The vast majority of the film criticism of the 21st century is amateurish and deeply focused on story and aesthetics. This can be seen as neither a step up or a step down from the Grand Theory, especially of the period from the 60’s to the 90’s, when a large number of theorists readily borrowed quotes from the usual suspects: Lacan, de Saussure, Freud, Marx etc. A lot of this criticism somehow failed to make direct references to actual movies. Therefore, it did nothing for a medium that is largely composed of individual titles and defined by constantly evolving technology.
David Bordwell taught us that the right criticism is one that takes the history of movies into consideration. No movie, he said, should be given preference over another. All movies represent the cinematic form in equal amounts. The interesting aspect of Bordwell’s writing is that, especially after the 90’s, he made reference to cognitive approaches to film criticism. In doing so, he understood that some things are simply understood by spectators through non-filmic capacities and skills. In his paper “The Part-Time Cognitivist: A View from Film Studies,” he wrote that “we bring to film all our capacities to make sense of the world around us.” He also wrote that “we have inductive skills that will often lead us to veridical understanding.”
However, I believe there is more to it than that. Ever since I started writing about film, I have been aware of the fact that when we watch a film we are not simply watching it, we are experiencing it. Therefore, it is not only our understanding of the world around us that comes into play – it is also what we believe our understanding of the world around us at the moment in which we watch the movie is. This is what forms our reactions to any given movie.
This, of course, is implied by the very definition of the term cognition: the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. By acquiring knowledge, it is not only our understanding of the story or any of its messages, whether narrative or thematic, that evolves. Our own mentality evolves also. Still, a large part of our ability to understand a movie comes from within us. In other words, our ability to connect or identify with a movie is directly related to our own character traits, personality, sensibilities, and personal non-filmic experiences that may have affected them.
The best way I can think of that will illustrate the ways in which we may write about a movie in a truly cognitive way is if I make a clear example drawn from my own personal experience. Yesterday, I watched Chantal Akerman’s 1975 feature Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. This is a three-hour long movie about a lonely widowed housewife’s daily life.
I won’t get lost in discussions about style too much. I’ll simply point out for those who have not seen the film that it is an over three-hours long affair, with very few lines of dialogue, and that shoots the actions with a camera firmly planted on a tripod.
I had watched this film once before and loved it. However, I remember finding the ending a little disappointing because, when compared to the rest of the film, it felt constructed and fake. It felt too cinematic, unlike the rest of the movie, that seemed committed to a realistic representation of the lead character’s life – no more, no less. My disappointment with the ending actually made me forget it altogether. When I encountered it again, I was slightly disappointed again. Perhaps more so this time. The reason is very personal. I can pinpoint two main reasons.
Firstly, I recently did a presentation on the “return of the repressed” in horror film. Drawn from the theories of Robin Wood, this is a theory inspired by Freud that sees in the monster of horror films the return of all that is repressed by society in order for society to be “normal.” Judging from this perspective, the lonely widowed housewife suddenly becoming unable to repress what she has held back consistently for so long made absolute sense.
Secondly, my grandmother died recently. She died almost twenty years after my grandfather, although even when he was alive he would be working out of the house very often. Given the appropriate time of the movie (the mid-70’s), I looked at the character of Jeanne Dielman as my grandmother and her son as my father. I could spot many traits of Dielman’s personalities that allowed me to make that emotional connection with my grandmother, who was an old-fashioned housewife. Even the furniture in the house, the sink, the coffee…everything reminded me of her – even her perm!
So, while I watched it, as far as I was concerned, I was watching my grandmother live during a time before I was born. I am not exaggerating when I say that, for me, this movie was almost like a documentary, or even a home movie, and it was also as if I was discovering for the first time.
In a sense, the ending seemed to have a precise purpose: to allow me to distance myself from the powerful experience that I was having while watching the film. Fully entranced, I was absolutely overwhelmed. It did not take me long to understand the film in terms of narrative – there is not much to understand. Part of the power of the film is a result of its over three hour length: it is a clear example of the Deleuzian time image, which dictates that it is only through time and our understanding of the passing of time that we may become aware of the importance of change in narrative and therefore react to it. The ending of the film makes perfect sense, but it is also shocking because we are quietly unaware of it.
Nonetheless, my reading of the film takes this as irrelevant. Indeed, the physicality of the final act is nothing but a drastic physical representation of the Wood’s “return of the repressed.” In this case, the result of the lead character’s constant repetitive repression comes to the fore through an abrupt physical manifestation. Nonetheless, the repressed does not need to return only in a physically violent way. So, by drawing a comparison to my own grandmother, I understood the nature of her own frustration with the society around her, her unusual right-wing political views that she spoke about time and time again, which completely clashed with her sweet and caring personality. This is the way in which the building up of frustration would manifest itself. Therefore, the same could be said about anybody who leads a similar lifestyle or the result of constant repression in general.
What disappoints me about the movie is actually the way in which it exposes my grandmother as fully integrated into a society that had her quietly relegated to her home, cooking, cleaning and doing other household chores all her life. The ending reveals my grandmother as a repressed human being. It reveals all women subjected to this type of patriarchal system as repressed beings. I believe I am that way too: not a woman, but a potential victim of patriarchal oppression. I watched a commercial for a car the other day that uses the tagline “grow up,” and reminds the target audiences, TV viewers in their 20’s presumably, to start a family. That is a very aggressive approach to getting you to buy a car. Indirectly, however, it reminds us that it is also up to the man to provide for his family and buy the family car. It doesn’t stop for a second to think that starting a family should be more complicated and thought out than that. A commercial like this imposes a capitalistic type of normality onto its viewers that may be very dangerous and could be manifested in drastic ways in our everyday lives. It’s still quite painful to understand it, particularly because while I watched the film, I was delighted by her everyday motions, her cooking, her letter writing, her household chores, her walks to the shop. I remembered when I was there with her and watched her do it all, or helped her. The experience of watching Jeanne Dielman awakened me to the power of movies, and the power they have in allowing us to project our own thoughts into them. I find, however, that the best films are those that really do allow us to project our own thoughts into them, rather than impose their own thoughts and ideologies on us. Perhaps this is also why I find it easier to identify with arthouse movies or, in any case, older films – they provide me with
It’s still quite painful to understand it, particularly because while I watched the film, I was delighted by her everyday motions, her cooking, her letter writing, her household chores, her walks to the shop. I remembered when I was there with her and watched her do it all, or helped her. The experience of watching Jeanne Dielman awakened me to the power of movies, and the power they have in allowing us to project our own thoughts into them. I find, however, that the best films are those that really do allow us to project our own thoughts into them, rather than impose their own thoughts and ideologies on us. Perhaps this is also why I find it easier to identify with arthouse movies or, in any case, older films – they provide me with enough distance for me to truly connect with the moving images on a personal level.
The same may, of course, be said about all art. If we cannot connect with art on a personal level, and if a film does not help us understand things or give us the opportunity to see things in a different way, then it is simply not good art. Film criticism, as all criticism, should always take that into consideration.