The Review/Feature/

From Clueless to Cold Water: An Indian Cinephile's Teen-Movie Odyssey

"Teen movies [were] a storehouse of cultural knowledge that helped initiate me into my new, adopted society"

Olivier Assayas' COLD WATER

by Girish Shambu
Jul 4, 2017

Girish Shambu is the author of The New Cinephilia, and he writes about cinema at girishshambu.blogspot.ca.

I can trace my enduring fascination with teen movies back to a specific moment in my personal history: when I moved to the US from India in my early twenties to go to graduate school. Until then, I had seen almost no teen films, in any language, but as soon as I encountered my first American examples of the genre — Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979), Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia (1983), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) — I was instantly captivated. As a young immigrant fashioning a new life in a land whose overwhelming strangeness and otherness simultaneously attracted and disoriented me on a daily basis, I resonated deeply with the doubt, anxiety, and excitement of teenage life depicted in these films. What is more, teen movies — more than other cinematic genres such as action, sci-fi, or gangster films — also served an oddly pedagogical function, as a special storehouse of cultural knowledge that helped initiate me into my new, adopted society.

The fact that I was drawn to this genre was not a total coincidence. It also reminded me of home — specifically, it evoked, in not immediately obvious ways, the 1970s Hindi popular films that fuelled my own early love of movies. Bollywood has become an international sensation in the last 20 years, but, prior to that, the West associated Indian cinema primarily with one figure: the Bengali art-house giant Satyajit Ray. Wonderful though Ray’s films are (and they have only gained in visibility and stature on the international stage since), they were also state-sanctioned artworks, funded and promoted by the government in the hopes of garnering cultural prestige for a newly decolonized nation. By contrast, Hindi “masala films” of the ’70s, such as those starring Amitabh Bachchan and directed by Manmohan Desai, were viewed with open embarrassment and derision by the state.

This was a shame because, like the American teen films that I fell in love with, masala movies teemed with moment-to-moment creativity, energy, and invention. For example, the 1977 masala classic Amar Akbar Anthony puts into play a delirious melange of genres — romantic comedy, action film, family drama, slapstick, and musical — making flamboyant and unpredictable use of setting, camerawork, costumes, song, and dance.

For this immigrant, the inventive power of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) — which I eventually came to memorize thanks to multiple viewings (many with closed-captioning turned on) — lay in its encyclopaedic play with American pop-cultural knowledge. In those primitive days of the internet, Clueless taught me about dating practices, fashion and popular music, and even furnished, in one scene, an anthropological classification of the various communities in the American high school.

Clueless gave me, as Adrian Martin remarks about the teen genre, “a feeling for everyday life, on its smallest and most mundane scale.” I say this only partly in jest: in the years since, I have had to work to dislodge my tenacious first impression of Clueless as documentary, and learn to accept it as fiction.

All of which brings us to Olivier Assayas, whose films — though they seem to inhabit a European art-house universe far removed from the pop-culture world of the American teen movie — share many of the affective and textural qualities of the genre. For many scholars, the category of “teen movie” refers to movies made for a teen audience. But if we adopt a broader definition — movies made about teenagers and their experience — it opens up the field to art cinema. Let’s remember that Victor Erice (El Sur, 1983), Maurice Pialat (Graduate First, 1978), Claire Denis (Nenette et Boni, 1996), Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991), Chantal Akerman (Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels, 1993), and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Daughter of the Nile, 1987) have all made excellent art-teen movies, and that one of Assayas’ own all-time favourite films is Robert Bresson’s entry in the genre, The Devil, Probably (1977). Assayas has said that there are two elements that are at the root of his cinema, the energy of pop music and “the concision of Bresson” — a credo that brings together the best of the commercial- and art-teen movie traditions.

Popular music is as essential and pervasive a part of Assayas’ films as it is of the teen-movie cosmos: the director’s very first feature (and first teen movie), Disorder (1986), is set in the Parisian post-punk milieu, and the opening scene shows members of a rock band trying to rob a music store. In the legendary party sequence from Assayas’ breakthrough Cold Water, we track the passage of time and the changing mood of the long night via a succession of needle drops: Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend,” while Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” movingly ushers us into the morning.

In both the commercial- and art-teen movie, music is more than just aural window dressing: as these clips from Howard Deutch's Pretty in Pink (1986) and Claire Denis' U.S. Go Home (1994) illustrate, it offers a sense of liberation, however fleeting, from stifling surroundings.

The pursuit of this elusive freedom is one of Assayas’ major themes, and in his films he brings this quality to life by means of movement, on at least three levels. On the most basic level, there is the physical movement of both the camera and the characters; Kent Jones accurately notes that “it is hard to recall anyone in a state of repose or stillness in Assayas’ collected body of work.” For evidence, we need look no further than Assayas’ two major teen films, Cold Water and Something in the Air. While both films are semi-autobiographical, based upon Assayas’ own teenage experiences in the early 1970s, their styles differ markedly.

Shot in Super 16mm on a low budget, Cold Water is intimate and visceral, resulting in a highly textured image that occasionally blurs out of focus and into abstraction as the camera attempts to keep up with the forever restlessly moving characters, as in this early scene where Gilles and Christine attempt to boost some sides from a record store.

Made nearly 20 years later, Something in the Air revisits the same period of Assayas’ life, but this time with a muted affect and a more reflective distance. While the protagonist and Assayas stand-in (once again called Gilles, and played by Clément Métayer) shares the ceaseless mobility of his peers in Cold Water — he is almost always walking or breaking into a run — the corresponding movement of the camera is less tense, more graceful, the shots wider and more distant. For example, the sequence below begins with Laure leaving Gilles in the woods, her departure captured with a graceful rising crane shot; it then cuts to Gilles arriving on motorcycle at the print shop, where the camera proceeds to move fluidly between the half-dozen people crammed into the small basement.

A second form of mobility in Assayas occurs at the level of the frame and its shifting contents. The camera is not merely in motion, nimbly attached to characters who never seem to stand still: it is also re-composing the image from one moment to the next, almost miraculously discovering elements of visual interest. But Assayas does not linger on these felicities: even though they look remarkably like products of accident, they are clearly the consequence of a heightened artistic intuition, alive to the moment of shooting. It is a stylistic signature that is apparent across the director’s body of work, irrespective of cinematographer. Here, Gilles walks into a large lobby with several people, all of them interestingly costumed in counterculture-era garb; our eye is drawn to their bodies, hair and clothes, but the camera does not linger on any of them, and keeps moving. Gilles displays his artwork (the camera still moving), which gets the nod of approval, and we promptly cut to him preparing and projecting his slides at the light show for a rock concert, the camera taking in his work/process but also the band, the screen behind them, the audience, and then the arrival of Christine — and all of this in under two minutes.

Third, Assayas’ films move briskly across shots. His long takes don’t call attention to themselves because the image is in flux, always being born anew. But there is another reason why the felt length of the takes is shorter than their actual length: the cut in Assayas often arrives earlier than the viewer expects it to. There is an echo here of François Truffaut’s editing style, concise and breathless, afraid of boring the viewer.

We know from interviews that Truffaut (the director, as it happens, of several films about teens) was a formative model for Assayas, who struggled with the legacy of the nouvelle vague filmmakers that preceded him: “They considered themselves children, and didn’t want to be fathers … especially to the following generation,” he once said. But by taking Truffaut as one of his models (as opposed to, say, Jean-Luc Godard), Assayas was, in the words of Kent Jones, betting “on fiction and character, and against the constant interrogation of the image.” Where Godard continually punctures these narrative constructs, using his masterful command of sound and image to reveal those very sounds and images as part of an all-encompassing prison, in his own films Assayas — absent any Pollyanna-ish optimism — allows room for movement, change, spontaneity, moment-to-moment invention. Invoking the most famous lyric of “Me and Bobby McGee” — which Assayas pointedly replays over the closing credits of Cold WaterMichael Koresky notes that “‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose’ might provide the basis for Assayas’ cinema.”