Thursday, June 8, 2017

Subtextual AND Problematic?

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of watching this lovely little video on YouTube:

Why 80’s film fans drive me crazy: a case study. (Courtesy of Pop Culture Detective.)

Ignoring that there's a lot to unpack about Jonathan McIntosh as a person, I actually found the video quite interesting. The voiceover could use work, but Jonathan’s decision to shed light on the toxicity of Harrison Ford’s screen persona and why it embodies rape culture is something you’d never stop and think about unless it was pointed out that his most-iconic characters were kinda creepy. Granted, I think Han Solo’s relationship with Princess Leia got better and less-awkward over time, but…yeah, Indiana Jones will forever be disturbing.

This got me thinking, yet again, about the problematic nature of art. For those of you who’ve read my piece on why I hate the term “problematic”, you’ll know that it’s often used as a short-hand to dismiss a piece of narrative art’s function. By labelling something “problematic”, you overlook its merits, especially when said merits flip the material on their head.

This is noticeable in film especially because it’s a universal and broad-reaching medium that appeals to even those who aren’t fully-literate. Books or text narratives require basic fluency in written language, but while movies might have some textual components, especially when subtitled, for the most part a well-written film can make some sort of sense if muted and reliant solely on the visuals. The language of film is show-don’t-tell, after all, so even the most-complicated of narratives are streamlined in relation to books.

That doesn’t mean a film narrative can’t be discussed via a problematic lens of interpretation, because it can. One of the beauties of good cinema is that it lends itself well to interpretation on various levels: there’s the base, surface level, i.e. what you see, there’s the thematic level, i.e. what the film’s purpose is, and there’s the subtextual level, i.e. what the film’s really about. And even subtext-wise, there are different levels of analysis, how they function, and whether or not they convey positive or negative themes and lessons. Add in that film is the easiest medium to convey ideas to the largest group of people in the shortest amount of time, and you have a recipe for dense talking points compacted into 2+ hours.

So yeah, of course film can be discussed as “problematic”! But that “problematic” analysis should be tempered with expectations that, at the end of the day, it isn’t the only valid reading. It’s how The Matrix, a film that’s inspired white supremacists to “rebel against the system”, gets by as a classic despite being problematic: the white-lash was unintended. Like Fight Club and toxic masculinity, it wasn’t made to perpetuate evil.

The issue of intent VS consequence is also important when discussing the problematic nature of adaptations. Biblical epics, for example, have to frequently wrestle with their source material coming off as uncomfortable in the modern age, hence being problematic by default. However, by focusing on the problematic content only, you miss out on their intention, hence being more problematic. Plus, in the event where the story is “updated”, you risk the end result being even more problematic by alienating audiences. That a work is problematic shouldn’t be the end-game for shutting down discourse, especially when intent is key.

This extends to production history and/or the politics of filmmaking. Titanic is a revered film, even earning multiple Oscars, but its production history highlights how problematic a director James Cameron really is. I enjoy the MCU, but most of its big-name stars lead incredibly problematic lives. Even Hollywood’s constant spotlighting of certain groups over others is problematic, and it can lead to outright backlash when not fully-thought through until it’s too late. Everything about film, even down its inception, is problematic, hence why the word is so problematic to begin with.

Besides, I think there are bigger issues in a film that are worth discussing than their unintentionally-problematic components. Like how Ghost in the Shell, a film with problematic casting, made its whitewashing a major component of the overarching narrative. Or how Birth of a Nation, despite being a landmark achievement in filmmaking, is blatantly racist. Or how The Triumph of the Will, despite being problematic as a representation of Nazism in the early 30’s, is also praising Nazism. Being problematic isn’t the problem, framing the problematic material the wrong way is.

And that’s what really needs to be understood when discussing film. Is it problematic? In many ways, yes. But that’s to be expected. It doesn’t mean you should ignore the parts that are worrisome, but that also doesn’t mean that you should only focus on them exclusively. Because that’s even more problematic.

I still think that Harrison Ford’s characterizations in the 80’s were toxic, however.

No comments:

Post a Comment