Sunday, May 31, 2009

I lost it at the movies

(for Amie)
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.


Ray Davis said...

It's interesting how independently variable the hedonic can be. Movies exhilerate me precisely because they force me to attend to surface -- to notice rather than drifting into my usual abstractions -- more vehemently than the most writerly and mumblable text, and almost as physically as food or sex. And so when a movie works for me in the way in which movies work for me, I turn into a wide-eyed jumping drooling fool and leave the theater with my head surrounded by little cartoon swirls and stars. Which is the effect I seek, but yes, when I describe it, it does sound a bit exhausting, doesn't it?

That said, I'd almost always rather watch a lightfootedly chaotic '30s non-Oscar-winner or '90s HK movie than one of the lumbering beasts whose digital manipulations and shakicam and explosions and wait-for-it! twists overschematize, overemphasize, and overexplain me right back into my boring old skull. I want to become a five-year-old, but I don't want to be treated as one.

Roger Gathmann said...

Ray, as you know, I am explaining this as my movie illiteracy, in a sense. But I should, perhaps, have added that like the person who reads one book every four months or year or whatever, movies that I can 'get' make a terrific impression on me. They sort of block other movies. Recently, I watched Hunger, and though I've been trying to watch movies since, the ghost of Hunger blocks them. This especially happens with Bela Tarr. Damnation put a hole in my movie watching for months - nothing seemed as alive, as deep, as that movie. It is as if this was the standard of all movies. Well, only a bad moviegoer thinks that.

This doesn't happen with reading - I can read something I think is earthshaking, and still read something dumb, something good, something this way or that way, review it, and not feel I am diminishing the earthshaking book. My ability to do that in one form of the "third life" and not in the other is, I think, about my tentativeness, my ... amateurishness with movies. When I see something I find really dumb, on tv and in the movies, I can't shake it off, forget it, like I can a dumb read. It sticks in me like an evil spirit.

BrianM said...

For what it's worth, roger, I think you describe my reaction, too. I find it harder to sit myself down before a movie screen than to read (although I don't read super-intellectual "stuff" like you do!) I've seen maybe one movie in an actual theater in the last three years.

Anonymous said...

"Les signes parmi nous" is a novel by Ramuz that I've always wanted to do: a peddler arrives in a little village above Vevey and announces the end of the world. There's a terrible storm for five days, then the sun comes out, and the peddler is kicked out. The peddler is cinema!

(Godard. interview in Libération, 1988)


Anonymous said...

That is quite the question of why one can shake off the evil spirits in a book but find it more difficult to do so with a film. I would probably add music to the mix, as isn't it hard to shake a tune or a melody which gets lodged in one, even though one doesn't even like the damn thing or thinks it a piss poor piece of music?

Does the Metz passage regarding vraisemblance that you quote only apply to movies? I wonder because isn't vraisemblance a part of other arts and doesn't a book a text always eludes one on a first reading? And as for films, it doesn't just relate to the "obvious" special effects, CGI, etc., but to what is generally considered its most naturalistic or realist aspects - sync sound to name but one.

I think you're right to mention the speed of movies and the attendant difficulty of finding a foothold as a viewer. But of course, the speed is also a vraisemblance, as a film is based on montage, cuts, etc. And yet through - and not above - this vraisemblance come moments of truth, naked moments. What to say about them, as a viewer or reviewer. Be quiet, let things remain remain nameless for a moment, and listen.


Roger Gathmann said...

Amie, that passage about plausibility that Metz takes from Aristotle does not, of course, apply to films originally. I think it applies to drama, right? But, by extension, to where-ever you are going to have narrative.

Now, my own trouble with movies (and I do hope, hope hope that I am clear that this is MY trouble, not the trouble with Movies in themselves - the interest here being how I (and Brian and others) might have this ... restlessness before movies as a form) is not, I think, about plausibility - that is a hypothesis I discarded.

But you are right to ask - why should it be particularly pertinent to movies?

Barthes, in the Rhetoric of the image essay, I think, contrasts a photo - which is always in the il y était-la mode, it was there - with movies, which he claims are always in the present tense. I don't think that's so - at least, a lot of my pleasure in watching a movie from the 70s or whenever is seeing a world I remember that is now gone. The cars, the hairstyles. Movies so overwhelm my inner vision that I cannot think of Raymond Chandler novels in color - they are always black and white. But movies do seem to address the senses directly - or at least hearing and vision - as the written word doesn't. We both know that there is no opposition here, but a shifting front of entangled sign systems. But on the naive level, when I read, say, that Philip Marlowe wakes up in a room he doesn't know, after being knocked out, I am in my reading-imagining mode, whereas when I see it in a film, I am in my seeing-hearing mode. So I am alert, in both modes, for different moments of implausibility. To give you an almost too beautiful example - you may see a film that begins with morning in a field in the Australian outback, say, and you hear the cries of the birds. Those cries, often, have been recorded elsewhere and dubbed in. Many a birdwatcher is disturbed to hear the cry of, say, a hoopoe in a movie set in the Australian outback. Yet myself, unaware of this combination, simply let it roll over me. Whereas in a book, it would be the odd Australian writer who would begin with the cries of hoopoes.

Ray Davis said...

Is it perhaps germane (year zero) here that Godard is the greatest film critic who has never sat still through an entire picture?

Anonymous said...

Ray, that's an interesting point re Godard. I assume you're referring to how while constantly watching movies, he seldom sat through an entire film in one go. Restlessness indeed! As you undoubtedly know, Godard is also a voracious reader though once again one that doesn't "finish" a book in one reading, or read it to the finish in one go.
I think this might relate to Roger's question of restlessness while watching movies. Hmmm.


Roger Gathmann said...

Amie, Ray -
Godard's an excellent reference, as who else has expressed such violent discomfort with what movies, or a certain type of movie - Truffault, Spielberg - have become?

Although I think the peak of the attention deficit disorder panic has passed, it is still under the aegis of "attention" that we see 'restlessness' addressed, at least in schools. Those who are too restless to properly read the pre-processed text books offered to them in elementary schools, or who were too restless to learn the life lesson of school - to endure boredom and gradually become complicit in creating it - would get drugs to help them out of these habits. Part of my restlessness with movies is a carryover from these attention drain environments. When a movie is set up to be escapist - I increasingly find myself blocked by it, because it is so ... evidently part of the attention drain. It is all too inescapable. And I'm just the kind of rat who does not like the choice to be between escapism and the inescapable, since I begin, then, to suspect I'm in a lab.

Whereas the video I saw yesterday of Au hasard Balthazar seemed neither escapist nor inescapable. Balthazar's amazing eyes were what I followed through the entire movie. It is a good question as to why I did not experience that restlessness watching that movie - and I tried to answer it a bit in the post on boredom.

The book, the movie, the photograph, the painting and the record all claim our sensuality in different ways. I think of the book and the movie as the most overwhelming claimants - but I'm not sure that is true, historically. Music, theater, sculpture, architecture - all can make similar total claims, I suppose.

P.M.Lawrence said...

"...the il y était-la mode, it was there...".

Il y'avait, surely?