That Lamp Is Pain

I am a student of film. By this definition I am expected to study film and draw my own conclusions based on what I find.

Not long ago I used to hop from university class to university class, sitting somewhere in the middle listening to lecturers and film theorists dissect and break open a film for academic purposes. Over my three years I had something like six or seven different theory classes, most conducted by Lindsay Hallam, a tutor I valued and whose opinions found logic even when there was none. A lot of these classroom discussions carried merit, but most of the time I found myself more amused than enlightened — there is a fine line that I draw between what is credible evidence and what is conjecture.

Film theorists, especially the ones who write thousand-page tomes, have a knack for giving meaning to a film even though the makers of that film have said nothing. How do we know what were intentional decisions by the director, cinematographer, editor, production designer, etc, and what were lucky accidents that just happened to coincide with the mood and message of the narrative? The answer is, we don’t, unless we’ve sat down with the filmmakers and had a lengthy chat about his or her thoughts behind its development. The way I see it, if I don’t know for a fact that that table lamp in the bottom right hand corner of the frame is meant to reflect the pain of the director’s childhood, it is just a lamp, serving aesthetic functions, practical at most.

The taxing thing about film study is the inability to let mise-en-scene elements — and really any other creative input — be arbitrary. This is the part that boggles me. Is it so fatal to let details slip by?

There are examples I can draw from films that were selected by the university board to bring the all-encompassing idea of cinema to our attention. I am grateful for this, of course — if not for the classes run by Lindsay, I wouldn’t have been exposed to a great many phases, movements, eras, genres, styles, classes, ideologies, and even directors. I went into university knowing film; I came out embracing it.

Here, I’ll single out a topic from one of my classes, called Screen Studies 311. The class, as a whole, was about the different -ologies film employs to further segregate one title from another. Genres are not enough anymore. Horror is no longer Horror. Now there’s Gore, Supernatural, Psychological. Movies that involve the mutation of the human body are referred to as Body Horror. Each genre has become a hybrid of itself, and its hybrids are producing hybrids. Hollywood doesn’t churn out Spaghetti Westerns anymore. Now they are just Westerns. 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens went a step further and melded the Western with Science Fiction. Science Western perhaps?

ivan1So what of these -ologies? In week 2 of the semester we were thrown Phenomenology, the study of how a movie permeates our consciousness via our bodies and not our minds. This isn’t a way for film to be segregated; it’s a way of understanding how a film, and all its messages, can be absorbed by different people in different ways. The film selected for screening in class was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, a movie about a young boy entangling himself in the Russian army’s net during World War II. It is an extraordinary film, but it is about as useful at explaining Phenomenology as it is at being a Hollywood blockbuster targeted at pre-teen girls (it’s not).

I’d be happy to sit in a circle and talk about how such a movie affected me. In fact this was a weekly routine in my classes. Sometimes they were useful, other times the colour of the carpet was more informative. What I’d object to, however, is sitting in a circle after a movie and conjuring ideas about why Man A walked across the room and stood two inches to the left of Man B while Woman A backed the camera and slid a hand down her side. Cinema is about how, when, and why, but some whys will never be known. The job of theorists is to fill in the blanks and make good filmmakers seem better. They make the unknown known, even if they have to think up of ways themselves.

Till this day I have not done further reading on Phenomenology. I can’t tell you if Phenomenological movies are meant to give us epileptic fits or if the characters having epileptic fits in them are meant to do it for us. Are we meant to feel what the characters feel, through the nerves of our hands, eyes, ears and mouths? This debate is valid, I assure you, but what I question is the necessity for it. The study of how a film can be absorbed, and not how it is absorbed, is a moot point in my books. There is no need. Just like there is no need to over analyse the meaning behind a movie that perhaps was written with no meaning in mind. There are countless theorists out there who devote their resources to understanding the soul of movies. I am not one of them. I respond to the soul of movies and analyse what I know to be true. Maybe I am cynical, or stubborn, or downright stupid. If Phenomenology is designed to give movie audiences a wider girth to enjoy films with, then the luxury of opinion is the widest girth one could take to the movies.

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