I recently watched The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film (at least until he comes out of retirement again). It isn’t his best work for a number of reasons, but the problem that most interested me wasn’t in the film; it was in myself.
Set in the lead-up to the Second World War, the film follows the life of an engineer making fighter planes for the Japanese military machine. And there’s the rub. I knew what those planes would be used for: the invasion of China, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the war against the United States. True, the film goes out of its way to say that its hero doesn’t much like making weapons of war, and that he would prefer to be making passenger planes. But no one is exactly holding a gun to his head either.
And knowing what followed, knowing where those weapons he built would be used, dragged me kicking and screaming out of the viewing experience. As much as I sympathized with the protagonist, and I really did, I spent much of the film thinking about how many lives could be saved if he simply quit his job, if he gave up. I rooted against him rather than for him.
Watching The Wind Rises involved a kind of dual experience. The film was pulling me in one direction: sympathize with the protagonist and hope he accomplishes what he sets out to do. My own perspective was pulling me in another: wish that the protagonist would fail, because of the horror that he is helping to unleash on the world. I could feel both influences operating on me at the same time, but the latter was much stronger than the former.
Take another example. The first time I watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it was in a university class. There were thirty students: half girls, half boys. After the film’s closing image, the boys all sat nodding quietly to themselves. We loved the film, disturbing as it was. But the girls didn’t seem to share our enthusiasm. They sat in brooding silence. I have never seen such a profoundly different reaction to a film solely along gender lines, and, as the class discussion progressed, I understood why.
Beware of Spoilers.
“It’s horrible,” one girl said, “She lied to him, and so she had to die?” At first I thought she’d simply misinterpreted the film. I understood the film’s ending to be a judgment, not on Kim Novak’s character, but on Jimmy Stewart’s. She doesn’t die through any fault of her own, but because he can’t bring himself to face reality and see her as she is. He is to blame, not her.
But that’s because I identified with Jimmy Stewart’s character. The film made a tremendous effort to put me in his shoes, and, being male, I had no alternative perspective to work against it. The girls in the class, on the other hand, all identified with Kim Novak’s character. The extreme and destructive fantasization of women in the film struck a chord with them, no less than with the boys. But where we saw ourselves, albeit uncomfortably, in the perpetrator, they saw themselves in the victim. And that perspective turned the entire film on its head. Because they identified with Kim Novak’s character, they saw the film’s ending as a judgment on her. Taken in that light, the film fails. Its ending becomes something morally repugnant, literally blaming the victim.
I still think Vertigo is a brilliant film. But it isn’t a brilliant film for everyone. That is to say, most men will watch the film and leave the theater feeling both stunned and thoughtful. Most women will leave it feeling soiled. And that’s a result of our differing experiences of the issue the film tackles. The film pulls our emotions, but so does our personal perspective.
The latter influence can’t help being dominant. Plenty of films crystalize, refine, or complicate our existing perspectives. But I have never yet seen a film that overwrote one of my fundamental beliefs or experiences, that convinced me to be something other than I am. The success or failure of a film relies on its ability to play with the existing material of our emotions.
We can take away two lessons from that observation, overly sweeping as it probably is. First, the job of a film isn’t to change people. It can’t change people, except in the most qualified of ways. A film can educate, it can challenge, and it can entertain. But it cannot destroy the bedrock of perspective, and it cannot create beliefs that are not already there. Second, the success or failure of a film relies, at least in part, on its ability to play off the perspectives of an audience. If a film can agree with its audience’s existing perspective, its foot is in the door. The rest of what it does narratively and visually can either seal the deal or squander the opportunity. But, if the film contradicts its audience’s perspective instead of colluding with it, then no amount of storytelling finesse can save it from failure.