Saturday, April 20, 2013

V for Vendetta: Rebellion in the Shadows

Few movies instill more rebellious spirit into viewers than V for Vendetta. A film that opens with a reference to Guy Fawkes, a 16th century revolutionary, the movie is focused around issues of extreme governmental control and the amount of power that citizens should have within a society. The movie focuses on a character, V, that has dedicated his life towards overthrowing an oppressive government and bringing wrongdoings of Britain’s leaders to light.
                Of course, the movie has other draws like good-looking actresses and stunning action scenes, but the true interest of the movie comes from its ability make its viewers question their role and their government’s role in the society which they live in. Is there a point at which government should be limited, even it is doing good for a large amount of people? What if this good comes at the expense of a small minority group?
                Clearly, these are issues that have been brought to light in our society today. With a government (and a people) largely concerned with terrorism, recent years have tested the point at which we are willing to bend the laws around which our country is based in an effort to protect ourselves. Surely, keeping one’s safety in mind is reasonable and justifiable, and in times of crisis many feel that there is little else that is important. However, in crisis situations many people tend to think irrationally, jump to conclusions, and allow our governing bodies to take action without consulting the rules, regulations and principles that our society has been built around. The question of “the ends justifying the means” comes to mind, and it’s a question that will likely never be answered.
                In V for Vendatta, V, the main character, was the victim of illegal genetic testing by the government in an effort to further their knowledge about the human body’s ability to survive epidemics. While V did survive his time in this prison, he was forever scarred and vowed to bring justice to a government that would allow such injustices to occur behind closed doors. Throughout the movie, he gathers the support of a population that is growing more and more dissatisfied with the amount of control the government has over them, and he takes advantage of a growing animosity towards power that he eventually funnels into a mass rebellion.
                Throughout human history, rebellions have seemed to occur without question when a governing body gains too much power, perhaps a natural safeguard against a perpetually totalitarian society. However, the extent to which a people must suffer is largely flexible, and often times a revolutionary figure is necessary to ignite the people under such a regime into action. V is this character, and does so anonymously, constantly wearing a mask and becoming a phantom of sorts in the mind of his followers.
                This type of anonymous rebellion was scarcely possible through most of history, as communication between groups of people was largely done in person and an anonymous figure would have difficulties reaching and inspiring the masses. However, in our current age of instant communication and technology, rebellions that are started without the leaders  and members being directly known (and rebellions that remain without the leaders and members widely known) can occur. Just like V uses masks to cover the identity of his followers and allow people to protect their personal identities while following the cause they believe in, people in today’s era are able to mask their identity over the internet and contribute to a protest anonymously. As many rebellions are curbed or never begin in the first place due to members being scared of damaging their reputation or endangering themselves or their families, this method of anonymous rebellion allows people to voice their true feelings and not feel frightened that they might be in jeopardizing their future. Expect rebellions of this sort to be occurring around the world in the near future as the common person gains more access to organizational powers and the mask of the internet.
                While V for Vendetta does eventually succeed, many people are injured in the process, and he puts a large group of people in danger. Just as he is protesting the “ends justifies the means” mentality of the government, is he not being somewhat hypocritical in his methods of protest? His tactics of explosives and other weaponry might be useful and incite public action, but he nonetheless hurting possibly innocent people and in turn exacerbating the problem he set out to fix. Rebellion, like many other social issues, is a double-edged problem, and not one that can be solved in a simple manner.

Muppet Treasure Island Review

Because we are allowed to choose any movie for the blog this week, I felt it necessary that my favorite childhood movie (and its genre!) be represented in my last post. I wore the living hell out of my VHS of Muppet Treasure Island as a child- more so than Toy Story or Space Jam, Jim Henson's classic was and still is my favorite kids movie. Here is one of the reasons why.

Recently, as a genre, children's movies have seemed to enjoy a level of respect (from critics) that would normally be difficult to ascertain given their simple subject manner. In the last twenty years, companies like DreamWorks and Pixar have developed sophisticated characters and plot lines in animated films such as Up and Ratatouille. Although Muppet Treasure Island is surely not as complex as the aforementioned films, it has the unique charm that graces all of the Muppet catalogue. It is naturally funny- I remember laughing at that movie harder than any others mostly because my parents were also in tears every time we watched it. Personally, I think that this is the most impressive thing that a kid's movie can do; I've rewatched enough of my childhood shows and movies to know that their humor is usually not applicable to the adult palette. This leads me to a few questions, however: first, how do some children's movies accomplish this level of sophistication? And, why can't they all be that good?

Some of the highest-rated movies in the past year (on, at least) have been children's movies. Normally, it would seem unfair to judge a movie that is intended for kids alongside movies that have an older demographic, but I think that exactly what lies in the nature of that distinction can be used as an explanation for the incredible reviews that some of the "best" kids movies have received. The reason why kids movies should me judged less harshly is that they have the unique goal and requirement of displaying their plot in a simple manner. Because the mind of the intended audience has not been fully developed, different ways of representing ideas and themes must be used on-screen, in order for the viewer to gain the most from the movie. In order for a film to fulfill this requirement and successfully entertain adults as well, it must be doing at least one of two things: the movie is either loaded with jokes and situations that have double-meanings or it has portrayed such a deep and abstract concept (e.g.: love, loss, heartbreak) in such simple and graspable terms and pictures that that representation is simply beautiful in itself. Muppet treasure island certainly seems to accomplish both of these goals.

One concept that I have kept going back to all year is Freud's "uncanny." We learned about the "uncanny" during our section on horror, but I'm not altogether convinced that it does not apply to all "good" cinema in general. I wrote a paper on Music for my Aesthetics class last semester with Grady; the paper asserted that the beauty of music is found in its truth-giving quality- something I believe rings true with all forms of art. Could cinema's truth be grounded in the feeling of the uncanny? While literature, music, and stationary visual art all are felt in both the mind and through one or two sensory experiences (be it, sound, sight, etc.), movies combine dialogue, music, and complex visuals to display whole worlds on the screen. It may be that the very experience of watching a movie is one that is uncanny; one has the familiar experience of seeing a world, however, that experience is paired with the unfamiliar feeling of not being able to affect any part of that world- a true outsider experience.

Other manifestations of the "uncanny" can be found in children's movies, which are often parodies of classic works of art. Muppet Treasure Island, for example, is a parody of Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island, a book that has been treasured (get it? aaaahahahaha) since its publication in 1883. Aside from the anthropomorphic nature of a puppet itself (which seems like another instance of the uncanny), watching puppets of animals and other creatures act out a story that was written with human characters has familiar and unfamiliar characteristics as well.

Do you all see the connection between the Uncanny in children's movies, and do you agree with my claim that Freud's term applies to all "good" cinema? Let me know your thoughts! It's been a pleasure reading your blog posts and I hope that we can put a dropbox together so I can see some of the papers that you all have written. This has been by far the best blogging experience that I have had- thank you all for making it a more-than-bearable experience!

The Monster Among us in Psycho

        Psycho, by Alfred Hitchcock, is unquestionably one of the foundational movies in cinema, especially horror. The mystery and repulsion surrounding the character of Norman Bates has entertained for decades. The character of Norman Bates just spawned a completely separate television serious because of this fascination.
          The story in Psycho starts out with the character of Marion Crane, who steals thousands of dollars and runs of to be with her boyfriend. On her way to see him, it rains and she is forced to stop at the Bates Motel, where Norman is the manager. He acts extremely nice and seems very nervous and shy. At this point you like the Norman, he seems innocent and almost child-like. Marion then gets murdered in the hotel shower by what is later thought to be Norman’s mother. As the story progresses and Marion’s sister and boyfriend look for Marion they slowly discover more and more about Norman. In the end, Norman’s psychopathic nature is revealed. He exists in two personalities, himself and his dead mother, who he perceives as jealous and psychotic. The scariest scene is in the end as you finally see him acting out his mother’s personality, saying that she wouldn’t hurt a fly. 
        The scariest part of Psycho is not the violence but the character of Norman Bates. He seems so harmless on the outside, hiding the fact that he is actually deeply disturbed. At first you do not want to believe that he would be capable of that kind of violence since he does seem so innocent. And part of the disturbing part of Norman is that the harmless part of him does exist and is not just a mask. But sometimes his mother takes over and he no longer is harmless. 
        While Noel Carroll would argue that the film is not really horror because it does not have a monster in a true sense, we have already discusses how this definition limits horror to an undesirable degree. For as we talked about, the scariest monsters are not necessarily Bigfoot or Godzilla but the monsters among us. A traditional monster is scary because it is unknown and general powerful, we cannot reason with it or come to understand it. This indeed is scary and what Carroll would argues is the basis for horror. 
        Norman Bates is a monster, but not in the sense that we are used to. To us he is a scarier monster because we implicitly trusted him in the beginning with Marion and he betrayed that trust. He is simultaneously human and inhuman, relatable and repulsive. As he tries to talk to Marion we like him and appreciate him but later when he shows no emotion about the deaths of the people he has killed we are scared because someone who was understandable and normal has become someone who we do not understand. 
         Another factor about why Norman is so scary is that we know he is possible. Most people do not believe things such as Bigfoot or Godzilla really exist or are even possible. People like Norman Bates do exist and live in our society. We may not want to accept this fact or think about it very much, but Psycho forces us to consider it. The whole movie, while not likely, is a possible scenario events which frightens to our core. Most horror films, when we watch them, we may be scared but we do not really believe in their possibility. But this movie presents a completely possible set of events which in my opinion makes it all that much more frightening. 
         Psycho clearly is a horror movie, but a different type of horror. Extremely focused on suspense, the film scares us not because it is a idealistic monster but because Norman Bates is a possible, hidden monster. There is no question that Norman Bates is monstrous but he fools us because that is not all of who he is. The frightening thing is that people like Norman exist and could be disguised among us and this is why Psycho stays with you and scares you.

Cheating to Lose, While "Winning" Off the Field

Returning to our sports week, I found that the film Eight Men Out (1988) presents a slightly different take on the “winners vs. winning” question raised by the majority of the other films.  Eight Men Out is a dramatic retelling of Major League Baseball’s Black Sox Scandal, one of the most infamous conspiracies in sports history.  Eight players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox, considered the best team in baseball at the time, were banned for life for intentionally losing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.  The film demonstrates how White Sox players were motivated to throw the series by a mutual dislike of miserly team owner Charles Comiskey.  They are approached by gamblers who inform them that they could win more money by throwing the series than they could if they played it out and won.  Eight Men Out follows the scandal from the initial conception, through the best-of-nine series and to the trial of the eight players after sportswriters and owners become suspicious.
            In her article “Sport, Education, and the Meaning of Victory”, Heather Reid discusses the distinction between “winners” and “winning” as well as the importance of virtue in sport.  Reid takes her analysis back to Aristotelian Virtue philosophy, explain how participation in athletics was considered to be a demonstration of arĂȘte, or virtue.  Reid argues that we as a society see winning as important because of the similar virtues associated with excellence, such as courage discipline or justice.  However, Reid also mentions how many modern athletic programs only focus on winning in terms of numbers instead of the character-building aspects.  According to Reid, if these values are seen as unimportant, the pursuit of victory in our athletic programs should not be as integral a part of our educational foundation.  In our class discussion, after discussing the definition and “point” of sport, we considered Reid’s points and questioned why winning is seen as so important.  The general consensus was that an honorable participation in sport helped foster a sense of community and that everyone should want to win even if it is not the best indicator of a team or athletes performance.  The drive to win can help us better ourselves for the future, but as Eight Men Out presents, throwing away those values for a material trophy is useless and detrimental.
            However, Eight Men Out presents a slightly different perspective than some of the other films we focused on.  It seems like much of our discussion concerns how athletes conduct themselves on the field of play, whereas Eight Men Out is equally about the players’ virtues on and off the field.  When we talked about “winners” vs. “winning,” we are comparing a virtuous appreciation of the sport as opposed to purely giving attention to the final score.  However, from a certain perspective, some athletes purely obsessed with winning might deserve a slight bit of respect for their drive and determination on the field.  Eight Men Out presents a situation where the “winning” is not even taking place on the field.  It is a similar situation to a player playing dirty in order to win a game, but instead, they are sacrificing every bit of their dignity on the field for a slight personal gain off the field.  In today’s world, some of the biggest names in sports are being accused of using steroids for personal gain.  However, those athletes are still cheating to win, whether it be for personal numbers or their team.  Instead of cheating to win, the 1919 White Sox cheated to lose.  Based on Reid’s analysis, there is absolutely no virtue to be found in the case of the Black Sox Scandal. 
            I think Eight Men Out is a solid, historically accurate depiction of one of the darkest moments for America’s National Pastime.  Naturally, some of the characters personalities are emphasized for dramatic effect – Charles Comiskey is made into more of a villain to demonstrate the players’ unhappiness with their pay, as are the gamblers.  However, the film does a great job of portraying a lapse in athletic virtue both on and off the field, taking all the importance of “winning” out of the actual sport and inserting it into a scenario of pure personal gain.  If you like baseball movies, I would definitely consider Eight Men Out, especially since the Black Sox Scandal has become such a notorious benchmark for the sport’s history.   

Friday, April 19, 2013

More Horror for everybody

We have established in our readings and in our screenings that a film's success in capturing our attention (whether this be in comedy, horror, or love and sentimentality) is due to its ability to connect with our emotions. If a film can can somehow arouse our thoughts and feelings, then the audience will have a much easier time experiencing emotion, and thus, a more enjoyable experience. It matters not what this experience is, whether it makes us laugh, cry, or frightened - the emotions are what matter because only they can strike up human feelings. Let us go back to horror.
Carroll has said that we are often attracted by what repulses us. That we are curious about the actions and demeanor of the monster at large. In Open Water, we may categorize "the monster" as the combination of the jellyfish, the sharks, the temperature of the water, etc into the forces of nature, which are typically powerful and very random. Therefore, due to the unpredictable nature of nature itself, it makes sense that horror buffs (or any individual watching, really) in the audience become frightened in the scenes with sea creatures attacking and nipping at the poor divers. We are kept on the edge of our seats, biting nails, because you never know. It is just as likely that a shark will not bite you as it will, if you stop and ponder it. You can take all the precautions you like, but really, a shark will do whatever it wants. It is a force in nature that can not be controlled or predicted. The acts of terror by the ocean predators are random. As there are more and more scenes with the sharks not attacking, we begin to understand that the divers are at the mercy of everything. That is why it is so frightening. Like the couple, the audience has no idea which attack will be the one to end it all. Even the current of the ocean itself seems to put another random spin on the couple's fate. They might wake up and find themselves within a certain distance of a boat or buoy, or in the swimming area of a pool of sharks. It is this randomness of the "nature monster" that produces the terror in the narrative.
We know the ending - its predictable. The process and the journey however, are full of random waves of events. In my opinion, I believe the most frightening (or at least uncomfortable, if you weren't really frightened) was the scene where the boyfriend was fatally bitten by the shark. It wasn't the bite or the tense music leading up to the bite itself that was scary, rather the line he says, something like, "It just occurred to me that we could really be eaten by sharks out here!" While this line might even have a sense of humor to it, it also calls to light the man's acceptance of his fate - that he really has no idea what could happen to them at this point. Everything that happens in the following hours of his life will be acts of the randomness of nature. It is this revelation the man has, his acceptance of his fate, that puts a damper on the story. When even the character himself realizes how screwed he is, you know there is even more to fear!
Carroll says that the objects or horror are fundamentally linked to cognitive interest, specifically curiosity (175). I think that these cognitive interests include thoughts that both the characters and the audience members themselves have together. Both the audience and the shark-bait diver know come to realize that, yes, literally anything could happen at any time. There is no controlling the randomness of nature in the middle of the cold ocean.
We can believe all we want about predicting the behavior of wild animals. But people are malled by their own pets sometimes. How can we ever hope to predict the actions of those swimming around our ankles? Does comfort just bring you closer to something that could always potentially harm you? Can you say that you could trust and predict your kitty's every move? Nature is a scary force of unbelievable power. I think its forces go unnoticed all the time, especially in a day in age when humans always try and control it.
I like this movie - not because it did a good job of predicting what would go on in the ocean waters beneath you. But because it did a good job of rendering nature and its creatures completely random. Never being able to expect what happens next is a powerful element of arousing emotion in any audience - whether you are watching a story of love, humor, or a horror.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nobody Puts Baby In The Corner!!

Although we probably do not like to admit it, the majority of people were pretty impressionable in High School, at an age when many of us were firmly trying to establish ourselves.  Reflecting back on my time at an all-males prep. school, it is easy to see how conditioned I was into several cultural norms.  Not that I did not think for myself, but when I saw or heard an advertisement, trailer, or conversation about romantic films, typically I gave them no thought whatsoever.  While I am still not a huge fan of the genre, I can appreciate why individuals enjoy the emotional roller coaster present in these fantasies.  But more often than not, they are just that—fantasies.  I tend not to like Romantic Comedies, Divine Romances, Romantic Tragedies, or any other genre that is centered on an idealistic yet impossible or at least highly impractical love story.  If I did or said 1/10 of the things that the heroes do in Romances, I would get slapped—or at least would come across as super creepy.  This is why the ability to identify with a character in the specific context is so crucial.  As Carl Plantinga explains in his essay, “when we assent to the narrative of a film and become ‘absorbed’ or ‘immersed’, we accept an emotional role.  We entertain the fiction in our imagination…yet we have a consistent background awareness of its artificiality” (Plantinga 152).  This is why I chose to watch Dirty Dancing. 

            The film is centered on Fances Houseman (AKA “Baby”), and the summer her family spends at a mountain resort.  She discovers the underground clubs where Johnny (Schwayze), the resort dance instructor, leads the staff in dirty dancing.  She soon discovers that Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, is pregnant by Robbie, her sister’s unfaithful boyfriend.  Trying to help, Baby speaks to her dad (a physician) in confidence and asks for the money necessary for an abortion and gives it to Penny.  Frances and Johnny practice and perform at another resort and dance well although she is too nervous to complete the climactic lift at the end of their routine.  While the abortion goes horribly wrong, leaving Penny is agonizing pain and eventually forced to be seen by Baby’s father who helps the young dancer despite his fury and disappointment in Baby for deceiving him, it leads to Johnny and Baby growing closer.  Johnny is accused of stealing a guest’s wallet and, due to his lack of an alibi, is likely to be found guilty.  In an act of defiance, pride, and passion, Frances announces that she can prove his innocence as she was with him at the time.  Although Patrick Schwayze is fired (I mean he did sleep with and romanticize a seventeen-year-old resort guest), he is so taken aback by Baby’s selflessness that they become even more in love.  This all boils down to the final resort dance of the summer, in which the couple is reunited, Johnny fires one of Hollywood’s most famous lines, “…nobody puts Baby in the corner!”, and the two lovebirds dance their hearts out (to Time of My Life incidentally) and finish with the climactic lift they were unable to do before. 

            I thought it was interesting to read Plantinga’s deconstruction of ‘sentimentality’, or a “false or unearned sentiment” as well as Mary Midgeley’s opinion that it “…misrepresent[s] the world to indulge our feelings”.  While I used to hate on romances for this very reason, after watching Casablanca and speaking about it with friends who are big fans of the genre, I propose a slight editorial to that stance.  I cannot bring myself to agree with the idea that sentimentality in films is a “howling self-deception” that leads to a “distortion of the world” (Plantinga 155).  Rather, I see it as a fantasy film in which one views a love story that, while impractical, is so ideologically beautiful that they wish to engage themselves both in the fiction of the movie, and of the reality that (even if only sliiiightly) there is a chance that something similar will happen to them someday.  As Plantinga states, emotion is a process.  And for this viewer, emotion can be a confusing and difficult idea to understand.  Nonetheless, movies can enduce and elicit sentimentality for the purpose of critiquing it, (Plantinga 156), realizing it, or just putting it out there for the viewer to enjoy.  Just as screen violence is guaranteed to generate affect, so too does emotion and sentimentality, especially that of love and affection. 

I thought the following quotation from Mindy Kaling ends this post nicely:

“I feel almost embarrassed revealing this, because the genre has been so degraded in the past twenty years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity. But that has not stopped me from enjoying them. I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world.”

The Sentimentality of Isolation

Lost in Translation (2003) is a movie about two people dealing with the disappointment and loneliness present in their lives. Bob and Charlotte meet in Japan, a country where they don’t speak the native language and where they are separated from their spouses. Bob is an old movie star and Charlotte is a recently graduated philosophy major, and neither one is satisfied with what their life currently is. Bob is in Japan for business. He is being paid to represent a whiskey, which involves commercials, photos, and going on programs to promote the product. The film follows him through these experiences and instills a sense of loneliness through its imagery. Parallel to this is Charlotte’s story. She is a young wife of a photographer who is in Japan to photograph a band. Even when he’s around it seems he’s leaving her on her own. When they talk, it is clear they are not really communicating. Eventually he goes for a few days to shoot on location, leaving Charlotte on her own.
In Platinga’s essay Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism, he refutes the idea that an emotional response to film is something to be ignored so that you may use only reason to understand the film. Platinga puts forth the cognitive perspective on emotion. He claims that the emotional experience relies on the previous experience of that spectator. He presents a case for the agency of both the spectator and film in the creation of emotional responses.
Romantic comedies and horror films are well known examples of the manipulation of the spectator’s emotions. They use very specific music and images to produce the correct feelings for the plot. This engages the viewer and results in their commitment to the characters. People often feel that the homogeneity of the manipulations these films employ is a major flaw in our culture. We mass produce films with the same songs, plots, and characters. However, Lost in Translation (2003) is not one of these standard romantic comedies.
Lost in Translation (2003) employs several techniques to produce sentiment in the spectator. The beginning of the movie follows the two main characters as they deal with their environment. By setting the movie in Japan, where the two main characters stick out like sore thumbs, the viewer is already conditioned to be considering the topic of loneliness and isolation. These are emotions that most everyone has felt at some point, and so by making our characters foreigners the film produces a very visible representation of loneliness even in a sea of people. This is used to condition the spectator, so that later when it becomes clear that the real problem is that in their everyday lives these two characters feel loneliness and isolation , even with the ones they love.
I found it very interesting that while Lost in Translation (2003) purposefully created a romantic relationship, they did not equate this with sex. In so many movies focused on romance, they equate love with sex. However in Lost in Translation (2003), they focus on companionship and understanding. This is further emphasized by the overall sense of loneliness and isolation that pervades the film. This allows the spectator to root for their love without having to go against their morals. The married status of these characters makes a sexual love problematic, but by not sexualizing their relationship, the spectator can appreciate and be fully invested in it. Bob’s affair with the red-haired singer furthers this point, their relationship clearly superficial though sexual.
Unlike most romance movies, Lost in Translation (2003) does not use Aristophanes’ view on love from Plato’s The Symposium to outline the story. There are no two perfect halves finding each other in this love story. The two main characters are in committed relationships. In a more typical movie, their unhappiness in their marriages would be replaced the happiness inherent in finding their true match, the true second half of their soul. However, that is not what Charlotte and Bob find in each other. They find companionship and friendship. They find an escape from their isolation. They find love in each other, but we do not get the impression that they are each other’s second halves.  They do not leave their spouses for each other. They do not make plans to see each other. They found understanding and peace within their relationship in a time when they felt isolation. They are a necessary part of each other’s story, but their relationship was necessarily brief. The truthfulness found in their love suggests that the myth of a second half may be just a myth.  

Emotions and Sentimentality

At the beginning of the movie, Harry says that no man can have an attractive female friend because the sex that he inevitably wants to have with her would ruin the friendship.
Harry thinks he has everybody and everything figured out. All men think this and all men think that. As  Sally listens she is somewhat offended - generalizing people and the relationships between men and women. Although his statements are funny, sometimes we can't help that Harry is a wise-guy who secretly just want to have sex with Sally (as we can predict a foreshadowing in some form). As they separate and get involved again, the two do become friends - being there to talk on the phone at night, double-dates with friends, and enjoying each other's company. Finally, after sleeping together, the two decide that having sex really did complicate things and grew apart again. In each others' absence they realized that they have fallen in love.
The audience needs, as Plantinga says, "a language and a method to enable us to understand better the specators involvement in movies" (151). Plantinga suggests emotion and a certain cognitive undertaking by the audience. I think this is quite appropriate because how we think is directly related to sentiment and sentimentality. If we are able to connect on a level not only with human characters but also their "inferences, appraisals, judgements, hypotheses, etc" we can experience this sentiment and deeply connect to the situations the characters are in. For example, the judgements that Harry makes at the beginning pan out into the relationship between himself and Sally. These cognitive inferences arouse sentiment in the audience by comparing to real life situations. In other words, we are forced to judge on our own whether we think that "sex really does prevent friendship" or any other wise words from Harry. It is the audience's cognitive responses to the characters' judgements that arouse sentiment and aid in the success of the film's bringing about emotion. But! As Plantinga also says, and as many of us know, emotions cloud judgement. How does this complicate what we've just read and watched? Are there fundamentals to our cognitive interests and connections? Or are their only subjective experiences because each person has is or her own relationships qualities, that may differ from others?

The Struggle Between Emotion and Obligation

Emotions are a powerful driving force for many, if not most, people. They can cause us to do things we normally wouldn't but can also hinder us. Human emotion is an incredible source for inspiration but this can be overpowered by other things like the social obligations we make with the people around us. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a film which shows how one’s emotions and obligations can collide. The movie is about a middle aged actor named Bob Harris who is shooting a commercial in Japan and the intimate friendship he forms with a young woman named Charlotte. Both characters are married, Bob having being married for over 20 years and Charlotte having recently married a young photographer who has been stationed in Japan. Bob and Charlotte find themselves dissatisfied with the current state of their marriages and happen to meet in the hotel they both stay at. After a series of interactions they become close friends, spending time drinking at bars and singing karaoke. It seems to be apparent that the two of them share a unique bond that they are missing in their marriages and so this causes a conflict between their emotions and obligations.

Diane Jeske writes about obligations in her work Families, Friends, and Special Obligations. Jeske talks about how people have special obligations to certain individuals, consisting of family and friends alike. Much of this work discusses the differences and similarities between obligations to family and friends and shows that familial obligations can be entered voluntarily as well, even though people cannot choose their family. In discussing the obligations which we have with friends, she says that there are implicit and explicit ways of establishing these obligations. Marriage is one of the explicit ways of doing this because one takes a set of vows which they are expected to uphold. Breaking these vows, or any obligation which one is engaged in, makes one morally corrupt (especially in the case of marriage which are considered sacred/high tier vows). This is the risk faced by both Bob and Charlotte in the movie. The two of them form an intimate bond of friendship and it is apparent that there are feelings of desire between them, but they never act on those feelings completely because of the obligations to their respective spouse.

Something that this movie made me think about was the way in which people take into account other people’s obligations. When it comes to our friends (and our family as well) we tend to avoid doing things that cause them to fail in their obligations to others. I think this is seen in the movie when Bob sleeps with a woman he meets at the bar toward the latter half of the film. Charlotte catches him and the two have a quarrel (well Charlotte’s jealousy is shown at least). What I noticed though is that instead of going to Charlotte who he has real feelings for he hooks up with a stranger. I’m sure that part of this was due to the situation of it all and the age gap that exists between Bob and Charlotte but when following emotions it makes more sense for him to sleep with Charlotte, who I am sure would not be opposed to the idea. What I think is shown is that friendship in itself creates an obligation which implicitly demands that one should not do something which will compromise the other’s obligations. This is why I believe Bob slept with the woman instead if Charlotte. Sleeping with either woman would break his obligation to his wife, but if he had chosen to sleep with Charlotte he would also break the obligation he has to her. In this example we see that Bob’s emotions are powerful enough to break the obligation he had to his wife, but not the one he had to Charlotte.

Since I am talking about emotions I also want to address the emotions evoked in the film. In Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism by Carl Plantinga, he discusses how people should critique the films they watch to understand “the moral and ideological import of experiences offered by films” (Wartenberg and Curran 148). In this work he mentions how some movies can produce manipulative emotions which can cloud the viewer’s outlook on the movie. I think that Lost in Translation is a movie which does not produce manipulative emotions; or at least it does so to a minimum degree. I watched this movie with a friend and we both couldn't help but notice that much of the movie just seemed to be random events within Bob and Charlotte’s lives together. To me this movie seemed to paint a realistic picture of the situation. There are some romanticized parts but much of it seemed like something I could expect to see in real life. In conclusion this movie does a good job at portraying realistic characters who, like the average human, must deal with the conflicts of their emotions and obligations. 

Am I sad? Am I happy?

A Single Man.  The words beautiful, amazing, and spectacular do not even do it justice.  From Colin Firth’s brilliant portrayal of George Falconer, to the stunning visual art and filmography of director Tom Ford, it seems almost impossible to leave this movie untouched.  However, the feeling that the spectator is supposed to leave with is impossible to nail down.  Carl Platinga’s focus on the experience of emotion while watching a film rather than any emotion in particular in his essay “Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism” is essential to viewing A Single Man.
As he discusses in his essay, Platinga recognizes that part of watching a film is that, “we rarely view films indiscriminately, but decide what films to view in part for the kind of experience they offer” (154).  This means that although some of emotional power of a movie is in part left up to the brilliance of the actors and execution of the director, as viewers we make a conscious decision to see a happy, funny, sad, violent, or action-packed movie.  Much like we have mentioned in class, advertisements play a roll in influencing our feelings toward movies and TV shows.  For instance, we talked about the opening scene of Dexter and how it seems violent, evil, and mysterious.  We also mentioned that the preview for Doubt made the film seem so much more controversial in order to draw a crowd.
I am assuming that most people who went to see A Single Man or decided to watch the film knew what they were getting themselves into.  Not knowing anything about the movie other than its title, I came in with an entirely different perspective.  I assumed it was either a happy love story or a sad love story, or in the words of Platinga, does the movie offer a self-indulgent sentimentality or does it escape the criticisms of sentiment and emotion (155-156).  To tell the truth, I have no idea where this movie is on the spectrum of emotions for me.  Yes of course the movie does play on sentiments and emotions and has many depressingly sad moments.  Nevertheless, the film has many bright, happy, funny, and love-filled scenes.  I think generally people walk out of the theater or end the movie in tears.  The movie itself, however, cannot tell you how to feel about this movie.
Platinga mentions that people often feel certain emotions during a movie based on how or why they do or do not relate to a character or situation (153).  This relationship with the film does vary throughout the course of the movie and it can often serve as the sort of catharsis or learning moment in a movie.  A Single Man does not offer one true perspective or emotion to learn from in this movie.  People of all different backgrounds and situations can connect with so many parts of this movie. For instance, fear of old age, homosexual/bisexual relationships, relationships in general, fear of moving on, love, fear of death… the list goes on and on.  These are all emotions and situations that people can understand, grasp, and feel.
What I am trying to get at is that this movie offers too many different connections and complications to demand one emotion.  The experience of emotion is left up the discretion of the viewer.  I recall one scene where George Falconer and Charley (played by Julianne Moore) have dinner and discuss how kids call them old even though they really are not that old and yet at the same time realize that they have old memories and do not have that much time left to change their lives or situation.  If I were a middle-aged parent (more specifically divorced or widowed), then this particular scene would probably strike pretty close to home.  However, as a young adult, I can only see the emotions of the actors and sympathize with how those characters are feeling.
Focusing on the experience of emotion allows us to step away from criticisms of crying or laughing at inappropriate times.  Platinga relies on the thinking of Bertolt Brecht to discuss this when he says, “that the goal of the practitioner of epic theatre must not be to eliminate emotional response but to encourage the spectator to ‘adopt a critical approach to his emotions, just as [he] does to his ideas’” (149).  I am definitely sympathetic to those of you who may have cried during or at the end of this movie, but I think this film involves a little more digging like Brecht and Platigna argue.  It is, naturally, sad that George Falconer dies at the end of the movie but is that really enough to make it sad?  To some, I am sure the answer is yes.  In my opinion, the answer is too complicated to simply say it is a sad movie or it is a happy movie.  That being said, we need to focus on the experience of emotion during the movie in order to establish a forum on which we can determine whether A Single Man is a sad or happy love story.  

The Value of "Silly Love Songs"

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return...”
...or, maybe to walk away when a tragic romance comes on. 

In my opinion (before encountering Plantinga's cognitive theory for considering spectator emotion), the film Moulin Rouge falls into a category with Titanic and A Walk To Remember-- or, “movies that I watch over and over again knowing that I am going to end up a crying mess by the end.” And no matter how many times I see ABC rolling the opening credits for any of these films and think to myself, “Remember, you do not like the way this film ends,” it almost never fails that my entire apartment of female roommates get caught up in these tragic romances. 

Let us just recall the plot of this 2001 musical love story. Male protagonist Christian is a struggling writer in early 20th century Paris who joins up with a troupe of writers and performers to sell their show Spectacular Spectacular to Moulin Rouge owner Mr. Zidler. Christian, the definition of a hopeless romantic, is drawn into this bohemian revolution based on his devotion to the very concept of love (though he admits his idea of love leaves something to be desired, having never been in love himself). 
Christian goes to share the story with dangerously beautiful lead courtesan Satine, the “sparkling diamond,” the love story begins. Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke Monroth, whom she is to be seducing so that the Duke will financially support the show. In a rather amusing show of arousal, Christian tries to share his poetry with Satine. What else gets hooks an aspiring actress being forced to work as a courtesan better than a heart-felt poetic expression of love? Unfortunately, just as Satine and Christian connect, the actual Duke Monroth enters. In order to mask the mistake, the performing troupe improvises a plot for Spectacular Spectacular that mirrors the developing love triangle amongst Christian, Satine, and the Duke. As they present this plot to the Duke, he ironically asks, “And in the end should someone die?” thereby foreshadowing Satine’s death. Of course, at this point, it is clear to the audience that Satine suffers from tuberculosis/consumption. As their romance progresses in time with the development of the show, the Duke grows increasingly more jealous and Satine grows increasingly more ill. In the midst of uplifting, sweeping love songs, the audience watches what can only end in tragedy, and indeed does. In the end, Christian expresses his love for Satine in spite of the evil Duke, only to have her die in his arms moments later. 

What about this film is so compelling for viewers? It’s pretty clear from the beginning (a quietly crying Christian at a typewriter) that the film is going to end sadly. At this point, I turn to Carl Plantinga’s essay to understand what it is about these films that attract an audience. Plantinga argues that spectator emotion can have ideological value. In his essay, “Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism,” Plantinga refutes two notions of film criticism that:
  1. emotions that an audience experiences cloud an audience’s critical judgement; in other words, that critical reason and emotion are mutually exclusive experiences; 
  2. a critic can make a judgement about the use of a stylistic tool without regard to spectator emotion those tools illicit. 
These ideas he refers to as ideological stoicism, and Plantinga argues that contrary to these notions that insist upon the separation of emotion from experience, that there is value in spectator emotion. He proposes a cognitive approach, involving emotion but also “inferences, appraisals, judgements, hypotheses, etc.” (151) He argues that such a model will “transcend reductive characterizations of emotion.” 
It was with this model that I approached watching Moulin Rouge this time I watched the film. I must admit, this film seems much less like a guilty pleasure when I consider the film using this cognitive approach; previously, I was also functioning under the dualistic notion of either critical reason OR emotive response. A consideration of Moulin Rouge is not about what is or is not sentimental, it is about how audiences respond to jealousy, to doomed romance, to tragic illness, and to the things necessitated by desperate circumstances and a drive for success. This film is clearly treating the subject of idealized sentiment, and it is only with an awareness of the emotions elicited and a critical judgement that an audience member can appreciate the commentary the film makes. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Harry, Sally, and Plato

This movie is a classic. When Harry Met Sally (1989), is a romantic comedy about two friends who are try and figure out the age old dilemma, “can a man and a woman be friends and have sex??”
            The movie takes place over a number of years and follows Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) as they become friends, drift apart, and then eventually drift back together at a clichĂ© New Years Eve party. It all starts when the Harry and Sally share a ride from Chicago to New York City. This is the first time that they discuss if men and women can be friends and have sex. They decide that they can’t, and eventually they go their separate ways. However, years later, Harry and Sally meet again on a plane and they discuss the same question. Both are now in relationships and Harry is about to get married. Harry ends up exclaiming that men and women can’t be friends even if they are in relationships with other people. Eventually they part ways again. THEN Harry and Sally meet again a few more years later, after Sally broke up with her significant other and Harry was left by his wife. This meeting happened in a bookstore and eventually led to dinner. Eventually, Harry realizes that he has a woman friend (Sally) and it stands against what he originally thought about men and women being friends. Their friendship develops and through complicated twist and turns they eventually grow apart BUT they do end up together in the end. (Hopefully that isn’t too confusing of a synopsis).
            Overall, the film made me think of Plato’s Symposium, specifically Aristophanes speech. In his speech, he delivers the story of two halves. “When a person meets the half that is his very own, whatever his orientation, whether its to young men or not, then something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another not even for a moment” (192C). This quote seems applicable to When Harry Met Sally because when the two met, they seemed connected and the fact that they just kept running in to each other seemed like a work of the gods.
            Though Harry and Sally met long before they became friends or even fell in love, they dated others and married others before they realized their true half. Aristophanes exclaims that, “if love is our guide and our commander. Let no one work against him. Whoever opposes Love is hateful to the gods” (193B). It took Sally and Harry ten years to realize that they were each others “halves” and because it took them so long it caused heartbreak and destruction (Harry’s divorce).
            The last quote that I want to point out from Aristophanes’ speech is, “these are the people who finish out their lives together and still cannot say what it is they want from one another. No one would think it is the intimacy of sex-that mere sex is the reason each lover takes so great and deep a joy in being with the other” (192D). Harry and Sally do end up living their lives together and eventually getting married. Though their relationship was built on an ongoing friendship, not merely on sexual interest.

Speaking of sex, this is one of the funniest moments of the film:

The Sentimentality of Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003) could be described as tale of forbidden love and ageless attraction found in exotic locales. The two lead characters, past-his-prime movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and neglected wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are both married, so their “love” is “forbidden.” Harris is considerably older than Charlotte, so their attraction does seem ageless. The whole narrative takes place in Japan, so the locale is exotic. Yet those of you who have seen the film know that the description above misses the mark. This is no Nicholas Sparks story with oft-quoted beach scenes or soggy, impassioned embraces. In many ways, the film seems to intentionally step around sentimentality.

In his article “Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism,” Carl Plantinga defines sentimentality as “false or unearned sentiment” (155) – in the case of films, it is the real sympathy or empathy that a viewer feels for fictional characters in fictional situations. However, Plantinga seeks to defend sentimentality and emotional responses to films by suggesting that such reactions can generate important and useful conversations about the interplay of feeling and reason. He criticizes the claim that “emotion clouds a certain kind of critical judgement,” further stating that “the kind of emotional experience a film offers, and not emotion per se, is a proper target of ideological investigation” (148).

Lost in Translation presents a unique example: as mentioned previously, much of its content aligns with more traditional “chick-flicks,” yet the treatment of that content seems to separate it entirely from that category. To return to Plantinga's text, the film begins to separate emotions “which are benign or beneficial from those which are manipulative or harmful” (151). There have been many instances when I exit a theater or finish watching a film at home and feel manipulated, particularly with respect to romantic movies. A Walk to Remember (2002) is an especially pertinent example (and another Nicholas Sparks creation; guess I've really got a bone to pick with that fellow?). The film itself might simply irk me because it elicits the intended emotional reaction, against my better judgment. So yes, I get very upset when things go south for the characters, when certain inevitabilities come to light – I would say more, but I don't want to spoil the surprise for anyone who has yet to experience the landmark film for themselves. 

Yet my primary issue with that film, like my issue with many other “chick-flicks,” is the unrealistic expectation it sets. Plantinga states that “our emotional experience at the movies may affect our ways of thinking and thus reinforce or alter the emotion schemata we apply to actual situations” (158). The bad boy changes his ways for the quiet, church-going girl; the single dad and his son meet the perfect woman at the top of the empire state building; the blood-sucking vampire is actually good, and he falls in love with the awkwardly reserved human girl. These narratives of happy endings begin bleeding into our approach of reality. Notably, the same argument has been made many times about depictions of violence in film.

Back to Lost in Translation: unlike the typical romantic-film arcs that I list above, Coppola's movie offers a more realistic set of situations with subtler emotional responses. Many critics argue, as Plantinga mentions, that “emotions must be 'bridled' or 'mastered' to allow reason to function adequately” (149), as if emotional responses and rational thinking are mutually exclusive (spoiler alert: in many cases, they are not). In Lost in Translation, Harris does not leave his family to run off with Charlotte due to his emotions. Yet he does not conquer them in any sense, since he still runs after her at the end of the film; he rather uses his emotions in conjunction with his reasoning skills. In terms of spectator response, though, I am a bit at a loss. I have always had difficulty identifying with the characters in this film, but perhaps that's precisely Coppola's intention. Perhaps all the interactions between Harris and Charlotte are intended to be perfunctory, leaving little long-term impact after the pair leaves Japan or the viewer leaves the theater. Is this film less sentimental simply because audiences do not sympathize with the characters as much as they do in more mainstream romances? Is this simply because Coppola is less manipulative in her emotional approach? “'Soft' emotions” (149) are certainly present, but a lot of emotional numbness is implicit in Harris's sexual encounter with the red-head bar crooner. Do you think this was a swing-and-a-miss at sentimentality, or is the absence of a powerful emotional response intentional? 

A Search for the Other Half

Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009) is the story of George Falconer (Colin Firth), an English professor living in Los Angeles in 1962. The movie takes place throughout the course of a day, and opens at the scene of a car accident. We later find out that the victim of the car accident is George’s longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode), and the accident occurred eight months ago. The scene flashes to George waking up, having just dreamt of being at the site of Jim’s accident. He then delivers a monologue describing the anguish and depression he has experienced since Jim’s death, the end of which reveals George’s intentions of killing himself later that day: ‘Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until- later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: It will come.” The film continues as a montage of flashbacks of George and Jim’s relationship, slow-motioned images of isolated events George believes he is seeing for the last time, and the course of the present day.

Plato’s Symposium is the recounting of a dinner party given in honor of Agathon, an Athenian tragic poet. The essay is told from the perspective of Applodorus, as he relates the event to an unnamed companion. When the guests are done with dinner, Phaedrus suggests that each guest make a speech to praise the god of Love. Of all the speeches, Aristophanes’ is particularly interesting. He tells the story of a time when there was not just the two sexes, but man, woman, and “the union of the two.” The gods become angered when man, woman, and the union, attack them. In trying to decide how to punish them for their actions, Zeus suggests man should continue to exist, “but [he] will cut them in two and they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to [the gods].” After doing this, Zeus realizes that each part came together again and clung to each other not wanting to let go.
This anecdote from the Symposium came to mind while I was watching A Single Man. The relationship that George and Jim had is comparable to man and his other half. Later in the speech, Aristophanes says, “and when of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy…these are the people that pass their whole lives together; yet the could not explain what they desire of one another.” The flashbacks to George and Jim’s time together, and George’s visible pain without him, define the bond described by Aristophanes.
One of the brilliant parts of the film is the way lighting played into the story. When a scene is focused on the present, during George’s suffering without Jim, the lighting of the film is dull, the color so faint it’s barely discernable from black and white. However, when the scene switches to a flashback of George and Jim’s relationship, the screen fills with warm, vivid colors. This toying with lighting is particularly interesting towards the end of the film when one of George’s students, Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult), walks into the bar that George is in, the same bar where George and Jim met. Earlier that day, Kenny showed a particular interest in George, noticing he was acting strange. When Kenny walks into the bar, color fills the scene. I took this change in lighting to signify George finding another person to fill his void. In the Symposium, Aristophanes mentions that once someone’s other half passes, they once again go out in search of another half, and once they find it, they cling to it. I think Kenny serves as this new half for George.
The film closes with another monologue by George in which he refers to the few times in life he’s had moments of clarity. He says it is these moments where he is able to drown out the world around him and actually feel. Yet these moments are just brief moments in time, “like everything, they fade. I’ve lived on these moments. They pull me back to the present, and I realize that everything is exactly the way it’s meant to be.” This particular moment George is referring to is when he sees Kenny asleep on his couch, clutching the gun George had intended to kill himself with. It is in that moment that George realizes committing suicide is not what is meant to be. SPOILER: George walks back into his room and as he’s about to get in bed, he has a heart attack and dies. Thus although George’s present is brightened by his relationship with Kenny, Jim is still his other half, and it is with him that he meant to be.

SIDENOTE: This was an incredible movie, and I would highly recommend it to anyone!