My favourite film is Fish Tank. No other character is cinema resonates with me more than Mia, the central character. There is so much of her that I can see in my teen-aged self. Her desire for something better than what she sees in around of her. Her temper. Her constant battling with her mother. I did not grow up an environment like that of the film, but I did grow up with people who did. It is a world I am familiar with, even if at the end of the day, I got to go back to the safety of my own house and my loving parent- many of my friends and acquaintances throughout my teenage years did not. I feel that I have enough of a real life understanding of the world that Arnold explores, in a way that I do not with other films.
A few years back, I was speaking on a panel about the film, and a discussion arose as to whether Mia’s mother in the film could be described as ‘evil’. I strongly felt that the word was far too harsh; she in fact reminded me of one of my friend’s mothers, whom I cared about deeply. But most people in the audience disagreed. One woman came up to me after the event and explained that she was on my side. She didn’t see the mother as evil, because her own mother, who she loved, was far worse. The woman’s reality, in this case, gave her a different world view, and therefore a different opinion of the character. And whilst neither side of the argument is incorrect, both came away with a deeper understanding of how the other group felt.
The takeaway from the above event is hopefully that the emotional response to a film is going to be dependent on the life experiences of the viewer. And whilst this will differ greatly from person to person, there are definite trends, divided by many, many things, that affect how a group of people are going to respond to a film. And what should be learned from Camilla Long’s article today is that it is important, now more than ever, to ensure that when a film is released, that we ask ourselves, as people who commentate on a film, just who the film is for, what it means, and if our contribution to the conversation is important, because NEWSFLASH- sometimes it isn’t.
It seems that not everybody can get on board with this idea. Camilla Long’s latest punchline in her career as a ‘film critic’ is a piece that she wrote, commenting that Moonlight left her feeling empty- in fact, according to her pinned tweet, it will leave ‘you’ feeling empty, as if ‘we’ are all the same person. She then makes the strange remark that the film will be irrelevant to the audience, who will be mainly made up of white, straight, middle class people. Now, she is entitled not to like the film- no film should be above criticism, but what makes very little sense is that if she believes that a film is only relevant to the demographic of the characters shown in the film, then why on earth does she feel qualified to be writing about it in the first place? Surely, by asserting that the film will be irrelevant to people like herself (straight, white, middle-class), then she’s acknowledging that her own opinion, is in turn, irrelevant. One can only assume that Long didn’t consider the opinions of the black and / or LGBT community because she didn’t see their opinions as being as important as her own, or more shockingly, didn’t know what their opinions were, because she doesn’t see anything that isn’t directly in front of her face.
I have never met Barry Jenkins, and I would never be so arrogant as to speak for him. But I’m going to take a wild guess and say that I don’t think he thought about white people for even half a second when he was writing Moonlight. The positive responses from white, straight film critics is primarily due to the merits of Jenkins as a filmmaker. More importantly, the responses from the black and LGBT communities have been overwhelmingly positive, which suggests that Jenkins has succeeded in reaching his intended demographic too- the film is a masterpiece, and basically everybody thinks so.
The ability to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the characters in order to understand their motives, how they negotiate their surroundings, is key to understanding cinema. Cinema provides a borderless environment which enables us to explore basically anything that is conjured up by the human brain. How did Dorothy feel as she walked down the yellow brick road? How did Wendy Torrance feel, hiding in the bathroom as Jack smashed through the door with an axe? How did Bruce Willis feel when he realised he was a fucking ghost? The truth is, unless you’ve been in any of the aforementioned scenarios (unlikely), then the only way you can relate to the characters is by allowing yourself to be transported in to that world and find familiar, human emotions that you can utilise to enable you to feel some connection with them. And if you can allow yourself to do that for a talking fish, or a serial killer, or a wizard, then it shouldn’t be too hard to try and imagine how you would feel if you were a person of the opposite sex, race or sexuality to you. It’s what most human beings refer to as ‘empathy’.
There is nothing more exhausting than hearing negative criticism of a film from a person who it is not intended to serve. Understanding how a film is made is of course important if you are a film critic, but really, knowing what a crane shot is, or what mise-en-scene is, is nothing that you can’t learn from an introduction to Film Studies book. A knowledge of cinema history is vital. To be able to contextualise a film; historically in a sociological sense and in terms of the history of cinema, to understand a filmmaker’s influences, to be able to compare their film to their catalogue of work- these things make you qualified. Being a good, writer is obviously important. But that is only part of it.
When you watch films, you are either watching to learn how other people feel (empathy), or watching to identify with the characters. If you cannot do either of those things, then your enjoyment will be limited. Long doesn’t want to learn, and can’t identify, so she loses.