I know many people who, while being fully literate and even liking to read, manage to read only a half a dozen books per year. Now, it is the quality of the reading that counts, of course. Yet, I think that there is more going on here than simply lack of time. I suspect that there is an almost physical discomfort with large blocks of reading.
Myself, I am as immersed in reading as a fish is in water; however, as a reviewer, I am sometimes confronted by a book – for instance, an eight hundred page novel from Syria I recently reviewed – that reminds me of the sheer physical process of reading. It turned out that novel was a ‘fast’ read. But that mental resistance, which appears to me as a physical resistance, comes up for me not so much in reading as in watching movies.
I used to think that my problem with movies (and my problem with tv) was simply with popular American movies. It was the problem of plausibility. Metz, in an essay on movies from 1967, wrote a rather profound bit about this:
We know that for Aristotle, the plausible (Vraisemblable) (to eikos) is defined as the totality of what is possible inhe eyes of public opinion, and is thus opposed to the totality of what is possible in the eyes of people who know (this last “possible” being supposed to make a unity with the truly possible, the real possible) The arts of representation… don’t represent all the possible, all the possibles, but only the plausible possibles. The post-aristotelian tradition – for instance, the notions of the plausible, of bienseance, of the agreed upon among the French writers of the classics of the 18th century – has taken this idea and enriched it with a second sort of plausibility, not so much different from the first and yet totally absent, it must be said, from Greek philosophical thought: what is plausible is what conforms to the laws of established genre.”
Of course, our critical stances to movies will correspond to, move among, these different parameters of plausibility. There are those who accept anything; there are those who watch for the illogical moment, the break in the chain of the real; there are those who, accepting the supremacy of genre over the real, treat the question of plausibility solely in terms laid down by genre (would superman be able to do this or that? A different question than, say, the notion of a superhero fighting crime in a society founded on crime, say the Apartheid reigning in the U.S. during the golden era of the superheros). I like watching thrillers with my brothers – on video, of course – because they are sharp-eyed for technical implausibilities in the story. How Hero Y knew about Villain X, or whether he’d have the time to escape danger in Location A and get to Location B in time to save the day – although usually this is on a finer level. And sometimes, I feel like the supposition that I will buy into the world of possibles presented by the movie strikes me as simply degrading from the outset – it is as if a fully adult person started talking to me as though I were five years old. The later speech act could convey anything – how to build an atom bomb, for instance – but would seem absolutely unserious and degrading.
However, my real problem with movies is on a deeper level. Like the well intentioned reader, I often confront it as a medium that seems to demand something tiring from me – an effort that makes me restless. This may sound like I am talking about intolerably slow movies, but it is jus the opposite – it is the sense of not being able to hold onto anything which I find much more frustrating. This isn’t just American pop movies – which solve the problem of plausibility the American way, by speeding up. It is, for instance, the Innocent, a Visconti film I rented and saw this week, that I couldn’t finish. Partly this was because the plot of D’Annunzio’s novel, from which the film is lifted, is, by now, much the chestnut. Partly it was the technical expertise of the film – the costumes and locations seemed very late 19th century, and thus were simply too opulent, too crowded, for me – and seemed to crowd Giancarlo Giannini, the reason I was watching the film, too. I have, perhaps, too often seen him play a marginal, the faux playboy, to accept him as a rich decadent. But all of this projects upon the film my problem, not the film’s: which is that I can’t find my point of anchorage, to use Barthes term – that control from which one can understand the denotative and connotative level. Film seems to tend more to what Barthes called the relay – the advancement from one point to another in a narrative, a sequence of images – with a sheer speed that confuses me.
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