Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 25th, 2013

Awake in the Dark

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Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

A movie, or any work of art, isn’t complete until someone sees it. Even the most modest studio film these days represents about two hundred years of collective work from the cast and crew, and when the result of their labor is projected on a screen in a darkened room, where it can shape and channel the emotions of a theater full of strangers, surprising things can happen. In Behind the Seen, Walter Murch compares this phenomenon to that of an old-fashioned radio tube, which takes a powerful but simple electrical current and combines it with a weak but coherent signal to transform it, say, into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A similar thing happens to an audience in a theater:

The power—the energy—isn’t coming from the film. It’s coming from the collective lives and emotional world of the audience. Say it’s a big theater—you have a thousand people there, and the average age of that audience is 25. You have 25,000 years, three times recorded history, sitting in the audience. That’s a tremendously powerful but unorganized force that is looking for coherence.

And the mark of a great movie is one that takes up an unexpected life, for better or worse, once it meets the undirected power of a large popular audience.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since finally seeing Zero Dark Thirty, which I think is unquestionably the movie of the year. (If I were to repost my list of the year’s best films, it would occupy the top slot, just ahead of The Dark Knight Rises and Life of Pi.) It’s an incredible work, focused, complex but always clear, and directed with remarkable assurance by Kathryn Bigelow, who tells an often convoluted story, but never allows the eye to wander. Yet it’s a film that seems likely to be defined by the controversy over its depiction of torture. This isn’t the place to respond to such concerns in detail, except to note that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have already argued their own case better than anyone else. But it seems to me that many of the commentators who see the movie as an implicit endorsement of torture—”No waterboarding, no Bin Laden,” as Frank Bruni writes—are reading something into it that ignores the subtleties of the film’s own structure, which begins with enhanced interrogation and then moves beyond it.

Power and Coherence

But it’s a testament to the skill and intelligence of Bigelow, Boal, and their collaborators that they’ve given us a movie that serves as a blank slate, on which viewers can project their own fears and concerns. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell us what to think, and although some, like Andrew Sullivan, have taken this as an abdication of artistic responsibility, it’s really an example of the art of film at its height. It’s a movie for adults. So, in very different ways, are Lincoln and Django Unchained, which is why I’m not surprised by the slew of opinion pieces about the lack of “agency” in the black characters in Lincoln, or whether Django is really a story about a slave being saved by a white man. Such responses tell us more about the viewers than the movies themselves, and that’s fine—but we also need to recognize that movies that can evoke and sustain such questions are ultimately more interesting than films like Argo or Les Misérables, which reassure us at every turn about what we’re supposed to be feeling.

Needless to say, the Oscars have rarely rewarded this kind of ambiguity, which may be why Zero Dark Thirty had to content itself with a shared award for Best Sound Editing. And both Argo and Les Misérables are very good movies. But it takes remarkable skill and commitment to tell stories like this—and in particular, to give us all the satisfactions we crave from more conventional entertainment while also pushing forward into something darker. (That’s why many of our greatest, most problematic works of fiction tend to come from artists who have proven equally adept at constructing beautiful toys: Bigelow could never have made Zero Dark Thirty if she hadn’t already made Point Break.) When we’re sitting in the dark, looking for coherence, we’re at our must vulnerable, and when we’re faced with a movie that pushes our buttons while leaving us unsettled by its larger implications, it’s tempting to reduce it to something we can easily grasp. But in a medium that depends so much on the resonance between a work and its viewers, such films demand courage not just in the artist, but from the audience as well.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Ellen Gilchrist

It is helpful to me to pretend that writing is like building a house. I like to go out and watch real building projects and study the faces of the carpenters and masons as they add board after board and brick after brick. It reminds me of how hard it is to do anything really worth doing.

Ellen Gilchrist

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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