October 6, 2008

I Watch, Therefore I Think? Not Anymore.

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I have a confession to make. I haven’t watched a movie in over two weeks.
“Dear me,” you might be thinking. “What an irresponsible film columnist this Ted (Tad?) Hamilton is.” But my dereliction of duty is not the biggest problem that this recent drought indicates. No — the matter at hand is far more serious, touching on the very essence of film itself.
You see, film-viewing seems to share a direct correlation with free time. The reason I haven’t been keeping up with my Netflix queue is the fact that I’ve been very busy: schoolwork, the paper, bartending, etc. — and it’s all added up to squeeze extra hours from my schedule and leave me with little chance for relaxation.
So this made me wonder: Is watching movies just a leisure activity on par with karaoke or masturbation?
People often say they watch movies to relax” or “de-stress.” It’s often an end-of-day pastime that comes after the work is done and the mind is ready for a rest. When you want to procrastinate, you pull out a DVD; when you’re on winter break, you find ample time to go to the movies.
What does this say for a medium that aspires to being art? Isn’t there something denigrating in the notion that film only serves as a mind-numbing relaxant? And consider its incredibly passive nature: You sit on a couch and have images and sound beamed at you from a screen. Even the more elevated examples of the genre rarely demand more than a couple hours of attention and perhaps a post-movie chat. The mental effort is hardly strenuous.
This might not be a strike against the medium, though. What about, say, listening to music? Isn’t that passive in the extreme?
But music’s a different beast altogether. At the most basic level, music is pure sensation — it aspires to create a mood, a feeling, an immediacy between the listener and the sound. There’s surely a modicum of intellectual effort required, but this is not the substance of the experience.
Film is different. Although great importance can be ascribed to a movie’s atmosphere — to take a hackneyed example, think of Johnny Greenwood’s music in There Will Be Blood — narrative is almost always the centerpiece. Plot, character, dialogue — these are the essential elements that make a movie. (I’m distinguishing here, of course, between the traditional notion of film and pieces that you might find at, say, an art installation.) Grasping the story requires the more rational part of the mind. Think about this: one might go into a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth without any conception of the structure of a symphony and still be quite strongly affected. But approach The Seventh Seal and fail to understand any of its plot, and you’re likely to be mighty disappointed.
So it seems that film does require a certain mental effort. As in literature, the audience has to rationally follow what’s going on and cannot simply rely on pure sensation. And yet when you read a book to have to invest serious time and use your own imagination to compliment the author’s work. Film seems to require little such effort.
Maybe the explanation lies in the fact that movies are so complete. Opera used to be considered by some the consummate art form because it employed visual, sonic, theatrical, and narrative devices; much the same could be said for film, only to an exponential degree. An opera might give you a few actors dressed as soldiers and some props, but movies you give battlefields and blood. Where there’s so little left to the imagination, what is there to do but sit back and enjoy?
That in itself could be a condemnation of film — the idea that the process is only one way, artist to audience, rather than requiring any imagination on the part of the viewer. Of course, this doesn’t really hold as a general rule — a movie like Shooter is far less intellectually demanding than something like Inland Empire. And just because film requires a great deal of passivity doesn’t mean it can’t achieve great things: As in all art, what you get out of it generally depends on how much you put in.
So it’s an open question whether the sit-back nature of film — a function of its all-encompassing presentation — jeopardizes its artistic potential. I think there are lots of movies that are great works of art. But being relatively new, film has a lot of catching up to do with the other arts. As Carini the writer says in Fellini’s 8 ½, “The cinema will always be 50 years behind all the other art forms.” I just wish I had the time to notice.