Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to Speak about the Affective Qualities of Film

Having just spent more than two hours watching "In the Valley of Elah" (2007), there are many things that I feel. The movie is about the story of a father trying to determine what has happened to his son, who is discovered dead shortly after arriving back from a tour of duty in Iraq. Because of the grief presented in the film, I find myself touched by this grief. I am very sad because of the loss of the main character, Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones. We quickly learn, in the first half-hour of the film, that he had also lost another son some ten years earlier. So now he and his wife have lost both of their children.

But the grief for the loss of a son is one thing, yet this narrative is more complex. It happens that the son was killed by one of his army buddies and that there is no good explanation for why the killing occurred. Instead, we are presented with the conditions that made the killing possible. Namely, the return of these young men from a tour of duty in land where there are no marks of achievement or signs of meaning in their actions. The son, we learn, was involved in the accidental death of a child in Iraq, yet this has nothing to do with the narrative, but to show the fragile mental state of the young man. Thus, our grief is accentuated by the lack of purpose and the moral confusion of the son's killing.

The director of the film frames the movie around two mirror episodes, where Deerfield explains to an immigrant how to hang the national flag. In the first episode, the immigrant has hung it upside down. Deerfield explains that this is a sign of "distress." Thus, he shows the immigrant how to hang it properly, signifying national honor, not distress ... turpitude. At the end of the film, in the second episode, after Deerfield has returned from his trip to uncover the mysterious end of his son's life, he reverses what he has done, hanging the flag for the immigrant upside down, to indicate "distress."

The world that we leave as the movie closes, is one of solitude and sadness and loss. It is a very powerful image, particularly for those who mourn the deaths of soldiers and those who love them, who sometimes fall into their way. The image is clearly also a critique, or better a commentary, on the state of American foreign politics, the conflict in Iraq in which we are entrapped. The film presents no answers and in this regard does not attempt to assuage the affect it provoked.

Is it necessary to identify with Deerfield in order to experience the grief and confusion the film presents? This would be difficult because he is an Army man, former military police, and it was because of his service that his sons both joined the armed forces. Thus, Deerfield has a unique responsibility for the deaths of his sons, because they followed him. Had he led them astray? The viewer is certainly not expected to be able to identify with his character. We feel a sadness and a confusion because we appreciate both Deerfield and another character that assists his search for answers.

Must the affective power be measured by my individual response? I am particularly interested in this topic, because I have read news stories like the one told in this film. I have also learned a little bit about the intense psychological trauma that soldiers suffer and wish that solutions existed to solve their problems. I wonder if they, like the soldiers of other wars, will bear that trauma their entire lives.

Falling into a pattern that is well-wrought by intellectual history preceding me, I am tempted to separate these affective events from the purported "content" of the film. Yet this would be an artificial distinction that would fail to comprehend the film in its breadth. But this then leads to the judgment that the affective qualities of the film cannot be separated from this particular story and its narrative unfolding. Thus, the judgment would not be limited to the individual response, that in this case I felt.

But how do we speak about the affective qualities of a film? We describe the conditions and events that provoke affective reactions. For example, how the moral clarity of Deerfield, which is represented by his well-organized and productive life, slowly devolves, like a man who at first is sitting up straight, but by and by begins to slump. We might remark the power of Jones' face, marked with lines of time and emotion and how they perfectly accept the emotional tasks that he has in presenting Deerfield's character. How he responds to finally hearing the confession of his son's killer, with a blank face that does not register reaction. In point of fact, during the confession the scene is dominated by shots of the killer describing the deed and his relation to the victim. Yet the fact that, at a crucial moment, the killer directs his account to Deerfield, is unmistakeable. The audience watches the killer from Deerfield's perspective and hears the killer apologize to Deerfield, the audience.

Can these affective qualities be put into words and must we separate ourselves from them in order to judge the film (is judgment necessary and is our emotional state, upon the completion of the film, that judgment itself)?

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