Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Defense of Sentimentality

How's this for relevance - this post will be a reaction to a piece Todd McCarthy wrote eight years ago!

To be fair, I found it through a recent re-posting of it on Hollywood Elsewhere (Lord knows why Wells drudged it it up), but nevertheless, I'll let McCarthy start things off (for the record, this was written in October, 2001):

At the recent Telluride Film Festival, Peter Bogdanovich, who did as much as anyone to champion Hollywood's great early masters in the '60s, when many of them were professionally being put out to pasture, had to admit some films by his old favorites, particularly John Ford, were looking a little creaky. Ford, because of his sentimentality and indulgence of matters that meant a lot to him, simply doesn't play so well today, Bogdanovich admitted, even when it comes to some of his most widely admired films, such as "The Grapes of Wrath"; the same can be said of Griffith and Chaplin.

By contrast, other directors from the classical era, especially Buster Keaton, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, look as good as ever or even better, Bogdanovich argued, because of their comic bent and aversion to sentimentality; Otto Preminger also continues to soar in his estimation. "The cold directors are the ones who look better today," Bogdanovich judged, "while the warm ones look old-fashioned. It's the times we live in."

This is a trend in film evaluation and criticism that I always found a little troubling. Basically, it goes that anything warm, positive, sentimental, and optimistic will inevitably feel boring, staid, and cliche, while a film that's cold, cynical, and calculated will have a much greater chance of standing the test of time and remaining relevant ("relevance" is a wholly overrated mark of a good film, just as "dated" is a wholly overrated mark of a bad one).

But even if we remove the cold and warm qualifications (after all, Keaton, Lubitsch, Hawks, and Sturges could be quite warm themselves). What it really comes down to is this idea of sentimentality, which is really just the full expression of an emotion that supposedly greater directors would bury. Bogdanovich said, "It's the times we live in," and even eight years ago he was right. I've often complained about the age of irony we seem to be trapped in, which frowns of the direct expression of emotion and celebrates burying it. True, many people do bury their true feelings in daily interactions, largely for fear of being ridiculed for caring about something deeply and passionately, but a) some of us try not to, and b) isn't art there to express things we dare not put into words?

[M]y objection to The New World is that it introduces a heretofore unknown quantity into the Malickean universe: that of sentimentality. Too often what is strange and striking and, yes, new about this vision is undercut by a seepage of pious treacle. As in, to name one for-instance, the bit in the section titled "A Proposal" in which Q'orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas communes with a tree. "Other people direct movie. Terrence Malick builds cathedrals," pronounced one of this film's most passionate champions, Matt Zoller Seitz. Too often in this film Malick seems to be announcing that he's building a cathedral, and there's a concomitant sogginess of thought in that which skews the detachment that makes the beauty of his prior films so bracing and unusual. I prefer cinematic poetry with a somewhat stiffer spine, finally.
-Glenn Kenny, "Possible sins of omission" (12/5/2009)

At least Kenny was able to admit personal preference, and I'll gladly follow suit - I love The New World precisely because Malick is totally unafraid to let his characters express passionately and directly. In his post, Kenny lists a number of other admirable traits of the film, but the thing about it that hooked me the first time I watched it was just how fully felt it is. One man's sentimentality is another's emotional catharsis, I suppose, but I guess what I'm getting at is the tendency to discuss anything but emotion in films, while I think art's chief goal should be emotional (it was good enough for Samuel Fuller, anyway).

Is there such a thing as "overly sentimental" then? Of course there is, but the problem isn't an abundance of sentiment, it's that the film isn't fully felt. Where that line is will differ from person to person, but what's the use of film criticism if it isn't a little subjective?

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