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The Experience Of Film

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(If you're looking for the original "Experience" thread, it has been renamed and moved here.)

Here is Tony's original post...

I imagine this may have been discussed here at some point (there's a limit to how many old threads I want to look through), but I have just been reflecting on the experience of enjoying a film and thinking about how many levels there are on which that happens. Here's a few:
  • Story
  • Visually, in terms of the cinematography: colour, balance, space, focus, movement, etc.
  • Other aspects of mise en scene: production design, set layout, etc.
  • Performances
  • Depth of characterization
  • Effects
  • Emotional impact
  • Score
  • Dialogue
  • Sound effects
  • Editing
All of these are important, and a failure on any one of them can significantly impair our enjoyment. But I wonder about their relative importance. Intuitively I feel that of all these, the single most important is the normally the story (assuming the film is not non-narrative experimental work like Nathaniel Dorsky's) because story-telling seems to be a basic fact of human nature. I recognise that story takes a back seat in some kinds of film - musicals, for example, may not use the story as anything more than a hook for the songs - but are even these ruined if the story is a complete failure? Can the other factors adequately compensate for a rubbish narrative?

Or am I drawing a general conclusion about film viewers from my own specific concerns and values?

I may try to move applicable posts from the original thread into this one, and if I do, I'll try to keep things as organized and unconfusing as possible.

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Some of the things I look for are the worldview presented, the moral and spiritual assumptions being made, the respect for human beings (both on and before the screen) and the inferred/interpreted intentions of the artists who created the film.

Denny

Edited by Denny Wayman

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I believe that the art of film is primarily a story-telling art, but its uniqueness comes from its ability to evoke the unseen (emotions, thoughts, ideas, etc.) through the use of elliptical, mysterious images. The best reason to see a film, in other words, is literally to see it. I tend to appreciate movies that somehow manage to project the internal life of its characters visually.

Basically, film can go places no other art form can go simply because it is abundantly equipped to transmit invisible things.

Neat!

Edited by Nathaniel

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Some of the things I look for are the worldview presented, the moral and spiritual assumptions being made, the respect for human beings (both on and before the screen) and the inferred/interpreted intentions of the artists who created the film.

Denny

What you're saying underpins my work in engaging with culture in Damaris. However, for me it is a second-order experience. That is, a film makes a visual or auditory or emotional impact on me first, and then I'm engaging at the worldview level. No, to say 'first' and 'then' suggests I do it sequentially, whereas in fact after years of doing so I find in practice I'm responding at multiple levels - including worldview analysis - concurrently rather than consecutively. But still, some responses are more instinctive, less intellectual, than others.

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I believe that the art of film is primarily a story-telling art, but its uniqueness comes from its ability to evoke the unseen (emotions, thoughts, ideas, etc.) through the use of elliptical images. The best reason to see a film, in other words, is literally to see it. I tend to appreciate movies that somehow manage to project the internal life of its characters visually.

Basically, film can go places no other art form can go simply because it is abundantly equipped to transmit invisible things.

Yes, good comment. The primarily is an important qualifier.

Film has very powerful connotative aspects as well as strong denotative aspects. Some arts are more one than the other, but film nicely combines both.

And welcome to the discussion!

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I believe that the art of film is primarily a story-telling art, but its uniqueness comes from its ability to evoke the unseen (emotions, thoughts, ideas, etc.) through the use of elliptical images.

Please tell me what elliptical images are. Seriously, I'm imagining myself sitting at the theater, watching a movie on a huge, ellipse-shaped screen!

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Please tell me what elliptical images are.

I apologize if that sounded ambiguous. By "elliptical" I only mean images that are mysterious, abstract, and open to interpretation. I understand the term is commonly used in reference to style: Terrence Malick's elliptical editing style.

Thanks for the welcome, guys! It's good to be here with you all.

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Nathan, you're inspiring me, bringing up one of the things about art that I find most invigorating and exciting, and reminding me of why I bristle at the idea that a story should spell out what it means, why I flinch at the idea that the story is more important than image or sound in a film.

In Malick's work, every image seems weighty with significance, and it's up to us to explore what that significance might be. It's not just because it looks cool, for example, that he starts with a very, very long shot of dark water reflecting sky in The New World. But what does that represent? What are we supposed to be thinking about as we look at it? Our clues come from studying where other nature images occur, what water comes to suggest through the course of the film, and what words we hear while we move across the water.

Malick's work is to film what poetry is to prose. Very little is incidental. The trees are as much a part of the story as the people. And that's why, I believe, we begin by looking down at the reflection of the sky and the trees, and conclude by looking straight up through the trees at the sky. We've begun by focusing on human meditations of the divine, and at the end, Pocahontas ushers us right on into the divine.

We begin by looking at a murky reflection. We end by looking at the real thing.

And our last sight is of the trees. What do trees represent? Well, look at the different ways in which the cultures use trees. Listen to what the European woman says to Pocahontas about the tree with the broken branch. Nature is a language unto itself, and that language is not involved in conventional narrative, but is incarnational... a "fleshing forth" of truth that we encounter and absorb beyond language, just as the camel in The Story of the Weeping Camel is mysteriously affected and changed by listening to the stringed instrument.

This is why I am so adamant about the power of film being much more than mere narrative. It is a way of putting a frame around a fragment of the visible world, capturing a fragment of time that cannot be repeated, and examining it for the face of God. If it were just a narrative, the very same things could be paraphrased and retold in different ways. But God speaks specific words, and in a moment he says something that cannot be said identically. It cannot be paraphrased in language (although reviews are a healthy attempt at trying to express some of that.)

We see through a glass darkly, but we do see. And while stories are one of the ways we try to make sense of, and communicate to others, what we have seen and encountered, the story is a vessel, a form, and what it holds is mysterious. C.S. Lewis said that a story is a series of events that we cast out like a net to see what they catch. What they catch cannot be expressed any other way, but by looking at the contours of the story that catch it. The net -- the story -- is not the entirety of the meaning, but the tangible, touchable skin of the meaning. Likewise, the image is a sort of skin. These are integral matter through which meaning shines, like body and spirit. The body is not the whole. The body is not enough, nor is the story. They are both flawed. They are both made of the stuff of a fallen world. But they are the medium through which we encounter the divine.

This is why an incarnation is a "living word." You cannot say, didactically, what it means. You can catch glimpses. You can give interpretations. You can get pieces of it. But it is always alive, speaking, striking people in new ways. This is one of the hallmarks of excellence in art: Does it deliver all that it has to give in one go? Or is there something more, something nagging at us, drawing us to return and meditate for further revelation? This is why we can point to GREAT art, but also why we cannot point definitively to what is GREATEST... because time marches on, things change, works that have seemed irrelevant suddenly reveal themselves as profound and prophetic.

Art is alive. The images, the textures, the sounds, and, yes, the story.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet

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Here is a classic poem by William Carlos Williams that is not, in the conventional sense, a narrative. At first glance it seems to be a statement.

I bought the rights to reprint this poem in my book about film, because I wanted an example of how meaning is a living thing, and that while this is a strong work of art, there is no "moral to the story" that can sum it up. In fact, it's not a story at all. Its meaning is related to so many things... its structure, its sounds, its specific words, and its flexibility in reading (how it can sound, depending on how we read it.)

It's not just some arbitrary words. It is very specific. And what it means is specific. But what it means can't be summed up in words. As Archibald Macleish once wrote, "A poem should not mean / but be."

In the same way, imagery can be meaningful, porous, mysterious, and open to varieties of interpretation, many of which many be valid.

Speaking of Macleish, here's that whole poem. It expresses what I'm trying to say (and, by nature of the subject, cannot say entirely).

Another reference: Alfred Steiglitz, whose photos of clouds were called "equivalents." His goal was not to communicate a message, but to share an experience by creating the closet thing he could to an "equivalent" experience in the viewer of the emotional experience he had looking at particular clouds. I'm not thinking about story when I look at Stieglitz. I'm opening myself to an experience, which strengthens the bonds between me and the artist, me and those who share the experience, and may even expand the experience of the artist, should I be able to talk with him. (Alas, I have no way of talking with Stieglitz. Drat the marching-on of time.)

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Jeffrey, you've been fighting this battle bravely and passionately for many years, and I'm deeply grateful for your commitment. As far as understanding what cinema is and how it differs from its sister arts, I personally feel as though I've only touched the tip of the iceberg.

I do like a solid literary adaptation, though. You know, the kind of carefully rendered period piece that often gets lambasted for being "too faithful" or "not cinematic enough." It's true, films of this breed can be stodgy and dull, but they belong to cinema, too. One of the truly wonderful things about movies is that they borrow from other art forms (painting, literature, theatre) and thus have a tendency to inherit the strengths of those art forms (like writing, performance and theme).

One of my favorite films from last year is Oliver Twist. It derives a great deal of its power from the potency of Roman Polanski's image-making, but it also owes a great debt to Dickens (perhaps the most cinematic of novelists), who originally laid the groundwork for such a magnificently moving story.

I admit I even found Oliver Twist more moving than The New World, a film that strikes me as being easier to admire than to love. I have a whole heap of respect for Malick and his artistry, but a tree will never be as interesting as a human being. And Malick loves trees.

But Jeffrey, your observation that art is alive is irresistible. I look forward to returning to The New World with an open mind and an open heart. As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out!

Edited by Nathaniel

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Nathaniel, I'll be the first to admit that The New World speaks to me not just powerfully but personally. I'm not asking anyone else to love it as much as I do. I'm just excited about sharing what it reveals to me, and how much I love it. Nobody needs to feel obligated to like it that much.

One of the things I love about your own film writing is that undeniable sense of love and enthusiasm for the form, whereas so many critics give me the impression that they live to find something to complain about, or watch films only to find artists who will confirm and back up what they already know and believe, or who will advance whatever agenda they have. Your work also makes it clear that you're not going where the culture tells you to go, but you're finding your own way across a vast territory.

I'm ashamed to say I *still* haven't seen Polanski's Oliver Twist, and I loved The Pianist, so I really need to see it.

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Two of my favorite movie experiences were Babette's Feast and Jesus of Montreal -- ironically, both foreign language films.

The former enveloped me in visual imagery that was the sumptuous counterpart to the movie's climactic feast; the story itself, though compelling, was at times clunkily told. But that didn't matter; the visual, human and spiritual dimensions of the film outweighed its shortcomings. When I left the theatre, my face hurt. I realized I'd been smiling broadly nonstop for ninety-plus minutes, and my face just isn't used to that.

The latter hooked me from its beginning, again with imagery, and with symbolism that was both deeply literate and scriptural. Again, Arcand's storytelling wasn't always perfectly up to snuff, but once more it didn't matter. For me, again, the human, spiritual, and visual dimensions trumped all.

Now, there's no doubt that all art is storytelling in some form -- either proactively or reactively -- so the "story is paramount" line of thinking has some merit. But each particular artform has unique strengths that characterize the form, that make it a unique type of storytelling.

For the film, that unique strength is moving pictures. A film that does not get that dimension right (and in either of its senses) cannot, for me, overcome other shortcomings. A worthwhile film should get its visual symbolism, cinematography, and composition right (based on its objectives, naturally, not mine) -- otherwise the story should have been told in a different fashion. And a worthwhile film should also move me either on the purely human level or the spiritual, or both.

The ideal film, for me, is a moving picture that also does a good job of telling an interesting story. Frankly, the worldview issue just doesn't matter to me. (My two examples, BTW, are perfect examples of that, because I agree with the theology of neither.)

How's that for vague? But I think it gets at the same issues Jeffrey expresses about Malick, just in different terms.

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Two of my favorite movie experiences were Babette's Feast and Jesus of Montreal -- ironically, both foreign language films.

[snip]

(My two examples, BTW, are perfect examples of that, because I agree with the theology of neither.)

What do you mean when you say you disagree with the theology of Babette's Feast? What is it's theology? Or do you mean the theology expressed by some of the characters?

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Now's our chance to shift to the Babette's Feast thread before we tangent yet again...

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Good idea -- I've now posed the question there, though the question of the theological point of view of films may be an issue we could consider here (using Babette's Feast or any other film as examples). Does the worldview affect your enjoyment of film?

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No, to say 'first' and 'then' suggests I do it sequentially, whereas in fact after years of doing so I find in practice I'm responding at multiple levels - including worldview analysis - concurrently rather than consecutively. But still, some responses are more instinctive, less intellectual, than others.

Yes, I appreciate the lack of sequential language. I would add even the lack of awareness of analysis. I hate it when the film makes me conscious of the fact that I'm watching a film rather than entering into the artist's world. It is the immersion quality of the large screen that makes me spend the vast majority of my reviewing in the theater rather than watching a movie on the tv.

Jeffrey,

some of your language makes me think of the experience of going into a beautiful cathedral compared to going into a small neighborhood/country church. There is no comparison to the aesthetic response of the cathedral and yet the "purpose" of a sanctuary can be fulfilled in either. This is where I am aware that many of my responses to a film are appropriately aesthetic and there are some films far more beautiful than others at that level. However, a film can fill a deeper purpose through far less grandiose forms. That is not to say that an "ugly" or "empty" sanctuary lacking symbolic or transcendent creativity does not impair this purpose, just as an ugly or empty film becomes a barrier to whatever the artist was trying to achieve.

I think of The Brothers McMullen in the first sense. It uses inferior cameras and sets, and yet, like a simple sanctuary it communicates truths that IMHO would not be understood as easily in a cathedral.

Denny

Edited by Denny Wayman

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Jeffrey, I appreciate the fact that certain movies will appeal to some more strongly than others. That's just something we'll have to accept no matter how badly we want art to be universal. The New World is a bona fide cult film; its fans are few but fervent. I may be an agnostic when it comes to Malick (although I really like Days of Heaven), but even I lose heart when people refuse to meet him at least halfway. He's a serious artist, and worthy of serious consideration.

Greg, I envy your cool detachment when it comes to discussing a film or filmmaker's worldview. I was, and still am, the kind of viewer who feels compelled to tie a movie to a chair and torture a confession out of it. But that's because I feel it's imperative to identify films that are morally or ethically corrupt. For me, ideas are equally important as aesthetics. But that's just where I am right now. I reserve the right to modify my philosophy as I grow older!

Edited by Nathaniel

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Greg, I envy your cool detachment when it comes to discussing a film or filmmaker's worldview. I was, and still am, the kind of viewer who feels compelled to tie a movie to a chair and torture a confession out of it. But that's because I feel it's imperative to identify films that are morally or ethically corrupt. For me, ideas are equally important as aesthetics. But that's just where I am right now. I reserve the right to modify my philosophy as I grow older!

I think my cool detachment is hotter and more engaged than it seems. I am also vitally concerned with morally and ethically challenged films; it's just that I can enjoy a well-made morally bankrupt film to a certain degree (Pulp Fiction comes to mind) while I simply cannot enjoy a morally uplifting film that does not succeed, first, as film (say, Joshua). For me, artistry trumps pure "content" or ideas, as some would see it, simply because I find that artistry is content -- that aesthetics is an idea. The Bible makes it pretty clear to me that aesthetics is one of the pure aspects of the glory of God, and to the extent that a film is aesthetically pure, it is one way of reflecting God (even while it may fail to reflect another dimension of godliness). When a film clicks on all cylinders (A Man for All Seasons or Amadeus) I go all wooglie.

The moral dimension of films that I despise most is when filmmakers cheat -- as in All the King's Men when Zaillian visually tells us that Willie Stark's casts a long shadow on Louisiana politics and then cuts from that looming shadow back to Stark, revealing that Penn has been lit in a way that would preclude that very shadow we have seen. The art of cinema, I feel, should not be used to trick or manipulate audiences unless cinematic trickery is one of the subjects of the film. (The Sixth Sense, BTW, does not constitute "trickery," as I see it, while Memento does. The vast majority of Spielberg's films also unfortunately rely on cinematic trickery, largely because Spielberg is a master of the art and is overly efficient at using it. I have a very hard time with most Spielberg films.)

Edited by Greg Wright

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The vast majority of Spielberg's films also unfortunately rely on cinematic trickery, largely because Spielberg is a master of the art and is overly efficient at using it. I have a very hard time with most Spielberg films.)

Greg - which films do this and in what way?

I actually love almost all of Spielberg's work. My favorites include:

DUEL - the simplicity of this primitive, agonizing struggle confronts us at so many levels...

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK - the spiritually woven adventure story with paradoxical good and evil interwoven....

JURASSIC PARK - the believability of a fantasy with moral and ethical implications...

SCHINDLER'S LIST - the humanizing and dehumanizing of the holocaust ...

THE LAST DAYS - - the testimonies and interactions of those involved int he holocaust...

AMISTAD - the ability to explore the slave trade from within its own legal logic and dwindling morality...

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN - the power to present war in both its devastation and its personal courage/humanity...

THE TERMINAL - exposes us to the dehumanizing nature of modern bureaucratic life...

MUNICH- the compelling presentation of the impotence of vengeance...

Denny

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First, I just want to echo what Greg said about Jesus of Montreal and its merits -- and add that I absolutely love Denys Arcand's use of music, both in that film and in his other films. Music plays a big, big part in my own film appreciation. (And I often find myself thinking back to the final image of Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, of the plane taking off and this bittersweet French song playing over the soundtrack -- a song which is so, so, so perfect for that movie, both lyrically and musically.)

Denny Wayman wrote:

: I hate it when the film makes me conscious of the fact that I'm watching a film rather than

: entering into the artist's world. It is the immersion quality of the large screen that makes me

: spend the vast majority of my reviewing in the theater rather than watching a movie on the tv.

That's fascinating. The Purple Rose of Cairo is my 2nd-favorite film of all time, but I have never seen it on the big screen, and I keep thinking it would be SUCH a different experience to see it that way, because so many of the shots are actually shots from the film-within-the-film, and not from the film itself, per se. Watching it on video, it's all just video; but watching it on the big screen, I imagine it would be a little more weird -- at times I would be watching the people in the theatre as they look at (and interact with) the film-within-the-film, but at other times I would BE a person in a theatre looking at (and interacting with?) the film-within-the-film. (I don't know if that makes any sense, especially to people who haven't seen the film.)

I also recently saw Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur on DVD, and there is an interesting chase scene which temporarily ends up in a movie house; a man with a gun sneaks around in front of the screen, and in a couple shots, the movie screen fills the frame and the silhouette of the man with the gun sneaks along the bottom. Now, this was made in the 1940s, before TV and certainly before videos and DVDs, so the only way this film could have been seen was in a theatre! And once again, the film-within-the-film ends up almost becoming the film itself, at least for a few shots. (What would it have been like to sit in a theatre and see that silhouette move across the screen, blown up to the size of an actual human being?)

On a slightly less self-conscious note, the wife and I also caught Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes at one of the local theatres a few weeks ago, and there is a ballet sequence which begins with a wide shot of curtains rising to reveal a man standing on a stage -- and on the big screen, that man standing at the bottom of the frame looked like an actual man standing at the front of the theatre! Not quite film-within-the-film stuff, but still marvelous -- an effect that you don't quite get on video or DVD.

And that's just self-consciousness on the visual level. On other levels -- script, etc. -- I have also greatly enjoyed the likes of Adaptation, which I believe I have praised elsewhere here for going beyond pre-critical naivete and critical thought to a sort of post-critical naivete.

FWIW, one kind of self-consciousness that I DO find distracting is whenever characters in film describe each others' physical attributes (I think of the guy who talks about his big ears in Das Experiment, the narrator's description of Jennifer Connelly's "perfect breasts" in Little Children, and many other examples). Whenever that happens, it always draws me out of the drama and makes me wonder about the casting process or the on-set improvisations, or whatever it was that led to that combination of actor and dialogue.

Greg Wright wrote:

: The Sixth Sense, BTW, does not constitute "trickery," as I see it, while Memento does.

Care to flesh this out? I love both films, but I would DEFINITELY say that The Sixth Sense employs a certain "cinematic trickery" -- it exploits our ability to fill the gaps between shots, just as film as a whole exploits the "persistence of vision" that enables our brains to fill the gaps between frames -- whereas I don't think I see anything particularly cinematic about the "trickery" in Memento.

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Denny asked:

>>Greg - which [of Spieberg's] films ["rely on cinematic trickery"] and in what way?

A couple instances stand out for me. The most egregious is in Hook, when Peter drives up to the ball field only to find out he's missed his son's game. The shot starts out with a closeup on Peter in his car as he's driving to the field. He takes a right turn and pulls up to the curb alongside an embankment -- still in the same shot, which is a tracking crane shot. The shot continues, and as Peter climbs out of the car and dashes up the bank, the camera pulls up and back to reveal... the empty ballfield -- AND the fact that the street Peter just drove down, before making the right turn, went right past the first base dugout and the completely empty ballfield. It's total cinematic flimflammery; but when the score is layered on, and Robin Williams' emoting pulls your heartstrings, heck! who cares about honesty in filmmaking?

A second example is the opening of Always, when Holly Hunter's character "calmly" awaits the return of Dreyfus' plane. After the landing is complete, she walks away from the railing and the camera pushes in to show what she's left behind: the twisted pretzel of a spoon. It's shorthand character development -- terribly efficient, telling us all we need to know about Hunter's character and her relationship to that played by Dreyfus. But it's not real character development.

Or take the German captive sequence in Private Ryan -- a fine moral dilemma. But when the same soldier shows up in the climactic scene, it's pretty obvious how the whole thing will play out, and then there's no more moral dilemma. It's a moral lesson. Spielberg is just terribly terribly shrewd about telling his audiences exactly what to think, and in the most efficient possible manner.

I vastly prefer it when he takes his time with his work, as in Schindler's List (think, for example about the time Spielberg takes with Schindler schmoozing German officers in the bar in the opening scene) -- but even there, he's got that dreadful pink coated girl. It's like a cockroach in the middle of a wedding cake, horrifically out of place, but not bad enough to make you throw the cake out.

Picking on Spielberg is easy though, 'cause he's so much of a cinematic genius. It's just that when he's in a groove, he gets lazy. And lazy Spielberg is kind of like "wow" for most filmmakers.

Peter commented:

>>I would DEFINITELY say that The Sixth Sense employs a certain

>>"cinematic trickery" -- it exploits our ability to fill the gaps between shots,

>>just as film as a whole exploits the "persistence of vision" that enables

>>our brains to fill the gaps between frames

Yes, absolutley. The reason I don't classify that as "trickery," though, is that the technique is consistent with the story (dead people who don't know they're dead only see what they want to see) and point of view (Willis doesn't see the table blocking the door to the cellar, because he doesn't want to, so we don't -- and we fill in the gaps from the "locked" door to the files in the cellar). Now, that's all sophistry of a sort, and given where Shyamalan has gone since Sixth Sense, it's looking more like trickery all the time. But it's ingenious, and very consistent story-telling.

Peter continued:

>>whereas I don't think I see anything particularly cinematic about the

>>"trickery" in Memento.

Memento "works" because of audience disorientation in its early scenes; we don't know enough about Pearce's situation, or his medical condition, to understand what those early scenes actually "mean." But there are four problems with what the movie does.

First, the disorientation is not, properly speaking, a function of point of view; it's not Pearce's disorientation that we absorb -- it's disorientation manufactured by narrative displacement. Second, Pearce "remembers" things at this stage that he shouldn't -- but we aren't allowed the privelege of knowing that yet, because we don't know yet what Pearce "knows" about his condition. Third, discontinuities are apparently deliberately introduced (such as the three or four versions of the hand-written note) as Rashomon-like red herrings, when we're not seeing the story from different points of view at all.

And finally, Pearce's condition always seems to be alleviated just long enough to get him through a scene; why is that? Why doesn't he ever forget what he's doing and who he is halfway through a scene? Perhaps it's all just a metaphor for filmmakers who can construct a scene but can't string scenes together in a meaningful fashion... But I've never heard anyone make that argument.

Memento is bravura moviemaking, and pure narrative chutzpah -- but ultimately empty.

More than you probably wanted to know, I'm sure; and I don't expect others to agree with me. I've just got my own quirks when it comes to this kind of thing.

Edited by Greg Wright

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Greg Wright wrote:

: The reason I don't classify that as "trickery," though, is that the technique is consistent with the

: story . . . and point of view . . . But it's ingenious, and very consistent story-telling.

Hmmm, between this and your Hook example, it sounds like you use "trickery" to mean something like "inconsistent" or "inherently contradictory" or something. In other words, you don't use it as a neutral term for things that are, objectively speaking, tricks; instead, you use it only for certain KINDS of tricks.

FWIW, the word "trickery" has no inherently negative connotations for me; I am quite happy to say that there is "trickery" in The Sixth Sense, though there is much more than that, of course.

: First, the disorientation is not, properly speaking, a function of point of view; it's not Pearce's

: disorientation that we absorb -- it's disorientation manufactured by narrative displacement.

I would disagree. The narrative displacement is precisely what communicates Pearce's disorientation; he does not know he got where he is, and neither do we.

In addition, are there not non-cinematic stories which re-arrange episodes like this, sometimes in reverse chronological order? (I imagine novelists and short story writers have tried this, but to my shame, the first example that comes to mind is a Star Trek comic written by Peter David, about Mister Scott's secret love.) It is partly for this reason that I am not so sure that this is a distinctly "cinematic" kind of trickery.

That said, I have long loved pointing out how Memento heightens one key element of the film noir genre -- namely the fatalism, typically conveyed by starting at the end of the story (a dead body floating in a pool in Sunset Boulevard, a man telling the police "I was murdered" in D.O.A., the killing of Burt Lancaster in The Killers, etc.) and then jumping back to the beginning and showing how the story got to that inevitable end. Memento takes this structure and exaggerates it by starting at the end and then jumping back ... just a bit. And then it goes to the end of the scene and jumps back ... just a little bit more. And then it goes to the end of THAT scene (i.e. to the beginning of the previous scene) and jumps back ... just a little bit more. Instead of one big ending, and a long story that leads up to it, it gives us many little endings and many little stories that lead up to them -- thus bringing the fatalism of the genre into even bolder relief.

I am not sure if that is necessarily a "cinematic" approach to telling this kind of story, but it does fit very well within a certain kind of filmmaking.

: And finally, Pearce's condition always seems to be alleviated just long enough to get him through

: a scene; why is that?

The best argument I've heard is that things like this are a good indication that Pearce's condition is psychological, not physical (and thus not strictly medical, I think).

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I think my cool detachment is hotter and more engaged than it seems. I am also vitally concerned with morally and ethically challenged films; it's just that I can enjoy a well-made morally bankrupt film to a certain degree (Pulp Fiction comes to mind) while I simply cannot enjoy a morally uplifting film that does not succeed, first, as film (say, Joshua).

Greg, you are clearly a passionate and engaged writer. I just marvel at critics who won't allow a film's undertones to subvert their enjoyment. I find little pleasure in the cleverness of a movie like Pulp Fiction. So little, in fact, that any discussion about the film's aesthetics seems immaterial. But I certainly wouldn't be doing my job as a critic if I completely ignored the question of Quentin Tarantino's style, superficial though it may be.

As a film student, I took awhile to warm to the "style is substance" approach (a concept both sophisticated and unequivocal), but now it's quite clear that films can and do speak loudly through their own singular language; it's up to the viewer to interpret and evaluate what is being said.

I would love to one day have a conversation with you about A Man For All Seasons, a film which I find transcendent despite being rather pedestrian in filmmaking terms. But that will have to wait for another day!

Update:

I watched Pulp Fiction again last night and found it to be just as soulless, absurd, evil and wrong as the first time. Jules's speech about Ezekiel 25:17 was too late in the day; by then, the film had already convinced me of its nihilistic aesthetic.

Jackie Brown, which actually has grown-up things to say about middle age, remains Tarantino's best and most underrated film. Let's hope his next one, the irresistibly titled Inglorious Bastards, will surpass even that!

Edited by Nathaniel

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it sounds like you use "trickery" to mean something like "inconsistent" or "inherently contradictory" or something. In other words, you don't use it as a neutral term for things that are, objectively speaking, tricks; instead, you use it only for certain KINDS of tricks.

I'd say that's a fair assessment. All cinema, of course, is manipulation -- the inherent idea of point of view is subjective. So yes -- I use "trickery" to mean lazy or deceitful forms of manipulation that, for me, destroy the "inner consistency of reality" (to quote Tolkien on literature) necessary for me to lose myself in the filmmaker's created world.

Naturally, as one who's studied (and employed) film technique, I'm more sensitive to what I consider "lazy" or "deceitful" filmmaking than the typical moviegoer; but that's precisely why I get so incensed over these sorts of things. To me, knowing that a filmmaker could have been more rigorous and "honest," and seeing that the filmmaker wasn't, leads me to rebel against what I perceive as disdain for the audience. "Oh, that's too much trouble to get right. Most audiences won't notice, and won't care." Low-budget films get a huge pass from me on this one, but when millions of dollars get spent on art, I expect a lot.

The narrative displacement is precisely what communicates Pearce's disorientation; he does not know he got where he is, and neither do we.

I would modify your statement as "The narrative displacement is the method that the director chooses to communicate Pearce's disorientation." He could have made other choices, but he didn't -- like, making Pearce's disorientation honest and legitimate, rather than a function of the viewer's inability, at that point, to determine what's legitimate for Pearce and what isn't.

You're certainly right, Peter, Memento's narrative displacement is not a strictly cinematic technique. But specifically cinematic techniques are employed to lend the effect more weight than it deserves -- scene-level montage, dis-continuity, visual point-of-view. And to me, the movie just doesn't "play fair" with the art -- it uses technique in a gleeful tour-de-force to bring "the fatalism of the genre into even bolder relief," as you put it. But the internal consistency of the piece is destroyed in the process.

The best argument I've heard is that things like this are a good indication that Pearce's condition is psychological, not physical (and thus not strictly medical, I think).

Yes -- and then the very effect that the movie strives for (and that you admire) is erased. If Pearce's condition is psychological, there's no fatalism involved at all. The whole exercise then simply becomes a tedious gimmick or a nudge-nudge "see what I pulled over on the audience" practical joke.

Ultimately, Memento's inconsistencies are either lazy mistakes, cinematically dishonest manipulations, or the key to finding out the emperor has no clothes.

I completely understand and appreciate the critical and popular reception of the film, BTW. It's bold, assured filmmaking that was probably the biggest breath of fresh air since Fight Club. I just think that Nolan tried to do too much, and the material got away from him. (It's a shame to criticize ambitious filmmaking, though, when so many films attempt so little -- so I definitely apologize for that!)

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