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October 02, 2008


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Frankly, ANY film is at the very least subjective. Some are just more nuanced than others. And I think any filmmaker worth his salt has to realize he has to somehow make the movie engaging to the audience. It doesn't have to be human drama or likeable characters, just an awareness that the audience is out there.

I find this attempted distance so many filmmakers try to use to be asinine. If I want somebody to present me with their opinion and tell me it's fact, I'll watch Fox News. I'd rather watch a movie that presents me with two opinions, fairly depicted, and argues for one.


Sean Penn is starring in a film about Harvey Milk, and he felt like changing the world after seeing "Che". The irony would be hilarious, if I could see Penn's face when it dawned on him.

Sorry, but Sean Penn really burns my ass.

Anyway, my own related peeve has to do with people complaining that certain films "don't have a point". I heard this about "No Country for Old Men", and expect to hear it about "Burn After Reading" (which I loved, by the way). I will admit that when someone makes the criticism, I tend to be stymied, because I'm never able to boil the film in question down that small. But I'm always tempted to ask them to name a movie they really liked, and then ask them what that movie's "point" was.

Glenn Kenny

@bill: I'm not too big on Penn, either, at least not as a public figure. I still hold him in high regard as an actor, and look forward to seeing him play Milk, surely the most joyous character he's essayed since...Jeff Spiccoli?

And whenever I hear complaints about a "point," I always think of Nabokov's observation: "Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as 'What is the author's purpose?' or worse still 'What is the guy trying to say?'"


Not sure if this makes me a "care bear" or not, but I very much want a movie (or any work of art, really) to make me care -- by its own rules, sure, "its own agenda and its own operating system," but if it fails, there's usually not much left, because hey, if I don't care, I don't care. Part of that responsibility is mine, of course, but sometimes the gap is too big to bridge.

So, I'm curious about "the approximate difference being between 'give a damn' and 'feel for.'" Burn After Reading didn't work for me because I seriously couldn't give a damn about anybody on screen, or anything that happened to them. It simply failed to engage or interest me on any level -- as JK Simmons helpfully pointed out in the end, it was just so much noise, best forgotten.

Che, on the other hand, made me care a good deal. I honestly don't understand the criticisms of emotional distance leveled against it at all. The film may not ask for involvement the *same way* as a standard Hollywood biopic, but the ideas, structural juxtapositions, and yes, human elements on display are all completely engaging.


Sir Bob: not a care bear.



Jurgen (sorry, can't find the "umlaut" button) - You didn't care about Richard Jenkins? Or Brad Pitt? I was able to muster up some amount of "care" for Frances McDormand, as well. And, now that I think about it, Malkovich.


Oh, and Glenn, I like Penn as an actor, too. Sometimes, anyway. "Milk" does look very good, and I thought his performance in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" was excellent, and very underrated. Much better than his work in "Mystic River".


bill, I tried and failed with all of them. Jenkins was the most sympathetic, but he was too weak-willed to act on his desires and clearly just set up as a sacrificial lamb rather than anything resembling a protagonist. The rest, I found simply annoying beyond belief.

I understand Burn After Reading is a farce and that the rules are different -- I doubt the Coen Brothers wanted us to care for any of these people -- but maybe that's the difference Glenn is talking about in the original post: I don't have to care for the characters, but I have to be able to care about the film as a whole.

Now, I find academic questions about "the author's purpose" and such as pointless as you, Glenn, and Nabakov, but I think there's a very basic question here that deserves an answer. Years ago, I submitted a short story called "Crimestopping" to my teacher Rick Barthelme. He hated it so much that in class, he threw it at my head, yelling "Why the fuck did you make me read that?" The experience scarred me (as it would anybody) and I find myself returning to it quite a bit. Burn After Reading made me want to yell at the Coens: Why the fuck did you make me watch that?


Hey Glenn,

Do you think the "didn't care about the characters" complaint relates to accusations that a filmmaker "doesn't like his/her characters?"

I know the Coens take heat for this all the time, most recently for "Burn After Reading" (which I also loved) and I myself never really understood it. I've never gotten the feeling the Coens just aim to score easy laughs off their characters, or that they even feel particularly superior to them. They do have a very dark view of the world, and of human nature, but who can fault them for that? But to dismiss their work because they appear to be insufficiently generous to their characters never made much sense to me.

I think it has to do with a beef I have with the "humanist" label that gets tossed around in a lot of criticism. It's a label that to me seems to be applied by critics only to filmmakers that present a point of view that flatters them.


Ryland Walker Knight

[this is probably a much more tangential, obtuse, scattershot arrangement of my side of the conversation at rob's place, dailyplastic.com, which has continued through to today...and it may not pertain, precisely, to the specifics of GK's post...but, still...i persist--]

"the answer is unsurprisingly not unambivalent" -- !!!!!!! ha! yes, i lol'd at that. words.

and, yes, i dig this topic. it's important, probably. or, fundamental. for instance: isn't it pretty standard, or, um, obvious knowledge that film is separate? in a straight up way: that screen is not me. --why should i try to relate to it? does it really ask me to "identify"? me does not equal brad pitt (or che or benecio or mickey or...). never will. me barely equals me far too often, you know?

i didn't really care for any of the characters in _BAR_ but i did care to see the pinballs bounce, and to laugh. and i laughed a lot. it may be a "trifle", but it's also pretty fucking sad, and angry, and i appreciated its unflagging commitment to its purpose, which is, as it turns out, complete denial -- as a punchline. they're not arguing we should ignore our desires, but, rather, vice is a cesspool of selfishness. probably the other thing that ticks some people off: they're kinda saying america is that cesspool. now i know that it's easy to write off their efforts as mockery, and, yes, these "characters" are baffoons, but, as GK kinda said (differently?), how often do you feel bad for elmer fudd?

also: i'm going to _mother and the whore_ this saturday. am i really expecting to identify with that? or care? i mean, maybe. the thing that scares me about that film is that i may, in fact, find points of relation to my life. but i imagine that's not the point. from what little i know, it seems that eustache's argument is more about basic ugly patterns, traps. (and something about a mood in the paris of the early 1970s in the wake of 68, i gather.) art is about life, yes, but it doesn't rely on these kind of words, "care" and "relate" -- we learn more, probably, from the abject, from a real test. however, this is part of the argument that privileges drama over comedy, which always makes me itch, and which _BAR_ does so much to upend as well. yes, we're laughing AT these things, but that doesn't mean it's purely exploitative. again: the human fails. and sometimes that fucking funny.

Dave McDougall

Ryland: well put. "Caring" is not exclusive to "identifying with a character." Glenn, I find the work of Straub and Huillet full of human drama - though not "human drama." I'm interested in the former, thought of broadly, rather than the narrow confines of the latter. Jürgen, the reason I dislike the Coens, in general, is that they don't offer me anything to take the place of their lacking identification and make me care (unlike, say, Straub/Huillet). Ryland (again): Eustache's films make me care as a witness, but also (often uncomfortably) relate. I vacillate between the two depending on how honest I'm being with myself about my flaws and insecurities.

האח הגדול

very good!

Glenn Kenny

@Dave—for sure. The human drama in a Straub/Huillet film is not likely to register with those who complain that "Che" doesn't hook them the way "Lawrence of Arabia" does, is my theory.


To over simplify, I suppose, not being a film critic, to me if the movie is shallow, unoriginal, just pandering to the audiences lowest common denominator, as so many movies seem to be, I do not drop my suspension of disbelief. I do not "care" about the characters in that case. Seeing Juliet Binoche reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That to me is an example of a movie that has a tactile sense. It draws me in. It is a love story but not a sappy one. I think it can be just one trait in one character that a person identifies with that will cause the film to resonate in a particular person for days.
That resonance or effect will make me think about the film kind of like a meditation. It is a wonderful thing. I have thought about my life through the effect of the film.

Dave McDougall

Glenn - interesting counterexample, since I think Lean's "epic" work is much more distanced than his romances or much of his Hollywood contemporaries. I love both of these approaches in different ways, but Lawrence and Ryan's Daughter (I've not seen Zhivago) seem to use character as a way of exploring history while still telling an emotional story. It's all a trajectory, of course, with Class Relations on one end and Brief Encounter on the other. I just think of Lawrence (and perhaps Che??) as being somewhere in the middle.

Tony Dayoub

This discussion reminds me of something I saw recently on TV. I was checking out the new Ebert-and-Roeper-less "At the Movies", now featuring Ben Mankiewicz (Turner Classic Movies) and Ben Lyons (E!). They were reviewing Alan Ball's "Towelhead".

Mankiewicz gave what I thought was a typical review I would expect, stating the difficult subject matter, how thoughtful he found the movie, blah-blah-blah, etc.

Lyons starts admonishing Mankiewicz, stating how he couldn't get into the movie because the characters were so unlikeable, and there was no one to root for. How could Mankiewicz like those characters, he queried?

I gotta give Mankiewicz credit here for defending himself. I haven't seen the movie myself, but it really doesn't matter whether it's a good movie or not. Why must someone have to like characters in a movie for it to be good? I wouldn't hang out with any of the repellent characters in "Goodfellas", but I love that movie. I don't relate or identify with Tony Montana in "Scarface", despite being Cuban, and being familiar with his upbringing. But I'm able to identify with the situational aspects of the film enough to be involved.

And let me clarify, I don't have to even be involved to like a movie. "Barry Lyndon" is about as detached a film experience as I can remember, but I love that film. Film can be powerful even and especially when I don't care about the characters.


I'm on the fence, for the moment (can't collect my thoughts in the morning - images of Palin's winks are still bouncing around my cranium). But I guess if I had to come down somewhere, here's what I'd say.

You can enjoy a movie for any number of reasons, and caring about the characters doesn't have to be one of them. But most of the time, emotional involvement (or at the very least, intellectual involvement - a removed interest in the characters if not empathic engagement) will only improve your enjoyment. I think of my favorite films, On the Waterfront, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Taxi Driver, The Godfather...all of them make me care about the characters, even when I shouldn't (say, in the case of a proto-assassin or fratricidal Mafia chieftain). Even in Goodfellas and Scarface, I must differ from Tony's opinion, because for me I find myself charmed and engaged, and certainly fascinated, by the characters as much as I am repulsed by them. I guess it depends on your definiton of the word "care." But even if you're using the strict definition, I'd say 9 times out of 10 (if not more) it's better to care about the characters than otherwise.

I think there's danger in moving away from this conception because we fall into the trap of much modern film: technical fireworks (and I'm not just referring to CGI blockbusters here) devoid of genuine human content - though all the lame-brained signifiers are there. Sometimes we act as if films exist in a moral and social vaccuum, as if we can celebrate the hollow and the deep simultaneously and without contradiction or reference to one another. If I used to believe this, I'm no longer so sure. A failure to use any criteria but ephemeral pleasure suddenly seems not only amoral, but almost decadent...the days of subversion through Pop are long-gone (in part because Pop got in on the joke, defeating the whole purpose). But I'm getting in over my head here, so let me wade out of the pool for the moment.

As for Sean Penn and his santimonious faux-populist (and furthermore, tiresomely outdated) love for a mass-murdering tyrant-apologist (ah, but he's OUR mass-murdering tyrant-apologist...don't bet on it), well, sometimes Penn makes me want to leap out my door, run for the nearest voting station, and cast an absentee ballot for Sarah Palin. No, actually, no one could make me want to do that, but he sure comes close.

[After writing all this, I start to think of counterarguments. What about a formal analysis of films - indeed, many of my favorites engage on an almost purely visceral level, sidestepping issues of character and story and moral aim in an approach more akin to painting or architecture. I submit that we're talking more on the story level above, on films as a narrative medium and so plead that we put aside those arguments. But of course, the cinema is many, many different things.]

Ellen Kirby

I love "Barry Lyndon" too, and have always found far more emotion and empathy in Kubrick's films than is generally considered to be there. The empathy is more honest and detached than what is generally considered to constitute "caring," but I feel it there, quite strongly. The word "detached" itself a pretty ridiculous amount of stigma attached to it...anyone with a working knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, for instance, could tell you that it certainly isn't synonymous with "cold-hearted." Beyond such obvious examples as the endings of "Paths of Glory" and "2001," I find the beating of Lord Bullingdon in "Barry Lyndon" to be an enormously powerful scene. In a fit of rage that's been years in coming, Barry, who has allowed his loss of idealism to slowly turn him into a near-complete bastard, beats simultaneously on Bullingdon, his own younger self, and the insanely codified society that brought about his loss of idealism in the first place. And by so doing, brings about his expulsion from said society, as part of him must know even as he's doing it. The scene could turn to cliche, but it never does, and I'm right there with him, despite the almost total lack of standard filmic emotional cues in what preceded the scene. Of all people, Kubrick's longtime buddy Spielberg says it quite simply in the interview section on the "Eyes Wide Shut" DVD: Stanley had plenty of heart, but he was always wondering why a film's story and beats and theme had to be done the same way every fucking time.


"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."

Sez you. Trying to pigeonhole people's reactions to films is not really very helpful because they may not be very articulate about what works or doesn't or may only have conventional language with which to express it [e.g., the Jeffrey Lyons response mentioned above]. A lot of times a work just feels right, and I liken this to enjoying a painting by Mark Rothko. I can't say why it works or what its specific POV is; it just is alive.

The fact of the matter is that a film that connects is one that reflects something real on the part of the creative team, and I can't be any more specific than that. They have to be connected at some basic level to pull a string in the viewer's soul. In that sense, all films are designed to "get you going." Caring goes way beyond the "traditional sense" you speak of. I don't need or want to care about people all the time, and I think that's true of a lot of people. To call relationships the bottom line of a caring approach to narrative is pretty narrow and unreflective of what many of us want out of our varied filmgoing experiences.


Sean Penn annoys bill?!? Gee, what a shock. Yeah, cause how dare he oppose the death penalty and the Iraq War. How dare he disaree with bill, more likely.


Sigh....that was childish, irrelevant spite, was'nt it? Apologies, Glenn, for clogging up your comments with such foolishness.

Can't wait for Che, though. Looks to rival W. for biopic of the year.

John M

Ugh. I'm sorry, what do Straub/Huillet and Jean Eustache have to do with CHE, again?


Like novelists who play games with our desire for a coherent story, some filmmakers ("Barry Lyndon" is an excellent example--much of Melville is another) choose to withhold or play around with our desire to latch onto a character projected on a screen. I think the yearning for characters who engage our emotions is on the same primal level as our desire for narrative. So anyway, in answer to "is there a viable objective rationale for privileging one mode over another?"--no, not critically. Most audiences are always going to prefer the emotional experience to the cerebral one. To me that's no more an inherent problem than a critic who dislikes any appeals to emotion -- or stories about bourgeois people, for that matter.

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