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Ballad of Narayama

"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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What does a movie mean?

This is this. You know what I mean, right?

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"This is this!" -- Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro), The Deer Hunter

Three little words (well, two, really) -- each, individually and collectively, with flexible meanings. Yes, the significance of that short statement really does depend on what the definition of "is" is -- and "this," in both contexts, at the beginning and the end of the sentence. What does he mean when he says this? Well, to even begin to understand, you have to consider the moment in the movie and go from there.

When a critic adopts the attitude of De Niro's character, well, film criticism itself is automatically made superfluous. A bullet is a bullet, a killer is a killer, a zombie is a zombie, a gangster movie is about gangsterism, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and don't even ask about the cigar. Lift and separate "content" from the movie and, once you've removed the context, what more needs to be said? In Keith Uhlich's eloquent words, such an approach exemplifies "the dubious product of American literalism, of an inability to grapple with a film's numerous layers of experience, falling back on easy prejudices and dichotomies as a way of stopping discussion and disagreement cold." (That's from a profile of Jonathan Demme at sensesofcinema that I recommend to literalists and non-literalists alike.)

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We're familiar with the ways politicians use this technique (invading Iraq = war on terrorism; questioning policy = siding with terrorists; smoking gun = mushroom cloud). Substituting dogma for evidence is an easy way to evade the possibility of meaningful debate, something that might challenge an assertion of monolithic authority. The same thing happens in film criticism all the time. The trick is simply to eliminate the subject (the film itself) from the equation. This way, opinions don't have to be based on anything because there is no verifiable external reality with which to compare them.

Richard T. Jameson's article, "Style vs. 'Style'" (Film Comment, March/April, 1980), which I have recently re-read (and hence have been quoting a lot), ought to be as widely anthologized as any piece ever written about film, for the way it zeroes in on the heart of what a movie is:

"Content" is not content; "the meaning" is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, strip-mining through "the story" to get to "the themes." "The meaning" is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon's gravity. Content is what happens from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one's life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.

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In a moving and illuminating 2005 article (that poetically invokes Jonathan Richman's haunting "That Summer Feeling," a favorite song of mine), Adrian Martin wrote that his view of film, and writing about film, is shaped by "a rigorous analytical sense, a demonstration of some form-to-content logic... often dazzlingly intuited and demonstrated."

These days, film criticism — even the best-written — does little for me, finally, unless it can unearth, propose and in a way prove the existence of the logic that makes a film 'tick', as we say, that coheres it into some kind of whole work, whether classical-expressive or modernist-disjunctive. Godard, in fact, said it best in his challenge to Kael and, beyond her, all critics: "Bring in the evidence," he demanded. Film analysis or criticism without that logic, that evidence, is just assertion, and assertion is something I can take or leave (perhaps depending on whether or not I agree with it!).

I should mention that, in his very next sentence, Martin cites a generally well-respected, long-time critic (the very same one Bordwell was criticizing) with whom I have taken issue on this blog three times in the past year for crucial, specified failures to "bring the evidence" ("Letters from Iwo Jima," Ingmar Bergman, "No Country for Old Men"). So, just to be clear, I'm not saying that anyone I quote here would necessarily take "my side" on any or all of those instances. But that is the point I hope to make: the work exists independently of any opinion or ad hominem rhetoric. In order for ideas about film to have meaning, they must be rooted in observations of the film. Sounds simple, but it's not. As George Orwell wrote: "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."

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