Friday, October 14, 2016

Quotidian solipsism is no longer my thing

Logically, I recognize that my year-end rankings from the 20 years I've kept such rankings constitute a snapshot of me and my tastes from a particular moment. Somewhat less logically, I actually think the contrary -- that my tastes haven't changed too much over the years. Once good taste, always good taste, right?

Well, taste that once was good might no longer be, and every once in a while I get a pretty clear indication that I'm not the same viewer I once was.

This year, it's been the realization that quotidian solipsism is no longer my thing.

What do I mean by "quotidian solipsism?" I mean the kind of thing that Steven Soderbergh peddles in Full Frontal, a movie most people never liked. I liked it quite a bit back in 2002, when I ranked it #13 (of 80) for the year. "Quotidian" meaning "commonplace" or "workaday," "solipsism" meaning "an excessive inward focus on the self." (Those aren't dicitionary definitions, but they are pretty much correct.)

I watched Full Frontal for the first time in 14 years last night and I didn't really dig it at all. I didn't hate it, and recognized some moments that certainly drew the 29-year-old version of me to it, but I'd be ranking it closer to 13 from the bottom of 80 films than 13 from the top these days.

I still like it more, I think, than Igby Goes Down, a similarly self-indulgent, navel-gazing look at self-absorbed people and their concerns about their personal selves. (And yes, the use of three different variations on the word "self" in the previous sentence is intentional.) I ranked Igby at #10 in 2002, three higher than Full Frontal, and when I watched that earlier this year for the first time since then, it dropped by more than 1,200 spots on my Flickchart.

I won't be forcing a re-rank of Full Frontal to get it off its elevated spot of #631/4343 -- not nearly as elevated as Igby's former ranking of #392 -- but I do have some complaints I want to make about it here, and explain a little more what I mean by "quotidian solipsism."

"Solipsism" is almost always a negative term, but I suppose there are certain people about whose selves we would really like to learn. They don't even have to be people we like. Donald Trump is a good example. Especially in the past week, I am addicted to news about Donald Trump. It's all so I can experience schadenfreude regarding his spectacular collapse, but that doesn't change the fact that I am soaking up everything and anything about The Donald. He's larger than life, and, let's admit it, he's interesting, even if for the wrong reasons.

The solipsism in Full Frontal and Igby Goes Down is about people who are not especially interesting. In Igby it's about a Holden Caulfield-type kid in New York and his group of insufferable associates. Here, it's about a group of people who are sort of appendages of the film industry -- some actual actors and other stars, but then also low-level writers, playwrights, even a masseuse to the stars.

The thing is, Soderbergh's film treats them as though they are inherently interesting. Part of his experimental form -- yes, this is one of his "experimental" films -- is to include snippets of dialogue over images of them going about their lives. But it's not narration -- it's responses to questions from a hypothetical interviewer, who asks them questions about themselves, what they were feeling at the moment in question, how their lives brought them to this particular point, etc. The film compliments itself that its characters are interesting enough that a person should want to interview them, even if no person actually would. More charitably, the film suggests that we are all interesting enough to tell our stories to a hypothetical interviewer.

But it's not that the film places such stock in the charisma of its characters, which I guess is something we would hope all movies would do -- why tell a story about characters if they are not interesting? It's the way that Soderbergh is gazing at his own navel here that makes things a bit more distracting.

One thing that kind of annoyed me -- though I don't think it would have annoyed me in 2002 -- was that in the scene where Julia Roberts is interviewing Blair Underwood on the plane, the camera takes a moment to look a few rows behind and see Terence Stamp as his character in Soderbergh's The Limey. It's meant to be just a wink to Soderbergh's fans, and today we might fawn over it as his attempt to create a cinematic universe. But I'm tired of cinematic universes and I am also tired of meta winks to the audience. Back in 2002, meta was still new. It wouldn't have felt hopelessly self-congratulatory, as it does now.

Then there's the more overriding meta aspect of the structure of this film. There are films within films within films in Full Frontal, frequently distinguished by two or even possibly three different film stocks. Soderbergh loves pulling a fast one on us, making us think one layer of reality is actually reality, only to pull out and show a movie crew shooting the characters in question. The film eventually assumes so many layers that it resembles a Russian nesting doll. And we don't care which one is the real one.

Self indulgence is certainly a subdivision of solipsism, even though Soderbergh would probably argue that the narrative tricks he's playing with are just an artistic endeavor and have nothing to do with his own selfhood. However, the mere willingness to pat yourself on the back for purported cleverness is what makes it a celebration of his own self.

I don't want to go too hard on the movie because I would still say I like it. I just can't fathom why it had such an impact on me back in 2002.

Unless, you know, I just wasn't the same self I am now.

The funny thing is that my #1 movie of that year was a movie that probably fits into the same category. It's Spike Jonze's Adaptation, and it's a movie about a person going down his own rabbit hole into his own neurotic soul. In a way it is the very definition of solipsism. And having revisited it about four years ago, I know I still love it. In fact, it's in my top 50 on Flickchart, just barely, at #49.

I think the difference is that Nicolas Cage's Charlie Kaufman -- playing the movie's screenwriter himself, how could you get any more self-involved -- is not interested in self-regard for its own sake. He's more about self-loathing. And he's not trying to convince himself or anyone else that he's interesting. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. He is repulsed by how uninteresting he thinks he is.

This is probably both an oversimplification and a rationalization. The better conclusion to reach might be that quotidian solipsism is compelling in the right hands, and banal in the wrong ones. And even someone as generally great as Steven Soderbergh can sometimes have the wrong hands.

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