Monday, March 17, 2008

On Matters of Thought and Emotion in Movies

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Let's start with specifics: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, arguably the two best American releases from last year.


When I first wrote about There Will Be Blood, I think I was writing both from the thrill of the movie itself and my own struggles with it---whether I thought its shortcomings were signs of a noble, overreaching failure, or whether I could embrace it strictly on its own, gloriously idiosyncratic terms. All I knew was that I had seen something that, like Daniel Plainview himself, wasn't going to go gently into the dark night; it had such a physical impact on me that I couldn't help but look a little less fondly toward the drier and more dispassionate No Country for Old Men. Was it really as good as I had previously thought, or was the film as lifeless as some of its detractors claimed?


A few weeks later, I decided to see No Country a second time in a movie theater, and something unexpected happened: I realized, by the end of it, that I hadn't really grasped this film at all the first time. Oddly enough, I had simplistically interpreted Anton Chigurh's occasional dialogue lines about fate and chance as simply the ravings of a bona-fide lunatic, thus not meant to be taken seriously. But then I paid more attention to his words the second time and realized that those ravings---his view of human life as subject to the whims of a flip of a coin---were the absolute dark heart of the movie. At one point, a character describes Chigurh as having "his own set of principles." What kind of principles? More than after my first viewing, I left the theater eflecting on not only Chigurh's twisted morality, but also something deeper: similar to the way Sheriff Bell was left sobered by the violence he has just witnessed and wondering whether this new generation had any use for old fogeys like him, I started thinking about the unsettling implications of the Coens' carefully constructed world of wanton interspecies violence and arbitrary randomness, and what it suggested about the larger world we all live in.

It also forced me to confront my own personal movie tastes, and thus this particular blog entry was born.

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What do I treasure from a movie? Sure, feelings and aesthetics are important, but when a movie is powerful enough to illuminate a new way of looking at the world---whether philosophically or simply emotionally---well, I prize that feeling more than almost any other from a work of art, and No Country---far from being just a weird little thriller---brought me to a state of deep reflection.

So what of There Will Be Blood, which I had initially considered the best American movie of 2007 the last time I wrote extensively about it? Having seen it three times, the third time a few days after seeing No Country that second time---I came to realize that maybe my initial reaction was just a little hasty. For all its tension, intensity and ferocious sensuality, the tragic rise and fall of Daniel Plainview didn't inspire that same kind of reflection. Sure, the nutty finale left me dazed and horrified---but that's strictly a visceral reaction. Intellectually speaking, did that finale, or the film as a whole, leave me reflecting on, say, the scary depths of human greed and misanthropy, or the devouring of religious faith by the excesses of unchecked ambition? Not so much. Sure, its characters have a mystery and ambiguity to them that is easy to become obsessive over, but as far as any wisdom it had to impart about a world beyond the movie frame, it's rather lacking. (In the Paul Thomas Anderson oeuvre, even Magnolia, that great untamed beast of a third film, had a more lasting resonance for me---it may be the first film since Ozu's infinitely more modest Tokyo Story to move me to reconsider my attitudes toward my own family in the face of possible unseen forces greater than us all.)

And yet...damn, what a movie! That oil-derrick explosion about an hour in will probably go down as one of my favorite action sequences of all time. And already, many professional film critics are going so far as to label this a new American classic.

I know, I know: it shouldn't matter to me what other people think. Nevertheless---especially after No Country took home all those Oscars a few weeks ago---both of these fascinating films have gotten me to reflect on matters of style and substance---the old "form-versus-content" discussion. Or, more important, emotions versus intellectualism, or brain versus heart.

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Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

---Walt Whitman, from "Song of Myself"

I will freely admit that I am a bundle of contradictions, particularly when it comes to the way I feel about things in my gut and the ways I handle those feelings in my head. Sometimes I am something of an emotional animal, acting in the moment without much forethought to the consequences of said action. (I indeed have broken objects in the heat of anger and frustration, although thankfully I haven't been so rash as to break a part of my body...yet...) And sometimes I do get a charge out of surrendering to my emotional impulses---losing control. That's the kind of sensuality movies can provide; Pauline Kael sometimes seemed to base her whole critical point of view on how a movie made her feel (at the expense of considerations of what those feelings actually meant); she even wrote a whole essay entitled "Fear of Movies" in which she criticized bloodlessly "tasteful" movies (like Woody Allen's Interiors) and the supposedly "discriminatory" moviegoers who, in acclaiming such dull films, were perhaps really just expressing a fear of experiencing cinema at its height.

But most of the time I'm just not the kind of person who relies on feeling and emotion to dictate my response to something I'm seeing. Thus, I may have just come out of a movie exhilarated or disturbed, but then my intellectual side may rudely assert itself and tell me, Sure, it engaged my emotions and had some lovely imagery and bits of technique, but... In other words, I'm not always the kind of moviegoer to just surrender to a film; I'm usually thinking along with a film (or, in some cases, in spite of it), and sometimes the thought may overwhelm the emotion.


(Photo courtesy of Dave Kehr)

Recently, for instance, I took my very first look at a late Godard fiction feature, his 1982 Passion. As someone who pretty much loves---or at least greatly admires---nearly every Godard feature from Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967) (except for A Married Woman, which I haven't seen, or Made in U.S.A., which I just didn't get), I knew, even before popping in the DVD, that this was going to be a lot more autumnal and reflective, less immediately exciting than his early '60s Hollywood-deconstructionist films but also less overtly didactic than something like La Chinoise. To put it simply, it's not what one might call a "deep emotional experience." (Sam Fuller might have defined cinema as a medium of "emotions" in Pierrot le fou, but Godard has rarely struck me as a particularly emotional filmmaker---not cold, just drier and less warmly humanist than, say, his French New Wave compatriot François Truffaut.) But even though I wasn't exactly deeply moved on a human level by Passion, I liked it nevertheless mostly because I found it so fascinating to think about after it was over---its juxtapositions (mostly through sound and image) between high art and industrial life, its vision of a world in which its inhabitants are seemingly unable to respond to the beauty around them. In the case of Passion, my intellectual edification outweighed my relative lack of emotional engagement.



Let's go to the other extreme. Last year's Eastern Promises involved me deeply in its milieu and its characters while I was watching it; when I think more about it, however, far removed from the theatrical experience, I can't help but remember it as basically just another gangster melodrama that intrigues largely by virtue of director David Cronenberg's typically sober, near-scientific approach to the material, as well as a few distinctly Cronenbergian touches (like the biographical body art that has been grafted onto Viggo Mortensen's torso, flesh as a sign of humanity being one of the Canadian director's great running themes). Otherwise, it didn't really strike me as particularly profound or even significant (especially compared to his rawer early works, like Videodrome). Should that necessarily nullify the sheer pleasurable experience of being so mysteriously immersed in the film's ugly universe? Should I ultimately dismiss the film just because a part of me feels the substance doesn't quite measure up to its style?

Jim Emerson, a film writer who maintains a blog I read daily, has written quite a bit about form, style and content both in general and regarding No Country for Old Men, a film that many critics---even its staunchest supporters---have accepted as merely a brilliantly made thriller exercise with existential pretensions.

I quote from a November 27 entry he wrote:

When somebody claims that a movie overemphasizes the "visual" -- whether they're talking about Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick or the Coens -- it's a sure sign that they're not talking about cinema, but approaching film as an elementary school audio-visual aid. When critics (and viewers) refer to the filmmakers' application of "craft," "technique," and "style" (can these things be applied, casually or relentlessly, with a spatula?) without consideration of how these expressions function in the movie, we're all in trouble. A composition, a cut, a dissolve, a movement -- they're all manifestations of craft (or skill), technique (the systematic use of skill), style (artistic expression).

For a medium that so emphasizes the visual, the aural, the sensational, I can't think of anything more logical than the idea that a film's style---its way of expressing something---is its content. The shots, the cuts---that's what a film, in some way, is ultimately about, and what those shots and cuts might mean in context. Words can certainly play a part in it, but in such an artistically inclusive medium, words are hardly everything; if they were---if we merely relied on a speeches or dialogue to give us clues as to what a movie is about---then a movie would be merely a moving slideshow rather than a work of cinema.

I may know all of this to be true deep down...but then I consider my own reactions to both No Country and There Will Be Blood, and I wonder if my suspicions toward the latter, in spite of how the film made me react in the moment, reflect a bit too much literalism on my part. My admiration for No Country comes mostly from its philosophical bent, from a view of the wider world that the filmmakers convey so convincingly. But that point of view is voiced mostly through its characters; does its imagery and technique support its themes? I think it does, but whenever I reflect back on the film---and it's been something I've been doing a lot recently---its images aren't so much what I'm thinking about. What I'm thinking about are its more prosaic qualities: say, that tense scene in the shop where Chigurh challenges the shopkeeper to "Call it"; the haunted, withdrawn quality of Sheriff Bell's monologues; that final showdown with Chigurh and Carla Jean. Do I like the film for the wrong reasons?

Emotions, however, are plentiful in There Will Be Blood---shock, awe, revulsion, fear, even some warmth. When Plainview slaps Eli Sunday around and buries his face into oil on the ground (a perverse trial by fire?), one can feel the weight of every single blow. Baby H.W. is looked on with something approaching real affection in a brief, wordless scene on a train, and the tenderness just about glows from the screen. The images and the sounds (especially the amazing Jonny Greenwood score) add to P.T. Anderson's controlled sensory assault: ejaculating oil wells; a face lighted by the fire Plainview witnesses, shrouded by the pitch-black darkness surrounding him; the blast of "holy" light that greets Plainview after he has woken up from a really bad night (an effect enhanced by the fact that the scene smash-cuts from a fade-to-black). All those images burn with a feverish intensity that serves the director's apparent attempt to instill a Biblical feel to his modern American myth; in some ways, it's even more successful than No Country at pushing sound and image to create an otherworldly atmosphere. Simply taking the sheer sensory experience of seeing the film into account, one could perhaps acclaim it as an indubitable masterpiece, and leave it at that.

Somehow, though, that isn't quite enough for me. In wrestling with this film over the past couple of months, I've come to realize: when you get right down to it, There Will Be Blood doesn't really have anything especially fresh and insightful to add to the lonely/greedy capitalist cliché that hasn't been explored with more humanity and complexity in the kinds of films---like Citizen Kane or Giant---that Anderson so lovingly evokes. Do people really, truly see something of themselves in a character as overscaled in its conception as Plainview is? I can't say I did. And, as much as I've come to accept the deliberate creepiness of the Eli Sunday character---he's not so much an opponent of Plainview's as a weaker twin---the fact that Anderson chooses this one-dimensional cretin to stand in for religion can't help but strike me as an unfair stacking of the deck in getting us to admire Plainview more easily. (It reminds me of the way Stanley Kubrick made grotesques out of pretty much everyone around Alex in A Clockwork Orange, with the effect---deliberate, I have to assume---of making the ultraviolent droogie seem more sympathetic by comparison.)

Do all of these possible flaws have much to do with the film's style? Compared to the wondrous images and fascinating technique (a lot of slow pans and sinuous zooms), I'm using its more literary qualities to poke holes in it. None of these issues seem to have bothered the film's biggest boosters, though, judging by their reviews---which leads me to assume that, unlike me, they are somehow able to wholeheartedly embrace the film on its own terms. It seems as if they can groove on the experience alone and perhaps come up with interpretations later, while I, in my literal-mindedness, can't quite fuse sensation and thought in the same way. But is there enough substance to sustain its obvious epic striving? Ah, but if we accept form as content, shouldn't the film's visual and aural brilliance be enough?

I dunno. I've almost always believed that form, while certainly important, isn't everything--- and this realization has gotten me to reflect on my own artistic priorities as a filmgoer. Sure, I like to be moved by a film as much as anyone else---but I also look to the movies to provide me not just sensual excitement, but also new perspectives, new ideas. I found those kinds of perspectives in No Country for Old Men, not so much in There Will Be Blood. (I still think about the latter quite a lot, don't get me wrong; but I'm still not exactly convinced that it's this new American masterpiece that many critics seem to be claiming for it.) But by preferring a work that inspires intellectual reflection over something that is, I'd argue, almost entirely about its style rather than about any insights into human nature it has to impart, am I somehow going against the nature of movies---a medium that seems more conducive to appealing to emotions rather than intellect? Music is so abstract that I rarely have trouble accepting a song or a symphony strictly in terms of the sounds and harmonies it creates, outside of any stated or unstated"program." Shouldn't cinema be thought of in the same way? And the fact that I strongly suspect that I don't really think of cinema that way may or may not suggest some kind of artistic shortcoming on my part.

Heady questions all. I don't really have definitive answers to them (or am I just afraid of the answers?). That's typical of me---I love to pose questions more than answer 'em, especially if they're as loaded as these ones. But hey, that's exactly what I hope for from the good movies I see---not so much answers, but real good questions worth mulling over.

Maybe thats a good spot to end this post on---a door left open for a continuation of thought processes in the future. I don't know if this whole entry has come off as genuinely thought-provoking or merely insufferably solipsistic, but if this has intrigued any of you at all, by all means, stay tuned...

1 comment:

patrick said...

these movies were definitely highly focused on characters... every facial expression and body movement was accentuated by no background noise and simple unassuming backdrops.