Chances are you have enjoyed cinema your entire life, but the fact is the you who started with Sesame Street or Shrek or It’s a Wonderful Life is not the you today. The plastic tray fastened to your high chair no longer collects drool as you watch figures move across a screen. No doubt there are times, in a theater and especially out, when the blankness of youth sounds quite appealing. But if you are reading this, then you have read and lived and thought enough to bring something — education, curiosity, self-awareness — to everything you see.
What do we do with this power? Many do little, while a bilious, often anonymous contingent make a vocation out of belittling it. Comments sections under reviews, especially those that take a less than adulatory tone toward the latest hundred-million-dollar entertainment, charge the critic with overanalyzing or worrying too much about what it “means.” “It’s just a movie,” a regular sight on these forums, is a rejoinder so immaculate in its self-pleasuring logic that it becomes deflatingly clear movie critic and commenter speak totally different languages.
While philistinism in, around and beyond the cinema runs rampant, it can too easily stand in as a straw man for an equally one-sided, and superiorly pretentious, college newspaper opinion column. (What’d I say about self-awareness?) What irks me more are the discrepancies between those of us who, by and large, espouse the same critical language. You and I may regard movies as art, judge one’s worth not (only) for its “mere spectacle” but for its ability to “get at” something deep and still disagree about a particular film. That division springs from the indeterminable calculus of personal preference, plus some more explicable aesthetic expectations.
Chief among these is the expectation that a movie needs to be about Something — and least of all Schmidt — to be good. About The State of Marriage, Russia, The American Dream. I find this a tired, limited, predetermined approach to art, and one highly susceptible to P.R. hype and groupthink. Films so readily demonstrative, if only through dialectic arguments and foregrounded symbolism, of one big idea fail to fill in the little details of human behavior that would complicate such a broad, and thus phony, thesis. And yet these films are so often celebrated for their thematic obviousness, especially when released in the same year or season as other like-minded works. The think piece model thrives on corralling disparate works under one zeitgeist-defining headline, and better when the films assert the same reductive stance, regardless of individual quirks or vitality.
Take A Most Violent Year, the new J.C. Chandor movie starring beautiful people Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I do not expect you to have seen it, and I did not care for it so I am not here to recommend it. Isaac plays an ambitious oil entrepreneur who shuns his peers and immigrant heritage in order to, you know, be the best. As he gets there, his soul hardens to the climactic point where blood intermingles on-screen with oil in a risible metaphor for the violence of commerce. None of the scenes to that point, except for a grimy, spooky tunnel chase scene, inject the humdrum handsomeness with any personality, and the tunnel vision with which Chandor hones in on his star-spangled target makes for a redundant, lifeless film.
A Most Violent Year currently stands at a 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a blurb that praises its “thought-provoking heft.” The National Board of Review named it 2014’s Best Film, and I know plenty of smart critics who have praised it. I must have seen a different movie, or more likely I must hold different criteria with regards to quality. I expect a certain mystery and intricacy as a film follows its characters to the finish, and any sense that the filmmakers constructed their story in reverse, retrofitting a resounding conclusion with the steps it takes to get there, strikes me as antithetical to the mission of art, not to mention the strengths of cinema.
The only “abouts” worth fussing over in works of art have, in some way, to do with the nature of the medium itself. Ulysses is “about” consciousness, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is “about” perspective, Boyhood is “about” time. But each of these masterworks is “about” an infinite number of things as well, because a devotion to and mastery of artistic form leads to all-encompassing, endlessly reflective look at the world. Formal analysis is not an excuse to undermine the superficial pleasures of a film or flaunt a little thing only you noticed and no one else, but a method to truly evaluate greatness — to find words and reasons for what could otherwise be called magic. When a movie like A Most Violent Year, The Imitation Game or Birdman fails to say anything under close scrutiny — that is, say more than what already streamed from the mouths of its characters — it is because either the director had little grasp of the story’s complexity, did not know how to convey that complexity through cinema or both.
So much of the discourse surrounding film and television today latches on to the most obvious “abouts,” the kinds factory molded for think-piecing. High school English class, when we read The Great Gatsby and were told to identify its themes and figure out what the green light “meant,” still defines, and so limits, our expectations for moving pictures, and literature too. No one wants to stay in high school, yet our approach to film is surely stunted, not because it’s not intellectual or theoretical enough but because it likens drama, especially historical drama, to Spark Notes.
Cinema has the power to just look at people be, and in Boyhood, The Immigrant, American Sniper and Inherent Vice they can be compelling, contradictory figures at odds with the subject matter and expected politics of the film. Roger Ebert, the most mainstream film critic we’ve ever had, summed it up when he said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And what he surely implied is that the “how” is the fun part.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.