Monday, February 4, 2008

How does film make you feel?

There is a great discussion going on right now at Jim Emerson's Scanners blog (the best film blog out there) about how we react to film. Do we react because of how it makes us feel? Or do we react because of how good the film looks? These questions and others are raised by Jim and others in the comments. It's a good discussion for any film buff to read. One of the main points Jim is making is that if he goes to see a movie with someone they may react the same to what is on the screen, but the real reaction, the important one perhaps, is how we react to the film going on in our heads.

When we see a film it registers with some part of brain; either the emotional or analytical. Of course both can be affected. When I watch Bergman or Fellini, I understand that what I am seeing is a master at work. There are images and film techniques that I will not see from other filmmakers, yet I am also moved by the story. My film professor from Western Oregon always says that, for him, in order for a film to fully succeed it must not just be aesthetically appealing, but it also is in need of a narrative; characters involved in a story where it is worth our time investing in those two hours.

There are a lot of movies I can appreciate for their aesthetics. There is a big movement right now with independent film that is proving this. The likes of Michel Gondry, Julie Taymor, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, etc. are all making movies that are visually alive, stimulating, even original. However I rarely find myself caring for any of the characters in a Wes Anderson film. Gondry's The Science of Sleep is like Fincher's The Game, Fight Club, and Alien 3; a good looking movie that sucks. Taymor made the visually appealing Titus and Across the Universe (which I haven't seen, but what I can gather from critics is that it is visually appealing and nothing more), but where those films fail for is that they lack a narrative that involves me, something that makes me say, it was worth my time investing in these characters and their journey. So I grow weary of the quirky set pieces and odd behavior (another reason why I don't like Terry Gilliam) of recent avant garde cinema because when I am finshied watching one of those films, I find that all I can discuss are the aesthetics of the film. There is no emotion when I talk about or write about the film. However, when I see something like a Bergman film or Fellini's 8 1/2 or Jim Jarmusche's Stranger Than Paradise (a truly independent film, both in style and narrative) I am moved by both aspects of the film: the aesthetic and the narrative. Both remain in my memory for much longer than Fight Club or The Science of Sleep, because there is an emotional reaction to what I have just seen. There is nothing moving about Fight Club, but I will never forget about the images from Stranger Than Paradise, Winter Light, 8 1/2, or Cries and Whispers.

I am not ragging on the directors above; in fact it might be quite unfair of me to place them alongside such giants as Bergman and Fellini (in fact David Fincher claimed the top spot on my top 10 list this year with his Zodiac). I think what I am trying to get at is that there is a certain criteria for film to register both emotionally and aesthetically. Films like Crash and Million Dollar Baby or something like House of Sand and Fog are good films, but they exist solely for the purpose of affecting our emotions; there is hardly anything aesthetically memorable about those films, we remember them because they either touch us deeply, or temporarily are able to prey on our emotions and evoke sadness from how the film unfolds.

Often I react to a film immediately, even though I may be thinking about the film for days afterwards, I will have a pretty confident opinion if what I saw was something that is worth thinking about or not. I sometimes fall into the all-too-easy trap of hyperbole; claiming certain films are the "best" or "worst" of something I have seen in (insert arbitrary number of years here). When I think about a film like Million Dollar Baby or Crash (two films I did like) compared to some of my favorite films that came out this year: No Country For Old Men, Zodiac, Eastern Promises, Into Great Silence, Breach, etc., there is no comparison; the latter films win hands down. They resonate with me still, not just because they freshest in my mind, but because they contain elements that affect both crucial parts of my film-going sub-consciousness. Even though DVD's of Million Dollar Baby and Crash sit on my bookshelf at home, I haven't revisted them in almost two years.

One film I was thinking of that applies here is There Will Be Blood. Having just seen the film I have been asking myself ever since I left the theater: Did I really care about what happened in that film? I don't know if I have an answer yet, although in my review of the film much of it was expository, relaying much of the basic plot points, perhaps in an attempt to try and figure out through writing whether or not I was emotionally involved in that picture.

But every time I wanted to care about There Will Be Blood I felt like Paul Thomas Anderson was slapping me (like Eli slaps Daniel) in the face and saying: No! Look at my movie, don't care about the characters. The ending still has no affect on me whatsoever; the only thing I can say about it is that it strikes the right note in how abrupt and sardonic it is.

I think it is possible for films visuals to speak for themselves and create emotion. Once again I return to Stranger Than Paradise and a scene where they are staring out onto a frozen lake. The visual itself speaks volumes towards their journey, their feelings, and the minimalism of the film. It is a brilliant shot that explains through visual exposition what the characters are feeling, and just like Bergman, it creates genuine emotion through imagery.

I often have conversations with many friends, most of whom claim they just want to be "entertained" by movies. There all different types of moviegoers, and that's what so great about the medium. How the images and words get from the screen into our subconscious and how we unscramble those images and words and but them in place to form an opinion in one of the great things about watching a film and having an opinion on it. Some of my friends just want me to tell them whether or not they would like the movie. That's impossible to do. I may have somewhat of an understanding based on previous movies they have liked, or certain genres they feel akin to, but it is impossible to truly say that you will or will not like a certain movie. It's all about how you decipher the code when it's in your brain, and what you choose to remember about it. And how does it make you feel?

That is a question that only the filmgoer can answer. When my friend Mark went and saw The Descent with some of my other friends Kyle, Stacey, and Josh; I could have probably guessed based on the genre that maybe they wouldn't have liked the movie. But a couple days before they went and saw it, Mark heard me raving about it. That was my reaction to it. I personally found the film to be many things; a great horror film that penetrated my fears of entrapment and being enclosed in tight spaces. I also found it to be a touching film about the loss of a child, and how for this woman, the only way she was ever going to get back to her child was to plunge the deep and the dark. Just like the cave, she had to dive down within her own memories and personal demons, but what she finds is that life without her daughter is a life not worth living, so for the entire film she is just finding ways to get back to her daughter. The film ends (you can only see this ending on the DVD, for some reason they cut the real ending out of the American release) with a heartbreaking shot of her facing her daughter with a cake (an image that appears numerous times in the film), they are "looking" at each other (Sarah has now taken on the characteristics of a "crawler") but never in the same frame. As the camera slowly zooms out you see her facing nothing but the darkness. The camera continues to pull out slowly, Sarah is there surrounded by darkness, and the sounds of the creatures lurking above. It's an ambiguous shot as the camera fades to black with noises of the creatures above, is what we just witnessed all a dream? Did it happen the way we think it did? Have those final moments after Sarah fell down even happened yet? Remembering the set up, one of the girls tells Sarah that you begin to see things in the caves, your mind plays tricks on you, and that final shot moved me and frightened me. It was a perfect ending, both aesthetically and emotionally.

But I can understand why Kyle, Josh, Mark, and Stacey didn't like it. Maybe they aren't horror fans, maybe they didn't like the pacing of a British horror film, maybe the ending with all of the creatures was a little too crazy. I don't know, the great thing is only they can understand their reasoning for not liking the film, and all they can do (like me) is react honestly. The way I feel about a film doesn't mean others will react with the same positivity, negativity, or neutrality, that I do. The Descent is a perfect example of this.

Anyways, head over to Emerson's blog and read the discussion. I went a little off topic with what they are discussing over there, but it's a fun discussion, so check it out.


  1. You are dead on in so many ways on this. It scares me how much we think alike sometimes...three comments:

    1) Your point about how a movie needs to be visually/aesthetically appealing AND have characters/situations that you care about is a great way of summarizing what separates a good movie from great FILM (if I may be pretentious for a moment).

    2) Interesting that you use the horror genre (and The Descent, particularly) for the second half of your argument. Genre films, and the horror genre specifically, are often hard to get to the bottom of in regards to finding meaning in them beyond the genre tropes that you expect to get from such movies. Basically, I believe it takes not only a lot of talent from the creators, but also a very open mind by the viewer AND a working knowledge of the genre. For non-horror movie fans, it's hard to look past gory action in a movie like The Descent to see any other themes.

    (Now I'm getting off track) This also explains why the genre movies that are usually the best are the ones that are able to accomplish this duality (Robocop?). At the same time, the genre movies that are the most "fun" are the ones that skip trying to be a "real" movie and just give you the genre themes that you come to expect (think Predator or Commando). Likewise, the worst ones are the ones that try to cram some ham-fisted "meaning" into the movie (let's go with Delta Force or Death Wish on this one). Hmm, I switched genres on you there.

    3) Where does a debate like this place crap like "Meet The Spartans"? Does this absolve all movies of any kind of subjective criticism since someone can always just say "Well, it entertained me" and can that make it a "good" movie? Am I making any sense here? See also "Nightmare City" -- a bad movie that we can enjoy on a certain level.

  2. Yeah, I think I was going off track from what Emerson was getting at.

    RoboCop is a perfect example of a genre film that is actually a successful message movie. The dystopian urban streets of Detroit in RoboCop are a perfect setting for Verhoven's themes of technology run amok (along with Boddinger!) and the moral and emotional implications advanced technology bring into our man-ruled universe.

    As for Meet the Spartans and Nightmare City, I don't know if they hold any value outside of their role. They are not intended to be dissected and explicated.

    That's a cop out answer I am sure, but it's the best I can do. I know that Italian Horror films exist in our minds as something more than just mere gore fests, but how we decipher the code of Italian Horror, others (like Brandon's reaction to Burial Ground) simply find it excruciating and worthless; adding nothing of value to the 90 mins. it takes to watch it.

    Well...Nightmare City IS the Citizen Kane of Italian Horror films.