Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Sensibility

I decided a while ago that, for the sake of my own mental and emotional health, I wasn't going to write about politics on the internet. Sometimes, though, like in my last post and its comments, I can't help it. That is: some movies/books/etc. have a political element: if I want to write about them, I have to deal with it in some way.

That conversation is now veering away from what I was trying to get at in the original post towards a place to which I do not really want to go. (My own fault, btw, not that of my esteemed interlocutors James and Steve).

But I would like to keep the heart of that conversation alive while stripping away some of the details on which we seem to keep getting caught up.

So...

What happens when your own sensibility differs from that of a movie or book or poem or cartoon?

Or maybe we should start with: what happens when it doesn't differ?

Oh wait - first maybe I should explain what I mean by "sensibility".

When I first started composing this post (in my head on the train ride in this morning), I thought it would be about "What happens when a movie's politics differ from your own?" But I think that that word "politics" is too limiting in this context, too loaded, and apt to cause too much confusion. Like: trying to differentiate between a movie's overt politics and any implicit political message it might have.

"Sensibility" is more inclusive.

By a "movie's sensibility" I mean all this and probably more: its sense of politics (how they work and which are "right), its sense of history, its sense of morality, and its sense of how the world works - its world view. And I'd add a "meta" level: it also includes a movie's (lack of) understanding of how its content and its presentation of this content relates to its sense of politics, history, morality, etc.

Now, talking about a movie's sensibility like this is still going to be tricky and it's still a bit of a short cut, because movies (like people) are only rarely 100% consistent.

As an example, the sensibility of the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan (where there is no salvation in war) is different from the sensibility of most of the rest of the movie (which suggests a kind of existential salvation based on the idea of the "band of brothers"). Not only that, the framing sequence, seems to shift things in another direction entirely. So we should remember that looking at any given individual scene in a movie may not give us an accurate sense of the movie's overall sensibility.

Okay, so back to those questions.

What happens when it doesn't differ?

Well, for me, it may not even register. That is, the more a movie's a world view matches up with my own, the less I'm likely to pay much attention to that world view while watching.

Now, when I put my critic hat on and sit down and analyze and discuss and bull shit about the movie, what part does a matching world view play?

Well - I'm a movie buff, so it won't save what I'd consider "bad filmmaking", but I admit that it helps. Take some of my favorite movies, Play Time, The Night of the Shooting Stars, The World of Apu, Six Degrees of Separation, The Third Man, Yi-Yi, and Rio Bravo (or some of the faves on my more recent top ten lists: The Gleaners & I, Cast Away, Time Out, Munich, Last Orders, Mission to Mars, The Prestige, Infernal Affairs, and Best in Show): part of what I'm responding to in these movies is that I find their world view compelling and inspiring and containing some kind of truth.

I should point out, though, that I can certainly imagine that someone else, who has a different world view than mine, would take in what these movies are saying and find it a bit jarring.

Oh - here's a cool variation:

So, let's say you're fine with the movie's "message" but your suspicious of the messenger, what then?

This is the case for me with Hero, for example. I'm kind of sympathetic to the movie's world view, but I'm made a little uneasy because of who is behind the presentation of that world view. That is, I'm sympathetic to the idea that sacrificing the individual might be necessary for the good of the whole nation, but I am not so sympathetic to that idea when it is being sponsored by the Chinese government.

Ok - next up:

What happens when it differs?

Well, first of all, while watching I might be jarred out of the movie a little bit. I remember watching American Beauty: it gets to the part where Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening are about to make love - she stops him because he's about to spill his drink and he gets upset and yells at her. Those scenes are written and directed so that we're supposed to be on Spacey's side: that is, the movie's sensibility is all in favor of "just loosen up, dammit!" But, when I saw that, I was like: "Of course put your drink down!" And then: "Man, Kevin Spacey is an ungenerous prick! And so immature, why is he throwing a fit?" The movie and I were on such different wavelengths that I was conscious of this difference in nearly every scene. It was jarring - so much so that my "movie critic brain" was active during almost the entire movie.

(Take a look at my post on The Devil's Rejects to see me in the process of struggling with a movie whose sensibility I find really repugnant, but that I kind of admire anyways.)

But that's an extreme case and I don't want to give the impression that I equate "bad movie" with "movie with a different sensibility than my own".

The Wild Bunch, for instance. I can't help but get swept up by this movie. It's so well made and so fully-realized. Apart from a few jarring moments, I'm with this movie all the way, as long as its running. Thinking back on it though, I find its world view is one that wrestle with, rather than embrace.

This isn't a bad thing!

Grand Illusion is another movie that fits this category for me: I don't deny that it is a masterpiece and I'm completely in love with it on almost every level. Except that, when it comes down to it, I don't really agree with it. Again: that's ok by me! (There are a lot of people I like/love/etc. that I don't always agree with. And there are a lot a people I agree with that I don't particularly care for.)

Why I am bringing all this up?

Well, one reason is that I think a lot of this goes unsaid by film critics/film buffs/etc. My guess is that we're more likely to pick apart movies with which we "disagree". And we might be more likely to give a movie a pass in certain respects if we agree with it.

For instance, I'm mostly sympathetic to the take on the Troubles presented by In the Name of the Father, so I'm not too bothered by the rather major liberties it takes with things that actually happened. I can easily see though, where in another context, say, a movie with a sensibility that really rubbed me the wrong way, I'd hammer on those historical inaccuracies and use them as evidence in the case against the movie.

1 comment:

James said...

I cannot address the critical level you're talking about (at least in film), because when I see movies I'm blissfully unaware of technical considerations.

But I think a large part of my reaction depends on the "sensibility" of the piece as you describe it. I don't mind an artist disagreeing with me as long as they're playing fair. (This is a sliding scale, because there are a ton of issues I don't care much about.)

Like, Saving Private Ryan - I hated this movie, though I concede it's professionally made. The opening five minutes and the final five minutes are entirely incompatible, and overall I think Spielberg lacked the courage to trace the opening sequence to its conclusion.

Or, Michael Moore. Fahrenheit 911 isn't a bad film, and overall i agree with the thesis, but Moore pulls some weird conspiracy type stuff in the opening 40 minutes with the Carlyle Group and Bush's National Guard chums, and it feels kinda dishonest. Moore has done this often enough in his films that I have little desire to see his work, even if (like Sicko) it's an issue of enormous relevance to me.