Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beyond Sight and Sound

Is art for everyone? The question arose as I debated the merits of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master, with friends after seeing it for a second time Friday. Zach Siegel ’15 admitted something along the lines of, “It is hard for me to see movies as art because of how much effort it requires.” Many face this impasse, and justifiably so. For all the Oscar-caliber acting and striking images in The Master, the movie does not entertain in a typical sense. To walk away with a substantial opinion of the film, you must choose to deconstruct what you see and hear — and try to glean some meaning from it all. With that choice comes the freedom to call it good or bad, “amazing” (The New York Times’ A.O. Scott) or a “muddlement” (Roger Ebert).

Inexorable stereotypes enter the public consciousness when, instead, moviegoers should give this conflict a fresh take. These sayings, jokes and insults usually define audiences as either brainless pleasure-seekers or elitist contrarians with some inferiority complex. The latter ridiculed Transformers, and vice versa for The Tree of Life. People certainly fit into these groups, but those who straddle both stand to gain the most from art.

Critics are not immune to the thrills of Indiana Jones, the sentiments ofBabe or the laughs of Tropic Thunder. If engaging a critical mind robbed sensational pleasures, there would be more to lose than gain in the long run. Yet there remains a unique satisfaction in looking inward, in trying to comprehend why we react the way we do. Considering we often fail to find answers on our own, we have to look beyond our gut emotional reaction — i.e. examine a thoughtful film’s composition — to reach within.

Film criticism requires some education and even more inertia. Not all movies deserve the same attention, so it is best to acquaint yourself with the established classics like Citizen Kane and Psycho and read why they are so acclaimed. Take the words from great critics as truth — for the beginning. You learn to question another’s praise or panning when the evidence you collect from a viewing does not match what he or she describes. You can even take offense if a film’s message rubs you the wrong way. Analyzing a film can intrude on the emotional experience of it, at first. Any initial stress from clashing cognitive and sensational brain activity does indeed dull over time, as the processes merge and work in tandem, automatic and ever-improving.

Hollywood, obsessed with box office and bankable stars, has perpetuated the stigma that film serves no purpose other than mass entertainment. It is an unfortunate conclusion, as no art form has carried more importance or power over the last century. My English teacher in high school taught a packed film class. Despite hopes many held for an easy A, we approached each film like a literary text, identifying image motifs, camera angles and countless other techniques. It was not easy at first — some neural rewiring was necessary. But just as learning more words allows you to connect with your feelings in more tangible ways, grasping a shot’s inherent meaning connects you to the film’s greater purpose, in turn inspiring your own thoughts.

Art house staples such as Mulholland Dr. or 8 ½ present endless depths for study, but the more accessible palette provides plenty of its own. Modern filmmakers have heeded the words of the great critic Andrew Sarris, who in 1967 observed that his colleagues were “demanding that there should be more fun in art, and more art in fun.” We knowJaws is awesome, but what if the shark is not the enemy? With less than 10 minutes of screen time afforded to the animal, what does the film have to say about humans? As The Joker in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger cemented his legendary status and chilled audiences to the bone. How do we translate his presence into concrete language? That unforgettable silent shot where he shakes his head out of a police car window could lend some clues. The visual metaphor of a dog is there for the taking; we now have proof when we cite his “animalistic energy.” And how is Walter White so badass in Breaking Bad (the most filmic television show yet)? His actions speak for themselves, but note the handheld tracking shot into White after he sneers “Stay out of my territory” to some amateur meth dealers. The director pulls these strings to make your stomach sink, and we know how and why.

This all applies to negative criticism, of course. It is not enough to just call The Hangover Part II “bad” and expect anyone to listen. Expose its blatant self-plagiarism in using the same structure, music cues and shot composition as its predecessor. You won’t stop millions of dollars from flowing in, but you will make a substantiated argument and reaffirm (or even redefine) your own ideology.

Perhaps this mental engagement depends on your awareness of not only the screen but of yourself. Concern, too. Great movies can touch some nerve you’ve never felt or evoke a memory too powerful for words. Do you want to investigate further as to why it did these things? Well, you must first learn how, and this education is unending. Visceral revelations await. “If each person realized how distinct and unique he or she is, well, then, art would become normal everyday expression,” the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage once said. Care about what you watch and it may care about you, to a startling degree.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

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