Monday, September 12, 2005

Argument, Treatise, Experience

Recent discussion on a_film_by has prompted me to sketch out some more ideas I have about film & politics (not the YahooGroup), but since they aren’t immediately applicable to the questions asked in the relevant thread, and since I developed a few of these ideas earlier here anyway, I figured I’d post the thoughts here. Most people who read this blog peek at a_film_by, and those who don’t always can if they want to since the archives are public. I said a little while back that a film is an argument, a treatise, and an experience all at once. This is a nice little aphorism perhaps but what does it mean? I promise I wasn’t saying it simply because it sounded nice.

By 'argument' I mean that a film as a product (commercial or otherwise) in a flow of exchanges of images, concepts, representations, experiences, etc. in the real world--that is, when we attack the Nazi ideology expressed and embodied in Triumph of the Will, we are directing our opinion at the film as an argument. (I’ve never seen Triumph of the Will, myself.) This is also what academics talk about as 'ideology,' that is, even those films which are apolitical or neutral on a given point are still necessarily embedded within a large number of cultural battles & progressions, deciding what to say and what to remain silent on ... no film can ever engage everything at once, and none ever will until scientists figure out a way to correct the sad fact that Bruce Conner and Chris Marker never had a love child (who would grow up to make films of course). These are films as material objects, limited things hurled and battered about in an apparently unlimited world.

But a film is also a self-explanatory 'treatise,' that is, precisely the opposite of an argument, in that we can take it out of time and history and actual space, and dissect and analyze it. This doesn’t happen in that crazy, unlimited, real world but in fact occurs at an intimate setting, a psychological one or something near it, between one viewer and one film (or even one moment) perhaps, wherein the film comprises its own outer limits. Here there are innumberable methods toward analyzing (in part because they are innumberable ways for films to organize themselves). This is what, say, Fred Camper talks about when he says that Triumph of the Will is great, I believe—the internal cohesion of form in the film’s own limits, as recognized by an observer.

A film is also finally an ‘experience,’ and this is a hazier category for me, but a necessary one because it is how the former two categories relate to each other. It’s the most difficult thing to describe to oneself, let alone communicate to another, I think. Let me try to illustrate the dilemma I’m getting at by way of example. I am a great fan of John Milius’ work, or at least what I’ve seen of it. (I’m preparing myself for a big letdown when I finally catch Red Dawn.) Not only is Milius the man a rabid paleocon (hardly as dangerous as the right-wingers in power, but as far as the NRA goes the man has serious political baggage). And then there are the gray areas—his gender politics are neanderthal, but then again he tends to have independent, strong, well-formed female characters, and then again they’re always relegated to supporting roles. What I feel ultimately ‘allows’ me to like Milius’ work is how they operate not simply formally but experientially. To me a Milius film may be all about nostalgia, the sad void left when the myth of patriarchy is exposed (a Straussian sentiment at least in part), the heroic male and his heroic quest, etc. But the entry point into these movies does not normalize this for the viewer. One doesn’t need to be enamored of (or critical of) the same things Milius is, or his characters are, to feel something expressive. Whereas, on the other hand, the Mel Gibson vehicle stuff (The Patriot, We Were Soldiers) tends to operate on principles in which one must be complicit with the ideology in order to feel the proper, intended emotions—for instance, one must think highly of Sam Elliott barking deadpan orders to his troops amidst enemy fire, or of Mel Gibson and the boys praying before going to battle. In comparison, When it comes to steel and swords, violence, conquest, patriarchy, and religion in Conan the Barbarian, the film moves toward a profound ambivalence. The Gibsonian film works to hit your buttons for ideological complicity (and some degree of conformity), while Milius’ sort of film asks only that one feel empathy or sympathy for its characters and situations, and in turn makes no effort to corral us into a tacit acceptance of anything else. In this case it almost comes down to the pedestrian matters of good and bad storytelling, although in today’s reviewing climate my preferences must seem irredeemably backward. But more than that, the Miliusian film seems ‘open’ and contains the space for one to profitably read against its presumed grain, whereas reading against the grain (which is never presumed, always crystal clear) in a Gibsonian film is necessarily a violent act.

I think ultimately this principle is illustrated empirically. When I was 12, Braveheart was the film that ignited my passion for “the movies.” And I have loved Conan the Barbarian since childhood. The former doesn’t hold up very well in my opinion, while the latter has only appeared more vital as years go by.


Nick said...


I think you are right on in this post. Especially when you write that "One doesn’t need to be enamored of (or critical of) the same things Milius is, or his characters are, to feel something expressive." Maybe the confounding mystery of art is that it can sometimes speak to us even though it's not clear how or why we identify with it. And as you say, it is those films that allow us to read against the grain--against the very ideologies that we suspect the movie is working from--that are often the most savagely and sweetly memorable.

Filipe said...

Red Dawn isn't half as bad as it's reputation suggests. It's messy, disorganized and the action scenes are mostly bad (which is a surprising coming from Milius), but when thefilm connects (more often in the first half) it does have some real power and I do think it's an important transitional work in Milius career opening the door to the more pessimist later films. I saw it a couple of years ago while researching for an article on Milius that I did for Contracampo and wassurprised that it was far from the disaster most people take it for. Dave Kehr has a real good capsule of it in the Reader site.

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for dropping by, Nick. I can't think of any other way to explain or justify my affection for Milius. This is why art can be such a great & powerful communicative tool--open works and open minds can bridge any number of gaps, even if they can't close them.

And Filipe, I'll remember what you say in Red Dawn's defense when I finally watch it. Maybe I'll do a double feature with that and Dillinger soon.

33 said...