literature

Sincerity Vs. Sardonicism: Infinite Jest and Fight Club

There are some obvious ones: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. The program, however, has evolved to include a whole slew of twelve-step fellowships: Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Crystal Meth and Sex Addicts and Workaholics and Overeaters Anonymous. The twelve-step lifestyle may have hit its parabolic maximum in the late 90s, but it continues to carve out a niche in American culture, a culture that has a particularly addictive personality. It makes sense, then, that (vice) Anonymous programs occupied a prominent role in American media of the late nineties. A program with a faith-based foundation is bound to be targeted by an increasingly secular, skeptical media industry. Two juggernauts of nineties culture come to mind.

Fight Club is a firmly postmodern film. A character that directly addresses the audience; a twist based entirely on the subjectivity of reality; an atmosphere marked by a general skepticism for authority and traditional power structures. Twelve-step fellowships are approached by the film with the same sardonic attitude. From a group dedicated to parasitic brain parasites (sic) to one called “Remaining Men Together”, the film suggests that these fellowships exist for any ailment that could possibly afflict a human being. The people who participate in these groups are portrayed as pitiful, weeping husks. The protagonist himself attends these meetings, but as an outsider, as somebody who would never really buy into something so gooey and sentimental. The film’s finger points at human sensitivity and vulnerability while its distrustful postmodern face contorts and laughs.

Infinite Jest seems to portray these fellowships in a similar light. The stories shared by the twelve-steppers border on the absurd; most of the participants suffer from laughably bad lots in life, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves about it. The same exaggerated sentimentality portrayed in Fight Club also exists in Infinite Jest, but there’s one important difference: it’s shown to work. While Fight Club makes twelve-step programs out to be ineffective and cheesy, Jest portrays them as effective and cheesy. Yes, there’s a whole lot of recitation of trite cliches and blathering on about a “Higher Power As You Understand It” and hugging other members and crying into their shoulders, but it’s honest and therapeutic and helps the addicts see that they’re not alone. Gooey sentimentality may not be cool or edgy, but for some people it might be just what they need.

This difference, I think, highlights a significant divide in our culture. Some are happy to point and laugh at the bits of our culture that seem silly; others do the same, but are also willing to recognize their merits. Malicious cynicism versus a sincere sense of humor. Perhaps if more artists cease to be content with stopping at the pointing and laughing, if more are willing to fuse their satirization with sincerity, then perhaps that sincerity will begin to infuse into our culture.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity Pt. II

(This is a continuation of an article I posted on March 26th, 2017. If you haven’t read that post, click here to get caught up.)

I posted the above on reddit.com/r/truefilm to start a dialogue about the theory’s implications for the delivery of film education. I got a few interesting responses, but the most notable one extended the theory to encompass all forms of visual media and consider its social implications. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

(As is completely understandable in a casual forum, /u/mosestrod made some grammatical errors in his response. I preserved them for the sake of accuracy.)
The moving image is so familiar to us insofar as it is our everyday, it does – as you suggest – produce both passivity and conformity with the what is. Film mimics reality better than any other art form. But this pretence is also its risk, and we’re always threatened by the loss of that capacity to critically confront the artwork, to break its spell. Few even recognize the hold but finish as if having been mesmerized. You’ll often hear people talk about getting lost or absorbed in film, which is necessary, but so too is that moment in film that break the trans-fixation…
…We can perhaps probe even further the moving image; the infamous Baudrillard argued the image-world had produced a simulation of reality that had substituted itself for reality. That the hold of the TV was like the gods of old, and consumers sat fixated on the truths it delivered ready-made into their minds; moving only to make the regular libations and offerings of coin. What does it mean to switch fluidly from a film channel to one on baking to an advert and so on? How does art as a separate sphere survive this? What does it mean to carry around a screen, a smart phone, so you can be always plugged into the network 24/7? So many of our experiences come to us via. the moving image; I’ve been to so many countries, and worlds, I’ve seen shock and awe live, danced in prisons and inside volcanoes. But have I ever actually lived it, experienced it? All those moments are no longer lost in time, in rain, but captured, colonized, stored in ventilated server warehouses in Arizona, replayed and doled out. I can exchange my independence for access to this image-world and the wonders it delivers to me like all the rest. The avant-garde once made it their task to breach the separation of art and life, well our industrialized society did it for them, but at the expense of both.”
(/u/mosestrod)

This comment spurred me to consider two important implications of film familiarity. The first relates to how film familiarity can warp our perception of what is real and what is entertainment, breaking down the barriers between experience and media. In the modern world we’re exposed to an unprecedented volume of visual stimulus, from commercials to cell phone screens to pieces of art. If we accept the idea that film is a medium that closely resembles our perceptions of the real world, then how are we to determine what belongs to our world and what belongs to the world of the image? With this challenge in mind, overcoming film familiarity becomes a much more meaningful task. Before I had thought of it simply as a way to facilitate the analysis of the form, but if we concern ourselves with the social implications that /u/mosestrod raises, then it serves a different purpose entirely. It becomes a method of demarcating what is real and what belongs to film. It constrains our perception of reality and determines what we internalize as art and what we accept as experience. Thus, our ability to overcome the rapport that accompanies our innate film familiarity determines the extent to which we can identify reality for ourselves rather than have it preselected for us by the visual media that we consume.

So what are the implications of this extension of film familiarity for the delivery of film education? For one, it certainly ups the gravitas of the endeavor. We’re no longer just teaching people to appreciate and understand an art form, but rather we’re teaching them to filter the information they’re exposed to in order to separate reality from fiction. There are also some important practical implications of this shift in pedagogical duty. For instance, I think for the purposes of a beginning level film class it will be crucial to develop visual literacy for a wide range of image-based media, not just the feature film. Of course, actual films should be the focus of the course, but including other forms of visual stimulus will ensure that students establish a strong base for overcoming film familiarity in all spheres. Perhaps the deconstruction of advertisements and visual social content will help facilitate this.

/u/mosestrod’s post also got me thinking about another implication of film familiarity: film’s status as an exploitative medium. Motion pictures rely on their ability to place viewers into a sort of “spellbound” state of mind in order to achieve their emotional effects. But film’s entire ability to place us in this state relies entirely on the existence of a subconscious familiarity with the medium in the first place. In a way, it’s targeting a weakness of our mental capacities in order to shift our perception of reality for a limited time. Is this the case for all forms of art? Are they simply targeted doses of stimulus that leverage our instinctual quirks for the purpose of entertainment? Perhaps I’m getting off task with this, but it could be interesting to consider what mental weaknesses, if any, are targeted by other forms of media.
This concept of film as a medium that takes advantage of an instinctual weakness also has some interesting pedagogical implications. Primarily, it harkens back to the issue of balancing an emotional connection to the piece with intellectual disinterestedness. If film really does leverage emotional quirks, those quirks must be kept active in some capacity to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced. In order to break down how a film works we must be able to remove our latent film familiarity, but in order to see its intended effect we must allow some of that film familiarity to remain. Perhaps encouraging multiple viewings would strike this balance: the first one to watch the film as intended, the subsequent ones to understand its technical elements. This may be impractical for a classroom scenario, but striking the proper balance between these two observational modes will be crucial to developing a deep understanding of the form.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity

This is a theory that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and I’ve decided that I ought to flesh it out thoroughly with a full article.

While some skills of literary analysis are transferable to film analysis, there are a few key differences that make it an entirely different beast. These differences can make it difficult for even the most skilled readers to dissect film effectively. I’ll refer to these challenges under the umbrella of “film familiarity”.

Film familiarity can be divided into two primary components. The first one involves the fundamental tools that the medium uses to deliver an impact, which are visual and auditory stimuli. These stimuli also happen to be the variety of sensory information that most people are bombarded with most on a day to day basis. It may seem as if our familiarity with this sort of sensory information would make film analysis easier, but it actually generates one of the greatest challenges of understanding the form. Consider the written word; most literate people read in some capacity every single day, but they’re not exposed to nearly the same volume of text as they are to images and sounds. Furthermore, the text they’re exposed to in the form of cereal boxes and advertisements is a far cry from the text of literature. As a result, when someone sits down to read a poem, it’s an active and involved process. Because they’re not exposed to poetic language in their everyday life, there’s a degree of conscious effort that takes place to internalize it and interpret it. Each line is taken in, processed, and critically analyzed on at least a somewhat conscious level. The images and sounds of film, however, are far more familiar to the everyday person than the style of a poem. It feels more natural. When they watch a film they receive its emotional impacts, but they don’t need to consciously process the information they’re presented with in order to do so. Breaking down the film into its constituent parts feels unnecessary and unnatural, creating a barrier to understanding the technical elements of the medium.

The second part of film familiarity stems from the way the medium handles the passage of time. Now, written works have a limited degree of control over how much time the reader will spend on it. Tolkien, for instance, can make the journeys of his hobbits seem tortuous by tirelessly describing every last rock, tree, mountain, and bend in the road. But despite this, readers will spend varying amounts of time on each section. They’ll reread sentences that they don’t understand, savor the bits they enjoy most, and get through the boring sections as quickly as possible. The time controls of written works extend only as far as encouragement. A filmmaker, on the other hand, has total control over the duration of her work. She can select the exact total runtime and the precise duration of each scene. Barring bathroom breaks and intermittent pauses, and if a film is viewed as the creator intended, each viewer will be provided with the exact same runtime. Now, this is ignoring the frequent pauses that a film student or critic would employ in order to dissect certain scenes, but right now we’re referring only to the normal and intended delivery of a work. Undeniably, written works do not have the strict built-in duration that films have. This has a few important effects for the filmgoer. The most straightforward one is that the average viewer simply won’t have enough time to carefully dissect the piece. Since the film will go on and on despite the viewer’s thought processes, most people will not be able to carefully consider the intricacies of every shot and scene. The second, less straightforward effect is the subconscious encouragement towards passivity that a carefully controlled time structure generates. The controlled pace of a film means that a role that the audience would serve in the case of a written work is taken from them and relegated to the creators. Riding on the back of a motorcycle requires less attention than actually operating one. In the same way, the less work that an audience has to perform, the less attention they’ll need to pay to it. As a result, conscious effort must be taken to give a film the same attention as a novel or poem.

The funny thing about the medium is that if film familiarity is the primary stumbling block on the path to understanding the form, then one must actually become less comfortable with it in order to dissect it. They must consciously eliminate their rapport with the medium in order to be able to examine its technical elements. On the other hand, there must be some instinctual connection with the piece in order to be able to receive its intended emotional impact. Striking this balance between instinctual film familiarity and disinterested analysis is one of the greatest challenges that a student of film faces.

 

(This article is continued in a later post. Click here.)

We Need to Talk About Kevin

spoilers for We Need to Talk About Kevin

 

It’s always interesting to see how storytellers strip down their pieces to deliver a precise, focused message. Distilled narratives have always been far more fascinating to me than labyrinthine thickets of intersecting plotlines and heaps of deep characters. Perhaps my attention span is just sorely lacking, but I like to believe there’s something special about these barebones pieces. They capture the fundamental essence of a feeling and nothing more. It’s why I’m so fascinated by directors like Nicolas Winding Refn who strip down their films until there’s nothing left but unadulterated audiovisual stimuli.

 

I recently watched We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay, and it does something novel to simplify its message down to the core. It’s a story about the relationship between a mother and a son, the latter of which turns out to be a misanthropic, hateful outcast. The film primarily concerns itself with the intersection between mother and son and the seemingly inevitable hatred present in some people, but there’s a moment when it could easily veer into the political. The film builds up to the son, Kevin, going on a killing spree at his high school. However, the filmmakers had no intention of making a film about gun control, so they made a simple narrative change: they had Kevin do his killing with a bow. 

 

It’s a simple change, but it radically changes how the piece is read. If he had used a firearm, there isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that people would take the film as justification for stricter gun laws. But that’s not what the film is about. It was never intended to have a political message. It tells a story about evil and interdependency, nothing more and nothing less. Including a gun would muddle this message and greatly lessen the raw emotional impact that Kevin’s unstoppable decline has on the audience. We Need to Talk About Kevin shows the importance of focus in storytelling. A piece that tries to do too much can end up doing nothing at all.

North By Northwest and the Two Kinds of Mystery

I finally got around to watching North By Northwest after picking up a Hitchcock boxed set. As everyone says, every aspect of the film shone through as a towering example of the craft of filmmaking. There is, however, one storytelling element that got me thinking about how a good thriller is put together.

It seems that every thriller has two different varieties of mystery: mystery behind the nature of a character or occurrence, and mystery behind how a certain situation will play out. For instance, the identity of a shadowy figure would be an example of the former, as the audience is unaware of who they are. A scene in which a protagonist is trying to rescue someone would have the latter form of mystery, as the audience is unaware of whether they’ll manage to pull it off and, if so, how they’ll do it. North By Northwest excels at providing seemingly limitless volumes of the first kind of mystery. As soon as we discover why Thornhill was kidnapped, we’re invited to consider Kendall’s motives and position in the story. Every “nature” mystery is replaced with a new one until the story finally culminates at Rushmore, when all of these mysteries are finally resolved together. Repeatedly refreshing this kind of mystery ensures that there’s always something for viewers to figure out, that we’re not just caught up in how events will play out.

It Follows

A good horror film builds layers of dread slowly and meticulously, generating a nearly unbearable sense of fearful anticipation in the viewer before finally resolving it. It Follows performs the first step beautifully. Its voyeuristic long shots, paranoid circular pans, and corner-of-the-eye glimpses of the monster create such terror and tension that many claim to habitually glance over their shoulder after watching the movie. It’s a palpable, visceral anxiety that few modern horror pieces manage to achieve.

On the other hand, a good horror film also has satisfying moments when all of the tension is broken. This is where It Follows falls flat. The film’s monster is terrifying because it’s elemental and mysterious, a being that the viewer and the characters can’t quite fathom. The terror that it creates so effectively is cheapened a bit when it builds to fight scenes that pit a group of friends against an invisible, Herculean, shape-shifting brute. In order for a resolution to be satisfying, it must be compatible with the means used to build fear in the first place. Otherwise it can come off as a shoehorned action sequence intended to universalize the film’s appeal, which is never a good thing.

Don’t let me scare you off from this piece, though. It’s worth a look solely for its elegant generation of anxiety and stripped-down horror. But be wary of the action, as it dulls the film’s edge.

Mr. Holmes and Shifting Perspectives

A few days ago I set aside some time to watch Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it. It seems like a Holmes movie starring one of the most beloved British actors in history would get a lot of publicity, but I really hadn’t heard much talk at all. It’s not a groundbreaking or exceptional film, but it certainly tells an emotionally satisfying and thought provoking detective tale that’s worth an hour and a half. What I really enjoyed about it, though, was the grace with which it weaves together distinct plotlines into a cohesive narrative.

The story is split into three separate series of events: Holmes’ outing in Japan to seek a plant that provides youth and enhances one’s memory, his final case that leads to his retirement, and his activities many years after his removal from the world of detecting. These three sequences could easily have been tossed together into a jumbled mess, but Condon manages to tie them together with poise and deliberation. Many recent films have tried to manage similarly complex plotlines and fallen flat on their faces (see Snyder’s participation-trophy-worthy Batman v. Superman. Actually, don’t see it), but Holmes never feels disorienting. This is partly due to the clear changes in setting that clue the viewer in as to what bit of Holmes’ story is being shown, but the key is distinct causal relationships between a sequence and the time shift preceding it. Every turn feels motivated, allowing the audience to understand where they actually are in the story and why they’re there in the first place. It’s very similar to chapter 3 of Brave New World, which I happened to be teaching the day after I watched Holmes. Huxley manages to wrangle the perspectives of three separate characters into a single chapter, and the result is one of the most effective pieces of worldbuilding in the entire novel. Shifts in perspective and time can be incredibly effective tools for a storyteller, but one must be sure not to lose cohesion in the process of utilizing them.