Saturday, July 5, 2008

Film School Follies

I'm still reeling from an incident that happened a few days ago. Not that it was something I hadn't already expected, but nonetheless, it was still quite unnerving.

It all started when a well-known film critic and scholar said that Hancock is just an unimpressive mish-mash of other movies, and nothing more. That would not have been so bad, although it was indeed disappointing, but he went on to say that Wanted was a better film.

That got me completely flabbergasted. I think they could hear me hurling even down in Antarctica. How could someone so well-versed in film theory and all that, find a vacuous film like Wanted far more viable than a film with a more interesting conflict and emotional weight at its centre?

This is a guy who teaches film, and is respected and looked up to by some filmmakers and students. I know some filmmakers who run their films by him to get "approval." Certainly, it's impressive to hear him talk about film theory and all that, and he does know a lot.

But personally, I've always taken everything he said with a dollop of salt. This wariness came rather early - when I first met him, in fact - because he told me that Gladiator is about family. "All that Russell Crowe's character wants is to go back to his family! So, the film is really about family!" he told me rather authoritatively. And yes, he speaks with exclamation marks.

I nodded silently of course. What can one do in the face of such booming authority but to cower in humility?

There is a scene right at the beginning of Gladiator that, like many other films, signifies the beginning of the backbone that will hold the story together. Right before the big battle with the barbarians in the forest, Crowe's Maximus watches a bird on a branch. There's a little smile on his face, as the farmer in him clearly enjoys the beauty of nature and the serene respite it offers. Then in a split second, he turns and his expression changes into that of a hardened general about to lead his army into war. The important fact is not that Maximus wants to return to his family, but the duality of the tough war general and the gentle farmer. All three main characters - Maximus, Commodus and his sister Lucilla - are forced into situations that they'd rather not be in but know it's the only way to lead them where they want to go. Lucilla begins as a somewhat confident woman, but we soon discover she has a past with Maximus and later, we see a different side of her. Commodus, for all his swaggering, is still a scared little boy at heart, as we see in two scenes, with his father and with his sister.

How is it a story primarily concerned with family? I don't know. If you can find a consistency about that anywhere in the film, call me.

All talk about theories is always to mask the inability to observe human behaviour and quirks, the interconnectedness at the core of all of us. All the stories in the world are about one thing - the human condition. Even March Of The Penguins ultimately is a reflection of our very basic human needs. If we can't find the mirror within a story, then the story is worthless to us. If films are only about signifiers, semiotics, gestalt and whatever theory out there, then films are worthless to us. But they are not.

We don't have to look at the blueprint of a house to know that it is a beautiful house and that it functions well. Of course, knowing how the house was constructed adds to our appreciation of it.

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