The Movie Experience

Audience manipulation is one of the oldest tricks of the trade as far as movies are concerned. It's a complex topic that often calls for nuance when one tries to differentiate 'realistic' narrative progression from 'contrived' haul of boxed plot points. But as in many of these discussions it's always easy to point extremes to state your initial case - to say what you mean by manipulation. The underdog that emerges victorious in the end and the wronged, just man getting his revenge are some of the most common and easiest to point.

It should be noted that 'manipulative' scenes can have the effect of any 'genuinely' moving scene. While it may get some teary eyed and "heavy", the contextualization outside of the movie cannot be ignored. It is especially true with scenes that try to shock you, some quite literally. Videos like these demonstrate the point best. It sure evokes a basic human emotion - fear - but there's little that is creative or original about it. You can draw a direct parallel between such videos and typical Tamil "family drama's" climax monologues.

Here, the movie Dogville makes for interesting case study. Because it's not completely relevant to go into what the movie is about, I'll take the liberty to just link you the reviews that summarize it closely: review 1; review 2. Assuming you've either seen the movie or read at lease one of the reviews, I'll proceed further. Nicole Kidman's character Grace is subjected to all kinds of abuse and exploitation by other characters of the movie for longer than what's generally tolerable for the viewer. It's akin to those 60s Indian movies in which the woman who personifies all things "good" is tortured (read buttered) endlessly for a climactic gush of redemption. Even the apparent plot twists become rather predictable if you're conscious of the movie's length. For example, about 2 hours into the movie Grace tries to escape from the vicious town and you know it's not going to happen. Because, there's almost an hour's movie left. What are they going to show? Grace starting a new life in a new town? Of course not.

There is very little to like about what the characters do for the most part of the movie; Grace being the worst of the lot. Traditionally, this kind of character has to do something drastic, one way or the other, to vindicate herself before the movie ends. But Dogville goes far beyond manipulation, what it does is audience abuse. It literally makes you sick to the stomach through most of its playing time. Because, for whatever reason, many believe that movies and marathons "have to be finished" once begun. Grace and her gangster father's philosophical musing over power and moral relativism in the end can only be characterized as juvenile. The "illustration", as one of the characters, Tom, puts it, isn't as "vivid" as it may appear. Yet, some critics have a "was worth the torture" kind of take on it.

This is an interesting dimension in itself. There are real life examples that are somewhat along the same lines: 1. waiting hungry in a crowded restaurant for the food to arrive; 2. waiting on the queue of a roller coaster ride. Anticipation and uncertainty (or certainty) are the foremost emotions that construct the experience for us. However, generally it's the finale -- something that completes the experience -- that decides our after-thoughts on the experience. But in either scenario, I would be outraged if I realize that I've been forced to wait just so that the I'm ready to appreciate anything they offer in the end. It's even worse when it happens in movies: because, the denouement is only part of the product, not the product itself. A tricky aspect of the art -- constructing the experience -- seems to be misinterpreted often by critics and moviegoers in general. They probably fail to realize that not all share the same threshold when it comes to standing 'manipulation'. Because, "switching off" doesn't come as easily for many.

I remember reading somewhere that a "movie is not a string of interesting scenes." But the way I watch most of the movies -- at home, in my computer or TV -- I am actually fine with a movie that doesn't fit that rule. Of course, what's interesting is debatable.

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