Forget sexinema, here’s cinempathy: a brief appeal for a more active viewership

May 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Of those who watch films and complain that they didn’t feel anything I ask: whose fault is this? If there is a door and the door is closed, can I really blame the door for my not having gotten to the other side of it if I have not even endeavoured to turn the knob? If I turn the knob and the door does not open, have I checked under the mat or above the doorframe for a key? Only after I’ve done all these things and perhaps more can I say “this door cannot be breached.” Unless, of course, I decide to kick the door in, which may be a useful approach if kicking the door can be considered analogous to breaking a film down and analysing it in its innumerable pieces; perhaps not.

The point being that a lot of folk seem to think that art can be indulged in passively, and maybe a lot of art unwittingly or perhaps less innocently encourages this mode of thinking. Written word literature may be the most purposefully active popular art form (with regards to the spectator/patron) in that the content must first be consumed by sensory perception (seeing/hearing words or feeling braille) and then digested by intellectualisation (appreciating the respective scripts and symbols that the eyes or fingers are perceiving right through to comprehending and/or interpreting the literal or expressive meanings or connotations that result from the structural relationship between the scripts and symbols that the eyes or ears or fingers are perceiving), even though reading can still be done with semi passivity if one skim reads and forgets half of what their eyes are half-seeing or their fingers half-feeling. Compare this process to that of viewing a movie or listening to music or watching a ballet or strolling through a gallery. You can exit the Louvre and know that you have seen a beautiful image by van Eyck without having spoken a word of Flemish in your life (or whatever language Jan spoke). You may even attempt to describe ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin’ despite having only seen it as opposed to having truly looked at it and still be able to convey, with some success, something of its content or essence. On the contrary, hand me a Pablo Neruda poem in its original Spanish translation and I could tell you that the words look pretty on the page but probably little else; hand me something by Li Bai untranslated and I’d be able to tell you even less. Admittedly, though, a poem’s appearance on the page may be the one literary instance in which an individual can partake of artistic expression by simply seeing (if due only to the reality that the physical structure of a poem is often less of a slave to variations in publisher typography than is prose). To summarise, film is arguably more subject to viewer passivity than written literature is to reader passivity.

It seems that mainstream film-going culture (at present, but probably always) relies largely on passive absorption of image and sound. People can sit and let images cascade over them, images so obvious and plainly telegraphed that an individual with cortical blindness might process the content simply via thalamic pathways requiring little conscious registration. What’s more, mainstream cinema, particularly of the Hollywood major studio ilk, seems to be of a certain school of filmmaking: that which seems to believe that the more obvious and visually assaultive a film is, the more its spectators can be permitted to sit passively in the dark munching on their popcorn and slurping on their icy sodas, or twiddling with their smart devices on their sofas at home, ultimately walking away with the sensation and impression that they have partaken of something. Admittedly, there is a certain breed of film which encourages a certain type of active viewership, to an extent. ‘Inception’ is a great example of a film whose rabid following stems, I suspect at least partially, from the fact that it seems to validate viewer intelligence by explicitly challenging viewer attention with its “levels” and by concluding with an image whose ambiguity does not seem to infuriate or alienate in the way that other ambiguous endings do, simply because it is largely irrelevant whether A (the top continuing to spin) happens or whether B (the top dropping) happens because the fact that C (Cobb reuniting with his children, whatever the reality) happens is really the crux of the film’s conclusion, I would argue. While delivering the kind of SFX extravaganza and breakneck action that seems to bring in the bucks at the box office, ‘Inception’ also provides viewers the relief that comes from knowing (believing) that they are not simply brainless consumers but “active” participants. This may be a cynical stance, but when a film’s ultimate legacy is that it inspires endless debate about whether or not a spinning top stops or doesn’t stop spinning (aka whether chocolate ice cream or strawberry ice cream is better when the real issue pertains to ice cream versus lack of ice cream), I count this a general loss for the concept of active viewership.

A lot of people expect theme, ideas, emotion, to be pumped into them, to be drawn out of them. They say, “the movie didn’t make me feel anything.” Well, whose fault is that, I ask. People say, “This movie didn’t make me care for the characters.” Well, whose fault is it that you don’t have it in you to give two shits about a two dimensional representation of a human being which is what – to be perfectly honest – the overwhelming majority of people on earth will ever be to any of us, if that even; if not just a CIA World Book statistic.

Let’s talk about digestion.

You eat a meal, say a meal consisting of some meat and some vegetables. You end up shitting it all out and find yourself malnourished and upset. Whose fault is it that the food was not properly digested? Was the food supposed to digest itself? Your gut failed, my friend, either because you have IBD, or celiac, or some intolerance, or an infective colitis, or you swallow but don’t chew, or maybe your gut is in shock from some assault it endured. Maybe it a whole lot of it was cut out and doesn’t exist anymore to absorb anything. Either way, you cannot blame that poor lamb shank and those broiled silverbeet leaves for having gone through you unused. Your body was required to engage in an active process but this didn’t happen. The food is not at fault. Okay, so you say, what if the food is not digestible? For example, what if it’s made of wax or plastic or rock? Well, you’ve got to put the damn thing in your mouth, chew it and swallow it first before you extricate yourself of blame.

I will be the first to admit that a lot of art is bad food, either fake food made of wax and PVC, or junk containing too many calories and deficient in its variety of nutrients. But in order to know this we’ve got to open our digestive tracts and eat, right? We’ve got to ingest these foodstuffs only to realise that we’re fatigued and not satiated, agitated and hypoglycaemic, stunted and underdeveloped, overweight and diabetic with arteries on their way out. Art forms will struggle to achieve the level of purpose and social significance they can and should have until that vital feedback loop is completed.

“We want passive nutrition,” some may say. “What’s wrong with it if it gives you what you need?” Do you really want passive nutrition? Do I really want MY muscles to grow without my having to lift a finger? Want my intellect to burgeon and my soul-life to blossom without ever sitting myself down with a decent book that really challenges me or without crossing my legs on a mat and meditating? Sure, get that cannula into my arm, get that total intravenous nutrition running; strap those electrode patches to my pecs and my thighs and run electricity through them. Let’s see how vital that leaves me. My gut will wither, my digestive hormones will lose their bearings and the day I decide to stick something in my mouth and eat it I’ll find myself utterly ill-equipped. Cinema should be – at least in some ways – an active art form. It should be a mode of intellectual, emotional and psychological exercise. As a spectator, one should be required to bring something to the act of viewing. Emotion should not just be drawn out of a spectator; it should also be invested into the film by the spectator. It’s okay that a film portrays a scene of profound and obvious sadness such that tears spring to the corners of your eyes. But not all moments of emotional intensity are visually obvious, and in these circumstances that which is required is that thing which is so sorely misunderstood: empathy. Which is where this monologue was always heading.

Empathy is not a passive emotion, I’ve come to understand. To empathise is to act. But it’s not just an action that one engages in haphazardly; it’s an endeavour, the pursuit of a particular psycho-emotional ideal. It is to repeatedly subject yourself to a level of emotional skepticism and self-questioning. It is to be aware of who you are in relation to who other people are, what your values are, and why you believe the things that you do, and in doing so to forego them momentarily and in those moments to imagine and to infer that which your own experience might not necessarily bestow. Empathy is goddamn hard. Feeling sad for a weeping widow is not empathy if you know what it is to grieve, whatever the loss might have been which caused the grieving. It’s generally easy to know that she is sad. Sociopaths and psychopaths get their kicks by being able to know when someone is sad, or in pain, or afraid. To empathise is to encounter a stoic widow who you believe should be inconsolable and in tears and to not simply dismiss her as a cold and unemotional and a murderous spider, but to seek to understand how she might be feeling or what she might be thinking, to understand in however miniscule a way what her experience might be, even if you ultimately feel that she is cold and emotional and a murderous spider. You may never get anywhere but you tried and in trying I believe you empathised.

For this reason I admire and hail the films of Antonioni and Altman and Kubrick and Rohmer and Bunuel and all those film artists (and artists in general) who were clearly striving to understand or at least gain some semblance, however minor, of the experiences of others, however close to or far removed from their own experiences, their own milieus, those experiences might have been. People might consider Antonioni’s films emotionally vacant, but the more I watch them the more I get the sense of a man trying desperately to empathise with a particular mindset of a particular section of society at a particular time in the 20th century. There is no judgment, only a desire to understand. As a spectator of his work one is required to invest and inquire and question the inner state of the characters he paints and portrays. These are human beings on screen. As I have previously said, I probably know more about those beautiful, tortured, closed-off individuals Antonioni is showing me than I ever will most of the people I see around me, at the bus stop, on trains, in shopping malls and cafes, even some people to whom I speak more than once. What a sad and terrifying day it will be for me should these individuals cease to be human beings in my mind simply because all I see are creatures with a couple of physical dimensions standing, texting, eating, walking, largely unemotional on a surface level (let’s be frank about it: most people are damn good at keeping their emotions in check when in public) What a sad existence it has been for humanity considering that this seems to be an alarmingly common mindset, whether or not it is acted upon or not by the majority of people.

Empathy, I guess, is to appreciate that each individual you encounter, however two-dimensional and unconvincing they might appear to you is a human being however ‘other’ they might seem, and in appreciating this, to strive to understand what their experience might be. This is why I believe cinema can be, should be and is a premier art form of empathy. In order to live up to this though, it requires an active spectatorship who will guide and develop sincere and purposeful artistry, and vice versa and so on and so forth, until it all comes to some sort of end at some point in the future near or far.

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