Roundtable: Taste of a different order
The credits were still rolling, the lights came up, and the brewing desire to release the pressure valve fell on everyone’s lips as opinions increasingly became secret confessions of an anxious reader to an absent author. The film in question is James Gray’s Two Lovers, best described by Andrew O’Hehir as “a romantic drama about Leonard (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged 30ish Brooklynite living with his parents, who must choose between a nurturing, socially appropriate girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw) and a drugged-out, unavailable shiksa goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow).” The ensuing discussion skipped the usual interpretative dance of grasping connections to the human condition, or what’s left of it. Instead, superficial assessments were the preferred format of the day, ranging from Gwyneth’s miscasting to “ugly” Manhattan lawyer types to hatred of the Jewish father. Even worse, “authentic” portrayal of NY life and “believability” of the characters’ psychologies and emotions were buzzing in the air as indicators of artistic honesty. Then again, if we take the director’s word for his work (neither a good nor bad idea), we would be stuck with Gray’s meditative study of love as a solipsistic projection, in which the dictum “save one person, save the world” isn’t that far from the religious upbringing of the main character and his impulse to save the messed-up girl, and his fiancee’s impulse to save him. Would that be the measure of success, when a filmmaker fully translates every feeling and meaning to his audience? Gray admits to be reading Jacques Lacan and Louis Aragon during the film production, but how are we supposed to notice his subliminal projections in the final product?
These points are not moot in any shape or form, they reveal surely the film’s immense ability to elicit a spectrum of responses beyond the original intent of the filmmaker in demanding a serious consideration of his work as some lasting examination of modern relationships and their discontents. There will always be a gap between intention and reception, encoding and decoding, and generations of old and young.
Interview with James Gray courtesy of Salon.com
Perhaps, Paltrow’s “miscasting” was not an error in judgement but an indication of an actress’s failure to escape her extradiegetic persona, in which she constantly inhabits her offscreen self or play variations on an established theme whether she wanted to or not. However, this doesn’t mean she fails within the level of the film itself, rather the aura of Gwyneth forever haunts and complements the blonde bimbo shell that is Michelle. In short, Gwyneth plays Gwyneth really well, and O’Hehir is acute in pointing out that she is the quintessential femme fatale, desirable but never tangible, her first appearance in the film marks the arrival of fantasy rather than flesh, the ghost of her former role transported to a different film. As much as I despise the God-given wisdom of the auteur, his final say as our final say, the “oh jeez, we got it now, thanks mister,” I have to credit Gray for being his own best analyst in regards to the doomed lovers’ last encounter. He mentioned that he wanted Gwyneth (ooops, i mean Michelle) to appear as if she’s floating in the dark alleyway before she emerges in front of Leonard. An inevitable farewell to an ideal woman, a Hollywood construction more real than real. And a side rebuttal to one vocal commentator: Vanessa Redgrave in a Joe Wright’s film is not the same as Gwyneth Paltrow in a James Gray’s movie. It’s like saying Judi Dench’s cameo in Pride and Prejudice was also his desperate ploy for funding. Get it straight.
Moreover, the overrated focus on a film’s capacity to mimic reality, to capture an imprint of life, as if it could’ve existed, eventually leads us to a dead end in the art of film criticism since it means fantasy narratives are playing another deck of cards to make us believe otherwise. In the case of Two Lovers, destiny is laid out like a minefield, there will be causalities, there will be survivors, a safe pathway is painfully visible. Keeping in mind that there are two separate occasions where Michelle and Leonard stare straight into the camera, knowing all too well that their intimate embrace is one stemming from vulnerability rather than potentiality. Only Vinessa Shaw’s character is out of this loop. What we have forgotten when it comes to cinema is neither illusion or realism, but the creation of microcosms, of fictions passing off as realities (rather than REALITY), distinct in their individuality, but always in dialogue with each other, eventually cementing into transparent codes and conventions we take for granted. It’s appropriate that critics have labeled Gray as an old-fashioned craftsman, producing films they used to make in the old days, because in the very tone of that nostalgic sentiment lies the truth of their words—he’s doing something that WAS done before, just reassembled into new permutations. That familiarity tells us more about how we as moviegoers have deeply ingrained cultural memory into our consciousness of history and our perception of everyday reality.
In laying out the above expositions on the multi-faceted experience of watching Two Lovers, I want to probe into the wider phenomenon of film reception, which encompasses more than just watching, but all the tactile senses and more. I admit that I was giggling at particular moments in the film because those were the scenes that retreated from the overall cumbersome trajectory, moments where the characters would exhibit ludicrous behaviors such as demanding an inscription on your arm as a lullaby, displaying your naked breast to a pathetic man across the hall, or asking your son if he needs help using Expedia. At other times, I’m simply amused by the physical pleasure of seeing Joaquin doing breakdancing or Gwyneth with smeared mascara. Spoutblog writer, Karina Longworth even cites that she was asleep for the first half of the film until that nightclub scene captivated her to the end. Her review fluctuates between adoration and ambivalence; she clearly enjoyed the film, but was uncertain on how to judge it as a critic. Does it always have to funnel down towards a recommendation for yourself, or for others? Film historian and cinephile, David Bordwell, performs an admirable job categorizing the nature of reception into these two components that make for competing rivals and strange bedfellows:
I can like films I don’t think are particularly good. I enjoy mid-level Hong Kong movies because I can see their ties to local history and film history, because I take delight in certain actors, because I try to spot familiar locations. But I wouldn’t argue that because I like them, they’re good. We all have guilty pleasures—a label that was coined exactly to designate films which give us enjoyment, even if by any wide criteria they aren’t especially good.
The difference between taste and judgment emerges in this way: You can recognize that some films are good even if you don’t like them. You can declare Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane or Persona an excellent film without finding it to your liking…There aren’t any fully “objective” standards, but they are intersubjective—lots of people with widely varying tastes accept them.
What Bordwell is hinting at, though he never mentions explicitly, is the ongoing transformation of taste into judgement, of elitist proclivities becoming the gold standard. Taste is always shifting from one person to another, but judgement is harder to change, it requires an informal consensus with time as an overseer. In my agreement with O’Hehir, Two Lovers continue to diverge reactions because it’s a successful failed experiment, fascinating, frustrating, and inherently fictitious to its bittersweet finale. Everyone left the room with something to say instead of a forgettable nod of acceptance. Tolerance would’ve been boring!
I will not conclude with a report on film appreciation, for a simple call to arms is much more bearable and easier to administer in the realm of critical reception and pleasurable enjoyment. Broadening of one’s taste (the inclusivity principle) and a cautious judgment of judgment will keep any filmgoer from being too satisfied and too picky with his meal. Without reverting to archaic rules of appropriateness, when to laugh, when to cry, when to tremble in suspense, it would be better to refer to these selected musings of Susan Sontag in her seminal essay Notes on Camp rather than just grouping everything under that misused umbrella term, camp. It shouldn’t be a label, but a contentious neologism to be argued for and against.
18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.
41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.
Just one minor exception to social propriety: Don’t ever holler at the screen unless you’re at a sing-a-long.