' ' Cinema Romantico: Vibes and Stuff

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Vibes and Stuff

I am no art historian, mind you, nor an armchair art historian even, just a guy who went to the Cézanne exhibit at Chicago’s Art Institute this past summer and read all the placards, most of which were intent on explaining the French painter’s intense relationship with vibrations. For him, these helpful signboards would essentially explain, it wasn’t enough to capture the thing in the painting – the fruit, the sky, the person – but the essence, nay, the feeling, the sensation, the vibration of the thing. When Cézanne said he wanted to astonish Paris with an apple, it meant, it seemed to me, that he did not merely want people to see a recreation of a Golden or a Granny or a Reine de Reinette, but to evince through a painting the sensation an apple would arouse in your presence by not just heightening your sense here in looking at his painting but to the way it would otherwise imperceptibly heighten your sense in the presence of an actual Golden or Granny or Reine de Renette. When I saw Still Life Bread And Leg Of Lamb, reader, without even realizing I was doing it, I licked my lips.

The word vibration has over the years been shortened into vibe, generally described as an ambiance or a feeling, like what Jackie DeShannon is singing about in “When You Walk in the Room.” That pop classic was released in 1964, a couple years before The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” which helped confer a hippie association on vibes. But vibes as we understand them now in terms of art, a kind of intrinsic emotional resonance, were around in 60s cinema too. Jean-Luc Godard (RIP) distributed vibes like party favors; Monica Vitti (RIP) rode the vibes of Antonioni like waves. Honestly, cinematic vibes go back even further to Howard Hawks taking Chandler and Hemingway novels, breaking them down, and then building them back up entirely in the vibes of Bogey and Bacall. Even Jean Harlow transcended the convoluted, contrived plot of something like “China Seas” by virtue of her platinum blonde vibes.

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the vibes.

As narrative cinema and narrative TV, however, grew ever more alike, with cliffhangers leading to new movies like new seasons, where knowledge is required of other plot lines in previous movies or similar movie universes, movie viewers became less enamored with vibes. Consider “Top Gun: Maverick,” frequently being described as better than “Top Gun” because it has a better, clearer narrative than the original which was just a sensory explosion of vibes. At the same time, however, it seems as if people began noticing the absence of vibes and started pushing back. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times professed that “Tenet” should be understood as all vibes (though I grasp the larger point, I disagree with this take nevertheless, because Christopher Nolan is too taken with his own plots to think strictly in terms of vibes) and the invaluable culture writer Molly Lambert has frequently asked for less plot, more vibes. Kyle Chayka of The New Yorker has noted how Tik-Tok has become a vessel for a modern vibes revival, though what he’s writing about there, “the collection of real-world observations, strung together in a filmic montage,” evokes what something like Aaron Katz’s “Quiet City” was already doing back in 2007. The vibes revival of which Chayka writes might explain the long overdue reappraisal of Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” (2006) as a masterpiece given how in so many ways it ditched story to harvest transcendence from the essence of a mojito, the sensation of the sky, the vibration of a speedboat seatbelt being buckled. The vibes have always been there.

Vibes have staged such a comeback that in a Through the Looking Glass situation they have even begun invading TV, like Hulu’s tale of a Chicago Italian Beef joint “The Bear,” leaving some people and critics raised on the age of Golden TV baffled. “(T)hat’s all there is,” Soraya Roberts semi-infamously lamented for Defector, “no thoughts, only vibes. Shows like these have no real point, only the aura of a point, one expressed through music, cinematography, set design, direction and acting, without a solid enough story or developed characters to ground it all.” Indeed, “The Bear” is not television as we have come to understand it. Even if television is sometimes framed as being like a movie, that’s generally because a series is a closed loop, a one-off season and that is not what “The Bear” program creator and executive producer Christopher Storer is up to. In fact, the worst part of the first season is precisely how it bridges to the inevitable second season by virtue of a plot twist that feels like an oddly earnest and inadvertent manifestation of the comic “Arrested Development” adage “There’s always money in the banana stand.”

No, “The Bear” is best understood not as an eight episode first season but as a sort of vibes suite, eight pieces of mood in which Storer and his team deploy all the devices Roberts is criticizing – music, cinematography, set design, direction and acting – to create that mood. The emergent recap culture of the last decade in which plot details are described and then contextualized in some attempt to fit them on the fly into a theory of a broader overarching theme is frankly useless in the face of something like “The Bear,” which is less surface than depth, to borrow a phrase from one of the Cézanne placards, a series of aesthetic choices meant to elicit a series of sensations and vibrations of a pressure-cooked kitchen, pockets of emotional release from all that pressure (the show might not get Chicago, as it were, in toto but every one of the smoke breaks in a back alley between people in white aprons looks like the ones I’ve been seeing in alleys behind restaurants from the train going to and from work for the last 17 years) and fleeting moments of beauty like the treats conjured up by an aspiring pastry chef.

Storer astonished dumb old TV with a cake; if you think that cake is no substitute for story, shit, I can’t help you.

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