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Of ‘Apes’ and Men: David Bordwell, Zeitgeist Movies and Why There’s No One Way to Read a Film

Of 'Apes' and Men: David Bordwell, Zeitgeist Movies and Why There's No One Way to Read a Film

A few weeks ago, The New York Times started an Op-Ed piece called “The Moviegoers,” in which political columnists Frank Bruni and Ross Douthat talked about the summer movie season. And by “talked about the summer movie season,” I mean they dicked around tossing cute and self-congratulatory exchanges at each other without providing much insight. It was a bad piece, with perhaps the biggest howler going to Bruni’s claim that he, personally, could have cut 15-20 minutes out of “Snowpiercer” and made it a better movie. 

But this weekend, someone took issue with some of Bruni and Douthat’s other facile observations, namely that “Snowpiercer” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” reflected current political situations about American class warfare (never mind that “Snowpiercer” is from a Korean director and features a multi-national cast) and the current crisis in Israel. The problem here is primarily that Bruni and Douthat’s comments about allegory are all assertion and little analysis, but film theorist and historian David Bordwell bristles at the idea that films reflect the zeitgeist in the first place.

Writing on his blog “Observations on film art,” Bordwell criticizes the attitude of reflectionism, the “Big Idea” that mass entertainment reflects the national psyche in some shape or form.

Behind this Big Idea is an assumption that cinema, being a “popular art,” tends to embody some state of mind common to the millions of people living in a society. The very idea of a massive mind-meld like this seems implausible. America’s anxieties and our national psyche? The anxieties of the 1% are not yours and mine, and I doubt that even you and I share a psyche.

The argument easily becomes circular. All popular films reflect society’s attitudes. How do we know what the attitudes are? Just look at the films! We need independent and pretty broadly based evidence to show that the attitudes exist, are very widespread, and have been incorporated in films. And it won’t do to simply point to the same attitudes surfacing in TV, pop songs, mass-market fiction as well, because that just postpones the problem of correlating the attitudes with groups of living and breathing people.

Two major disclaimers here: 1. David Bordwell is a much, much smarter man than I, and his books (including but not limited to “Film Art: An Introduction” and “Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies”) are essential reading for cinephiles, not to mention highly instructive and insightful. 2. Many of Bordwell’s initial ideas in the essay – especially those about how simplistic and reductive a lot of political film criticism is – are sound. If we’re going to draw parallels between mass culture and societal concerns, they need to be a lot more rigorous than Bruni’s context and evidence-free claim that the latest “Apes” movie is a “disturbingly good allegory of reciprocal mistrust, asking the right questions about how peace ever reigns when combatants can’t bring themselves to forgive error, to take the first step, to turn from the past and focus on the future, to start afresh.” One shouldn’t necessarily try to force every film into a banal political allegory mold either, lest someone try to fit a square peg like “The Shining” into a round hole like the commentators in “Room 237” did.

That said, some of Bordwell’s arguments against using films as a lens into the cultural zeitgeist are, frankly, bizarre. Bordwell is correct when he writes that there’s no way that even a film striving to capture a nation’s attitude about a subject can capture all of the attitudes about it, but the best reply to that would be, “…and?” Of course Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t reflect everyone’s thoughts about consumerist culture, but Bordwell’s argument that a film trying to tap into the zeitgeist is “really the Zeitgeist as [a filmmaker] understands it” reduces that Romero is tapping into one widely-held attitude about consumerism. The same goes for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies in the 80s: the jingoistic attitude might not fall in line with the dissenters to Reagan’s foreign policy, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that they didn’t capture something that a great deal of Americans thoughts about the treatment of veterans, the idea that Vietnam could have been won, and that the Middle East was the territory of freedom fighters against the hard oppression of the Soviets (an attitude that would shift in the next decade). Multiple perspectives don’t negate the possibility that art can capture a widespread attitude, and “national psyche” doesn’t mean “homogenous psyche.”

Bordwell continues to say that there’s no way of knowing that an audience that saw, say, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” all might have enjoyed it, or that they enjoyed it for the same reasons (again, “…and?”), and that critics pick and choose which films reflect the national consciousness and which don’t. 

If 1940s film noir reflects some angst in the American psyche, how to explain the audience’s embrace of sunny MGM musicals and lightweight comedies in the same years? The year 1956 saw the release of “The Ten Commandments,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Giant,” “The King and I,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Picnic,” “War and Peace,” “Moby Dick,” “The Searchers,” and “The Lieutenant Wore Skirts.” Pick one, find some thematic concerns there that resonate with social life of the time, and you have a case for any state you wish to ascribe to the collective psyche. But take any other movie, or indeed the industry’s entire output, and you have a problem. One alternative is for us to find that the films share common themes, but these are likely to be of an insipid generality. Or we could float the rather uncompelling claim that several hundred films reflect hundreds of different, and contradictory, facets of the audience’s inner life.

Ignoring that Bordwell’s dismissal of different films reflecting different facets of the audience’s views as “uncompelling” (why’s that?) or his idea that if one popular film captures the national psyche, then all of them must (not something many would argue), Bordwell’s argument that film noir attitudes and MGM musical attitudes contradict each other is particularly surprising for someone so versed in film history. It’s a common argument that film noir captures postwar anxiety perfectly, but MGM musicals don’t exactly steer clear of that territory. In “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” Scorsese makes a strong case that “My Dream is Yours” and “A Star Is Born” show musicals grappling with darker themes (personal sacrifice for professional gain) not unlike the westerns and gangster films of the period. And while “Meet Me in St. Louis” came a full year before the end of the war, its central theme of a family facing an uncertain future does suggest uncertainty of where America and the American family was heading in that era even if it doesn’t specifically pertain to the war.

Bordwell also makes a strange case that films can’t reflect the national psyche because only 11% of the population goes to the movies regularly, which is kind of like making the case that a tree falling in a forest doesn’t make a sound if no one hears it. The content doesn’t change just because not everybody saw it. He further argues that television is a better reflection of national tastes, considering that an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” gets a wider audience in its premiere than “Transformers” does on its first weekend. This assumes that popularity is the primary determining factor that a work reflects a national attitude, which is a) not necessarily the argument, and b) ignores smaller movies that consciously grapple with an era’s widespread anxieties.

What really irks about the piece isn’t Bordwell’s dismissal of reading a film to see reflections of a time and attitude, but his implication that the one correct way to read a movie is the way Bordwell himself reads them:

Film critics serve us best when they explore how a film uses the medium to yield its effects. Critics can enlighten us about how filmmakers work with their givens (subjects, themes, genres, artistic traditions, star personas) and generate an experience shot through with meanings, feelings, and ideas. We should recognize that a large part of any movie is the result of will and skill, not the passive reflection of vague social turmoil. There will be some unintended effects too, of course, but we can try to understand those as coming from specific conditions of production practices, traditions, and creative options.

There’s a longstanding split between academic and critical views of how to watch and read cinema, neither of which are necessarily wrong. Bordwell’s essay suggests that everyone should read the film his way, and that criticism should be limited to discussing a film that way. His views on the craft and business of cinema are invaluable, but that’s not everyone’s interest, and a world where all critics and theorists limit themselves to Bordwell’s way of working would be far duller and more homogenous than his own interpretation of the zeitgeist-chasing critics. I want a world where I can read the interpretations of Bordwell alongside those of A.O. Scott, Stephanie Zacharek, and, yes, Armond White. We should try to avoid spurious, reductive arguments when talking about film, just as we should avoid spurious, reductive arguments when talking about criticism.

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