Upon Second Viewing: The Power of Reappraisal

Binge re-watching your favorite shows in lockdown? Brighton Grace explores the unlikely upsides of 2020’s global hiatus, and how a critical approach to entertainment might benefit you in the long run.

Like many others currently living in the lockdown, I have been using my considerable amount of free time to finally get through my reading and watch lists. One interesting thing I have noticed with this new lifestyle is that I have better apprehended the themes and ideas expressed by the films and books I have seen and read, as well as finding them to resonate more strongly. Unlike in the normality of 2019, which now seems so distant and foreign, I don’t have to immediately refocus myself to university assignments or work. Instead, I can take the time to absorb what I have just read or watched and more openly consider how their ideas relate to me. In short, I have been reminded of the value of true reflection. Both reflection on one’s own self and reflection on the society around us can be a powerful apparatus of change.

The focus of this piece emerged after watching one of the films on my watch list and mulling over its challenging themes. The movie was Michael Haneke’s acclaimed “Caché” or “Hidden”, released in 2005. Disturbing, innovative and incisive, the post-colonial thriller was placed at number 23 on the BBC’s “100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century” list and took home three awards at Cannes. The opening of the film immediately encourages reflection and almost casts itself as a cinematic essay: the camera patiently holds on a modern French home in an affluent arrondissement for what seems like minutes, before the voices of the film’s protagonists begin discussing similar thoughts the audience are developing about the scene and a rewind symbol appears on the screen. What we have been viewing is a videotape being watched by characters within the film, highlighting the nature of construction behind the media we engage with today. 

The more a text or piece of media is unanimously praised, the greater its immunity from future criticism and the entrenched its ideas become

So as not to turn this already quite free-form article into a film review and for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I shall avoid poring over the details of the film. What I would prefer to focus on is the overarching criticisms of the film, and how it, along with other voices in the post-colonial canon, encapsulates the importance of reflection. Nevertheless, to briefly establish the narrative: the wealthy French couple of George, the host of a popular literature review tv show (the only instance when the audience have to suspend their disbelief), and Anne Laurent, a publishing agent, begin to receive anonymous, unsettling videotapes of their own home and locations around Paris. As the videotapes continue to be sent, it becomes clear that they point to a secret from George’s past. I won’t say anymore other than the film soon transforms from a thriller into a meditative drama exploring hidden racism in white, upper-class French society, and its refusal to confront the trauma caused by its colonial history. 

What really stuck with me from the film was its targets of criticism: well-read intellectuals and academics in France who despite holding positions of influence refused to recognise their historic guilt. This immediately reminded me of another seminal post-colonial text on a similar subject matter: Kamel Daoud’s “The Meursault Investigation”. The 2013 novel is a metafictional retelling and extension of Albert Camus “The Stranger”, which centres on Harun – a family member of the unnamed “Arab” –who the protagonist, Meursault, fatally shoots. It becomes clear that Daoud’s target is not Camus for unconsciously underrepresenting the Arabic identity in The Stranger, but rather Western audiences who cemented the singular voice of the text by failing to challenge it, in a way almost committing intellectual colonialism. Further, Daoud criticises how the canonisation of a book or any piece of art can render all of its ideas, including their flawed ones, seemingly beyond reproach. This is made clear when Harun states to the audience, “I can recite it (Camus’ text) to you like the Qur’an”, equating Camus’ text with a religious document. Though “The Stranger” is a book that was personally formative, introducing me to the philosophies of absurdism and existentialism, and one which remains a favourite, Daoud made me realise that I had unconsciously overlooked these quite glaring issues.

It seems that members who apply critical thinking and reflection to their own political movements in the pursuit of bettering them or challenging a flaw are conflated with critics of the movement

For me, both of the above texts demonstrate the extraordinary capacity to elicit change that we as university students possess. However, to borrow a quote from a slightly less high-brow source, Spiderman, we must appreciate that “with great power comes great responsibility.” I believe that students and young people generally are not engaging enough with modern culture and the media they consume on a critical level. What we need to be doing is better honing the art of reflection and reappraisal. In my view, this discipline is one that is crucial to not only better understanding ourselves, but also guaranteeing the health of the political and social movements we identify with.

In my previous article, I outlined why I believe that many worthwhile progressive movements are being undermined by their participants, mainly because many of them have an inconsistent application of their beliefs. There is no doubt that a lack of proper self-reflection and reappraisal is at the heart of this issue. Both of these qualities are key to the longevity of political movements. A good argument is one that is tested against others and questioned by the very speakers that will champion it. Political ideologies and movements should also be similarly watertight, but they seem to be becoming vulnerable in never being questioned, never having to adapt. Equally it seems that members who apply critical thinking and reflection to their own political movements in the pursuit of bettering them or challenging a flaw are conflated with critics of the movement. Admittedly, I am drawing on personal experience here, but it seems that being too cynical, or too critical, is now held as a highly negative quality. It certainly can be, but I would suggest that it is easier to correct being overly cynical than a lifestyle that involves never posing questions.

Even discussions with friends after viewing movies have seemingly become less insightful. I notice many people after seeing a movie merely say if it was “good” or “bad”. Does “good” mean “worthwhile”, “challenging” or does it mean “entertaining”? Clearly many film viewers don’t even reflect on what they personally believe makes for a “good” or “bad” film. Rather than discussing themes or the filmmaker’s context, many audience members are sadly quite content with sorting films into these two categories, often based on what critics have said, and quickly forget about them. To reiterate Daoud’s concern, the more a text or piece of media is unanimously praised, the greater its immunity from future criticism and the entrenched its ideas become. Of course, whilst this allows universal and seminal texts to have their ideas more widely proliferated, it also sets a precedent for allowing pernicious ideas to become immutable should a text that contains them go unquestioned. 

As students we are naturally engaged with academia and also various discourses; we are members of clubs and societies, as well as connected through social media and mobile phones to a large number of voices. We have audiences and friends to reflect on any number of subjects with and have direct access to the public sphere to share our ideas and criticisms. “Hidden” and “The Meursault Investigation” demonstrate that those involved in academia hold incredible influence, as they largely determine what films or books will be studied down the line, and thus must more actively practice reflection so as not squander their position to generate change. Whilst universities are still operating online, I see it as a perfect time to become reacquainted with this increasingly forgotten art.

Brighton Grace is a first-year Arts/Law student, majoring in English at the University of Sydney.

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