Thoughts on manipulation in film

I’ve been reading a lot of posts and reviews lately that discuss the ‘manipulative style’ of the film.  Though he doesn’t call it in so many terms, Michael Haneke says as much in the 2012 Hollywood Reporter’s Writer’s Roundtable when discussing Schindler’s List.  To sum him up: it’s not a subject that should be so manipulative [my word].  I try to keep my distance.

I’m a very big Haneke fan.  And I think “distance” is a great word to describe his approach.  It’s literal distance at times – wide-shots, characters with only small blocking largely captured in medium-wide or wide-shots.  Other times this distance could be the silence, the lack of camera movement (or inflected camera movement/angle), the generally realistic settings and colors (outside of, of course, the black and white cinematography of The White Ribbon).

I spoke with a friend recently who called Lincoln manipulative.  I just read a review of Ursula Meier’s Sister that uses the word liberally.

So what exactly does this mean?  I think Haneke is referring to a) the subject matter of Schindler’s List (historical events – and tragic events at that – twisted for 2 hours of entertainment) and b) a visual and aural style that pushes the audience towards a specific emotion at a given time (i.e. dolly in on the shower heads in Schindler’s List).

I believe that my friend, when discussing Lincoln (which I disliked), was referring largely to Spielberg’s (man, he’s getting no love in this post) tendency to raise a stirring score at the same time as a camera moves towards something or someone.  Read: ‘this is emotional and important!’

I haven’t yet seen Sister, so I can’t comment on specifics, but the review leads me to believe that ‘manipulative’ here refers to the use of children in the film – an argument that I’ve heard before.  Children as easy emotion – they’re cute.  Children as easy danger – we care for them because they generally are naive and have no control.

I have two questions from all of this: 1) is it possible to make a film that isn’t manipulative (perhaps that’s what Haneke is attempting…?), and 2) is manipulation in cinema wrong (as all three of the above examples would indicate)?

The first one is a bit boring.  It’s the old – ‘can you make an unbiased film’ question from Film 101.  But taking Haneke’s ideas – we can see him earlier in Bresson and Akerman – makes it a bit more interesting.  I understand that removing a string-heavy score and a camera movement that tells me what to hone in on adds to the audience’s work.  I also understand that the director still needs to determine the blocking and what is, or is not, in shot.  Is something happening off-screen any less manipulative?  Is a static, eye-level, wide-shot any less manipulative?  Maybe the word choice is wrong.  Maybe it’s that these directors – maybe we can throw Dumont in there as well – give us fewer easily cinematic clues to draw conclusions from.  With many of the films of these directors we aren’t supposed to feel the emotion and/or understand a character’s reasoning at the exact moment that it’s happening.

That second question boils down to a third one: what do you want out of cinema? – something I frequently ask myself and my students.  Do you want to shut your mind off?  Do you want to think?  Do you want to feel smart?  Do you want a traditional, three act story?  Do you want a question that offers more questions?  Do you want concrete answers and black and white emotions?  I didn’t like Lincoln not because it was manipulative, but because it was all so damn easy.  And it felt easy in representing a time that wasn’t, historically, easy.  I have no problem being led to one emotion or another, whether it’s by Michael Haneke watching from the corner of the room or by Steven Spielberg rushing towards me, guns blazing.  I do, however, think of the line by Ernst Lubitsch as quoted by Billy Wilder: “Let the audience add up two plus two.  They’ll love you forever.”

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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