Sunday, October 26, 2008

"What if" vs. "As if"": A coda to "Why read something made up . . . ?"

Stanley Kauffmann's piece, "Departures, Arrivals", dated November 5, 2008 but now available at The New Republic's website, addresses Paul Newman's recent passing, a new documentary about the 1972 plane crash in the Andes whose survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism (we in this country best know this story as Alive), and a review of a vampire film from Sweden that, it seems, Ingmar Bergman might have approved of in some sense. Disparate subjects, to be sure, but within each subject Kauffmann returns, in some sense, to questions of belief and knowledge, broadly defined: precisely the questions that the best art should raise in its audiences as, while in its presence, we seek to square it with what we know or believe to be true of the world. As I read, it seemed like something of a revisiting, and an addendum, to this post from, coincidentally, almost exactly a year ago.

As the theme of belief and knowledge apply to Newman, the theme is, implicitly, manifest in the usual big question about Newman (which is not to dismiss its validity as a question): How could such attractiveness and talent have co-existed in one person? Once past his homage, though, Kauffmann digs deeper. On the power of Stranded: I've come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, the documentary:

To read about what followed or to see it played by actors would be grim enough. But to hear about it from the aging survivors themselves, all men who are clearly civilized human beings, is disturbing in an unexpected way. We look at people who ate people--bits of bodies anyway--and we feel stripped of a veneer. All moral dilemmas are inevitably weighed against our judgment of what we ourselves would have done. No one wants to be asked the question that this film implicitly asks, yet facing the question is strangely salutary. We are a bit less fraudulently sure of ourselves afterward.
One might say after reading this that Kauffmann is making precisely the point that my student was in that earlier post. I would counter, though, that as Kauffmann puts the matter here, this documentary is doing more than most documentaries do--it is more than a mere recounting of events. In fact, when I read this passage I was instantly reminded of the questions raised by the core moment in Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved (a novel, by the way, based on an actual event): Having run off the plantation with your children and, now, facing recapture, what lengths would you go to to attempt to spare your children that return to the plantation? Who among us has the right (not to say the ability) to dispassionately judge the choice that Sethe makes?--which, by the way, is not to suggest that Sethe has made the correct choice, since the novel is also about that question as well.

Somewhere in the introduction to his book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom says something to the effect that great art's power is to make the world look strange as a result of having experienced it. One can, of course, argue with any number of particulars in that book, and I'd happily join you; that definition, though, has struck me as a valuable way of beginning to think about what I've experienced in the presence of something someone has told me has aesthetic merit. Has it moved me from the hypothetical--"What if . . . ?"--to the transformative--"As if . . . "--in its aftermath?

And that leads to Kauffmann's take on Let the Right One In, the Swedish vampire film:
When we see a rampantly commercial film made by people who we know are capable of better work, we understand that livings must be made, lives must be occupied, places in the scheme of things must be maintained. But Let the Right One In begins like a truly serious picture, a possible addition to the Swedish film treasury. (Sweden was one of the first countries where film was sometimes treated as more than entertainment.) More: this film continues seriously, in structure, look, tone. Nonetheless, it is a vampire story. We are forced to assume not that all these gifted people were just making a living, but that they believed in this picture. (Indeed, the central vampire elements wind through sequences that, in gravity and temper, seem to belong in another film.) That is the puzzle.


The blood and the troubles meet in a finish that lifts commonplace childhood matters far up into the supernatural. Nothing is ever explained. That appears to be part of the point. If the picture has a theme, it might be that the inexplicable can burst into the midst of dailiness. Still, any puzzling about the why and wherefore of this picture cannot dim admiration for Alfredson's directing, especially of the two excellent youngsters, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. I wonder what Kåre and Lina dreamed about at night during the months of shooting.
These passages are so striking to me because--speaking for myself--even when experiencing a film that I genuinely admire, I don't often find myself wondering, consciously at least, whether this piece was also a transformative experience, however different from mine it may have been, on its makers as well. There is such a made-ness to film, such a sense of control over what the viewer sees, I tend to assume an emotional distance between the maker and the made: actors, writers, techies and, even, the director, in their ways like the workers on an assembly-line, work together to make something that is bigger than any one of them. At times one will read or hear those folks talk about the labor of making the film--the work--as being transformative, but not story that that work strives to make manifest. But that detachment, I know from having read enough stories of artists in other media, is a false one more often than not; so why would it not also be false, at times, for the makers of film as well?

I have no way of concluding this neatly except by saying that, come the spring and my Intro. to Lit. class, I look forward to raising all this at least on the first day, if not beyond.

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