Of Film, Life and Elevation

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I guess the balcony’s finally closed for good.
By Elizabeth Cutright

I never made the connection until today…. I’ve always figured my varied educational background (film studies followed by law school) was just a reflection of my quirky (and decidedly undecided) personality.

But maybe there’s more to it.  Movies and arguing… Debate and debut…  Memos and Montages…

Could be, there’s a natural relationship between the two. After all, when I broke the news to the head of our film department that I’d chosen law school over grad school, he took it in stride, revealing that he’d once studied law as well – before ending up as a professor of film theory.

“I think you’ll do quite well,” I remember him saying with a smile, “film analysis has a lot more in common with the study of law than you’d think.”

And in terms of framing an argument, presenting a point of view, or persuading your audience, he was absolutely right.

(Sadly, there are few film screenings during law school, though I was “lucky” enough to find myself smack dab in the middle of a criminal law class when the OJ Simpson trial began…an event surrounded by an aura of melodrama and cheap film noir).

But today, upon hearing the news of Roger Ebert’s passing, I realized that growing up in the era of Siskel and Ebert’s At The Movies, may have connected film and debate in my subconscious at a much earlier age.

I remember eagerly awaiting each installment of At The Movies (the “best of” specials and Oscar pre-show programs were my favorite), and while it was fun when Gene and Roger’s agreement reflected my own opinion, it was always better when they gave in to passionate disagreement.

Once, while reviewing an Oliver Stone Film (Natural Born Killers perhaps?), the heat in their discussion came from an unlikely source: they both agreed that the film was powerful on an emotional level – they had both felt sickened, upset and more than a little disturbed during their viewing – but while one of them (Siskel I think) believed the unpleasantness justified a “thumbs down,” the other felt the exact opposite.

The argument: by triggering an emotion, the film was a success.  You didn’t have to like what you were feeling – you could be angry or sickened or saddened – it was the triggering of emotion in the viewer that designated a filmic home run.

In one of his last blogs, Ebert revisited the idea of film evoking feeling when discussing his picks for the 2012 Academy Awards.

As he explained, he would be judging the latest crop of contenders based on whether they could trigger a sense of “elevation.”

He wrote, “A few years ago, I came across an article about the newly identified psychological concept of Elevation. Scientists claim it is as real as love or fear. It describes a state in which we feel unreasonable joy; you know, like when you sit quiet and still and tingles run up and down your back, and you think things can never get any better.”

Ebert once famously said, “No good film is too long, no bad movie is short enough.”

In this case, I think it’s safe to say that Ebert is a film that was not long enough.

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