Friday, December 28, 2007

Book and Film: The Shining

There is an old adage in film that goes something like this: The person who knows what they're talking about leaves the theatre and says, "I loved that movie, it was nothing like the book." The obvious inverse would be, "I hated that movie, it was exactly like the book."

Books and films are two different mediums of artistic expression. One paints a picture with words, the other put words in your head using pictures. That is, makes you think about what the character is thinking. One old warhorse that has been trudged out endlessly is that with books you have to imagine everything and with movies it's all given to you. Well, maybe. It depends on what aspects of the work one is talking about. For instance, a book has the great advantage of telling the reader exactly what the protagonist is thinking, either through first person narrative in which we literally get a story from the unique perception of the protagonist or in another form, third-person omniscient, where we are entitled to know what everyone is thinking. When the protagonist walks up to an outwardly beautiful woman who is inwardly cold and hateful, the writer can tell us, "As he walked up to her all he could see was a miserable, wretched woman, not the beautiful face she showed the rest of the world." Translate that to film and you have to rely on the actor to provide enough subtle expression to make us understand that. To which I ask, which requires more imagination?

When most people say books require imagination what they're really saying is that the reader decides what characters and places look like. What they think is provided for you. In film, what characters and places look like is provided for you, what they think requires the mind of the viewer. I'd say that requires a little more imagination.

On the other hand, a book is not constrained by running time. As a result the author is free to explore deep feelings of characters and delve into multiple subplots. By their freedom of length books have a great advantage in providing more exposition useful to the reader in determining all the motivations and nuances of the characters. Films, constrained by length, often forfeit deeper development of character that would be useful to the viewer in understanding the character in favor of highlighting only that which is necessary to thrust the story forward. Here, literature easily wins out by allowing us a full and rich exploration of the characters.

So obviously by these two differences we can see that books and film are clearly at odds with each other as to how to tell their story. Which is why filmmakers often make decisions when adapting a film from a book that baffle the faithful reader expecting to see a page by page translation up on the screen. Sometimes it is necessary for the visual translation to work, sometimes it is an artistic decision and, yes, sometimes it's just laziness on the part of the filmmaker.

All of this leads us to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece The Shining, adapted from a book by Stephen King. The changes Kubrick made from the book to the film were extensive. King was not pleased and eventually wrote a miniseries based on his own book that faithfully transposed the page to the screen. But Kubrick's is better, much better. Because Kubrick understood film was a visual medium and as such allowed possibilities that did not present themselves to the author, King, writing the book. Oddly, some of the most visually expressive moments of the book were exactly what Kubrick nixed.

Danny, has a friend, Tony. No one else can see or hear this friend. In the book he is a shadowy figure in the distance communicating with Danny. In the film, this visual motif is abandoned and Tony instead lives inside Danny's mouth. In the book, topiary animals on the grounds of the Overlook Hotel come to life in menacing, threatening ways. In the film, a hedge maze is substituted, standing still and lifeless. Or perhaps just indifferent.

There are many other minor changes but this post will deal with the big difference, that is, the ending of both stories. *1*

In the book, King makes more than a few story choices that are inconsistent logically with his characters or their situation. For starters, he gives us a grand hotel, a jewel of the west, a pride and glory to its owners. It is a palace that is to be cared for with a delicate touch. And, oh yeah, there's this decades old malfunctioning boiler that needs to be adjusted every day or the hotel will blow up. I'm sorry, what? Huh? Can the reader honestly believe that if the owners of the Waldorf Astoria were dependent upon daily adjustments to a rusty old boiler to keep their hotel from blowing up that they wouldn't just get a new boiler? To the even halfway perceptive reader this signals immediately how the story will end. So much for surprises. Wisely, Kubrick cut the boiler subplot out completely.

Then King takes the boiler subplot a step further off the precipice of disbelief. They are several ghosts at the Overlook. Since the hotel is their old haunt, so to speak, and it is in their vested interest to keep it from blowing up, they must make sure that the caretaker, Jack Torrance, adjusts it every day. Why? Because, as ghosts, they cannot do this themselves. They are non-corporeal. Except for when they move bottles and furniture around the place to signal to Torrance that they are there and bring inanimate topiary animals to life. But for some reason unknown to sentient beings everywhere, they just can't adjust that damn boiler. Disbelief officially unsuspended.

And finally, it seems, the whole reason Jack becomes unreliable at adjusting that boiler is because the ghosts seem to be driving him towards insanity. Hmmm. "We need him to adjust the boiler. Hey I know, let's send him off the deep end." Disbelief still unsuspended. Now I'm getting angry.

Unless you haven't been paying attention, you can see where all of this is leading: Jack goes crazy, boiler goes unadjusted, hotel blows up. About as mystical, spiritual and haunting as sticking a flashlight under your chin and shouting, "Boo!"

Now let's look at Kubrick's ending.

By dropping the boiler subplot completely we now have a hotel (and it's ghostly inhabitants) not keeping themselves from destruction but ensuring themselves new life, an important distinction. Now it would seem their slow maddening of Jack Torrance has a purpose. He is the caretaker, and the caretaker will provide fresh blood. The caretaker will give the hotel a sacrifice, his wife and child. And that will keep the hotel going.

Jack has a conversation with Delbert Grady, who has already given his wife and children, and then himself, in sacrifice to the Overlook.

Jack Torrance: You WERE the caretaker here, Mr. Grady.

Delbert Grady: No sir, YOU are the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I've always been here.

Jack doesn't understand but Grady insists: Jack was always the caretaker. As Jack falls deeper and deeper into insanity, spurred on by the ghostly Lloyd the bartender and Delbert Grady, he becomes murderous. He pursues his wife and child with the intent of killing them. Because of no boiler subplot, we are allowed to witness the devolution of Jack into a psychopath with no distractions. The ghosts are allowed to push him further, with no obvious contradictions of the Overlook's health being put into jeopardy as a result. As Jack pursues his son through that lifeless, indifferent maze his insanity begins to work against him. Danny has taken him out of the hotel that has protected him in his madness and into the environment where he must fend for himself. His confusion is apparent, the maze simply becoming the personification of it. He gets lost, and wandering aimlessly, freezes to death.

Then Kubrick takes us into the hotel. The camera begins a slow zoom into the main ballroom. As the far wall gets closer, pictures can be seen. Finally, we arrive at the center picture, a photo taken at the 1921 4th of July Ball. In the front of the crowd, with champagne glass held high, is Jack. He has always been the caretaker. And he will be again. In some other person, in some other life, he will return and give new life to the hotel. In this final moment Kubrick turns the story arc upside down and makes it clear that the Overlook, not Jack or his family, is the main character of the story. The hotel is everything, and the hotel will keep going. It will remain a vortex that draws in misery and sadness and desperation.

The ending is at once mystical, spiritual and disquieting. It was an artistic choice made by a director that gave the story and the hotel an eternal time frame.

Not every book made into a movie has such clear cut opposite choices working against each other and certainly not every movie exceeds the book. Surely, most King fans would agree that the movie versions of his works rarely hold up to the original source. And in the cases of other authors there is simply no contest. I have read the works of Twain and Poe extensively and no film version of any of their works has ever even approached the wit and poetry and artistry of their written words. Likewise, any filmmaker adapting Dickens or Shakespeare would be wise to keep the story just as it is. But sometimes a movie can make major changes to a book and come out (no pun intended) shining on the other end. This is one of those cases. Kubrick made drastic changes to the end of the story, and by doing so, drastically changed the motivations and fates of the characters. He made a movie from a book and the movie won. Handily.

Turn the page.


*1* I think it was Neil Sarver who said he couldn't stand the "Talking Finger" choice for Danny in the film and I agree. Having Tony appear shadowy in the distance is a much better device where the book has the upper-hand. There are a few more small choices like that where I think the book is better. I also like that Tony is Danny's future, which isn't explored in the film at all.



Monday, December 17, 2007

Unseen Images: Day One

"Eureka" moments are myriad in literature and film but rare in actual history. Inventions and concepts are often the result of hard work, building upon the research of others and trial and error. But "eureka" moments do occur. One of the most extraordinary occurred on September 12, 1933. As documented in Peter Wyden's excellent volume, Day One, and later dramatized in the film of the same name, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard was walking in downtown London. He came to an intersection and stopped. He had recently read H.G. Wells The World Set Free (1914) in which Wells envisioned the use of what he called "atomic bombs," bombs that exploded like ordinary bombs but because of their core material, Americanium, continued burning for years after their initial explosion, effectively producing a residual heat so intense that the entire area would melt. He had also read Ernest Rutherford writing on the possibilities of achieving a nuclear chain reaction that could possibly, in the future, become a source of energy. Szilard stared at the traffic lights and began putting the pieces together in his head. Within seconds his brain conceived of something no other human brain had ever conceived: If one could produce a run-away chain reaction in fissionable material using conventional explosives as a trigger one could produce an explosion of extraordinary immensity. The thought so immediately terrified him that he bolted straight forward to develop his nightmarish idea only to be stopped by a fellow pedestrian before he was hit by a bus.

The following year, after he had worked out the details, he filed a patent and gifted it to the British Admiralty. After studying and living in Berlin since 1922, he fled in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution. Even though the scientific world was still six years away from a successful test of fission (when everyone else finally got the idea) he was afraid that someone in Nazi Germany would have the same epiphany he had. He wanted the British to have the patent. They didn't take him seriously. No one understood what exactly it was he had patented. Later he would take a teaching position in the United States and contact his old friend from Berlin, Albert Einstein. He explained his idea to Einstein and urged Einstein to alert the United States government. Since Einstein, and most other physicists at the time, was unsure of what Szilard had envisioned, Szilard penned the letter to President Roosevelt himself and Einstein signed it as if he had written it. You can read the full text of the letter here.

But there was another physicist that understood all of it. Unknown to Szilard, on January 29, 1939 Robert Oppenheimer heard about the first successful attempt of fission in a lab. Within minutes he surmised that with the bombardment of excess neutrons upon a fissionable core, an explosive chain reaction would occur, and a bomb with almost unimaginable destructive force would be possible.

Robert Oppenheimer was a man of unique intellectual ability. He was fluent in both the writing and speaking of English, Greek, French, German, Portuguese and Sanskrit. He was proficient in several others. He could learn the basics of a language and its alphabet within six weeks. But he was no isolated intellectual savant. He was also well-versed in politics, poetry, classical literature, art, music, history and more. As General Leslie Groves later said, "He's a genius. A real genius...Why, Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up." While he is best known in scientific circles for formulating the Born-Oppenheimer approximation (which is so far above my head I cannot even summarize it for you but I do know it does not involve Matt Damon) he is most highly regarded in science today for his work on gravitational collapse, work he did in the thirties. Work that would not be done or continued by any other physicists until the sixties when people like Stephen Hawking would use it as a jumping point to build a theoretical model for black holes. Oppenheimer understood things decades before everyone else. It is important to understand these things about Oppenheimer, to understand fully that this was no government scientist lackey put in charge of a weapons program. There were a few of those later to come. This was a thoughtful and astoundingly intelligent human being who served science and his country, and unlike so many others in his field, found himself devastated by guilt.

These are the two central figures of Day One, the book written by Peter Wyden and later made into a film for television in 1989. There is a third figure of course, one that looms large over the whole affair, that of General Leslie Groves. But it is the moral and ethical battle between Szilard and Oppenheimer that provided the book, the film and history with one of the most extraordinary crises of conscience ever recorded. 1989 saw the release of another "Atomic Bomb" movie, Fat Man and Little Boy but to say that film got everything wrong, everything, would be an understatement. The facts are wrong, the motivations of the characters wrong, the personalities wrong. All wrong. But Day One, directed by Joseph Sargent and starring David Straithern as Oppenheimer, Michael Tucker as Szilard (an absolute dead ringer!) and Brian Dennehy as Gen. Leslie Groves gets it all right. And it was a made-for-television movie at that. The difference was in deciding early on to follow the source material to a word. If you've read Wyden's well researched Day One, you have essentially read the screenplay for the movie. And what the filmmakers understood was that telling everything precisely as it occurred required no further dramatic padding. Fat Man and Little Boy gives us plenty of padding (and many a fictionalized character) and none of it is as nearly as dramatic as what really happened. I'm not sure why they felt this story needed anything added to it at all.

The film covers much of the historical material that everyone is familiar with but also deals with the minutia of life at Los Alamos and the clockwork political machinations that culminated in the most devastating decision made by a politician in the twentieth century: The engagement of nuclear warfare on a civilian population. Twice. It's been said that Hiroshima showed our capacity to do what we had to do to win and Nagasaki showed our capacity for cruelty. Some would argue they both showed determination and/or cruelty.

As the physicists readied their creation the politicians argued the finer points. Harry Truman (Richard Dysart) was now President of the United States after the untimely death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and he made James "Jimmy" Byrnes (Hume Cronyn) his right hand man. Byrnes had been the Assistant to the President under Roosevelt, a position no longer used. It was only used because of Byrnes, one of the most accomplished statesmen of the twentieth century. Hailing from South Carolina he was at one time or another House Representative, Senator, Governor, Secretary of State, Assistant to the President and Supreme Court Justice. Just try and find another resume like that. Truman put his trust and decision making in Jimmy's hands. Hume Cronyn, who played Oppenheimer in 1947's The Beginning or the End, plays Byrnes brilliantly, displaying just enough homespun charm mixed with the right amount of "my way or the highway" arrogance to make Byrnes alternately amusing and terrifying.

The film juggles the politicians and physicists stories deftly but it is the Szilard - Oppenheimer story that keeps everything afloat. Oppenheimer loved being in charge of so many great minds working together but was uneasy about what that work was. Szilard also worked on the project, doing theoretical work in Chicago. The turning point for all was when Germany surrendered. Most physicists working on the project, including Szilard and Oppenheimer, had naively assumed they were working towards creating an atomic bomb because Adolph Hitler was trying to do the same. Once Germany surrendered and it was revealed that their nuclear program was scuttled, Los Alamos physicists thought their work was done. It was not. They were told to keep working. Szilard was shocked and immediately circulated a petition to be signed and sent to Truman morally opposing any use of the bomb in war. He met with Oppenheimer who assured him that the bomb would be developed but not used. "It's shit," Oppenheimer told him. "this is a weapon with no military significance. It will make a big bang - a very big bang - but it is not a weapon which is useful in war." It may be hard to believe that kind of naivete today, that the physicists at Los Alamos honestly never thought the bomb would be used beyond a demonstration, but the memos, the correspondences and the diaries all back it up. Almost all of them were borderline pacifists and socialists who believed America was the right country to develop the bomb because it was the one country that would never use it.

Szilard finally got an audience with Byrnes and tried desperately to plead the case of demonstration, possibly over the Sea of Japan or at Los Alamos with Japanese representatives present. Byrnes would have none of it. Then there was a meeting of the so-called Interim Committee, the committee set up to decide how and when to use the bomb, with Byrnes, Groves, Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, General George Marshall and others where final arguments were made. Oppenheimer, Fermi and Under-Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard made arguments for demonstrations and Byrnes shot each one down. Someone suggested giving the Japanese a 48 hour warning to evacuate the city. Byrnes countered the Japanese would simply move all American POWs into the target city. As it turns out, there were American POWs in Hiroshima anyway. And before anyone thinks it was a different time and the decision makers did not understand what they would be unleashing it should be noted that on July 1, 1945 Ralph Bard resigned his position. He said in his letter to Truman that the United States would lose its standing as a humanitarian country and one that ensures fair play if any such weapon was used. Since by July 1st its use seemed inevitable, he resigned. He wanted no historical role in its use. In the film this scene is done with great subtle effect. After his resignation to Truman, the President appears not only unmoved but slightly bewildered.

As it turns out there were more people opposed to the use of the atomic bomb than one might suspect. Among those opposing it were General Douglas MacArthur, General Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. H.H. (Hap) Arnold, John J. McCloy (Undersecretary of War) and even Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman's very own Chief of Staff. Leahy wrote, "I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children." Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson did not oppose it but did oppose using it in culturally historical spots. When General Groves presented him with the military's final report on the first target, Kyoto, Stimson flatly refused. "No," he said "It's a sacred city to the Japanese and I will not see it destroyed,". Groves told him it was the perfect location. Stimson said, "I don't care how perfect it is. It's an ancient city and a beautiful one. Pick another target." There are still some who blame Stimson more than any other for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I've read their articles and read Stimson's diary through the process. It has been suggested Stimson had Truman under his control. Yet when you read Wyden or Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) or Gregg Herken (Brotherhood of the Bomb) or any of the relevant letters and correspondences from the period it is clear that there were only four men absolutely hellbent on using nuclear weapons in war. They were Harry Truman, James Byrnes, General Leslie Groves and physicist Edward Teller.

Both the book and the film make this point abundantly clear. When the Trinity test (nicknamed by Oppenheimer) was successfully conducted, exploding the first nuclear bomb in human history, Truman, Byrnes, Groves and Teller were ecstatic. Szilard was not informed of the test. By this point, July 16, 1945, he was considered a risk due to his moral objections of its use. Oppenheimer's reaction was all Oppenheimer. Having watched the test from five miles distant, feeling the intense heat on his face and the rush of wind from the distant shockwave he first said to his brother Frank, a physicist at Los Alamos as well, simply, "It worked." Then he turned to Kenneth Bainbridge and asked if he was familiar with the quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Bainbridge replied, "Yeah Oppie, now we're all sons of bitches."

The film concludes after the surrender of Japan. At Los Alamos the physicists watch the first post war footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are in shock. Some cry, some run out holding their mouths, some close their eyes. Oppenheimer says to his wife, Kitty, "And so finally begins the reaction" to which Kitty angrily and brilliantly replies, "Well what in the hell did they think was going to happen?"

The movie is finished but the book Day One is only halfway done at this point. The second half of the book documents the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it is stomach churning to say the least. Peter Wyden interviewed survivors for his book and the descriptions are devastating. In the hospital where victims were being treated the floors were covered with vomit, bile and excrement from the uncontrollable nausea and diarrhea that emerged within a couple of hours as a result of radiation poisoning. Other survivors on the outskirts of the city could not make it into the city for well over a day to search for relatives, loved ones or just to help because the fires and residual heat were so intense that entry was impossible. The Ota river in Hiroshima was filled with the bloated corpses of thousands who had lept into it to escape the firestorm only to die from the excess heat and radiation. One survivor told Wyden that you could have walked across the river on the bloated corpses that filled it from end to end.

Wyden ends his book with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and a moving tribute to what he considered in the end, a grave wrong. The debates over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki usually center around the massive loss of American and Japanese military and civilian lives that would have occurred during a land invasion of Japan. Thus it is argued, by dropping the bombs millions were saved. It's an argument that has no resolution since half of the argument takes place in the hypothetical "what if" of an invasion. But as Day One, the other books mentioned and even now, finally, the history books point out there is a missing factor from this argument that is a deal breaker. A debate ender. Period. In June and July of 1945 the Japanese made entreaties for peace to the Soviet Union, whom it hoped would act as a mediator between Japan and the United States. They were willing to stop the war with only one condition: The Emperor retain his status. Thus Japan would restructure its own government and even eliminate its own military. The United States and its Allies would occupy Japan and oversee the restructuring and approve or disapprove at each step. Just like it actually happened after the war. As early as May 31, 1945 the Japanese had communicated through their embassy in Portugal that only the term "unconditional surrender" stood in the way of peace. They simply wanted the Emporer to be recognized as such. Joseph Stalin presented the mediation request to Truman at Potsdam on July 18. "Unconditional Surrender" remained. The tragic irony being that after Japan's unconditional surrender, the United States decided to let the Emperor retain his status after all to ease the occupational transition. In other words, by mid-July the war would, could and should have been over. Any arguments for or against the use of the atomic bombs versus a land invasion with conventional weapons is rendered moot by July 18, 1945, the day Truman himself got the offer of peace. After that day, the war should have ended and the United States begun its occupation of Japan. But Byrnes and Truman wanted the bomb dropped. Byrnes especially wanted to send a message to the Soviet Union: We have nuclear capabilities and we're willing to use them. On August 8th, two days after Hiroshima, the U.S.S.R. declared war on Japan and starting sending troops towards the homeland. They were hoping for a piece of Japan after the war. Fortunately for Japan, they surrendered before the U.S.S.R. could get in and create a postwar North Japan that would probably be a problem to this day.

The film and book, Day One, have something in common besides the obvious historical details. They are both done straightforwardly in unsentimental journalistic fashion. Joseph Sargent does not employ any special camera tricks or style but simply lets the story tell itself. Peter Wyden does the same. And for both it was a wise decision. It is a story that needs telling and one that requires no fiction to detract from it. It is a complicated and complex story, simply told. July 16, 1945 marked Day One. Everything after has taken place in a different world from the one before it. A world we can never return to again.


Websites for Further Reading: The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Atomic Bomb Decision

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Life in Full: No Imitation

At my Flickr page there's a set of photos I have collected of actresses from Hollywood and World Cinema. There's no guideline for inclusion except that I like them. If they're in the set it means they themselves or something they've done appeals to me. With Flickr's viewing tools I can track which ones get viewed the most. And with search word tracking on my blog I can see what key words people were searching on that eventually led them here. One picture outdoes them all. By a landslide. Second place is well over three thousand views behind. So which is it? That stylish pic of Kate Hepburn, looking sharp and unamused? One of the many Hedy Lamarr pictures looking sexy and pouty? Marlene looking sultry with her hand running through her hair? No, no and no. The top viewed picture, and the number two used keyword(s) are both the same: Fredi Washington.


Fredi Washington, that's who. The gap between her photo viewings and keyword searches and everything else is getting so large I figured it was about time I did something on her. Many people come here looking for information on Fredi Washington and I'm tired of them having to leave with nothing but a picture. Such is the plight of the actress who had no place in Hollywood and little lasting fame beyond the thirties. But she was something to behold. And she possessed a confidence and sense of self that was admirable, if not awe-inspiring.

Fredi Washington is best known for her portrayal of Peola in John Stahl's Imitation of Life (1934). Unlike the Douglas Sirk remake, the original employed a light-skinned black actress in the role of Peola, instead of a dark haired white woman (Susan Kohner). Using a white actress for a black role always bothered me but what bothered me more was that Kohner was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Washington was not. Washington was better. Period.

Before Imitation of Life Washington appeared with Paul Robeson in Emperor Jones (1933) and made her debut four years earlier in a short, Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), with Duke Ellington. Before making Emperor Jones she was encouraged by people in charge to "pass" for white and then, maybe, she might even have a chance at stardom. She refused. She was black she said, and had no desire to be white. Not even to get ahead.

After her outstanding performance in Imitation of Life it would seem she had finally made it. But she hadn't. She was too "white" to play the kind of demeaning roles Hollywood gave to black actors in the thirties and too "black" for anything else. Even movies made for black audiences presented problems. In 1933's Emperor Jones she had to darken her skin to play against Paul Robeson. The producers were terrified that audiences might think Robeson was kissing a white woman. She made one last film in 1937 and called it quits, knowing her complexion made a successful career in either type of film impossible. But she didn't give up.

She co-founded the Negro Actors Guild and wrote theatre reviews for the now-defunct The People's Voice. She also performed in the theatre consistently for decades. Later she would be a casting consultant on Carmen Jones (1953), the film that brought Dorothy Dandridge into the limelight. And she became active in politics and the civil rights movement, working with her Brother-in-Law Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African-American elected to Congress from New York in 1945. After that she entered into a quiet retirement and on June 28, 1994 she died of a stroke at her home in Stamford, Connecticut. She was 90 years old.

There's not a lot more information out there on Fredi but here are a few treats. The first is a trailer for Imitation of Life (1934) that was played for black audiences. There's no mention of Claudette Colbert, just Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington. The second I was unsuccessful in embedding into the post but please follow the link and watch it. It's about eight minutes long but I promise you it is well worth it. It's a clip from TCM of film historian Donald Bogle, whose writings I've quoted before on these pages, discussing both Imitation of Life in general and Fredi Washington in particular. It also gives one the opportunity to see her incredible scene of rejecting her mother in public, which she plays with a mix of horror and feigned indifference that is a wonder to behold. Enjoy.

Donald Bogle Commentary Clip.


As of December, 2008 I have updated this post to reflect the number of views for Fredi's photo. It is now thousands ahead of any other.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Watching in a Vacuum

I love reading science articles and books and have since childhood. I love the rigors of science, the testing, the adherence to fact over fantasy. But sometimes science writing can drive me batty. Take this article for instance from Live Science on viewers' reactions to movies. There are many problems with the article not the least of which is a woeful lack of elaboration on the study itself. The study's conclusions, which should be immediately filed under the heading "No Shit Sherlock", are that people tend to be rather sheepish when it comes to opinions on movies and will generally go with the crowd for their reactions. When separated from the crowd, either by watching alone or by having physical barriers between themselves and other viewers, their reactions are more varied. As the fourth paragraph of this breaking news stunner says:

While people reacted differently to specific scenes, those watching together tended to evaluate a film with the same broad mood swings. This 'group-think' was not found among those who watched alone. Turns out the moviegoers were glancing at each other throughout the film, adopting the expressions they saw on others.

Okay, but here's the problem I have with the article, in the form of a question: What movie were they watching? That's very important. Hell, I'll be happy with the genre if you don't want to tell me the specific title. Was it horror, comedy, thriller, what? Was it some bizarre generic movie created specifically for the test? Was it a straightforward drama? Audience reactions are very different, and differently influential, depending on the genre. I've seen dramas where audience reaction was nil because nothing on the screen called out for it. Everyone was forced, I suppose, to make up their own mind since they couldn't judge from their fellow viewers' reactions. I've also seen comedies that seemed riotously funny in the theatre with everyone indulging in "chain-reaction" laughing only to discover on a second viewing at home that the comedy fell flat. Many film critics don't like to see movies with an audience for that specific reason. It may skew their honest reaction.

The movie viewing experience is a rich and varied one. People prefer to watch in many different settings. I currently prefer the intimate home setting to the theatrical viewing for most, but not all, movies. Because technology now affords the luxuries of big screen viewing in your living room this isn't as heretical a position as it used to be. But I should point out clearly that the main reason I currently prefer this is because my work and home life do not provide ample opportunity to make it out to the theatre. All things being equal, my perfect movie setting is in a theatre, at a matinee, with few, very few audience members. I almost always attend matinees and when I was seeing two or three theatrical releases a week several years back I always caught the matinee. That way I never had to worry about crowds.

Of course, with some movies crowds just aren't a problem. Albert Brooks' movies for instance. I remember going to see Lost in America when it came out with a friend. We saw a Saturday night showing on its opening weekend. We were the only two people in the theatre. At the beginning of the film a radio is playing as the credits roll. It's a Larry King interview with Rex Reed about audience reactions to comedy. King quotes Mel Brooks as saying that the only genre of film that always requires an audience is comedy. Reed disagrees (as do I). He talks about funny being funny regardless of audience and how he doesn't like crowd laughter to influence his reactions to jokes. I always felt, even at the time, that Brooks (Albert that is) put this interview at the beginning of the movie knowing that his own films weren't popular with audiences. By putting in a defense of watching comedy without a crowd he could put the viewer at ease about their own experience from the outset.

Whatever the genre, people bring themselves and all that they are to each and every viewing. What this study shows me more than anything else is that most people view movie watching as a communal experience, one in which the crowd mentality plays an important part in the experience. Everyone has experienced a moment (viewing an obscure work of art, reading an offbeat book) where you want to know what others think before you say anything. Most of us experience this with family or friends. If someone close to you is an expert on art and you view a painting with this person, you don't want to say, "Well that's a piece of junk" for fear of either being wrong or offending. But when it's something you yourself are an expert on, or something that you dearly love, like movies, this doesn't happen. I've never held my tongue on movies and have gotten into many an argument as a result. If you're even at this page reading this post you're probably the same way. We love movies, so a study like this annoys us ("Who on earth would need to know what someone else thought to judge a movie?") but I understand people reacting the way they do in a theatre. And I understand the human mind wanting to understand this dynamic. And I further understand science trying to acquire that knowledge. What I don't understand is why they won't tell me what movie they watched. That's all I want to know and then I'll shut up. Unless of course it's a movie I don't like. Then you'd better settle in for the evening. I've got some ranting to do.



Re my comment conversation with Bill, a list of possible candidates to show during a study like this:

1. Empire

2. Sleep

3. Caligula

4. Faces of Death

5. Satyricon

Talk about forcing the audience to look at each other for a reaction. Any other suggestions?