Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Inside and the Outside

A lot of my interaction with film buffs these days occurs on Twitter, where disagreements are argued out by the score every day. Whether I intervene or not, I find that I often want to say the same things to different combatants. For instance:

One can evaluate the behavior in a movie in two different ways.

  1. According to the internal workings of the film universe. An example would be to praise or criticize behavior according to its trueness to the overall psychological portrait of the character, or to a general perceived social or psychological idea of how people are likely to behave.

  2. According to the effect of the behavior on the viewer. In this game, it tends to be the filmmaker, not a character, who is pitching, and the viewer, not another character, who is catching.

I've written about this dichotomy before, but it's tricky to fit the two methods of evaluation into a unified field theory. Obviously both approaches can be abused. The "internal" approach, despite the appeal to the authority of the soft sciences, is no more or less likely to get bogged down in subjectivity than the more obviously subjective "external" approach. You'd think that it would mean something when a critic says "As a former construction worker, I can testify that the film's portrait of construction workers is accurate." But one learns in one's youth that such statements are 100% subjective and have no bearing on anything at all.

I'm tempted to talk about these methods in terms of "two-ness," which, in this case, would mean meeting the criterion of internal plausibility while at the same time creating a worthwhile external effect. And this is certainly the ideal of a kind of classical storytelling that adheres to notions of social or psychological realism. At the least, verisimilitude and observational insight will always be a valuable arrow in the cinema's quiver.

However, it doesn't do to beat a film with the stick of verisimilitude. When we like a bit of abstract behavior, we forgive its departure from documentary realism because the abstraction gives us something valuable. It's only when we don't get anything from an abstraction, or when we get something we don't like, that we are tempted to say "No one behaves like that." And so the internal approach isn't a completely independent criterion: to make a just criticism of a failure of internal coherence, we have to take external factors into consideration. "No one behaves like that" is never a valid condemnation when taken in isolation from other factors.

More and more I feel that the external approach to evaluation is the larger and more philosophical viewpoint, the one that provides context for issues of internal verisimilitude. And yet it's rare to hear people talk about a movie as if it's a moment-by-moment feed of information and pleasure from the filmmaker to the audience: we are much more likely to try to praise or condemn a movie according to whether we believe the characters, even though we know that the characters are merely the filmmaker's tools.

The main pitfall of external evaluation is obvious: it's not immediately obvious why one viewer's response to a filmmaker's stimuli should be of any use to a different viewer. Any attempt to identify objective elements of form that create one's subjective responses is highly likely to devolve into rationalization, even when one brings some rigor to the process of identification. But hey - if it were easy to talk about art, everyone would do it. It's by no means impossible to argue that the delivery of certain experiences is inscribed into a film's form, even if many others don't receive the experience, even if one doesn't receive the experience oneself. There's something up there on screen that is the same for all of us, and that's where the job begins, even if one must proceed with the utmost caution in trying to build a model of pleasure delivery upon the relatively solid foundation of formal analysis.


steevee said...

For example, do you think it's worth giving any credence to the many comments by former soldiers that THE HURT LOCKER is an inaccurate depiction of the military mindset? (I'd be curious what they'd make of BEAU TRAVAIL were it to get a similarly wide release.) This is another case where such statements seem totally subjective, and the film seems to be getting at a larger critique of machismo that pops up in many other areas of society.

Schmathony Popkins said...

Yeah, I think the internal really only occurs with occupations/experiences we're intimately familiar with, and even as you mention that personal experience, even in a field of expertise, is completely subjective, it's hard to divorce yourself from some of the more egregious writerly flourishes in a dramatic piece.

Outside of that, it's much easier to take an external approach, allowing the machinery of cinema to run its course, and only commenting negatively if the seams show, if something is noticeably incorrect. Otherwise, the artifice of cinema can carry you through most things.

Jaime said...

It may be easier to take the external approach if the movie doesn't tell tales you saw at the office or (pace Dan's example) the construction site, but I wouldn't use occupational interest to write off the draw of the internal. There must be something else.

Example, I'm a big admirer of the US comedy "The Office," but I can work to separate the multiple layers of abstraction at work in the show's writing, performances, etc. even though the show's fictional workplace far more closely resembles the very, very different places I've worked (the Navy, retail, etc) than the few months I spent in an actual, traditional office. I think people who work in an environment that greatly resembles Dunder Mifflin may feel a different degree of saturation, but the canny viewer there or elsewhere will be just as capable of parsing out the abstractions as well as their specific sources.

Regardless of experience type, the meat of Dan's terrific post is: when we find the abstraction rewarding, it's one thing, but when we don't, it's another kettle of fish entirely. It's greater than a "gearheads don't like car movies" or "NASA nerds don't like APOLLO 13."

I almost had to recuse myself from reviewing THE ARTIST because I felt like my love of silent cinema (upon which the film treads lightly, in the guise of being "a love letter to silent films," *gag*) as well as pre-Code cinema (which the film all but ignores) was such that I didn't think I could handle the film objectively. But the truth is, during the film I was working overtime to remain interested in what the film *was* as opposed to what it could have been. But it's just such a whiff of a film, and formally it's all over the place, and really the STAR IS BORN well is quite dry, that at the end of the day, to my surprise, my disappointment with the film was corroborated by a number of people who are not, relatively speaking, flag-waving cinephiles.

What that suggests to me is that there were *two* internal struggles with that film.

Michael Brooke said...

Sadly, it's no longer available on YouTube to link to, but one of the many things I enjoyed about Alexei Sayle's sketch about British film critics going on strike (and, of course, bringing the country grinding to a halt as a result, with the military having to stand in for Barry Norman, the BBC's main film critic) is that it was riddled with glaring factual errors that even the most amateur cinephile would have spotted as such.

Although I'm convinced that this was deliberate on Sayle's part (given that the entire sketch was clearly designed to annoy film critics), it's a rare instance of an equivalent situation to the Hurt Locker example (or the way my ultrasonographer wife is constantly annoyed by onscreen mistakes in standard medical procedures) whereby we are potentially distracted by irritating and unnecessary mistakes.

Mind you, it didn't make much difference: the satirical point was still all too clear.

Dan Sallitt said...

Reading the piece over, I hope I didn't give the impression that film evaluation is a choice between these two approaches, and that I favor the external approach. I do feel these days that the external approach is the broader one, that it's not good to take a purely internal approach without at least wondering how the filmmaker might be trying to affect the viewer. But, to the extent that cinema is a representational art (for me, that would be a very big extent), internal considerations have to be important.

In regard to the issue Steve raised: yeah, I think it's better to ignore that kind of expert commentary, in the absence of other evidence. The experts might be making perceptive comments, and certainly there are times when the most important thing about a film is that it doesn't depict the world as one perceives it. But "inaccurate depiction" can mean a million things, and which of those things is important is a critical judgment.

I remember taking a certain wicked pleasure in the negative comment that a boxing technical advisor made about the fight scenes in Raging Bull: "Jesus, it looked like they were shooting at each other out there." I didn't (and don't) like those scenes; but, if I dig deeper, the problem is less the departure from reality than what Scorsese is going for, a grandiose romanticism of violence that seems to me immature. And then, if I dig one level deeper, I notice that I definitely own that grandiose romanticism, and my adult self is recoiling at a trait that I've tried desperately to put behind me. So objecting to the unreality of the fights really doesn't scratch the surface of the experience.

Jake said...

“When people say that Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me that they can have no eyes or no ears. They probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value.”

(George Saintsbury)

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

(Flannery O'Connor)

“Of course, if we were content to see all literature as aspiring to one kind of involvement and one kind only— a sense of realism, an ecstatic contemplation of pure form, or whatever — we could feel comfortable about seeking one kind of distance as well. Each critic could then offer his formula and try to convert readers to it: as much realism as possible, but enough distance from reality to preserve a sense of form; as close to pure form as possible, with only so much of impurities like plot as cannot be done without; and so on. But is our experience with actual works ever as simple as this approach suggests? Every literary work of any power – whether or not its author composed it with his audience in mind – is in fact an elaborate system of controls of the reader's involvement and detachment along various lines of interest. The author is limited only by the range of human interests.”

(Wayne C. Booth)

Dan Sallitt said...

Jake - Wayne C. Booth seems to have pretty much summed up what I was trying to say. The O'Connor quote is interesting: I suspect she would have had a temptation to "shout" even if she weren't immersed in "modern life."