Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The limits of cinephilia

What do you get when you take a 60-year-old film made in a foreign country in a fledging film industry with asynchronous dubbed dialogue about extremely parochial considerations viewed on a very poor print with very little plot for two long hours?

You get the limits of my efforts as a cinephile.

I tried with Pather Panchali. I really did. I tried over three sittings and nearly one-and-a-half total viewings. That's right, I watched 40 minutes of this movie about two weeks ago before I succumbed to sleep, then decided that I had gleaned so little from those first 40 minutes that I needed to watch them again when I made my second attempt at conquering Satyajit Ray's classic film.

But I just couldn't see what makes this film a classic. I mean, the time and circumstances of its creation undoubtedly factor into it, but the end product just wasn't there for me.

I'm disappointed in myself as a cinephile, but I'm trying not to be.

Pather Panchali was only on my radar at all because Ray was the subject of a recent marathon on the Filmspotting podcast. They subsequently started mentioning Ray's films every third episode, so when I saw Pather Panchali available at the library, I thought it would make another one of those valuable building blocks in my ongoing film education.


It's a really rough sit.

If any one, or two, or even three of the conditions I mentioned in the opening run-on sentence were in place, Pather Panchali might have made a positive impression on me. I mean, I have no problem with films that are 60 years old. I have no problem with films made in foreign countries. I don't even have a problem with films that look scruffy, because it's often less of a reflection on someone's aesthetic sensibilities than his/her budgetary realities.

But I didn't find any of Pather Panchali's qualities illuminating enough to overcome the many things about it that were difficult. I think we're supposed to see it as a profound examination of poverty in West Bengal, India through the eyes of one fairly ordinary poverty-stricken family. But I didn't find it profound. I didn't find the characters and their conflicts particularly engaging (when there were conflicts), and I didn't find Ray's approach to contain particular insight that would go beyond what I might guess would be the plight of his characters.

As I often do when a movie doesn't totally connect with me and I suspect I have missed some of the story's nuances, I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia. I did indeed discover a few things about Pather Panchali that made it seem a bit more interesting than I found it, details that had gotten lost in moments of subtlety (or between episodes of dozing off). But what I found was enough for a really interesting 45-minute portrait of a family, not a slow-moving two-hour movie that was alienating in its failure to move things along.

The interesting thing about rejecting a movie that people tell us we're supposed to love is the guilt. Well, the guilt and the shame. The shame comes from feeling like you aren't intelligent enough, cultured enough, perceptive enough to have immediately recognized why the film in question was so brilliant. Then the guilt comes if you throw away that shame and proudly own your distaste for the particular film, which makes you feel as though you are shitting on something that is genuinely great.

But the least interesting thing to me is a person who rubber-stamps a movie as great just because he or she believes that it will be the easiest way not to stand out, not to be identified as the philistine who can't see greatness when it bites him or her in the nose. Not all great movies are my great movies. It's useful to recognize which ones aren't, and own it.

So I've given Pather Panchali two-and-a-half stars on Letterboxd. It's the guilt that keeps me from going even lower. I might have gone all the way down to two, but the plot synopsis saved it. The plot synopsis made me think that indeed, despite repeated attempts to get into the head space of this movie, I just never chose the right circumstances to truly be able to appreciate it. The extra half star acknowledges that I might be wrong.

Yeah, I could have given it four stars and just walked away, so that the people who see my star rating on Letterboxd can rest safely in the knowledge that I am a trustworthy cinephile. It's easier just to rubber-stamp something everyone loves and pick another cinephile fight to have when the stakes are not so great for your own credibility.

But I didn't, and noticed afterward I had some support in my allegedly controversial view. I was pleased to note that Pather Panchali was not necessarily well received at the time it came out. Some recognized its "genius," of course -- but others presumably had the same concerns I had about its shortcomings.

And that's ... okay.

If we are the movies we love, I don't need to try to convince someone I loved Pather Panchali.

Because then I wouldn't be being true to my own specific brand of cinephilia.


Wendell Ottley said...

Haven't seen this movie, but Amen to the sentiments espoused. I've experienced this a few times, myself. For me that often means doing the same thing you did, watching it again to make sure you didn't miss what everyone else sees.

I wouldn't worry about your credibility as a cinephile. Any opinion is a valid one, especially when you do exactly what you did here - coherently and specifically speak to what you like or don't like about a film.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Wendell. I agree that there shouldn't be many movies that, by themselves, serve as a litmus test for your credibility as a cinephile. I suppose it's when you find yourself only praising movies that came out since 1980, and can't get into anything older than that, that a person might want to reconsider recommendations they get from you. Fortunately, that does not describe me.