A reader wrote me a question and wondered if I'd respond with thoughts on my blog, so I'm giving it a shot. The general substance of the question was, first, What moves us to provide commentary, in-depth analysis, of some films (and not others)? Masterpieces that leave us overawed and worldless commingle with great films (or less-than-great films) that can draw out reams of analytical material, as well as disposable films which move nothing in our minds. The reader also asks if I'd describe three films that, as of now, I'd like to put on, say, Criterion DVD (clean slate) and do commentary tracks for ...
Very generally, I would say that what moves us toward commentary in films (or any art) is that ultimately we have a firmer understanding of our relationship to them than we do with films for which we have little, or only functional or conventional, understandings. What I mean by this is that there are films, for all of us, which (for great films: whether they touch us too profoundly or which we admire too coolly) we can write a little about, but find that we may either come up short, or that we write about with a certain anonymity. We point to this thing, that thing, quite visible in the film to anyone else, and we can perhaps "explain," a little, about why the film is great (or not great), or why it's formal/thematic integrity exists, how it's put together ... but because we're too overwhelmed or underwhelmed, or for some other reason perhaps, we leave nothing of ourselves on the page (or the screen). Criticism (very broadly defined) is perhaps like cooking, where great dishes require two things, two ingredients: the artwork and the spectator-writer. Competent analysis of a film which does not inspire, which does not necessitate, analysis in the writer is a bit like a restaurant offering a plate of a raw fruit or vegetable--potentially delicious, but not real cooking, merely evidence of good taste.
I don't refer, really, to 'personality' or 'biography.' I don't mean that real substantive analysis involves telling a story about how a film "means something special to you," because you were impressionable when you first saw it and you had your first kiss that after you watched it that hot summer, etc., etc. That kind of thing can still lead either way--to mere description of what's there and what's already thought about it (this time absorbed in autobiography), or to the creative fusion of a spectator with an inimitable position & voice exchanging, even flowing with, the work in question--in a capricious moment I'm tempted to say that real, great analysis of art makes the film at least a little unfamiliar even to those who know it well, simply because it's been so ingrained within the voice of the commentator. Similarly, though, the commentator upon these films might appear a little unfamiliar from article to article, unfamiliar to friends in her own writing or speaking. I don't actually know that this is all true--but it's an interesting possibility, and it is what the fingertips impress upon the keypad. (Ha--if I'm wrong, it's my fingers' fault!) At any rate, what I mean by all this is that the commentator's distinctive way of seeing, feeling, interpretating, taxonomizing, and even 'cartographing' the artwork in question will be impossible to duplicate anywhere else, only imitate.
So to return to the actual question, why do some films inspire commentary while others don't, I think that it may be because we are more cognizant, and more confident, of our distinctive and inimitable "reading-relationship" in these cases, whereas films that overwhelm us to speechlessness lead us into lack of confidence, maybe even a failure of cognition, and films that we admire only coolly have failed to provide us with a distinction that we would crave--a reminder that we humans are not always, 100% special (and brilliant) people with something always to say. We all have a truly inescapable right & obligation to be boring and mediocre, uninspired and uninspiring, from time to time!
Now to DVDs. This is a difficult question if only because there is so much to choose from. Of course, I'm picking from films that I've already seen. And the list would change tomorrow. But ...
An American Romance (King Vidor, 1944) A masterpiece, albeit one I've only seen once, and on video. It's a familiar story, a story of, roughly, my great-grandparents' generation--when European immigrants came here, learned English, worked hard, and eventually made good. At the time of this film's release the "message" of the film was roughly, You've earned citizenship, and a great life with your wonderful family, now play your part in the War! Today's viewer, such as myself, might take the film not simply this agenda of patriotic sacrifice, but also the inherent conservatism of its argument for the immigration debate today--we can't say this applies to An American Romance as it was made, but the act of seeing the film today ensures that the issues it raises draw a different web of psychological and social connections, connotations. For the myth of the American Dream that this film baldly promotes comes from an age when there were many (European) people successfully assimilating into the fabric of this country, and believed fully that they had lived and earned the American Dream. The indignation of their children and grandchildren at today's immigrants, who are demonized for being lazy (or working too hard and taking our jobs!) or for not learning English, comes from a familial foundation, laid out over history, as depicted in this film. Times have always been hard, my family went through poverty and tragedy, but through belief, loyalty, and Stakhanovite dedication (to the Protestant work ethic, that is) we perseved. (Why can't you?) This film remains alive, if criminally underseen, for this larger social discourse, among other reasons. Furthermore if I were to offer commentary on a film like this I would like to address the question of formal integrity & brilliance, and how this relates to ideological function. For this is a very American film, with very American ideological baggage, and yet it is in terms of aesthetics hardly just functional. The images are at times awe-inspiring, and in this respect it is difficult for me to describe, because as I have mentioned I have seen the film only once, on video. But I am certain of its aesthetic greatness (for the record, Fred Camper and I think possibly also Peter Tonguette consider this peak Vidor). And to have a chance to look at the images closely, both for their sensuous properties and their semiotic significance, and provide people with an informed, researched reading would be a treat. [This film is unavailable on home viewing formats, according to the IMDB, but it shows on TV sometimes, and if anyone out there would be interested in a dubbed tape and has extraordinary patience, I could maybe do something to get it your way.]
Viva la Muerte (Fernando Arrabal, 1971) I wrote a few words on this film when I saw it months ago, and now I think I'd enjoy the challenge of trying to identify (as I wrote) the "axes" which characterize this film. I'd probably want to start with all the associations and the historical/biographical context--but constantly I'd try to move into that area that threatens overwhelm me and remain ineffable, that motley bead necklace that is the aesthetic/formal organization of this film. Whereas An American Romance is a great film with conservative, capitalist, and mythopoetic ideological functions, Viva la Muerte is a film that offers intense, simmering anger and bewilderment at the Franco regime and all that it stood for--which is much closer to my heart, politically, as should be obvious to readers of this site. What can "the surreal" offer us? I think it can still offer us a lot, but if nothing else, it can be a way to exorcise demons and to attack the symbols, images, and conventions of forces that have injured us and destroyed those dear to us. [This film is available on DVD and should be watched right away!]
The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter (Liu Chia-liang [aka Lau Kar-leung], 1983) This outstanding Shaw Bros. film was almost a disaster--the actor playing the intended hero died in the middle of production, so a new hero/actor had to emerge on the fly. Researching the film's production story, its early 1980s HK film context, and its allusions would be a pleasure. Elaborating on its quasi-Brechtian sets and acting (and this feels different, more deliberately artificial, than even something like the early, slightly creaky, but good 1965 Shaw Bros. martial arts film Temple of the Red Lotus ['65]) would be a great springboard for talking a little about the uses and possibilities of both artifice and anti-realism, and this film's specific strategies, and how improvisation operates in conjunction with both rigor and artifice--a triangle that has resonance for the film thematically, formally, and extra-textually (its production story). [This film is available on the Celestial Shaw Bros. region-3 DVD, and probably several other bootleg or gray market formats.]
If this question inspires anyone else to tackle the questions and pick three films, please drop us a line with a link to your blog or site to let us know (or post comments below).