Friday 3 July 2015

Emotional shocks

In The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy 1967), a young man is looking all over town for the woman of his dreams. In one scene he is in a café when she approaches it, and it would seem that they will finally meet. But as she walks in through one door he walks out through another door. Once when I saw the film in a cinema somebody in the audience could be heard screaming "No!" when faced with the agonising fact that they were so close yet missed each other yet again. Such moments, when our emotional investment with the characters becomes so strong that we cannot control ourselves, is one of the most gratifying things with art, or storytelling. I am not talking about being afraid that a character might be eaten alive by a velociraptor, I am talking about shared feelings of pain, sadness or joy. This is not a necessary requirement for great films, there are many aspects of a film and this is but one of them, but it is an unusually profound one. Some filmmakers are better at creating such feelings than others. Three that I personally think are particularly good at this is William Wyler, Ingmar Bergman and Mikio Naruse; often when watching their films I need to restrain myself for not attacking the screen because my reaction to what happens is so strong. These Three (Wyler 1936), The Heiress (Wyler 1949), Mother (Naruse 1952), Yearning (Naruse 1964), Sawdust and Tinsel (Bergman 1953) and Scenes From a Marriage (Bergman 1976) are some examples of this. An exceptional film is David Lean's version of Brief Encounter (1945), which I have written about before.

Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson

But nothing has had the same impact on me as the episode of The West Wing when C.J. Cregg's partner Simon Donovan is killed. I do not really know why, but probably because, as a TV-series, I had been with these people for so long, and I was so absorbed in them and their lives (with "them" I mean all the characters in the series, not just C.J. and Simon). It is also the way it was written (Aaron Sorkin) and directed (Alex Graves) of course, from the sudden shock to the impressionistic aftermath, and the music (Jeff Buckley).

I said sudden shock, which it was, but it was not out of the blue. I felt rather certain that it would come, and, well, I could barely watch it, I was like a little kid watching some scary film for grown-ups. It is now several years since I saw it for the first time, but I remember it in detail and my reaction to it, and what I was doing and how I was feeling. I was watching it on DVD and I paused it, then continued to watch, and then went back and watched it again. It is frequently said that a whole generation of children was traumatised by the death of Bambi's mother (in 1942). This was my such moment, and I was not even a child but a grown man.

(Of course, not having been with them for the whole season lessens the impact considerably but I posted it anyway.)