Monday, December 22, 2008

When Films Confound Us

I was reading Kong Rithdee's write-up on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes And A Century, here at Criticine, and was reminded of something I wrote a while ago. Mostly, it's this line from Rithdee that frustrated me:
"Maybe Apichatpong’s films are not meant to be explained, but felt. They enrich and wrap us whole in their smothering hugs not because they can be understood but perceived. We receive the images through the eyes and they go directly to the heart. Like great music, his films bypass our critical faculty ..."

I've long disagreed with this kind of views on films. Great music does not bypass our critical faculty. If a piece of music or a film truly makes you feel something, then you should be able to articulate why. It's only natural. If, as a critic, you cannot, then you've failed.

Here's the piece I wrote a while back, on another blog:

I was originally going to write, or attempt to write, a review of Mirror, but Andrei Tarkovsky's film proved to be a really hard piece to crack.

There I was on a Saturday night last week, having had supper, showered, and gotten all relaxed in my favourite armchair, I decided to pop this into the DVD player, excited at the prospect of seeing my very first Tarkovsky film. After all, my introduction to Bela Tarr has been no less than awesome, and Tarr is reportedly heavily influenced by Tarkovksy.

After about 30 minutes into the film, I had to switch it off.

I was dumbfounded, frustrated and a little bit incensed, the exact same feeling I got watching Fellini's
8 1/2.

This was probably one of the most self-indulgent crap I had ever witnessed. Where was the story, or at least where was my concern for what the filmmaker was trying to present? If it's autobiographical, why should I care about his mother, his childhood, his whatever? How does it all relate to me, that is, to the universal human condition? Nothing came across.

Mirror is widely held as Tarkovsky's great masterpiece, and even after reading some critiques of the film, I remain unconvinced of its perceived merits. Here's what was written in Senses Of Cinema:
"Tarkovsky made Mirror, a non-narrative, stream of consciousness autobiographical film-poem that blends scenes of childhood memory with newsreel footage and contemporary scenes examining the narrator's relationships with his mother, his ex-wife and his son. The oneiric intensity of the childhood scenes in particular is so hypnotic that questions of the film's alleged impenetrability dissolve under the impact of moment after moment of the most visually stunning, rhythmically captivating filmmaking imaginable."

Correction: questions of the film's impenetrability should NEVER be put aside under ANY circumstances. It is absolutely rubbish to say so. I want to know what the film's about. I don't want to be told that I should just "enjoy the visuals."

Here's the
Time Out blurb on the DVD sleeve that says essentially the same thing:
"See it, above all, for a series of images of such luminous beauty that they will make your heart burst."

There are just too many of these kind of cop-out "reviews" that basically avoids the real question of what a film is about, how it should connect with the audience's sensibilities, what it really offers in relation to universal truths. Mainly because, well, the reviewer or critic her or himself doesn't know!

Take, for example, another confounding film,
Tropical Malady, from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The film's already infamous disparate halves will forever cause confusion and uncertainty about what it all really means. Here's Dennis Lim of the Village Voice's take:
"(Weerasethakul's) films, at once rapt and dislocated, have the flavor of hallucinated documentary. They compel the viewer to look anew at the ordinary, to modulate their passive gaze into a patient, quizzical scrutiny."

That's not exactly explaining what
Tropical Malady conveys.

Here's more from the same critic:
"The film's mysteries are so cosmic that any attempt to ascribe allegory can seem puny."

So, basically what he's saying here is that
Tropical Malady is a failed effort, yet he wrote a glowing review of it. But Tropical Malady is not a failed film. Unlike my encounter with Mirror, I love Tropical Malady. It's one of the few films that truly enrapture me with their themes and ideas.

Tropical Malady is simply about the intensity and primal nature of love and humanity, and the blurring between man and beast. How presumptuous we are, to regard ourselves as beings of greater intelligence when nature is obviously bigger than all of us. We dress ourselves in all sorts of civilities, surround ourselves with a civilisation of our own making. But once primal feelings are unleashed, we are nothing but beasts. The film also explores a little about the nature and relevance of folklore and fantasy. The first half of the film is Man, the second half is Beast. Or is it the other way around?

That's only my take, but a take nonetheless.

For me, if a film gives you nothing to take away with you, however impressive its visuals or mood are, it is then about nothing important, and therefore is nothing in itself.

If only more critics have the courage to admit that whenever they come across films of such nature.

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