Sunday, February 17, 2008

Countdown to Oscar night

The end of the Writers' Guild strike means that the Oscar broadcast will go ahead a week tonight, and for me that's cause for rejoicing. The strike has had no real impact on me—I watch very little television, and what I do watch tends to be fare that's unaffected by a strike, such as news, sports, and whatever's on Turner Classic Movies—but I was worried that it would affect the Oscars, one of the red letter days in my calendar. It's not that I set an awful lot of store by what the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decide are the 'best' of a given year—this same group named The Greatest Show on Earth Best Picture over High Noon, after all—more that I enjoy seeing movies celebrated for one night of the year, an acknowledgement that this art form I love can throw up moments of heartbreaking sublimity, moments which link people throughout the world, can cause a smile, bring back a memory, make us nod our heads and think 'Yes, I remember' or 'Yes, I can imagine.'

A year ago I wrote the following to a friend, about books vs. movies, and on reflection it says so much about how I feel about films that I feel it's worth repeating here:

'Anyone can watch a movie; then again, anyone can read a book. It's what they're watching/reading, and what they take away from it, that counts, that can be hard, that can make you learn something, look at the world in a different way. There are movies—as there are books—that are as lasting and of as much consequence and nourishment as cotton candy; but then there are films that do what books can do: transport to us to another world, another place, another time, show us people and things we'd never otherwise see. You know how much I love books, and reading, and the written word; but I'd be happy to hold up films as diverse as Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, Brazil, A Man For All Seasons, Young Frankenstein, La Regle de Jeu, Swing Time, Topsy-Turvy, Jaws, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brief Encounter, and The Killing Fields and say "These are all great, important, thought-provoking works in their various way, that tell us about ourselves, our world, and our place in it." I'm not saying watch them instead of read books; watch them as well as read books (although not at the same time, obviously).

'I love to get stuck into a book—any kind of book, fiction, non-fiction, biography, whatever—that lets me see things, and do things (vicariously) that I'll never get to do. I'll never try to trek to the North Pole, or climb Everest; but when I read about those things I'm there, man-hauling a sledge over a pressure ridge, or negotiating the Khumbu Icefall. When I read a great work of fiction—by which I mean a work of fiction I'm enjoying, engrossed in, not necessarily an Approved Classic Of Established Literary Merit—I'm with the characters, feeling for them, cheering them on or watching, appalled (as the case may be). But movies can do that for me too. I can read a book about Sydney Schanberg's time in Cambodia, and his efforts to find his interpreter, Dith Pran, and have my heart in my mouth at the same time that I'm appalled by man's inhumanity to man and overjoyed by the love one person can have for another; and then I can watch the film, and have all those same feelings, and still ponder it afterwards, with the added feature that now I can picture the streets of Phnom Penh, see the bodies in the field as Pran stumbles on his hellish journey, and see the look on the faces of the two men at the end (I can't watch the last ten minutes of that film without it breaking my heart all over again). One experience isn't, I think, better than the other; they're different, but equally valid in their ways.

'Yes, the vast majority of films are simply something with which to pass a few idle hours; but then so are most books, when you get right down to it (although there are probably a few more books around that make you think than there are films, if only because the written word had a couple of thousand years' head start on celluloid). I cry when I finish reading Maurice Pagnol's Le Château de ma mère, and the narrator, now a grown man, reflects on the fates of those he loved ('Such is the life of man. A few joys, quickly obliterated by unforgettable sorrows. There is no need to tell the children so.'), and I cry at the end of It's A Wonderful Life, when George stands on the bridge and pleads to have his life back ('Please, God, let me live again.'). I'd hate to have to say one was better than the other, or choose between them; to me they're both worthy of study and comment, of being cherished.'

The best films, like the best books, allow us to see and experience things which we will never know, but can imagine; which is why, a week from tonight, I will be glued to the Oscar telecast, watching as an art form that I love is celebrated.


TheMadBlonde said...

As with those who still find something wholesome & enjoyable in over-marketed holidays, I am refreshed by your pov of the Oscars as a celebration of the movie. What a delightful way of considering it!

OTOH, I can't quite agree w/ your equalising comparison of books & movies. To get ANYTHING out of a book (other than a use as a doorstop or flower press), you must a) be literate; & b) have some basic familiarity w/ the language. But, as the ads say "the language of film is universal." You need only sight to get something out of a film (for some films not even that, just as many books can be enjoyed in braille). You don't need to understand the language- there doesn't even NEED TO BE A LANGUAGE. At it's most basic level, it is simply a visual experience. With a book, you really do have to actively engage @ least enough of your brain to grasp the sense of the words, or you might as well be looking @ rorschach blots or binary information printouts (then again, there may be people capable of reading those).

It's a devil's advocate/splitting hairs fine point, but, to me, still significant. It reminds me a little of an exchange from _Sense & Sensibility_.

``What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! -- There is nothing like dancing after all. -- I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.''

``Certainly, Sir; -- and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. -- Every savage can dance.''

Barbara Roden said...

Good points, Karen. However, I'd argue that a lot of people read books without getting a lot out of them; ask any high school student who has struggled through an assigned text. That is, perhaps, an unfair example; but I suspect a good many adults, reading for pleasure, have read books that they didn't get a lot out of (if they didn't give up halfway through). And a lot of the books people read are the literary equivalent of popcorn flicks: put the brain in neutral and coast on through. True, reading takes a bit more physical effort; but at the end of the day, I wouldn't say that someone who read a Harlequin romance or a Dan Brown thriller or a by-the-numbers chick-lit book has enriched their life any more than has someone who's trotted down to the local multiplex and plunked their money down to see the hot film du jour.

Great films, like great books, do actively engage us: they make us think about ourselves, our world, and our place in it. And with films, not everything is on the surface. Books can have many layers; they can be full of subtleties, nuances, things unspoken, all of which needs to be teased out by the patient or discerning reader. The best films also possess these things. Just because films are a visual medium doesn't mean they always lack for subtlety, or depth, or things left unseen. A great film like CITIZEN KANE, for example, beguiles us by looping back on itself, showing the same events from myriad points of view, so that the viewer realises she has to pay attention and not trust anyone.

Like great books, great movies can be looked at in varying ways. KANE be viewed as a jaunty look at a great man's life, and a viewer can leave it at that; but it can also be viewed on other, deeper, levels for those who care to pay attention. And, again like great books, great movies use technique to evoke feelings in the viewer. Nabokov is an artist who uses words to paint a picture, weave a spell, create a mood or effect; cinematographer Gregg Toland and composer Bernard Herrmann, under the direction of Orson Welles, did the same thing with KANE.

There are more great books than great films; but as I say in my article, the written word has had a heck of a head start. The great films have, in their way, as much to say to the patient and thoughtful viewer as do the great books. And let's face it, it's a heck of a lot easier to eat popcorn during a movie than it is while reading. . . .