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purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.

apostle 1When I was leaving the theater after seeing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, way back in 1997, a loud woman in the back of the crowd screamed out, somewhat redundantly, ”That’s the worst movie I have ever seen … in my entire life.”

At first, I couldn’t understand her reaction. It was a very good film, a quiet, intense character study of a Southern preacher. Perhaps, I thought, there were not enough car crashes in it, not enough glowing, cherry-red petro-explosions.

Certainly the film had not fulfilled her expectations.

And that was the sticking point. I have thought about it long and hard. Was The Apostle an outlier or a harbinger? There have been many articles written about the death of irony, yet, irony refuses quite to go away. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a brief hiccup in our otherwise comforting embrace of the snarky, but it soon returned. If we briefly took a breath and said to ourselves, some things are too real, too important to sniff at, well, then it didn’t stop Stephen Colbert, it didn’t put an end to The Onion.

But there was still something in Duvall’s film. The singular quality of the film is its lack of irony. Everything is presented utterly straight, with no snide comments under the breath, no revelation of hypocrisy, no hidden agenda. Duvall neither makes fun of the Apostle’s deeply held religion, nor does he proselytize for it: It is not a “Christian” film, but a sober look at the complexities of a Christian life, fully rounded, and not a summation of a generic Christian life, but rather only this one person. Irony depends on stereotypes, on “classes” of people, not on individuals.

This straightforwardness is rare in Hollywood, perhaps unique, where we expect a cushion of irony to protect us from messy experience. hangover 1

Irony, narrowly defined, is saying one thing but meaning another. As when we see a friend green-skinned and hung over in the morning and say to him, ”You look bright and chipper today.”

In that, we are both in on the joke. Often, though, an audience is split between those who get it and those who don’t. Irony is thus used frequently as a kind of shibboleth for a clique. Those who ”get it” are in, those who don’t move to a retirement community in Florida.

Irony is also a literary trope, which means, its expectations are linguistic and not experiential. Most Hollywood movies set up a form and audiences know where the story is going. A gun flashed in an early scene will by expectation be used in a later scene. The surprise we wait for is the when.

But The Apostle never quite does this. Each time we spot an obvious plot development, the movie goes elsewhere, and where it goes is closer to what might happen in real life than what we would normally expect in a movie.

All setups are frustrated.

Unlike almost any mainstream Hollywood film, there was no ”in joke” to be in on.

Instead, the story of the Apostle E.F. is given to us as an esthetic construct, something to apprehend and appreciate, to hold in our mind, whole, as we might hold in our hands a glass orb, rotating it and seeing it from all angles.

In its lack of irony, The Apostle is an odd fit for our cultural moment. The 20th Century was a century of irony; irony has been our lingua franca. But, there are some indications that as we descend into the 21st, irony has begun to wear out its welcome. It is still pervasive, but oftentimes, it seems to come by rote, as in so many sitcom pilots, seemingly written from some formula. Irony is tired; it wants to put up its feet and rest. We expect the irony, but we don’t really believe in it anymore. It’s just the norm, which we also are too tired to give up.

This shift away from irony has happened before: It is clearest in the change from the 18th to 19th centuries, from the irony of Alexander Pope to the sincerity of William Wordsworth.

daffodilsOne has only to compare the mock epic tone of The Rape of the Lock with the straightforwardness, almost blandness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils.”

A younger generation back then, tired of the artificiality of the older and sought to substitute an authenticity for the artifice.

There were things that were important to be said, the younger generation thought, and to be said clearly and meaningfully. The century that followed Wordsworth was a century without irony — and almost, at times, it seemed without a sense of humor.

Eventually, the century gagged on its own sincerity, so that when the new one began, the page flipped back. Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound stoked their verses heavily with irony, never saying quite what they meant, always approaching their subject obliquely.

We no longer trusted the Great Truth spelled out in large, direct letters, and for good reason. Too many Great Truths turned out to be miserable lies. Colonialism, Imperialism, racism, purity, idealism. There have been many deaths. picasso violin

This wasn’t true only in literature. Music turned from Tchaikovsky’s grand passions to Stravinsky’s tweaked noses, art from grand historical paintings to pasted bits of daily newspapers and deconstructed violins.

One has only to compare the historical straggler, such as D.W. Griffith’s sentimental Way Down East with Ernst Lubitsch’s brassy Ninotchka. It is the same change. You can see the pendulum swing, saeculorum decursum, over and over.

Between the irony and the directness there is constant battle, for neither is sufficient. Each mode has both its strengths and weaknesses. Direct sentiment soon devolves into Victorian sentimentality, so that we laugh now at the mawkishness of much of it. But irony declines into mere cleverness, so that we admire an author’s wit, without much regard for his sense.

This has certainly been the case in Hollywood. It is rare to find a film in which actors behave the way any real people behave or feel the feelings of real people. Instead, they speak in catch phrases that ring with bell-like cleverness. The plots are artificial; their resolutions preposterous.

”Hasta la vista, baby!”

”Go ahead, punk, make my day!”

”Show me the money.”

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

On television, it is even thicker. Seinfeld was a wonderfully clever sitcom, but it was, by its own admission, about ”nothing.” All style, no substance.

Most sitcoms are the same, and most hourlong dramas are numbingly formulaic. Forrest gump

Yet, there is a hunger for substance. It shows up in such mainstream places as movies like Forrest Gump, where the sincerity and lack of irony of its main character seems like a breath of life. The movie itself was mildly ironic, but the character was guileless. And what is more, his earnestness — that is, his ”pure heart” — won him all his prizes. (I am not defending the film as a whole, but only making a point about its underlying proposal of directness and sincerity — many people despise the film for this very reason).

In that, the tone of the movie was completely at odds with its predecessor, Being There, where we were all in on the great in-joke, as the idiot gardener, Chance, fools all the supposedly smart stuffed shirts into finding profundity in his inanities. Chauncey Gardner

And just as a clever century distrusts an earnest one, the pendulum swings back and we are beginning to be unsatisfied by the cleverness. The deeper Quentin Tarantino dives into genre film pastiche, the more irrelevant he becomes. His first films were about something — the deaths in Pulp Fiction, however clever in terms of plot, were real deaths with consequences; in Kill Bill, the deaths are just tin ducks in a shooting gallery. They carry no punch.

This great cultural sea change may be due, but it hasn’t become pervasive yet. Still, there are warning signs: Sincerity has also brought us political correctness; it has brought New Age philosophy; it has brought us any part of a Tyler Perry movie that isn’t Madea.

For, while irony requires a modicum of intelligence, sincerity is democratic: Everyone is invited — no brain too small. It runs the gamut from genius to imbecility. Not every 19th century poet was Wordsworth; heck, even Wordsworth was only Wordsworth on a good day.

The watchword for irony is skepticism; for sincerity, credulity. Blind faith in alternative medicines, UFOs and astrology is only possible in a time when our irony is eroding.

Yet, irony doesn’t get off the hook so easily, either. There are reasons some people feel compelled to give it up as the new century reaches its teen years.

The first is that irony is words, not life. It is essentially linguistic. That is, its rules and habits are linguistic rules, not experiential rules.

With irony, as with a joke, you have to have the setup and punch line come in the right order, followed by the rim shot. Out of sequence, they fall flat and meaningless.

Real life has other demands, but with irony, we translate the experience of life into the language. Language is a kind of parallel universe, divorced from reality, but somehow accepted as its mirror: When we are laughing at a joke on a sitcom, we are laughing not at life, but at language.

It is at the core of what is called Modern Art, that the process becomes the subject: The painter paints paintings about paint, the playwright constructs dialogue about speech, the sculptor shows us the raw surface of stone. Modernism has been about the tools it uses.

And that is why, at the end of the Modern century, the armor of irony that has protected our egos from the embarrassment of our sentiment has begun to fall off. We demand real experience.

When that woman yelled out her frustration at The Apostle, she was complaining that her linguistic expectations — the language of film we have all become accustomed to — were violated. Robert Duvall was doing something different.

But our culture now requires of all of us that we rise above our comfortable irony and attempt to see what is actually out there, floating in reality.

And deal with it.