27 June 2009

What's It To You? The Different Ways of Viewing the Same Film

I couldn't believe I missed it. Because the starting time of youngest daughter's graduation was moved back and because it then ran for three hours and because my destination was so far away, I missed it. I missed a party I'd looked forward to for nine months. It was the year end party held by the faculty of the school I used to work at. Most of my former colleagues, many of whom I'd not seen since late last Summer were there and I was to be honored for my 20 years of service to the school. But circumstances conspired and I missed it.

What did it mean?

For the two weeks since then I've tried to derive meaning from failing (through not fault of my own) to make it to the party. I could simply decide that it was the bad fortune of two important events overlapping and, though it was a crying shame, had no further significance.

But no, I must find meaning, import, symbolism. Clearly this was open to interpretation.

So it is with films. I wrote about this in a post yesterday about Holiday (1938) a supposed romantic comedy that I view as an attack on the moneyed class and an endorsement of people "finding themselves."

The true magic of art is that the same example of it can mean different things to different people. I don't know if this is especially true of films but it most definitely is true of films. I've never be one to disabuse someone of their notion of what a particular movie means; however we should all be ready and most willing to share our perspectives.

It's also interesting to note that our own interpretations of a film can change from one viewing to the next, often depending upon our state of mind when we see it.

I first saw Sunset Boulevard (1950) as a horror story. That creepy house, the monkey burial, the way Norma Desmond talked and walked. Next I viewed it as a indictment of Hollywood. Another viewing convinced me I was watching a story about how desperate people sometimes find one another and form a symbiotic relationship that can destroy both hosts.

That's what makes a film a classic. You can view it countless times and each time see it as if through a different prism.

I find that many of favorite films have myriad layers. The Searchers (1956), The Godfather (1972) and Jules and Jim (1962) are examples of films that give me something new each time. I love The Sting (1973) but haven't watched it nor wanted to watch it in years. I've exhausted its possibilities.

Most of my favorite foreign films, and particularly those from France, and most particularly those from Francois Truffaut are worth repeat viewings just to derive something new each time. Part of this is the subtlety of the work. Characters are less mannered in a lot of French cinema. Stories are less reliant on action scenes. Plot points are more carefully developed.

As an audience we intuit more in our initial viewings, then start to discover more "facts" relevant to the story. We can even be influenced in subsequent viewings by reviews we've since read or conversations with others about the film or, in the case of movies based on real events, from having learned about the "real story." We can also come to feel comfortable with the characters, as I have, for example with The Searchers' Ethan Edwards.

With I Loved You For So Long (2008), I was struck the first time by the amazing performances, particularly from Kristin Scott Thomas. I was also curious to watch the story unfold. When I saw the same film again I was able to watch how the story unfolded and, though still blown way by the acting, paid closer attention to how those great performers related to each other. Consequently I saw the movie in a different light, which I can't go into without spoiling the ending.

Of course knowing how a story is going to turn out strips away a distraction, so that with subsequent viewings we're able to focus on other aspects of the story. It's not always easy to appreciate camera angles and dolly shots when you're sweating out what's going to happen to the hero.

Today I watched John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) for the third time in a year and found myself struck by how beautiful a film it is. There's an amazing shot just before the shootout of dawn breaking, we watch the light come up simultaneous with seeing Old Man Clanton raise his head. His face goes from darkness to full light, dominating the frame. It's Walter Brennan's face, big as life and its a great shot.

So if someone asked me about the film right now I'd talk about some of the camera shots whereas as few months ago I'd have gone on about something else, such as Fonda's performance. It's actually quite common to to be initially taken in by the actors and later appreciate the director's part in the film. I almost never hear anyone rave about Michale Curtiz, the director, when they talk about Casablanca (1942) and that's a great injustice. Curtiz did a remarkable job, something that has become increasingly evident to me.

So which is it? Is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) an anti-war film, or a study of very young men in extraordinary circumstances? Is Do the Right Thing (1989) a look at latent racism, or the impossibility of living up to its title? Is Wings of Desire (1987) a celebration of life or a meditation on death? And is Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007) supposed to represent death, pure evil or is he just one bad ass killer? And what sticks out, is it Javier Bardem, the cinema photography or the Coens' attention to detail?

I'll put it thusly: When I was a history teacher and would give a test I would always include an opinion question at the end. "How can there be a wrong answer to an opinion question?" I'd often be asked. "There are no wrong answers." I would reply. "But you will only get credit if your answer is well thought out and if you can offer some evidence for it."

So it is with films. There are no wrong interpretations. But you owe it to yourself to think it through. And, oh by the way, be prepared to have a whole new interpretation next time.

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