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Some notes on the "Human Element" in film

Above: From Renoir's Toni.

These notes could be said to constitute a continuation of the post entitled "Caring versus Not Caring" at
Last spring, I had the privilege of participating on a panel—about film criticism and its discontents, what else would it be about?—with the great Phillip Lopate. The personal essayist, film critic, and newly-reborn creator of fictions (I’m about to tuck into Two Marriages, a pair of novellas that are his first published non-non-fiction works since 1987) is always a courtly, genial presence at such occasions—but no pushover. He at one point gently laid into the large panel (also on board were Owen Gleiberman, Stephanie Zacharek, Armond White, Ty Burr, David Sterritt, and more) for what he saw as its self-congratulatory ‘70s-centric perspective on film history. The idea that Pauline Kael’s Bonnie and Clyde review had ushered in a brave new era of both moviemaking and movie criticism, Phillip argued, gave insultingly short shrift, to the likes of Renoir, Ophuls, Preminger, and so on and so on and so on. I could have hopped into his lap for saying that, but I would have sent the wrong message, not to mention broken his pelvis, had I done so.
Later, Phillip told the audience that, more and more in his viewing life, he most appreciates films that offer a “human element.” He didn’t elaborate much beyond that; one might infer that he had come to disdain formalism. Don’t know. All I knew and know is that Phillip possesses exquisite aesthetic sense and rare common sense, and if his explorations of film were taking him more in that direction, I sure as hell wasn’t going to gainsay him. By the same token I’m also aware that, whenever I see a film praised for its “human” qualities, I’m always apt to raise an eyebrow. The fact that so many confuse “human” with “sentimental” (not that Mr. Lopate does, mind you) certainly has something to do with it. The fact that “human” qualities are often cited in an attempt to vitiate a given film’s deficient areas is also germane.
Then there’s the knottier issue of human qualities being where you find them. At the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, I attended a screening of a restored version of Bresson’s 1943 debut feature Les Anges du Peche, an incredibly moving and exhilarating film. On leaving, my friend, Vogue critic John Powers and I ran into Phillip, and we all fell into a “wasn’t that great” reverie. Phillip was especially delighted, finding Anges a particularly tonic treat after “the terrible Jarmusch film” he had seen earlier in the day.
I have to say this pronouncement hurt my feewings a widdle bit, as I, too, had seen the Jarmusch film in question, Broken Flowers, earlier, and I had found it to be quite lovely and, yes, moving. An acute and underhandedly empathetic depiction of its lead character’s lonlieness and confusion and, by extension, of the Loneliness And Confusion We Are All Heir To. I don’t recall Phillip’s exact words, but it seemed he’d been put off by Jarmusch’s hip knowingness, or what he saw as that. I’ve always found undercurrents of tendresse beneath the supposed hip knowingness, and thought that in this particular film said undercurrents flowed to the surface more than in any Jarmusch film I’d yet seen. I briefly posed that defense, or some version of it, but the issue was moved to the “agree to disagree” pile, and instead we all went back to gushing  about the Bresson.
To move on to another film Phillip and I greatly admire, Renoir’s 1936 Toni; here’s a film I’d gladly cite as an inarguable pillar of humanism in cinema—a picture in which the humanism is inextricably woven into a larger fabric, as opposed to being a “quality” you can point to in admiration. Renoir never puts his  actors/characters in front of the camera and counts on their humanity to just seep out. Every frame is a beautifully considered unit; a result of fierce concentration and observation that conveys, with both intense realism and meticulous poetry, life as the film’s characters live it. But films such as Toni, and filmmakers such as Renoir are, needless to say, exceedingly rare.
Two possibly unrelated questions:
1) Does the misanthropy of the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading constitute some sort of human element in and of itself? Disdain for our species has a long history in the arts, as it were. What the Coens are selling is a lot harsher than “what fools these mortals be” but it’s not exactly Swift, either. But is it dishonorable by default?
2) How does a Westerner fully apprehend the “human” element in, say, Paradjanov’s Ashik Kerab, a picture that does not only depict but is thoroughly steeped in a culture that is all but alien to us? Film is sometimes touted as a universal language, but how universal is it, actually?
Below: from Paradjanov's Ashik Kerab.

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