Monday, March 23, 2009

on difficult films

The older I get, the more I want to be diverted and entertained by gaudy spectacles and improbable wish-fulfilling plots. Maybe it's the product of also feeling too old for drama in my own life, which may be mirrored in my aesthetic choices. I went through a major "bummer" phase in college, when I only liked sad, difficult cinema, and even better if it was in a foreign language. I am less into being depressed for depression's sake. That said, there's always a special place in my latent angsty psyche for such films and literature, because "the good" will always win over "the crappy"--no matter how happy or silly or wish-fulfilling that chick flick is, I will not watch it. I will happily watch films like "Wendy and Lucy" though, and "Frozen River." For more on the cinema verite of such realistic, depressing, neo-depression era films, read A.O. Scott's article in the Times:

WHAT KIND OF MOVIES do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.

And as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions. Remember the ’30s, when we danced through the Depression with Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley and giggled amid the gloom with Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers? (Not many of us do, of course, which makes this kind of selective memory easier to promote.) Then as now, what we wanted most was to forget our troubles. In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape.

Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.

I don’t want to spoil any plots, but if you have read this far, it will hardly surprise you to learn that, in these movies, dreams generally do not come true. Antonio Ricci never did recover his bicycle.

“They all of them, in a way, can be connected to the myth of Sisyphus,” Rahmin Bahrani said to me, as our conversation ranged from his own films to those of his peers and precursors. “Because it’s like, that’s it: you will push the stone up to the top, and it will come back down again.” In contrast, Bahrani said, Hollywood wish-fulfillment tales — or the faux-independent dramas of adversity followed by third-act redemption — did not strike him as hopeful at all. “They just don’t make any sense,” he said. “They create massive confusion.” To which his own films (and films like “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sugar” and “Treeless Mountain”) might serve, in their very different ways, as an antidote. Not because they offer grim counsels of despair or paint lurid tableaux of desperation but rather because they take what has always seemed seductively easy about moviemaking — the camera can show us the world — and make it look hard. Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going. The disappointment they encounter — the grit with which they face it, the grace with which it is conveyed — becomes, for the audience, a kind of exhilaration. What happens at the end of a dream? You wake up.

Cinema verite I get, understand the value of, and appreciate and will force myself to seek and watch. Stories of sadness and the multiplexity of the human condition are worth seeing, even if it disturbs the bubble of blithe unconcern. But there remains a class of "difficult" movies I cannot bring myself to watch though, even if it will be artistically speaking, "good for me": violent movies. I was trying to get through the first ten minutes of "A Clockwork Orange," and the second rape scene stopped me cold and I refused to see the rest. I couldn't get through "Deliverance" for the same reason. I just don't like violence, especially scenes of rape. This cuts out a whole bunch of movies that are artistically good and valuable, and rape is one of the ugliest human acts that should come to the foreground of discussion. But I can't bring myself to suffer through the bad parts of these movies, even if the ultimate lesson is worthwhile, such is my discomfort. Should I push myself more, in the name of difficult art? How much should we push ourselves and challenge our aesthetic limits in order to better understand the human condition?