Nathalie Granger, 1972
A work of art—whether it’s a painting, a novel, a piece of music, or a work of cinema—cannot be defined by a single opinion, or many opinions. It will be praised by some and rejected by others, which suggests that the appreciation of any work of art is largely dependent upon what an individual brings to it.
The elevation of a work of art—it’s standing within the critical canon—occurs when it is heralded as a significant contribution to the art form by informed commentators: critics, scholars, peers, etc. The function commentators serve should be—ideally—to illuminate the qualities and value of works of art within the context of the form, and to reveal—where possible—the purpose and intent of the work and the artist who created it. This requires an innate aptitude for the art form, and a willingness to develop an informed understanding by studying, analysing, and engaging with it.
When it comes to cinema, few of us would be willing (or able) to invest that degree of engagement, but it would be fair to expect film commentators to at least have a solid grounding in cinema history and be reasonably au fait with the great works of the medium. It seems to me that film viewing is a skill one learns—it's not a given. It has taken a number of years (four decades, in fact) for me to acquire the patience to let a film be what it is, which is easier said than done. It's one thing to like or dislike a film, but quite another to criticise it for not being something else.
Developing a ‘palate’ for something (be it fine wine, music, or cinema) makes it hard to go back to “cheap plonk”. We tend to access things by our own points of reference and expectations, and this is true regardless of how developed our palate might be. When it comes to films, my default position these days is not to recommend them to anyone (something that appeals to me won’t necessarily appeal to others), but the main ‘rule’ I go by is to give the film and filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. Again, this is easier said than done, and there are times when I simply give up. As I say, once you get used to fine Bourgogne, thin plonk is hard to swallow.
But by and large I start with the assumption that filmmakers know what they’re doing and have something to say, even if all they have to say is, “this is how I chose to tell this story”.
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Just as the best way to learn about music is to listen, the best way to learn about cinema is—not surprisingly—to look. But just as listening to music is something one learns to do through repetition and by seeking out the work of increasingly more challenging composers and performers, with cinema one has to learn how to look—how to go beyond the surfaces, beyond characters and story and nice images to engage with the film on a deeper and more rewarding level. For me it’s all about the marriage of themes, aesthetics, ideas, and emotions—finding that satisfying balance between the head and the heart.
Liking or not liking a work of art is largely a matter of personal taste, but one can appreciate the stature and significance of a piece without liking it. For instance, one may not “like” Picasso’s Guernica, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it’s one of the great masterworks of 20th century art. One might not “like” many of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, but their place in the cinematic canon and Godard’s stature as one of the most important figures in cinema history is indisputable.
However, because movies are broadly regarded as commercial entertainment rather than "serious art", people largely feel entitled to have an opinion about them. Fair enough, but cinematic value is often overshadowed by populist opinion. It’s akin to ignoring the work of Mark Rothko in favour of elevating Walt Disney—which is not to pour scorn on Disney, but you get my point: Steamboat Willie verses Rothko’s impenetrable fortresses reflected in Kubrick’s black cuboid. I'm exaggerating, of course, but nevertheless ...
The situation isn’t helped by editors and producers (print, radio, TV) who don't seem to expect those they engage to comment on films to have the same informed grasp of the medium (its historic and canonical achievements) that would be expected of those commenting on painting, literature, music, or even sport. Film reviewers need only have a general enthusiasm for movies and a willingness to focus on multiplex entertainments. They are, of course, free to express their opinions, but these are largely matters of personal taste tailored towards a general notion of what “the public” are likely to be interested in.
The days when a serious cinephile such as the late lamented Jonathan Dennis would be given a platform on National Radio to discuss cinema of all hues (from facile popcorn peddlers to abstruse existential meditations) have long gone. Simon Morris has charm, but while his characteristic intonation of bemused incredulity may be entertaining, it does nothing to engender respect or appreciation for cinema. Instead, Morris makes almost every film he reviews sound like escapist nonsense (which more often than not it is), but even the films he evidently admires sound as if they are being summarily dismissed. Which is a shame, because his critiques are often very perceptive. That said, he appears to have no patience for the rarefied films that Dennis would have encouraged listeners to at least consider, films by artists at the cutting edge of the art form, so his show ultimately serves as an apology for anti-intellectual populism. It’s no accident that where Dennis once presented “The Film Show”, Morris now presents “At the Movies”. My case is resting.
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Music is another ‘democratic’ art form that everyone feels they are entitled to comment on, when more often than not their comments are made in ignorance of the form, unsupported by an understanding that can only come through regular considerate engagement. One can’t be expected to appreciate the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, for example, if one’s musical diet is shaped by the likes of One Direction. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but complex music demands a willingness to develop an attentive listening attitude that accessible forms of music simply do not require.
I recall hearing Rosemary McLeod passing comments about jazz on Jim Mora’s “The Panel” a few years ago, where she dissed the form with the sort of casual ease that she probably wouldn’t have exercised had the conversation been about classical music. She could get away with publicly dissing jazz because it isn’t as socially canonised as classical music, a position largely supported by the popular media. Again I’m compelled to single out National Radio’s Simon Morris (it’s nothing personal Simon, it’s just that you have a platform that enables you to express opinions about two art forms I care about) and his ‘Matinee Idle’ pal Phil O’Brien, who regularly dis a form of chamber music that composers such as Beethoven and Debussy would not only embrace if they were around today, but the roots of which can be heard in their music. Media commentators have a right to their views of course, but when the dominant attitude ignores or dismisses anything that poses a challenge to the relative comforting assurances offered by the mainstream, one could be forgiven for being irritated by what passes for cultural discourse.
The fact is that many films simply go over people’s heads. They certainly do mine. One of the reasons why I have such a large video collection of world cinema (apart from being something of a cine-evangelist intent on sharing these gems with anyone who shows even the slightest interest) is that I simply need to watch some films several times to understand them. This willingness to engage and re-engage with films, particularly those that demand attention (such as those by Godard), has the added benefit of expanding my appreciation of cinema as an art form, and it gives me a wider context for all my film viewing. The films of Edward Yang, for example, aren't just works by a great filmmaker, they're part a cinematic continuum that stretches back through Antonioni to Dreyer, and their themes resonate with the work of filmmakers across the globe.
So the political, philosophical, aesthetic, and formal elements in contemporary cinema are often lost on viewers with relatively undeveloped cine-literacy. This isn't a criticism, it’s just a fact. We can't all appreciate a film in the same way, and some viewers are going to have expectations that are going to be at odds with what a film has to offer. I know this from personal experience, and I expect to encounter it again, because – simply put – some films are difficult.
Commercial filmmaking endeavours to ensure that as many movies as possible can be digested by as many people as possible so as to make as much money as possible. Consequently, the cinematic language used in such films is usually simple, supporting the mainstream assumption that films ought to have clear linear narrative trajectories with unambiguous resolutions. A lot of people feel that way about life, but of course life isn't that straightforward, and neither is cinema once one dives into the deep end. If you’re a reflective person (if you think about things and have good perception) then your film viewing will be richer for it. Even the worst films have something to offer an observant and engaged viewer, but the real treasure is found in films that make you work, films you might not even like when you first encounter them.
One such film for me was Marguerite Duras’s Nathalie Granger (1972), which I had the “pleasure” of seeing in the late 70s thanks to the Wellington Film Society. Frankly, I didn’t understand the film, or why it had to be so wilfully cryptic, although I wasn't as bothered by it as the guy who said “That film sucked” as we left the theatre. I didn’t see the film again for a couple of decades, but in that time it grew in my estimation as a result of being exposed to more complex films. When I finally tracked it down on video it was a revelation. It spoke with such force and purpose that it is now one of my favourite films. More pertinently it continues to inform my film viewing, giving substance and context to new works I encounter. Films like Alexei German Jnr’s Under Electric Clouds or Albert Serra’s The Story of My Death might have sailed right by me without the “teaching” I received from Marguerite.
I wonder if the other fellow who disliked Nathalie Granger all those years ago ever thinks about the film, and if so whether he still thinks of it as bad, or whether his cine-literacy was tweaked by it too. It would be nice to think so.