Julius Kassendorf: One of the constant conversations is whether bringing politics and/or outside life to a movie is a detrimental thing? Is outside baggage proof that you have an axe to grind? Or, is it something unavoidable that colors the way you see things?
While I’m known as somebody who brings my own personal politics to a film, I really don’t bring them intentionally. The conversation from The Dissolve last week regarding Tootsie is one where I did bring politics to a film, in no small part because of the politics thrust upon it by both film literature and the Ben Mankiewicz introduction on TCM the first time I saw the movie. These politics took away from my enjoyment of the film. On the other hand, I unintentionally ended up bringing my outside politics to Cheap Thrills, but they were totally beneficial to the enjoyment of the film.
I think saying that somebody should or shouldn’t bring their own outside life experiences to a film is a rather asshole thing to say. But, then I really enjoy dismantling the elements of a film to see what it is trying to say about life.
John Bruni: I would say it is impossible not to, just as it is impossible to maintain a completely objective perspective about anything. Indeed, I dislike the premise that the right way to watch a film is just to sit back and passively take it in. Rather, how you feel, while watching, is important—and as the old saying goes, the personal is the political.
Kevin Koeser: I completely agree with John. It’s natural that a movie will affect you emotionally, and how it affects you will directly depend on who you are, what you believe. Complete objectivity is impossible, as our very perceptions of art and media are directly defined by what we believe and who we are. I say embrace it. I can never fully trust a review that has airs of objectivity because it cannot present an objective truth, but reviews that are inspired from personal connection, even if I don’t agree with them, are always the more entertaining read.
Guy: Coming at the question obliquely, I really question anyone who claims to be able to examine art or entertainment “objectively,” free of personal baggage. We bring so many things to the table that color our perspectives, and even a rigidly formal or unemotional response to art is the result of our personality and experiences. (And needless to say, the claim that I am completely objective but my opponent is addled by prejudice or politics is an asshole position to take.)
Two of the great values of art are its capacity for exposing us to differing viewpoints and fostering empathy, and for revealing things about ourselves that we might not be able to recognize directly. Neither is directly related to “politics” as we usually think about it, but neither do they exclude political thought, and it is quite natural to make comparisons between the world as we experience it and the world as presented in films, even in supposedly apolitical entertainment.
Thomas: Using the term “baggage” seems to negatively bias what it’s getting at, and unfairly so. If I were to call Julius’s distaste for Tootsie a result of his personal baggage, what I am doing is devaluing his feminist politics. Rather, every positive or negative opinion should be considered baggage; either that, or we completely destroy the concept, and an opinion remains an opinion. Thus, Julius’ feminism should be completely valid, and as valid as, say, my distaste for coming-of-age crime films.
Anthony Pizzo: I’m reminded of a Godard quote that has always annoyed me. “I don’t think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can’t kiss a movie.” Of course, I don’t know how seriously to take that, considering what a provocateur Godard is and also knowing that, at one point in his career, he tried to make “Cinema” his middle name.
As has been stated before it’s impossible to view any piece of art objectively or dispassionately, so perhaps the better question is why do so many critics and moviegoers (and sometimes filmmakers) insist on invalidating those emotional criticisms? I’d be hard pressed to name another medium that so aggressively manipulates its audience and cares so little about the variables in that audience. There’s so much talk about Female Moviegoers or the Family demographic or the 18-34 year olds as if these are all homogenous groups and that’s kind of insane.
Michael Guarnieri: Of course, everyone brings some kind of “baggage” so-to-speak with them, and I think that tends to be a good thing — it’s our baggage that makes us human. Whether it be a political belief, or a shared background with a character, or any other kind of personal connection, there’s something that you’re going to feel. The moment you stop feeling films, you should probably stop watching them, find a new hobby. I might be able to speak Japanese or repair a car engine today if I didn’t feel films so deeply.
We tend to associate the term “baggage” with negativity, bad experiences leading to harmful psychological effects, though I don’t believe that has to be the case. If I may get personal for a second, when I saw the film The Counselor last year, I was just recovering from some personal issues that led to me interpreting the film in a very particular way, a way that I think few people felt about that film. And while many, even most who saw the film came away from it thinking it was muddled and unformed, for me it seemed to reflect the very things I was feeling inside. It gave me chills to watch it. My “baggage” led me to see a very good film in a movie that few cared for — is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Did baggage numb me to the flaws of the film? Or did my vulnerable emotional state allow me to connect with the film, to see the true story, in a way that others were unable to?