By Daniel Garrett
Directed by Saverio Costanzo;
produced by Mario Gianani; released by Typecast Releasing.
Running time: 90 minutes.
We don’t know if tomorrow has green pastures
in mind for us to lie down in beside
the ever-youthful patter of fresh water
or if it means to plant us in some arid
outback ugly valley of the shadow
where dayspring’s lost for good, interred beneath
a lifetime of mistakes…
…could be about anyone’s life in uncertain times, the life of an ordinary man or women wondering what tomorrow will bring, or it could be the rumination of someone who has reason to believe he and those he loved may be exiled for very particular, very political, reasons. Is the writer Palestinian? Is the writer Italian? Who is he? Those lines are the beginning of a poem called “Salt,” a translation by Jamie McKendrick of the work of Italian writer Eugenio Montale (1896-1981), who is considered a great writer by many. Montale’s lines, published in the book Montale in English (Handsel Books/Other Press, 2005; 42), may be proof that understanding does not have to be confined within our known borders. That is also a conclusion I came to when watching a film about Palestinians that was directed by an Italian man: Private, directed by Saverio Costanzo. It is a haunting film, but instead of fear it brings hope, not for what it shows but for the fact that it shows it. Honest, intense, an act of consciousness and imagination, it brings color and sound where there was little. Private, about the take-over of a Palestinian home by Israeli soldiers, is a motion picture shot on color video, and featuring Arabic, English, and Hebrew, with English subtitles, and written by the director Saverio Costanzo, with Camilla Costanzo, Alessio Cremonini, and Sayed Oashua. The cinematographer is Luigi Martinucci; and the production designers are Ludovica Amati, and Einat Fadida. They have created a view of Palestine, a country that is there and not there, past and future, remembered and forgotten, loved and hated. “Does the country that flowed out of me still exist/ so I can gaze on it as I wish/ so it can gaze back at me, /…at the west coast of myself/ on the stone of eternity?” are lines from “On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea,” questions asked by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was born in 1942 in Palestine and who has spent much time in Europe and was featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique (Our Music) . (The lines, translated by Mona Asali van Engen, are from a poem on pages 73 to 81 in Darwish’s book The Adam of Two Edens, published by Syracuse University Press in the year 2000.) The Palestine that Mahmoud Darwish recalls is one thing, and the Palestine we seem to see in Private is actually another: Private is set in a place that borders the Palestinian territories and Israel but, because of fears of threatened safety, it was not filmed in the Palestinian territories or in Israel but in Calabria, Italy. The landscape is evocative; and the situations, and the feelings, are real. In Private, the family whose home is taken over is in a state of crisis; and it is a crisis that becomes daily life. The cast of characters includes a father and a mother and their children of various ages, a woman neighbor, and Israeli soldiers. The actors featured include Mohammad Bakri, Areen Omari, Hend Ayoub, Karem Emad Hassan Aly, Lior Miller, and Tomer Russo. Private’s subject, Palestinian-Israeli relations, and its theme, the unfair difficulty of that relationship, and its story, the invasion of one family’s home, which is also a metaphor at once ordinary and resonant, are presented with believable characters, spoken lines, and actions, creating a dramatic atmosphere, proving the effective novelty of the work’s approach. Bakri plays the father, an educator, for whom what happens is a test of his commitment to reason and civility: and he insists the family remain in their home, as part of a non-violent protest, and to maintain their property and to keep his children’s heritage and respect. It’s probable that the most significant purpose of all human efforts is the increasing and sharing of human understanding and, possibly, consequently, ethics and skill in living. I think that Private contributes to that.
After viewing Private at the time of its showing at the 2004 Locarno film festival in Switzerland, Variety’s Derek Elley began his commentary by writing, “Political realities are a powerful bonus to, rather than the only reason for, Private, an emotionally gripping drama about a family whose house in an occupied zone is commandeered by soldiers. The family happens to be Palestinian and the military Israeli, but this first feature by Italo documaker Saverio Costanzo could be set in any war zone where force of arms becomes rule of law and an unbridgeable gap exists between occupied and occupier” (August 12, 2004). Elley noted the hand-held camera movements, and the ambiguous sense of time and location, the divisions in the depicted family as to how to respond to the home invasion, and the tense moments when discovery of rebellion or violence is threatened. He states, oddly, that the telling “blows much of its credibility in the final minutes with an English-lingo pacifist song (by Roger Waters), boomed out on the soundtrack, that’s banally didactic.” How can one song in the last few minutes destroy a film’s credibility? I think that is either an exaggerated response or a false one, included so to seem suitably critical and balanced.
“Private distills the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a nightmarish microcosm when a midnight raid by Israeli soldiers on the house of a peaceful, well-educated Palestinian family turns the home into an occupied territory,” wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times (November 18, 2005), calling the situation one that “acquires symbolic weight.” Stephen Holden described the depiction of the family’s being assigned the ground floor of their own home, while the soldiers use their upstairs dwelling. Should the family stay or leave? Is it possible for these two groups to see each other as people? Holden commended the performance of the lead actor Mohammad Bakri: “Mr. Bakri, a Palestinian actor, personifies a benign but strict paternal authority who holds the divided family together. You can see his backbone stiffen when challenged. He refuses to show fear, even during a hair-raising scene in which a gun is pointed at his head for a very long moment, while his family watches in terror.” The children in the story respond variously, with curiosity, anger, and terror, with one son seeking to fight force with force. Holden concluded that the film “shows the human instinct to fight oppression, even if that rebellion risks disaster. It’s what oppressed people do.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck wrote, “The film concentrates on the specifics of the situation and the characterizations, with the result that it possesses a quiet but powerful tension,” and that Private is “a thoughtful addition to the growing list of films dealing with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict” (December 2, 2005).
The film’s reviews have been fair, something worth commending as it treats a controversial subject: Palestinian-Israeli relations. We can’t always predict what reviews will be like—or can we?
“The film review is built out of four components: a condensed plot synopsis, with particular emphasis on big moments but with no revelation of the ending; a body of background information about the film (its genre, its source, its director or stars, anecdotes about production or reception); a set of abbreviated arguments; and a summary judgment (good/bad, nice try/pretentious disaster, one to four stars, a scale of one to ten) or a recommendation (thumbs up/thumbs down, see it/don’t),” wrote David Bordwell, in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1989; 38), amid his discussion of how meaning is made in films—through description of the film’s world, and the kind of story that can be told in that world; identification and examination of the film’s message; explication of (implicit) meaning; and the identification of possible hidden or repressed meanings that might suggest contradictions or symptoms of larger or other matters. Bordwell describes how film criticism has been influenced by other disciplines, such as the study of art and literature (and the practice of journalism); and he asserts that film interpretation is very much tied to the perpetuation of various institutions, such as schools and publications. Criticism is often facilitated—or justified—by its use of a model of problem-solving; and works are revered for their exemplary quality, for their ability to embody theoretical concerns and yield novel and persuasive ideas. Critics comment on camera technique and production practices, film image and sound, dialogue and plot, theme, mythology, psychology, genre, social situation, and more. Film criticisms, like their objects of study, can all begin to look and sound the same, with their concern for proofs, and constructing of arguments, that appeal to aesthetics, ethics, and emotion, resulting in a common style, with few practitioners able to develop a unique voice. “The history of film criticism is largely that of predecessors ignored or forgotten, ships passing in the night, people talking at cross-purposes, wholesale dismissals of prior writers’ work, and periodic cycles of taste,” wrote Bordwell (39).
That is not a particularly encouraging description of a practice—of reception, interpretation, and publicity—that is especially important for a film such as Private, a small film featuring an often debated and misrepresented subject that is not guaranteed the kind of welcome a film intended as pure entertainment is likely to get. Private, which began to be shown at film festivals in 2004, won the Golden Leopard prize (and the Best Actor award for Mohammad Bakri) at Switzerland’s Locarno film festival in 2004, and an international critics award, the FIPRESCI prize at the San Francisco International film festival the following year. (FIPRESCI is the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique; and is also known as the International Federation of Film Critics.) Private was shown in 2005 in public theaters in the United States, and was mostly well received by critics. (Digital videodisc release: June 2006)
Strangely, in a short review still available online as of May 2006, Joshua Katzman of the Chicago Reader wrote, “Costanzo shrewdly de-emphasizes the political issues, instead charting the subtle shifts in power between the prisoners and their captors.” What are subtle shifts in power but the nature of what is political? In the Los Angeles Times (December 2, 2005), Kevin Thomas, who described Mohammad Bakri as “a craggily handsome middle-aged Arab, who is one of the most familiar and striking presences in the Israeli cinema,” and who “has one of his best roles in Private,” wrote that Private was “an appropriately and deliberately gritty, drab-looking and edgy picture,” and inspired by a real incident, and is “perhaps inevitably bleak and grueling,” while also being “involving and provocative—and critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians in an effectively understated manner.” Kevin Thomas is clear about the film’s effects and its value.
In Making Meaning, David Bordwell recommends a poetics of interpretation that would acknowledge the history of film aesthetics and criticisms, and utilize rigorous language and thought, identify questions and hypotheses, and encourage argument within film discourse as it explores how films are made and work. Speaking with a principal force behind a film—such as a director, writer, or actor, might yield insights, especially with regard to a film such as Private, a film that can be received in terms of cinema, politics, and the human condition. Andrew Sarris, whose commentaries on films and their makers have influenced many critics and students of cinema, and whose propositions regarding movies can be applied to diverse works and tested as principles, is said by Bordwell to be the first editor, in 1967, of an anthology of interviews with film directors. Interviews allow direct speech, investigation, review, and the provision of new or supplemental information, as well as the possibility of conveying respect for the maker of thoughtful objects of significant style and pleasure.
If I could interview the director of the film Private, Saverio Costanzo, I would ask: Could you convey something about your early education and inspiration and professional experience? I’ve read that you studied media at the University of Sapienza, and worked in television and made several documentaries. I can see similarities among your film and Italian realist drama films of decades ago (I’m thinking of Rossellini and Visconti) and current middle eastern films, such as those by Kiarostami. Where would you place Private in terms of influences and tradition? In the May 19, 2005 issue of the publication Counterpunch, Paul de Rooij, in commenting about Private, spoke against the impulse to humanize the oppressors, the Israelis. He wrote, “Those perpetrating brutal and sordid acts don’t deserve to be ‘humanized’—what is important is to highlight the oppression, not the nature of the oppressors. Neither does the father have much to show for his steadfastness.” Paul de Rooij, while questioning the film’s use of non-violence and even non-confrontation by the father and most of his family, also said that in a 1989 Palestinian home-takeover that he is aware of, the soldiers were much more brutal than in the film, throwing boiling water on the children, diverting sewage to drip onto the family’s dwelling, pounding on the floor so they couldn’t sleep, and throwing garbage onto the courtyard. Any response? In the September 2005 Rita Balla interview that appeared on the site of the online magazine Three Monkeys, you were quoted as saying, “We weren’t so interested in a cinematographic language—even if the film has a certain cinematic style/form—we were more interested in a human language. We wanted the people to be the protagonists, not the director. It’s because of this that I say the film isn’t a director’s film: the emotions aren’t constructed through technical details, with wide shots, with close ups… you can build them by getting an actor to improvise.” Could you comment further on this, on the relationship of technique to what you were doing—and on the desire to achieve a more human language?
Will joy and forgiveness be possible, where there is injustice today? When will the hurting end? What the family experiences in Private—surprise, terror, anger, fear, obstinacy, pride, understanding, impatience, exhaustion, pain—is what anyone could be expected to experience in the same situation, in the nightmare they awake to, a play of power that does not care about individuals, leaving the family with feelings and thoughts that take them more out of the ordinary and further into the strange, and into the strange, strange trouble the recurs in the world, the trouble of taking and hurting that leaves people, possibly, in the state of being Mahmoud Darwish imagined when he writes, in “On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea:”
I illuminate tomorrow’s present in the moment.
Time separates me from my place.
My place separates me from my time.
All the prophets are my kin.
But heaven is still far from its earth
and I am still far from my words.
“Of what use is a mirror to a mirror?” asks Darwish in the same poem. Of what use is a film or video, a work that gives us more of the images that we have seen—of cruelty—on the television news; of more of the questions that poets and professors have tried to speak to many of us for decades; of more of the history we have known, forgotten, known, and forgotten again? Private makes it possible for us to believe we are seeing individuals, that we are being given true emotions and thoughts. “I’ve seen an abyss. / I’ve seen war after war,” continues Mahmoud Darwish. Is it too easy for us to believe that we too have seen wars? Have we? Is there someone who can say, as someone says in a poem by Eugenio Montale, “Voice that Came with the Coots,” translated by Jonathan Galassi, in Montale in English, page 151 and 152, that “I’ve thought for you, I’ve remembered/ for all…” And say, as in that poem too, “Memory is no sin while it avails.”—who can say that? Those who have always said it? The poets. The philosophers. Those who dream on film, the artists.
If I could interview Mohammad Bakri, who stars in Private, and has himself made several films inspired by Palestine, I might ask: Could you describe your path to Private, something about your childhood, education, inspiration, early experience and proudest moments? I understand you studied Arabic literature, before joining the theater and becoming involved with film. You appeared in Esther by Amos Gitai andHanna K. by Costa-Gavras. What were those working experiences like? Regarding your work as a storyteller for children’s programming, how does this fit into your overall work? Are you satisfied by the reception that Private has received?
Private, Paradise Now, Walk on Water, Notre Musique, and Munich are a few of the recent films that have attempted to explore or comment on the Palestinian-Israeli relationship; and they probably deserve more explication, more thought, than they have thus far received. Many of us are inclined simply to respond with gratitude and tears. And most of us do not know the other films, films still available, that have preceded them: such as The Arab Dream, Blanche’s Homeland, Chronicle of a Disappearance, Curfew, Diary of a Male Whore, Divine Intervention, Four Songs for Palestine, Hanan Ashrawi: A Woman of Her Time, Human Rights are Women’s Rights, Jenin Jenin, Looking Awry, Mixed Marriages, Mythology, The Olive Harvest, Palestinian Windows, Palestine: A People’s Record, Rana’s Wedding, Staying Alive, and This Is Not Living. In Jenin, Jenin, a documentary directed by Mohammad Bakri, there is humor, even though the subject is serious—an invasion in April 2001 of a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin by Israeli soldiers: “I believe in comedy that has a purpose. I believe in comedy that has satire behind it, and black comedy. Behind each smile there is a tear and behind each tear there is a smile. That’s my style,” Bakri is quoted as saying by Saeed Taji Farouky in an OpenDemocracy.com (May 19, 2006) article circulated also by the Palestine Media Center. Bakri was also reported to have said, “In order not to betray myself, I laughed at myself, to say there is still hope.” To create work with a sensibility that can hold more than one perspective, more than one kind of experience and response, is an achievement. One film—the documentary Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image —is about lost Palestinian archives, film work that goes back decades, thousands of films, but the archive was lost in the early 1980s after the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its Film Unit were made to leave Beirut. Palestinians have often been portrayed as supporting players in history. “The master narrative is the official, past record of events. Only historians can revise a master narrative. So the Palestinian film archive could serve as documentation that contributes to the Palestinian master narrative,” wrote Sonia Nettnin in a May 2, 2006 (New Zealand) Scoop independent news report on the Chicago Palestine Film Festival that featured Kings and Extras. One wonders how many of us will have the opportunity to see films made in the last few years such as Arna’s Children, Hopefully for the Better, Improvisation, Thirst, Waiting, and Mohammad Bakri’s own Since You’ve Left, a personal meditation.
Private is an important part of Mohammad Bakri’s career, but obviously not the only important aspect. Bakri is an actor who, in his face and form, carries the serious purpose of a film: contemplation and feeling and meaning can be read in him. Something similar occurs in the work of the actors who appear in Walk on Water, Paradise Now, and Munich. Lior Ashkenazi, in Eytan Fox’s seductively melancholy Walk on Water, is a government agent who is the tough, masculine face of Israel, willing to do what he’s assigned to do to protect Israel, even if it involves murder, but his psyche, and his woman lover, are affected by his choices—and he begins to doubt, after she dies, that he can continue. His strength and his doubt compel admiration and understanding. (His work is supported by Knut Berger and Caroline Peters as a brother and sister whom the agent befriends for the sake of betrayal, before their relationships become more complicated and deep.) Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, a film infused with irony and pain, features Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman as two men who are friends and co-workers, stuck in the same job and frustrating Palestinian life, until their commitment to become suicide bombers is made active. It is impossible to forget their simple camaraderie amid the punishing boredom of their lives; and when one changes his mind about carrying a bomb, his sorrow is likely to be as much about the life he will face alone, as it is about losing a friend, the one who is going through with the commitment. (Their work is supported by Lubna Azabal as an intelligent and intense young Palestinian woman who criticizes terrorist acts.) In Steven Spielberg’s flawed Munich—flawed for its inadequate sense of history, social atmosphere, and emotional nuance—somehow Eric Bana, as Avner, gives a performance that haunts: his professionalism deepens into personal despair. Bana looks ordinary and handsome; and seems ordinary and heroic—and he presents a sensitively and subtly changing character in Avner, who is selected by the Israeli government to assassinate men who have been identified as involved with anti-Israeli terrorism following the massacre of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics. Avner’s crew is played by formidable and known actors such as Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, and Mathieu Kassovitz, but Eric Bana dominates. Bana, who began as a comic in Australia and was featured in Chopper, Black Hawk Down, Hulk, and Troy, is one of the most intriguing and persuasive of actors. Mohammad Bakri is more weathered than Bana, Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, and Lior Ashkenazi, but, like them, he brings to the screen a semblance of experience—a look, a tone, an understanding—that is refreshing: and in Private, Bakri is not only acting or reacting but watching the situation as we are, seeming to wonder, as we do, about the sad absurdities of the human condition.
I do not know what someone with the shrewd mercurial temperament of a Pauline Kael would have thought of Private. Pauline Kael might have liked the intensity of the performances as they occur in an all too believable situation; or she might have found the film too much of one kind of thing. She liked variety. (Why didn’t David Bordwell discuss more of Kael’s work in his Making Meaning?) Pauline Kael, the most idiosyncratic and influential of popular twentieth-century film critics, might have advised to one and all—as one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems does, “Hooriyya’s Teaching,” translated by Sinan Antoon in The Adam of Two Edens (88)—to “Take off like a colt into the world/ and be who you are/ wherever you are./ Shoulder the burden of your heart/ and then come back/ if your country is really/ big enough to be a country.” Or she might have just laughed, and gone on to the next thing.
Many people want critics to affirm their prejudices or their pretensions, something Pauline Kael did not do (she punctured them): she preferred to present what seemed to her honest perceptions of the films she saw. “The only criticism in any of the arts that’s worth anything is based on instinctive responses. I think anybody who tries to apply a yardstick or theory in evaluating art is going to do something very limited and valueless,” she said in a September 3, 1982 interview with Kristine McKenna, of The Los Angeles Reader, reprinted on pages 75 through 90 in Conversations with Pauline Kael, edited by Will Brantley and published by University Press of Mississippi, in 1996. (It’s likely that her disregard for theory is why some academics are ambivalent about her work, and do not always cite it even when it’s relevant to a discussion—she did not support the simplification the old pale boys make a life’s work.)
The anthology of interviews, Conversations with Pauline Kael, begins with a Newsweek interview in 1966 and ends with an interview in The Modern Review in 1994. The book is a remarkable resource: in addition to the informative and funny interviews and Brantley’s introduction, it includes a life chronology and index of subjects; and handles deftly and swiftly some of the controversies surrounding Kael’s work. “If art isn’t entertainment then what is it? Punishment?” Kael asked (90). Kael had many interests; and she said, “When I started doing movie pieces, all this interest in the arts clicked together, as if I’d found my medium” (113). Kael has been controversial for her remarks on auteur theory, on her championing of films such as Last Tango in Paris and Nashville, and on light (or cutting) remarks made in the direction of films about homosexuality—and even controversial for her disinclination to see a film more than once. Pauline Kael did value directors as creative forces, even as authors of films, but did not think every piece of hack work by a Hollywood director was worth study or worship. Kael admired directors such as Bertolucci and Altman, among others, and remarked on the reception of her enthusiastic review of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris: “A great many people who said they didn’t know what I was talking about when I wrote about Last Tango in Paris said they’d gone back to it years later and it got to them” (82). (She has also said that she was invited to attend and write about an early screening of Nashville: which she did, sharing her excitement about the film, which she felt was part of a collection of mature American works done in the 1970s.) Is (or was) Kael sensitive, or insensitive, to homosexuality? She said, “I think that the homophobe talk is just craziness. I don’t see how anybody who took the trouble to check out what I’ve actually written about movies with homosexual elements in them could believe that stuff. I mean movies such as Victim back in the early Sixties, or, more recently a film such as Pixote. And over the years I’ve consistently pointed out how homosexual men were used as convenient villains in movies such as The Laughing Policemanand Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force, The Enforcer, and The Eiger Sanction” (96). On not seeing a movie more than once: “I’ve gone to see a movie again because I wanted to be sure I was quoting a line accurately or was placing a bit of business in the right scene,” Kael said, but, “Most of the time, once is enough” (153).
Pauline Kael’s books include: I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, The Citizen Kane Book, Reeling, When the Lights Go Down, Hooked, andFor Keeps. Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael was published by Francis Davis with Da Capo Press in year 2002. Pauline Kael often published her anthologies of reviews with extended essays on various subjects—film personalities and also important themes, such as the influence of business considerations on film—and in Deeper into Movies (Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown, 1973), she writes about film reception and criticism. She remarked on the necessary flexibility of film critics, on their being able to respond to a range of films and being sympathetic to attempts to do something new and different. “I don’t trust critics who say they care only for the highest and the best; it’s an inhuman position, and I don’t believe them,” she wrote (232). She also exploded a myth: “Film theorists often say that film art is, ‘by its nature,’ closest to painting and music, but all these years movie companies haven’t been buying paintings and symphonies to adapt, they’ve been buying plays and novels. And although the movies based on those plays and novels have visual and rhythmic qualities, their basic material has nevertheless come from the theatre and from books” (236). Kael also found that even second rate books often had more depth than the movies made from them. Pauline Kael, for all her love of film, did not think that movies were enough for a cultural diet: the other cultural forms, such as literature, were still necessary.
There are now different kinds of useful film critics, scholars, and writers—among them, I’d name Carina Chocano, Manohla Dargis, Norman Denzin, Steve Erickson, Richard Gilmore, Stanley Kauffmann, Stuart Klawans, Mick LaSalle, Mark Reid, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alan Stone, and David Walsh. Bill Marx in a November 22, 2005 posting on WBUR Arts blog about a Boston University discussion featuring the New York Times critic A.O. Scott and writer (one-time Times film critic and Kael nemesis) Renata Adler, wrote that both Scott and Adler agreed the basic duty of a critic is to act as a consumer guide—and if that is accurate it explains, at least to me, why Scott’s film criticism, which is intelligent and witty, is also too often trivial. Both Scott and Adler rejected the idea that the critic should take the audience’s taste to task—which raises the question as to what other value criticism might have if it doesn’t enlarge aesthetic judgment, social view, and philosophical range. I can only begin to imagine what the future of film criticism might entail. It has seemed to me often that with the great light of publicity that falls on today’s American films that there are few mysteries left in terms of how the films are made, and what the filmmakers’ intentions are. What remains to be discovered?
Well, there are new films from Africa and Asia and the Middle East and South America—new narratives arriving at a time when some film scholars prefer to pretend that narrative has grown dull. Is it simply that they refuse to admit that they aren’t interested in narrative as the most interesting narratives no longer feature people who are mirror images of themselves? Will film scholars take refuge in theory? Will theory affect film criticism? Noel Carroll in Engaging the Moving Image (Yale University Press, 2003) speaks of theory as involving general explanations for film phenomenon and film practice. He does not affirm the attempts to pursue or pretend that a unified film theory exists, one that can explain all aspects of film, and he prefers small particular theories related to various aspects of film, from film form and film technique to the relation of film to perception, response, and social existence. Noel Carroll, like the author of Making Meaning, David Bordwell, is a formalist, and Carroll makes a distinction between film theory and film interpretation, with theory responding to the general case and interpretation responding to particular cases. Carroll even suggests that natural science might have something to offer theory as a model—and that development could be interesting, or it could be deadly. Just as I am not always entertained or satisfied by an anecdote, I am not always entertained or satisfied by an abstraction.
Pauline Kael once remarked—I think in her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in Going Steady (Little, Brown, 1970)—that movies are an entertainment for displaced persons, of people who are misfits—people who go to movies for emotion and sensuality and understanding, for style and wit, for drama and pleasure: for something different from what the ordinary world offers, different in kind and intensity. I think there’s something to that. We misfits, possibly better or worse than others, or just different, may not end each sentence with a smile or laugh letting you know that we are safe and mean no harm. We misfits, alert to a love, purpose, and work that no one has offered us, and frustrated by that, are likely to be quick to anger and slow to forgive, growing stranger every day—more silent, deep, desperate, and insatiable: or more indifferent to all but the fate of our own concerns. What happens often in the world is that people do not recognize your actual concerns when those concerns differ from theirs—and then they pretend you don’t actually have concerns when you refuse to accept theirs as a substitution. If you don’t want to talk about what they find interesting—it could be gossip, sports, television, paranoid politics, sex, or film theory, they may have no way of grasping who you are. If you prefer to talk, citing facts and ideas, rather than attitudes and beliefs, about the American-Iraq war, the lies of the American and British governments, censorship, and the misuse of religion—or if you prefer to talk about Euripides, Chekhov, Adrienne Kennedy, Henry James, Toni Morrison, Percival Everett, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, Mark Eitzel, Ben Harper, Lizz Wright, John Singer Sargent, Bob Thompson, Elizabeth Peyton—and Eric Rohmer, Bernardo Bertolucci, Lars von Trier, Kathleen Collins, Charles Burnett, Michael Winterbottom, Kasi Lemmons, or the proud ignorance and insistent vulgarity of rap drawing attention from hip-hip’s better intentions, and the irritation of cell phones filling public spaces with unnecessary noise, or an allegorical moving picture such as Private, you may mystify them. Yet, human difference is a fact of life—and culture. It’s possible that new films, especially when they are innovative, will inspire the passionate attentions of new viewers and new writers.
About the author: Daniel Garrett has written about Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog and holocaust novel In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud, by Simon van der Heym, among other works, in reviews that have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. He has also written about Michael Radford’s film interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water, and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, as well as Richard Gilmore’s bookDoing Philosophy at the Movies, for Offscreen.com. His commentaries on Dreyer’s Joan of Arc and Spike Lee’s Inside Man have appeared on web pages ofCinetext.Philo.