Saturday, April 28, 2012

EbertFest Dispatch #4: It's Not You, It's Me

I was very much looking forward to seeing 'A Separation' last night. From everything I had heard, it was a moving and emotionally complex film experience that even its competitors felt deserved the Oscar it received.

I enjoyed it very much. The story was fascinating, the performances spot on. It's portrayal of Iranian culture was insightful and specific without being dumbed down for Western audiences. By the end of it, the woman next to me was sobbing and I heard nose-blowing from the gentleman behind.

And yet... it didn't get to me. Not like that.

I can't explain why. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic. Maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind to watch it. Maybe the emotional impact was greater for those who have suffered through the divorce of their parents.

Maybe I'm not cut out to be a film critic.

I was far more deeply moved and engaged by Thursday's 'Kinyarwanda', even though many others found the interweaving plot lines too complex to follow. Does that mean I think it was a better film than 'A Separation'? Certainly not. But it does raise some interesting questions about subjective and objective approaches to film criticism.

To begin with, I am hardly a professional film critic. I have no formal education in film studies, and my only paid gig as a reviewer was for 150 words a month for the Milton Champion. I know enough about film to render what I like to think are informed opinions and the occasional insightful analysis, but nothing more than that.

That said, I can't help but wonder: can any professional film critic claim to be providing a completely rational, objective analysis? Should they even try? This isn't science - it's art, and the emotional response of the viewer is key.

And therein lies the problem.

Human beings contain unique emotional landscapes that change constantly, even from day to day, and that can't help but affect how we respond to movies. I remember the first time I saw 'A.I.' with my husband. We both started crying about the time David's mother leaves him in the woods, and by the end we were sobbing uncontrollably. We talked about it for days, and it was a full year before I could bring myself to watch it again. I haven't had quite that intense a response in subsequent viewings, but I still have to leave the room during the abandonment scene.

Why? Possibly because our son was the same apparent age as David at the time.

I was shocked, therefore, when I read Roger Ebert's review of the film. It was like we hadn't seen the same movie. And it wasn't that he didn't like it (he did give it three stars) - he completely rejected the whole premise that David was supposed to be a robot that really did feel rather than imitating emotion like other Mechas, and therefore he had no reason to care about what happened to him.

The whole thing bothered me far more than it should have, but I think I understand now what was really going on. I was in an emotional state that let that movie in to a very deep place. Roger wasn't. I still say he missed or ignored the exposition in the first five minutes of the film, but ultimately it doesn't matter. It just didn't get to him. That doesn't make either of us wrong or right.

So I won't be reviewing 'A Separation', except to say that it was an excellent film, and everyone else I've heard from who saw it last night was deeply moved. I'm sure at some point I will watch it again, and perhaps then I will be in the right space to let it in.

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