Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Irony and Filmgoing

As someone who absolutely loves movies, I think there's nothing better than going to a film with an audience that loves it and is completely engrossed in it. Watching Star Wars: Attack of the Clones at a midnight screening was probably the best filmgoing experience I ever had, it wasn't the best film, but I never had more fun, or was so connected to a collective feeling during a screening. Before the film started, I over heard the people behind me talking coolly about the film, clearly not expecting too much. Anyway, the Yoda lightsaber scene hits, and the guy was practically hyperventilating just repeating "Oh shit" over and over again, the film had completely broken his ironic shell and hit him on some pure level and I was right there with him, just unquestioningly loving the film. Watching the film on your own, the flaws are more magnified, but in the context of a group that was there to love the film, it was just a sublime experience, everyone bought into the film and loved it.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum was when I went to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. All throughout the movie this guy a couple of seats over was making sarcastic comments about the film, and towards the end, I had to tell him to shut up because it was just taking me out of the world of the film, and the guy questioned me, and I did not back down, and him and his girlfriend left. But still, to some degree it was difficult to get back into the film. Getting truly lost in a great film is a delicate process, and even one dumb comment can completely ruin a moment. I know whenever I watch Mulholland Drive, people always try to translate the Spanish lyrics in the Club Silencio sequence, completely missing the fact that the reason Lynch put the lyrics in Spanish was so that you would just feel the song rather than try to apply it to the narrative. It's probably the most powerful moment in the film, a superb confluence of audio and visual, but it's ruined if someone is talking. If you truly get lost in that scene, it's emotionally overwhelming, and I don't care what she's singing about.

I think we all hate the clueless filmgoer who is always asking questions about the plot, but there is a type of filmgoer I hate even more, and it's one I encounter a lot here at Wesleyan: the ironic filmgoer, who, no matter what film he/she goes to, he thinks of himself as above the material, looking down to occasionally chuckle at something that someone has put years of life and care into. Watching a film is like going into a cave, when you first enter, you can see everything pretty clearly, but as you go further into the cave, you don't see like you do in the outside world, you just see things in the light of the cave. This is what you do when you see a film, you move out of your world, and into the world of the film, where your vision and understanding of things is different. And thus, things that would seem ridiculous if you watched them out of context can be incredibly profound.

I think the best example of this is the singing sequence in Magnolia. Two hours into this film, Paul Thomas Anderson has all the characters start singing along to Aimee Mann's 'Wise Up,' which we first hear on the stereo of Claudia, but gradually moves out to all nine main characters. It's a moment that would be absoultely preposterous if you just watched it on its own, but in context, it's the most powerful moment in the film, and just kills me every time, because I love getting lost in the world of the film.

But, what about the 'ironic viewer'? This is someone who refuses to surrender himself to the power of the film, and instead keeps a critical distance, laughing at any sign of sincere emotion. So, this incredibly emotional scene would be treated with some laughs, and it would kill the moment. On his commentary for Amelie, Jean Pierre Jeunet talks about the scene at the end of the film where Amelie and Nino stare at each other in silence, and he says if someone laughed at this point, it would absoultely kill the film. This is what the ironic viewer does, laugh at sincere displays of emotion, or anything that could possibly be construed as funny.

Maybe these people enjoy the films, but I don't think they can enjoy it in the same way that someone who surrenders to the film does. See, I feel like these people are best suited to watching high brow comedies, where everything can be laughed at, even scenes with sincere emotional content.

See, I love movies that go over the top emotionally, and even if I don't love the film, I'm always going to give it the respect of not laughing at it. Now, you may say, how could this same person enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000? The difference is there you're looking to laugh at the film, when you go to the theater, and pay $10 to see the film, you want to enjoy it, not poke fun at it. Yes, some films are awful, but I try not to go to those, and even if I do, I try to focus on the positive.

I guess I differ from most people in the sense that the films I hate most are stupid comedies. I'd take any sort of sincere attempt to make a good film over something that is meant to just poke fun at stuff. I can love comedies, but usually they have some sort of dramatic character base for their riffing. Ghost World is a hilarious film, and is largely about viewing life ironically, but it examines this sort of worldview and engages the difficulties with it.

What really bothers me about the ironic viewer is that they make it difficult to really enjoy the film because for one, they take you out of the film with annoying laughter, and second, by taking you out of the film, make it impossible to reengage on an emotional level with the characters, and thus, you see things the way they do, distanced and looking for irony rather than sincerity. When watching films this is not the way to do things. Every film I watch I hope to love, and I'm going to try to give it the respect of not laughing at it.

What brought on this rant? It was watching Todd Solondz' Happiness, a film that refuses to break the critical distance between filmmaker and character, and instead views the characters as almost a freakshow, so that at any moment, you could be either engaging with the characters or laughing at them, and in a theater environment, I'd imagine there'd be a lot of laughter. Another film that does this, a film that is apalling and awful, and makes me question society's values yet again, is Napoleon Dynamite, a film that is basically there to let you laugh at these people for an hour and a half. Why would you want to do this, freakshows went out of style in the 1900s, and there's no reason to adapt this awful exploitation to film. I don't want a film I can laugh at and not care about, I want something that will stick with me long after, and take me on an emotional journey.

You know a film is successful when you accept more and more ridiculous things within it, such as in Magnolia, when the frogs appear. By this time, you're so far into the film, you just accept it as something that fits, and it's a sublime, powerful moment, one that you could either laugh at or be in awe of, and I choose to be in awe of it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it is truly irritating when theater audiences snicker through the Sandy's Dream Of Robins scene but the one I could never figure at all is what do all the hipsters find so hysterical about the lines "See that clock on the wall? 5 minutes from now....."