Digital Polyphony

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Some Things I Just Can't Review (I guess)

Posted on February 2, 2011 at 9:17 PM

Some Things I Just Can't Review (I Guess)

I sat and watched a film just yesterday that I was looking forward to seeing. It was the Greek movie Dogtooth and, to just get it out of the way, I did enjoy it. At the same time I had absolutely no idea how to review it.


So this got me thinking, seeing as I had no review to write, that this wasn’t the first time I had such an encounter with a brick wall. Recently I had to kind of sit and ponder for days on what to write about Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void, a free-form, stream of consciousness film that certainly doesn’t adhere to our own concepts of cinema and, therefore, doesn’t adhere to our own ways of reviewing it as such. I still managed it because it still had enough to talk about, but not necessarily enough to judge. What’s to judge? It’s a film where you say “it is what it is” and at best can simply say “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”


Turns out there’s a lot of films like that. Rather than discuss its plot, story or characters, you simply discuss what you “feel” which makes reviewing films like that so darn hard because often expressing what you feel, making emotion and sensation into a literary form (much less one meant to be read by other people) with no structure to base it on isn’t easy to do in the first place. That’s what poetry is for. You can get away with that with such prose. A film review isn’t poetry, though I’m sure there is a market for such an idea and I should probably purchase right away.


Maybe some reviewers enjoy that challenge. I do to an extent. It tests all those film theory books and classes you took and your journalistic stylings as a writer on top of it all. At the same time, I’m willing to bet there’s quite a few film reviewers that pull their hair out trying to think of what to say, and maybe pull it out before even seeing the film:

“Oh shit, it’s a Lars von Trier movie,” they might utter. “Well...let’s get this over with.”


I’m not a professional so I don’t have that problem as much. If there a film I see and I don’t know what to write about, I just don’t write about it. So here’s three things that might occur for me to say as such:



3: It’s Too “Artsy”


Ungh...I hate that term. At the same time it probably best gets the point across because I’m sure some weird Andy Warhol short movie you watched in film class just danced across your mind.


Here this basically means there are films that aren’t meant to be seen or viewed in typical film fashion. Sometimes they want to test your patience and rethink your conceptions of cinema. Perfect example: Luis Bunuel. His films are meant to be completely surrealist cinema that is meant to garner an emotive response, not necessarily something you can just label out and draw fine lines with. Still, you can put your mindset into that category and discuss elements it might convey, but it’s not easy and often frustrating to keep everything in line while trying to understand everything that’s going on. Movies like this aren’t meant to be simply “entertaining.”


They are, however, meant for “discussion.” That’s their purpose. They want to get you thinking and talking, not judging. A perfect example is Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. As a piece of entertainment, it’s an utter bore. As an allegorical and/or metaphorical piece of art, it can have you thinking for weeks (or months) on the multitude of layers, ideas and themes it touches upon. You spend more time watching actively and contemplating than simply being entertained by it. Therefore it’s hard to just judge it. Sure, I might call it a bore, but not a lot of films are going to get you thinking as much as it does...and that accounts for something in the film world.



2: It’s Entirely Cultural

Here’s where my issue with Dogtooth came in. I simply didn’t know how to approach it. In some cases I had no idea what’s really going on, not because of any narrative issue, but because I simply don’t quite understand the context of what is going on (ok there is a narrative issue in not having any names but that’s besides the point). I know I liked it, at the same time I can’t write why I liked it and I certainly can’t write a anything of length analyzing it in a cultural way seeing as it’s meant to be made for that particularly culture.


Can I fairly judge the film based on my own cultural knowledge? Can I put this Greek film, (a comedy?) against the comedic styling I often expect through my own culture? Can I understand the context of anything that is happening if I myself don’t know the world or the people within it? I honestly don’t know if I can, but I do know trying to determine if it’s bad or good isn’t fair by doing so.


Not every foreign film is that way, but I’d be lying if I said the ones that are more “western” in nature are easier to grasp and write about than ones that are not. I can review a French or British or even Italian film, but when I sit with something from the Middle East, India or even certain parts of Europe, it can be difficult (areas such as those are very, very rooted in their own culture and people and ways of life, often commenting on them whereas I can sometimes be left in the dark).



1: Some Things Are Just Weird for Weird’s Sake

And in the end, you can only accept them for them being weird. Take David Lynch. About a year ago, maybe less, I did a Lynch retrospective and reviewed his films. The thing is: I had to review them based on Lynch’s terms. This is “relative” reviewing. I know a Lynch film will not be a traditional film, so I tried (note: tried) to review them in that context. I even altered my own way to review them because defining them into “good” and “bad” elements isn’t easy to do. How do we know that part wasn’t intentional? How do we know that maybe that bad or uncomfortable part wasn’t meant to be bad and uncomfortable because it’s meant to say something beyond just labeling it as bad and uncomfortable in the first place? Call it postmodern filmaking, or even artsy filmmaking that I mentioned earlier, but some movies do things you may not like...but they absolutely want you to not like it.


In Von Trier’s controversial Anti-Christ, you had talking animals, genital torture and shots of full-penetration sex. At the same time...all those meant something on a level beyond just narrative storytelling. The animals represented the human evil and desire (some might say devil) and the sexual points are reflective of that, one showcasing pleasure and the other showcasing brutality because the easiest way to both please and cause pain is through those methods. The story itself? Something about a cabin, dead babies and a couple fighting through it. Also blind ghosts and talking foxes. Don’t get me started on Greenaway.


Some movies are more about the situations than it is a story or characters. A great example is Dogtooth again, where I couldn’t tell you any of the characters, their names save for one (the normal one) but I can tell you they are all weird, what they do is weird and everything about it is weird and you have more questions than answers to the story, characters and, well, just everything...and that’s the entire point.


It Takes Time

 Often times, I try and review a film that is just difficult to get into and still manage to say something about it. I never really recommend them, however, and I usually say “it’s not an easy film to review” because it’s not and that’s an easy indication that simply calling it “good” or “bad." Maybe it's because I don't want to do the work. If a person spends enough time on anything, then you can probably judge and review it or, at least, analyze the hell out of it. 

At the same time, the fact I would HAVE to put in the time already is a review in and of itself, isn't it? To take a step beyond a simple review and think "outside the box" to discuss something already says a ton about it. Maybe as I come to know more about film, learn from other reviewers and simply gain more knowledge, I can become more comfortable and therefore more willing to dedicate such time in reviewing things that, right now, are just damn hard to review.

But what do I know? It could be just me.

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