Response to “Degree of Life”

by on February 21, 2013

Responses Takes
Illustration by Sally ScopaIllustration by Sally Scopa

I hate talking when I leave a movie. My friends know this, and for the most part, they let me be. When the lights come back on, I don’t want to tell anyone if I liked it, or how good it was, or whatIthoughtit was about. I feel like I’m still in it, and I want to carry that moment with me instead of trying to translate it into words that’ll make sense to someone else. My thoughts and feelings remain inchoate and expansive, and any articulation, no matter how preliminary or piercing—“It was really good,” “I thought it was funny,” “It was sort of a blithe postmodern comedy about the way cultural symbols dominate our view of romance and ultimately other people”—seems to reduce my full internal experience into something more spectral and thin.

But there’s a reason I see movies with friends in the first place: culture is a social phenomenon that weexperience personally, and we not only want peak experiences that lift us out of the somnolent depths of our daily doldrums; we want to share these experiences—and the thoughts and feelings we associate with them—so others can understand why they matter so much to us, and maybe take some of that meaning and uplift for themselves. With this common material, we can, both individually and collectively, work out what truly matters in our lives and in our world.

Because movies, like love, are about feelings and values first. In choosing which movies I like, I’m declaring what matters to me, and so revealing who I am. In falling in love, I’m choosing who I want to be with, and so choosing who I want to become. (This might be why people take it so personally when others criticize the movies and people they love: the critics are, to some extent, bashing them.)

Of course,these things are hardly choices at all: they’re visceral and ineffable, and I’m really just pulled along by each sweeping flutter of the heart; any verbal or intellectual justification comes second. All my aesthetic valuations, all my notions of love, all the words I use to represent them: these are imprecise proxies for the turbulent flow of thoughts and feelings inside me. And so is any symbol I use to sum up the intensity of my experience, whether it’s a star, a number, or a grade. Through these incomplete but useful universal symbols, I can fit my loves and values into the social whole around me.

I share Dan’s concerns about the reductive, manipulative quality of our leap to the universal and the way it can demolish the rich complexity of the personal and particular. But I’m not sure we want to do away with symbolic valuation entirely. After all, as muchas I’m hesitant to talk after a movie, I still want to share the experience with my friends; my friends want to know if it will fill them up enough—emotionally, intellectually, on the basic level of enjoyment—to be worthwhile; and we all need a way to pick through the hundreds of films put out each year—because really, who has the time?—and settle on the most powerful or entertaining ones.

Perhaps the corrective, then, is not reimagining the way we produce our evaluations, but the way we perceive them: we need to think critically about what we consume, as Dan’s essay so pointedly encourages, if we are to achieve the needed perspective. The symbols at the top of our movie reviews may be poor representations of the particular and deeply felt, but they’re also necessary ones that get us talking, sharing, and—in a few senses of the word—evaluating.