By Peter Malone, MSC
(From Chapter 2 of the book Film and Faith, published by the Communication Foundation for Asia: Manila, 2008)
One often hears it said, “I go to a film to be entertained, not to be educated. I don’t go to look for problems.” The other extreme from escapism-entertainment, (which also sends shivers up most people’s spines) is the relentless quest for problems, for instance, a German priest impressed with parish methods in the 1944 film, Going My Way, or scholars and film buff’s interminable analyses of the art forms of Ingmar Bergman – or of Jerry Lewis. Mutual wiping off employs terms like ‘arty’ and ‘snobbery’ or ‘escapist’ and ‘superficial’. But the real difficulty is that both are right and both are wrong and that a reasonable position lies in the proverbial centre.
A film is a work of art; often commercial art, if you like; it has its own techniques in its succession and arrangement of moving images, speed, cutting, colour and so on, to draw out a response. As with other works of art, if techniques and forms are used properly, the story, message and content could only be communicated in this way. The novel is not a play, nor can a play be merely photographed to become a film. Different techniques are employed which draw from us their own particular response. The Western over-intellectualising of human reactions (suspicious of any reaction that cannot be explained logically) can ruin a response to something which appeals to the whole person, senses, emotions, intellect and will. To be able to give a narrative synopsis of 2001 : A Space Odyssey in three minutes, or, when asked about Sophie’s Choice to describe merely the concentration camp life, sexual behaviour and the suicides that take place, is to enclose oneself in one’s own intellectual reasoning. This prevents any adequate response to the combination of images, colour, music that are presenting to us what happens (and how it happens) on the screen.
An example of this kind of change in sensibilities and recognition of styles has been the increasing popularity of films made from ‘graphic novels’. On the very serious side, there was the fine adult gangster film, Road to Perdition (2003). On the challenging side are the grim and sometimes gruesome films like Sin City (2005) or the testosterone-filled glimpse of Greek history, 300 (2007). Audiences have learnt the conventions of the cinema visualising of the graphic novel.
All of this shows, of course, how an audience can be ‘got at’. With so many techniques and effects at work, a too-ready openness runs the risk of manipulation. Propaganda films which play on the audience’s emotions and patriotism are obvious examples. The heroism and noble straight-up-and-down Americanism of World War II feature films show up as phony today when there is no need for the message – or the message has been superseded by the experiences of Vietnam, the Gulf and the war in Iraq.
But we can test ourselves by our reactions: the scares, for instance, that Hitchcock thrillers made us enjoy, or the tears that flow readily at death-bed scenes of favourite actresses, pallid in almost lush colour, with stringed orchestration of sorrow. A more subtle test is the effect of irony. We can look back at films of many decades ago and audiences’ uncomprehending responses. Planet of the Apes (1967) caught the space-age imagination, but despite the heavy-handed ‘hamming’ of the situations, the ironic message went over the head of large numbers in the audience. Yet the greater part of the film, in an odd type of way, was the reversal of the behaviour of the apes and the humans, but more especially the fact that the apes had the same stupidities, prejudices and cliches that we men take so seriously. The apes were a laughable caricature of ourselves. This gives a terrifying point to the discovery, at the end of the film, of what the planet of the apes really was (The 2001 version by Tim Burton was far less effective).
These considerations lead to a discussion of our understanding of personal response to the film. It is more than a question of moral presuppositions. We are dealing with personal formation, a re-thinking of attitudes. Earlier, the squabbles between the arty snobs and the superficial escapists were alluded to and the suggestion was made that a solution might be in the centre.
EDUCATION AND ENTERTAINMENT
The dispute is caused by a misunderstanding of the words ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’. ‘Education’ is narrowed down (in the minds of people who are always looking for entertainment and insist that the only reason for seeing films is entertainment) to signify a type of dreary instruction along the lines dreaded from schooldays. Nothing to do with entertainment.
On the other hand, ‘entertainment’ (for the film scrutineer who takes films and watching of them seriously) simply means frivolity, or a kind of waste of time, which might be all right for a laugh when we are feeling down or when we have a headache. But still, this entertainment would be a bit of a bore and below the intelligent person’s dignity. The solution preferred is that true entertainment is true education, or, to use a word possibly more acceptable, formation.
We might consider entertainment along the lines of the human response to something which engages total attention, satisfying the whole person. Personal satisfaction is the key phrase. Education, really, is being drawn out of oneself, a development in building up a stronger, more complete personality. In this way, entertainment and education are two aspects of the one reality, continuing personal formation. The contention is this: the film (or, as the case may be, poem, novel, play and so on) elicits the response the director desires and to which he devoted the ingenuity of his aspirations and techniques — this is the case of a good film. In the case of an artistically bad film, a response which is critical of the bad should be elicited.
The word ‘elicit’ is used to avoid overtones of the working of a cause forcing an effect almost in a physical sense. To elicit means rather to draw out: the film compels its response without violating the free quality of this response. The person in the audience is gripped, is moved, or is repelled, annoyed – not in the way a person self-consciously watches and observes both the film and his own reactions and is ‘interested’ in the film. Rather, in this process of responding, the person is open and any activity of the will is not in terms of forcing attention or forcing response. The person’s will is simply to let themselves remain open to the film.
RITUAL AND REALISM
The way a film elicits its response can be two-fold. Discussion of this point is made easier by use of examples. Take West Side Story (1961), which has also had a long life in the theatre. Robert Wise and assistant director-choreographer Jerome Robbins used a number of conventions to portray their story and communicate what might be called their ‘message’. They wanted to show the futility of prejudice and hate even though it can be gripping, exciting for those involved.
One of the strange side-effects of the popularity of horror films, especially the Hammer Studios versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, is that audiences have become used to and even expect rituals themselves. There have been any number of serious-faced invented Satanic rituals in these horror films. However, rituals become important in such serious films as The Exorcist (1973).
Another theme explored was the value of true and deep love and mutual respect. But the directors wanted to show that these themes are important and relevant now, in our modern situations. They had at their disposal, song and especially, dance, which forms an integral part of the expression of atmosphere and character, as well as immigrant Puerto Ricans on the roofs of New York and gangs on the streets. Beside these, there are all the romantic conventions which follow the basic outline of Romeo and Juliet (feuds, lovers from each faction, meeting at a dance, symbolic marriage, knife fights and death). ‘Ritual’ is a name which covers the evocative nature of the conventions which elicit a response to the fulness of meaning.
‘Ritual’ applies clearly to such a play as T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral with its poetic patterns and stylised speeches. But most conventions have their own particular ritual, which the artist knows will evoke the appropriate response from the audience and make certain the audience gets the message. After all, we respond as we should to the conventions of a Western, or of a comedy. This is why the spy spoofs of James Bond films were so predictable and yet so funny, why Western satires like Cat Ballou, Support Your Local Sheriff or Blazing Saddles were so successfully hilarious. They reversed the conventions and the anticipated response and, instead of excitement one step above reality, elicited down-to-earth laughter.
But in any film, there is another element which governs response – ‘realism’. Realism, we could call the imitation of, or the likeness to, reality. After World War II, the Italian cinema emphasised this realism. Films like De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) captured scenes of ordinary workers in a squalid day-to-day Rome trying to get on its feet again. No frills, but life as it was. The response to realism is identification. The closer the presentation of character and situations is to human nature as we know it, the more realistic it is.
The Lion In Winter (1968) was a medieval pageant, but Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their family were shown as rough, intriguing men and women, tough and resilient and not unlike men and women today, and the response of identification is a feeling for the characters in the film, but it is even more a feeling with them.
Another response to realism is a type of identification which ends in rejection.
After viewing, one can test the responses to realism: back to West Side Story. The identification with the hero is quite different from the sympathetic identification with the heroine. Anita, the Puerto Rican girl, elicits a complex response of identification and rejection. The feuding gangs elicit rejection.
One of the most effective films that drew the sympathetic identification of the audience was High Noon (1952). The situation of the hero, the cowardice of the townspeople, their refusal to support the sheriff, the mounting tension (since the time in the story corresponds exactly to cinema time) – all point to director Fred Zinnemann’s employing and combining the techniques of realism perfectly.
This consideration of ritual and realism is necessary for an awareness of how the film draws out our responses; but a separate emphasis on either ritual or realism is artificial. The successful film demands identification through realism but achieves its effect in harmony with the conventions employed which draw from the audience an understanding of the meaning of the film.
Whether they liked the film or not, audiences admitted that there was an atmosphere of horror around Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – this was some years before audiences became accustomed to such stories through The Exorcist or The Omen. On the surface, apart from the weird dream sequence, the presentation was ‘realistic’ and there was a strong response of identification with Rosemary, especially on the part of women. However, Roman Polanski interlaced the film with the conventions of horror and suspense films which gradually built up a tension more chilling than Gothic horror movies: a suicide, suggestions of witches occupying a New York apartment, ugly smelling tannis, a game of scrabble, coincidences of accidents and death. An audience willingly lets itself go in response to these conventions unobtrusively arranged throughout the sequence of the story and the director controls the tone of the response of identification. In the case of Rosemary’s Baby the hinted conventions as well as the symbolic dream all elicit a response of revulsion of evil.
Therefore, the personal response which is not forced, but elicited, evoked, is the key to viewing a film.
The accent of the response is on its personal nature. It is not an impersonal vacuum that buys a ticket and sees a film, but a person with his total background of social and individual characteristics, habits and training. If the film raises questions or probes problems of human living, the person will respond to it, to its meaning, to its realism, but he will generally do so without self-consciously realising what is happening. But this response gives satisfaction, appreciation of the artistry and the insight into human nature which the film presents. And this is true entertainment. What is often called entertainment is only a passing palliative that does not satisfy any human need, except, perhaps, distractions from a headache. This is the attraction of so many TV sitcoms.
But satisfying entertainment can be also true education. By response and personal contact, we are led out, drawn out of ourselves (which is what the Latin roots of the word suggest); we become more personal, that is, we move a step further towards completion of our personality. This is why it is helpful to call this genuine entertainment-education, a formation. The film is truly forming us.
This is true of successful films, but it doesn’t take much movie-going to make us realise that real successes are not frequent enough. Better personal formation enables us to appreciate and enjoy the good features of a film without needing to condemn it because it fails to come up to some absolute mark. (This penchant for absolute condemnation seems to be the hallmark of some recent critics.) It also helps us to become more discriminating, able to note failures, not accepting everything that is put before us merely because it is there.
BARRIERS TO PERSONAL RESPONSE
But, of course, this is still on the theoretical side. There are practical difficulties, barriers to full appreciation of a film, barriers that close the openness of response to ritual and realism. One common objection is easy to answer. ‘We’re only human. We can’t be responding in such a serious way all the time even if we aren’t self-conscious about it. If I don’t feel like seeing Bergman or Kieslowski, why should I? I’d rather watch Shrek or Ratatouille ’; and, of course, this is true. The difficulty answers itself. We ourselves must choose what we see, and choose according to our moods and taste. The latest Russian or Chinese masterpiece will elicit only exasperation if commonsense tells us we should be seeing something lighter. Sitting down again in front of The Sound of Music might be just the thing. We can appreciate the classics another day. Too many make the wrong decisions, basing them on fads and the urge to see the latest in-thing. Because they didn’t like it the day they were tired does not mean that a film or director must go on the ‘to be avoided’ list.
This leads us to a second difficulty which, again, commonsense makes us acknowledge. It is this: we are only human, and naturally there will be barriers on our side, as well as from the side of the film, which will hinder our response. Any viewing of Shakespeare makes us aware of this at once. Language changes, manners change, and it takes some effort to gear ourselves to get full value from Shakespeare’s texts. But a barrier to appreciating Shakespeare on the part of today’s audiences is that Shakespeare’s work presupposes an audience capable of listening. We don’t listen; we cannot listen attentively to the richness of poetry as the Elizabethans did; we rely much more on visual aids. Zeffirelli acknowledged this barrier on the part of twentieth century audiences, pruned the text of The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet and gave us an audio-visual experience of Shakespeare’s plays. Baz Luhrman showed us how to do Shakespeare in the modern vein with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996).
But so many barriers can be overcome without deciding that ‘I go for entertainment, not to find a problem’. Returning to West Side Story, there were probably quite a few people who had heard the music and went along expecting a light evening along the lines of Oklahoma or South Pacific. Perhaps the surprise of finding that West Side Story was deadly serious took them off guard and prevented their responding well to the film.
Or perhaps someone goes along to Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly or a film by Andrei Tarkovsky like Stalker or The Sacrifice and just doesn’t understand what it is all about. This was a difficulty with some of the intelligent science fiction films which made the transition from B-Budget to A-list, Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey or The Illustrated Man. Difficulties in responding and understanding were passed off by critics and audiences with comments like ‘pretentious art’ or ‘not worth the trouble of fathoming’.
Barriers must be eliminated. This ought to be one of the major functions of the film critics who can give intelligent comments and judgments which help overcome the difficulties of filmgoers without, of course, making up their minds for them. More experience helps in the removal of barriers to response leading to a balance and a wholeness: a person responding as a person. The point of this chapter might be recapitulated in the notion of the need for ‘education to response’. ‘I don’t want to be entertained,’ or ‘I don’t go to a film to find a problem.’ No, but perhaps it will be the problem that finds you.
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