IN DEFENSE OF CHALLENGING CINEMA
Praised by some, rejected by others, the appreciation of any work of art is fundamentally dependent upon what an individual brings to it.
The canonical elevation of a film is determined by the informed consensus of commentators: critics, scholars, peers, etc. The function of commentators should be to reveal the purpose, intent, and qualities of artworks, so a commentator needs to have an innate aptitude for the form, and be willing to pursue an in-depth understanding through study, analysis, and engagement.
Few of us can invest that degree of engagement, but it would be fair to expect film commentators to have a solid grounding in cinema history and be reasonably au fait with the great works of the medium. After all, film viewing is a skill one learns—it's not a given. It has taken many 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.
When one develops a taste for something (wine, music, cinema), it's hard to go back to “cheap plonk”. We tend to assess things by personal points of reference, regardless of how developed our palate might be. When it comes to films, my default position is not to recommend them: something that appeals to me may not appeal to others. But the main ‘rule’ I go by is to give films and filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Again, this is easier said than done, and there are times when I give up. As I say, once you get used to fine wine, thin plonk is hard to swallow.
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 to look. Just as listening to music is something one learns to do (through repetition and seeking out the work of increasingly more challenging composers and performers), one has to learn how to look beyond characters, story, and pleasant images to engage with the cinema on a more rewarding level. For me, it’s 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 mostly a matter of personal taste, but one can still appreciate the stature and significance of a piece. 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 is indisputable.
Given that movies are generally regarded as entertainment rather than "serious art", the cinematic value of many films is often dismissed. It’s akin to ignoring the work of Rothko in favour of Disney—which is not to pour scorn on Disney. Still, 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 hire commentators with little or no appreciation for the historical and canonical achievements of the medium, which wouldn't be acceptable if the subject was literature, music, or sport. It seems that 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, which are mostly dependent upon personal taste tailored towards a general notion of "what the public want to see".
The days when a serious cinephile such as the late Jonathan Dennis would have a platform on National Radio to discuss cinema of all hues (from facile popcorn peddlers to profound 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 as art.
Instead, Morris makes almost every film he reviews sound like escapist nonsense (which more often than not it is), but even the films he admires suffer from of his dismissive tone. And that's a shame because his critiques are often very perceptive, even if he appears to have little patience for the rarefied cinema that Dennis would have encouraged listeners to at least consider.
Sadly, Simon's show ultimately serves as an apology for anti-intellectual populism, which is reflected in the show's title: where Dennis once presented “The Film Show”, Morris now hosts “At the Movies”.
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Music is another democratic art form that everyone freely comments on, usually with no understanding of the form or the intentions of the artist. But one can't be expected to appreciate the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, for example, if the likes of One Direction shape one's musical diet. 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 do not require.
I recall listening to Rosemary McLeod pass comments about jazz on Jim Mora's "The Panel" a few years ago, where she dissed the music 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 revered as classical music, a position supported by the popular media.
RNZ "matinee idols" Simon Morris and Phil O'Brien regularly dismiss a type of chamber music (jazz) that Beethoven and Debussy would not only embrace if they were alive today but the roots of which can be heard in their music. Media commentators have a right to their views, of course. Still, 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 go over people's heads. They certainly do mine. One of the reasons why I have such an extensive video collection is that I need to watch some films several times to understand them. This willingness to engage and re-engage with the medium, particularly those that demand attention (such as works by Godard), has the added benefit of expanding one's appreciation of cinema, and giving a broader context for film viewing. The films of Edward Yang, for example, aren't just the works of 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 today.
Mainstream movies promote the assumption that films ought to have precise linear narrative trajectories with unambiguous endings, so viewers with relatively undeveloped cine-literacy can miss the political, philosophical, aesthetic, and formal elements in contemporary cinema. But we can't all appreciate cinema in the same way, and some viewers are going to have expectations that will be at odds with what any given film has to offer. I know this from personal experience, and I expect to re-encounter it because some films are challenging. However, if you're a reflective or perceptive person, 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, the ones you might not like when you first encounter them.
One such film for me is Marguerite Duras's Nathalie Granger (1972), which I saw in the late 70s thanks to the Wellington Film Society. Frankly, I didn't understand the film, or why it had to be so cryptic. But I wasn't as irritated 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 over 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 often wonder if the film-goer who disliked Nathalie Granger all those years ago ever thinks about the film. Does he still think of it as bad, or was his cine-literacy tweaked by it too? It would be nice to think so.