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Valuing the unexpected in cinema

Yesterday, a brand new crop of Filmmaking MFA students appeared before me at Ohio University, as suddenly as Fall weather. It’s that time – August is gone, baby, and us teachers are back in the classroom. One exercise conducted yesterday involved each person articulating what he or she values in the cinema – not a specific type of character or scene, but a methodology, strategy or approach that can be identified from film to film. I noted a pattern: many valued the experience of feeling surprised – when the storyteller crafted moments that veered from a familiar course with either plot or character (INCENDIES, above, does just this). Our collective expectations have been molded through years of watching films, so an innovation of form, complexity of plot or sophistication of character truly do deserve value. I thought back to my own summer movie-going experiences and measured how a few stacked up. Watch out, hold up – the teacher is giving out grades:

TREE OF LIFE: A

THE DOUBLE HOUR: A

INCENDIES: A

That’s three As in a row – and I do not inflate. (Note 2/3 are not American films. All three here were charting new waters in form, plot, character, even genre.)

THE HELP: C-

In graduate school that’s a failing grade. As I posted earlier on SUNfiltered, I actually enjoyed THE HELP. And believe me, it delivers on expectations, especially since we know how this gig will end: characters triumphant but gravely recognizing significant challenges ahead. We get there with tears, laughter and feeling oh-so-good about some women rising above. America is loving this film, well-worn grooves in the road and all. I suppose for many, there is a different sort of value and pleasure in the expected, like comfort food. That macaroni and cheese just better be well-made, no Velveeta.

–AH