Put Blood in the Music
Dir. Charles Atlas, U.S., 1989
seen by Michael Koresky
Sight Unseen is an ongoing Reverse Shot series for which writers must view and write an essay on a movie playing theatrically for which they have no prior knowledge whatsoever—only a title and, if necessary, a running time. With Sight Unseen, we hope to cast away the usual presumptions and prior knowledge we have about a film before seeing it.
Let’s face it: even the most studious of us who write about film enter most theaters with preconceptions. No matter how much we may feign a lack of bias, and regardless of how little we think we know about a film going in, we have a certain set of expectations, whether those are determined by knowledge of the director, word of mouth, whatever festival buzz one may have heard of, general understanding of a film’s critical reception, or, if it’s not a new release, some semblance of an idea where to fit and compartmentalize it in film historical terms. Surely the appeal of entering a theater completely blind to what is about to appear on the screen is one other cinephiles share with me—but it’s also one that is difficult to realize, considering the amount of information flying around us at all times.
Things get trickier when one considers how much criticism, from even the greatest and most passionate of writers, comes from received wisdom. For instance, if we see a film from the French New Wave that has somehow slipped by us, made by a director we’ve never heard of, we still bring to the experience passed-down ideas about the era, about what the filmmakers were trying to do, what their techniques represented, and what historical moments they buffeted. It’s an almost subliminal bridge-gapping that we do when faced with the unknown—we must define what it is we’re seeing, quickly, before we fall through the cracks in our knowledge.
Avoiding preconception may be impossible then. But if we were to go into a theater truly cold, without knowing anything about what’s to be projected other than the title and perhaps the running time, what critical faculties would we fall back on? It’s a difficult proposition, perhaps even a game, and maybe it could be viewed as self-serving; we prefer to think of it as exploratory. There’s so much knowledge literally at our fingertips now (one quick imdb click and we know all those reductive things that help us define art: genre, year, country, etc.) that it must perhaps take a willful exercise to get us out of our comfort zones. Thus Reverse Shot’s new recurring feature Sight Unseen, which we hope will be as playful as it is rigorous. The rules are simple: the writer looks at movie listings at local rep houses, museums, cinematheques (or even in some cases first-run theaters), chooses a title they have sincerely never heard of, then sees that movie and writes about it. Will this get us back to a place of pure feeling and aesthetics; or will it somehow become even more cerebral than our normal approach to reviewing, putting us in a defensive posture? Can we successfully communicate the momentary experience when we aren’t necessarily the bringing of entire vocabulary normally at our disposal to bear on the film? Continue reading.