Thursday, August 22, 2013

An Apology

I just wanted to take this opportunity to apologize to you, dear readers, for a personal failing. In this space, today, you were supposed to have gotten my First Impressions piece about Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux, which I watched Tuesday night. But I am unable to deliver that piece to you because I don't feel that what I could tell you about the film would be helpful in any real sense.

Simply put, I did not connect with the movie at all.

I've reviewed films like this before, and I'm sure I could again put together a convincing piece, summarizing the plot and the film's stylistic tics, then detailing my problems with its execution. But I don't think blaming the movie for my own reaction to it would be ethical, in a critical sense, here. In this case, I'm certain that Post Tenebras Lux has merit. It has craft. It plays with ideas and the art form itself. It has received praise from several respected critics, and even I felt as though there was something worthwhile in it. But I had neither the wherewithal nor, more importantly, the desire, to ferret out what that was.

Obviously, were I being paid to write these little reviews, I would have given the film another shot. Perhaps I would have focused better or been more compelled to care. But that's not fair, either. I'm a cinephile. I love movies. I don't watch them because it's profitable to do so—it is, in fact, costly in both money and time. While a paycheck might have motivated me to give you better work, I don't think it would have changed my engagement with the film itself.

The problem, here, is me.

I'm a narrative cinema person. I always have been. It led to problems in grad school, as many professors and fellow students leaned more towards the abstract, the deliberately obscure, and the numinous. For me, give me an interesting story with engaging characters, one where the filmmakers use the language of cinema to add depth, convey emotions, and heighten the story's effect, and I'm hooked. That is my preference. The less a filmmaker focuses on story and character arcs, the tougher it is for me to get into the film. There are, as ever, exceptions—style goes a long way—but when it comes to more abstract expression, it's kind of a crapshoot as to what will hook me and what won't. Post Tenebras Lux, with its flighty, diffuse story, did not.

I think that stories are innately human. Stories connect us to our history. They cleave us to both fictional characters and people we've never met from around the world. They are, to me, the best and most consistent tool a filmmaker has to engage our emotions. Sure, story in the absence of cinematic craft is often dry or affectless, while an over-reliance on story or structure can lead to formulaic films. There are only so many plots in the world, it's said, only so many motivations. But there are also only so many keys on a piano, and we ain't ran out of songs yet.

Film is a unique art, in that it comprises elements of nearly every art form that preceded it. Film is visual, like painting, and it is made up of thousands and thousands of still photographs. It tells stories, like literature. It can feature music, vocals, and recorded, manipulated sound. It has a temporal element, like live performance and theater, and moves like dance or ballet. Builders, sculptors, model-makers, designers, and artisan craftspersons all contribute to film. And as with each of these art forms, our reactions to it are more instinctive than we cerebral types like to admit.

A painting grabs you, or it doesn't. There is little logic to it. You can learn art history, or study all the context, all the theory, and all the critical opinion in the world.  You can learn to paint, and come to understand the practical difficulties that went into the making of the piece. Even after all of that, you may admire or respect the painting more, you may even like it after a fashion, but if it wasn't your style before, you probably won't hang it in your living room now. The same applies to movies, to an extent. The more we learn about them, the more we can appreciate, but if a film doesn't speak to you, it doesn't speak to you. For many, myself often included, non–narrative-focused films remain opaquely silent.

I think we yearn for story in film not only because it is what we're conditioned to expect, but because there is a deeper need for connection, or empathy, or understanding, that only stories can fulfill. The dominant narrative language of film would hardly dominate if it weren't speaking to a lot of us on some primal level. This is not to say that people who dare to do things that push the boundaries of "normal" cinema are wasting their time. Far from it. It's just that the more daring the art, the more likely you're looking at an audience made solely of aficionados. Neither am I saying that there's no validity in abstraction, or in non-narrative forms. A single out-of-context frame can crush us or take our breath away, just like a photo or a painting, and an unknown film's score can bring us to tears, just like a piece of non-film music. But when these elements are synthesized together with a solid story, the result is something without peer across the arts.

Obviously, I'm speaking for myself, here. Not everyone feels the same way, or goes into movies looking for the same things. And I realize I'm pushing dangerously close to the territory covered in Dan Kois's much reviled "cultural vegetables" article though, unlike Kois, I would never cynically assume others equate boredom with value—or, indeed, assume that anyone else feels the same boredom I may or may not feel during a given film. Neither would I tell people NOT to watch movies solely because they aren't in my wheelhouse, be the films long, slow, from a different cultural context, or just abstract. And I myself don't watch these films out of a sense of obligation—or, at least, not entirely out of a sense of obligation, says the slightly obsessive-compulsive completist in my head—but rather out of hope for a moving experience. You never know where you will find the filmic equivalent of that random painting that just grabs you.

The documentary Sweetgrass, for example, is a largely dialog-free, fly-on-the-wall look at shepherds moving their flock across the west. There's no story to speak of, not much in the way of characters, and it scarcely follows a typical narrative structure. That should be three strikes against it in my book, judging by the preference I've stated and re-stated here, yet I loved it, and would have missed out on it if I didn't attempt to get around my preferences. And, on the flip side, I can't even count how many lousy narrative films come out each year, or how many films fall prey to formula, convention, or saccharine sentimentality. It's not a black-or-white situation.

Had I written that review of Post Tenebras Lux, I would probably have said something along the lines of "The film never invests us in its characters enough to care whether we're seeing their fantasies, dreams, memories, or some uncomfortable reality." That may be true, for me—and what is film reviewing but the expression and interrogation of one's personal response to a text?—but it would be a misreading of the film stemming from my bias towards narrative cinema. Reygadas doesn't want to invest us in his characters or story in that way. He is playing a different game, a game of suggestion, of dream logic, of allusion. It is not a game I am wholly unqualified to describe, though I am not embarrassed to say this film may have gone over my head.

So why am I apologizing and writing a long essay instead of just talking about the film? Isn't it OK for a critic, especially a non-professional one, to say "I don't get this film" and leave it at that? Sure, I guess. Maybe I felt I'd be "letting down the side" by not explaining myself more fully. But I think the primary reason I didn't want to write about Post Tenebras Lux is that I flatter myself in imagining that some of you actually take stock in my opinions. In this case, I felt that my lack of engagement and inability to get past my biases rendered my opinions next to valueless, and I didn't want to take advantage of your good faith with either rote neutral copy or an "It's not for me" cop-out.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough considering I didn't need to say anything at all. I just wanted you to understand me, which is more than I can say for Post Tenebras Lux (ZING).  I should be back tomorrow morning with more concise thoughts about one film or another, and tomorrow afternoon with another Weekend Stream. See you then!

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