21 January 2010

An Empathetic Cinematic Viewing Experience

When you see a movie like The Road, which portrays a world almost completely annihilated by an unexplained yet omnipotent apocalypse-in-residence (or, at least, the east coast of the USA almost completely annihilated by said catastrophe)--a world where it's always raining, always freezing and everything in it is either dead or moribund--you don't just want to watch the characters in their slow, elegiac struggle to reach the coast and even just to survive at all.

No, you want to feel their pain. Perhaps that is why the Nowheresville Cineworld decided to crank up the air conditioning to the "apocalypse" setting (this world ending in ice rather than fire), even though it was barely above freezing outside. I shivered underneath my coat with my scarf wrapped around me and truly empathised with the main characters as they shivered 'neath the old, worn blankets and dirty coats in which they slept. Their gloves looked a lot warmer than mine, however. Still, at least everyone in the cinema did at least appear to have showered fairly recently and no one pointed a gun or asked anyone else if they were following her, so perhaps Cineworld hasn't yet gone down the total sensory experience route just yet.

I read Cormac McCarthy's novel, on which the film is based, when I was in hospital last summer. Possibly because of the intravenous drugs I was on and possibly because my right hand was stiff and painful from being attached to a drip for so long that it made it hard to hold books, I had to read the first 50 pages three times before I got to the end. I did end up liking it but it's definitely not my kind of book. For one thing, there wasn't enough action for me (the main characters, a father and son, move maybe a few dozen miles towards the coast and find their lives threatened at various points).

For another, we never learn enough about the characters for me to care too much what happens. They are a father and son, they love each other enormously, they are among a very small number of people to have thus far warded off death mid-apocalypse, and they give each other the hope and motivation to continue in this potentially futile trek. The boy's mother died at an earlier stage--we find out what happened but there still isn't enough back story or information for me to engage. None of the characters has a name, either, and as a nymophile (or something that means the same but sounds a little more salubrious), I object to this; I like to know people's names and naming has always been important in my creative writing.

Still, The Road is a good film. The acting is solid, the cinematography is striking if not beautiful, and given that not a lot happens, there was a surprising amount of dramatic tension. However, for me, it's not enough for a film to be composed of a number of good elements--if there isn't good character development and it doesn't have that extra sizzle, I might like it but I will never love it. The same is true of the novel: it is beautifully written and very moving, without being overly depressing or maudlin, but although the father and boy's love for each other is portrayed powerfully and movingly, without me really knowing who these people are, I couldn't get hooked. And I realise that this isn't a deficiency of the novel (or the film); just my own preferences.

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