Sunday, March 3, 2013

Standards, reactions and film criticism.

I'll be honest: this is going to be one of those absolutely painfully self-indulgent posts about the nature of film criticism from somebody who doesn't even do this for a living. Does the world need another pensive post from a blogger about what they occasionally do to fill the hours of the day? Probably not. And yet, I am writing it.

Look at Rani Mukherji smiling. At least this post has that going for it.

The reason I'm writing about the subject is not even because an Indian film inspired it in me. Post-Oscars, I got the sudden inspiration to actually watch some nominated and awarded films (which I rarely do, as so few Oscar contenders interest me). One of the films I went to see was Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which I found, simply put, brilliant. The film has some excellent performances, a simple narrative that seems to hide a lot from the viewer, beautiful cinematography and interesting subtextual themes. It made me pause a bit, reflect on what I'd just seen, recall certain scenes and then try to piece together their significance as a whole. It's that kind of film, and some people will find it difficult to understand, frustrating even, and some fans of the film will dismiss these criticisms as people just not "getting it" or not taking the time to rewatch the film and allow it to sink in properly.

These discussions caused one film writer to ask: Should some films be taken more seriously than others?

My first reaction is to say no, but then to immediately say yes. Arguably, all films should be judged by their own standards - a comedy has to make you laugh, or it's not a very successful comedy, and a romantic film ideally has you rooting for the leads to get together. A documentary provides you with new information, or portrays old information in an interesting manner, and hopefully makes you think, to boot. On the other hand, all films will be judged by your own  standards as a viewer. The best thing a film critic can do is write about a film in such descriptive terms that you can take away two things from their writing: what their standards for this film were, and how that film met those standards. More simply put - whether they liked it, in relation to what kinds of films they typically like.

So if a film makes you to pause and reflect at length on what you just saw, perhaps even rewatch, it's only fair to that reaction that you do so. If a film goes down without much pondering, regardless of how you feel about it, I don't think it's strictly necessary to over-ponder a film that doesn't inspire such a thing naturally.

This is not necessarily a split between films from interesting, respected film makers who make thoughtful cinema, and potboiler mass-entertainment films. The problems come in when people's prejudices make it so - when a critic thinks an arthouse film is worth pondering over, but an action film could never be, even if it touches on interesting themes. But film criticism is a fairly simple sport, as all it really has to contain is a certain honesty about your own reactions when it comes to a particular film.

I like to think that I can analyse films as I see fit, regardless of whether they are "meant" to be taken seriously or not. I've discussed each Upendra-directed film I've seen like it was an academic thesis, with points and arguments and explanations - while realising that these are still films made for the masses in mind. I thought a lot about Laal Patthar, even though the film was not particularly deep or even nuanced. Once I vented about my frustrations regarding a Malayalam art film - I could see it was good, but it wasn't for me in terms of the story or the characters, and I didn't catch the significance of the director's choices, nor did I think I would upon a second viewing.

To me, it doesn't really matter if you "get" a film or not, what matters if whether you like it or not. I don't know if I understood The Master, but I knew I liked it a lot. I liked it as I as watching it, I liked the performances and found the characters fascinating, I liked the soundscape and the visuals, and I loved pondering my own interpretations of the film. That's my honest reaction - whether my take on the film is wrong or right, doesn't really factor into my enjoyment of the film as a film.

Road, Movie (2010, directed by Dev Benegal and starring Abhay Deol) comes to mind. This was a small film that I remember a lot of people reacting to in a pretty negative way, finding it beautifully shot, but ultimately rather pointless. I liked it fine, but it wasn't a passionate, enthusiastic sort of like, but the lukewarm type - I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time with with it, but neither did I walk away from it feeling like I'd witnessed something magnificent. At times I do feel like I need to rewatch it, but other times I don't really think there was that much there to miss out on, so perhaps my reaction to it would be the same as last time. I don't think anybody absolutely has to give a film another chance, if it fails to impress the first time. If a reaction is not intrigue or a desire to look into it deeper, then why force it?

It's the strange nature of film-watching. Films can have enormous personal significance, or inspire a person to do something they normally wouldn't have. Films can say things about nations and cultures and points in time, or they can say not much at all. I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to react to cinema - perhaps Jism 2 really does provide some commentary on the sexual politics of modern India, or perhaps it's just a flick with tons of skin shown. What you see in it, is what's there for you.

I remember being called out on liking a certain, "trashy", entertainment-geared fare in Indian cinema but not the same thing, coming from Hollywood. I admit to this criticism, but I would also counter - isn't this what everybody does? You can't have the same standard to every film, unless that standard is your own enjoyment of a film. So Avatar didn't inspire much thrills in me, but Dabangg did. That's my truth - feel free to share yours. 


Stuart Martin said...

"To me, it doesn't really matter if you "get" a film or not, what matters if whether you like it or not."
"Road, Movie ... I liked it fine, but it wasn't a passionate, enthusiastic sort of like, but the lukewarm type"
"So Avatar didn't inspire much thrills in me, but Dabangg did."

Three from three! I agree totally with all of these, and very much liked the theme of this post. I have zero artistic awareness when it comes to reviewing films I've watched, and all I can do is write about my reaction to them. That's why I liked what you said about the reasons you write the way you do.

Although I agree that no one has to give a film another chance, there is one reason for doing so that I'd add to your list. It's possible that one might view a film in the wrong frame of mind for it, and be put off it for the wrong reasons. This happened to me with Andaz Apna Apna and when I did get around to giving it another go several years later, I absolutely loved it.

veracious said...

Glad you agree! I'm sure there are film writers who aspire to be more than just film critics, and more power to them. Sometimes the indepth analysis of a film goes hand-in-hand with what you thought about it, other times I personally don't see the point in over-thinking a film unless it invites it.

It's true, sometimes you do go into a film without the right, open mind, and therefore aren't at all receptive to what it's got to offer. There are certainly reasons to give a film a second chance, even if your reaction the first time was honest in the sense that it was a reflection of the kind of person you were when you watched it. That's another aspect of film watching as well - sometimes you change as a viewer, and that's fine, too.