Film has always been an integral part of my life. That two hour escape is sometimes all of the inspiration I’ll need to get through a rough period in life. Yeah, I enjoy the mindless action, adventure, and horror movies just like everyone else. (That is, when well executed.) But as you grow older, you begin to look for films that contain a bit more substance. You want a bit more from your cinema experience than an expanded version of the trailer. (At least I do.) Documentaries often bring me to points of clarity where the was confusion. Independent filmmakers often inspire me when they create masterpieces with few resources that often serve as a more compelling experience than many big budget films. And while some may turn to the New York Times crossword puzzle or spend time with a Sudoku book to “sharpen their minds”, I’d much rather take in a challenging film to give my brain a workout.
Prior to my last year of college, films were an enjoyable, care-free and mindless medium. I could just kick back, grab a pack of Sour Patch Kids and “rest my conscious mind on the mantle” for a few hours. That was until I took a film class in college. Probably the best (and worst) thing I could have ever done. Scott MacDonald forever changed the way that I watch film.
My introduction to Scott consisted of him showing our class of about twenty students a film called “Fog Line”. “Fog Line” was about a ten minute movie of — you guessed it — fog. Yes — 10 minutes of dense, thick, occasionally shape-shifting (but nothing notable not enough to hold my attention), white and gray — fog.
After the lights went up, I recall feeling a sense of disappointment. After all, I’d heard a lot of good things about this guy. If I signed up for a semester of fog, perhaps I’d better get out the course book and make a change while there was still time. As Scott began to survey the class of twentysomethings, he tried his best to contain a smile and offered his innocent plea in the form of the question, “Well, what did ya see?” Most were like me.
“I saw fog moving.”
“I thought it was a joke and that you didn’t start the projector yet.”
“I saw the inside of my eyelids.”
But slowly, a few brave souls, limply raising their arms as if they had grave news to report, gave a different account.
“I am not really sure, but I think I saw…. a horse.”
And then, slowly, a few other arms began to raise in succession.
“I think I saw it too. Actually I saw a two of them”.
Sarcastically I smiled to myself. Surely these kids were making the most of their college experience by getting ‘a little friendly with the herb’ before film class. (And if it made them see horses where I saw boring fog, then maybe I should go with ’em and get ‘friendly’ also.)
And then, much to my dismay, Scott acknowledged my worst suspicions. He confirmed the “horse sightings”. He told us that there were even more there than the two that the brave kid saw. I remember almost feeling a sense of anger. After all, there were folks who were alleging to have seen these “horses” and ‘Mr. Overachiever’ wasn’t one of them. Scott let us know that he would show us the film one more time. I remember putting my notebook on the floor, sitting up in my chair and removing all distractions from my mind. Of course there weren’t any horses. If there were, I would have seen ’em the first time.
But as the film started playing, perhaps about four minutes or so in, there they were. They weren’t obvious, but they were unmistakably horses. Sometimes running in groups of two, across a field. I was watching before, but how could I have missed them? Scott had succeeded in getting my attention.
In his summation after the second viewing of the film, Scott let us in on the fact that most people don’t see the horses at first. “In fact,” he said, “there are some who don’t even see them after the second viewing.” But his point was that the horses were there… if we look hard enough. And at that point, in his sly and charismatic style, Scott revealed to us that the film would serve as his challenge to us — a symbol of how he wanted us to approach the class. He told us that there would be some difficult films for the year ahead — and that some films that might seem pointless at first glance. But his goal was to get us to watch long enough “to see the horses in the fog.” Ingenious.
That introductory film class would prove to be as important in my career as any business class I’d take in my four years at Utica College. I’ve found that sports, film and food are three areas of common ground in business that can cut through the ‘business only’ demeanor of even the most stuffy manager in a suit. Talk about politics and you’re treading on shaky ground. Talk about family and you may piss off the guy going through a rocky divorce. Talk religion and you’re asking for a trip to the HR (and perhaps unemployment) office. But talk about your golf swing, whether the Tigers have enough pitching to contend this year, about a great Italian Bistro around the corner or whether you enjoyed the latest Woody Allen film and suddenly you’ve crossed the line from mid-level manager to “potential director”. You’ve demonstrated that you’re a well-rounded manager. You’ve shown that you can think critically. You’ve convinced the GM that you’re too valuable an asset to the overall “office morale” to be included in the next round of workforce reductions.
What I loved most about Scott’s class was that in a year full of weird films, he served as my oracle. My lexicon. My own personal “answer guy”. And there were many times during that year when, after the credits rolled, I would desperately need his brain. I recall watching a few movies where my initial impressions were, “Wow, that was complete garbage.” But after a follow up class of discussion and analysis, some of those “pieces of garbage” turned into masterpieces. And no, I didn’t like everything that he showed us. But I will say that for every film that we watched, even if I wasn’t head over heels in love with a film, I learned to appreciate some aspect of it. Perhaps the acting would be sub-par, but I would appreciate what the director was trying to say. Or perhaps I would appreciate the unconventional approach that the director took — whether he/she was successful or not. Often in Scott’s class, the greatest appreciation came from finding those “horses” that the director hid within the celluloid that skillfully and craftily conveyed some code or hidden message.
Sadly, there have been more than a few times since that class that I’ve longed for Scott’s brain. After the lights go up at the Valley Grove Multiplex, sometimes the tools that he gave me to think critically actually do help me gather the puzzle pieces that the director has scattered across the screen. But many times, (especially as the medium is evolving and as eccentric directors like Todd Solondz gain mainstream attention), the information that he imparted to us during that “Intro” class makes me wish I would have stayed around for a few more classes.
Don’t mistake my admiration for idolization. I’m not looking for someone to tell me whether to like a film or not. I usually know how I feel about a film instantly after seeing it. I don’t need anyone to confirm that. For instance, no amount of convincing will make me think that the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel was more than a mix of lush islands and swashbuckling brits running around aimlessly. (At the end of the film, when Geoffrey Rush teased the sequel, it felt as if he almost looked into the camera and said, “Arrrr… see ya next summer fer another nine-dollar adventure — dis time with Keith Richards….. arrrr!”) Sometimes it’s amazing to me how films with little to say perform so well.
I guess what I’ve truly been missing is that critical analysis from a true film historian that can at least let me know if there’s some theme or idea that I might have missed. Much like when my pastor takes our congregation to a verse in the scripture that I don’t quite understand — but after he’s spent about a half hour laying historic foundation and context and spiritual significance, it all becomes clear. Like Neo in the Matrix, where I saw computer-generated buildings and cars, I begin to see things in the green scrolling code.
Well, unfortunately Scott appears to still be teaching six hours away in Oneida County. (Although I can see that he’s written many more books since then. I see him cited all over the net. I’m really proud of him.) But there does appear to be a place that “unfinished film aficionados” (like myself) can go after we’ve seen 2046 or Elephant and find out what the “smarts” think. Are there horses in the fog that I’m missing?
Metaphilm is a great site and an aid in helping to fill this void. It’s a collection of essays for folks like myself who don’t mind sitting down with friends for a few hours and discussing a film beyond the obvious plot and character development. Is there meaning to that glowing briefcase? Why was that plastic bag blowing in the wind? Was there a point to the club scene in Mullholland Dr.? And, as much as I liked Donnie Darko after a single viewing, now that I’ve seen it eight times were there any alternate themes that I missed? All of those questions and many more more are covered by film scholars, including many graduate and undergraduate students. What’s most important is that the folks over at Metaphilm, using their brand of Socratic irony, actually step you through their theory about a film’s meaning. (Well, most of the folks do anyway. There are a few pretenders in the bunch.) The more talented writers will point to obvious clues and then provide their theory about the theme(s) — usually by citing other written works, folklore, pop culture icons or religious ideals.
Metaphilm’s analyses of the Matrix movies were the first writings that began the site. If you’ve ever had questions about some of the seemingly anecdotal details that are scattered throughout the movie, check out their take. Among my other favorites are their analyses of The Truman Show (and you thought that film was about a man trying to escape a fictional world!), Donnie Darko (I appreciated this one greatly as a Christian), A.I. (this one was pretty funny) and Eyes Wide Shut. There are a range of writers that contribute to the site — therefore, as mentioned, you’ll find some writings to be exceptionally well done while others are pretty bad. However, the gems that you find make a trip to the site more than worth your while.
(WARNING – MAGNOLIA SPOILER BELOW)
One particularly insightful analysis is for the movie Magnolia. Magnolia has always held a special place for me. It’s one of those movies that always served to remind me that in a world of difficult challenges, anything can happen. For years people would ask me why I thought there were frogs raining from the sky at the end of the film. Without a doubt in my mind, I would explain that the frogs were a symbol representing the fact that even when a situation seems bleak and hopeless, the impossible can happen to change your circumstances. After reading the Metaphilm analysis, while I don’t necessarily think that my analysis was wrong, I certainly missed a big part of the message. The well thought out analysis may completely change your ideas about the movie. The writer claims that Paul Thomas Anderson is re-casting a scene from the book of Exodus in the Old Testament (Exodus 8:2) and that a child is being cast as Moses. When the author began mentioning scriptural significance, I recall being rather upset. (After all, Bible scripture always seems to be cheaply used to draw analyses and conclusions in film by a writer who usually has little other use for the text.) However, once you’ve seen the film and read this analysis, there’s no way that you can refute that the analogy is absolutely there. And after further consideration, the message is still rather uplifting on a spiritual level as well. (Boy, that PTA is one sneaky dude.)
(END MAGNOLIA SPOILER)
So, while I sometimes still long for those Thursday afternoons of in-depth discussion in Upstate New York after watching a Buster Keaton or D.W. Griffith film, this is probably the next best thing. Check out Metaphilm and let me know what you think. (And if you have another site of critical film analysis, please share it.)