of the filmmaker’s struggle, part of this film about what a difficult endeavor it is to make this film. Iñárritu demands you respect his masculine obsession—it is, more than anything, a self-involved film—but the reason that he feels like he’s qualified in such a demand is that, regardless of whether you agree or whether you gave implicit consent by watching the film at all, you were there. You let him transport you to this whole other place where pretty grown men pretend they’re not all that pretty. You give these men awards and money for the extent to which they can pretend. You—stressed out and exhausted—are now colluding with his stress, his exhaustion, his experience.

Whatever we have coming to us, we no longer seem to be content with only being a “viewer.” Helplessness is not a tolerated circumstance of watching a film—instead, immersion allows us, at the very least, an illusion of control. In that aforementioned Oscars speech, DiCaprio reminded all those ignorant of The Revenant’s narrative of strife that the crew was forced to trek to the ends of the earth to “find snow,” ensuring that the film is actually about “Man’s relationship with the natural world,” and then, reaching out to his audience, acknowledging that this is a world shared, “a world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history.” However one feels about climate change, the overarching sentiment regarding it stays remarkably similar throughout all beliefs: This problem is bigger than every single one of us, and whether this is truth or not, we all feel as if we are long past the point of being able to do anything about it.

Which is why we need control as much as Iñárritu needs us to think we have it. In our films, our games, the ways in which we destroy our bodies and our planet—we cling to narratives that allow us to fool ourselves into perceiving that we have real stakes in the narrative itself. Unlike what the Christ story supposedly teaches us, we’re really only able to find truth through experience, through contact, through involvement. And for Iñárritu that means pain, shocking one’s system into transcendence.

Werner Herzog, he of the “ecstatic truth” school of filmmaking (class size: basically just him), was putting his film crews through Hell long before Iñárritu was forcing his own to find snow, but the key difference between the two directors is that Herzog never passes the onus of hardship to the audience. In 1971, with $370,000, Herzog dragged his crew to the Peruvian rain forest, where he insisted on shooting Aguirre, the Wrath of God in chronological order, subjecting, as Iñárritu did, his actors to the rigors of filming in such a remote, civilization-wrenching place and charting their arduous progress through the film itself.

The story of how a Spanish conquistador (Klaus Kinski) doomed his expedition and lost all sanity to his obsession with finding the lost city of El Dorado became a travelogue of Herzog’s own obsession with finishing his film about the tragedy of obsession. Midway through shooting the film, even, Herzog got word that his reels, which he had sent out of the jungle to begin processing, were lost in transit. Knowing he did not have enough money to finish, he still kept shooting anyway, hiding his perhaps futile efforts from the rest of the crew. Eventually, the footage was found, but there’s no escaping the reality of Herzog’s dangerous infatuation with capturing art as a result of lived-in experience. That, ten years later, he made a movie (Fitzcarraldo) about a man dragging a boat over a mountain by dragging a boat over a mountain isn’t as surprising as the critical injuries and even death that accompanied the production.

Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and its notorious boat

In Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog, a spectre of a man after the trying circumstances of what he’s done, whines, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore.” He takes full responsibility for the pain experienced on his set, as well as for the experience of watching both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, films which plunge the viewer into the helplessness of not just man’s struggle with nature, but of man’s struggle with the delusions of obsession. He does not bid Klaus Kinski to look into the camera, to suggest that as an audience we are somehow complicit with such epic follies of our species. He shoulders the burden of his dreams alone, later admitting, “…we are cursed with what we are doing here.”

Herzog wants to save us, Iñárritu to martyr us. If that is Iñárritu’s point in having DiCaprio glower into us, forcing us to accede that we can’t help but inject ourselves into places and lives in which we do not belong, then that is our curse—as people, as players, as lovers of art, as viewers. Everything anyone has ever said or will ever say about The Revenant is accurate because none of it matters: Our punishment, if we insist on occupying roles and worlds that aren’t our own, peeking into lives with an alien presence, is that we are obliged to own up to the physical pain of that curse.

No matter what any digital start-up or social media manager tells you, storytelling is not a human right. At least not anymore. This is the new world we inhabit, and one we must confront bravely: Stories are no more the ways in which we make sense of a senseless world—now stories are roles to wear, and misery to imbibe. This is the only way we can understand each other anymore. Either that, or the only thing we have to share these days, the hottest days amidst the hottest years in recorded history, is pain. We use stories to fathom our pain, to legitimize it. And if the pain in The Revenant seems unfathomable, take heart: Leonardo DiCaprio, as far as you’re concerned, felt it all—and he felt it all for you. That is his purpose. The least you can do is give him an award.

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