Movies are complicated. I know how obvious this is as a statement, but while it may be painfully obvious when stated in the abstract, it seems less obvious or less apparent when we witness or sometimes engage in discussions surrounding the reception of controversial films. This is particularly true, and especially troublesome, whenever we want to scrutinize the moral qualities of specific movies. It’s an issue that was batted around for a while during awards season a few months ago, centering most acutely on Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture, but it really comes up quite often even though it doesn’t always attract attention. The tendency to explicitly or implicitly evaluate a film on moral grounds is problematic on a couple of grounds: one, the fact that interpreting and identifying a movie’s moral argument or disposition can be a tall task on its own, especially when the movie in question is exceptionally dense, or not strictly literal, or deliberately opaque; and two, it presupposes that art’s primary and perhaps sole concern ought to be the quest for moral clarity, a kind of ethics teacher for the masses, an advocate for The Truth.
Author Darren Ruecker
Why are so many people completely misunderstanding Zero Dark Thirty? Because like all truly great movies, it allows them to. But it does this in a way more interesting than most complex and ambiguous movies do; it shares a quality with a famous (and famously also underappreciated in its time) film called Citizen Kane, in that it contains a great level of ambiguity and uncertainty in the developments of its story precisely because it is meant to reflect the elusiveness of certainty in real life. This is why the movie’s greatest strength is also exactly what is always going to get a film like this in trouble with a public that demands definitive answers to what a movie is “saying” or what it ultimately “means.” And if these answers are made difficult by a complicated story, then most people just go with their first impulse and rely on their immediate impressions. They form an opinion and run with it. This is totally understandable.
There’s a question at the end of Life of Pi that gets posed to this character in the film who’s a writer, and by extension to us in the audience: what’s the better story? Which story do you prefer? He is (we are) supposed to choose between two different accounts of what took place during a 7-month period in the life of Pi Patel spent on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Movie audiences are constantly being presented with stories that they are meant to evaluate based upon a broad range of factors; less constant is the frequency with which viewers are seriously challenged to contemplate the role story plays in understanding the world around them, from religious views, to their families, to politics and culture. It’s easy to notice the extent to which stories are perhaps the central method we use to make sense of our lives. It’s the way we structure our news, a distinguishing feature of some of our most influential and popular art, and even how we end up thinking about our own lives, it seems. We tend to think of ourselves having a life story, detailing the big events that made us who we are.
Recently I wrote about the joy of viewing a movie more than once to gain greater insight into both the movie itself as well as our own biases, tastes and optimal methods of viewership. It was an endorsement of patience and focus when it comes to evaluating a film that we either have been told by numerous sources is deserving of such attention or that we simply have a hunch possesses a certain quality, be it excellence or cultural significance or both, that necessitates further investigation. A movie like The Master has these factors, if not compelling on the merits of experiencing it, then at least in terms of the auteur behind it and the overwhelming opinion of the purportedly more informed class of viewers, i.e. professional critics, that it is a work worth appreciating.
I didn’t use to think it was terribly controversial to advocate seeing a movie more than once to gain a better understanding of what it does, how it does what it does, why it does what it does, and whether it is successful in any or all of these aspects. And so, after seeing The Master for the first time and being left mostly confused, feeling only mildly compelled and surprisingly unengaged emotionally, there was no hesitation in my decision to see it a second time as soon as possible. The subsequent second viewing was revelatory.