Commonplace

“The anti-sentimental filmmakers look at movies like Titanic and The Matrix and note that the romantic idealism of their characters and the melodramatic intensifications of their events are false to what life really is. In reaction, they focus on the absence of romance in their characters’ lives, the falsity of their idealistic understandings, and the fraudulence of their apparent virtue. Idealistic characters are shown to be deluded or revealed to be imposters. But to invert these values is really just to play the same game Hollywood plays, only upside down, inside out. Hollywood movies flatter us by telling us that we are visionary heroes; Solondz and LaBute and Paul Thomas Anderson reveal that we are frauds. Hollywood tells us we are angels; they tell us we are devils, cheats, scoundrels, or fools. But do you see what is going on? The anti-heroic stance of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and Happiness represents a perspective from within the heroic understanding of life. You haven’t left the heroic paradigm behind; you are still inside it.

“I’m not just playing games with terminology. Magnolia is as cloyingly, syrupily sentimental as Titanic. The narrative strategy of the film is to present larger-than-life images and then cut them down to size. A viewer is supposed to be moved by the difference between the grandiose, poised, or confident public image the character projects and his or her actual state of loneliness, emptiness, despair, or deceit. Narratively it’s all a set-up. First you evoke the ideal and then you undermine it. The result is that you create this vague longing and nostalgia for the states of heroism and romantic connectedness even as you get credit for acknowledging their absence. But the romantic values you are undermining come from sentimental movies. They don’t exist in life.

“Sentimentality is any time you ask the viewer to feel something without forcing him to learn something. It’s emotion without knowledge. Feeling without thinking. These movies are not about giving us new and complex understandings of their characters, but about making us feel sorry for them or, in a few cases, dislike them. That’s too easy. It just substitutes one emotional cliché for another.”

—Ray Carney, in interview

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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