"I want the audience to work. I ask them to see the film from the beginning and devote their full attention to it, treating it with the same respect they would give a painting, a symphony or any other work of art. I treat them with the same respect by inviting them to search for their own meanings instead of insulting their intelligence with obvious explanations." -- Michelangelo Antonioni
Today it's a considered a masterpiece, but back in 1961, when film critics still mattered (or at least had the power to make or break a film), there were few who had kind words for L'Avventura. The above quote from the late Italian auteur was prompted by the negative, occasionally hostile reviews of his film. Reviews such as Bosley Crowther’s in the Times, who said, "Frankly, we do not gather what Signor Antonioni is trying to prove. . . .This business of being deliberately and even boastfully obscure in art not only is ostentatious but it also leads one to suspect the artist is not clear in his own mind and lacks self-discipline." The film's poor showing at the box office during its initial New York run can be attributed, in part, to Crowther's pan. (It wasn’t until a 1962 re-issue that the film found critical and commercial success.)
Crowther's repetitive moaning about not getting it and his unwillingness to give the film the level of attention that Antonioni desired seems a bit surprising today, or naive at the very least, particularly from a critic of his standing. Today all but the shabbiest of critics are unafraid to confront the "obscure", and you're more likely to find passionate defenses of a challenging work rather than flippant dismissals such as Crowther's. Yet how often are today's critics (and filmgoers for that matter) given the opportunity to use their noggins once the lights go down? Are filmmakers living up to their half of the bargain, treating us with respect as expressed in the second half of Antonioni's statement?
Less and less, I'm afraid. What's even more disconcerting is that spoon-fed meaning is finding its way into areas of cinema that were once refuges for those interested in something other than the bottom line.
Hollywood has never been known as a factory of subtlety, and those working within the system understand the populist requirements dictated by those that hold the purse strings -- the axiom that capitalism perverts art is all too true. One goes to a Hollywood movie for the concept, and we're happy to bathe in the eye candy, the star power, and the extravagant budgets that could feed a small nation. Was a time that we could (for the most part) rely on independent and foreign films to provide us with an alternative to all that. These were works that were often mature and introspective -- films that made us think, or at least required us to actively engage with it, as opposed to passively being engulfed by the spectacle.
Yet of late I find that few films require any sort of active engagement. Directors are happy to show us how clever/sensitive/witty they are, but they leave us with nothing to discuss, let alone think about. As small films made outside of the studio system, they needn't succumb to the lowest common denominator, but do nonetheless. I'm growing weary of independent and/or foreign films that are as compelling as a made-for-TV drama, that rely on heavy-handed symbolism while hammering their message into us. Films that tackle political/social issues, or moral struggles, and reduce them to childlike simplicity, with poorly written characters that exist purely as functions of the plot. More often than not these films are all about the third-act "big moment", which rarely comes as a surprise as the filmmaker has been dropping less-than-subtle hints throughout. With their meaning wrapped up and dispensed in a neat, foolproof package, these films not only discourage and resist discussion/analysis/interpretation, they're barely pleasurable even as divertissements.
Two titles that immediately spring to mind are Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor, and Philippe Claudel's Il y a longtemps que je t'aime. McCarthy's film, a recent release, is a post 9/11 tale infused with liberal guilt and painted in the broadest possible strokes that can summed up thusly: a beautiful Syrian man and an even more beautiful Senegalese woman teach a cantankerous widower the true meaning of Christmas The Patriot Act. Critics were mostly upbeat about the film, though more words were spent on star Richard Jenkins' performance than on the film itself.* While it's pointless to argue against one's subjective response to the film, its solipsism, overtly didactic narrative, and simplistic approach to a complex subject is strictly res ipsa loquitur. What's left then to discuss?
Claudel's Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, which was in competition at this year's Berlinale is a French film via the Lifetime Movie Network. Kristin Scott Thomas (performing entirely in French) plays a mother recently released from prison after serving time for murdering her son. Her married-with-children sister takes her in, and while we sit and wait for the reveal in which we learn of the circumstances behind the murder, Claudel, in every scene, finds an opportunity to beat us over the head with some sort of blatant symbolic reference to the parent-child bond. Much like The Visitor, critics focused not on the drama or the character study (there was little of either), but primarily on Thomas' performance, which many described as "brave", simply due to the fact that she wears little or no makeup throughout the film.
What I fail to understand is why both McCarthy and Claudel felt the need to toss subtlety aside when making their films. Is it from a lack of faith in the audience, a limitation of their abilities as artists, or rather a desire to increase their chances at commercial viability? Regardless, it's both troubling and frustrating that smaller films such as these -- which continue to appear on the festival circuit -- would rather acquiesce to the safety of mediocrity than strive to properly explore or elevate the medium. While not everybody can (or should!) aim to reinvent cinema, there should be a greater effort from filmmakers, producers, and festival programmers to take chances on works that require more brainpower than it takes to simply sit and stare at the screen. The countless words spent on films such as There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, and I'm Not There are proof enough that you don't need to force-feed us to hold our attention.
*The 'meh' review, a tendency I've noticed in many critics of late, is, in my opinion, somewhat dangerous. Critics are giving self-professed mediocre films a pass by finding something worthwhile to say about them, while failing to give equal weight to the film's flaws. I address this issue in an upcoming post that certainly won't win me any popularity points.