Thoughts from a wonderful weekend…
And When I Say My Favorite, What I Really Mean Is…
After a little rap on the knuckles (which I wouldn’t trade for the world) from David over at GreenCine for declaring Arnaud Desplechin my “favorite living filmmaker” (it’s the truth), I decided I should probably spend a moment defending my declaration (and alliterating as often as I am able).
Everyone has filmmakers they love, people whose works resonate most powerfully in their lives. Too often, I believe that individuals seek to conform their ideas of cinematic greatness to the emotional and critical responses of others, or my ‘what did you think?’ system of film going. The system describes the moment when you walk out of a theater after a film and the détente between friends, nervously waiting for the other person to declare their opinion, begins. Three points are deducted for quoting directly from a NY Times Review, two points deducted for mentioning the over-all tone of said review, and one bonus point deducted if you name the critic. There is, of course, the pre-emptive strike variation of this system, where one launches a ‘what did you think’ as a way of teeing up one’s own defense or malediction. But when you go pre-emptive, you probably don’t care what the other person thinks anyway. Unless you are going ‘caring pre-emptive’ as way to guarantee that, regardless of what is said, you are willing to listen and discuss.* (see footnotes)
As I mentioned in my defense of Palindromes, too often, the success or failure of a film (in both the commercial sense and in the marketplace of ideas) is directly related to the advocacy and presentation of opinion by some highly placed taste makers. Whether you care more about an A.O Scott review, a Jonathan Rosenbaum appraisal, or a J. Hoberman riff is up to you (I find all three illuminating). The thrill of criticism is, to me, not found in the actual pronouncements of judgment by writers I admire, but in the curious thrill of having my own feelings go toe to toe with another critical mind. Going to the movies is probably the most private act anyone can tastefully undertake in a public space. You know what I am talking about: how many times have you spent two hours in a movie sitting next to someone you think you know inside and out, only to be startled by their opinions as you step out onto the sidewalk? “Did we just watch the same film?”
For me, talking about movies is almost as important to understanding them as watching the films themselves. What is a film to anyone if it is unseen, passes without discussion, not talked about? Hell, I have ended potential relationships with people because of their unwillingness to engage films on a critical level. How can you walk out of a movie and simply pronounce whether you liked it or not, if you thought it was good or bad? My friends know this about me and use it to their advantage, a way to goad me into fits of wild proclamation, of ecstatic defense, of films I didn’t even like!
Me: “What did you think?” (caring pre-emptive variation)
Friend: “It was ok. Where do you want to eat?”
Me: 10-12 minute rant, ranging from the film to long-standing grievances about said friend’s tastes and the very nature of our friendship.
This seems to me a fundamental cultural problem, a lack of desire on the part of most people to even bother taking film seriously, to manufacture grand defenses or excoriations of movies based upon an individual theory of good and bad. Of course, it is important to develop that individual theory, to analyze what it is about certain films that illicits a response. It is a classic problem that, for me, dates back to an epiphany I had in junior high school, when I realized that *gasp* grown-ups are, by and large, full of shit. The moment of recognition, when you discover that everything you are supposed to hold as sacred, these ‘important’ external things (institutions, people, ideas), are simply the manufactured or traditionally-held beliefs of other people; The same people who drive like shit and vote for things you disagree with and try to rush into the subway car before anyone else gets off? Well, it becomes much easier to forge your own ideas about the world.** What was it that Socrates said about ‘the unexamined life?’
When I examine my own life at the movies, my own ideas about good and bad, what I like, what I don’t like, I am constantly drawn to the emotional response that is drawn out of me by a film. Generally, this is a highly subjective, involuntary, physical response. The films and filmmakers who are most important to me, the movies I carry with me like precious objects (hidden until someone can engage me and draw them out of me with a trustworthy initiation***) are those that comprehensively engage my feelings and my brain in such a way, I end up completely yielding to them. I open up my being to them (not to sound pretentious) in a Hegelian way; My whole self becomes my instrument of perception. This is, of course, a rather unprofessional way of sitting through films****, and it does make my job as a film programmer that much more difficult, but like I said, it is involuntary.
So, giving all of this as context for this blog’s wild pronouncements of quality, rank, and importance, let me say that I agree with Johnathan Rosenbaum when he writes that it is important to “find ways of recanonizing cinema in order to combat the reductive canons of studio publicists”*****. I simply believe that no matter who formulates, ranks, or creates the criteria for greatness, deep inside they have the same criteria I do; a yielding to the images, ideas, and stories that move us.
So, when I say Arnaud Desplechin is my favorite living filmmaker, I mean to say that no filmmaker working today throws me into fits of ecstasy, despair, brain-crunching introspection, aesthetic rapture, or embalming love like Desplechin does. But that might sound a little over the top.
Cuts Like a Knife. But It Feels So Right!
Last night, I couldn’t get my ass of the couch, so J and I continued down the Netflix road and watched Marina de Van’s unbelievable In My Skin, which I had never seen before. This has to be one of the most difficult and psychologically accurate portrayals of physical alienation I have ever seen. I am not easily upset by films, but I found In My Skin to be almost unbearable. Not because of the blood and the cutting that makes up so much of the story (well, maybe that’s part of it) but also because I think deep down, the film touches a part of me that is alienated, that does feel a little of what de Van’s protagonist feels (that is, dead to the sensations of life).
On the other hand (pun intended), I have sat through my fair share of mind numbing, droning, irrelevant business dinners, and de Van hilariously nails the interiority of those moments when the outside world bores you so shitless, you become aware of the mind inside of your body as being a separate object and you escape the quotidian physicality of the world. This is a film where phrases like ‘I was so bored, I wanted to gouge my eyes out’ are made manifest and get their dramatic day in the sun. De Van’s approach to the conundrum of mind/body alienation is brutally honest and makes absolute psychological sense, but like many pathological ideas, it takes its own logic one step too far, to the point of morbid self-mutilation. Of course, there are people out there who do hurt themselves in order to find sensation (and subsequently, pleasure) and I can imagine that In My Skin would resonate with the S&M or goth crowds (maybe I’m stereotyping?) But for me, it is just too difficult to watch so much suffering without some sign of hope or salvation. It’s an accomplished film, and I hope to see more from de Van as a director and actress, but next time, I want her to show me some modicum of joy. Realistic though it may be about the brutal nature of the world, In My Skin hurts just a little too much.
I did get to interview Desplechin for indeWIRE on Friday. It was an amazing, generous conversation that I hope I can continue via e-mail. The article should be published in a month, and I will supplement it with an e-mail continuation, exploring his earlier work, on this very blog.
Tonight, its off to see Desplechin’s La Vie des Morts at BAM before rushing home for the weekly invasion of friends and The Park Slope Supper Club. The theme is Italian (I made two types of lasagna) and we expect the usual 14 people, plus a lively Italian Trivia Quiz, the winner taking home a prized bottle of wine.
Getting to see La Vie des Morts and dinner with friends? My idea of a perfect Sunday.
* Who am I kidding? This rarely happens.
**This is not a defense of undisciplined subjectivity. Obviously, once people begin to critique, engage, and question the dominance of certain ideas and beliefs in the world, there is the need to either accept or reject these ideas. Those rejected must be replaced with more coherent and relevant ideas. Without this engagement, the acceptance or rejection of ideas is simple narcissism, a lazy adherence to or dismissal of traditions. Without true critical engagement, beliefs and ideas function like superstitions.
*** I am serious about this. So much so, that when asked, I generally list Billy Wilder’s The Apartment as my favorite film (in truth, it is #2), just so I won’t have to bear the heartbreakingly blank look on the face of the person I am talking to were I to list my true favorite: Desplechin’s My Sex Life.
**** And it’s the reason why I do not envy film critics their jobs of having to sit through, and then write about, the worst of films.
***** I’d like to dedicate this quote to David Thomson. Don’t get me started on the Whole Equation…we could be here all day.