At a recent press and industry screening at the New York Film Festival, I overheard another attendee talking to a friend. The two women were discussing the films they had seen so far, and neither of them had a kind word to say about any of them. Everything was either ‘deeply flawed’ or ‘incomprehensible’ or ‘boring’ (yes, they both used the word boring.) As I sat bolt upright in my seat, eavesdropping on my neighbors, I couldn’t help but be saddened. I had watched the same films they had, and had found most of them to be exceptional. Was I missing something? At the opening night party, I polled some other festival-goers, and was shocked to hear everyone harrumphing this film or that film, focusing on this bit of unrelastic dialgoue or that plot hole. As I sipped my beer in silence, I had to ask myself if it was me or it was them. Am I missing some critical faculty that would allow my cynical side to dictate my experience at the movies, or is my love of the movies and my forgiving, excitable approach a better way to think about films? Is there power in positive thinking?
I should start over. I am a huge fan of the movies and, unlike many people who work in the film business, I derive a great deal of pleasure from watching them. I never knew how many people who profess a love for movies actually despise them. There are several people whom I have spoken with that, no matter what the film is, find fault and believe that nothing lives up to their expectations. Of course, when asked what their expectations are, they are generally unable to articulate anything resembling a coherent idea of what might have worked. I guess I just don’t understand why someone would put themself in a position to write about, work with, market, or promote films when, in general, they don’t like them.
This is not to say there are not bad movies. I have seen a lot of films that I didn’t like and with which I didn’t connect. So be it. As someone who thinks about and writes about film, I couldn’t be bothered to put a lot of effort into writing about something I didn’t enjoy. Maybe that’s just a lack of critical skill on my behalf, but I think, deep down, panning someone else’s hard work is just not something I take pleasure in. There are certainly films with which I have taken exception. I wrote a critique of The Passion Of The Christ, but that had more to do with trying to systematically debunk what I found to be the pernicious philosophy promoted in the film’s story and technique. Maybe there is some sort of caché in feigning displeasure; To criticize is to pretend to a more artistic vision, finding fault is a way to self-promote a “complex” critical faculty. However, I think it is a far more difficult thing, in this day and age, to find the beauty in art, to latch onto that with which you can empathize, as opposed to standing at a distance and picking apart someone else’s ideas. Invariably, the most enthusiastic people I talk to about movies are those that create them. Filmmakers are generally fans of the art form, always searching for ideas.
One of the strangest trends in our culture has been the development of the partisan consumer. There are those among us who focus their own consumption based solely upon a product’s direct relationship to and agreement with their own firmly held beliefs. There is no desire to expand one’s thinking, no openness to new ideas. A film that offers the possibility of being divergent from ideas that are already accepted as true is generally dismissed, sight unseen. This is immediately followed by the vilification of the creator, the artist’s work apocryphal to the “true” American experience. Where does this leave the artist? Creativity?
The market for foreign film has suffered terribly in the new culture of close-mindedness. At the same time, films like The Passion Of The Christ and Fahrenheit 911 have amassed giant box office numbers from true believers who see their consumer dollar as an ideological weapon. Unfortunately, those most hurt by the death of open-minded curiosity are not the artists, but the community and culture in which they participate. Is there a place for artists in a nation that distrusts complexity and despises its intellectuals? If so (and I certainly believe there is), a little positive thinking could go a long way toward creating a culture that embraces risk, creativity, and those with the courage to create.