Friday, June 19, 2009
Thoughts on a "powerful" film
To call a film "powerful" is certainly among the most over-used standbys of film-criticism. I have certainly been guilty of it's use on more occasions then I can remember when talking or writing about films. This somewhat vague adjective usually serves as an all-purpose way to express the simple fact that a film was sufficiently able to perform the most basic of all the various functions we can ascribe to art: that it was able to make us feel something we would otherwise not have felt. Art, at this most basic level of making us feel one way or another (be it sad, happy or afraid), is a kind of elevated form of entertainment. The difference between art analyzed at this level of "moving" us (our e-motions) and pure entertainment is that a certain kind of artistry or skill (a techné) was used in the movement (or perhaps manipulation) of these emotions. There are, of course, various things that can entertain us, be they rollercoasters or reality T.V. shows, that do not necessarily rely on such a techné. All of this being said, it should be noted that when most people describe a film as "powerful" today they usually reserve this criteria for dramatic films. Yet since the word usually describes the film's ability to make us feel strongly (whatever those feelings may be) then comedies or action films that do their job well could - and should - just as well be describe as being "powerful." In the same way I guess a rollercoaster ride could be said to a "powerful" experience, especially if you're a wuss like me.
All of this is a precursor to my thoughts on a very interesting film by Paul Greengrass called United 93 (2006), the recreation of the events that took place on United Airlines flight 93 on September 11th, 2001. To call the film powerful is something of an understatement. It is "powerful" in the same way a kick to the stomach is powerful. Viewing the film is a psychosomatic experience, to say the least. The feeling of terror, discomfort, despair and violence in the film is so acute and expertly delivered that one cannot help but squirm, sweat and groan. Greengrass' modus operandi is nothing less than to put us, to whatever artistic extent possible, inside the maelstrom of events that took place that fateful day, both inside United 93 and in the various control centers on the ground. There is no backstory, no introduction, no preaching or speculations. There is no attempt to put these events into a wider socio-political or philosophical context. The film attempts to be some kind of testament, an attempt to document the undocumentable - to recreate a moment in history from the point of view of those who experienced it first-hand. Greengrass ' technique is so masterful, his direction so assured, that when the full extent of the terrorist plot becomes clear to the people on the ground, when the second plane crashes into the World Trade Center, I experienced almost the same feelings of terror and shock that I did when I watched the events live on television eight years ago. When the credits begin to roll I felt as if I wanted to cry but was unable to due to the intensity of the film. That it manages to do this through both the artistry of the filmmakers and the way in which it re-connects us to these painful historical events with being manipulative or cloying in any way is a small miracle of cinema.
But the true worth of art can only be contemplated from a distance. This is especially true of cinema. The noise and impact of the medium is such that the true beauty of a film only really begins to unfold when we have stepped away from it into a space of silence where we can begin to digest and contemplate what we saw, where we can begin to see with our minds and hearts what we have seen with our eyes. The primary reason for this is that art is not simply reducible to the extent to which it touches our emotions. The extent to which a film makes us "feel" deeply (whatever those feelings may be) is only the very basic, absolutely initial stage in which the worth and beauty of art is present. Our emotions are, after all, only a small part of what makes us human, a part of a much larger and grandiose picture. Our emotions can be manipulated and "moved" in many ways that have nothing to do with who we are or the reality that we experience. This is not to say that they are not essential, in art as well as in all experience. A film that does not move us in any way is "art" in name only, and certainly very, very bad art at that. It is art that does not even reach the level of entertainment. If a film, painting or poem is boring then there is nothing further to discuss, nothing more to be analyzed (this is true only if we have truly devoted ourselves to the experience of the work of art in question - often people claim that a work of art is "boring" simply because they were not willing to invest the spiritual time and energy into experiencing it). But even if a work of art moves us deeply, even if it is very powerful, this is not to say that it is therefore great, or even good. It has simply borne witness to a certain kind of techné in which the artist has put us on the path to truth. The experience of sadness, joy, pain or terror is the first, essential step on that path.
What then, is a film (or any work of art) trying to accomplish over and above this initial step of moving us in one way or another? As I mentioned earlier, I see art primarily as a path towards truth. This is not to say that art is truth, nor that it can reveal it to us fully or completely. But great art, through it's revelation of beauty, moves us closer to truth. The Greeks certainly knew this, in their insistence that Beauty and Truth were simply two sides of the same reality. Heidegger, many centuries later, revisited this concept in his analysis of art as aletheia, as the uncovering of truth. To use his language, it is as if art is a clearing in the woods, a place where we the light breaks through and we can put our existence (the path we walk) into a wider, better perspective. We can finally see where we are headed.
In light of this I do not think that Greengrass' film is a great one. This is in spite of the fact, as I said earlier, that there is no cloying sentimentalism here, the kind of sentimentalism that obscures truth in art, the antithesis of aletheia. Greengrass' rather (re-)creates a moment, a reality, in which we are allowed experience very specific and powerful things that connect us to the shared terror and despair we all felt on September 11th, while it also celebrates and commemorates those who lost their lives on that dark day. Yet aside from the films sheer power, it does little or nothing to allow us to find a clearing wherein we can learn something about ourselves or about life and death. In some ways I feel like this is a missed opportunity, since the many tragic stories that unfolded that day have much to teach us through the bravery, loss and honor of those who were directly involved, in one way or another, in the events of September 11th. The film pummels us with it's sheer force of cinematic technique but what exactly is the purpose of such emotional bombardment? Do we really need rapid-fire editing and cinematic verisimilitude to remind us of how horrible we all felt that day, only five years after the fact? Aristotle felt that one of the main purpose of art was it's power of catharsis. In some ways Greengrass ' film has exactly the opposite effect, making us relive the past in frightening detail without ever allowing us to confront it. Again, I am not complaining that the film did not have a "message" or that it did not deal with the larger socio -political issues at stake. None of these are essential (they are only possibilities) in dealing artfully with this difficult subject. But the film misses an opportunity to become the place wherein we can ask important questions and seek answers, metaphysical, philosophical and cultural. The potential of such a film, one which it did not live up to, is to be a lens through which we can see human nature in a clearer light, since it was revealed to us in both its full glory and darkness on September 11th.
Greengrass should be commended for his refusal to succumb to the stupidity and crudeness of sentimentality that so pervades many American films. God knows that the story he tells in United 93 was laced with such pitfalls. He honors both those living and those fallen asleep with his restraint and artistry. Yet in focusing so much on avoiding sentimentality, on re-creating reality, he fails to live up to the philosophical and spiritual potential of his art.