P.O.V. No.19 - NATAN

Natan's hands
Cinematic poetics, moral reflections

Edvin Vestergaard Kau

Natan has been sent by the job center to a sandwich and kebab grill to work as a shop assistant. But the grill chain owner, Viggo, and the manager think he is too slow and unskilled to do the job. He is fired, but the owner offers to drive him home. During the drive Natan discloses that he has considered getting himself a dog. Immediately Viggo finds an ad in a newspaper and phones a lady who wants to sell a puppy. They drive to her house, and against Viggo's impatient suggestions to hurry up and buy the dog on the spot, Natan, instead, follows the woman's suggestion to stay until the next day and then perhaps make his decision, and, together with her, goes back into the house. Earlier during their talk she has told Natan that she thinks he has good hands and is good with dogs as well as with people.

From beginning to end
At first Natan may look like a modest, low-key, and perhaps even innocent film, just as its main character appears to be a peaceful and innocent man. But if we take a closer look, it is striking that certain passages are in fact articulated in an almost aggressive style, virtually jumping out at the viewer. Other sequences make use of a more subdued cinematic language, but even if they are edited in contrast to the "loud" ones, in their own way they also encourage moral reflection.

The very first scene belongs to the "aggressive" mode: From the blue title screen the sound of a hand knocking on a window pane and a cut take us directly to a close-up of a head (shot from the left side) already in the middle of a movement to the left side of the frame. With a fairly fast pan left plus a movement forward the hand-held camera follows behind the main character, Natan, who is hurrying to the counter to take orders from the customers who have called for his service. The next shot shows him in a right panning close-up from a low angle (on his right). While he opens the screeching window, the camera is suddenly positioned to his left and moving towards the open window and the first customer. The rest of the scene continues in the same way, with very dynamic camera work and an equally frantic editing style, the dialogue being chopped up into sharp contrasts and overlapping voices.

The last part of the film, and especially the very last scene, is much more calmly articulated - appearing more like Natan's tempo. During the negotiation about the dog there are long pauses of silence in the conversation, and the montage as well as the camera work is done at a slower pace, such as when the woman and Natan are sitting on the sofa and Natan is stroking the dog, and during the last conversation outside the house, which ends with Natan's decision to stay with the kind woman - and a peaceful mood at last!

Plausible artistry
The audience's experience of the string of events and their changing impressions and moods is moulded through the orchestration of the cinematic material. From their carefully staged use of expressive form DoubleJonas create a very efficient play with the audience's attention and emotions. If we consider how the film presents different elements (things, surroundings, setting, characters, actions), it turns out that this probably could not have been done without this very careful staging, the entire mise-en-scène: Natan and the other characters could not have been shown in these movements, from these angles, if everything was not so painstakingly directed; that is to say, this is not so-called "direct cinema", where a fly on the wall "accidentally" and entirely without any influence on the events witnesses, registers, and reports them to the audience. The impresssion of authenticity is, as it were, deeply constructed and staged.

Take the film's first three shots. A fly-on-the-wall camera could never show Natan's movement from one end of the room to the counter in this way. The different angles, camera movements and positions, as well as the swift and impressive montage, are the result of a very artificial, artistic jigsaw puzzle. Given that Natan, as demonstrated, is a piece of artistic fiction, why are we left with the impression that it is very true to life? How does it create the above-mentioned intensity and almost documentary-like quality? Through conventions developed by documentarists (but perhaps also directors of fiction films?), who have been training audiences for years, and further cultivated in television news reports, news programmes, and broadcasts. We, the viewers, have learned that it "looks authentic and documentary" when the audio-visual language of moving pictures is used in certain ways: when things are done in the way I have outlined with regard to Natan. The camera work, editing, sound, light, dialogue (which overlaps, is "unpolished"), patterns of reactions (cut short or shown as incomplete), even pauses and silence are given a certain "raw" appearance.

During Natan's and Viggo's visit to the woman with the puppy we find several uneasy, almost disquieting moments of silence, the effect of which is all the stronger because they stand out in contrast to the hectic and verbally violent parts of the film. Seemingly, these silent moments are "non-functional", at least if it were a question of having the dialogue disclose information about narrative, plot, and story, plus maybe describe the characters and their surroundings. Even these silences and hesitations are staged in a way that gives the impression of an unplanned recording of real events. They demonstrate feelings of uneasiness and anxiety that do not seem acted, almost like when directors use reactions from actors before they even "get into character" or when they think the shooting is over and they are not supposed to act any more.

So, certain structures separate the world of Natan from reality. Special cinematic practices both in the beginning and at the end are demarcation lines between fact and fiction, with the montage and other orchestrations of the cinematic language establishing this story as a highly constructed, artificial "as if" and not at all some piece of reality; these strategies also demonstrate the necessary distance between narrator and story, teller and tale. Yet, oddly enough, these are the very same elements that secure the film's intense impression of almost "entering Natan's world". Its art makes it real, because we experience the plausibility as authenticity.

This little exploratory analysis of some cinematic elements in Natan and of the reasons why I think it is a fine, effective, and very beautiful film shows us that the crux of the matter is this: the aesthetic command of material and cinematic elements does not play a greater or lesser role in either documentary or fiction film. It is simply a prerequisite of all audio-visual storytelling.

Moving pictures and thoughts
In spite of Natan's documentary-like quality, this analysis has focused on the film as a very effectively staged piece of fiction, its artistic transformation of its material, the distance between teller and tale, and the canonical one-two-three-structure of beginning, middle, and end. It is told as a genuine piece of imaginative "as if", an invented fictional world. But this does not mean that the viewer can let himself "disappear" into Natan's world of fiction without a second thought, so to speak. Along with empathy, of course, the aesthetic strategies secure a certain distance between film events and audience. And apart from this, there is one more important aspect of Natan that I have not mentioned yet: that it can be seen as a cinematic articulation of reflections, or even as a provocation to reflect on very real problems and dilemmas in a broader sense, such as social integration and the recognition of extra-ordinary people. Other films have provoked reflection in a similar way, such as Cock Fight, which takes a look at friendship and national/ethnic conflicts, and Draft, which focuses on father and son/generations and politics. The way the films are constructed with their carefully nurtured plausibility, transformed in turn into authenticity, also serves to foreground this reflective aspect of their storytelling.

At this point it is important to mention yet another element: cast and nationality. It is difficult to imagine that Natan (and the two other films mentioned) would have had the same impact if the cast had been entirely made up of, for instance, Danish actors. The language and the people of different nationalities playing characters from their own regions of the world are important factors in directing the viewers' attention farther than the diegetic space and perhaps back into the social, national, and political context within which they are produced. From the symbiosis of cinematic articulation and reflection the audience can take the moral and ideological dilemmas opened up by these films with them when the projection lights go out and they leave the cinema - not necessarily to live happily ever after with these cinematically born thoughts, but perhaps a little wiser.

General note: Underlying my characterization of Natan and the film's playful cinematic practice in a realm between pure fiction and an impression of authenticity, are ideas that I have developed in a series of exploratory articles: a. "Shaping Meaning: On Action and Content in Unreal Worlds" (among other subjects about involvement and distance, transmission and transformation, plausible artificiality and artificial intelligibility. In the anthology "Virtual Interaction. Interaction in Virtual Inhabited 3D Worlds" (ed.: Lars Qvortrup, Springer, London 2001). b. "Great beginnings and endings. Made by Orson Welles" (the function of beginning- and end-structures, separation between fiction and the real world. In p.o.v., no. 2, December 1996). c. "Separation or combination of fragments? Reflections on editing" (ideas about the meaning of montage. In p.o.v., no. 6, December 1998. d. "Where's the story? Notes on telling stories cinematically" (characteristics and structures of cinematic narratives. In p.o.v., no. 18, December 2004).

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