I’m still learning something new every day, which is a wonderful experience. Part of that experience, however, is needing to change my mind on certain things. And when you have a blog, some of those things about which you need to change your mind are out there for all the world to see. So I’ve decided to return to one of my most popular blog posts and add some new thoughts to it. I still agree with the basic premise, and I don’t intend to correct any of the choices on my list. But I began that post thusly: “One of the greatest and most essential pleasures of moviegoing is identification with the characters on the screen. If such identification doesn’t happen, even a great story can only be appreciated at arm’s length. The audience needs a surrogate through which to experience the story vicariously.” It is that argument that I have since been led to question.
I no longer fully agree with the statements quoted above mostly because of two sources I’ve found in the intervening months: Daniel A. Siedell’s posts at the blog Cultivare and a pair of posts by Matt Zoller Seitz at Indiewire. What these writers have helped me understand is the responsibility of the audience in understanding art.
Siedell writes more about painting, with special emphasis on modern art, but he discusses literary works as well and considers movies as falling under the larger category of “art.” He often writes about how art confronts us, how it opens up some truth about the world and asks us to slow down and think about it. The work of art doesn’t convey a simple message — philosophical, political, religious — to be debated over. It can transcend the intended meaning and the worldview of the artist, because art requires the participation of both creator and viewer. So my responsibility to a film is to be receptive.
Seitz says much the same. He writes about older movies for which a cultural gap necessarily exists for today’s audiences. According to him, we can choose to “connect” with the film, to accept it on its own terms, to engage with it. Or we can consider ourselves superior and mock it. The first response, he says (and I agree), is better and will lead to a more fulfilling experience, if the film has any value at all. So my responsibility to a film is to “meet it halfway.”
In his second post, Seitz talks about “the narcissism of the present tense”:
It says to art, entertainment and the world at large: “This moment in time is the most morally and intellectually advanced in all human history, and I am a lucky part of that era, a fully evolved person who cannot change or learn any further. Therefore this old movie with its corny language and corny situations can’t make me feel anything, or have any thoughts that I haven’t had before, so I’m going to sit here, arms folded, and laugh at it. And if you don’t like it, you’re just an old person, or somebody with a nostalgia fetish, or a jerk who thinks his enjoyment is superior to mine.”
What these writers (and also, incidentally, one or two sarcastic tweets to the same effect) have really illuminated for me is that the inability to connect with a movie or its characters could actually be a result of narcissism. I want to be clear that the responsibility cuts both ways. A filmmaker has to create believably human characters who behave in an understandable manner. They can even be caricatures to make a satiric point, but there has to be something recognizable in them. A movie can indeed fail to forge a connection with its audience. On the other hand, to say that unless the viewer can literally relate to the character’s experience, the character means nothing to the viewer, is indeed a kind of postmodern narcissism. It is much less important that I find a character “relatable” than that I find him or her true and interesting. An audience member can indeed fail to forge a connection with a movie.
None of this really reverses what I was getting at in the earlier post. The top five list was never supposed to represent my five favorite films, or even my five favorite characters. Looking at the films themselves instead of just a single character from each of them, I would rank them differently (with It’s a Wonderful Life at the top). It was more of an autobiographical exercise, anyway. But were I to do it all over again, I wouldn’t emphasize the importance of relating to characters in such a sweeping fashion.
It’s still true that the easiest movies to fall in love with are the ones for which the connection is easily made. But what I’ve also been learning is that the “harder” movies might possibly be more rewarding in the long run. A movie invites us into a world, and if we’re completely unfamiliar with the new surroundings, the experience can be difficult. But if we let ourselves in, we’ll find ourselves communing with the filmmakers, which is much preferable to being lonely and confused in the dark. If I’m holding a great movie “at arm’s length,” it’s worth pondering whether the movie needs to come to me, or I to it.