Beyond the Illustrated Text: Choke

“I’d like to believe with Godard, once you’ve written the text and you’ve found the money and you’ve got your stranglehold over the producer, you throw the text away. Unfortunately, circumstances as they are at this present time don’t allow us to do that, and I proselytize for an autonomous cinema, which is essentially image-based, not text-based.”

— Peter Greenaway, interview with Spencer Abbott, 1997
Lisa London and Scott Butler in Choke, dir. Gregory Hatanaka

If Hollywood cinema has any distinct trait in the 21st Century, it is an obsession with spectacle. One needn’t look far. From bloated superhero flicks to operatic sci-fi, spectacle has overwhelmed the classic Hollywood narrative.

On one level I lament this trend. I’ve always preferred my Hollywood cinema to be quieter, subtler, centered on psychology and character. But on another level, my real interest in cinema is not Hollywood narrative film. I lean toward the American independent tradition, where the Hollywood narrative exists to be parodied or utterly ignored in favor of greater abstraction. In that light, the superabundance of spectacle in contemporary movies has a marvelous side effect: it encourages filmmakers to leave the safety of Hollywood’s well-defined genres and its vapid naturalism and push cinema toward the purely visual.

The difficulty is that filmmakers often get caught between these two levels. This struggle always surfaces in Gregory Hatanaka’s movies, and Choke is no exception. Of the nine movies of his I’ve seen this is by far the best. Yet it still doesn’t go far enough.

Choke has virtually every trope present in Mr. Hatanaka’s other films. The cinematography bursts with saturated colors. The editing plays freely with time and space, bordering on music video-style incoherence. The acting is, to put it politely, expressionistic. All these qualities suggest that his primary interest as a filmmaker is in creating a hallucinatory mood that overwhelms a viewer’s psyche and emotions with no obeisance paid to rationality. If anything Choke, like his other films, is anti-rational.

Sarah Brine in Choke, dir. Gregory Hatanaka

Yet for whatever reason Mr. Hatanaka constantly undermines this hallucinatory style by injecting devices and tropes from the classic Hollywood narrative. The most obnoxious of these is his insistence on using voice-over narration.

As I’ve said, I think it’s obvious that Mr. Hatanaka is more interested in emotion than reason, more in the internal than the external — indeed his use of voice-over is far closer to a novelist’s technique than a filmmaker’s. So why include it at all? It has the same stultifying effect in Choke as it does in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or in his own Body of Night. It’s made even worse by choosing the voice of Sarah Brine, who is already doing double duty with two roles within the picture itself.

While the movie blends points-of-view and timelines, it has a fairly straightforward, grid-like structure. Mostly scenes are color-coded so that a viewer can tell what’s in the past, what’s in the present, and what has yet to happen. None of this is particularly unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. It’s all very familiar to anyone who has seen the works of American independent filmmakers like James Benning, Kenneth Anger, or even David Lynch. Mr. Hatanaka shows an obvious affinity for this tradition — after all his distribution company has handled many films within it. As his films are borderline experimental, why not abandon the pretense of narrative completely? I’d rather he simply let the visual be visual. I want him to create his own spectacle, with its own logic, and let the audience figure it out if they are so inclined.

Shane Ryan in Gregory Hatanaka’s Choke.

He has the cast to do it. Sarah Brine gives an excellent performance that serves as an anchor for the rest. She is perfectly natural and linear, which allows the others to stretch out in various different directions. Shane Ryan thrives in these kind of explosive, expressionistic settings, though here he is strangely consigned to one or two words at a time, with few exceptions, and so he emphasizes the physical over the logical (as he should). Scott Butler is also exquisite with his emotional, tortured performance as Mr. Ryan’s alter ego. And this is the kind of role I’ve always wanted to see Lisa London act. Too often Ms. London is simply a pretty diversion in her commercial cinema roles, but Mr. Hatanaka obviously sees more in her, and she delivers expertly here, combining her incredible sensuality with her penchant for dark, off-kilter indulgence that belongs in Mr. Hatanaka’s films.

Given this cast and his own inclination to evoke private fantasy, I wish he’d give up trying to explain himself. Instead of reaching for classical Hollywood devices to help “tell” viewers what is happening, I would rather he discard them outright and find an individual form that is all his. Myself, watching any cinema, particularly Mr. Hatanaka’s kind, I don’t need to be told what’s going on. I am already giving my time freely to a an experience. I’ve already tacitly told the filmmaker that I am here for this. So long as the filmmaker does not violate my trust I will go anywhere. Because I want new journeys. Every viewer does, I think. But I want the experience of the journey itself. I don’t want a tour guide whose horrible anecdotes and sterile jokes distract me.

Millions of people each year watch fireworks displays. Not one of them says, “Gee, this would be so much better if someone explained it all for me.” And so it is with Choke. Gregory Hatanaka has a distinct gift for creating fireworks on the screen. He does not need to explain how or why. If the cinema of the future is to be dominated by spectacle, then filmmakers might as well ensure that the spectacle is not empty and that it isn’t cheapened by narrative crutch. In the search for a cinema that isn’t merely, as Peter Greenaway once noted, “illustrated text,” it’s important to leave behind all that is cozy in the classic Hollywood narrative and have faith that audiences will take the journey. Mr. Hatanaka’s work is a bright example of a future cinema that is purely visual. If he only promises more journey and less commentary next time, I will gladly go wherever he wants to take me.

Categories Cinema

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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