Monday, August 6, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


My wife and I recently enjoyed three films in the Auckland International Film Festival. There was an excellent Colombian drama called Birds of Passage which, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, showed an indigenous tribe degenerating into gangsterism and bloodshed as it got involved in the drug trade servicing North America. There was Lucky, a sad and funny valedictory film for the actor Harry Dean Stanton, concerning old age and the inevitability of death. And there was a stately and long documentary called Ex Libris, on the working and complexity of the New York Public Library.

When I say we enjoyed these three films, I do not mean that we saw other films in the festival which we did not enjoy. I mean that these three films, all of which we enjoyed, were the only films we saw in the festival.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, I was for thirty years (1974-2004) a film reviewer for various publications and other media outlets. In every one of those thirty years, when the film festival came around, I was a very busy boy. In the festival fortnight, I would see a total of about thirty films. It helped that in those days, as a reviewer, I was given complimentary tickets and didn’t have to pay anything.  It also helped that I had a real purpose in seeing so many. It was well known that a sizeable number of the films playing in the festival would come back for longer seasons in the art houses. Therefore, scribbling away making notes in the dark, and watching thirty or so movies in the festival fortnight, I was in effect providing myself with ammunition for two or three months worth of film reviews.

But I realised there was a flaw in this procedure even as I welcomed it. To watch so many films in such a short time was to be sated by them – to lose the capacity to really savour them. I remember one painful Saturday when I was scheduled to watch five feature films in a row, beginning in the morning and ending late at night. I got through the first three films alright, but was wilting and beginning to get a mild headache at the end of the third. I forced myself to watch the fourth, but when it ended, I staggered out of the Civic Theatre onto Queen Street tired, grumpy and headache-y. I gave away my ticket for the fifth film to a lucky punter who was lining up to buy a ticket, and I headed home to bed.

Allow me to note that at this time I was holding down a full-time job during the week, so most of the thirty films I saw in the festival fortnight were crammed into evenings and weekends.

Now while I was following this routine with regard to the film festival, I would every so often meet one of those tiresome people whose chief purpose in life would be to boast about how many films they had seen. One was a very sad case – the eccentric son of a rich man, he had very poor communication skills but was notorious for going into the ticket-office before the festival began, booking the best possible seat for nearly everything offering, and spending the whole fortnight glued to the screen. To the best of my knowledge, he had nothing to do with reviewing, critiquing or studying film. He was simply a film addict. It gives me no pleasure at all to record that he eventually committed suicide. Another was a school-teacher, not quite addicted to film, but almost so. Loudly he would tell me that he was seeing forty or fifty festival films, as if this was a mark of great distinction. Biting my tongue, I would refrain from expressing my view that little would really be retained from a such an excessive cine-banquet.

Let me – old film-reviewer that I am – express another view at this point. As I’ve already noted (see the post AnxietyAbout Books) I think there are far too many people who confuse the concept of virtue with the civilised habit of reading. Certainly it is a good thing to read much and widely, but of itself, this does not make one morally superior. Likewise, I do not believe there is anything of itself virtuous about watching films – or appreciating any other art form, for that matter. Yet the subtext of the film addicts I have known was that sheer quantity of consumption was a measure of one’s appreciation of cinema and hence of one’s superiority.

Not only do I see this as a foolish belief, but I add my unfashionable view that watching films is essentially a passive pastime.

When one reads a book, one’s intellectual faculties are engaged and one’s imagination has to be in gear to translate the words on the page into images and concepts. Such is not the case in cinema – basically, the work of imagining has been done for you. At this point I am sure somebody will shriek “elitist” and will tell me that to fully understand a film you have to know how to “read” it. Having done quite a bit of analysis of film in my time, I am fully aware of the concept of “reading” a film and all the skills that it requires. Even so, “reading” a worthwhile film requires far less intellectual and imaginative engagement than reading a book does.

I add this to my view that there is nothing particularly clever, insightful or worthwhile in watching too many films in a limited amount of time.

Since I ceased to be a film-reviewer, I have watched films far more selectively and rarely, and I have not missed press-previews or overcrowded festival schedules.

Quantity of films seen be hanged. For real connoisseurship of cinema, less is probably more.

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