Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Ways of Seeing

Thoughts on the subjectivity of film viewership:
Using, as examples, a discussion of the films Porco Rosso (1992)
and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)


This past weekend, I attended a screening of the Hayao Miyazaki film Porco Rosso (1992). It's a work that I've seen several times before, with the initial viewings stretching as far back as my late childhood/early adolescence. It's also a film that I carry a great deal of affection for, despite its somewhat lesser status among aficionados of Miyazaki's work. This time however, seeing the film with an audience of friends and discussing the experience with them immediately after viewing, I was struck by a moment of self-realisation that made me question my own response to the film, and even my approach to film-viewing in general.

It was a question of perception, really: how much of a film exists on-screen - as a readable, definable subject that is understood through the interaction between the characters and the plot - and how much of it exists in the heart and mind of the individual viewer, who interprets the scenario and its iconography, creating for themselves their own meanings and significances, which, over time, defines for us what the film is effectively about?

I've spoken in the past about the subjective nature of film (and film criticism); how films are essentially dead objects that an audience gives life to by enlivening the characters and situations with their own personal thoughts, feelings and recollections. However, this past year, I've become increasingly cognisant that my own interpretation of films is not only personal to the point of impenetrability, but often invisible to anybody looking at the film from a different point of view.

To preface this, I wanted to share a short note I wrote last year about the Tim Burton/Jane Goldman adaptation of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Writing on MUBI, I surmised the film as follows: "The subtext is incredibly sad. A wounded boy disappears into a story told by his grandfather; a child of the Holocaust who saw men become monsters. In this story, dead children killed by war remain frozen in time. The narrative then becomes an attempt by the child to reconcile with his grandfather's own experiences through an interaction with the old man's memories and his own encounters with death..."

While I acknowledge that Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a flawed work, far below the standard of Burton's greatest efforts – such as Ed Wood (1994), Big Fish (2003), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and the animated Frankenweenie (2012) – it was the themes and subtext of the film that struck me as so profoundly moving that I was willing to overlook any discrepancies in its creative delivery. However, other people that I've spoken to about the film not only failed to respond to it on this same kind of a personal level, they didn't even recognise such elements as being present in the actual work.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children [Tim Burton, 2016]:

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

The experience of discussing Porco Rosso with friends brought me back to this same relationship between 'text' and 'subtext'; what Jean-Luc Godard, in A Letter to Freddy Buache (1982), further clarified as the distinction between 'a film on' and 'a film about.' So the question is this; do we see a film first and foremost as a kind of passive illustration – a story of characters attempting, through action, to achieve a specific goal – or do we see it as a means of exploring, through the relationship between those characters and the world the filmmakers create, issues of politics, history, sociology, identity, etc? In short, "narrative" or "theme"? Does a  film necessarily have to succeed on both levels in order to be considered of great merit, or can we choose to elevate a film with a thrilling or provocative subtext, even if the basic storytelling is perhaps flawed or weak?

Unlike the example of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, I would never call the storytelling of Miyazaki's film flawed or weak; quite the opposite in fact. The film is engaging, amusing and enlivened throughout by a combination of breathless action and adventure, broad slapstick comedy and scenes of a genuine pathos. Nonetheless, the film certainly plays fast and loose with its own fantastical mythology; it leaves space for the audience to question and interpret the predicament of its central character (and their relationship to the plot) by effectively refusing to provide closure or clarification.

For the uninitiated, Porco Rosso tells the story of a former WWI fighter pilot, Marco Pagot, carving out a post-war career as defence against rampaging 'sky pirates' in the Adriatic. The twist here is that the pilot has been afflicted by a magical curse that has left him with the head of a pig. Friends seeing the film for the first time were left frustrated by the film's lack of answers about how the curse worked; the background of it, the particular context, the resolution, etc. While the curse is mentioned in the dialog, it's never really explained. There are playful fairy-tale like allusions throughout about the curse being broken by a kiss, but unlike the presentation of the similar porcine-related curse cast upon the young Chihiro's parents in the subsequent Miyazaki-directed masterwork Spirited Away (2000), the film in question doesn't really concern itself with the finer points of the who, what, why or how.

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

Spirited Away [Hayao Miyazaki, 2000]:

From my own perspective, there's never been any mystery regarding the true nature of the pig's curse, or the inference at the end of the film that it may have been broken by the character's own actions following the course of the narrative. For me, Marco's appearance was always directly related to his loss of humanity; a literal loss of face. Even as a child I took it as granted that the curse - as presented by the filmmaker- was in part a metaphorical gesture; one that felt explicitly connected to the film's anti-war/anti-fascist commentary, and the character's own betrayal of his innate sense of human decency following his experiences in battle.

Attempting to explain how I came to such a conclusion I pointed to a specific scene. Midway through the film, when asked how he became a pig, Marco retells an otherwise unrelated story to his young companion - the budding mechanic and aeronautics engineer Fio - about an experience he had during the war. Following an especially vicious mid-air dog fight, Marco found himself the last remaining pilot. His plane, lost within a skyscape of desolate cloud, just drifting into the white void. Here the film stops for the first time; the breathless action and colourful adventure replaced by a moment of odd but transcendent serenity. Now Marco, like the audience, is compelled to watch as the other pilots, both friends and enemies, float away into some celestial cosmic procession of an afterlife transfiguration; or is it a less literal expression of the true cost of war personified by this trail of dead souls?

Porco Rosso [Hayao Miyazaki, 1992]:

It's by far the film's most beautiful moment. An eerie, ethereal encounter with a world or phenomena both greater than our own conception; rendered with the same sense of awe and wonderment that Miyazaki brought to his better known fantasy films - such Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) or Howl's Moving Castle (2004) - which works to both deepen and enrich the overall experience of the film and its carefully interwoven commentary on loss, responsibility and regret.

While the seeming significance of this scene and the connection between the idea of war, as a genuine tragedy, and humanity as something easily lost or corrupted (like innocence, or the sense of self) had always been central to my own enjoyment and understanding of Porco Rosso, the friends I watched it with didn't see it quite the same way. For them there was nothing in the film to make this connection explicit, or to even suggest it as a possible explanation of events. I began to question how I might have arrived at this particular interpretation; what had led me to blindly accept that this character had been cursed with the physical form of a pig because of his own self-hatred following the perception of his actions during the war; or that breaking the curse was a way of reconciling those experiences, regaining his sense of self and in a way being able to recognise that for all the shame and guilt, there was still an inherent humanity present in his actions? Had I read something that pushed me in this direction? An old article or review from some long-since forgotten publication of my youth? Had the director himself suggested it in an interview once? Was it something I'd read online? The answer to this question is: I don't know.

Am I guilty of projecting ideas onto the film that were never really there to begin with? Have I become like the kid in M. Night Shyamalan's brilliant and perpetually underrated Lady in the Water (2006); reading signs on cereal boxes? Finding patterns in things that don't really exist? Again, I couldn't say. My response to the film still feels authentic to me, but the prevailing emotions of the film, which had always been so strong and profound, now seemed somewhat muted. Seeing the film with friends and experiencing it, to a small extent, through their own uninitiated perspective, did make me wonder how much of the film's emotional and philosophical weight, or my long-held interpretation of the text, had been a figment of my own invention; something that no one else is able to see.