philosophy

Ikiru and Inertia

Sort of on the cusp between middle-aged and elderly. Certainly not old enough to be in a nursing home, but certainly too old to get off the bench in a recreational basketball league. Out of place at both a rock concert and a bingo hall. That I-like-my-coffee-black sort of age, but likely too young to have one of those medicine trays with seven compartments, each labelled for a specific day of the week. A city councilman, or a planner, or a chairman, or some other variety of bureaucrat. Public Works department, yet he doesn’t seem to have completed any sort of Work for the Public in quite a long time. Stack of paper. Stamp. Place in bin. Brush aside needy citizens, who do they think I am, some kind of public servant or something?

Stomach cancer. Incurable. Six months, maybe? He realizes how he’s never realized how unfulfilling his life is. He tries indulging himself. Gambling, drinking, parties, etc. Doesn’t cut it. So he decides to do his job, see if he can make his community a better place. Turns a cesspool of sewage into a public park. The people love him. He dies.

Ikiru is, I think, among Kurosawa’s finest, samurai or otherwise. It’s certainly among his most personal. And yet some of its implications are a bit unnerving. Do we never fully realize our capacity for good, nor recognize the happiness it brings about, until we’re nearing the end of the time allotted to us? Why does it take so long? Perhaps it’s a desperate scramble to do something of substance, to justify our birth and the eighty-odd years we spend spending and eating and indulging and crying and laughing. Kind of like this review. I spent the first half rambling and now I’m realizing that I need to say something, that this needs to have a purpose, because otherwise why did I even bother to sit down and write this? We fear that our story will end without a theme, without having said something, and maybe it isn’t until the end approaches that we even recognize this fear.

Or maybe it’s more ego-driven. Perhaps our desire to be seen, to be noticed in some way lies dormant throughout life and only overcomes our inertia when it’s almost too late. Maybe his swan song is nothing more than a way to perpetuate himself, to make some sort of legacy that will outlast him. Is this why anybody does anything at all? Certainly frightening, but Ikiru leaves it open as a possibility.

Go watch it if you haven’t already. Above all else, I think it works best as a warning against the joyless drifting that we fall into all too often.

 

 

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.)

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.

Wyoming, Tourism, and Raw Experience

For the most part, it was a fairly normal vacation. My father took the family to Wyoming to see Yellowstone and other odds and ends. I enjoyed my time there and would certainly recommend it to anyone, but there was one specific event that got me thinking. It was our first full day of the trip, and my dad had hired a tourism company to show us around Grand Teton national park. There was nothing wrong with the tour guide at all; he was personable, entertaining, and knowledgeable. Nor was there anything amiss with the park itself. It was certainly an enjoyable excursion with many beautiful sights, but something didn’t feel right about the experience itself. It felt unnatural and contrived, like a trip to Disneyland rather than to one of America’s great preserves.

It wasn’t until later that day that I was able to realize the source of this feeling. After we got back from the tour, I went out on my own to explore the resort town we were staying in. I found my way to the base of the ski slopes (sans snow, as this was during the summer) and set out to climb to the top. It was an exhausting endeavor, and I didn’t even make it to the summit. When I reached my limit I sat on the slope and looked down onto the town, the surrounding plains, and saw other mountains far in the distance. It was certainly a beautiful view, but nothing like I had seen in the park a few hours earlier. Despite this, I felt a strange sensation. I was sitting atop a mountain tailored and manipulated by humans, but I felt more fulfilled than I ever did in the largely untouched park. I took in the view and sat in silence, enjoying the spontaneity and adventure of the moment. I felt a sense of discovery and escape that I didn’t experience earlier in the day. This was very odd to me: the park was much larger, much more natural, and more beautiful than what I saw sitting on the slope. Shouldn’t I have been much more excited by that?

On the way down, I was able to pinpoint the reason for this disparity. Climbing the slope may have been less exotic and seemingly less interesting than visiting the national park, but it was of my own doing. I set out on my own, I made my way to the slope, and I decided to climb it without planning. When I completed my journey, I had all the time in the world to sit and enjoy the experience. It wasn’t anything daring or extravagant, but it was entirely my own. While our trip to the park was entertaining and informative, it was largely manufactured. The tour guide picked us up at our rental condo, drove us to the park, and ferried us around to predetermined points of interest. There was no discovery or uncertainty involved, and discovery and uncertainty are the very things that make something like a vacation meaningful. This doesn’t apply only to something like a trip, though; it can be used to consider the value of any experience, even those that seem pedestrian. An experience is not memorable or meaningful purely because of what is seen or done. The way one engages with an experience, connects with it, explores it, and makes it their own is what truly matters. A truly meaningful experience cannot be contrived, but must be sought after individually and organically.

After considering my experience on the slope, I began to wish that I had been able to experience the park on my own terms. It was, of course, a family vacation, so I absolutely understood the need for a degree of structure, but I still felt a twinge of annoyance that such a promising opportunity had been marred by artificiality. Later, my family discussed the tour. Everyone thought that it was highly beneficial to our experience because it allowed us to see more of the park and find things that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. I don’t find this to be a compelling argument against my proposal for a more natural approach. Sure, we may have been able to see more, but wouldn’t it have been better to intimately and meaningfully engage with whatever we managed to find on our own, rather than viewing everything the park has to offer on the surface level? I sure thought so, and I still do.

I certainly don’t want to sound like an ungrateful brat. I’m appreciative of all the things I’ve been fortunate enough to see, but I do feel that many of these experiences could have been greatly improved. I now make an effort to allow experiences to unfold in a natural manner so that I can engage with them and connect with them on a more visceral level. I do believe that it can help to enrich life, so I implore you to do the same. Explore life’s joys without any pretense or structure, wander aimlessly, search for nothing in particular, and take the time to reflect on what these experiences mean to you. Forego the tour guide and truly connect to whatever you manage to stumble upon. Make an effort to search for nothing in particular, and I guarantee that you’ll find something of value.