Friday, November 4, 2011

#284: Kanal

(Andrzej Wajda, 1957)

Kanal - a film made in remembrance of a grand tragedy in the middle of the grandest tragedy of the 20th century - is ironically about forgotten people. Within the first few minutes of the film we are told to pay attention to the characters because they are about to die. Within 90 minutes, we see most of these deaths.

Unlike the vast majority of films about the Holocaust, there is no one fighting against the massacre depicted in Kanal. We rarely see the enemy and they speak few if any words, certainly nothing to indicate there was anything but a cold calculated strategy to what they were doing. We are not asked to save the soldiers in the film, but merely to be witnesses to their destruction. We know they will all die - they know it, too - but we watch their struggle for survival anyway, not because we see a way forward for us to combat against indifference to human suffering but because hundreds of thousands of Polish people were killed within a few months and it shouldn't be forgotten.

This does not make for easy viewing, but after reading a horribly offensive and ignorant article in the New York Times today, I feel a strong urge to defend films like this. The most simple way to defend Kanal is to point out that the film is extremely entertaining, filled with passionate characters and suspenseful moments (like the one depicted on the cover) that recall the tense sequences of Wages of Fear or Notorious (two supremely entertaining films that would also be rejected by the sensibilities of modern audiences). But today I am unwilling to meet halfway people who believe art is only art if it is there to entertain and amuse them. Maybe it's just the fact that the writer happened to use Solaris - one of my ten favorite movies of all time - to prove the point that people only like to say they like "important" movies, they don't actually like them. Actually, maybe YOU only like movies to say that you like them. Maybe other people - gasp! - actually like them. Maybe everything isn't supposed to seem the same as every movie before it, maybe movies aren't made so the audience can pass the time, or feel good about themselves, but rather because they speak to the human condition.

If I have been guilty of saying in the past that a movie in the Criterion Collection is enjoyed only by people who like to think it is important and it makes them superior consumers (and at 300 posts and over 100,000 words, I probably have somewhere on this website), then I suppose I am as guilty of this as that writer is. The truth is, movies are hard to make. They take time, money, energy, and an incredible number of people to produce. There are movies that are made simply to make money and movies made just to win awards. But every single movie in the Criterion Collection (except two - you know who you are) and 99% of all movies ever made were made because someone was passionate about the work they were doing. Claiming that people who enjoy that work are pretentiously lying to themselves or other people about their opinions is not only disrespectful to those people, but disrespectful to art, period. Like what you like, for sure - and I would never begrudge someone for enjoying mainstream Hollywood and/or whatever is the most conventional storytelling format in their culture - but when you decide that your taste somehow determines the nature of the things you are categorizing, when you decide that foreign films or art films or dramas or slowly paced films are "vegetables" you have to eat, you are going too far.

Remember when I was reviewing Kanal? Anyway, that just annoyed me today, and I had to write a review of this incredibly moving, deeply unsettling piece of historical fiction so it seemed like as good a time as ever to go off. If you are reading this far (or really if you are reading this blog at all) you probably agree with me, so I'll take my soapbox and go home. Just remember next time someone tells you they don't like foreign films that judging them will only create more animosity towards the unknown, like that seen in that article (written in the goddamned New York Times of all places! Harrumph). Hopefully, things like the Criterion Collection make accessible the work that anti-intellectuals tell you is all pretentious nonsense, and viewers who have an open mind can give films like Kanal an honest shot. Who knows, they might get wrapped up in it just like I was - not because it is entertaining or nerve-wracking or crackling with energy (though it is all of these things) but because it makes you witness to a history that can only be conveyed in this way through cinema. It might be dismissed as boring by some filmgoers, but to me, film can do nothing more exciting - more invigorating - than that.

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