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A Walk Among the Tombstones

Fans of the hardboiled detective, rejoice. Screenwriter-director Scott Frank and actor Liam Neeson, adapting the splendid work of crime novelist Lawrence Block, have brought a…

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The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam's first science fiction film since "12 Monkeys" is an inventively designed but oddly inert satire on technology, God and the future of humankind.

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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Irreversible: Will he see it or will he pass?

The decision to see a film is irreversible. The decision to not see it -- today, right now -- is not. It can be put off indefinitely, subject to reconsideration at any time -- until you run out of time, permanently -- but once you've seen the movie, you can't "urn-see" it, no matter how much you might want to. Innocence cannot be recaptured, virginity cannot be restored. In a suspenseful post at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Dennis Cozzalio faces this dilemma head-on: Should he watch Gaspar Noe's grueling 2003 "Irreversible"? Sometimes, Dennis writes, he is nagged by the presence of films "that I feel an obligation to get to know, sometimes out of simple curiosity, sometimes because to not know them is to be left out of a conversation that might stretch beyond the boundaries of that one particular film, and sometimes I feel the desire to see a film because people I respect and trust advise me to see it because they hold it in high regard. That sense of obligation reared its head again this past week concerning Irreversible, a movie with a rather proud reputation for being a shocking, unrelenting, formally compelling but ultimately nasty piece of work."

No kidding. I think of all movies as experiences, and there have been times in my life when I wanted to have as many experiences as possible, just to get them under my belt, to understand what they were like. Does that mean I want to have all experiences, without choosing (when possible) which to embrace and which to forego? No. I certainly have seen things in waking life (and in dreams) that I wish I hadn't seen -- and I have had the feeling that seeing certain films has diminished me as a human being (I'm talking to you, "Porky's 3: The Revenge.")

Likewise, it is quite probable that I will go the rest of my life without discovering what monkey brains taste like, or how it feels to be waterboarded, or to act in a porno movie, or to ride in a rodeo. Sure, I'm curious, and chances are I would survive each of these things, but I can't say I will regret not having them. One's identity is formed as much by the experiences one does not have -- whether by choice or by circumstance -- as by the things one does.

This exercise of free will has become a favorite topic of mine over the last nearly two decades since I stopped reviewing movies on a daily basis after seeing, if not necessarily reviewing, the bulk of what was released between about 1977 and 1993. What eventually got to me was not that so many movies were poorly made or misconceived (at least 80 percent, I'd estimate), but that they were uniformly bad. I didn't feel I was learning much from watching filmmakers repeat the same stupid mistakes -- most of which had to do with slavish, unimaginative notions about "story structure" that they'd had drilled into them by screenwriting manuals or development executives.

We have to face a few realities here: 1) Nobody can see, much less write about, every movie, even every "new" movie; 2) Time, availability, scheduling, spending money and other factors make it unlikely you will ever catch up with all the important, worthwhile movies you should see from the past (which keeps getting longer) or in the future (which keeps getting shorter). When I started writing about movies, I could only see them when they were made available to me in a particular time and place -- determined, almost always, by someone else. That is, somebody had to obtain a print and schedule a screening somewhere. Even movies that were shown on TV played on a certain channel at a specified hour and if you weren't in front of the set, tuned to that station when it was shown, you didn't see it.

This, obviously, is no longer the world we live in. I rarely watch "live" TV anymore -- I time-shift everything, movies or television programming, on TiVo and recordable DVDs. Libraries of thousands of movies are available for watching almost any time through various rental and video-on-demand services. This easy access to a wide cross-section of cinematic history is unprecedented.

So, there go our excuses. We now come to the point where not seeing a movie is often every bit as much a conscious decision as seeing one. And we can let the decision slide, knowing that if we miss something at a festival we can probably catch it in theatrical release (if it gets that far) or at a repertory screening (if you're fortunate enough to live in a town where those kinds of showcases exist) or on DVD or cable/satellite or Netflix Instant or Amazon On Demand or...

Well, you get the idea (and probably did a few paragraphs ago, but I wanted to retrace some things we may already have discussed in posts on "Funny Games," "Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" and "Avatar," among others).

Now, Dennis faces the prospect of "Irreversible":

I didn't have to see the film. I was in no way obligated professionally to see it, and certainly neither my credibility nor my card-carrying status as a cinephile would likely suffer as a result of my continuing to abstain from Gaspar Noé's film. Even if I saw the film, I doubt I'd feel compelled to write about it, so the benefit even as an unpaid blogger seemed lost. I realized that, in my own way, I was ceding to pressure not from my friends who like the film but from Noé himself, who was still daring me six years later to see if I could take it, to see whether or not I was a pussy.

The thing is, I stopped responding to that kind of tactic back in eighth grade, and it suddenly felt strange to me to allow my arm to be twisted some 40-some years later, when I ought to know better.

What will Dennis decide to do? Will he soon be wearing an "I Survived 'Irreversible' And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" t-shirt? Get yourself over to SLIFR to find out...

UPDATE (01/22/10): Some commenters have questioned the use of the word "choice" (or "decision") above. Coincidentally, tonight "Fresh Air" was re-running an interview with one of my favorite science writers, Jonah Lehrer, author of "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" and "How We Decide." An excerpt from what he had to say about the rational and emotional components of human decision-making:

Well, Plato had this great metaphor for the mind, which was that there's this rational charioteer, and it's his job to oversee these emotional horses who tend to run wild.... Reason's in the driver's seat, and we make the best decisions when we trust the rational charioteer.

I think most scientists would modify that metaphor a bit and say, well, it's not quite a rider with reigns on horses. It's more like a rider trying to control an elephant, and the elephant is the emotional brain and we have much less control over what we actually do than we think we do.

It's sort of the illusion of rationality, where we're great at rationalizing decisions, but we're not quite so rational. And so... what scientists tend to refer to as the emotional brain or limbic system, is the collection of brain areas scattered throughout the cortex -- includes the amygdala, the insula, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral striatum -- brain areas that tend to traffic in Dopamine, and they generate all sorts of subtle feelings that drive our behavior, even when we're not aware of them.

I think one of the best examples of this comes from the work of a neurologist named Antonio Damasio, who in the early 1980s was studying patients who, because of a brain tumor, lost the ability to experience their emotions. So they didn't feel the everyday feelings of fear and pleasure. And you'd think, if you were Plato, that these people would be philosopher-kings, that they would be perfectly rational creatures, they'd make the best set of decisions possible. And instead, what you find is that they are like me in the cereal aisle, that they're pathologically indecisive, that they would spend all day trying to figure out where to eat lunch.

They'd spend five hours choosing between a blue pen or a black pen or a red pen, that all these everyday decisions we take for granted, they couldn't make. And that's because they were missing these subtle, visceral signals that were telling them to just choose the black pen or to eat the tuna fish sandwich or whatever. And then when we're cut off from these emotional signals, the most basic decisions become all but impossible.

In Dennis's post, he illuminatingly articulates a variety of often contradictory rational and emotional forces that figured into the formation of his decision.

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