the problem with art is that no one can define it with any precision. it can be utilitarian or fanciful, mimetic or abstract, primitive or refined. experts have never agreed on the value of any given work either. how can vertigo be judged best film of all time in the sight and sound/bfi list while rising no better than the sixty first position in the afi poll which, adding insult to injury, comprises only american films? in fact, it is impossible to find a universal criterion that would allow us to compare radically different films, for example citizen kane and titicut follies, lawrence of arabia and symbiopsychotaxiplasm take 1, schindler’s list and la jetée.
if that is so, are all films of equal value? don’t all films show a certain level of artistry? don’t they all do their best to interest viewers? so, instead of a black and white situation with commercial movies on one side and art cinema on the other, let’s acknowledge the fact that there is a continuum between the two groups with many movies striding both areas.
still, films are built based on very different assumptions. with commercial films, one of the goals is to immerse viewers in the tale. lately, the most effective way to do so is to use a filmmaking style peter watkins has called the monoform. armageddon and the bourne supremacy are manifestations of this über-genre. from the get go, the narrative is designed to propel us forward at breakneck speed through non-stop action, violence galore, commotion everywhere, rushing protagonists, brisk camera movements, forceful lighting changes, energetic editing, thundering sound effects, and stirring musical compositions. this bodily-kinesthetic (howard gardner) style of filmmaking is meant to meet the global audience’s demand for amusement. more than “speaking” to viewers though, this line of attack triggers continuous hits in the eye/brain system. even if the story itself is not great, the rods and cones are bound to respond to the stimulations on the screen. whereas in ordinary life, the circuitry is hardly challenged, it is working overtime when exposed to this treatment. one exits the theater stunned, not unlike our experience after a particularly challenging roller coaster ride.
for the makers of this kind of films, success at the box office confirms that people want to escape their present condition by fantasizing about characters and situations that have little to do with everyday life. this thinking nevertheless indirectly acknowledges that people are confronting difficult personal or social issues that need healing. the cure that is offered however provides only short-term relief. no attempt is made to equip viewers with more lasting medicine, the kind that could help them once they are back on the street.
conversely some films—a minority surely—make more demands on us. we recognize these films because they offer a practice of cinema at odds with what we are accustomed to encounter at the cineplex. to simplify greatly, these films can be said to operate more like poetry insofar as they dislocate codes and conventions, forcing us to pay attention to aspects of movies we normally overlook. the manner through which we discover an action thus becomes as important as the action itself. long after the movie is over, the mind is still active, thinking and rethinking the film experience.
through their process then, these films tend to set up stumbling blocks that impede our absorption within the story world. let’s take effi briest, a middling film by fassbinder, as a single example. from the beginning the director insists on maintaining a certain distance between the camera and the characters. at times he even stops the action, posing the personages in painterly tableaux. furthermore, scenes are often reflected in mirrors or observed through gauze or foreground objects. inevitably we are forced to question this unusual presentation. why is this scene shown this way? are the decorous intrusions dispensable extravagances, personal indulgences, that real professionals would quickly excise from the film? or are they central to the film’s project insofar as they allow us to experience the stifling milieu that imprisons the heroine? as for the mirror shots, they too bring out a perspective at odds with similar scenes in ordinary movies. whereas in the latter they tend to disclose a personal, reflective moment for a female character, in effi briest the camera is sufficiently away from the mirror to keep us from becoming privy to the heroine’s self absorption. we notice rather that she is caught in a role she cannot escape. all in all, fassbinder’s visual style, far from being gratuitous, provides us with a critical viewpoint that is distinct from the character’s own awareness of herself.
in films such as effi briest, it is the neurons and the synapses that are working overtime as opposed to the rods and the cones. this is so because such films make us confront difference and otherness in the way people act, think, and create. although these films are inevitably entangled in the commercial marketing and distribution of movies, their main purpose is not to make money. by unfurling unanticipated, more reflective, and more challenging views of the world, these works are not unlike gifts that demand a follow-up on the part of the recipients (marcel mauss). the response in this case consists in living up to the challenge created by the film. when i leave the theater indeed, i’m not the person i was when i walked in. i’ve just been given some insight that redefines how i see the world. i’m thinking about the film and what it means for my life.
why is it that formal hindrances are rejected by most viewers whereas obstacles to a protagonist’s goal in ordinary movies are enjoyed as suspense? it may be that in the latter, they appear to emerge from within the story itself, and are thus construed as organic to it, whereas aesthetic flourishes are interpreted as being imposed externally, the work of an obnoxious interloper. like it or not, the majority of spectators regard visual tropes as meddlesome interferences denying them personal, immediate, transparent access to what’s going on. beyond this, there is also a difference in kind between the two types of obstacles. on the one hand, impediments thrown in the path of a protagonist are dramatic conventions that viewers are familiar with based on prior experience with movie narratives. they know it is the job of the protagonist to overcome them. on the other hand, the difficulties they themselves experience while watching more artistically inclined movies remind them of their own frustration when confronting real life stumbling blocks.
looking back in time, it is clear that the cultural changes and the technological advances of the last decades have (inadvertently?) undermined the traditional artistic approach. through new devices for instance, we have been given power over the story’s progression. we can now fast forward through a scene when we feel the director lingers too much on material that doesn’t do anything for us. or we can skip a scene all together. in other words we have trained ourselves to deal with the film on our own terms. most often this means responding to the “what” of the story, leaving behind its “how”. the dynamic narrative chain leading from one event to the next is now paramount for our pleasure as opposed to the formal approach permeating each moment of the tale. we no longer have the time, patience or willingness to postpone immediate gratification for more solid rewards later on.
in a similar vein, however much mainstream critics like dargis and scott at the new york times come out in support of more difficult fare, their voices are blotted out by all those who complain, online or through social media, about how slow and boring these films are. for hollywood fans indeed, only one kind of movies should be made, the one where everything shows up as expected.
even though all movies open a world, what shows up most of the time under the surface gloss is a shrunken scenery exhibiting overly familiar stories, figures and techniques. put simply, like the natives of old, we are being offered shiny but valueless trinkets. only on rare occasions, an unusual, more personal imagery emerges. only then do we find ourselves transported in a realm that surprises us and makes us pay attention. formal devices in particular disturb ,complicate, and delay the story proceedings. put more crudely, art mucks up the picture. it slows down the process. it frustrates our demand for immediate pleasure. a tension is created. our assumptions about life and the movies are shaken up.
the words usually associated with brecht’s theater—the estrangement, alienation, or distanciation effect—are not particularly inviting for the general audience. they suggest a forbidding, standoffish, unfriendly attitude. if anything, the german playwright wanted his public to become more, rather than less, involved in the tale. whereas in ordinary theater one doesn’t question the story, in his own work brecht invited the audience to cogitate about the premises taken for granted by the situations they were watching, even question the characters’ responses to them. we should for instance pay attention to the fact that othello is not just a military commander. he is also a political leader like general franco or general pinochet. desdemona, for him, is thus more than a beautiful young woman. she is a token of his power. for her to be unfaithful would expose him to ridicule, loss of prestige and possibly bring an end to his political career.
judging characters, even criticizing them, has of course remained taboo in our cultural production. the ploy is said to keep the audience from enjoying the work or, worse, to be preaching to them. to counteract this prospect, brecht embedded the commenting in movies, music, and songs that were genuinely entertaining. another tactic involved getting rid of the fourth wall thereby converting passive spectators into implicated parties. these maneuvers bolstered his theater, making it more exciting than traditional straightforward productions.
to call something cerebral in our culture means it lacks emotion. it is a kiss of death when attached to a work. yet why would awaking a response in the brain be perceived so inimically compared to more straightforward sensory feedback? it is happening in our body after all and we are bodily impacted by it. in brecht’s view then, to be able, as a spectator, to see through the ideological construct that organizes social life (the one in our life as well as that experienced by the characters in the play), that is to say, the system of beliefs and ideas which makes the world what it is instead of what it could be or what it can still become, is a sensation of the first order, a lightning flash running through the mind.