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Prolegomena to a theory of why I like stuff

I watched more movies in 2003 than any year before, and that seems to be a continuing trend. I’ve never been good with movies, neither an ideal nor indulgent viewer, but I have strong views and tastes. I’m still not sure I can explain or excuse or codify these, but I have a new way of looking at it. When thinking about what I would teach in a film studies course, I thought I’d focus on the creation of self through narrative, and I realized this would be a way for me to fit in basically all my favorites.

I’d start the course with one of my 2003 finds, Capturing the Friedmans (registration required), which collects personal testimonials from participants in a child sexual abuse scandal of the 1980s. Memory is fickle, and we get to see stories change, move towards or away from verifiable “truths” in different tellings, and that doesn’t even include all the places where truth can’t get in, real and imagined and reimagined motivations.

A police detective describes stacks of pornography strewn around the house where police photos show there were none. One student speaks of suffering extreme, public sexual abuse, while a classmate denies witnessing or experiencing any of this. Then there’s the family of the accused, trying to figure out what went wrong and where and how, and how to allocate and accept guilt. It quickly becomes clear that no one has the whole story, no one is a totally sympathetic character. Yet everyone is presumably being honest and forthright and trying to make a public record of The Truth from their perspective. This messy conglomerate gets closer to any sort of truth or understanding than any single narrative could.

I was thrilled with the film for several reasons, but mostly because it makes its postmodern unease so natural and inevitable that no one watching can hope to figure out what really happened, since that whole idea has become nonsensical. Instead, it’s a story about how the characters decide for themselves what happened, based on what they experienced and also what they want or believe or need to think to keep living as they do, and the audience is complicit in this endeavor. I would like to think even reticent students would be inspired or tempted to continue such evaluation in their own worlds.

So we are the stories we tell, both narrator and protagonist, as well as (un)written product. We are what we see in ourselves and what we refuse to see. I prefer art that acknowledges this, evaluates it, extends it. This trend and focus is antithetical to the Oedipal trajectory, the Hollywood happy ending. Being a creating/created subject means not giving in to that closure, not accepting closure at all. After watching a movie this summer (and I won’t give away its name for fear of too much spoiling, and because it basically doesn’t matter) I’d said that every human story ends in death. What I meant by this in that particular case was that it should never be a surprise that death comes to a character, only when it does. Beyond that, there can be a rightness to a story’s conclusion, but no certainty, no predestination.

As a counterbalance, we watched Paycheck last night, perhaps a mistake. Ben Affleck is Michael Jennings, a reverse engineer of the future (in this case, December 2003) who, awakening with his memory wiped, realizes he’s sent himself clues to destroy the world-rending machine he’s created, not to mention stopping the Evil Corporate Executive who set him up, as well as Getting the Girl. It was painful to see all the clues available, see how long it took the characters to make banal and obvious observation and then wait for the inevitable conclusion. I laughed a lot, and did not stifle it as well as perhaps I should have. This was a movie with no narratives at all, really, just a mess of cliches, and certainly with no selves to the characters. Because of this (and other things, including truly inept dialogue) I found no way in, nothing to care about, no way to invest myself in the characters or the story or anything at all except the movie’s (be/a)musing pseudoclockwork.

I’m not sure I’ve gotten at what I like or what I mean, but I’ll come back to it later. I like my plots tight, my writing literary or sharp, but most of all my protagonists self-aware. I sometimes take “self” loosely and am not even sure this covers everything I like, but it seems like a good start and a safe barometer so far. At least I have some nascent theoretical explanation for my snobbishness now, and a new year in which to develop and test it.