Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Personal Versus The Impersonal

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—What makes a film personal or impersonal? Or is there really such a thing?

I've been kicking this question around in my mind in part after film critic Vadim Rizov posted this evisceration of the criterion of "personal" and "impersonal" in assessing Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island over at IFC's Independent Eye blog a few weeks ago on the eve of that film's release. In responding to some of the early reviews of the film that accused the film of being "impersonal," Rizov notes:
It's telling that the most popular Scorsese films remain, after all these years, "Mean Streets," "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" -- the Italian-American trifecta, with "Taxi Driver" more respected than loved. That's because mooky violence is an easier sell than, say, Edith Wharton or the temptations of Christ. And, armed with the information that Scorsese was an asthmatic child in a neighborhood full of belligerent Italian-American males, it's easy to correlate his greatest successes with "personal filmmaking."

The logic of this argument seems to be that "personal" films correspond to biographical information.... This is why you see people refracting Polanski's entire career through his time hiding in the Warsaw ghetto and his exile to Europe, and why Soderbergh haters always claim he's making "cold," "technical" experiments. He didn't give them any meaningful biographical information! The jerk!

You did not see this kind of nonsensical criterion being raised 20 or 30 years ago, which speaks to the increasing luridness of full-disclosure writing permeating every last field, the blogospheric assumption of the importance of the "personal" that's surely going to keep trickling down. And it's careless thinking. You think "Mean Streets" is personal and "The Aviator" isn't? Try again: "Mean Streets" is fantasy wish-fulfillment to make up for a sickly childhood, while "The Aviator" is a swooning love letter to the medium that dominates Scorsese's life. I just made a "personal" argument. Are you convinced yet?
As you can see, Rizov was directly addressing critics who he believed based their charges of "personal" and "impersonal" on what they knew about the filmmaker's own life. For me, however, he raises some broader questions on what makes a film feel either deeply personal or deeply impersonal to a viewer—and perhaps whether that should even matter in assessing a given film.

Now, I happen to think that Shutter Island, far from being just a genre exercise, is in fact an impassioned expression of something deep within Scorsese's being. But, as I tried to articulate in my review on this blog, I don't feel this way because I presume to have a deep knowledge of Scorsese's past history that might help illuminate what might have driven him to make his latest film. Mostly, I'm basing this on the sheer visceral intensity of the expressionistic horror imagery he wrings from the material; the dream sequences and flashbacks strike me as too haunted and mournful for its visual extravagance to register as merely pro forma. To put it in layman's terms: it feels like Scorsese is really into it—and that feeling thus translates to me as deeply personal.

But then, that begs the question: personal for whom? The director, or just you? Obviously, my opinion that Shutter Island is a work of tortured personal expression is not one that is universally shared; as an example, Rizov cites a takedown of the film by Elbert Ventura at the online magazine Slate in which Ventura calls the film "silly and impersonal." I wouldn't want to put words in Mr. Ventura's mouth, but maybe that just really means that he couldn't get into it, that maybe he found himself feeling emotionally detached from the whole thing, and then figured that that detachment was Scorsese's fault.

Is it possible that there really is no such a thing as a personal or impersonal film? Well...perhaps I wouldn't go that far in calling for a ban on such labels in film criticism altogether. (Heck, I went so far as to damn Scorsese's The Departed as "impersonal," if only for the feeling I got that Scorsese had told this story before, and with far less detachment than I felt watching this latest iteration. So I won't pretend that I'm above all that.) Maybe there are such things, but that's entirely dependent on how a certain viewer feels a certain film rather than on any "objective" measure such as biographical history. Because surely every film a director makes has a certain measure of personal investment to it, even if its simply a matter of making a script play as functionally as possible on a movie screen.

And yet, there's no denying that some of the best films ever made are celebrated in part because there is a palpable intelligence guiding the material, a sense that a filmmaker is telling this particular story, exploring these particular characters or throwing up these specific images for a compelling reason.

That kind of compelling reason is something I dearly missed in Jacques Audiard's widely praised A Prophet (2009), which, after a strong opening half hour, basically devolves into a generally unremarkable prison-survival saga, with a blank cipher of a lead character who never seems to exude much in the way of inner life. What makes its first 30 minutes so strong compared to the rest is the measure of moral suspense Audiard injects into the proceedings. In trying to make good with a ruthless Corsican mob kingpin named César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), an imprisoned French Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim) reluctantly decides to kill an informant for him, leading to a sequence that is as brutally messy a movie killing as, say, that brilliantly agonizing murder scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966) or, more recently, a similarly excruciating killing in Ang Lee's (highly underrated) Lust, Caution (2007). Has something snapped in Malik as far as his moral compass is concerned? Unfortunately, the rest of A Prophet seems to barely acknowledge that question, disappointingly letting that hovering morality slip away as the rest of his story drags on and on, seemingly losing a sense of purpose with every new development. Notwithstanding a handful of nifty suspense setpieces, by the end of the film, it's difficult to get a handle on why Audiard felt he needed to tell this particular story.

But would I call it "impersonal"? Probably not. Obviously, Audiard felt a desire to make a movie about this character in these situations in the manner that he did; I have my doubts as to how successfully he has been able to convey those intentions in his filmmaking, but nevertheless...well, hey, the movie exists, doesn't it?

In the opening moments of Alice in Wonderland (2010), director Tim Burton provides us with some clues as to why he decided to revisit and update Lewis Carroll's famously surreal universe. This grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a frustrated young adult living in a boringly proper environment, on the verge of being forced to marry into a life that doesn't appeal to her one bit. That feeling of restlessness is, I imagine, something Burton understands deeply, based on a passing familiarity with the exaggeratedly grotesque style and thematic substance of some of his previous work (films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994), both about misunderstood outsiders, pops immediately to mind). But, of course, that is only a guess on my part. In any case, it's a feeling that I know all too well: As someone who still feels, every once in a while, like I'm merely doing the bidding of my own mother, I can somewhat relate to Burton's Alice.

This sets the stage for a venture through Wonderland—or, rather, "Underland," as Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton sneakily call it—that is meant to play as a journey of actualization for this burgeoning feminist Alice. It's, alas, a journey that is less than bursting with the sense of wonder than one might expect from this director and this material; Burton's Wonderland is, disappointingly, too mundane and dour-looking to dazzle on any level other than the prettily pictorial (the 3-D effects don't add very much to the table, either). Woolverton's script does reassert that feminist angle at the end, though in a fairly risible manner (who knew Lewis Carroll's Alice was a genius about creating trade routes to China?).

Nevertheless, the film isn't without its moments of visual brilliance, and some of the actors—most memorably Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen—manage to inject some life into the material. And whether or not you respond ecstatically or indifferently to Burton's reimagining of this time-honored material, it's still evident that this enthusiastically imaginative filmmaker has something he wants to express, even if one might not feel he has brought his usual inspired A-game to the project. It's no less "personal" than A Prophet...

...or The Ghost Writer (2010). Roman Polanski's latest film (an adaptation of a novel by Robert Harris) provides the most interesting of these three cases regarding personal versus impersonal films: Is it merely a light thriller, or does that lightness mask something deeper?

The first thing to be said about this film is that it's consistently engrossing and beautifully crafted. The film's central mystery never really carries the doom-laden life-or-death feeling of, say, Chinatown (1974) or The Ninth Gate (1999); instead, Polanski seems to mostly be taking pleasure in his own mastery, filling his film with a wealth of idiosyncratic visual and literary touches that lend its relatively humdrum plot a welcome off-kilter quality that makes it considerably more gripping than it might have been in less confident hands.

But even if The Ghost Writer has a feeling of low stakes compared to other films of its type, does that make it a less deeply personal effort than, say, more overtly serious films like, say, The Pianist (2002)?

In his review of the film, Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez suggests some ways in which The Ghost Writer ties into Polanski's own personal traumas:
...the struggle of McGregor's character is hauntingly reflective of Polanski's lifelong traumas, from his surviving the Holocaust to, well, his surviving the murder of Sharon Tate and their unborn child. Holed up inside Adam's island manse, subjected to all sorts of security checks, his every behavior scrutinized, McGregor's ghost writer becomes not unlike, yes, a ghost. His is a particularly nerve-jangling existential crisis, and it's one that...could not have been conceived by anyone other than a man that has moved throughout life from one prison to next, many of his own construction.
Of course, this is perhaps the kind of biographical correlation Rizov rails against in his IFC post, and certainly not every viewer will necessarily bring that kind of knowledge into the film. I would certainly say that it's not absolutely necessary to have Polanski's troubled history in mind in order to enjoy it. Nevertheless, looking at the film itself and at some of the films Polanski has made in the past, one can sense in The Ghost Writer hints of a consistent personal vision—in other words, an auteurist perspective.

Consider its main character, and note that he is never actually given a name. Instead, this nameless writer, who reluctantly agrees to ghostwrite the memoirs of an under-fire British government official, lives up to the film's title by hovering on the sidelines of the corruption he gradually uncovers. He's a relative nobody who gets caught up in political intrigue the depths of which even he can't quite believe. In that sense, he's a spiritual successor of Chinatown's Jake Gittes, the gumshoe who eventually uncovered corruption both political and, most devastatingly of all, personal. In that film, Polanski, taking his cues from the film noirs of the 1940s and '50s, treated Gittes's dawning realizations with a bleak solemnity that The Ghost Writer doesn't try to replicate. That lack of solemnity, however, doesn't quite obscure a palpable cynicism about human nature at its heart—a cynicism confirmed by the abruptness of its absurdist ending, in which all the paranoia with which Polanski so expertly infuses this seemingly low-stakes mystery comes rearing its head with an image that acts as a distorting mirror to a shot much earlier in the film. You could say it's the ending of Chinatown played lighter—but that doesn't make it less shocking.

Point is: The Ghost Writer may seem impersonal on its surface, but one can certainly dig for personal meaning if one bothers to look. As with most critical yardsticks, then, "personal" and "impersonal" are criteria that can't be objectively measured; it all comes down whether you sense deep involvement in the filmmaking or not. Or maybe, it really all just comes down to whether you enjoy the experience of a particular film or not. Because, at the end of the day, is that not essentially how we all base our judgments of a given work of art? All other critical analysis, whether based on biographical info or not, is basically justifications for said enjoyment.

Or so I think. What say you all, dear readers?


Sam Turner said...

Very interesting. There's so many points in there that I would be hard pressed to address them individually. My initial thoughts would be;

- if we're having the debate about 'personal', it is extremely important to define what it means. At some points in these arguments I felt it could be subsituted for something else - 'involved', say.

- You make this point yourself but the fact that the film exists justifies some 'personal' investment by the director. Coupled with the point above this means that it is extremely important for critics to define what they are talking about when they say a film is 'personal' or 'impersonal'.

- Film makers, writers, artists of any sort really, have long argued that looking for meaning in a work by assesing its relation to the artists is a null argument: the two are not neccesarily inter-linked. I don't always buy into this (it's basically propaganda) but people looking at works of art can have a predilection to look at the 'who' before the 'what'; or at least fail to dissassociate the two.

As I say, very interesting piece, enjoyed reading it.

Kenji Fujishima said...


Yeah, your last point is certainly pertinent in this case: As someone who certainly has a tendency to look at films through the lens of the auteur theory, I do often find myself interested in seeing a particular film based on the filmmaker(s) involved, and thus have that perspective with which to read his/her films.

So even something like The Ghost Writer—which might seem like merely a solid, unremarkable work of craftsmanship on the surface—gains from being looked with greater knowledge of Polanski's previous life and/or work. But would someone less well-versed in either necessarily gain that same resonance? Perhaps not.