07 April 2010

In Struggling to Understand how I Felt About Shutter Island I Investigate the Process of Film Viewing

One of the best movie experiences I ever had was when I saw Gods & Monsters (1998). I went to see it knowing only one thing: it was getting rave reviews. Didn't know the first bloody thing about it. I did not know that it was about the director James Whale, nor that Ian McKellan starred. Hadn't even seen a preview for it. Great way to see a film and nearly impossible to replicate.

No pre conceptions, not looking for anything. Everything would be a surprise, provided the film wasn't of a formulaic. It wasn't.

I had a very dissimilar experience yesterday in going to see Shutter island. Having read the novel upon which the film is based and having seen various versions of trailers and having seen scads of reviews, I was going to be pretty hard to surprise.

I'd been anticipating Shutter Island for months and fully expected to see it on its opening weekend. I don't miss a Martin Scorsese movie and particularly one based on a novel I much enjoyed. Then the reviews came out and they were mixed. Plus I was quite busy. Not so busy that I wasn't going to any movies (been to several since Shutter Island came out in mid February) but spare time was scarce and set aside for must-see experiences.

Meanwhile the excitement about seeing Shutter Island faded fast. I'd get to it -- eventually.

Eventually was yesterday and I went more out of a sense of obligation than with any anticipation. I did wonder how the rather major twist toward the end would be handled but mostly I wanted to "get this out of the way."

Fast forward to last night after I'd returned home from the cinema. Inevitably enquiring minds wanted to know what I thought. I gave the briefest possible answer. One that would discourage a follow up query.

I just didn't know what to think.

I knew that Shutter Island was a visually stunning experience. This is no small thing. The look of a film is integral to how a story is told. I knew the book had been pretty faithfully followed and the liberties did no harm to the story. I knew that that Shutter Island boasted a host of excellent performances, not the least of which was from its star, Leonardo DiCaprio.

But I was otherwise confused and not sure why.

I'm currently reading the third and final volume of Richard Evan's remarkable history of the Third Reich. It will surprise no one to hear that reading about the shenanigans of the Nazis can, after awhile, be a bit depressing and frightening, not to mention thought-provoking. Meanwhile I'm enjoying a week off. I had a major presentation in a linguistics class on Saturday and my French class doesn't meet this week nor am I subbing this week as school is out for Spring break. My brain is free to roam a bit but it never strays to far from my studies nor the cares and joys of daily life. Then there's Nazis (the real not the cinematic kind). So then I see this much ballyhooed film from one of the great directors of all time that has met with something less than universal praise. In fact, some critics really disliked it. As someone prone to reflection and contemplation I was set up nicely to see a film dealing with sanity.

Okay, so why should I care what anyone else thought of the movie? What should I care how it compares to the book? What should I care what else is happening in my life? After all, a movie is supposed to take you away from all that. You enjoy it or dislike it for it's own sake.

In theory, yes. But that's like suggesting that journalists or historians can be unbiased. In other words it is, in truth, an impossibility. Still, if Shutter Island was any good I'd have thought of nothing else while watching it and would marvel at the achievement of it after.  N'est ce pas?

Again, you'd think.

There was a swirl of ideas that danced about my head last night as I reflected on the film. With some of these came emotions. Had it tapped into something? Had this film that is so much about the human mind and how easily and how badly it malforms struck some nerves?

Well there it is. Forget classifications. Forget how I'd rate Shutter Island on IMDb or what adjectives I'd used in describing it. I've been a slave to rating and classifying and even to defining. For me, this first time at least, Shutter Island was not about "what I thought of it" but what it made me think, how it made me think and why it succeeded so wonderfully at teasing my intellect. Shutter Island defied quantification and begged long musing.

I cannot imagine how I would have reacted to Shutter Island if I'd gone into the theater the same way I did when I saw Gods & Monsters. It is an absolute certainty it would have touched me in different ways. But you cannot leave your baggage outside when you enter a movie theater or play a DVD.  The key to a movie is how it manages to strip away that baggage or uses it further provoke and stimulate.

This is why a second viewing of a film, particularly one at a very different stage of our life, can produce such a different reaction. It's not just that we change, but the circumstances surrounding our life on that given day are altered. You can have a different response to a film not just ten years later but if you happened to see it on Wednesday rather than Tuesday.

Shutter Island was a great film viewing experience. I'm setting aside, for now, a discussion about the specific virtues or faults of the movie. I instead praise it for happening upon my life at a time when it was able to engage me, and work this little brain of mine. Who could ask for more from a film?

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