I can't honestly say if this is more of a personal quirk than a reflection on genuine critical principle, but one thing that drives me right up a wall is the complaint, apropos a given film (okay, apropos a given film that I happen to be fond of), "I didn't care about the characters." The word "care," admittedly, gets right up my nose almost as quickly as the word "relate" does. Of course the word "care" is perfectly legitimate in critical discourse, c.f. Edmund Wilson's "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd," although I dare say Wilson uses the word "care" in a slightly different sense than those puling about not caring about the characters do, the approximate difference being between "give a damn" and "feel for." My perspective is that I don't give a damn who you feel for, but I'm rowing away from my point here.
Which is, every individual film has its own agenda and its own operating system. Doesn't always feel that way, given the homogeneity of most Hollywood fare, but it is, I think, true, and it's something to bear in mind while watching any given picture. Of the films that are unspooling at the New York Film Festival, it's Steven Soderbergh's Che that's eliciting the most sniffy care-bear reactions, this notwithstanding the fact that the film isn't really asking you to care, not in the traditional sense of getting cozy with its title character, being roused by his victories, going all snurfly at his eventual fate. It is not, however, an entirely objective film, particularly as one appreciates the effects of Alberto Iglesias's score (and the music does in fact go a bit mournful at the very end). But the film is an environmental immersion and an examination; it's not designed to get you going. I thought Cannes Jury President Sean Penn's remarks, waxing wroth over the film's middling critical reception at that festival, rather curious: "I was in a jury room of nine people with more expertise in their big toenails than any of the people writing in these papers: nine out of nine wanted to go out and change the world afterwards." Really? Because Che seems to me almost the polar opposite of agitprop. It flat out does not ask for the kind of emotional engagement that more conventional epic biopics do, and that's a good thing. To see people who position themselves as new voices, with new perspectives, in cinematic discourse, complain about this movie's lack of "human drama" is mildly exasperating. Maybe I'll throw a dinner party for a bunch of them and make then screen my new Straub/Huillet box sets. That'll teach them something about "human drama..."
Then there's Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which does ask for the viewer's emotional engagement. If you're not concretely concerned with the dilemma and fate of its title character, washed-up mat maniac Randy "The Ram" Robinson, there's no there there, and all of Aronofsky and lead actor Mickey Rourke's protean efforts are for naught. Which is not to say that the picture is spuriously manipulative or any such thing. Of course it's manipulative, any film seeking to strike an emotional chord is going to involve that on some level. But its agenda is clear from the very opening shots, placing the viewer behind Randy as he goes through his early stations of the cross. Of course, Che puts you right there in the jungle with Guevera, but you never get that close to him. Whereas almost as soon as Rourke faces Aronofsky's camera, his ruined mug is right in our faces. I know, I know, I'm overstating the obvious—filmmakers do stuff on purpose. My question is, is there a viable objective rationale for privileging one mode over another?
Olivier Assayas' beautiful Summer Hours is going for two things at once. It's both a film of ideas and a character-driven story that seeks to engage on a level that at least some viewers can, um, "relate" to. Sponsored by France's Musee d'Orsay, it's the story of a reasonably close-knit bourgeois family that finds itself in conflict after the death of its matriarch leaves them responsible for the fate of the matriarchs very valuable collection of art and antiques. As such, it's a study of how art functions in both private and community life, asking whether placement of art in a museum fossilizes it, deprives it of resonance. Given the film's sponsers, the answer is unsurprisingly not unambivalent. The film's characters, provided you do in fact warm to them, are whip-smart microcosms reflecting the Way We Live Now: there's the economist who doesn't believe in economics, who should be the most rational of the bunch, yet can't bear to part with what his mother's left behind (Charles Berling); his intense, insecure, slightly flighty artist sister (Juliette Binoche); and the youngest brother (Jeremy Regnier), whose career and familial ambitions make him quite eager to get some cash out of the relics—"You see, I do the math," he says to his oldest sibling in the film's most heated exchange. These figures, and what children they have, are all sketched with exquisite sympathy and apt detail. One roots for all of them. Unless, of course, one feels the way a certain German film critic I overheard on a queue at Cannes does: "I don't like films about bourgeois people." Which is a critical bugaboo for another day.
UPDATE: But wait! There's more! I take up a few other questions pertaining to this route of inquiry over at The Auteurs', in a post called "Some notes on the 'Human Element' in film." As Lamar Alexander used to say, come on along!