Blinded by the Light
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Roger Ebert's review of "War of the Worlds"
Watching a film like Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” a piece of exceptionally well-crafted imagery no matter how well you think it works, it pays to remember that every moment – every 24th of a second, if you will – represents an awful lot of thought and work and care and craftsmanship ... as well as happenstance and constraints and unintended consequences, off-screen and on-screen.
Any movie is a highly evolved and complex synthetic organism, the result of weeks or years of labor, and the product of chance and circumstance as well as artistic vision. By the time it reaches its final form in the marketplace (only to be superseded by the further revised DVD version a few months later), it has been through countless evolutionary phases, the result of thousands upon thousands of conscious and unconscious decisions by hundreds upon hundreds of people. In some cases, there’s an Intelligent Designer at work (usually the director, but sometimes the producer or the writer or an actor or studio executives, and generally a combination of them all), but even the greatest filmmakers are hardly omniscient or infallible.
Movies are also the product of innumerable unforeseen spontaneous mutations – accidents, mistakes, oversights, coincidences, and circumstances either propitious or adverse. Weather, personality clashes, personnel changes, scheduling limitations, health problems, labor disputes, disagreements over the endlessly rewritten screenplay (or the set design or a performance), budget battles, footage that doesn’t cut together … all of these things and many, many more affect the eventual state of the film that you see. In that sense, a finished movie is more like a snapshot – a fixed image of an evolving form at a particular moment in its arrested lifespan.
But although they may be an expensive commercial products, it’s worth keeping in mind that films aren’t refrigerators – the simple sum of its parts and specs that perform designated tasks in ways that can be scientifically measured and verified. A movie is an experience – and whatever outside knowledge or ideas or experience of your own that you bring to it makes for legitimate critical discussion, because that’s what the filmmakers put into making it: their knowledge and ideas and experiences. A movie’s purpose is to evoke (or provoke) a response from you, virtually any response but indifference.
Anything that’s up there on the screen – images, words, sounds, motion, color -- is subject to interpretation. It’s all about seeing patterns, making parallels and connections.
So, it doesn’t really matter if the filmmakers intended something to be in the movie or not. It doesn’t matter if something is “faithful” to the original source or not (yes, the “War of the Worlds” Martians were described by H.G. Wells as using tripod machines; but, on the other hand, Wells’ 1898 novel was set in Victorian England instead of 21st Century New Jersey, so where does that get you?) All that matters is how each of these things functions within the world of this particular movie.
The next time somebody tells you something is “only a movie,” remember: they’re just being hopelessly naïve (unless, of course, you are in fact delusional and can’t tell the difference between movies and reality, in which case you really ought to see someone about that). The picture may have taken you two hours to watch, but years of peoples’ lives likely went into creating what you saw, so it’s worth paying close attention. There’s probably more packed in there than you might think.
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