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Out of context: The critical importance of films you know nothing about

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Out of context: The critical importance of films you know nothing about

Fernando Morena and Eliu Armas star in Hermano.

When was the last time you saw a movie you knew nothing about?

It’s a trickier thing to accomplish than it might seem to be. After all, if a film comes from a director whose work you’ve ever seen, you know something about it. If it stars an actor you’ve ever seen or ever read about – someone with any kind of a reputation, good or bad – you know something about it. If you’ve seen a trailer or an ad on TV, of course, then you know a lot about it. If it’s “from the people who brought you,” or “the director of,” you’re specifically being told what to expect, even if falsely. More often than not, the biggest concern about a film before it’s made available is that if you don’t know anything about it, you won’t go.

For Americans, seeing unfamiliar foreign films is often perceived, quite sadly, as some kind of a striking out against Hollywood’s popular entertainment. It has the whiff of protest and self-definition, as if what matters is not the seeing but the having seen. And certainly, these films sometimes bubble their way up into American distribution because of their enormously high quality, and that’s a reason to be open to them; it does sometimes mark you as a person interested in superior quality. But what I think is just as important about maintaining that openness, even in the case of flawed projects, is that it lets you see a film you know truly nothing – or almost nothing – about.

I saw a Venezuelan film called Hermano this weekend. Here’s what I knew about it before I saw it: It was a drama, it had something to do with soccer and, in keeping with the title, it had something to do with brothers. That’s it. That’s it. Never heard of the director, Marcel Rasquin (it’s his first film), never heard of or seen any of the actors ever before (they’re quite new, too), didn’t know whether it was tragic or uplifting or gritty or sunny or what. I knew it won awards at film festivals in Moscow and Havana, and ... that’s all.

It’s a good movie, particularly for a new director. A few scenes ring false, but overall, it’s very affecting, and the lead performances from Eliu Armas and Fernando Moreno – as, indeed, soccer-playing brothers – are absolutely dynamite. It’s not the best thing I’ve seen all year, but it’s good and worthwhile and thoughtful. But what was most valuable about it, I found, was that I completely lacked any context for it. It was completely uncoded.

Everything you know something about when you go is, intentionally or unintentionally, coded. The director, the actor, the type of film, everything sends a message, even if it’s not the most obvious one. One example: I watched Buried the other night, the claustrophobic thriller starring Ryan Reynolds, and one of the things I found myself musing on was Reynolds’ decision to take a role where his looks would be as useless as possible. In a way, it detaches him from his reputation as a pretty boy. But the fact remains: He’s Ryan Reynolds. I’ve seen him before, quite a lot, so knowing it’s him means that coding is there for me, even when he’s in the dark.

Sometimes, the coding that comes with familiarity is an advantage. George Clooney being George Clooney, with all the legendary dreaminess and classic Hollywood charm that’s been attached to him as he became not just George Clooney the actor but George Clooney the icon, was very good for his very different roles in both Michael Clayton and Up In The Air. It was good for both of those parts that he was familiar and beloved, just as it helped the suspense and surprises of Psycho for Janet Leigh to be Janet Leigh.

With directors, a reputation can help an audience stick with something that seems to have a bizarre and inconsistent tone, because you can trust that the director is going somewhere with it, or at least could be. It would have been more difficult for anyone other than Quentin Tarantino, I think, to pull an audience all the way through Inglourious Basterds without causing them to lose confidence and disengage.

It’s good now and then, though, to see something where, for you, there’s absolutely no coding in it at all. Obviously, the marketing of a movie often sends unmistakable signals about where it’s going and who the good and bad guys are before you ever get there. A story of a good and a bad brother, for instance, will tell you who’s who in the commercials. Even if you don’t get it from the commercials, there’s a decent chance you’ll get it from the casting. You’ll get it from the way the two are shot from the opening sequence forward. You’ll get it from the score.

When you don’t know anything – what tradition the film is in, what its genre is, how it would be marketed, or who the target audience is – not only do you see that film differently, but you see other films differently, too. The lack of signals is palpable and initially unsettling because the experience is so rare, but like any negative space, it draws a kind of attention to itself. It made me think about the avalanche of coding attached to a movie like Moneyball: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Aaron Sorkin, baseball, Michael Lewis, Michael Lewis’ book ... there are a hundred ways to be either with or against that film before you watch a frame of it.

There was a discussion after Hermano in which something remarkable happened: Multiple people in the room took the position that the film’s ending either was “ambiguous” in a way I believe it wasn’t, or, in some cases, took the fairly firm position that it ended in a way I believe it clearly didn’t. One of them said, in fact, that he believed the film was of a particular genre, he felt films in that genre should end in a specific way, and therefore, he chose to believe that was the way Hermano ended, even though – again, in my opinion – he was unquestionably changing the ending that was on the screen.

On the one hand, it was utterly delightful to see people actually unable to agree on what happened at the end of the movie, even though it wasn’t some kind of an unsettling, freaky, surreal film or anything like that. It was straightforward storytelling, I believed it communicated exactly what happened as clearly as they do in any reasonably intelligent drama, and other people thought that essentially the opposite happened.

Now, if I’m right, then it’s a little upsetting for the screenwriters, because if I’m right, the people in the room with me read the ending to send the opposite message – the diametrically opposed message about life – from the one that was intended. But it was also ... well, it was so completely weird that it was oddly great. We all wrote on blank slates, and even if I didn’t agree with the conclusions that other people reached, we were all essentially on our own. I couldn’t go read fifty different reviews and message boards to find out who was right and who was wrong. What’s more, we were told that in another screening, the audience started debating an entirely different theory about the movie that the people at my screening immediately scoffed at. (We were discussing perceived ambiguity, but those people were crackpots, naturally.)

It was an enormously valuable experience, precisely because I can’t say for sure who was right. (It was me, though.) (I’m just sure of it.) The movie was just out there, on its own, on the screen, no hints. No codes, no semaphore, no homages to anyone. Here’s a movie; see what you think. It’s an experience to try to have regularly, because it’s really the only way to make sure you’re still noticing everything you carry with you into the average multiplex picture.

There is a free screening of Hermano tonight, Sept. 26, at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. Check out the details.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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