Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Trip to the Movies

On my last post on Big Island Rachel's Books, I reviewed a long essay by James Baldwin called "The Devil Finds Work," which is about the portrayal of blackness in American movies. To quote myself:

"I'm not what you'd call a film buff. Movies unsettle me for their ability to deliver a huge emotional wallop in a relatively short amount of time. I prefer novels, which give me space and time to inhabit the characters' worlds and absorb their struggles; or television episodes, for the the same reason."

Today I'm going to explore this a little bit more, because the truth is, I love movies but I'm also scared of them, which is a weird way to be. I'm not scared of movies themselves, but of the experience of watching movies, especially in a theater. Film is an incredibly powerful medium. Books are, too, but the reader has a great deal of control over the experience. I can pick up the book when I want to, put it down when it gets too much for me, read as fast or as slow as I like, and basically experience the book on my own terms.

Movie-goers do not have control over the experience of watching a movie. I'm stuck in a dark room in a state of sensory deprivation and the movie has complete control over me--not just what I see and hear, but also how I perceive the events on the screen. The movie controls not just my senses, but my thought processes, hijacking my consciousness and forcing me not just to see, but to see how the movie wants me to see. I can argue against the movie's viewpoint after the fact, but while it's happening, I have to accept the world the movie presents and the morality of that world.

As an example, let's look at "Django Unchained," the last movie I reviewed. I took "Django Unchained" to task for having problems with tone, specifically the way it portrayed events that were horrific in content but lacked an correspondingly serious tone. My visceral reaction on seeing many of the scenes in this movie was to be horrified at the awful ways humans can treat one another; but the movie commanded me to feel a different range of emotions than the ones I was naturally inclined to feel. I think I was supposed to feel anger, humor, intrigue, satisfaction in vengeance--a range of emotions that was a tad inappropriate and simply not what I wanted to make of the material.

"Make it cool" is not an acceptable answer to the question "What's your take on slavery, Mr. Tarantino?"
The way I felt about what I was seeing struggled against how the movie wanted me to feel, and I ended up having to leave the theater for a bit and go sit in the bathroom to preserve my sense of agency. It was frustrating because I knew I was missing out on key plot points, and unlike a book, I couldn't just put a bookmark on a scene and come back when I had collected and organized my reactions.

On a related note, people who watch movies with me in the comfort of a living room or bedroom now know why I so frequently hit pause and get up to make tea, or read a book, or surf the web on my tablet. Agency. I preserve it.

I reiterate: I know this is a very weird way to feel about movies, and I'm not trying to make an argument against the medium because I'm not Holden Caufield in "Catcher in the Rye" (obscure literary reference for the win!). It's just that being in a movie theater sometimes makes me feel like Esther in "The Bell Jar," watching a terrible technicolor movie one evening in New York City and suddenly being able to guess the entire plot and ending, and hating how trite and contrived it all was while simultaneously being completely overwhelmed by it (second obscure literary reference for the win!).
I just leveled up in the Literati Scouts.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you're probably wondering how all this fits in with the fact that I saw "The Avengers" in a theater six times last summer.

I can feel you judging me.
In the case of "The Avengers," and the "Indiana Jones" franchise, and most Batman movies, and "Lord of the Rings," and any of the other fantasy/scifi movies that I love, I think the short answer is 'splosions. The long answer is scale. I don't mind being overwhelmed by movies that are about grandiose and unlikely things. I don't mean to say that I want stupid movies or movies about uninteresting and predictable characters. The older I get, the less patience I have for stupid bullshit, and fortunately the type of movies I like have followed me to maturity--my friend R and I talked for over an hour about the family relationships in "Thor" alone.

The further removed the movie is from my own life, frankly, the more I enjoy it. I guess the truth of the matter is that I like escapist movies. (Why I like the escape into superhero fantasies instead of action movies or romantic comedies where every man is a handsome architect and loves the soulful heroine just the way she is while completely submitting to her efforts to change him, well, that's a topic for another post.) I know I'm not alone in using movies to escape to better, more interesting worlds.
When they get out of their rocket, do they have to walk through puddles of moon-eye goo?
Escapism is what the most profitable wing of movie industry is based on. Most people spend their money on movies that get them outside of themselves and take them to other, more interesting worlds: fantasy kingdoms, spaceships, bygone eras, battlefields, and perfect worlds where everything happens for a reason and all your problems are solved by the end.

But then there are the other movies, the ones that challenge and discomfort and implicate. I want to like them. I want to say I enjoy a movie that makes me cry or cringe, that requires me to work at understanding it on its own terms, because I am both a deep, thoughtful person and an incredibly shallow person who wants others to think she's deep and thoughtful.

And yet, there I am in a bathroom at Cobble Hill Cinemas, hiding from the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio sawing a human skull in half, and wishing I was in the theater next door that was screening "The Hobbit" because I can hear the dwarves singing through the walls and it comforts me deeply.

No comments:

Post a Comment