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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Nobody Knows How to be a Film Critic  



[Ed: The following are extracts from a thread of entries in the bulletin board, commenting on the Japanese film Nobody Knows. The film is about four children abandoned by their young mother, and how they struggled for survival. The authors have given me permission to edit and republish their entries.]


metalmickey: I DIDN’T LIKE IT

Finally watched it!

If "The 400 Blows" and "Grave of the Fireflies" had sex and came up with a baby it would be "Nobody Knows."

Nobody Knows is very slow moving, and I got irritated with it. But I suppose that's part of the whole methodology of the film: being impressionistic and slow moving. We glimpse bits and pieces of telling information here and there, but there's a fair bit to sift through. This is not a compact narrative. There are no "aha!" scenes, with Antoine Doinel stealing milk, or being led away at the back of a police van with a tear streaming down his cheek, or him glaring at the sea for the first time.

We never really know any of the characters very well other than the eldest son. Maybe that's the way it is with children, not having their characters fully formed. At first a model of independent communal living, the tragedy is in the way things fall apart one by one, and the children’s struggle to remain civilized in spite of the adversary.

In spite of the director's natural flair for photographing children, this film for me just hits that one note of desperation over and over again. The film is great in the small details, but lacks the grand unifying design. Many of the anecdotes are great but they don't gel together. Ideas bubble to the surface and are killed before they have a chance to grow. (Like that Yuki). A much wider range of emotions would be possible. But perhaps the emotional stuntedness is also part of the point.

I still appreciate this. It's better than 90% of the dregs they put out on the production line today. I've seen it before, having watched "The 400 Blows" and "Grave of the Fireflies" before. It would have been extremely sad if I hadn't watched any of these movies first.



It's a wonder how anyone who claims to appreciate art house cinema can get irritated with anything that's 'slow-moving'. For once I would like to think audiences are intelligent enough not to have 'aha!' moments all the time, rather than movies like "The 400 Blows" whose subtlety hits you like a sledgehammer.

Arguing on intellectual grounds, to say that Nobody Knows hits the same note of desperation over and over may be completely missing the point of the entire film, for all I see in the film are sparks of optimism overriding the wave of depression that belies the situation. There aren't many moments when the director allows it to lapse into a lament for their sad poor situation. Most of the screen is filled with the children having fun together, surviving in the face of trials, growing up and getting used to the hard world. I really don't think this is anything but a wide range of emotions.

But screw this. This film cannot be argued intellectually. Can't we just respond to this emotionally? Without all the lame trappings of mise-en-scene, film language, etc.? Must we always deconstruct the film into 'themes', 'cinematic style', 'mise-en-scene', 'score', 'editing', 'acting', and appreciate each of these one by one to like a film? Because this type of so-called 'film analysis' not only bores me, but sickens me to think that so-called film buffs are actually poseur intellectuals.



Ah, a philosophical inquiry from our dear drakula. You've certainly raised some valid issues so let's discuss them in turn, both your manifest concerns and those that, I believe, are implied.

1. Why can't we (and 'we' here is not meant to be an encompassing term) respond to a film (whether this film or others) emotionally?
Sure, one can post a litany of emotional responses to a film the way the Sinnerman, in his unintelligible manner, often does. But, as I'm sure you'd agree, this approach does not gainsay other schema with which one appreciates films. Your emotional responses are yours alone. A reader will know how you felt after watching a film but what other insight can one gain?

Further, discussing a film primarily through an emotional mode reduces and even abnegates that discursive space around the film. You found the film emotionally rich while I found it emotionally fraudulent and since we belong on intransigent divides, what common ground is there between us?

Unlike Ebert, I still find it difficult to grow beyond the assumption that "to be good, a movie must be about characters you like." That I didn't like any of the characters in Nobody Knows incapacitated me from appreciating its 'power of observation', if any. I lack even a modicum of objectivity that would allow me to look past those characters. Hence, perhaps a study of its formal qualities may open up a new route to appreciation.

2. Must we always break down a film into its multifarious components in order to appreciate it better?
My response draws heavily upon Susan Sontag's (rather antiquated - 1964) essay, Against Interpretation. Since a mean streak of anti-intellectualism runs rampant around here, I must offer a measly disclaimer for quoting from her work: I do not claim her arguments to be authoritative nor unassailable; indeed, there have been many published objections to Sontag's essay, Camille Paglia's Sontag, Bloody Sontag being a particularly vehement example. But, as Sontag wrote, "From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense." What she provides, then, is one form of defense (albeit one that champions style over content), which happens to coincide with my own nature and predilections.

In the first half of her essay, she repudiates the widespread practice of exegesis, of "plucking one set of elements" from a work and interpreting or translating it into what one actually thinks it means. She objects to this reducing of art into items of content, which "makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories."

I disagree with her position here since interpretation is damn fun and is a compliment that my mediocrity pays to genius. I also contend that neglecting to interpret the allegorical aspects of films like The Village and Dogville diminishes greatly their richness and significance.

Now, because she considers as sophistic the practice of breaking down a film into components of content, what alternative does she offer for criticism and commentary on a film or any other art?

Quote: "For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary - a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary - for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means."

And it is this process, of evaluating the forms of a film, that necessitates the adoption of those descriptive terms you mentioned. It may seem a stultifyingly intellectual exercise to you but so too, I would expect, are any reflections on the philosophical significance of things.

3. Do film buffs possess a tendency toward intellectual poseurism?
Well, drakula, at least people here don't spiel off on syuzhets (ed: subjects or motifs) and fabulas (ed: fables or stories). And I'll answer your question in the form of another question:

Would you prefer if we kept film appreciation strictly in the realms of the populist?



You don't appreciate slow-moving movies because they are slow moving. I would gladly sit through all three hours of "Solaris" because it's great, there's a great payback behind all that stuff. I'm not complaning about the slowness as much as I'm complaining there's no payback commensurate with it.

If you want to comment about "The 400 Blows" I would urge you to watch it first if you haven't. It's not the most subtle film but it is subtle enough, most definitely, so that it does not hit you like a sledgehammer. The scenes I mentioned are as great as what I've seen in cinema and just because you can put a name to them does not demean them one bit. They are purposeful, you can imagine the amount of thought that went through all of them. You can say, this is great, because this is like real life. But I could take a HandyCam and film a day in my life as it took place, I assure you it does not a great film make.

(Yes folks this is a tacit admission that I don't live a great life.)

A story well told is not a story that's real to life, because the content of that story matters too.

It's not exactly true that all the children are dedicated fighters. Yes for the other three (other than the man of the house) it's kinda tough being neglected but from what I see there's one guy doing all the legwork and the other three lying around being miserable and helpless. Personally I'd have preferred there to be two central characters but for me only one stood out. (If you count the mother, the oldest child is not the only central character but she' never... shit, I've just given a spoiler.)

This sounds demanding but I wish he'd fleshed out two or three characters. And that's the thing about childhood because children don't have character, by definition since you have to be mentally grown up in order to have one. I definitely would have loved to know why the chick that Akira has the hots for is a social outcast but well just have to live with what we got.

Quote from drakula: "But screw this. This film cannot be argued intellectually. Can't we just respond to this emotionally? Without all the lame trappings of mise-en-scene, film language, etc.? Must we always deconstruct the film into 'themes', 'cinematic style', 'mise-en-scene', 'score', 'editing', 'acting', and appreciate each of these one by one to like a film? Because all these so-called 'film appreciation' not only bores me, but sickens me to think that so-called film buffs are actually poseur intellectuals."

Actually, film cannot be argued other than intellectually. By all means, watch the film and feel all you want. There is a thread that goes through the last few posts and the bottom line is that you feel what you want in your own heart but when you talk about it you have to intellectualize. I mean that's the way it is and too bad if it's crass. But it's not good if you don't know the difference between appreciating something privately and having something to talk about.

Just because people are restricted by the constraints of verbal discourse to stick to the intellectual stuff it doesn't make them poseurs intellectuals and it's good to be generous and give them the benefit of the doubt.

All the same, long words, technical language, I don't like. So that's something we have in common. So sorry to you guys out there if you think my expressions are a little crude.

There are people out there who intellectualize because that's the way they are and I'm one of them. Yes it is better to feel for films but well what you got is what you got. You can have a bleeding heart for every heart-rending story there is out there and believe me in this shitty world we live in there are plenty, but in the end you got to pick and choose as to discriminate between a good film, a great film, and a lousy one.

Nobody Knows, therefore, is a good film.

I fully appreciate that you have brought up important questions and it's truly wonderful that you've stimulated worthy intellectual discourse.



Nobody's right or wrong in film appreciation. We just belong in different schools. Bygones.



Quote from Ambient Noise: "Would you prefer if we kept film appreciation strictly in the realms of the populist?"

To equate populism with feeling rather than thinking is not very good. Other than how they are different concepts altogether and don't overlap exactly. Secondly are you saying that intellectualism is the sole preserve of a more worthy elite? Didn't think so.

I'm reading a Sontag essay on disease. (Guess reading works by the recently deceased is always fashionable.) If what she writes in "Against Interpretation" is similar to that essay in disease, then her position would be that talking about content is like arrogating to yourself the right to label things, construct metaphors that might detract from the real meaning of the work, or belittle it. Therefore, stick to the form instead of the content.
I agree with the first part but not the second. The demons of hidden prejudice are going to be there whether you vocalize them or not and therefore for me it's still better to get them out into the open so that at least somebody else can point out that there is a demon there (by criticizing your criticism). And it's educational for all concerned.

Since Sinnerman preferred me not to edit out that comment about heart and mind (I initially edited it out because I thought my posts were getting too bombastic but have since learnt to accept the sadly inevitable) I will try to reconstruct it here.

Criticism is for the mind. What you feel with the heart is precious precisely because it cannot be adequately communicated. There is a limited scope for talking about emotions in film, so therefore it's better to use the intellectualism to uncover deeper meanings and interpretation so that the private emotional appreciation with your own heart can be enhanced.

Or I could just talk about that famous Wittgenstein comment that what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. (Ed: "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.")

And you have a good weekend too Sinnerman. Some of us have to stay up because I want to not fall asleep drunk and wake up hung over. Yesh folksh you have been talking to a drunk person. Hic!

Crawling off to bed now. That would be pissing over in silence.


metalmickey: WHAT DID YOU MEAN?

Quote from Sinnerman: "Nobody's right or wrong in film appreciation. We just belong in different schools. Bygones."

I don't understand this comment. I said that film appreciation is essentially subjective. So you could be saying, yes, I'm right because I'm saying that nobody's right or wrong. Or you could be saying, don't force the idea of subjectivity down somebody else's throat. So which is it?

The reason why I champion the idea of subjectivity is that I don't want to have to think too hard in advance about how people are going to react to my criticism. This would give me the freedom to say what I think, which doesn't need to agree too much with others since we have already agreed to disagree.



In sections 8 and 9 of that "Against Interpretation" essay quoted by metalmickey, Susan Sontag expressed impossibly high ideals for art (and film) criticism. I mean, how many film critics can take the same approach, much less write, like Manny Farber? And would I want to read all about a film's rhythmic and visual qualities while completely neglecting content? I don't think so but paradoxically, when Farber waxes poetic on exactly those elements, in his inimitably rapturous, near-epiphanic fashion, he seems to touch base with the most primal emotions a film generates.

[Ed: At this point the postings drifted back into less philosophical matters.]