Thursday, December 08, 2005


Some thoughts of a clouded mind trying to reach that which is the title of this blog.

I write lately about my experiences with, and baby steps toward knowledge about, Indian films in basically a same way a little kid will show you a new coloring book: it's an undiluted (perhaps unwisely so) expression of satisfaction and happiness at the accumulation of something new and fascinating. (The Soviet experiences seem less new to me, since I already knew some of the films and the history and the mythology.) Call it the joy of learning. I wonder if many people who read this blog (or is that phrase "many people" oxymoronic here) actually care about these experiences. In the end, who will both see Roja and read this blog except for a tiny handful of people, at best? And I do not expect it to happen, either. For myself, I have not bothered to see e.g. A History of Violence, a recent hot topic for film-and-culture bloggers. (And on top of this I quite like Cronenberg. As for other hot topics in recent months, I won't see these Showtime horror films in the very near future. Or Brokeback Mountain. I did see No Direction Home, but basically declined comment on that one.) So in a way I must content myself with the very aloneness of my voice. I do sometimes mumble quietly to myself when I walk down the street alone, lost in thought, and I promise I'm not crazy.

At my friend's apartment last night I raided his small but good collection of Indian DVDs (some Raj Kapoor titles, Mughal-e-Azam, Guide, some others). He was telling me that part of the experience of seeing these Bollywood films, in the age before DVD especially, involved getting awful dubs and bootlegs from the store and watching them. And I said, "That's also what I'm interested in! Because it's not only seeing how films are intended to be seen, but also experiencing the alternate ways in which they are often seen." Or, when I asked him about Gujarati films, which is the language of his parents and grandparents, he mentioned how awful they tended to be (but I say that a whole new world of mediocrity and awfulness is somethign to experience!). This is important not because it's big business, which it is (and which is why I'm spending little money on it), but because it's a widespread cultural experience. Something like a billion people watch South Asian cinema: can any cinephile with interest in the world at large feel content passing over this rich tradition? I didn't feel like I could, at any rate.

For several years (in college) I tried with limited success to wring out a valuable theory of (tacitly American) commercial cinema, which mainly meant skimming mainstream and genre work which had redemptive auteurist value. Some months ago I started to give the whole question a rest, and resultantly it feels as though I've experienced a touch of unexpected zen. I was not going for a comfortable formula that would let me wallow in Hollywood's funhouse guiltlessly, nor for its opposite, a blanket condemnation of the commercial cinema for being an "enemy of art." (So much great art has been produced throughout history and geography in cultures we'd call quite hostile to "art.") I wanted a viable and complex way of approaching mainstream films and all those films that rest "beneath" it on the cultural radar.

The point, which I didn't see before, is not to base my experience and comprehension of these works in my pleasure, i.e., in my feeling of how a "great" or "interesting" or "bad" commercial/genre film worked. The point is instead to base my pleasure in how these films work, both as formal objects and cultural entities. And this is something I've written about here before, a sense of 'rhetoric' in which the form and material of an artwork is profoundly and intimately tied to larger, external, extra-textual realities and positions. And I can only speak of my own experience here, and haven't figured out yet how to best bridge a gap between myself and someone who will disagree with me. But, to try to clarify things on this end, I want to say that before, I would see an avowedly commercial film (let's say, one of these recent and oddball Spielberg films, like Catch Me If You Can). I liked this film quite a bit, and having liked it, would try to justify it as a great latter-day auteurist expression from this complicated entertainer. (At the time, I was a big proponent of Spielberg and especially a proponent of his weird string of films from A.I. to, well, Catch Me If You Can. Don't ask me where I stand on Spielberg now, because I can't even tell you myself.) I don't think I was wrong to try to justify the film--I think I was missing the opportunity for more productive thought. I didn't ask myself why I liked the film, only what I liked about it. I didn't ask myself why the film was addressing me in the way it did, only what was "good" and internally coherent about its address. In this way I found myself in curious boats with other supporters of the film who "got it" (or so we told ourselves), looking at my other friends adrift across the waves in the anti-Catch Me boat. I was trying to understand better how those of us in my boat felt in our mutual bond, when I should have devoted at least as much energy to throwing a rope over to the other boat. (This metaphor is awful, I know, but it's what I have to work with at the moment.) Concensus needn't be the goal, only meaningful communication and understanding.

Fast-forward to Thanksgiving break when I see War of the Worlds on DVD and think it's dreadful. But I no longer consider myself part of a film culture political war pro- or anti-Spielberg. I'm not interested in trying to force my enjoyment or lack of it, my erudition or lack of it, on anyone else. What I want is to try to find middle grounds between myself and the rest of the world (which is unlike me) and who has an opinion on this film. I don't want my discussion of this film, or even my private thought of this film, to end with, to be rooted in, "It sucks." (Likewise, I don't really want discussion of films I've seen lately and love to be rooted in, "It rocks"--even for that towering achievement, The Cloud-Capped Star.) To decide whether it's right to be endlessly annoyed or tearfully moved by a moment like oft-screaming Dakota Fanning's quiet "Are we dead?" is beyond the point. In this case I may be endlessly annoyed, but I know what it's like to be tearfully moved in a Spielberg film that other people feel endlessly annoyed about. (Just today a co-worker asked my opinion of A.I., which I adore, before largely dismissing it himself.) So I recognize my annoyance, affirm that I'm no more special than any other member in this species, and try to get at the realities and factual roots of this film's existence so that subjective opinion is the vibrant texture of a discussion among people, and not the (flimsy) foundation of our own little floating man-islands.

How do we do this? That's what I'm still pathetically trying to figure out. Perhaps I'm behind the curve but I feel finally like I'm on the right track for wanting to try to do this and not for bickering (within, no doubt, a corporate- and consumerist-approved philosophical matrix) about the merits of "the movies." Cue stirring score, serve popcorn, and roll the Oscar clip. Because I've realized that, the all-powerful market entrenched in place, I hate its merits, and I hate "the movies."


Eric Henderson said...

Because I've realized that, the all-powerful market entrenched in place, I hate its merits, and I hate "the movies."

I feel exactly the same way about writing.

Brian said...

I just wanted to say that this is a beautiful post, Zach. I'll be thinking about it for a while.

aaron w graham said...

The blogosphere has enough discussions of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, "Masters of Horror", et al, so please keep up your new found enthusiasm for Indian films and other neglected areas - it's fascinating to read and has been quite the eye opener so far.

Jaime said...

I'm not sure what you're going after, Zach - are you trying to be "striking out into new territories, fleeing as other explorers approach" guy or "keeping all plates spinning, seeing anything and everything, as much as possible, also handling the food and nightlife section" guy? Or something else? Do you know?

The trouble with skipping the stuff you're skipping, like the titles "machinegunmccain" mentions, and others, is that you're one of the few people I tend to read on a regular basis...I'm not one of those people who reads lots and lots of reviews, so I feel I'm outside of the high "sick of hearing about it" impact area, as if BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was a nuclear mishap. (It also helps that I don't watch TV.)

dvd said...

Wonderful post. This is sort of the same reason why I'm henceforth declining to make top ten lists at the end of the year. The blogsophere is full of them, and they're all full of the same movies, and I really don't care to pit incomparable films against each other.